Friday, May 28, 2010

Gummint Interference

A story in today’s Conway Daily Sun tells us about Frank Pingree from Bartlett, who is trying to get legislators to force first time political candidates to go through a background check, and mandatory jail time for any elected official that breaks the law.

The Sun quotes a letter he sent to Bartlett Selectmen:
“You really can't expect integrity of voter turnout when there is a sad lack of qualified candidates. People develop a disdain for politicians when we read stories like this,” he wrote.

Of course, people have a healthy disdain for fascism, too, Frank. Why not add weekly urine tests while we're at it?

As long as we have a hobby legislature that works for $100 a year, we’ll always have a problem getting candidates. As it stands, we’re lucky to get anyone to serve. Would candidates bear the cost? Would the town, county, or state? Where would that money come from?

Think about all of the elected positions held in your community. Imagine a background check to be one of the cemetery trustees. Really? Think this could have a dampening effect on running for public office?

I believe Mr. Pingree is a Republican – and I’m guessing he hasn’t thought about the impact this could have on his own party – or his own town! Bartlett is home to Gene “corn roast” Chandler, who would be in jail if Pingree had his way. Not surprisingly, Representative Chandler doesn’t think this is such a great idea.

Frank is miffed because a Bartlett selectman has not resigned, since being charged with having child porn in his computer. The selectman is continuing to serve, as he waits to go to trial. The real problem is that there is no way to remove a selectman from office. There is no legal remedy, no law that permits such a thing. That might be a smarter, and cheaper avenue to pursue than forcing background checks on people who are trying to serve their communities.

Nice to see the party of “personal freedoms and no gummint interference” maintaining the kind of high standards we’ve come to expect from them.

This kind of brilliance will surely be an asset to the GOP in the upcoming elections.

Building Community

cross posted at MainSt./

Isolation is a problem for folks who are unemployed for long periods of time:

The jobless in the United States lose far more than their paychecks; they also lose precious social support. Research has found that the health of those who lose jobs is likely to decline and the risk of dying rises. Many not only lose daily contact with factory and office friends, they also retreat from other social interaction. Compared with the employed, the jobless are less likely to vote, volunteer, see friends and talk to family. Even on weekends, the jobless spend more time alone than those with jobs.

Chuck Collins, co-founder of Business for Shared Prosperity, decided that that this kind of isolation required action, and so, he created the Common Security Clubs, as a way to build connections, share skills, and cut costs.

The groups help people cut costs through swapping skills. "A woman who works five hours caring for an elderly person in the group gets it back in repairs to her kitchen sink, transportation and computer lessons," Collins explained. "We organize it through time banks."

Members share things too - baby strollers, clothes, a wheelchair, a guitar, a TV, dining-room chairs, a shovel, a battery charger - anything that one person needs and another has. One elderly woman swapped her late husband's truck for yard and garden work. Members of her Common Security Club saved money on vacations by taking turns staying in a borrowed cabin in the New England woods. Some groups save money by buying local vegetables, fish and poultry in bulk.

There is another, important aspect to the Common Security Clubs, as Chuck Collins points out:

The common security club model was born out of work done in the last few years by people struggling with overwhelming indebtedness. Participants spend some time discussing the root causes of the economic crisis, drawing on readings and materials provided by the network. But they mostly focus on what they can do together to increase their economic security and press for policy changes.

“What becomes clear to participants is we are facing some major economic and ecological changes,” said Andree Zaleska from the Boston office of Institute for Policy Studies, who is coordinating clubs in the Northeast. “We are not going back to some golden age of economic growth based on empire, unfettered capitalism, and cheap energy—nor do we want to! We have to prepare ourselves and our communities for transformation.”

In addition to learning about how the economic crisis happened, groups also engage in mutual support, local action, and social action:

3) Social action
The economic crisis is in part the result of an unengaged citizenry and government. What can we do together to build an economy based on building healthy communities rather than shoring up the casino economy? What public policies would make our communities more secure? Through discussion and education, participants might find ways to engage in a larger program of change around the financial system, economic development, tax policy, and other elements of our shared economic life.

Many folks who have been unemployed for a long time feel a sense of shame; shame that they lost their jobs, and even more shame that they can't find another. They become isolated, because they don't want to be a burden to their friends, and don't want to admit that they can no longer afford many activities they were once involved in. Staying home alone only serves to reinforce the feelings of shame and sadness. To be able to share that burden with people who are experiencing the same thing is important - but to use all of that common experience to help others, and to begin to take action could be a way out of depression and isolation.

