Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Vermont snubs Bush

A belated thumbs up to Vermont. They became the first state in the country whose legislature passed a resolution calling for the immediate and orderly withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. The resolution overwhelmingly passed both chambers of the legislature.

"No one hates war more than a warrior. No father wishes their child would come home more than I," said Rep. Joseph Krawczyk, R-Bennington, a Vietnam veteran who was in the military for decades. "I know that she and all the soldiers who serve with her and those who served with me over 27 years would want me to be loyal to my oath and vote no on this resolution." Krawczyk's daughter is now in the military.

The elected officials know of what they speak. While Vermont is the most progressive state in the country, its residents do not shirk military service. More soldiers per capita from Vermont have been killed in Iraq than any other state in the nation.

Across the nation, small towns are quietly bearing a disproportionate burden of war. Nearly half of the more than 3,100 U.S. military fatalities in Iraq have come from towns like McKeesport (PA), where fewer than 25,000 people live, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. One in five hailed from hometowns of less than 5,000. On a per capita basis, states with mostly rural populations have suffered the highest casualties in Iraq. Vermont tops the list, the AP found.

Additionally, Many of the hometowns of the war dead aren't just small, they're poor. The AP analysis found that nearly three quarters of those killed in Iraq came from towns where the per capita income was below the national average. Rural communities are "being asked to pay a bigger price for this military adventure, if I can use that word, than their urban counterparts," explained University of New Hampshire professor William O'Hare.

Not surprising then that support for the Iraq war has dropped most precipitously in rural areas (where support has halved in the last three years) since they are the parts of America paying the highest price.

Apparently, a tad more than half of every dollar you pay in federal income tax goes to military spending. I guess this is the federal government's social services and economic development plan for rural areas.

I'm glad support for this insanity has collapsed. It's not really surprising that buyers' remorse has been strongest amongst those most heavily invested in it. But wouldn't it be nice if, for once, Americans pondered fully and completely the consequences of wars of aggression BEFORE they were launched, rather than after.

Just remember all this as the administration tries to continues to grease the skids for and deceitfully sucker Americans into a military action against Iran.

Monday, February 26, 2007

White knight trades in his armor

Congratulations to Blair Horner. The then-legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) has been named as a special advisor to state attorney general Andrew Cuomo to oversee Cuomo's plan for an Internet database tracking campaign donors, lobbyists, state contractors and their connections to elected officials.

Non-partisan good government organizations like NYPIRG, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters constitute the only group in Albany that advocates the interests of citizens, rather than those of lobbyists and campaign donors. Horner is seen as the dean of Albany watchdogs and has been a spokesman for ethical and transparent government for a quarter century.

If the attorney general is serious about governmental transparency and is willing to give Horner all the support required to make it happen, then he certainly picked the right man for the job.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Virginia to ban cellphone use while driving... for teens only

New York state passed a compelte ban on the use of handheld cellphones while driving. As a biker and walker who regularly dodges cars driven by idiots yacking on their cell phone, this is a real issue to me. One that potentially affects my life and well-being, not merely some academic argument.

Virginia's lower house recently passed a ban on 15, 16 and 17 year olds using cellphones while driving. These teens would not be able to talk, send text messages or snap photos with a phone while on Virginia roads. The ban would also apply to hands-free devices but would allow teens to use a phone during an emergency.

The bill was defended by Democratic Delegate Timothy Hugo who quipped, "We are saying, 'Hang up and drive.' "

The bill's Republican sponsor in the state senate opined, "It doesn't matter if the phone is in their hands or hands-free. The distraction for the teen is the same."

I heartily agree.

However, the same applies to adults.

It's absolutely absurd to argue that it's dangerous for teens to drive and yack on the cellphone at the same time but perfectly harmless for adults. I speak from personal experience when I say it's not perfectly harmless when adults do it.

If you want to yack on your cellphone, get a headset, the use of which while driving is legal in NY.

Or God forbid, pull off to the side of the road for a few minutes if your call is that urgent.

Just like drunk driving, the use of a handheld cellphone while driving is INHERENTLY dangerous. Those who do it, regardless of age, are a menace to not only to other motor vehicles, but bicyclists and pedestrians. It's not safe no matter who does it.

Virginia's move is nothing more than empty populism. It's pretty convenient for legislators to pick on a group that's not old enough to vote them out of office.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

9/11 conspiracy theories

I'm hesitant to wade into this debate because it's not one of my pet issues. And as much as I oppose the president and his militarist agenda, I'm sure someone will still accuse me of drinking the right-wing Kool Aid. That said, here's my official position on the 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Theories that suggest that Bush administration was actually behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a justification for their pre-planned imperial aggression against Iraq (a summary can be found here. I don't contest that there may be some holes in the official version of what happened on 9/11. I'm as anti-Bush as they come and I'm as strong an opponent of US military and the military-industrial complex as you'll find. I've been against the Iraq monstrosity since day one.

But I'm not willing to make the enormous leap that a series of coincidences adds up to a broad conspiracy. My intellectual integrity requires me to be skeptical of everything, not just of stuff I don't want to hear. If you want me to believe that the US government organized the worst terrorist attack on US soil in history, then I want irrefutable, concrete evidence. I want documents. I want emails. I want audio tape of the conspirators. I need more than coincidences, anonymous witnesses and stuff that I already know.

I can't say for certain that the conspiracy theories are not true. Who knows. There's enough secret stuff going on that it's possible. In fact, I just listened to a Swiss radio documentary yesterday about secret NATO operations in the 1970s in Europe to exaggerate the threat of left-wing militant groups. But just because something is possible doesn't mean it actually happened. Just because the official version may have holes doesn't mean the alternative version must be 100 percent accurate.

I don't instantly dismiss these theories with the wave of a hand. But my gut feeling and common sense makes me skeptical. Such a conspiracy would require the involvement of at least dozens of people. Dozens (or hundreds) of Americans whose job it was to plan the murder of thousands of their fellow citizens. Some would have to powerful. Some rich. And some ordinary joes to do the physical dirty work. In the absence of hard evidence, I refuse to believe of all these co-conspirators, not a single one had any qualms about murdering thousands of their fellow citizens. Not sending them off to die, like in war. But actually massacring them. Not a single one had any qualms beforehand. Not a single one has any qualms since, with the blood of several thousand Americans on their hands. Not a single one had so much trouble sleeping that they mentioned it to their spouse. Not a single one decided they couldn't live with themselves. Is this possible? Yes. Is it plausible? No. Will I believe this without overwhelming hard evidence? No way.

