Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The real apocalypse is unfolding slowly

Just as everyone was about to forget last week's Rapture hoax, here in Oklahoma we saw genuine apocalyptic forces at work yesterday afternoon. At least 13 people died in tornadoes that roared across the Midwest and South on May 24. This followed a tornado that killed more than a hundred people in Joplin, Missouri the day before.

Mother Jones environmental blogger Julia Whitty makes a convincing case that this month's dramatic increase in killer tornadoes has been fueled by a warming ocean:
Unusually warm surface waters in the Gulf of Mexico—about 2 degrees Fahrenheit/3.6 degrees Celsius warmer than normal—may be a factor in this season's tornado frequency and strength, according to National Weather Service director Jack Hayes.

Add that to an uncommonly southward jet stream track, reports Scientific American, and you've got a recipe for the kinds of disasters we've been seeing so far this year.
Her entire post, which includes many useful links and graphics, is well worth reading.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Targeting Justice for Workers

Thanks to the Facebook page of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, I've learned that workers at Target Stores in the New York City area are trying to form a union. The UFCW provides several links to sources of information about this effort.

First, here's an article in the New York Times. Second, here is a post on Gawker. Finally, here is coverage of a controversy over CBS refusing to rent the union billboard space in Times Square to spread their message.

The Times reports that major issues for the workers are low pay and schedules that offer very few hours of work each week. Employees at a Target store in Valley Stream, N.Y. said that they rely on Medicaid and food stamps in order to support their families.

Predictably, a Target vice president told the Times that the company has “great benefits, flexible scheduling and great career opportunities for workers in all stages of life,”and that bringing in a union would wreck this lovely state of affairs.

Writing at Truthout, Mark Provost gives an eloquent explanation of why this argument doesn't hold water. Provost wasn't writing about Target specifically, but his argument certainly applies to the situation of the Target workers:
In the boardrooms of corporate America, profits aren't everything - they are the only thing. A JPMorgan research report concludes that the current corporate profit recovery is more dependent on falling unit-labor costs than during any previous expansion. At some level, corporate executives are aware that they are lowering workers' living standards, but their decisions are neither coordinated nor intentionally harmful. Call it the "paradox of profitability." Executives are acting in their own and their shareholders' best interest: maximizing profit margins in the face of weak demand by extensive layoffs and pay cuts. But what has been good for every company's income statement has been a disaster for working families and their communities.
I agree with Provost almost entirely. Corporate executives must be in really deep denial about what they're doing to their workers, or they wouldn't be able to live with themselves. But the bosses are going to hurt themselves in the long run if they keep shafting their employees. Workers who are badly paid and badly treated are workers who find it harder and harder to give a damn about doing a good job.

We can't count on corporations to have enough enlightened self-interest to know this. Workers need to be able to look out for their own needs. Individual workers do not have the power to defend themselves against corporate employers. This is why workers need the organized power of unions. When workers have what they need to provide a decent life for themselves and their loved ones, everyone benefits.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The end of the world? Been there, done that.

Harold Camping is old enough to know better. Relying on a combination of complicated arithmetic and the interpretation of Biblical prophecies, the 89-year-old California engineer predicted that the world would end today, May 21, 2011. As Chris McGreal of The Guardian explains, one of the signs that the world was nearing its end was (you knew it) the growing acceptability of gay marriage:
Camping has also said that "gay pride" and same-sex marriage are "a sign from God that judgment day is very near". "No sign is as dramatic and clear as the phenomenal worldwide success of the Gay Pride movement. In the Bible God describes His involvement with this dramatic movement … We will learn that the Gay Pride movement would successfully develop as a sign to the world that Judgement Day was about to occur," he writes.
Camping predicted that the apocalypse would begin at six p.m. sharp in each time zone and proceed around the globe, with the saved rising up to heaven and the damned being destroyed by earthquake and fire. Predictably, he was wrong. (I'm no prophet, but my hunch is that God is not nearly so interested in enforcing patriarchal sexual standards as Camping thinks She is.)

Our friend Harold could have saved himself a fair amount of  trouble and embarrassment if he'd read some history. One famous example is that of the Millerites in the 1840s. William Miller analyzed the Book of Daniel, chapters 8 and 9, and
counted 2300 years from the time Ezra was told he could return to Jerusalem to reestablish the Temple. The date of this event was calculated to be 457 B.C. Thus, 1843 became the date of Christ's return. As the appointed year grew closer, Miller specified 21 March 1843 to 21 March 1844 as his predicted climax of the age. The date was revised and set as 22 October 1844.
The resulting failure of the world to end became known as The Great Disappointment. This reminds one of  the famous words of Jesus, that "no one knows the day or the hour" when the end will occur. But the idea of all the troubles of the world ending in an instant, the righteous receiving their just reward, and the evildoers going straight to hell appears to be irresistible to many. Harold Camping is the latest, but he won't be the last.

Back in 1998, PBS's Frontline produced a show called Apocalypse! The show's web page has an analysis of  "apocalyptism" by University of Texas Professor L. Michael White and a historical timeline of the apocalyptic world view, up through 1999. It's too late for Harold Camping, but I hope the rest of you pay attention.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Dollars & Sense on the budget deficit

As I was working on my term paper about the federal deficit, I came across this article on the Web site of the progressive magazine Dollars & Sense. I may or may not use it in my paper, but it's a good read, and author Marty Wolfson manages to take on some common misperceptions. In the current economic situation, in which ordinary people are still suffering, massive government spending would be very useful. But we're not likely to get it. Wolfson explains why:
The ideological opposition to government spending remains a major obstacle. There are those who see an increase in the role of government as something to be avoided at all costs—even if the cost is the jobs of the unemployed.

