Uncategorized

State view of federal debt debate: There will be no happy ending

With the August 2 deadline less than a week away before the federal government reaches its debt limit, state budget officials across the country are preparing for the potential impact on state budgets depending on what Congress and the President agree (or don’t agree) to.

According to at least one state budget director, there will be “no happy endings” for states regardless of what occurs.

Washington’s budget director, Marty Brown, however, is a little more optimistic.

I had a chance to talk with Brown today about the state’s contingency plans depending on what scenario unfolds in D.C. on the debt debate. He said for at least 6-8 weeks after August 2, Washington would be in position to ride out the storm due to the state Treasurer’s cash management strategy of moving away from investing in short term treasuries and into cash holdings. Here are details on a letter Washington’s Treasurer sent the state’s congressional delegation earlier this week about the need for quick resolution of this problem.

The biggest unknown for state officials is how the federal government would prioritize payments if the debt ceiling is reached. While the state could weather reductions in most federal matching funds for the short term, it could not withstand prolonged absence of Medicaid matching funds.

In an ideal world according to Brown, a deal would be reached that raises the debt limit and makes reductions in federal spending except for Medicaid funds.

Brown’s biggest concern about a short-term failure to resolve the debt debate is the impact on the state economy and future revenue forecasts (Washington currently has an ending fund balance of only $163 million or less than 0.5% of spending).

With little traction to date on solving this problem, some in Congress have floated the possibility of providing a framework for the federal government to prioritize which bills it pays if the debt limit is reached.

This has drawn another warning, however, from Standard and Poor’s. According to Reuters:

“Prioritizing debt payments to avoid a default would be ‘deeply disruptive’ to the economy, Standard & Poor’s global head of sovereign ratings said in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday.

David Beers’ warning comes as Republican and Democratic leaders scramble to agree on a plan to raise the U.S. debt ceiling before the Treasury runs out of cash to service its obligations on August 2.

Beers said the Treasury could ‘theoretically’ prioritize debt payments over other government obligations for some time while negotiations continue in Washington.

‘But it’s worth remembering what that would mean — it would mean a very sudden fiscal shock that the longer it lasted would filter powerfully through the system,’ Beers said.

‘Potentially that would be deeply disruptive to the economy.’”

If there is one positive that can come from all this it is perhaps the recognition in D.C. that the way to avoid this problem in the future is to stop approving budgets that require credit card payments. Since the discipline to do so voluntarily has proven to be elusive, one option is to follow the lead of the states that structurally require themselves to balance their budgets.

We may know later his week if Congress agrees. A vote is being discussed in the House to consider a proposed constitutional balanced budget amendment.

Jason Mercier is the director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center. He serves on the Executive Committee of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force and is the private sector chairman of ALEC’s Fiscal Federalism Working Group. He is a contributing editor of the Heartland Institute’s Budget & Tax News, serves on the board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, and was an advisor to the 2002 Washington State Tax Structure Committee. In June 2010, Governor Gregoire appointed Jason as WPC’s representative on her Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Panel. Jason holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Washington State University.

Art House Beat: “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “The Tree” Coming to the Varsity in August

The Man Who Fell to Earth (August 6-11)

Both Mick Jagger and David Bowie’s youthful personae were not only poly-sexual, but trans-species.   Nicholas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is a companion piece to  “Performance,” but without the demonic subtext co-director Donald Cammell gave to the earlier picture. Where Jagger’s Turner was a devil who had lost his demon, Bowie’s Mr. Newton is an angel who has lost his wings.  

Both men have their Mephistophelean double.  Turner has Chas, the gangster who attempted to destroy his feminine side by murdering the  male lover of his boyhood.  Mr. Newton has Nathan Bryce, a scientist who has dodged his destiny by becoming a co-ed seducing professor.  Newton also has Mary Lou, who unknowingly sabotages his mission (to bring water from Earth to his dying planet) by destroying him with alcohol and sex.   Turner channels his bisexuality into a ménage a trios with two girls, one masculine and one feminine. In one scene, it appears that has is making love with Turner, but in he following shot, Turner has transformed into the boyish girl whom Chas fancies.  In “Performance,” Chas and Turner eventually fuse into a single personality. The parallel event in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” occurs between Newton and Mary Lou, in a shot reminiscent of the fusion of Bibi Anderson and Liv Ullman in “Persona.”   

Turner eventually follows a   bullet he fires into Chas’ head and comes out the other side of Chas’ psyche. In contrast, when Newton fires a gun at Mary Lou, he is shooting blanks, and the playful scene that follows restores individual personalities to both characters, and they go their separate ways to a mutual desolation.  Bryce is not completely left out of the picture, as he has a tryst with Mary Lou that keeps him in the sexual web.

In “Performance,” past, present, and future are compressed into a single, flickering moment. Each action is made up of actions taking place in different time modes. In “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” time is linear, but elliptical, as Newton speeds through the years without existing within the years.  He neither feels the passage of time nor is aged by it. As a result, it is difficult to keep pace with the story’s time-line.  With Chas, sexual acts and violent acts exist in the same psychic space, and that space is the domain of infernal creativity from which Turner has been cast out, and to which he manages to return by following the bullet through Chas’ brain. Newton, having been humanized through intercourse with humanity, is unable to regain his paradise.  Both films carry the theme of merging into the economic sphere with the gangsterism of the corporate merger.  Chas murders his boyhood lover, Joey Maddox, because Joey resists the takeover of his company.   Farnsworth, president of Newton’s company, is murdered because he refuses the offers of a merger. Both films are based on this “Merge or Die” ultimatum.   Turner merges with Chas, Newton merges with Mary Lou.   When the devil merges with the human, he regains hell, but when the angel merges with the human, he loses paradise.