Eventually these things unravel. Look at the Scooter Libby trial. Look at how the WMDs myth became discredited. Eventually the truth comes out. There's always a paper or electronic trail somewhere, no matter how hard the criminals trial. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, "Show me the paper trail! Show me the emails!"

Conspiracy theories aren't always wrong. But they should be analyzed with as much vigor as they purport to scrutinize the official versions.

The progressive (and resolutely anti-Bush) website Alternet ran a good piece (which was originally published in the left-wing British paper The Guardian) meticulously addressing various aspects of the theories.

I hope conspiracy theorists will read this article as critically as they expect the rest us to read their theories.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Bush finally shamed into (promising) support for the troops

One of the bills of goods that many hard-line conservatives are trying to sell to Americans is that they and President Bush support the troops. How sending them off to die or be maimed in a war launched for bogus reasons constitutes supporting them is beyond me. Anyways, Bush is a tough talker. He is decisive ("The Decider," if you will). He believes in Good and Evil and nothing in between. He makes his decisions and never looks back. The troops like this, according to the conventional wisdom.

According to an urban legend I've come across, then-President Bill Clinton supposedly hated the military so much that he banned them from being in uniform in his presence. Given that there are uniformed soldiers all over the White House, I can't imagine that this is true. But why let reality interfere with a good rant. Don't question what you hear, if it's what you want to hear. That's the philosophy underpining (and undermining) the Bush administration.

Only in bizarro world is a (mythical) ban on wearing a military uniform a worse crime than sending young men off to die in a war waged under fake pretexts. I guess if GIs wear their uniform in their coffin, everything must be ok.

Anyways, it's fairly clear that this administration doesn't give a crap about the actual well-being of the troops, and is only interested in using them as a propaganda ploy to blackmail opponents of their militarism into submission. This is old news. It worked pretty well for a few years. But now people are finally seeing through it.

The Washington Post did a disturbing series on the lamentable conditions in veterans' hospitals. These problems are not new. My brother, who served in the Marines and still has friends in active duty, first telling me about them years ago. He's sent several articles to me on the topic over the years.

For all the professed 'outrage' by the White House, why have they waited six years to feign anger on the topic about this? Why did it take a newspaper article (from the supposed troop-hating liberal media) to embarass them into (promising) action? Hasn't President George "I support the troops" Bush made enough photo op visits to Walter Reed to notice these things? Or maybe he was more interested in the cameramen then the soldiers injured in the war of aggression he ordered.

It really begs the question: how did I, a non-soldier, become aware of these problems years before the commander-in-chief of the armed forces? Then again, I knew Saddam's Iraq was no threat to America long before Bush finally admitted that he had no weapons of mass destruction. I don't have access to highly classified information. I don't consider myself a particular genius. I just pay attention and use common sense. Why can't the president do the same?

If you want to support the troops, stop bashing irrelevant scapegoats like Michael Moore, Jane Fonda and the Dixie Chicks and start doing something that will ACTUALLY HELP THE TROOPS. There are some people who collect personal items and other goodies to send to the troops. That's worthy. I go out there and try to get the politicians to bring the troops home, so they don't have to die for a freedom Iraqis can only win on their own (the war having nothing to do with our own freedom).

I'm sick and tired of people who only slap a bumper sticker on their car or wear a ribbon on their lapel acting like they're high and mighty, acting like they're actually doing something to support the troops. People who brag loudly about being supporting the troops and denounce anyone who doesn't make a big show of doing the same, it's time for them to put up or shut up. Let them demand that the commander-in-chief of the military actually support the troops. Let them demand that he ensure they receive proper medical care care. We should all demand he do this. He was the one who ordered them into this insane war in the first place. He's the one who created their problems. It's up to him to ensure that they get fixed.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

'Board gone wild'

One of my pet peeves is when people who are the subject of media scrunity refuse to talk to the press and then subsequently whine about 'biased' coverage.

Take an article a piece in yesterday's Glens Falls Post-Star on the chaos in the South Glens Falls (SGF) school district's athletic department.

Last year, a school board member forced out boys' varsity soccer coach Paul Snyder. Snyder was well-liked by his players and well-respected by the parents and within the local soccer community in general. He had started to clean up a program that was notorious for dirty tactics at all levels. The SGF parents remained obnoxious but at least the players were cleaning up their act a little. I've coached against Snyder in a few non-scholastic competitions and he's one of those coaches that just exudes class.

He was essentially fired and without explanation. He was replaced by his predecessor. The board replaced a well-respected coach with a guy who'd presided over the out-of-control program that Snyder cleaned up. A guy who was closely aligned to the board's most controversial member.

I know the board member in question. He is a goon and a bully. He tried to pick a fight with me, my friend and my friend's wife once over a relatively obscure issue. He was banned from local youth soccer because he grabbed a player by the collar and threw him against a wall. This is the man who SGF voters saw fit to elect to a school board (a travesty in which the disgrace beat a very honorable and respectable opponent who has a long history of working with young people without physically assaulting them). I suppose the voters deserve what they get. But do the kids?

This year, having already trashed the boys' soccer program, the board decided to ruin the GIRLS' soccer program. They forced out its coach Peter Wirfel, who was also well-liked by his players and well-respected by the parents and within the local soccer community. I know Peter and he's a good guy. He ran a solid, competitive program at SGF. His teams were disciplined and well-behaved, which can't be said for all the school's athletic teams. Maybe decency is a badge of shame in SGF athletics.

But the afforementioned board member had a grudge against Wirfel. When the board member in question was banned from local youth soccer, Wirfel was the president of the club in question.

The board member was widely seen as being behind Wirfel's ouster. One local women's coach emailed the board member in question encouraging him to re-appoint Wirfel. In an email of which I have obtained a copy, the board member apparently responded that Wirfel engaged in actions which "continue to put our children's safety and the district in potential jeopardy."

Reading a man banned from youth soccer for assaulting a teenager pontificating about 'our children's safety' made me want to vomit.

The email also betrays some of the board member's vendetta against Wirfel.

"It doesn't matter what the rules are, he continues to do what he wants."

... while only making reference to a single minor incident that could surely be easily fixed with a warning.

"How can one person that knows the policies, since he was a past BOE [board of education] Member and has not turned in his policy manual..."

... without explaining how Wirfel's alleged failure to turn in policy manual has the least bit to do with the issue of him coaching the girls' varsity soccer team.

One critic of the mess described the process as 'Board gone wild.'

Anyways, back to the whining part.