Common Security Club website

Thursday, May 27, 2010


This is 11 year old Joseph Walker-Hoover, of Springfield, MA

In January, a 15-year-old girl from South Hadley, Massachusetts hung herself after being tormented for months by bullies. Phoebe Price was a recent Irish immigrant, and was apparently welcomed to the freedom loving USA, by a bunch of kids determined to torture her, in person, and anonymously in cyberspace. Incidents took place at the school she attended – things were thrown at her, etc. No adults at the school intervened.

An 11-year-old boy from Springfield, MA hung himself after being bullied by boys calling him gay. Last year in Mentor, Ohio, a bully in a classroom told another kid that he should go home and shoot himself, because no one would miss him. Seventeen-year-old Eric Mohat went home and did just that, after being bullied mercilessly at school. Eric was a smart, geeky kid, who was labeled as a “queer” and a “homo.” Apparently much of the bullying took place in a class taught by a coach – who didn’t intervene. None of the adults at the school did anything to protect this kid.

Last week in Concord, an intellectually challenged, 14 year old freshman boy was tattooed by a group of boys that had been bullying him. The bullies told the kid that they’d stop hassling him if he agreed to be tattooed, so they took him into the basement of one bully’s house, and tattooed a penis on his buttocks, along with some puerile commentary. One threatened to touch him with his own genitalia if the boy didn’t cooperate. The bullies were all 18 and over, and two apparently have white supremacist leanings.
These are not smart guys. The mother, at whose home this occurred, came home to find the detritus of ink stained paper towels. She was quoted in the Concord Monitor as saying that the victim willingly participated, in what she called a “hazing.” Sadly, the victim in this story went back to school and faced continued harassment, so his parents have chosen to remove him from school.

There wasn’t much bullying in the lily- white rural suburbs of my youth, but that was in the 60’s and 70’s. It was a different time, and a time of different technology. Hate speech wasn’t a regular feature on the radio or the TV news. Sometimes kids got into fights, but they usually ended pretty quickly, by either adult or peer intervention.

As adults, we forget what it’s like to be a kid in school. School, and what happens in school makes up most of a kid’s life. It feels as though it’s going to last forever. Many adults have the mistaken impression that if the bullied kid “fights back,” that will be the end of it. I’m not sure that was ever true outside of Hollywood. If a bullied kid fights back, the bully just gets a bigger group of kids to pile on. A successful bully is usually a very popular kid. Bullying is all about power over those perceived as weaker.
Common tactics include: physical violence, psychological/verbal abuse, taunts, name calling, spreading rumors, social ostracism, and sexual harassment – where a boy would be labeled as “gay” and a girl as a “slut.” A kid who is already bearing the burden of not being popular or remotely cool isn’t equipped to fight back against a group of bullies.

This is where adult intervention should be taking place. In each of the stories I mentioned, teachers, parents, and other adults failed. Not intervening in the bullying makes them complicit in the act.

There’s going to be a forum at Kennett High School about cyber bullying. The anonymity of the Internet is a fertile breeding ground for bullies. Bullies, are not, however, the fault of the Internet, of MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, chat, or text messages on cell phones. If we believe that guns don’t kill people – how can we blame technology for those who misuse it?

One thing kids really don’t understand is that putting stupid stuff on the internet can come back to haunt you later on. Pictures of you and your weapons on MySpace can lead to arrests. Pictures of you drunkenly flashing your boobs on Facebook can come back to haunt you when you apply for a job. Googling people is now standard operating procedure in many businesses. If you flashed those boobs as a minor, and people pass the pictures around, it can lead to child porn charges, and being forced to register as a sex offender. This is generally not perceived as an asset on college or job applications.

There’s another important aspect to the bullying conversation. We revere and reward bullies in our society. Bill O’Reilly is a verbal abuser, bully, and stalker – and he makes millions and has his own TV show. Rush Limbaugh is a famous bully – who makes even more millions and has a radio show. Anyone who stands in front of a woman’s health clinic is a bully. The teahaddis disrupting town hall meetings are bullies. Some of the people who write letters to the editor of this very newspaper are bullies. Refer to the list of bullying tactics, and you’ll be able to identify the offenders quite handily.

Adults must intervene when they witness bullying. Parents should supervise their children, and know as much as they can about what the kids are up to. A great deal of intolerance is being expressed rather loudly these days. We have no one but ourselves to blame if that is the message our kids receive, and act upon.