 

 The Tree (Varsity Opens Friday, August 12)

 

The thing that keeps “The Tree” from being a first-rate picture is the tree itself. Judy Pascoe was not content to write a novel about a grieving widow and her children. She had to put the spirit of the deceased husband and father into a fig tree, and turn the widow and one of the daughters into human tree-houses.  When the symbols get too heavy to lug across the finish line, the novelist tries to blame the fall of this rural Australian dynasty on the tree roots interfering with the property’s sewerage.  But we all know the reason this house cannot stand is because too many people are pretending the dead patriarch haunts the tree.

Writer/director Julie Bertucceli’s adaptation of Pascoe’s novel is a photographic gem and a narrative embarrassment.    One can get lost in Nigel Bluck’s cinematography and at the same time recoil from the unfolding of the trite tale laden with heavy-handed symbolism.  But then there are the children,  “The Tree” boasts remarkable performances from all of them, with some of its most convincing moments arising from simple, honest reactions of the youngsters to surprising events such as discovering frogs living inside their toilet bowl.  Charlotte Gainsbourg gives an obedient performance, but it is a superficial one, rarely suggesting either the depth  of her grief or the dizziness of her impending joy.

But even when the story slogs through the most obvious of romantic arcs, Bluck’s images of Northeastern Australia prove more than worthwhile to the curious eye.  One can get lost in his series of tightly composed pictures and forget all about the ghost in the tree who talks to his little girl who tenaciously welds herself to its uppermost branches when the villains arrive to cut the head of the family down.

Fact check: Both Boehner and Obama indulged in manipulating the facts

The president and House speaker restated familiar positions in their dueling debt ceiling speeches, but they took their points too far at times or made them without enough context.

  • Obama described raising the debt ceiling as historically “routine.” It is true that every president, with the exception of Truman, has signed such a bill since the 1940s. But this request is the largest in history, even in inflation-adjusted dollars.
  • Boehner claimed Obama is adamantly against “fundamental changes” to entitlement programs. In fact, the president has proposed $650 billion in cuts to the future growth of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

FULL STORY…

Commentary: Impeach Obama

COMMENTARY

 

It’s time to impeach President Obama and urge candidates who stand for peace to run in the upcoming presidential primaries. 

President Obama is no Democrat in the traditional meaning of the word. He has not only failed to tackle the nation’s unemployment woes and retraining needs, as a real Democrat would do, but he’s been a player in the Bankers’ Bailout and he’s indicated his willingness to compromise Social Security and Medicare, two highly successful, humanitarian systems that are a lifeline to the vast majority of the nation’s elderly, sick, and infirm.

Mr. Obama has also failed to lift his hand effectively in behalf of the struggling poor, particularly our Hispanic, African-American and rural poor. Again, as in the time of Franklin Roosevelt, we see one-third of a nation ill-housed, while true unemployment hovers at Depression-era levels, closer to 20 percent than 10 percent and college graduates cannot find jobs.

Yet worse than anything Obama has done or not done domestically are the illegal wars he’s waging across Asia and Africa, several of which he inherited from the preceding criminal in the Oval Office and to which he might have made a speedy end. Quite on his own, however, he has expanded the war in Pakistan and has initiated new wars in Libya, Sudan and Yemen. These wars are being pushed despite a building majority opposition of Americans who are telling Congress and the pollsters they want the return of our troops from distant battlefields and bases.

Mr. Obama has also granted himself kingly powers to destroy human beings on suspicion of wrongdoing, and has sent hundreds of innocent people, children included, to their deaths in the process via drone plane attacks. He continues to operate countless prisons around the world created by his criminal predecessor President George W. Bush, a mass murderer, where human beings have been tortured and murdered, denied due process of law, and where kidnapped men are suffering year after year in gray limbo, and, incredibly, where even children have been tortured and raped. He is keeping Guantanamo open despite his promise to close it and he denies those imprisoned there, as elsewhere, lawyers and fair trials. If he is the best Harvard Law School can produce it should be shut down. A constitutional lawyer who conducts himself this way should be disbarred; a president who conducts himself this way should be impeached and prosecuted.

One tipoff to Mr. Obama’s character has been his cruel punishment of Army intelligence specialist Bradley Manning (pictured at left) for performing a humanitarian service—blowing the whistle on U.S. helicopter pilots in Baghdad who killed defenseless civilians and reporters. You would think that the Pentagon would want to know if any of its soldiers committed war crimes. Instead, it looks the other way. No president in our history ever has gone after whistle-blowers with the vengeance of this man; and only his immediate predecessor has shown so great a proclivity not to prosecute the guilty torturers and murderers among the jailers of the military, CIA, and contract fighters.

