Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Who is the Middle Class?

Have you been wondering about the lack of serious coverage by the media of the financial crisis facing the middle class? As David Sirota shows us, the media doesn't seem to understand who the middle class are:

Last year, the New York Times told us it's difficult for people to make ends meet on $500,000 a year, and the Washington Post insisted that it's hard to "squeak by" on $300,000 a year. Now the Denver Post insists that if you make $250,000 a year, you may only be "middle class"

Where does utter disconnect with reality come from? And why does it exist?

Media voices perpetuate these myths of the impoverished wealthy, in part, because many media voices are themselves wealthy -- and there's no more powerful class solidarity than that which exists among the rich.

Indeed, the wealthy don't just convince themselves they aren't wealthy, they try to create the perception among themselves, politicians and the public at large that they are "middle class" and thus persecuted by taxes. Put another way, the real danger of the New York Times, Washington Post and Denver Post article floating the idea of the wealthy as not wealthy is in skewing our political debate over economics. If someone making $500,000 is just "getting by," and someone making $300,000 is barely "squeaking by" and someone making $250,000 is in the persecuted "middle class," then having any fact-based discussion about tax inequities becomes that much harder.

The Wall St. Journal sings a slightly different tune:

For those wondering why luxury spending is back even as unemployment hovers close to 10%, consider this: unemployment among the affluent is only 3%.

According to a study from Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Studies, unemployment for those in the top income decile–individuals earning more than $150,000 a year–was 3% in the fourth quarter of 2009.

According to the WSJ, those in the top income bracket are earning $150,000+ a year, which flies in the face of the assertions that $250,00 is middle class.

The income gap in the US has been increasing since the 1970's when wages began to stagnate.

So, either the media is engaging in some misdirection in order to help the wealthy keep from paying their fair share of taxes, OR, the definition of the middle class is changing dramatically, and a whole lot of folks are finding out that they are the new poor.

cross posted at

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Wondering Why Obama is Pushing Nukes?

It's sad but simple. The industry owns him.

NY Times

The history of the bill shows Mr. Obama navigating a home-state controversy that pitted two important constituencies against each other and tested his skills as a legislative infighter. On one side were neighbors of several nuclear plants upset that low-level radioactive leaks had gone unreported for years; on the other was Exelon, the country’s largest nuclear plant operator and one of Mr. Obama’s largest sources of campaign money.

Since 2003, executives and employees of Exelon, which is based in Illinois, have contributed at least $227,000 to Mr. Obama’s campaigns for the United States Senate and for president. Two top Exelon officials, Frank M. Clark, executive vice president, and John W. Rogers Jr., a director, are among his largest fund-raisers.

Another Obama donor, John W. Rowe, chairman of Exelon, is also chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear power industry’s lobbying group, based in Washington. Exelon’s support for Mr. Obama far exceeds its support for any other presidential candidate.

In addition, Mr. Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod, has worked as a consultant to Exelon. A spokeswoman for Exelon said Mr. Axelrod’s company had helped an Exelon subsidiary, Commonwealth Edison, with communications strategy periodically since 2002, but had no involvement in the leak controversy or other nuclear issues.

Read the whole thing. It's depressing as hell - but vitally important to know this. We have to fight this.

Friday, February 19, 2010

What's a Little Radioactive Waste Between Neighbors?

Vernon is a small town located in the very south-easternmost corner of Vermont. Vernon is just across the Connecticut River from NH, and was once part of the NH town of Hinsdale. Vernon, VT is best known for being the home of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. VT Yankee has been making news recently, because of radioactive tritium leaking from the plant. Tritium is leaking into the Connecticut River, which is a source for drinking water in the area. Five NH towns are included within the ten mile evacuation zone surrounding the plant. They are: Chesterfield, Hinsdale, Richmond, Swanzey, and Winchester. The entire towns of Chesterfield, Hinsdale, and Winchester are within that 10 mile zone.

Vermont Yankee is no stranger to problems. The plant went online in 1973. During its first 17 months of operation, the plant was shut down 19 times. In the 70’s there were problems with faulty fuel rods, a cracked torus, and there was the accidental dumping of 83,000 gallons of tritium contaminated water into the Connecticut River in 1976.