“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one's own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.
” John Fitzgerald Kennedy

© 2010 sbruce
This was published as an op-ed in the May 28, 2010 edition of the Conway Daily Sun

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

No Help for the Long Term Unemployed

Originally posted at Main St/

No help coming for the long term unemployed. If you've maxed out your 99 weeks, and are still unemployed - tough luck.

This week Congress will consider legislation to reauthorize extended unemployment benefits for the rest of the year. It's going to be an epic fight: Republicans in the Senate will likely do everything they can to stand in the way of a bill projected to add $123 billion to the deficit, forcing Dem leadership to round up a supermajority for a last-minute Friday vote before Congress adjourns for its Memorial Day recess.

Too bad the jobs crisis, in a big way, has already left this bill in the dust. Hundreds of thousands of people have exhausted their extended unemployment benefits. In some states, laid-off workers can receive checks for 99 weeks -- and that's all they're going to get. This bill isn't for the "99ers" and there's no proposal on deck to give them additional weeks of benefits.

"What's frustrating is that our government doesn't seem to think this is an important issue," said Christy Blake, a 35-year-old mother of two in Fruitland, Md. "We didn't put ourselves here. It wasn't our choice. I have been diligently looking for work."

Finding work is even tougher if you're over 50.

But - not everyone agrees. US Senator Judd Gregg thinks we should cut off unemployment benefits right now:

Senator Gregg (R-NH) is a multimillionaire, and has spent most of his life holding public office, which means he has taxpayer funded health insurance. Senator Gregg won over $850,000 in Powerball lottery in 2005.

What Senator Gregg knows about the realities facing working families could be neatly engraved upon the head of a common pin.

Take action to keep what help we can flowing to jobless workers and stimulating our economy.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

States Raising Taxes to Fill Budget Deficits

Cross posted at Main St/

As we've been saying, the recession is taking a toll on state governments, most of whom have some serious budget deficits to cover. States have been closing down branch libraries, laying off employees, initiating furlough days; anything to save some money. The combination of decreased revenue and federal aid is putting most states in a terrible bind.

Some states are going for the last resort. They're actually raising taxes:

Wisconsin, like many states, turned mainly to wealthier residents and businesses. The big-ticket item was a new top personal income tax bracket, which Gov. Jim Doyle said "wasn't even that hard a call."

"We were in a terrible spot, and the alternative was cut schools, universities and do long-term damage," Doyle said. "So if you're making over $300,000 in this economy, you can help out a little bit."


In New York, the eye-popping change was a new top rate expected to generate $3.9 billion in income taxes in 2010. Among dozens of changes, the state made limousine rides subject to a sales tax ($25.6 million) and expanded bottle deposits to water and flavored water ($115 million).

A 1-cent sales tax bump in California could bring in $4.5 billion.

This week, Arizona's Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill increasing the sales tax by one cent, in order to help ward off cuts to education and other services. She even did this in an election year:

Here, the sales tax increase, a temporary rise to 6.6 cents per dollar for the next three years, is expected to raise nearly $1 billion in the first year, two-thirds of which will go to education. It won approval by 64 percent of voters, though only a third of eligible voters turned out.

It does nothing to erase cuts already made, including the loss of all-day kindergarten, health care reductions for the poor, and the closing of several state parks and highway rest stops, precipitated by a 30 percent decline in revenue.

But Ms. Brewer, and a coalition of politically odd bedfellows, including the state teachers’ union, business groups and office holders from both major parties, sold it as a necessary evil to avoid teacher layoffs and cuts to public safety.

In Oklahoma the state Senate is looking at suspending a number of income tax credits that have been given to certain industries:

The bill approved by the Senate General Conference Committee on Appropriations targets 31 separate tax credits, including certain job creating investments that cost the state an estimated $14.2 million annually.

Three separate tax credits for aerospace employers total more than $3.5 million. Other tax credits were for the purchase and production of coal, investments in agricultural processing facilities and the construction of energy-efficient homes.

Rather than eliminate the tax credits entirely, the bill proposes a moratorium from July 2010 through June 2012.

That taxes are being raised in an election year shows how dire the economic situation really is.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Impact of the Oil Spill Begins to Register

cross posted at Main St/

The fishing ban in the Gulf of Mexico has been expanded:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration greatly expanded the fishing ban in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday in response to spreading oil from the BP well blowout. The prohibited area now covers 19 percent of the gulf, nearly double what it was, according to the agency.

the impact of the spill is beginning to kick in:

Officials are already seeing some impact on fish and wildlife in the region. Rowan W. Gould, the acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said 156 sea turtle fatalities had been recorded in the gulf since April 30, about 100 more than usual at this time of year.