The board member in question lectured the letter writer, "Sometimes not having all of the facts can be extremely misleading and enter into something blindly. There are always two sides to every story."

However, the board member in question refused to explain either to the letter writer, to the media or at the board meeting what all the facts were.

The Post-Star reported that another board member, Jacqueline Bashant, opened a recent meeting by alleging that some board members are blackmailing the superintendent and "bullying" others. She said she would seek legal counsel as early as today [Feb. 21] to prove these claims.

Current board president Virginia Philo, after the meeting, declined to answer questions surrounding Bashant's allegations and her son's appointment, citing personnel issues and saying The Post-Star "is only interested in one side of the story."

How hypocritical can she be? She refuses to comment to the newspaper and then whines like a snivelling little child that the paper won't print her side of the story. Yes Virginia, there really is a newspaper. But it can't print your side of the story IF YOU REFUSE TO GIVE IT TO THEM!

Oh by the way, Philo's son originally applied for the position along with Wirfel. At this week's meeting, after Wirfel resigned in rightful disgust, the board made a motion to appoint Philo's son.

Must be nice to have friends (or moms) in high places. It's just too bad hard-working decent coaches have to be sacrificed in the process.

"Please hold until our customer service representatives come back from vacation"

Is there any company more contemptuous of its customers than National Grid, upstate New York's main power company?

Most big companies make you wait a bit as you spend a few minutes navigating through some sort of byzantine voice mail system in order to talk to [insert dramatic music] an actual human being. Even shortcuts, like pressing zero at any time or pretend you have a rotary phone, have been re-designed so you don't immediately get [insert dramatic music] an actual human being.

National Grid isn't the only company that wastes my time this way, they just waste more of it. Waits of 10 to 15 minutes before I get [insert dramatic music] an actual human being at National Grid are not uncommon. Once, I only had to wait 6 minutes and I was shocked!

It's bad enough that National Grid make you wait forever when you call them. But they even have the unmitigated gall to put you on hold WHEN THEY CALL YOU!

They called me today. I picked it up and an automated voice said "Please hold the line as we try to connect you to a customer service representative."

I held the line for about 45 seconds and it still told me to keep holding. I hung up the phone. If they want to talk to me, they shouldn't waste my time.

I guess there was no representative available because National Grid doesn't believe in customer service.

Maybe the next time they call, if I get [insert dramatic music] an actual human being, maybe I'll put them on hold for a few minutes.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The crisis in Guinea (guest essay)

This essay is part of a (more or less) weekly feature on this blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel, Iraq, North Korea and Iran.

A guest essay written by Chris Kirchgasler, who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea from 2004-06. This is re-printed with his permission.

As you know, I served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea, West Africa teaching English in a small town called Tougué. Everyday living was difficult for most Guineans and has only gotten worse in recent months. An example: A 50kg bag of rice, which cost 50,000fg back in July 2004, is today sold at 500,000fg. Meanwhile, a civil servant's salary has stagnated at around 600.000fg/month (much less for teachers and other low-ranking employees), meaning that a month's supply of food often exceeds a civil servant's entire monthly salary. In addition, government salaries are often withheld and delayed for no reason. Many teachers weren't paid for more than 8 months last year.

I left Guinea in June 2006 to the sounds of gunfire in the streets of the capital. The country was then in the midst of a general strike demanding for wage increases. Guineans were telling us at that time that the situation couldn't hold out much longer. At the last minute, however, the government was able to hold off political protests by promising an 10% wage hike to all state employees. Eight months later, it has never delivered on even this meager promise and last month, the issue came to a head when jilted union leaders galvanized to launch an unlimited general strike to absolutely paralyze all activity in the country.

The goal of this new strike was to see that the original promises of wage increases be met, along with with new price controls on basic commodities (rice, kerosene for lamps, and gas for transportation) so that Guineans could continue to work and feed their families. The strike relaunched peacefully on January 10th, but the government made it clear early on that it was unwilling to make concessions. And the strike leaders decided to make the strike political for the first time in recent years, demanding sweeping government reforms, including the creation of a new post to handle executive duties.

Why the government has shown itself unable to meet the strike leaders demands is not hard to understand if you've followed the Guinean economy: The government is bankrupt, the result of decadent and systematic corruption over recent years that earned Guinea a ranking as the second most corrupt country in the world (source: Transparency International study, 2006). Most news agencies have taken to describing the government as "kleptocracy:" Those who own posts of power steal money destined to fund projects and development to buy themselves mansions and Mercedes. In short, the country languishes in poverty and fails to provide basic services, such as electricity and running water, in its capital and major cities (the vast majority of the country has never been electrified and is without running water).

As the government has shown itself unwilling and unable to carry out its basic functions, strike leaders changed their demands in late January, demanding that President Lansana Conté and his entire Congress step down from power. On January 22nd, tens of thousands of ordinary Guineans spontaneously took to the streets, carrying banners such as "We are ready to die for change." President Conté obliged them, ordering the army to open fire on protesters on the crowds. More than 60 people were killed in confrontations across the country on that day.

Conté, for those unfamiliar with him, is a former Guinean military colonel, "a chain-smoking diabetic" (source: Reuters) who has never completed high school and crowned himself General upon assuming power in a bloodless coup after the death of the country's previous president-turned-dictator, Ahmed Sékou Touré. He added the title "President" after a rigged election several years later to appease donor nations. After the bloodbath of the 22nd, Conté offered no apology for his actions, crowing instead that he has "never lost a war." Such a comment shows that he views a popular movements by his own citizens as an act of war and has no compunction about razing his country and killing his own people in order to "win" another.

A few days after the bloodshed of the 22nd, union leaders and the president reached a tentative compromise, through which the president would cede almost all executive power to a Prime Minister chosen from a list of candidates provided by union leaders. Two tense weeks passed with only sporadic violence. Then, last weekend, the president named his new PM, choosing someone not only not on the list of candidates, but whose previous job experience comes from rigging Conté's most recent landslide election victory in 2002. As one of my fellow volunteers still in country wrote, "it's as if Conté himself spit in the face of each and every Guinean."

Upon hearing news of the nomination this weekend, many Guineans, well aware of the risks they were taking, took to the streets again, this time with a view towards destroying the palatial estates of many of those close to Conté who've benefited from his corrupt reign. The army, however, was prepared, and responded to the new wave of protests with tanks and urban assault vehicles. At least 20 people are estimated to have died on Monday, and many more yesterday. The Conté has refused to retract his nomination and instead declared a state of siege in the country for the next two weeks, banning all traffic, pedestrian and vehicular, but for four hours during the day. He has given the army explicit orders to shoot on sight any violators.