The plant was given a 40 year license, which expires in 2012. At that time, the plant is supposed to close down and be decommissioned. VT Yankee is owned by Entergy Corporation, a company that owns a number of nuclear plants, and has been quite successful in extending the licensing of old, unsafe plants that could not be built today. They’re trying to do the same in VT. Entergy is trying to extend the license of VT Yankee for another 20 years. They’re also planning to unload 5 old nuke plants on a subsidiary called Enexus. Enexus seems to be comprised solely of debt and antique nuclear power plants, which sounds like a sure fire recipe for success, in an Enron sort of way.

Over the last decade, Vermont Yankee’s problems have increased. In July of 2003, a drill revealed that the emergency alert system wasn’t working. In the event of an accident at the plant, the sirens would not have gone off. In June of 2004, a fire shut down the plant. The fire was caused by a part of an expansion joint that fell off into a duct, and created electrical shorts that started the fire. The duct conducts electricity from the generator to the transformer, and was part of the original construction of the plant, which was 32 years old at the time.

In 2005, Entergy hired a company to do an inspection of the plant (notably the cooling towers), and the company gave VT Yankee a glowing report, which Entergy presented to the NRC. In 2007, one of the cooling towers collapsed. The cause of the collapse was rotting beams inside the tower. Entergy used robotic cameras to perform inspections, and the cameras weren’t able to reach the areas where the rot was greatest. Entergy promised to be more vigilant. Federal and state regulators were pleased. The NRC performed an inspection in 2008 and found only 3 minor faults. The plant got high marks. Then more beams collapsed in a cooling tower. Entergy promised an improved quality assurance program that would include new hiring. In 2009, Entergy announced a hiring freeze.

In May of 2009, Jay Thayer (then) Vice President of Operations at VT Yankee told the Vermont Public Service Board that there was no underground piping at VT Yankee. On January 7, 2010, Vermont Yankee reported that the plant was leaking radioactive tritium into several groundwater monitoring wells. It turns out that the tritium is probably coming from underground pipes. The same underground pipes that Entergy said didn’t exist, only last year. Turns out there are several thousand feet of underground pipes. You may be discerning a pattern here, on the part of Entergy. It goes like this, lie, promise, and lie some more. Jay Thayer was outed as a liar, and has been placed on “administrative leave” pending investigation, which could be interpreted as “he’ll be back when the furor dies down.” Until his return, Entergy has practiced fibber Rob Williams as their spokesperson for VT Yankee. Rob Williams was the spokesliar for Seabrook Station back in the good old days of the junk-bond bail-out.

Vermont is the only state that gives its legislature a say in the licensing of nuclear plants. Other states leave it up to the state utility regulators and the NRC. As we know from the FairPoint debacle, state utility regulators are certainly not infallible. The NRC has never been an effective regulatory body. They prefer to cheer lead for the industry, as opposed to ensuring safety. Vermont’s decision to give the legislature a say ensures that the people of VT will have a voice for their concerns about the safety of this plant. The legislature must agree to extend that license, and the likelihood of that extension being granted isn’t looking good.

In NH, the reporting on this issue has been pretty negligent. The Keene Sentinel is the only paper I’ve found that’s done a responsible job of covering VT Yankee. Keene, of course, is mighty close to the 10 mile evacuation zone. The rest of the media has been quite selective in their coverage. Congressman Paul Hodes, who is running for Judd Gregg’s US Senate seat has been vocal in his concerns about VT Yankee and its impact on NH. I spoke with Congressman Hodes earlier in the week, and he said that NH should have a voice in the oversight of VT Yankee, since leaks do not respect state borders, and that those leaks have an impact on the people of our state and the Connecticut River. Hodes intends to introduce legislation in Congress that would give states that would be affected by neighboring nuclear power plants more authority over them.

Meanwhile, the excavation of the formerly non-existent underground pipes at VT Yankee continues, in an effort to learn where, exactly, that radioactive tritium is coming from, as it continues to leech into the Connecticut River.

“In essence, a nuclear reactor is a very dangerous, expensive way to boil water – analogous to cutting a pound of butter with a chain saw.”
Dr. Helen Caldicott

© sbruce 2010 published as an op-ed in the February 19, 2010 edition of the Conway Daily Sun

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

NH House Votes Down HB 1590

The NH House voted today on HB 1590, a bill that would have repealed the marriage equality law passed last year in NH. Since the beginning of the year, gay and lesbian couples have been allowed to wed, and the sky has not fallen - nor have plagues of locusts attacked our state. Instead, what we've seen is more couples making a serious commitment to one another, and more families being formed.