Mr. Gould also said that a small number of oily birds, 35, had been recovered, including 23 dead birds directly linked to the spill.

“It’s important to note that the visibly oiled birds are a small part” of the effects of the oil spill, Dr. Gould said in a teleconference on Tuesday.

“What concerns us most is what we can’t see,” he said, adding, “We are preparing for the likelihood that it will exist in the gulf ecosystem in years to come.”

The economic impact is already being felt along the coast. In Pensacola, FL:

The spill has scared off charter fishing customers at the marina here, even though the water they'd normally trawl is still open. The 30 boats were almost all tied to their slips Tuesday and Jerry Andrews, the captain of the Entertainer, had the dock to himself.
"Usually you'd see 15 or 20 people walking up and down out here asking about the fishing. Three-fourths of these slips would be empty," said Andrews, a Pensacola native who has been fishing here for 34 years.


Andrews said before the spill he was getting between 30 and 40 calls and e-mails a day asking about chartering his boat and his customers were catching their full quotas of vermilion snapper, triggerfish, amberjack and grouper.
But in the month since the spill, he gets hired for one or two trips a week, tops. Most of his customers, who come from Alabama and Georgia, are now going to the Carolinas.

In Louisiana many of the fishermen hired by BP to help try to contain the spill are getting frustrated:

Louisiana fishermen, thrown out of work by the massive oil spill that has closed coastal waters, are jockeying for jobs to contain the mess. But just who gets those jobs is a source of mounting tension. Some workers are getting paid to go out on the water multiple days in a row, while others aren't allowed to go out at all, according to some fishermen.

They said that BP, which had promised to pay each fisherman $5,000 a month for compensation, is dallying on handing out checks. And they said that men who haven't fished in years are getting paid to work on prevention teams, even though they're not affected by the oil spill.

"It's all about who you know," said fisherman Oliver Rudesill, who was sitting in the shade beside the St. Bernard Parish home of a friend on Sunday. He has not earned a cent since the spill started, he said, while others are making hundreds of dollars a day.

His friend, David Palmer, a 33-year old fisherman with three kids, has been told his turn won't come until June. "It's so messed up it's not even funny," said Palmer, whose home sits on pylons to avoid the swampy grasses. "A person can't wait 30 to 40 days to go work."

No one can say with any certainty how this disaster will impact the gulf coast. The long term impact could be devastating:

If the oil penetrates deep within the estuaries around the Mississippi delta, it could devastate the salt marshes and bays that support as much as 90 percent of commercially fished species in the Gulf. That would spell long-term disaster for Louisiana's $1.8 billion fishing industry, not to mention the other Gulf Coast states.

"You have to question what is going to come from this," said David Wyld, a professor of management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. "Not just during the next few months, but also during the next few years and even a decade out."

On top of it all, there's the economic ripple effect. No fishing means fewer people chartering boats, and closed beaches lead to abandoned vacation plans and cancelled hotel bookings. All of that may only deepen the future economic misery for Gulf Coast residents to the tune of billions of dollars in lost revenue.

All the more reason to push for more job creation and more economic stimulus money to help states that have been hard hit, and aid the unemployed.

Deepwater Horizon Disaster

Woody Guthrie said:
"A folk song is what's wrong and how to fix it or it could be
who's hungry and where their mouth is or
who's out of work and where the job is or
who's broke and where the money is or
who's carrying a gun and where the peace is."

Woody would be proud of Beverly Woods and her partner Seth Austin, who are continuing the noble tradition of folk singers and songs.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

We Are Who We Take Money From, Part 2

In Part 1 I took a look at the wisdom of having Wal-Mart as a sponsor of a NHDP event. It turns out that the same event was also sponsored by GE, The Genesee & Wyoming RR, Unitl, and Fidelity Investments aka FMR.

General Electric/GE is one of the top manufacturers of nuclear weapons. They also build nuclear power plants, and are one of the leading suppliers of depleted uranium, which is being used in Iraq and Afghanistan. GE is currently engaged in a court battle. They're challenging the Federal Superfund law. It seems that being forced to clean up their messes (and they've needed to be forced on numerous occasions) is hurting their stock prices. I'm ashamed that my party (I'm still a registered Democrat...for now) is taking money from this evil corporation.

