Thursday, December 30, 2010

[Guest essay] Legislators should be paid once for their work, not twice

The Plattsburgh Press-Republican reported that North Country Assemblywomen Teresa Sayward and Janet Duprey will both be "retiring" on December 31 before starting their new terms the following day. This will allow them to collect both a salary and a pension, a controversial tactic commonly referred to as "double dipping." This has particularly galled many people since Sayward and Duprey frequently brag about their 'fiscally conservative' credentials. Although the Syracuse Post-Standard reports that the tactic is not limited to state legislators who claim to support smaller government and less spending. This loophole was recognized as being inappropriate and was closed several years ago by the legislature but Sayward and Duprey were grandfathered in. The pair defended their double dipping in an interview with North Country Public Radio. Post-Star columnist Will Doolittle said that everyone else does it, so why shouldn't pro-smaller government legislators. A local resident disagrees.



Guest essay
by Benjamin Lapham

In a survey (available here) prior to the election this past November, Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward had this to say:

Government is too big, there are too many agencies, authorities, political appointments and benefits are way too rich, Albany needs to lead by example and move to computerize the legislature, make all allocations for the legislature equal as is currently done in congress, and budget for only the basic needs of the state, health, education and welfare, retirement benefits are unsustainable, as a start all politicians should be taken out of the NYS Retirement System and put into a 401K type of benefit, no one should be receiving retirement benefits without paying into the system, realistically the deficit will not be addressed until special interests are taken out of the mix, this can happen if there were term limits on all elected NYS officials, 4 year terms, three terms max.


One might think that because Sayward is concerned about limiting service in the Assembly, that her upcoming retirement on 12/31/2010 is a case where a public official is putting her words into action. And I suppose it is a kind of action, in as much as hypocrisy is an action. Because, you see, she will be beginning her new term on 1/1/2011. This will allow her to collect two checks for one job (see here).

In Sayward’s own words, she defends her decision to “retire” for a few hours and unethically pull down two checks (a retirement check for her 2010 term as well as a check for her 2011 term) as a benefit for her husband. “We were dairy farmers,” Sayward said. “All he has is social security and the little bit we were able to put aside.” “It simply was a decision I made to protect my husband,” she said.

Wouldn’t the ethical thing be to provide better Social Security benefits for everyone? If she thinks it is a concern of dairy farmers, what other dairy farmer benefited by her taking a check for Assembly and also cashing a check for being retired from the exact same job? It is grift, pure and simple. If it were not, why would this “loophole” have been closed in 2005 (see here).

Sayward says, "I've worked hard. I'll have to continue to work, just like anybody among my constituents. Most people, when they retire, still have to work." This is an insult to every person in her district who are paid once for their labor. Teresa Sayward has gone to Albany under the pretense of making New York State a better place to do business, but has proven the only one she is benefitting is the family of Teresa Sayward.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The truth about Wikileaks (for a change)

Twitterers were able to publicize a correction that National Public Radio tried to bury.

The broadcaster's wrote: In recent weeks, NPR hosts, reporters and guests have incorrectly said or implied that WikiLeaks recently has disclosed or released roughly 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. Although the website has vowed to publish "251,287 leaked United States embassy cables," as of Dec. 28, 2010, only 1,942 of the cables had been released.

By all accounts, the correction was the result of a number of listener complaints to NPR's Ombudsman.

And this is why we need Wikileaks and sites like it. Mainstream media outlets in this country, even the best ones, have a truth telling problem. And while NPR deserves some credit for actually running corrections, unlike most broadcasters, it shows how important it is for people to be watching the self-appointed watchdogs and holding them accountable.

The correction also rubbishes one of the many dubious claims of anti-transparency advocates that Wikileaks is "not showing any restraint." The site has published fewer than 0.8% of the cables it was given.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

[Guest essay] Christmas in Afghanistan

Republished here with permission of the author.

by Molly Conner on Tuesday, December 21, 2010 at 10:40pm

As you go to Christmas services this year, please take a minute and remember the servicemen and women who died in Afghanistan this year.

The United States has lost 494 servicemembers this year. The UK has lost 101. Total Coalition Forces casualties are at 702. It is the deadliest year of the war so far. Yet no one in the United States is paying attention. News coverage of the war makes up 4% of media stories, down from 5% in 2009.