In Carroll County District One where I live, there are 4 state reps, 2 Democrats and 2 Republicans. Reps Buco, Butler, and Umberger voted this bill down. Buco and Butler are Dems, and Rep. Umberger a Republican. Thank you all.

Only Representative Gene Chandler of Bartlett was enough of an ideologue to vote against Representative Butler's upcoming marriage to his partner of 30+ years.

Here's a link to the roll call.

Mississippians Turn to Iran for Health Care Help

This is a special guest blog post by Barbara O'Brien of The Mahablog

Recently I wrote here that Mississippi has the worst health care in the nation. Now I want to tell the story about how desperate Mississippians, abandoned by their government, turned to Iran for help.

But first, I want to tell you about Mississippi’s infant mortality rate. The rate of infant mortality is the number of infants who are born alive but die before their first birthday, per 1,000 live births. In other words, if infant mortality is 5, that means that 5 of every 1,000 babies in that population will not survive the first year of life.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the estimated infant mortality rate in the United States for 2009 is 6.22, which is high for an industrialized democracy. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the infant mortality rate in Mississippi is 11.4. Only Florida is worse, at 14.1. By contrast, the infant mortality rate for Washington and Minnesota is 5.1.

Now, here’s where Iran comes in — according to the Times of London, last October “five top Iranian doctors, including a senior official at the health ministry in Tehran, were quietly brought to Mississippi” to advise Mississippians how to lower their infant mortality rate.

This exchange came about when James Miller, managing director of Oxford International Development Group, was consulting in a rural Mississippi hospital. “He was shocked to find that the state had the third highest medical expenditure per capita, but came last in terms of outcome,” the Times article said.

Miller remembered a conference presentation on how Iran radically lowered its infant mortality rates. Facing a shortage of doctors and hospitals, the government launched a program of “health houses” staffed by local people trained to be health workers. The health workers are authorized to provide basic medical services such as diabetes monitoring as well as prenatal and obstetric care. Infant and maternal mortality rates both fell dramatically as a result.

James Miller contacted Iranian doctors to find out if their program might be applied to Mississippi. So the Iranian doctors came to Mississippi to give advice. Although the idea of following an Iranian model was a hard sell in Mississippi, at least one community has begun work on an Iranian style “health house” to provide better care for pregnant women abandoned by Mississippi’s health care system

Dr Aaron Shirley, who worked with James Miller on the Iranian project, admitted they were staying under the radar. Mississippi government officials, including Governor Haley Barbour, were not involved or informed.

This takes us back to the issue identified in the earlier post — Mississippi has the worst health care in the nation, but as far as Gov. Barbour is concerned, this is not a problem. The governor is perfectly clear, on his website and in public pronouncements, that Mississippi fixed its health care problems by passing a comprehensive tort reform bill in 2004. The 2004 law affected all kinds of personal injury lawsuits in Mississippi.

In the U.S., state after state has passed “tort reform” laws that make it harder for citizens to file personal injury suits and also limit the amount of damages they can receive. This is a critical issue for people with asbestos-related disease such as mesothelioma cancer, who so often need damage awards to care for themselves and their families. “Tort reform” also is being pushed by conservatives nationwide as the way to fix the nation’s health care crisis.

But Mississippi reformed tort in 2004, and it still has the worst health care in the nation. What did Governor Barbour “fix,” exactly?

-Barbara O’Brien

Friday, February 12, 2010

You Knew He Was a Pest...

but he can kill pests, too!

Imagine you had a beetle infestation problem and you needed a non-toxic way to deter their invasion into your home. Researchers at Northern Arizona University have determined that playing Rush Limbaugh, and other “loud and annoying noises” are a remarkably effective deterrent to beetles’ livelihood.

It's hard to imagine a louder, more annoying noise than Limbaugh. Bye beetles!

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Tom Tancredo - Racist Piece of Shit

Tom Tancredo opens the Tea Bagger Fest by showing us that he's not just anti-immigration, he's out of the closet now as a full-fledged public racist.

Friday, February 05, 2010

It's an Election Year

Economists are quick to tell us that our economy is showing signs of recovery. This seems to mean that Wall St. is doing well. Main St. doesn’t seem to be ready to tap dance just yet. The unemployment rate for New Hampshire was seven percent in January. Those statistics are skewed to be lower than the real numbers of unemployed. They don’t count folks who haven’t been able to find a job long after their unemployment benefits ended, or those who weren’t eligible in the first place. The real number is perhaps as high as 14%. More NH families are using food stamps than ever before. Our homes aren’t worth what they used to be, though foreclosures seem to be slowing down. In other words, for the most part, the news isn’t good. NH folks are having a tough time, and tough times always seem even tougher in the north country.