The Genesee & Wyoming Railroad is actually a conglomerate of a bunch of small railroads with lines in Canada, Australia, Bolivia, Mexico, the Netherlands, and the US. The CEO is John Hellmann, who used to be an investment banker with Lehman Bros. He worked for Weyerhauser Corp. in Japan and China. I didn't find anything sinister - but I may not have dug deep enough.

Unitl is a utility company. In NH, they recently decided they'd like to raise their rates. The rate increase for residential customers would be 9%. Unitl is asking for this increase because their revenue is down, due to customer conservation.

Fidelity Investments/FMR - are #2 in political campaign contributions from the security and investments sector. They are second only to Goldman Sachs.

As it happens, the NHDP is now sharing their funding sources with GOP candidates. Senate candidate Bill Binnie has received $4,800 from Wal-Mart so far, and Ovide Lamontagne has received $2,500 from FMR.

I'm aware that times are tough - but sharing donors with the other guys leads cynical folks to reiterate the view that there isn't a dime's bit of difference between the two parties. We can't take the moral high ground if we're feeding from the same corporate trough.

cross-posted at Blue Hampshire.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Taking the Recession out on Women

The recession continues. We hear peppy commentary from economists about how things are turning around, but what they really mean is that things are getting better on Wall St. The mainstream media sanitizes the news for our protection, which led to a rather incredible recent story in the NY Times, telling us that a “strong” 290,000 jobs were added to the economy, even though the unemployment rate rose to 9.9%. In this story, an economist stated that this is a sign that momentum is up. Momentum and the unemployment rate, apparently, are up. The way we count the numbers of unemployed is fatally flawed, since we only count people who are eligible for unemployment benefits. Those who were never eligible, or whose benefits have run out are not counted. We don’t hear much about the fate of the long term unemployed, and with good reason. The news for them is terrible, especially for folks over 50. These folks have a better chance of getting hit by lightening than finding work.

As we all know, the recession is affecting state budgets. Every state is experiencing budget shortfalls, and every state is faced with making cuts to services. Some states are doing better than others. You’d never know it from the NH GOP media, but NH is actually doing better than many other states, probably because we don’t provide much in the way of services to begin with. Our unemployment rate is relatively high at 7%, but we aren’t facing the kind of devastating budgetary shortfalls being seen in other states.

Oklahoma is looking at a budget shortfall of up to $864 million. About 15% of their general fund isn’t going to appear in the form of revenues. Firefighters and police in Oklahoma City are facing layoffs or pay and benefit cuts. A state run substance abuse treatment center in Norman is closing, and laying off 100 people. A men’s treatment center in Talequah is being closed. In Norman, 40 mental health treatment beds for children are being eliminated. The substance abuse treatment and mental health services for adults and children are being cut mercilessly. The folks who work in treatment estimate that 90% of kids who need treatment in Oklahoma don’t receive it. More layoffs of state workers are projected.

In Oklahoma, when the going gets tough, the legislature responds by making things tougher. For women, that is. Oklahoma recently passed two new and restrictive abortion laws. One new law requires every woman to have a sonogram prior to an abortion. In the early weeks of a pregnancy, this may well mean a vaginal ultrasound – where a wand is inserted into the vagina. There are no exceptions for victims of rape or incest. The doctor must turn the screen to the woman, and describe the fetus. So far, the law doesn’t force the woman to look at the sonogram, but that’s likely to be next, since they have no qualms about re-raping a rape victim. The second law prohibits women from suing doctors who withhold or give incorrect information about a pregnancy. This gives doctors the legal right to lie to their patients. That’s a real triumph. To his credit, Governor Brad Henry vetoed both of these bills, but in both cases his veto was overridden by the legislature.

At a time when Oklahoma’s budget is in such dire straits, it is indeed curious that the legislature would respond by passing two laws that are guaranteed to cost the state a fortune in lawsuits. A state that is cutting services to kids that are already here is trying to force women to give birth, through torture and dishonesty.

Nebraska is reacting to their budget crisis in much the same way. Nebraska’s state revenues are expected to be down by $56 million in this fiscal year, and by $670 million next year. In November the legislature closed a $334 million budget gap by making cuts to state agencies. There were 50 positions eliminated at the Beatrice State Development Center, an institution serving adults and children who have mental retardation. The cuts come primarily to staff in food service, maintenance, and housekeeping. One can easily imagine how that is likely to play out.