All this means, of course, the end of Peace Corps in Guinea (all current volunteers have long since been safely evacuated and are sitting in limbo in Bamako, Mali awaiting word if they can transfer to other countries in West Africa or if they must go home). All other humanitarian agencies are evacuating the country, but as all commercial flights in or out of the country have been suspended, many are still stuck in the capital. The U.S. Embassy yesterday evacuated all its non-essential personnel.

Can one dictator suppress the will of the people? Conté has shown himself determined to see his reign through to the bitter end, while preening his son, "Captain" (a fictitious title) Ousmane Conté, to succeed him upon his death. Conté has also shown his dictatorial reach in withdrawing a million dollars in personal funds to hire 400 mercenaries (former rebels Conté supported in Liberia's recent civil war) to protect him and his possessions and to send his wives and children to France. He even has allowed foreign soldiers from neighboring Guinea-Bissau into the capital last month to help put down the violent protests, when he feared his own soldiers would hesitate shooting at their fellow countrymen.

In recent days, Conté has further tightened his grip on the country. He refuses to receive delegates from neighboring West African states who seek to facilitate peace talks between the government and strike leaders. In the last week, he has shut down all private radio stations after one called for his removal from power. He regularly disrupts service of the state-run telephone company in order to prevent citizens from organizing against him. Two days ago, he handed out promotions to everyone currently enrolled in the army (turning all privates into corporals, all captains into majors, and so on), regardless of merit, as a means of increasing pay and ensuring loyalty within the ranks.

This new found level in carnage and bloodshed in a country I just recently knew as easy-going and peaceful is hard to fathom. When I was a volunteer, Guineans constantly amazed me for their tolerance for living conditions most would find impossible. My friends got by somehow, always peaceful and almost always friendly--with a healthy amount of what-can-you-do complaining, of course. This has changed in less than a year and now I'm hearing from these same people that the deaths of their countrymen in recent days will not be forgotten and that they, too, will fight to bring an end to Conté's reign. I want to emphasize what a remarkable transformation it is to hear this new resolve in the voices and actions of ordinary people. Perhaps it is the natural, though long-overdue reaction, of a people who've been pushed to the brink.

Who will break first? I would optimistically assume the government, but given Conté's delusions (he's quoted as saying Guineans must to accept his rule as "the will of God"), I'm loathe to imagine how far he is willing to go to ensure the succession of his rule passes from father to son, and how many Guineans he's willing to take with him, in order to realize that nightmarish vision, as the country spirals into anarchy. We can only wait and watch.

I'm asking that you please keep Guinea and Guineans in your thoughts over the next few weeks. Even if you know nothing else of country, know this: 10 million people who've suffered under the yoke of oppression for 50 years under French colonization, and then for 50 more under barely disguised dictators, are standing up for what they believe in and doing whatever they can to bring an end to a kleptocracy, risking their lives and those of their families in doing so.

Here are a few English websites for staying up-to-date on what's happening:

from the IRIN News Service

from BBC News

from Reuters

[Editor's note: Friends of Guinea's blog also has extensive coverage]

Feel free to pass this email on to others so that we don't allow another tragedy in our world to unfold without our even being aware.

Take care,

Chris Kirchgasler
Peace Corps Volunteer, Guinea (2004-06)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Save your heart: sleep on the job

Scientists have discovered what every little kid already knows: mid-day naps are good for you.

Research showed that those adults studied who napped at least three times weekly for about half an hour had a 37 percent lower risk of dying from heart attacks or other heart problems than those who did not nap, reported CNN.

Most participants were in their 50s, and the strongest evidence was in working men, according to the study, which appears in Monday's issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

Siestas are generally seen as a manifestation of laziness in the American business culture, however common sense tells us that taking a little break in the middle of the day to recharge your batteries makes you more sharp and efficient the rest of the day. Anyone who feels mentally exhausted and run day at the end of a long, non-stop day knows the effects of not recharging your batteries.

I guess everything you needed to know you really did learn in kindergarten.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Sheldon Silver, enemy of good government

A few years ago, the Brennan Center at New York University law school concluded that New York had the most dysfunctional state legislature in the nation. The recent process by which the legislature appointed one of its own to become the new state comptroller illustrates this.

In November, Alan Hevesi was re-elected to the comptroller position despite having admitted to criminal wrongdoing. He plead guilty to having illegally using a state employee to act as a chauffeur and personal assistant to his wife and resigned from office.

According to a provision in New York's state constitution, if the comptroller post becomes vacant, a replacement is chosen by a joint session of the legislature (the same provision also applies to the attorney general). The constitutional provision was intended to fill a brief part of the four year term in case the comptroller died in office or resigned to seek higher office, not for him resigning before his term even begins.

Constitutionally, the governor has no role in this however the new governor Eliot Spitzer cajoled the two legislative leaders to agree to a commission comprised of former state comptrollers that would propose up to five candidates for the legislature to consider.

The commission offered three qualified candidates, none of which were members of the state Assembly. But Assembly Democrats wanted one of their own to get the job, qualified or not. So they pressured Speaker Sheldon Silver to reneg on the deal. Silver used the pathetic excuse that the commission was supposed to offer EXACTLY five candidates (not up to five, as Spitzer claimed and as was widely reported at the time), so when the body came up with only three, Silver used this as the loophole to get out a deal that his conference was not happy he'd entered in to in the first place.

Senate Democrats, closely allied with Spitzer, pushed for New York City's finance commissioner to be appointed; she was one of the three candidates recommended by the commission. But since Assembly Democrats alone control almost half of the combined legislature, they were able to ram through popular Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli as the state's new chief fiscal officer, even though he has virtually no relevant experience.

was blasted by Gov. Eliot Spitzer. The new chief executive said '"showed a stunning lack of integrity that is deeply troubling" and pointed out that the process only confirmed New Yorkers' worst perceptions about how things are done in corrupt Albany.

Though he is a Democrat, I've long said that Silver embodies everything that is wrong with Albany. What he did is perfectly in keeping with his habits as an old fashioned machine politician that many other places have consigned to the history books. The only difference is that now he's going against a governor who apparently wants to do his job.