In response to these tough times, the Republicans of our legislature spent last summer coming up with legislation aimed at solving NH’s economic woes. Apparently the cure for a bad economy is forcing women and girls to bear unwanted babies, and to deprive gay folks of the right to marry. Another important piece of legislation is being developed by local Representative Gene Chandler, who is working on a bill that would repeal an earlier decision by the Legislative Facilities Committee to ban guns in the State House. This is being presented as an issue of Great Importance, one that gets to the very heart of our freedoms in NH! This is being presented as a partisan issue – those evil Democrats would deprive you of your right to bring your gun to a state building!

What Representative Chandler isn’t telling us, is that guns were banned from the State House from 1996 to 2006. Chandler has served 12 terms in the NH legislature. He was speaker of the House from 2000 to 2004. He was the ranking House member on the Legislative Facilities Committee for 4 years during the original ban. During this time, Representative Chandler never filed a repeal bill. The oft-touted concerns for the safety of the staff and other legislators took a long time to develop. Fourteen years is a very long time.

In other news, Representative David Bates of Windham launched a campaign called Let the People Vote. In response to our state’s economic woes, Rep. Bates has chosen to attack marriage equality. He’s pushing to get a petition to get a warrant article on every ballot of SB2 towns, and put before every town meeting. This is aimed at pressuring the legislature to pass CACR 28, an amendment to the NH Constitution that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. At the recent CACR 28 hearing in Concord, Representative Bates dismissed the suggestion that he’s taking any money for this, and said that he’s paid for all of this out of his own pocket. It is interesting to note that the PAC created for the Let the People Vote campaign is registered to Rep. Bates, and at the website, there’s a convenient button to push to make donations. Representative Bates also seems to be involved with the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) an out-of-state group based in New Jersey. NOM was heavily involved in the California and Maine anti-marriage equality campaigns. They’re rather secretive about where all their money comes from. There are deep suspicions that NOM is a front for the Mormon Church, and its very deep pockets. In any case, most of the towns that have dealt with this petition so far have voted it down. Rindge, Rindge, Rye, Winchester, Alstead, Deerfield, Bethlehem, Goffstown, Wolfeboro, and Londonderry all voted against discrimination.

“Let the people vote” has become the new slogan of those who would enshrine bigotry in our state constitution. The supporters of this effort will bellow at length about the Constitution – both state and federal. These people don’t understand the concept of representative democracy at all – and feel that somehow they’ve been treated unfairly by not being allowed to vote on this particular issue. I heard Rep. Bates say he was not opposed to putting slavery and interracial marriage to the popular vote. The Bill of Rights was never put to a popular vote. A number of the same folks who wail about their right to carry a gun into the NH State House are the same ones who want desperately to vote to discriminate against gay people. The Second Amendment was never put to a popular vote. Funny how those who go on about the Constitution are perfectly okay with that piece of representative democracy, considering that some of them would have been denied the right to vote at the time the US Constitution was ratified. Should we let the people vote on the Second Amendment? Ending slavery was never put to a popular vote, nor was desegregation, the voting rights act, or the 19th Amendment, for that matter. Catholics were banned from holding office or teaching school in NH until 1877. The framers of the Constitution understood the tyranny of the majority.

Meanwhile, the sky has not fallen since January 1, when gay couples began to marry. Those who would discriminate tell us of the need to “protect” heterosexual marriage. I haven’t heard a single story of a heterosexual couple divorcing because of gay folks getting married. The sky didn’t fall when slavery ended, when women stopped being male property, when integration came to pass, or when the laws against interracial marriage were overturned. This is just another step forward into a less discriminatory world. We will all have the chance to vote against going backwards – something NH has so far refused to do.

At a time when so many are jobless, when cities and towns are facing drastic budget cuts -one would hope that both parties could come together to work on solving the very real problems facing our state. Instead, the minority party is choosing to grandstand on hyper-partisan ideological issues. Yep, it’s an election year.

© 2010 sbruce

Published as an op-ed in the 2-5-10 edition of the Conway Daily Sun.
h/t to Ben Sargent for the cartoon