Nebraska has privatized child welfare services, which also includes juvenile justice. One of the providing agencies has already dropped out, due to inadequate reimbursement by the state.

Last month, Governor Dave Heineman signed a law that bans abortions 20 weeks after conception. The basis for this time frame is the theory that by that stage in development, a fetus can feel pain. The reality is a little less theoretical. After the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas, one of the few doctors in the country who performed late term abortions, Nebraska is afraid of becoming the new “late term abortion capital of the Midwest.” Dr. LeRoy Carhart of Nebraska was a friend of Tillers, and also performs late term abortions. The law does grant exceptions in cases of the mother’s imminent death, or serious risk of “substantial and irrevocable physical impairment of a body function.” At the same time, Heineman signed another bill that would require doctors to screen women to determine if they’re being pressured into having abortions, or if the woman is at risk of having mental or physical problems after an abortion. The risks could be “physical, psychological, emotional, demographic, or situational,” according to the bill. In other words – whatever any given doctor dreams up to force the woman to incubate.

Again – at a time of budget crisis, passing laws guaranteed to create years of legal challenges seems bizarre at best, especially when services for children who are already here are being cut. At the same time, Heineman opposes taxpayer funded pre-natal services to low-income women who are in the country illegally. Some of these women are choosing to abort – but that hasn’t changed Heieneman’s position. It seems his concern is limited to potential white babies.

“Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and the next thing you know, they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.” from “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” by Thomas Franks.

© sbruce 2010 This was published as an op-ed in the May 14, 2010 Conway Daily Sun

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Odds and Ends

The FCC is considering a plan that would require wireless companies to let customers know when they are running up a bill that would go over their monthly limit for roaming charges or data use.

The initiative, outlined on Tuesday by Joel Gurin, chief of the F.C.C.’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, is intended to help consumers avoid what the commission calls “bill shock.”

The commission has received hundreds of complaints from consumers about receiving bills with unexpected charges, sometimes amounting to hundreds of dollars, Mr. Gurin said in a statement, adding that the charges are often caused by misunderstandings of contract terms.

Wireless carriers in Europe are required by law to send text messages to consumers when they are running up roaming charges or getting close to a set limit for data usage, Mr. Gurin said.

As someone who has experienced "bill shock," this seems like a good idea.
For more information about this plan, or to file a public comment on it, go to the FCC website.

And in other news:
Some lawmakers today are hearing about outdated standards that call for more men's bathrooms than women's bathrooms in federal buildings. Most federal buildings are at least 40 years old. Here's an excerpt from the testimony of Kathryn H. Anthony, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Architecture:

The problem is rooted in an era "where women were not as prevalent in the public realm and in the workforce as we are today," she'll say. "Until recently, most architects, contractors, engineers, building code officials, and clients were not concerned about this issue. They rarely contacted women about their restroom needs, women were rarely employed in these male-dominated professions, nor were they in a position to effect change."

With all of the huge problems Congress is facing, this may seem like a diversion, or a waste of time. It's a gender equality issue. It doesn't seem like a big deal to change these standards to reflect the changes that have taken place in the role of women in our workplaces and in our society.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Regulatory Agencies Fail

Originally posted at Main St./

Why do we have ongoing problems with mines, oil spills, and problems with nuclear power plants? The sad, simple truth is that US regulatory agencies are failing us. From the NY Times:

Federal regulators warned offshore rig operators more than a decade ago that they needed to install backup systems to control the giant undersea valves known as blowout preventers, used to cut off the flow of oil from a well in an emergency.

The warnings were repeated in 2004 and 2009. Yet the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency charged both with regulating the oil industry and collecting royalties from it, never took steps to address the issue comprehensively, relying instead on industry assurances that it was on top of the problem, a review of documents shows.

Relying on the oil industry to police itself is akin to relying on your five year old to voluntarily keep his hand out of the cookie jar.

Far from being reliable BP fought safety measures at every opportunity:

In a letter sent last year to the Department of the Interior, BP objected to what it called "extensive, prescriptive regulations" proposed in new rules to toughen safety standards. "We believe industry's current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary programs…continue to be very successful."

Mine safety regulations used to be tougher.

Before every shift worked in an underground coal mine, coal operators are supposed to check for safety problems. Violations are to be marked with a "danger" sign. No one is supposed to go to work until the violations are fixed.

At least that's what federal mine safety law has said since 1969, when Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.