The United States has attacked Iraq based on lies so that today an innocent nation lies in ruins, its infrastructure shattered, its electricity in short supply, suffering tragic unemployment levels, reeking from sewerage wastes and radioactivity that is sickening and killing its people, yet who has heard from Mr. Obama about restitution for America’s war crimes, for rehabilitation of Iraq’s people and for rebuilding of its ravaged population centers?

Instead, Iraq’s oil resources are being looted by the occupiers. What’s more, the Iraq War is costing this country thousands of lives in killed and wounded and an estimated $3 trillion in treasure. Yet it has cost the people of Iraq far more, an estimated one million lives, and no American candidate, including the president, is talking about it. That is our national disgrace. Undoubtedly, the ugly and misplaced thirst for vengeance over 9/11 that animates our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan likely will be viewed by future historians as lunacy—particularly as the attacks of that day, like the anthrax attacks that followed a month later, give off the stench of “inside jobs.”

We tolerate President Obama, the war-maker and tyrant, at our peril. He is a menace to America and humankind, the palpable, living symbol of the military-industrial complex run amok. He should be impeached. Viable candidates to replace him need to step forward and stand for election. The Democrats still have a number of capable prospects. And the Green Party is calling for an immediate withdrawal from the Middle East and its candidates should be rewarded accordingly at the polls. President Dwight Eisenhower may not have been the greatest American president but he had the vision to run on a platform that made sense to the electorate: “Peace and Prosperity.” That’s what this country, like the world, urgently needs today. We Americans can never put right the destruction and death we have wrought in recent years. Sadly, we are not even thinking about it. #

Sherwood Ross is a Miami-based journalist who formerly was a columnist for major dailies and wire services and now directs the Anti-War News Service. To comment or contribute to his operation, e-mail him at sherwoodross10@gmail.com. Photo sources: George W. Bush here, Obama here.

Two views on East Africa crisis: Famine is a crime; famine is bad science

As the United Nations and the international community ramps up to airlift food and supplies into East Africa, mostly for starving Somali refugees, two perspectives on this crisis seemed especially interesting to me.

In Foreign Policy, Charles Kenny contends that, in this day and age, allowing a famine to occur is basically a crime against humanity:

For all its horror, starvation is also one of the simpler forms of mortality to prevent — it just takes food.  Drought, poor roads, poverty — all are contributing factors to the risk of famine, but sustenance in the hands of the hungry is a pretty foolproof solution.

As a result, famine deaths in the modern world are almost always the result of deliberate acts on the part of governing authorities. That is why widespread starvation is a crime against humanity and the leaders who abet it should be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

FULL STORY…

What’s a toxic colorless chemical doing in my house and how is it harming Puget Sound?

Over 80,000 synthetic chemicals are used in products from shower curtains and laundry detergent to vinyl flooring and shampoo. It’s well known that toxic chemicals pose a major threat to the health of Puget Sound. But how do they get from products in our homes to water and wildlife?  Martha Baskin looks at some of the mysterious pathways for phthalates (pronounced thalates), a family of chemicals that causes problems with male reproductive development and the survival and reproduction of aquatic organisms.

 

You might call the colorless liquid the uninvited guest. First it shows up unexpectedly in your home. Then when it leaves, it’s not really gone at all because it’s taken up permanent residence in the waters of Puget Sound. Phthalates, a colorless but toxic chemical, are found in hundreds of everyday products, vinyl flooring, food packaging, shampoo, laundry detergent, wall paper and shower curtains.

 

Heather Trim, Toxics Program manager for People For Puget Sound, shows a phthalate-free shower curtain from Ikea. (File photo: Grant M. Haller)

“Because PVC vinyl is by nature a hard plastic, in order to make a shower curtain out of it you need to add a plasticizer and typically what’s used are phthalates,” says Erika Schreder, staff scientist with the Washington Toxics Coalition. She says phthalates can make up to 50% of a shower curtain’s weight. Schreder is co-author of the study, “Down the Drain, How Everyday Products Are Polluting Puget Sound.”

 

Added to plastics in order to make them flexible, phthalates literally go down the drain from households, industry or as runoff from hard surfaces. Eventually they make their way to a sewage treatment plant, but says Schreder, “they’re not completely removed and they end up getting dumped into the Sound.”

The study looked at homes in six geographic areas of Puget Sound and found phthalates in the dust and laundry water in all of them.

 

 Phthalates leach from household products, are absorbed by dust and cling to clothing.

“When we looked at the numbers, we found that it could contribute about 17% of the total load of phthalates to Puget Sound just by this one pathway of dust clinging to our clothes and getting washed down the drain,” Schreder says.

The phthalate called DEHP, widespread in the environment, was measured at levels high enough to exceed standards at 15 sewage treatment plants. Adverse health concerns include problems with human male reproductive development and the survival and reproduction of aquatic organisms.

Phthalates adhere to mud and have been found in 13 federal Superfund sites in Puget Sound.

Even low concentrations of phthalates, says Jim Meador, Aquatic Toxicologist with NOAA Fisheries, can disrupt the metabolism of juvenile fish, inhibiting their growth.

“It’s absolutely critical that they attain a certain size and robustness to be healthy in the environment and avoid predators,” Meador says. “Everything is so finely tuned in critters.”