People speak vaguely about the ills of Albany but it's important to remember that the legislature is led by people. Silver is one of those people. And while the populist Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno makes no bones about his pork barrel politics, Silver is the real enemy number one of reform in Albany because he hides behind rhetoric and obfuscation to prop up the corrupt status quo. Some on the left give Silver a free pass because he sides with the all powerful public employees' and teachers' unions. But if you support good governance and want to address the problems that are being exacerbated by bad governance, Silver has been a roadblock ever since he took office. No wonder he and Bruno rely on gerrymandering and rigging electoral district lines to preserve their majorities.

When given the chance to follow a fair and rational procedure, Silver had no problem reneging on his publically stated promise and resorted to the old habits of cronyism. If you needed any further evidence that he can't be trusted, this is it!

I did not vote for Eliot Spitzer but he is right to go after the legislative leaders and their ways. It's even more gutsy of him to go after a legislative leader from his own party. But on the other hand, Spitzer must know that if he's serious about his reform agenda, Silver is standing in the way. The status quo doesn't work and New Yorkers don't like it. The comptroller episode represents everything that's wrong with Albany. Back room deals (that are broken). Cronyism. Opacity.

Tom DiNapoli may be a nice guy but the state's chief fiscal officer is too important a position to be given to someone simply because he's Shelly Silver's good buddy and lifelong pal. This is not about the individual chosen to be comptroller. It's about the crooked process by which that individual was chosen. Silver's way is not part of the problem in Albany. It IS the problem. If Assembly Democrats are the least bit serious about making Albany functional, they will replace him as their leader.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Passing the anti-surge resolution would be a slap in the face to the troops

There's been much talk about the Congressional resolutions against the surge to oblivion ordered by The Decision Maker. Some are relieved that Congress is FINALLY debating seriously this war for the first time. Other complain that this non-binding resolution accomplishes nothing at all.

I'd argue that passing this resolution is actually worse than saying nothing at all. Why? Because it would undermine the troops.

Just not in the way you might think.

If passed, Congress will issue a statement saying the surge is a terrible idea, while insisting that they will continue to fund what they just called a terrible idea. If Congress is going to express the opinion that the surge will cost more American lives and can not possibly achieve anything in the absence of political will on the aprt of the Iraqis (which is clearly true), then how can Congressmen and Senators conceivably be complicit in funding what they consider to be suicidal operation?

Instead, Congress is telling the troops this mission is deadly and pointless but "reassuring" the soldiers that legislators will continue to fund it.

Hardly a way to support the troops!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Bush-flavored Kool-Aid no longer selling

While the administration tries to lay the groundwork for some sort military strike against Iran, this piece points out that no one's drinking Bush's Kool-Aid on the issue. Their credibility gap is coming back to haunt them. A recent report by the Pentagon's inspector-general watchdog detailed how the former number three at the department, Douglas Feith, took "inappropriate" actions in pushing al-Qaeda/Saddam links that weren't backed up by intelligence agencies.

Feith defended his actions in presenting the administration with the intelligence it wanted in order to substantiate an unjustified aggression against Iraq as "good government."

Not surprisingly, the self-delusions of the Pentagon's top civilian leadership filtered down to the military commanders. The war's military planners originally envisaged that only 5000 American troops would remain in Iraq by December 2006. There are now 132,000 US GI's in Iraq with another 20,000 on the way.

"Completely unrealistic assumptions about a post-Saddam Iraq permeate these war plans," NSA executive director Thomas Blanton said in a statement posted on the organisation's website.

It's such that even in the unlikely event that Iran does pose some sort of security risk to the United States, no one would believe the warnings coming out of administration officials. Many Americans feel suckered after having believed Bush's fantastical warnings about the non-existent menace posed by Saddam (not just that he allegedly had WMDs but that he'd use them against America). Bush and his cabal have no credibility anymore.

Given how amateurish the pre-war planning and self-delusional the whole premise of the war, it's no surprise this that the main unintended consequence of the Aggression is to massively strengthen Iran's influence in the region. Which is why the administration is laying the foundation for some sort of military action. Almost certainly not a full-scale invasion, but with a completely out of control administration, air strikes or some small land incursions are hardly out of the question.

(Take a look at what Iran looks like now before Bush militarism destroys at least some part of it.)

But given how badly the administration deceived us on Iraq, with the nightmare that is that country and with the bodybags flowing home despite the horrifically worsening situation for Iraqis themselves, surely Americans aren't ready to be fooled again.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Evangelist, genocider have tea

Franklin Graham, the new leader of America's religious royal family, has been in hot water in the past for defaming Islam. However, The Washington Post reported on the Christian evangelist's attempts to reach out to Sudan's dictator Gen. Omar al-Bashir. This absolutely astounded me. Graham decides to reach out not to any of the hundreds of millions of peaceful Muslims in the world but instead to the one who's waging a bloody genocide that's cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Then I read a little more and understood better. Graham praised Bashir for signing a peace agreement with rebels in the south of the country. The south is predominantly Christian and Bashir's civil war there became a cause celebre for conservative Christian groups. Darfur, where Bashir is waging genocide, is a predominantly Muslim region. The campaign against the Darfur genocide is being drive largely (though not exclusively) by secular liberal and progressive groups.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Disney World inside the Blue Line

The Adirondack Park Agency, which vets construction projects in New York's constitutionally protected Adirondack Park, is considering a huge project in Tupper Lake. The Adirondack Club and Resort is the largest development ever considered by the Agency. And it is not without controversy.

The Adirondack Daily Enterprise notes that the project would include a ski center, marina, shooting school, 60-unit inn, 675 single-family and multiple-family residential dwelling units and 24 “great camp” lots.

This is an enormous project. Even though Tupper Lake is one of the most populous towns in the Park, it has only a little more than 6000 residents.

Supporters argue that the resort would revitalize the old logging town. Critics warn that the gargantuan project would fundamentally ruin the intimate and rural nature of town. They also have environmental concerns and worries about whether the infrastructure could handle such an relatively massive influx of people.

The APA staff reported: "Questions remain over financing of the project. The applicant plans to apply for bonds through the Franklin County Industrial Development Agency for $45 million for wastewater, water, roads and electric infrastructure. Furthermore, the developer will ask for a payment in lieu of taxes arrangement from the town, county and local school district to help repay the bonds over at least 20 years.

The resort project could potentially affect natural resources including surrounding lakes, and discharge from treated wastewater could potentially affect surrounding drinking water quality"

It added: "Public safety questions remain; the design calls for a number of dead-end roads which, if blocked, would have no alternative exits. Water for the eastern portion of the subdivision would be fed by pumps that might be inadequate to feed hydrants in the event of a large fire, the staff noted. The proposed Orvis-brand shooting school, in the words of the agency staff, “will produce day-long and week-long noise from shooting which will be intrusive and incompatible with nearby rural residential uses and open space recreational uses."