Less than 1% of voters polled before the midterm elections this year considered the war in Afghanistan to even be a major issue.

So please, as you celebrate the holiday this year, take a moment to remember those who gave their lives for this country, those who were wounded, those who lost limbs, and those who lost loved ones. I honestly don't care if any of you are for or against the war. Your position doesn't matter. Just please, keep us in mind, remember us, and pay attention when the stories come on the news. Please let the war in Afghanistan take precedence in your mind over Bristol Palin in Dancing With the Stars, or Lindsay Lohan's latest drama in rehab. Please remember us. Have the debate. Ask the hard questions. Decide if it's worth it, and if it is, what more needs to be done, what you can do to help. Visit your local veteran's center, ask what you can do to help. Donate to the wounded warriors project. Or just visit the websites of the units in Afghanistan, and look at the names, pictures, and biographies of the fallen. I link to my own 101st Airborne Division, which has lost over 100 soldiers this year. But they all deserve to be remembered.

I don't believe that all soldiers are heroes. I don't believe that military personnel should be automatically labeled as role models, as too often happens. I don't pretend that hundreds of thousands don't initially enlist for reasons other than patriotism.

However, I do believe, with my whole heart, that when you allow your elected government to send soldiers to fight and die in your name, you owe them the basic human dignity of paying attention, and acknowledging that sacrifice. And yet, nine years into this war, media coverage is down, and the war is a non-issue in the election, while soldiers continue to die at their highest rates yet.

Attention should be paid.

So please, when you celebrate the holiday this year: remember us.



http://www.icasualties.org/

http://www.campbell.army.mil/eaglehonors/Pages/EagleHonorsHome.aspx

http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,840/

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Pentagon takes care of its own

NPR ran a report explain how the Department of Defense's health plan refuses to cover brain-damage therapy for soldiers and veterans.

This sort of thing nauseates me. The Pentagon spends billions shoveling corporate welfare into the troughs of 'defense' contractors like Boeing and Halliburton, but when it comes to taking care of the actual human beings seriously injured while following their orders, all the DOD gives is the middle finger.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Most US medical bankruptcies are by people with health insurance

A blog post on Naked Capitalism cites numbers from publications like Reader’s Digest and The Washington Post which note that the overwhelming majority of Americans driven into debt and bankruptcy due to medical bills have insurance.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Periodic Twitter update

Note: This is a series highlighting selected stories from the Twitter feeds for my blogs Musings of a (Fairly) Young Contrarian and Black Star Journal. The Twitter feed contains not only links to original pieces from my blogs but also links ("re-tweets") to diverse stories from other media outlets. 129 people presently get their updates this way. Those interested are encouraged to subscribe the Twitter feed to get all stories by going to Twitter.com/mofycbsj and clicking 'follow'.



-Poll: [NYS] Voters Say No To Raises, Yes To Taxing Rich (The Journal News)

-EU to sanction Cote d'Ivoire (al-Jazeera)

-How Glenn Beck's Twisted Worldview Goads Disturbed People into Acts of Violence (AlterNet)

-Australian Media's Finest Defend Wikileaks [unlike craven American journalists] (The Wakely Foundation)

-TX GOP Official Opposes Jewish House Speaker: Christians ‘Are The People That Do The Best Jobs’ (Think Progress)

-Indoleaks launched [Indonesian answer to WikiLeaks] (Jakarta Globe)

-Rwandan genocide finds release in photos (NPR)

-Julian Assange, like Daniel Ellsberg and Joe Wilson, Feels the Heat (The Progressive)

-Howie Hawkins says the Green campaign continues (GPNYS)

-Phone Companies' $100 Billion Rip-off -- Where Is That Hidden $6 a Month Going in Our Phone Bills? (Alternet)

-Guinea's [President-elect Alpha] Conde plans truth commission on violence (Reuters)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ike's 'garrison state'

James Ledbetter had a good op-ed in yesterday's New York Times on the 50th anniversary of Pres. Dwight Eisenhower's famous warning against the undue influence of the military-industrial complex.

Even at the early stage in the Cold War, Gen. Eisenhower had noted with dismay the development of "a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions."

The World War II hero was concerned about the military-industrial complex not because he was a pacifist but because he worried about the armed forces' relationship with the larger society and the potentially corrosive influence on public policy.