Meador focuses on salmon. Juveniles often begin life in estuaries such as Puget Sound. “And a lot of our estuaries are contaminated. They’re in industrial areas so they’re there for several weeks and they can accumulate these compounds which can affect them throughout the rest of their life,” Meador says.  Some metabolic disruptors stimulate appetite at the wrong time. “They’re feeding at the wrong time. Everything is inappropriate for what they’ve been evolving for tens of thousands of years to go through this normal cycle of coming out into the ocean, the migration, being in the ocean and then growing to a different size and coming back.”

A huge amount of research has been conducted on many chemicals, says Meador, but very little on phthalates: “It’s kind of one of the orphans that’s been forgotten about and people are starting to say we need more information.”

Meador last week began a new lab experiment to see how young salmon respond to specific doses of di-ethylhexyl phthalate, one of the most common.

“We have concentrations in the environment but we don’t know how bad those are. We’re basically looking for thresholds, the cause effects that we think will affect the population, which is kind of the whole big picture.”

Seventh Generation detergent doesn’t contain a toxic chemical called phthalates but this toy plastic dinosaur and liquid Tide laundry detergent displayed do, according to Washington Toxics Coalition. At laundry time, phthalates go down drains and some eventually reach Puget Sound. (File photo: Grant M. Haller)

 

There are consumer alternatives. See alternativeconsumer.com. PEVA shower curtains are chemical- free. Fragrance-free products of any kind are phthalate-free because phthalates are the chemicals that hold the fragrance. Companies that disclose ingredients in their products, like Seventh Generation, says the Washington Toxic Coalition’s Schreder, are also good bets.

In the US, full disclosure is not a legal requirement. But things may change. Consumer and non-profit pressure and a law in Europe are turning the tide.

 

 

Heather Trim is toxics manager at People for Puget Sound and co-author of the study, “Down the Drain, How Everyday Products are Polluting Puget Sound.” 

“We’d love to have the regulation changed at the state and national level just like they’re doing in Europe,” Trim says. In 2007 a European law called REACH was enacted to regulate the safe use of chemicals. “So this is a big deal because in the US we export a lot of products to Europe and what we’re finding is that there’s, say, a shampoo or a mousse — the same exact brand and name and everything — was being sold with one formulation in the US and a different one in Europe.”

Trim and allies want to see the same law in the US. So far the effort has failed, but there’s been some progress. The Children’s Safe Product Act sets strict standards for phthalates, lead and cadmium in children’s toys. Washington state is phasing out copper in brake pads and in boat paint. And the $50 billion US cosmetics industry, responding to a campaign called safecosmetics.org, has removed dibutyl phthalate from nail polish. But as those working to limit the use of toxic chemicals will tell you, there’s still a long way to go.

Green Acre Radio is brought to you with support from the Human Links Foundation. Engineering by CJ Lazenby. From the studios of Jack Straw Productions and KBCS. Green Acre Radio airs on KBCS at 4:45pm on Thursdays & 7:45 am & 2 pm on Fridays.

Mark Your Calendars:!3{2}Monte Hellman’s “Road to Nowhere” Opens at Grand Illusion August 12

There  is no shortage of movies about making movies.  Plenty of them, from “The Big Knife” to Contempt,”  have been damn good.  But  none of them comes close to “Road to Nowhere,”  a movie that goes outside what most people think a movie is supposed to be. Director Monte Hellman is so far into his own dream that he loses, or pretends to lose, the movie.  “Road to Nowhere” is all about letting go of the reins and being dragged though the crimson pastures by a movie gone loco. 

Take a look at Monte Hellman’s  filmography and you’ll find half a dozen masterpieces throughout a half century of film-making.  His best pictures were so out of step with what his so-called peers were making that he never got a piece of that “golden era” pie that everyone was  saying was so sweet.   1965’s back-to-back westerns “The Shooting” and “Ride in the Whirlwind” weren’t much like westerns at all,  yet their existential dread  fixed the direction of the “new westerns” that would follow.   “Two Lane Blacktop, “ which pitted James Taylor on a cross country drag race against Warren Oates, was about the slowest fast-car movie anyone had ever made, and had the misfortune to be released just four months after the heart-stopping  “Vanishing Point.” Then there is “Cockfighter,” with Oates under a vow to keep his mouth shut until he wins the cockfighter of the year award. So we have a movie in which the protagonist doesn’t speak a word until the end, Not only that, but it was released to drive-in theatres under the lame title “Born to Kill”,  in the same month that saw the release of Sam Peckinpah’s higher-profile but similarly offbeat “Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” also starring Warren Oates.   Then there is “Iguana,” a cautionary fable about a deformed man who crowns himself king of an island and enslaves all those who wash up on his beaches. It was a brilliant film with many fearsome touches but went unseen and unappreciated. Now, twenty-two  years later, Hellman returns to prove that when the light is on his side, he is still a damn good movie director.   

From the beginning, we can’t be sure if we are in the right theatre. A journalist who has sold her article about some mysterious woman named Velma pops a DVD into her computer. A voice tells us Velma is the entrance into the film, but what do we know of any Velma except such a name was once given to a character in a Raymond Chandler novel? We have come to see a Monte Hellman picture, and  the credits tell us  we are watching a film by Mitchell Haven.