It also raised concerns about the resort's affect on local affordable housing.

North Country Public Radio has a profile of Michael Foxman, the Pennsylvania lawyer and developer who's behind the behemoth resort.

The public broadcaster also reported on the APA hearings on the resort and on the agency's decision to order further hearings which might include a sweeping review of the gigantic project.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Delusional Down Under

Australian Prime Minister John Howard and his party have launched a pathetic and desperate attack on Sen. Barack Obama's policy on Iraq which would withdraw US troops from Iraq by early next year.

Howard, a close ally of Pres. Bush, used the same smears that has become so predictable from the right-wing in this country. "That would just encourage those who want to completely destabilise and destroy Iraq to hang on and hope for an Obama victory," Howard said.

"If I were running Al Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and pray as many times as possible for a victory not only for Obama but also for the Democrats," he added.

We've come to expect these despicable smears from the discredited far right in this country. When you have no credibility left, say the terrorists support your opponents. But now Bush has his buddies Down Under doing his dirty work.

The Australian opposition's foreign affairs spokesman blasted Howard's comments.

"That effectively demeans the alliance between Australia and the United States," he said. "It effectively suggests that it's an alliance between two political parties and not the people of both countries."

Sen. Obama cleverly hit back at the Australian leader.

"I think it's flattering that one of George Bush's allies on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced [my candidacy]," Senator Obama said, while noting that the US has 140,000 troops in Iraq and Australia has 1/100 that number (a mere 1,400).

Obama launched a direct challenge to Bush's chum, "So if he [Howard] is...to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq, otherwise it's just a bunch of empty rhetoric."

But Howard's comments were far from the most fanatically delusional. One of Howard's backbenchers who apparently hasn't gotten his rabies shot called Obama's plan 'fundamentally evil' and said that pulling out of Iraq would herald the greatest disaster since the Rwandan genocide.

With hundreds of thousands of civilians dead and millions in exile as a result of Bush, Tony Blair and Howard's immoral war of aggression, Iraq ALREADY resembles genocidal Rwanda. Except there's one big difference. The massacres in Rwanda quickly slowed after some 100 days. The nightmare in Iraq has been going on four years already and violence is only increasing.

Since John Howard is in the business of offering unsolicited advice to Americans, let me offer some to him: you and your coalition should worry about how to get your sorry selves re-elected instead of volunteering someone else's countrymen to die in the counterproductive carnage that you helped create. If this Iraq monstrosity is so critical, why don't you offer more Australian sacrifical lambs? Being generous with the lives of another country's citizens (or other countries' citizens, if you include Iraqis) is not the kind of ally anyone needs.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Not exactly a ringing endorsement

Sometimes, an article intended to be reassuring ends up provoking more questions than answers. Take this piece in Friday's Post-Star (only available to subscribers). It took a look at the environmental record of Advanced Micro Devices Inc which wants to open a plant in Malta's Luther Forest technology park.

"I'm worried about their environmental record," said Barbara Trypaluk, chairwoman of the Saratoga County Green Party. "Everyone's jumping on the bandwagon for jobs, but what about the Earth? When you hurt the Earth, you hurt people.", the daily reported.

But the paper's headline intended to allay those fears.

AMD's record good on cleanup

Whew, I felt better...

...until I realized that this meant they had made enough messes to develop a record on cleanups.

I would've been more reassured if the paper had found that AMD did have any environmental violations.

The paper added, The contamination at the three AMD sites, which are all in Sunnyvale, Calif., is the result of faulty chemical-holding practices. "It's essentially the same problem at all sites," explained Steve Groseclose, AMD's director of global environmental health and safety. "The groundwater was contaminated by solvents leaking from underground storage tanks."

Ok, I was relieved again...

...until I asked myself why AMD had the exact same problem with chemical-holding practices at three completely different sites!

Their failure to learn from problems at their first two plants in California led to the problem at the third. Why should local residents have any confidence that the same failures won't reoccur in Malta?

If AMD contaminates the groundwater in this area as well, will they buy bottled water for all local residents?

An AMD spokesman insisted that The seeping chemicals, however, didn't come just from AMD, and [he] believes AMD didn't do as much damage as some might think. In Sunnyvale, an area near Silicon Valley, there are all sorts of companies that have also contributed to the problem, he said.

That put me at ease...

...until I remembered that Luther Forest is trying to become a little Silicon Valley. If AMD makes a lot of messes and they're good (by the industry's standard) at cleaning them up, what about the others that will inevitably follow? A good environmental record is not defined by successful remediation. A good environmental record is defined by not doing anything that requires remediation in the first place!

I guess AMD's arrival is a great thing, so long as you don't think too hard about it.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Another look at Chavez

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and the leftist hagiography around him. That said, I think the hysterical right-wing demonization of Chavez is excessive, irrational and probably only serves to bolster the image of the caudillo.

Given that the mainstream US media rarely offers a fair coverage to AMERICAN left-wingers who are far more reasonable than Chavez (think Ralph Nader), I was fairly surprised to see that a shockingly nuanced look at the regime in Caracas ran in none other than The Houston Chronicle.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Heroes in the crossfire

This essay is part of a (more or less) weekly feature on this blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel, Iraq, North Korea and Iran.

I consider humanitarian aid workers to be my ultimate heroes. I can think of no profession that requires so much selflessness combined with raw physical courage. These people could be living comfortable lives in some western country but they voluntarily to go to some of the most hellish places on Earth. This is an even more noble profession to me than that of a soldier particularly because humanitarian aid workers risk their lives without the protection of guns, tanks and flack jackets and their sole purpose is to help people desperately in need.

And as The Globalist notes, it really is a dangerous job. While I consider humanitarian aid workers to be the most heroic of heroes, many combattants see them as just another target. Aid workers were once considered off limits but this is no longer the case.

As The Globalist notes, Between 1997 and 2005, nearly as many aid workers were killed in the line of duty as were international peacekeeping troops.

An astonishing fact. But with civilians of all kinds being increasingly targeted by combattants, there's no reason to think that aid workers would be exempt from this trend.

When international aid workers die in the field, it is more likely to be from intentional violence than from any other cause, including illness and vehicle accidents.
Accidental landmine explosions and situations where aid workers are caught in the crossfire between warring parties represent a very small portion of total major incidents. In the vast majority of cases, the aid workers were deliberately targeted.