But since 1992, that's not what the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has required. That year, the first Bush administration weakened MSHA regulations, requiring mine safety checks to look for violations only if they posed an immediate hazard to miners.

A Congressional hearing on the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine will be held later this month:

The U.S. House Education and Labor Committee will hold a hearing this month in Beckley, W.Va., to examine the April 5 explosion at Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29.

The committee, led by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., will hear testimony from family members of the miners who died in the blast, the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years. The hearing is scheduled for May 24 at 9 a.m. at the Robert C. Byrd federal courthouse in Beckley, which is about an hour east of the mine in Montcoal.

The Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing on the explosion last month in Washington, focusing on possible changes to mine safety laws and enforcement by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is charged with enforcing regulations. Here's a particularly grim commentary:

A top federal mine safety official said Tuesday that existing laws and regulations have not been properly enforced but pledged that his agency will now use all its powers after the West Virginia mine disaster that killed 29 people.
Joe Main, the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, told a Senate committee that the Mine Safety and Health Administration will start using its power to immediately shut down mines engaging in unsafe behavior.
Main said the powers have existed for decades but were never used.

How many workers have died as a result?

The aging Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, VT has been in the news over the last few months because of a radioactive tritium leak. Entergy, the owner of the plant first denied there were underground pipes at the plant. From the Times Argus:

House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, told reporters at the Statehouse Friday that this week's revelation that the facility does indeed have underground pipes containing radioactive tritium – a fact Yankee officials earlier denied – "threatens the level of trust that Vermonters have in Entergy to provide accurate information about anything."

"The representations made by Entergy were clearly wrong," Smith said. "They told us that there was no radioactive material flowing through those pipes … that was untrue."

Officials from Entergy Nuclear Vermont, the company that owns Vermont Yankee, told state and legislative officials on a number of occasions that those pipes did not carry irradiated water. That includes statements made by Entergy officials under oath to the Vermont Public Service Board.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) planned a private meeting with VT Yankee/Entergy officials, regarding NRC oversight of the plant. The private meeting didn't sit well with folks in VT and NH. NH has 5 communities in the 10 mile evacuation zone of the plant.

Thanks to the intervention of VT and NH legislators a public meeting was held:

Residents and local officials told the NRC during the evening session that the NRC was ineffective because there were few — if any — regulations to hold nuclear companies accountable.

Paul Blanch of West Hartford, Conn., a nuclear consultant and former industry whistleblower, said nuclear companies were taking advantage of the situation.

"Regulations are nonexistent or never enforced," said Blanch, who said that Vermont Yankee could have discharged "10,000 times" the tritium that it did and still not violate any NRC regulations.

People weren't impressed with the NRC as a regulatory agency, and they have every reason to feel that way. From
Beyond Nuclear:

A new report released today by Beyond Nuclear - Leak First, Fix Later: Uncontrolled and Unmonitored Radioactive Releases from Nuclear Power Plants - looks at the epidemic of reactors leaking tritium into groundwater. The report finds that the federal regulator – the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission - is ignoring its oversight and enforcement responsibilities at the nation’s increasingly leaky, uninspected and unmaintained nuclear power plants. The report shows that despite agency efforts initiated in 1979 to prevent uncontrolled radioactive releases to groundwater, the NRC is capitulating to an industry decision to take almost three more years before announcing an action plan.

Regulatory agencies must be forced to do their jobs. Paying for the ounce of prevention is cheaper, better for the environment, and it saves lives. We must also pass the The Protecting America's Workers Act.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Florida Mom Steals Library Books - Won't Give 'em Back

In Longwood, Florida an irate mother is censoring the local library.

Longwood parent Tina Harden was so disturbed by references to sex and drugs and foul language in the world of fictional teenager Jenny Humphrey that she is ignoring overdue notices and phone calls from her neighborhood library and its bill collector.

Harden refuses to return several books connected to the Gossip Girl series that detail Humphrey's life, even though she's had them since 2008.

"If I turn them in, they will be put back into circulation and they'll be available for more young girls to read," said the mother of three, who keeps the four books hidden in a closet. "Some material is inappropriate for minors."

Apparently her kids don't have access to television or the internet.

"If we denied access to this particular title, it would be censoring," said Jane Peterson, the county's library services manager.

That's not good enough for Harden, who said that as a taxpayer she should have a say in which books land on the libraries' shelves. "They're supposed to be public servants," she said.