When  a director holds a shot longer than seems necessary, it is usually because there is something in that shot that he is giving the audience time to discover. Not so here. Velma, or the actress playing Velma, possibly before she even knew she was playing Velma, or maybe when she actually was Velma, paints and blow dries her fingernails. The length of the shot seems to be determined by the length of the song (“Help Me make It Through the Night”)  that Velma listens to while doing her nails, but the shot doesn’t end with the song.  When the song is over, the sound of the blow dryer fills the space, and the shot doesn’t end until Velma finishes drying her nails, and the following shot depicts Velma  directing  the dryer to her face. The opening sequence, comprised of  these two shots, ends in the silence when the blow dryer is turned off.  So why did we spend so much time watching a girl with her blow dryer?  Because she is the entrance to the dream.

If ninety percent of a director’s job is in the casting, Mitchell Haven comes across as ninety percent of an idiot,  having turned down Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson in favor of a has- been leading man gone to seed and an inexperienced girl. In his own words, he is not the kind of director  to  cast celebrities simply because they will enable his films to make  money.  But his Laurel Graham is such a bad actress that she is liable to cost him the movie.  To emphasis how bad she is, Hellman follows    a screening of  the abysmal dailies with a scene of Graham and Haven watching “The Lady Eve” in a hotel room.   Not only is Graham no match for Barbara Stanwyck, but Haven is certainly no Preston Sturges.  And they both fall into that chasm   standing between  inspiration and capability.

The difference between a dream and a nightmare is that a nightmare has a plot. Dreams are held together by associations so free that the dreamer is always certainly mad.  Haven’s scriptwriter tries to hold the movie together, but Haven has already cut it to ninety pages and the film is still running four hours.  There is no time for narrative coherence.  The actors are losing their lines as the film becomes completely about Velma, and the film crew watches drearily as the shoot goes into the toilet.  Or so it seems.  It is the syndrome Fellini explored in “8 1/2,” in which the director is the only person who knows what the movie is about and the director doesn’t know what the movie is about.  However, if he keeps looking for the movie, at the expense of simply filming the script, the movie has a chance of breaking out of its doldrums and emerging as a real work of art.

Instead, Haven’s picture becomes a dream that trespasses against reality, and ends in a crime scene where the camera-wielding director is ordered by the police to drop his weapon. And what about Hellman’s picture? For one thing, Hellman doesn’t get lost , as does Haven, in Laurel Graham. Instead, he  searches for the lost Laurie Bird, who starred in both “Two Lane Blacktop” and “Cockfighter” before shacking up with Art Garfunkle and committing suicide at the age of 25.  “Road to Nowhere” is dedicated to Laurie, and she is the real key to the film, just as Warren Oates was the spectre that haunted and informed “Iguana.”

How far into his dreams does the filmmaker dare travel in the attempt to resurrect the dead from the ruins of memory? Hellman goes all the way, knowing that art is his only means of bringing the dead back to life.  In the title song, Tom Russell sings, “ Even Lazarus keeps staggering down that eternal road to nowhere.”  And so does Hellman.  His movie is filled with his love for the movies and all the people who make them, from the anguished scriptwriters who despair at seeing their work reach the screen intact to the actors and actresses whose inner light   isn’t always enough to light up the movie screen.

Art cannot be made from stale templates that provide easy access to a mass audience. Hellman has always made genre pictures, but has always subverted the genres and, in so doing, has stretched the possibilities for the genre filmmakers who followed him.   It always takes someone who is willing to sacrifice logic for a higher truth  to break open a genre and share the goods inside it.   “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” would have been impossible without “Ride in the Whirlwind.” “Iguana” would have been impossible without “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.”  And “Road to Nowhere” would have been impossible without “The Big Sleep.”    Where most directors are content to tell a story, the best of them want to break through the story into the dream where it had its inception.   

There is a scene about forty minutes into the picture in which Haven talks with Nathalie Post, the blogger who broke the true-crime story upon which his film is based.  When Post complains that the motives of the criminals don’t make any sense, Haven replies, “If it all made sense, I wouldn’t be interested.”  I am sure this line echoes Hellman’s sentiments exactly. 

 

“Road to Nowhere” screens at the Grand Illusion Cinema Aug 12 -18

Commentary: Balance the budget on the backs of billionaires

The wealthiest nation on earth is not actually obliged to starve our senior citizens.  We don’t need a military 670% more expensive than the next largest one on earth.  We don’t need to fund health insurance corporations instead of healthcare.  And we don’t need tax breaks for billionaires.  In fact, we don’t need billionaires.  That’s the message RootsAction is taking to Congress.

Forbes magazine has been listing the 400 wealthiest Americans every year since 1982. Thirteen billionaires appeared on the original Forbes list. Now all 400 rate billionaire status. These 400, collectively, possess more wealth than the poorer half of America’s population put together.  Sam Pizzigati explains how we got here.

The United States now has a level of inequality that shocks much of the world.  If Washington wants to balance its budget, it should do so on the backs of these 400 people, not the hundreds of millions of us who can’t afford it.  Tax these billionaires into non-billionaires, and Washington’s financial worries — and our economic worries — will be gone for generations to come.  The vast majority of us favor this approach.

Only 1 percent of us are millionaires, with an “m”.  Each billionaire has a thousand times that much money, or more.  Sixty-six percent of senators are millionaires, as are 41 percent of House members, but they aren’t billionaires.  They just work for them.