Even among those who are not subject to such ideological blinders, there is still a political argument that resonates strongly. The argument is that government spending to create jobs will create large budget deficits, which will have terrible consequences for the American people. Politicians, pundits, and other commentators—in a frenzied drumbeat of speeches, op-eds, and articles—have asserted that the most urgent priority now is to reduce the budget deficit.

It is important to note that this argument is focused on current policy, not just the long-term budgetary situation. There is room for debate about long-term budget deficits, but these are affected more by the explosive growth of health-care costs than by government discretionary spending to create jobs.
For more information, read the rest of the article.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

An interesting post on deficits and health care...

...which I found on Health Beat while working on my term paper on the national debt. Here is a representative paragraph:
For the GOP, this goal of de-funding the health reform law has been increasingly intertwined with efforts to cut the federal deficit. The most recent conflation was House passage of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget plan that included privatizing Medicare and turning Medicaid into a block-grant program—ideas that provoked outcry among seniors and others in town hall meetings around the country. Yesterday, Rep. Dave Camp, (R-MI) who is chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, said that in the face of opposition from Democrats, he will not push forward with the Medicare privatization proposal.

Vermont passes health insurance reform

Something I found while working on my term paper on the national debt: Vermont is "getting closer and closer to enacting a bill that’ll move the state toward a single-payer health-care system," according to blogger Ezra Klein.

Klein links to The Incidental Economist, who plans to summarize that bill next week. (Gotta love a blog with a name like "The Incidental Economist.")

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Good news and bad news

Bad news first. The National Partnership for Women and Families reports that the US House has passed a draconian piece of legislation to drastically reduce both public and private insurance for abortion.Among other things, the report says that HR 3 would make permanent the Hyde Amendment prohibition on public abortion funding for poor women and prohibit the District of Columbia from using local funds to pay for abortions. Up until this time, the Hyde Amendment has faced renewal each year.

The good news is that House Republicans seem to have backed off on their plan to privatize Medicare. Thanks to Women's eNews on Twitter for pointing me towards that news item.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mother Jones Speaks

Hat tip to the AFL-CIO blog for posting this YouTube video of the marvelous labor organizer Mother Jones, reportedly recorded on her 100th birthday:

Monday, May 2, 2011

What is so disturbing about the killing of Bin Laden

Naomi Klein on Facebook posted a link to this useful and disturbing article at Jeremy Scahill reports that Osama bin Laden was killed by sailors from the Joint Special Operations Command. To me, here is the most important part of Scahill's report:
Both President Bush and President Obama have reserved the right for US forces to operate lethally and unilaterally in any country across the globe in pursuit of alleged high value terrorists. The Obama administration's expansion of US Special Operations activities globally has been authorized under a classified order dating back to the Bush administration. Originally signed in early 2004 by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, it is known as the “AQN ExOrd," or Al Qaeda Network Execute Order. The AQN ExOrd was intended to cut through bureaucratic and legal processes, allowing US special forces to move into denied areas or countries beyond the official battle zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Gen. David Petraeus, who is poised to become director of the CIA, expanded and updated that order in late 2009. "JSOC has been more empowered more under this administration than any other in recent history," a Special Ops source told The Nation. "No question."
If elements in the US executive branch, intelligence services, and military think that they have the right to take out bad guys without any kind of international due process, aren't they operating under the same ethical model that the terrorists are?

Things a person finds out late at night in the library

Really and truly, I was looking for something for a school assignment when I found a blog post by Tom Hayden at, commenting on the reported death of Osama bin Laden. Hayden has some interesting things to say:
If bin Laden is gone, and his network heavily damaged, what is left of the terrorist threat to our national security that justifies so many trillions of dollars and costs in thousands of lives? Because of a fabricated fear of bin Laden, we invaded Iraq. The invasion of Afghanistan was to deny sanctuaries to bin Laden and Al Qaeda. In response, Al Qaeda moved into Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed tonight. So why are the Taliban in Afghanistan a threat to the security of the United States with bin Laden gone? Surely there are terrorist cells with lethal capacity scattered around the world, surely there might be revenge attacks, but there is hardly a centralized conspiratorial threat that justifies the deployment of hundreds of thousands of American troops.
Hayden goes on to compare bin Laden to Che Guevara, Crazy Horse, and Geronimo. Sometime after school lets out, I'm going to have to research this a little bit better, but there is something about this comparison that makes me uneasy. I think all three of those other guys, were, well. freedom fighters. And as best I've been able to tell, bin Laden was an advocate of an oppressive and thoroughly sexist world view. I'm not comfortable with the foreign policy that resulted in his death, but I still don't think that he was an admirable person.

So, Hayden is a regular commentator at The Nation, and I would like to think that he wouldn't act like some bad stereotype of a 1960s male radical and make a hero out of bin Laden because bin Laden was a macho guy who opposed the US. But he's been known to write blatantly sexist diatribes in the past. Maybe someone ought to clue him in that clinging to outdated macho posturing undermines his credibility.

What do you think?