It is not a stretch to believe that this armaments industry — which profits not only from domestic sales but also from tens of billions of dollars in annual exports — manipulates public policy to perpetuate itself.

But Eisenhower was concerned about more than just the military’s size; he also worried about its relationship to the American economy and society, and that the economy risked becoming a subsidiary of the military.


And that

Eisenhower warned that the influence of the military-industrial complex was “economic, political, even spiritual” and that it was “felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.”

[...]

On this score, Eisenhower may well have seen today’s America as losing the battle against the darker aspects of the military-industrial complex. He was no pacifist, but he was a lifelong opponent of what he called a “garrison state,” in which policy and rights are defined by the shadowy needs of an all-powerful military elite.


Ike's warning is just as relevant today, if not more so, than it was in 1960.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dirty money

This report on WAMC gives new meaning to the phrase 'toxic assets.' The public radio station reports: A new study out from the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition and New York's JustGreen Partnership , has revealed that things we touch everyday: money and cash register receipts, are laden with BPA - a hormone disrupting chemical linked to serious health problems such as cancer, infertility, and early puberty.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

WikiLeaks

Although I've often said "Secrecy is the enemy of democracy," I'd be lying if I said the WikiLeaks' dump of diplomatic cables didn't make me a little uncomfortable. I think the public interest would've been better served by a more targeted leak. Much of the information was more along the lines of high school gossip: juicy but harmless. I think this overload of trivia diminishes the real impact of the more important revelations.

However, the leaks show exactly to what extent the US government is wedded to secrecy. Much of the stuff 'revealed' did not need to classified. Is it really a state secret that Libya's leader likes his hot blonde Ukranian nurse or that Germany's chancellor is uncreative? Transparency should be the default position in a democratic society, with secrecy allowed only when truly necessary and under stringent, demonstrable conditions and okayed by an objective third party. Our national security state has it bass ackwards.

I'd prefer a more restrained WikiLeaks [WL] and a less restrained government, but if only given two choices, I'd rather have radical transparency than radical secrecy.

One thing I am certain about is that the reaction to WL frightens me far more than WikiLeaks' actions. Though none of this surprises Pentagon Papers 'leaker' Daniel Ellsberg, who pointed out that: "EVERY attack now made on WikiLeaks and [its founder] Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time."

Sen. Joe Lieberman, the most insufferably self-righteous man in Washington, bullied Amazon.com into booting WikiLeaks from its servers. If Amazon wants to boot WL, that's its prerogative. But when pompous politicians start pressuring organizations to impose censorship, that's pretty unnerving in a society that claims to be free.

Then there's Rep. Peter King, who opined that WL should be treated as a terrorist organization. In recent years, conservatives have waged war on many things, including language. Violence and the threat of violence is inherent to terrorism. To describe WL as a terrorist organization is to strip the word 'terrorism' of any meaning. To people like King, the war on terrorism includes the war on the unvarnished truth.

That's to say nothing of people like Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who said that if WL didn't do anything illegal, then the law should be changed.

And to say nothing of scum like Bill Kristol and Sarah Palin who called for the assassination of Assange. This terrorist organization needs to be dismantled via... umm... assassination (the non-terroristic kind of course).

The vice-president of PayPal said it froze WL's assets because the State Department unilaterally decreed the organization illegal. This McCarthyistic trashing of the rule of law is a far more dangerous precedent than anything WL did.

Oh by the way, none of the above incidents or suggestions involved in any way a court of law.

WL opponents claim that the organization has blood on its hands, that people have died because of its revelations. When reporters challenged their vitriolic rhetoric against WL, both the State Dept. and the Pentagon admitted that it had no evidence that anyone had actually died because of the leaks. Furthermore, Assange claims that before all three major leaks this year (Afghanistan, Iraq, diplomatic cables), it asked the Pentagon and State Dept. for its assistance in redacting out the names of people who might be at risk. In all three cases, the government refused cooperation... and then later whipped out the 'people will die' card.

For all the huffing and puffing, the fact is that innocent people were dying before WL's revelations. Those deaths were revealed by WL. And they continue to die.

For all the hysterical libel/slander, one fact remains indisputable: WL has not killed a single human being. It's merely revealed the killings of human beings by others.