Last year a list was leaked of attendees of an important rightwing planning conference organized by Koch Industries.  This is an annual meeting at which the servants of plutocracy plot its further entrenchment.  Eleven members of this year’s Forbes 400 were on the list.  These are the hardcore plutocrats.  These are the people who personally take the time to destroy our political system for their own short-term gain — and that of their families if their aristocracy of wealth is allowed to continue.  These 11 people pay a fraction of the rate you pay on your income into Social Security and Medicare.  They have no need for Social Security or Medicare.  And they participate in a political movement that is trying to dismantle those programs.  Meet your masters, fellow Americans.

 

Philip Anschutz

Anschutz has $7.5 billion and got his start in oil and gas.  He remains a board member of the American Petroleum Institute (API) which President George W. Bush’s Energy Secretary credited for Bush’s decision to kill the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.  API’s president and leading members met in secret with Vice President Dick Cheney as an Energy Task Force planning the energy future of the United States and how to get their hands on the oil of Iraq.  API has more recently organized astroturf activism against any efforts to limit climate change. 

In spring 2009, Anschutz bought the rightwing Weekly Standard  from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and the rightwing Washington Examiner, despite reports that these have “little hope of making any money.”

Anschutz has funded Colorado’s 1992 Amendment 2, an anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative, and the Discovery Institute which promotes creationism, among other similar causes. In 2004, the Washington Post reported that he, his companies, and members of his family had given over a half a million dollars to Republican candidates and committees.  In 1987, Anschutz’s family foundation gave Focus on the Family founder James Dobson an award for his “contributions to the American Family.”

Anschutz is not always so generous.  In 2002, Anschutz gave $4.4 million to law schools and charities only when forced to as part of a deal in which New York Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer dropped a case charging Anschutz with making $1.5 billion in “unjust revenue.” 

Anschutz also sold $1 billion in Qwest shares before they tanked, but avoided the charges that stuck to Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio.  In recent months, however, Anschutz lost a case charging him with selling $375 million in oil company shares as part of a tax dodge.  The IRS wants $144 million.  Every little bit helps, right?  But Anschutz is appealing.

Balance the budget on his back!

 

Stephen Bechtel Jr., San Francisco, Calif.

Bechtel has $2.9 billion, and got rich by inheriting his money from his father.  Our top concern should clearly be encouraging that sort of initiative!

The Bechtel Corporation, now run by Stephen Jr.’s son, is one of the top recipients of funds from Washington and from state governments.  Bechtel has contracts at most U.S. nuclear weapons facilities.

Bechtel Corp. is also a leading violator of laws and regulations, including violations of nuclear safety regulations, water quality laws, radioactive waste policies, and asbestos emissions laws, not to mention having dug the Big Dig tunnel in Boston with such criminal incompetence that it collapsed.

Bechtel Corp. spends hundreds of thousands each year on lobbyists and hundreds of thousands more on funding political candidates’ campaigns.  George Schultz, former Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State, and former Bechtel president and director, lobbied as a Bechtel board member in support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

By sheer coincidence, Bechtel got the very first Iraq “reconstruction” contract for $680 million.  Bechtel’s performance was so scandalously bad that it had contracts in Iraq canceled and was early to pull out of Iraq entirely. 

Yet Stephen Bechtel, Jr., is still rolling around in mountains of your hard-earned dollars.

Balance the budget on his back!

 

Joseph Craft, Tulsa, Okla.

Craft has $1.9 billion and made it by helping a coal corporation, MAPCO, later renamed Alliance Resource Partners (ARP), pay lower taxes.  As CEO of this coal company, Craft advocates for coal as the solution to our energy needs.  ARP claims that coal is cheap, but of course that’s because the cost of the environmental and health and climate damage gets passed on to us.

ARP also believes that coal is in our best interests whether we like it or not.  When townships in Pennsylvania have banned mining, ARP has taken the towns to court. 

Following hundreds of citations for safety violations in 2010, the company’s Dotiki Mine in Kentucky collapsed, killing two miners.

According to Source Watch, Alliance Coal employees were among the biggest campaign donors in Kentucky’s recent state primary election.

Is this man making the world a better place?  Can we afford to have him sitting on $1.9 billion?

Balance the budget on his back!

 

Richard De Vos, Ada, Mich.

DeVos has $4.2 billion, which he made from Amway, a company that later became part of Alticor, and which is now run by his son.  Another of his sons was a Republican candidate for governor of Michigan in 2006.

Amway may be a legitimate way to make obscene amounts of money, but last year Amway agreed to pay $56 million to settle a class action suit alleging fraud, racketeering, and operating a pyramid scheme.

DeVos and Amway have been big funders of Republican campaigns for decades.  Amway and its sales force chipped in half the money that elected Amway distributor Sue Myrick of North Carolina to Congress in 1994.

In 1996, Amway tried to give $1.3 million to the funding of Republican infomercials but was forced to refrain by public uproar over campaign financing.

In 1997, a Republican Congress slipped a last-minute provision into a bill to give Amway a $19 million tax break.

During the 2004 elections, DeVos gave $2 million and Amway a total of $4 million to the Project for America Voter Fund, which spent almost $29 million supporting George W. Bush’s “reelection,” having found a way around campaign finance restrictions.

Balance the budget on his back!