The libraries have multiple copies of the novels in the series. If her library privileges hadn't been revoked, Harden said she would try to check them all out.

She owes about $85 in fines.

Ms. Harden believes that as a taxpayer she should have a say in what books are on the shelves of the library. Apparently she also feels she should be able to steal from the library.

I wonder how the other taxpayers of Longwood feel about Ms. Harden's vast sense of entitlement?

Another Take on the Latest Unemployment Numbers

Originally posted at Main St./

The new job numbers are in. From the NY Times:

The American economy added an unexpectedly strong 290,000 jobs in April, while the unemployment rate rose to 9.9 percent, the government said Friday.

“This is unambiguously a strong report for growth implications,” James O’Sullivan, chief economist at MF Global, said. “It adds to the evidence that the pickup in growth is leading to a clear-cut pickup in employment. It is very clear there has been a bounce here, and momentum has been up.”

Unambiguous? Momentum is going up, along with the unemployment rate? Sounds like double-talk to me.

Here,at least, the sugar coating wears off (bolded emphasis mine):

With revisions on Friday, April was the fourth consecutive month that the economy added workers (a revised 230,000 jobs were added in March, instead of 162,000), the job market still has a long way to go before it can be counted on to provide a base for a sustained economic recovery. More than 15.3 million were unemployed last month.

The report from the Dept. of Labor contains less spin:

In the week ending May 1, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 444,000, a decrease of 7,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 451,000. The 4-week moving average was 458,500, a decrease of 4,750 from the previous week's revised average of 463,250.
The advance seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate was 3.6 percent for the week ending April 24, unchanged from the prior week's unrevised rate of 3.6 percent.
The advance number for seasonally adjusted insured unemployment during the week ending April 24 was 4,594,000, a decrease of 59,000 from the preceding week's revised level of 4,653,000. The 4-week moving average was 4,649,000, an increase of 8,000 from the preceding week's revised average of 4,641,000.

The bottom line is, of course, that nothing much has changed, except that nearly 40 million people are now on food stamps, and the outlook for the long term unemployed is not good.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Shameful Ironies

Originally posted at Main St/

Some economists are telling us what we already know. It's going to take a long time to bring back all the lost jobs.

“It could take four years, if not longer,” for the job market to recover the more than 8 million jobs lost since the recession started in December 2007, Feroli said.


Feroli estimates payrolls expanded by 145,000 jobs in April, with about 85,000 coming from private employers. Many of the government hires will be temporary workers for the census, he said. His estimate compares with a median increase of 189,000 in a Bloomberg survey of economists.

The new employment numbers will be out tomorrow. Of course, whatever the numbers show, the fact remains that along the Gulf Coast, a whole lot people are newly unemployed, thanks to the oil leak from the oil rig that exploded. It's resulted in a terrible irony - the fisherman who have lost their livelihood because of the spill are now being recruited to for BP, the company who is responsible for this disaster:

Rowdy Schouest, a shrimper out of Cypremort Point, Louisiana, says fishermen need to beware of the fine print on those contracts.

"BP, they hire your boat, pay you so much to help with oil cleanup, then when you collect that first check, you're gonna sign away all your rights to sue them," said Schouest. "[The fishermen] are hurtin' so bad for the money, but they're not realizing that little bit of money's gonna end, and then it's over with. They're gonna sign the paperwork even though they don't even know how to read it, then when they can't go fishing five or ten years from now, they're gonna realize, 'Whoa, we messed up.'"

As of Tuesday, more than 30 class-action suits had been filed against BP, Halliburton, Transocean, and others involved in the disaster set off by the April 5 oil rig explosion. According to Alabama Attorney General Troy King, BP has been circulating settlement agreements of up to $5000 as a preemptive measure.

That's mighty big of BP - offering a settlement agreement of $5000 for ruining someone's business.

It seems that those agreements have been removed:

Darren Beaudo, a spokesman for BP, said the waiver requirement had been stripped out, and that ones already signed would not be enforced.

"BP will not enforce any waivers that have been signed in connection with this activity," he wrote in an e-mail.

Even so, Alabama Attorney General Troy King is warning folks to proceed with caution:

But King said late Sunday that he was still concerned that people would lose their right to sue by accepting settlements from BP of up to $5,000, as envisioned by the claim process BP has set up.

The attorney general said he is prohibited from giving legal advice to private citizens, but added that "people need to proceed with caution and understand the ramifications before signing something like that."

Shameful. Truly shameful.