Opponents are trying to have it both ways. They say the leaks are pointless because so much is frivolous. Then they claim that the leaks are reckless and putting people's lives at risk. Which is it: frivolous or life-threatening?

They are also trying to spin it by saying that the cables reveal that a) America's private diplomacy is remarkably consistent with its public diplomacy and that b) diplomats are doing a great job in a very complicated world. Neat trick.

I haven't looked extensively but the few cables I've looked at have actually redacted the names of "innocent bystanders." Though I suppose this means anyone named XXXXXXX has reason to fear for their life.

The cables have revealed some very important things related to US foreign policy. For example, I think it's important to know that the Saudi king is baiting the US to launch an aggression against Iran. I think it's useful to know that US diplomats privately admitted that the overthrow of Honduras' leftist, democratically-elected president was indeed illegal and unconstitutional, even as they publicly waffled.

Some people are concerned with provided metaphoric 'ammunition' to the bad guys. I’m more concerned about providing REAL ammunition to bad guys... something the cables and other reporting has revealed that our 'allies' in Pakistan and Afghanistan are doing. The cables reveal that Afghan head of state Hamid Karzai, whose government and personal protection would collapse without my tax dollars, is corrupt and in league with drug dealers and terrorist thugs. Ditto the Pakistani 'security' forces, who also receive more than a few of my tax dollars. My money is funding this crap. And thanks to WL, I know that even our diplomats admit this is a sham. I have personal friends who are putting their lives at risk to defend the crooked regime in Kabul. And my outrage and disgust supposed to be directed at Assange? Give me a break!

Despite all the sanctimonious official outrage at WL, what do I hear on the Voice of America's African news program a few days ago? A piece about a WikiLeak cable concerning the political situation in Kenya, another on a cable about Nigeria and a third about cables concerning African leaders. This includes the a bit about how angry the US government is that these cables have been published. That's the same VOA is run and funded by... the US government.

So it’s supposedly illegal for ordinary Americans to share the WikiLeaks cables but ok for a US government mouthpiece to publicize them?

Some argue that WL has been reckless and unrestrained. Yet, according to The New York Times:

Had it chosen to do so, WikiLeaks could have posted on the Web all 251,287 confidential diplomatic cables about six months ago, when the group obtained them. Instead, it shared the cables with traditional news organizations and has coordinated the cables’ release with them. As of Friday, fewer than 1 percent of the cables had been released on the Web by the antisecrecy group, The Times and four European publications combined.

“They’ve actually embraced” the mainstream media, “which they used to treat as a cuss word,” [Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University] said. “I’m watching WikiLeaks grow up. What they’re doing with these diplomatic documents so far is very responsible.”

When the newspapers have redacted cables to protect diplomats’ sources, WikiLeaks has generally been careful to follow suit. Its volunteers now accept that not all government secrets are illegitimate....


What is the ultimate illustration of US government hypocrisy? The fact that some of the WL leaks were published on... the State Department's own website.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Why NYS is in such a bad state

Since early 2008, NYS Gov. David Paterson has been warning about the fiscal challenges and calling for action but has consistently been pooh-poohed and called Chicken Little by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

So naturally, it's Paterson who will be out of office next month and Silver who will be re-elected by his cronies and become the longest serving speaker in state history. Sigh...

Saturday, December 04, 2010

My taxes are too high, now give me more handouts

In the last few days, I’ve read two stories about GlobalFoundries, which is constructing a chip fab plant in Malta with $1,300,000,000 (and counting) in subsidies from the taxpayers.

One article was them whining about New York state taxes and fees.

Another was about how they were allegedly going to create 400 jobs with another almost $16,000,000 in subsidies from already strapped new York state.

And despite getting $1.3 billion in subsidies, they're balking about a claimed $94 million discrprency in their property tax assessment by the town of Malta. Haven't they milked the taxpayers enough?

Maybe a reason taxes and the budget deficit are so high in NYS and is because we’re shoveling so much money toward this sort of corporate welfare. But if some mom on food stamps buys a $3 Red Bull, now THAT’S the real outrage.


Update: As if that sort of bad neighborliness isn't enough, Planet Albany blog reports on serious concerns by local officials about the storage of hazardous chemicals in undisclosed, off-site locations.