 

Ken Griffin, Chicago, Ill.

Griffin has $2.3 billion and gets a special tax break for being a hedge fund manager, also known as a bankster.  He doesn’t produce anything other than money.

Before the collapse, Griffin praised shady practices that helped cause it:

“The market for credit derivatives has effectively created a huge new pool of risk-taking capital for our debt markets. By unbundling and trading credit risk without having to transfer the underlying asset, this market has introduced an entirely new and vital way of spreading risk. Credit derivatives, to use one example, let banks transfer risk from their portfolios, allowing them to create new loans.” — from a 2005 presentation to Goldman Sachs.

Griffin spreads what to you and I would seem like a lot of money around our electoral system, funding Republicans and Democrats alike, inlcuding Barack Obama – the current world record holder in money received from Wall Street.

Balance the budget on his back!

 

 

Diane Hendricks, Afton, Wis.

Hendricks is hoarding $2.2 billion.  She is the only woman on our list of 11 leading plutocrats.

Hendricks and her husband were business partners from 1982 until his death in 2007.  She then took over ABC Supply, which is the nation’s largest roofing, window, and siding wholesaler.

Last year, ABC Supply acquired its top competitor, Bradco Supply Co., a move that’s sure to help competition and benefit consumers.

Hendricks told Forbes in 2010: “We need Washington to stop putting new burdens on businesses. That’s the best way to encourage job creation.”

Burdens?

Balance the budget on her back!

 

 

Stanley Hubbard, St. Paul, Minn.

Hubbard has $1.9 billion.  He inherited his wealth, just like you would have done if you’d been a better capitalist. 

Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc., owns television and radio stations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, and New Mexico.

As restrictions on media ownership are stripped away, corporations like Hubbard’s monopolize more outlets.  As this happens, a handful of Stanley Hubbards acquire the means to rewrite more laws, creating a vicious cycle.

Hubbard gave Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions for Winning the Future (a Gingrich phrase before an Obama one) $100,000.

He funds lots of candidates, most of them Republican, including Michelle Bachmann.

Balance the budget on his back!

 

 

Charles Koch, Wichita, Kan.

Charles Koch has $22 billion, and his brother David another $22 billion, giving them fifth and sixth places in the list of grotesquely wealthy U.S. citizens.  Together they probably do more damage than the four people above them or the 394 people below them on the list.  All eleven billionaires in this collection have attended their annual rightwing retreats.

The Kochs’ father invented a way to turn heavy oil into gasoline.  The Kochs inherited a fortune, as all truly responsible people do.

Koch industries is invested in gas and oil pipelines and refineries, fertilizer, fibers and polymers, and chemicals.  In 2010, Koch Industries was named one of the United States’ top 10 air polluters by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute.

Charles cofounded the Cato Institute.  He is a board member and funder of the Mercatus Center.  He funds the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity.  Koch Industries funds the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Charles Koch has said he’s been pleased by the Tea Party’s accomplishments.  The Kochs have given more than $100 million to rightwing groups since the 1980s. Their political action committee gives more to federal candidates than any other oil-and-gas PAC.

The Kochs also pressure their 50,000 employees to vote the “right” way, sending them letters warning of harm to their families, jobs, and country, if they don’t vote as the Kochs advise.

Balance the budget on his back!

 

David Koch, New York, NY

Like Charles Koch (see his entry), David Koch has $22 billion and got rich by inheriting a fortune.

If anything, David does more damage than Charles.  He founded and chairs the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, is a director of the Cato Institute, and serves as a trustee of the Reason Foundation.  Americans for Prosperity has spent $45 million on rightwing candidates.

David Koch himself was the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1980, running on promises to end Social Security, welfare, minimum wage standards, campaign spending limits, corporate taxation, the EPA, the SEC, and OSHA, among other things.

Here’s a blogger pretending to be David Koch gaining all kinds of access to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker: audio.

Here’s an interview with the real David Koch: video.

Balance the budget on his back!

 

Kenneth Langone, Sands Point, NY

Langone has $1.3 billion.  He doesn’t work for a living, so taxing his income is not a real priority.  He makes money from investments.

Langone co-founded the ChoicePoint data-mining company whose subsidiary DBT Online, under a no-bid contract from Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, gave Florida a list of felons to remove from election rolls in 2000, including 8,000 mostly African-American and Latino names of people who were not actually felons.

Langone also co-founded top Bush contributor Home Depot, which picked up a $48 million tax break in a Bush-Cheney energy bill, and which saw one of its stores used as the setting for a Bush speech on the economy — which may have helped the speech, but certainly not the economy.

Langone chaired the New York Stock Exchange’s compensation committee and was forced to testify when Eliot Spitzer prosecuted Richard Grasso, the former chief of the Stock Exchange who had been given $187 million. Langone also attempted to purchase the New York Stock Exchange, a move that might have given him freer reign.

Balance the budget on his back!

 

Stephen Schwartzman, New York, NY

Schwartzman has $5.9 billion, every cent of it earned by others.  He doesn’t work; he invests.  Schwartzman served as Managing Director of Lehman Brothers.  Then he cofounded and became the CEO of the Blackstone Group. 

The Blackstone Group is partially owned by the American International Group (AIG) and by Kissinger Associates.  The Blackstone Group was Enron’s principle financial advisor for its restructuring.