Furthermore, although they are certainly attractive targets for simple robbery, in most of the incidents where major violence was used, the perpetrators had political motivations as well.

In the nine years between 1997 and 2005, politically motivated incidents were seen to increase at a rate faster than the “purely criminal” attacks.

Part II of The Globalist's series mentions a point worth noting. While foreign aid workers play an important role in the delivery of services, too often the contributions home country national aid workers is overlooked. The piece notes that the majority of aid worker victims (nearly 80%) are nationals of the country in question and that in the most violent hotspots, the relative risk to national staff appears to be rising significantly year to year, while that of international staff is declining.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Raise taxes so they can be lowered

The Glens Falls (NY) Post-Star reports that the Warren County board of supervisors is considering raising the county sales tax by one percentage point. This would be expected to raise some $13 million a year to offset the property taxes.

Not surprisingly, the local Chamber of Commerce has already come out against even discussing the idea. The chamber's head said businesses would pay a higher sales tax on supplies and equipment -- everything from paper towels to computers to office furniture.
"It increases the cost of doing business," he said.

However, the area's extremely high property taxes also increases the cost of doing business. Increasing the sales tax would spread some of the burden to the area's thousands of tourists who use local services and infrastructure without paying property taxes.

(The Chamber also claimed that tourism would collapse if visitors were subject to a hotel bed tax to help support services and infrastructure they use but that hasn't happened yet either)

Business owners also are concerned the additional tax will encourage local residents to shop in other counties, the paper added.

"It's a further incentive for consumers who buy large items to go south," noted the chamber's head.

However, such claims are hard to take seriously.

If Warren County consumers are going to shop outside the county, most likely they will go to Saratoga County, to the immediate south. Saratoga County has a 7 percent sales taxes. Warren County is contemplating raising their sales tax to 8 percent. Counties to the south of Saratoga already have an 8 percent sales tax; counties to the north of Warren are considering raising it to that level as well.

Someone getting a $700 computer would save a whopping $7 by purchasing it in Saratoga County. Someone buying a $100 pair of sneakers would save a four whole quarters. Even forgetting for a moment the hassle of driving further and trying to find a parking spot, the cost of gas would quickly eat such negilible savings.

Property taxpayers are burdened by an avalanche of state mandates, particularly in the domains of education (which is not part of county taxes) and Medicaid (which is). It's even worse in a city like Glens Falls, which is geographically small and where a lot of land is off the property tax rolls because of all the non-profit organizations (churches, museums, library, parks) located within its borders but from which the whole region benefits. Raising the county sales tax is merely a band-aid to shift a little of the burden away from property owners, although a necessary step in the interim.

Several years ago, New York's high court ruled that the state had shortchanged New York City schools to the tune of $15 billion dollars. Giving all students across the state a comparable education is required by the state board of education but is not possible with the current regressive funding system. True reform must start in Albany. Education and Medicaid are completely subject to state regulations and thus should be entirely funded by state taxes.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming!

This essay is part of a (more or less) weekly feature on this blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel, Iraq, North Korea and Iran.

Many economists expect that within 15 years, China will surpass the United States as the world's leading economy. Complaints about the loss of blue collar US jobs to China were once political dynamite (as the loss of white collar jobs to India has been in the last few years). Now, China is eyeing Africa as a huge untapped market for its cheap goods. The public radio show On Point did an hour long program on burgeoning China-Africa business ties.

To strengthen these links, China's leader Hu Jintao recently embarked upon an African tour. Some Africans welcome Chinese investment while others fear that the flood of new money would perpetuate corruption and bankroll human rights' abusers.

But the concerns are not limited to that. Many fear that Chinese companies would deteriorate conditions for African workers.

In Namibia, for example, Chinese companies are unburdened by minimum wages and labour laws and frequently undercut local construction companies, the BBC noted.

Namibia, in southwestern Africa, is hardly rich but the government is trying to raise living standards for its people. Due to good governance and reasonable labor regulations, Namibia has one of the highest standards of living in Africa and actually ranks in the top half of world countries in per capita income (GDP), higher than China (and most Latin American countries). Many fear that this will be eroded.

Some would argue that Namibia should just eliminate the basic guarantee but minimum wage or not, it's hard to compete with slave labor.

Namibia is not the only country that understands that reasonable labor regulations have a beneficial effect on living conditions. Many American small enterprises are starting to realize that the minimum wage is good for business.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The culture of dependency

It's always struck me as hypocritical that many of the people who normally denounce social programs as creating a 'culture of dependency' among the working poor of this country have no problem creating exactly that same culture in Iraq. If a five year time limit for reliance on US government assistance is enough for American citizens, then why should Iraqis get a better deal?

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Italian disease

All soccer in Italy has been suspended until further notice because the hooliganism that has plagued the game in the country for the last few years resulted in the death of a policeman. In many ways, it's surprising there haven't been more deaths.

There was crowd trouble outside a match between Catania and Palermo, the two biggest clubs in Sicily. There was violence outside the stadium when visiting Palermo supporters could not gain admission until halftime. Police used tear gas to break up the protesters. The tear gas drifted into the stadium and was so heavy that the match had to be suspended for half an hour until it could clear up.

After the match, fans continued to fight running battles with police on the streets outside the stadium and around a hundred people were treated for injuries, while dozens with lesser injuries were taken to local hospitals.

Apparently, the 'fans' in question were heavily armed. A 38 year old policeman was attacked, hit in the face by a blunt object and died of his injuries.

These 'fans' are referred in Italy as ultras and often act like criminal gangs to whom the action on the field is almost irrelevant.

Italian soccer authorities continue to try to bury their head in the sand about this disease. The president of Italy's Professional Football League Clubs Antonio Matarrese was idiotic enough to say, "Deaths unfortunately form part of this huge movement which is football (soccer) and which the forces of order are not always able to control."

Soccer may be a passion but it should not be a fatal one. You should be able to attend a match and support your team (assuming you're a real supporter, not an ultra) without risking your life. Soccer should not be gang warfare.

Fortunately, Italy's government is taking the issue more seriously than soccer authorities. Italian prime minister Romano Prodi denounced Materrese's ostrich-like comments as 'unacceptable.'

Interior Minister Giuliano Amato said that stadia will not re-open to fans until existing safety regulations are finally adhered to. Only nine clubs in the entire country meet those critiera. He said that clubs who do not comply will play their games at empty grounds until they do.

He also said that those guilty of hooliganism will be dealt with more harshly by the courts and demanded that clubs end their close relationship with groups of ultras. This will be strongly resisted by the ultras who wield a power at many clubs far more substantial than their numbers but any serious attempt to clean up the Italian game requires such action.