Schwartzman raised $100,000 for Bush, his former Yale classmate, in 2004.  He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and serves on the JP Morgan Chase National Advisory Board.

Schwartzman gave $100 million to New York Public Library which has now named its main building after him.  Frank Rich commented:

“At the centennial gala, you couldn’t escape the paw print of Stephen Schwarzman, the Blackstone Group billionaire whose library gift had entitled him to blast his name on any stray expanse of marble on the 42nd Street building. Schwarzman is nothing if not a representative 21st-­century titan. His principal monument has been to himself­, namely a notorious over-the-top 60th-birthday party, exquisite in both its bad timing and bad taste, that he threw the year before the crash. (If you’re shelling out a million bucks for an entertainer, is Rod Stewart the best you can do?) He is perhaps most renowned of late for comparing Obama to Hitler because the administration dared propose taxing private-equity firms’ share of client profits at a rate higher than 15 percent. (He later apologized.)”

Balance the budget on his back!


Will Obama ever hold the Republicans accountable?

Will Obama ever hold the Republicans accountable for their reckless and destructive actions? No matter how outrageous their demands, he keeps giving them legitimacy, first resisting, then compromising, then praising the result as bipartisanship. He’s forgotten the basic lesson of negotiation–you don’t hand everything over before you start, particularly to people who have utter contempt for your values and goals. He’s also forgotten the importance of fighting for your principles, so people have a reason to support you.

FULL STORY…

A reading list for following the debt ceiling drama

Congress has until a week from today to raise the debt ceiling, the cap on the amount of money the Treasury can borrow to pay the government’s bills. As the clock keeps ticking, you may still have unanswered questions. How dire could the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling be? What are the possible solutions? Here’s a reading list to help you keep up.

Following the debt ceiling debate in real time:

Slate has an updating infographic that lets you see how much money the Treasury has in its bank account right now. For the latest news and analysis, the Wall Street Journal has a frequently updated live blog. The Economist is also doing daily debt ceiling updates. Some good people to follow for updates on Twitter include CNBC’s @JamesPethokoukis, TIME Magazine’s @MarkHalperin, CBS’s @NorahODonnell, NBC’s @LukeRussert and @KellyO, Slate’s @daveweigel, and the Bipartisan Policy Center (@BPC_Bipartisan).

The basics on the debt ceiling (including where it comes from):

An earlier guide of ours answers basic questions about the debt ceiling, like “What is the debt ceiling, really?” and “Is the debt ceiling necessary?” Poynter has a guide to common misconceptions about the debt ceiling that can help you cut through misleading coverage. It’s important to note, as Poynter does, that raising the debt ceiling doesn’t mean that we’re increasing spending, but that we’re letting the Treasury borrow money to pay for things we’ve already agreed to spend on. Here’s how NPR Correspondent Robert Smith explained the situation to Poynter:

“The way I put it is that Congress has already ordered the pizza. They approved the pepperoni. They called up and had someone deliver it,” Smith said via email. “Now the pizza guy is knocking at the door, and asking to get paid. If you don’t raise the debt ceiling, it’s like saying we didn’t want that pizza in the first place. Maybe he’ll go away if we don’t answer.”

The New York Times has a helpful chart that breaks down which policies have contributed to the national debt over the Bush and Obama administrations. This chart, tweeted James Fallows at the Atlantic, “should accompany every story about the debt ceiling debate.” Talking Points Memo explains that most of the U.S. national debt is actually owed to the United States—it’s money that some government agencies have borrowed from each other. The Guardian’s data blog has a rundown of which foreign countries the United States owes, and how much we owe them.

What might happen if the debt limit isn’t raised:

Basically, anyone and anything that relies on federal government funds may not get paid, including members of the U.S. military and military contractors and people receiving Social Security checks. The New York Times has a story detailing what may happen to state governments if the debt ceiling doesn’t get extended. Bloomberg has an interactive that lets you take on the role of the Treasury trying to decide which of its bills to pay.

The U.S. credit rating might get downgraded, which could raise the cost of borrowing and cause panic in financial markets and dumping of U.S. bonds. The IMF said today that a downgrade could be “extremely damaging” to the world economy. Forbes has a piece weighing the pros and cons of a credit rating downgrade and whether or not it’s inevitable.

What, and who, is holding up the deal:

Much of the debate has centered on other things that should go along with raising the debt ceiling, like repeal of health care law (here’s an earlier post we did on that). This New York Times chart lays out the major obstacles to working out a debt ceiling deal. At the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew has an insightful summary of the failures of the negotiations so far.

Possible solutions:

As of last week, there were eight possible deals on the table, all of which the New York Times’ Caucus blog detailed in a cheat sheet. After debt ceiling negotiations temporarily broke off on Friday, congressional party leaders began drafting two new plans. Bloomberg has the details of those plans here. Bill Clinton also raised the possibility that Obama could raise the debt ceiling without congressional approval, using a provision in the 14th Amendment. The New York Times explains how Clinton’s recommendation would work. In the event that a deal isn’t reached, CNBC’s John Carney suggests that the Federal Reserve might be able to keep the Treasury afloat by selling its Treasury securities. At The New Yorker, James Surowiecki argues that it would be best to just get rid of the debt ceiling altogether.