In the 70s and 80s, hooliganism was a huge problem in English soccer. Racism and violence were epidemic in the stands. It was a dark time for the game in England. The problems culminated with the Heysel Stadium disaster in which 39 fans (Italians ironically) were killed as they were charged by Liverpool fans. English clubs were banned from European competitions for six years. Hooliganism was referred to as 'the English disease.'

The Heysel tragedy (along with the Hillsborough disaster, which was related to overcrowding, not hooliganism) caused a top-to-bottom re-examination of the entire structure and operations of soccer in England. But authorities made a concerted effort to make stadia safer and more pleasant. It cost a lot of money and some complain that the atmosphere inside grounds is much more sterile. But as a result, hooliganism and racism has been all but eradicated from English club soccer. Italian authorities will need to show the same firmness if they want comparable results.

I was saddened by the policeman's slaying. I am disgusted that authorities waited this long to tackle the crisis. I am sorry that the season is on hold. My club, A.S. Roma, was trying to catch Inter Milan for the championship. Both teams were playing great soccer and now the season is in limbo. But authorities had no choice. Humanity and civilization dictate that fans don't get killed at sporting events. Any supporter who doesn't accept this doesn't deserve to attend soccer matches.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Going to the dogs

When a famous person pays a visit a small town, it's not uncommon to see the local media go into a tizzy like giggly little schoolgirls swarming Justin Timberlake's limo. Americans may not have a royal family to gawk at so celebrities serve that purpose instead. But the Glens Falls Post-Star acts like even when a minor celebrity is arrested!

Former Phish frontman Trey Anastasio was recently arrested in Whitehall, NY, near the Vermont border, for driving erratically. He was passing through on his way to New York City. He has since been indicted on the charge felony criminal possession of a controlled substance and lesser charges of driving under the influence of drugs and driving with a suspended license, reported the paper.

I had no problem with Anastasio's original arrest being on the front page. But you'd think eventually it would be relegated to the local section at some point like every other drug arrest.

Other figures have been on the front page recently because of their personal problems, like a local town supervisor and our then-Congressman. But these were elected officials with a responsibility to the public, not an aging guitarist that doesn't even live in the paper's circulation area.

The paper's editorial decisions continue to mystify. The charges against the once-moderately famous singer shared a front page with an article on a dog show and a piece on a change in ownership at a local steakhouse.

You had to turn to page A3 to read an article about an important report on man-made global warming and another about how the top American commander in Iraq contradicted the president's assertions that a 21,500 man troop surge was needed to secure Baghdad.

There's nothing wrong with having local news on the front page of a local paper. But can we be spared the tabloidesque soap opera?

Climate change denialist mercenaries

Some conservatives argue that not only is climate change a fiction, but a conspiracy. Governments and the UN have allegedly co-opted nearly every single climate scientist in the world to betray their understanding of the facts and say that climate change is both real and made worse by human activity. No mention of scientists employed by universities, interestingly enough.

Scientists who attend UN conferences can not be objective, it is argued, because their funding depends on the existence of a perceived crisis. (Private-sector have no such conflict of interest, we're to believe). I suppose by this logic, one could argue that any intelligence coming out of the CIA, say about Iran's nuclear program, is inherently discredited because if there were no perceived national security threats, we wouldn't need a CIA.

But while there's no evidence that university or government scientists are distorting their own information, there is evidence that a think tank funded by ExxonMobil is paying scientists $10,000 each (plus travel expenses) to undermine a international climate change report due to come out today. And there have been long standing accusations that the Bush administration is interfering in scientific research for political reasons.

So to recap: despite government pressure, most scientists still find overwhelming evidence of man-aggravated climate change. The principal exceptions: those handsomely paid by Big Oil.

Clarification: Just because climate change skeptics are in a tiny minority doesn't mean they should be completely ignored. Galileo was once in a tiny minority after all. However, I'd be less dubious if the opposition to the human-aggravated global theory were a little more concrete. Much of the opposition I've read about is based on impressions and general history. I am aware that the Earth goes through natural heating and cooling cycles but I have a hard time believe the world's top climate scientists aren't aware of this and haven't taken this into account. Some insist categorically that the effect of climate is being exaggerrated but don't explain why. When fact/research-based arguments are countered only by impressions, the fact/research-based argument is usually going to be seen as more credible. If the fact/research-based research is systematically discredited by a fact-based dismantling, that's a different question. I don't have any problem with this theory being held up to scrutiny, so long as it's substantative scientific scrutiny, not gut feelings or politicoideological objections. Not all climate change skeptics are mercenaries but I'll have a hard time taking seriously any of them who are paid by ExxonMobil.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Volunteers of America

I am an officer and on the board of directors of two non-profit organizations and a volunteer in a third. Every non-profit board member I talk to complains about the same problem: lack of volunteer help. One of the articles of faith in the non-profit world is that volunteerism is on the wane. This is often linked in many people's minds to the demise of a feeling of community, particularly in the suburbs that house an increasing part of the country's population. The perception is fueled by books on the topic like Bowling Alone.

I've always wondered if this was really true. It's been my suspicion that people are still volunteering but there are a lot more non-profit organizations than there used to be. Take (non-school) organizations for kids. The main ones in most places used to be Little League baseball, Pop Warner football and character-building organizations like the Scouts. But as kids' lives have gotten massively overstructured, there are now soccer, basketball, swim team, karate, reading groups, writing groups, youth theatre... the list goes on and on. Many of these are year round activities. Each of these requires volunteers to run them. And that's just organizations for kids.

This piece in The Christian Science Monitor confirms my suspicions. It reports that in 2005, some 29 percent of Americans served as volunteers. This is the highest figure in 30 years.

While 'conventional wisdom' disparages baby boomers as selfish and teens as apathetic, the piece notes that these two groups, along with seniors, are driving the boom in volunteerism. Older teens now volunteer at nearly the same percentage as the population as a whole.

Some attribute this to the fact that the US hasn't had the welfare state of many Western European countries so people have to pitch in for their neighbors to pick up the slack. They contend that social democracy (usually mislabelled 'socialism') infantalizes people and renders them unmotivated to volunteer. Interestingly, social democratic Sweden's volunteerism rate (28 percent) is nearly the same as America's and social democratic Norway's rate (52 percent) is almost double.

But the United States appears to rank second on the list with a 29 percent volunteer rate so maybe Americans aren't quite as selfish as we appear to outsiders... or to ourselves.