Saturday, February 08, 2003

I'm Crazy...Aren't I?
I'm the world's least conspiracy-minded person. It was one guy in Dallas. Elvis left the planet the usual way. Small planes do crash in bad weather. I really don't want to believe. But after spending time with the new Patriot Act and the budget, I keep hearing these little voices in my head. And they won't shut up.

They point out that, for the politico-religious fundamentalists currently in control of the Republican party, the government of the United States is an evil to be destroyed, or, in a memorable phrase, made small enough so it can be drowned in a bathtub. The rest of us have always assumed that to be an over-the-top bit of rhetoric. But what if it isn't? What if these people have co-opted the machinery of state to do exactly what they say?

For these people the Bill of Rights is an impediment. The theocracy they envision is the direct antithesis of what it represents. What better way to dismantle it than to erode its provisions under the guise of protecting us from a real threat?

For these people a strong federal government solvent enough to provide good basic services to all citizens would be a disaster. They know that in order to succeed in overthrowing democracy they would need not only their hardcore shock troops but the acquiescence of a sizable chunk of the mainstream voting population. And it seems to me that it would be very hard to radicalize people who are healthy, well-fed, and unafraid of the future. What better way to destabilize the government than by making sure it is bankrupt?

All right, call me crazy.


Thursday, February 06, 2003

Poor Little Monster
I caught just a few glimpses of Michael Jackson's interview tonight. I feel so desesperately sorry for him. He's the Frankenstein monster for our age, created not by scientific hubris but by the mad headlong pursuit of superstardom. I wonder how his life would have turned out if, instead of forcing him to become the boy wonder of pop music and the cash machine for the Jackson family, his parents would have opened the back door, said, "hey kid, that's a backyard and this is a puppy; go play".

The world seems fascinated by Jackson's appearance, but, really, what is the difference between him and that woman who is slowly turning herself into a human replica of a Barbie doll? Thirteen year old girls have breast implants, forty year old women inject botox into their foreheads, men graft hair on their balding heads and have penile implants. Our culture is obsessed with youth and physical perfection; witness the parade of teen idols of both sexes who become all the rage for a while and then disappear as soon as adulthood sets in. I remember the time when female gymnasts were actually women, not bulimic little girls, and women of a certain age were sexy (where have you gone, Mrs. Robinson?). Now everyone is determined to hold time and the world at bay, and remain forever twenty-three, as if death were only an option. The only difference between Michael and the rest of us is that he can indulge his obssession.

The saddest thing about Jackson is that he's forever a needy child. Healthy adulthood is reached by going through a process calld "growing up". Michael's process was shortcircuited. He's forever searching for the idyllic time when boys are 12 and everything is right with the world. Most of us face the fact that never-never land was never real; some of the best children's literature portrays that shocking moment when a child comes to grip with the imperfections of the adult world. Those of us lucky enough or tough enough to survive the shock and become functional adults still carry, somewhere in a corner of our hearts, our own image of the idyllic time, like a charm against the pain of living. But it is gone, and, in our more sober and wise moments, we realize that we are the better for its absence.

Unfortunately, Michael Jackson doesn't know how to grow up. When he tries to be an adult, all he can produce is a child's warped imitation. He is most being himself when he is a child, recreating the idyllic time in his Never-Never Land. Somewhere inside he knows that something is not right, but he doesn't know how to fix it. He needs adults to guide him out, but all the adults around him, like the vile man who conducted the interview, seem only interested in basking in the reflected glory of the sacred monster.

Poor little boy.

Oh Goody, I Can't Wait
Australians issued anti-terror packs.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

A Matter of Trust
I just finished reading through the transcript of the Powell speech. Having heard the Secretary speak before, I can believe it made for great theater. Having said that...

I don't think it's going to change anyone's mind. Those who oppose the war will continue to oppose it, pointing to reports that cast doubt on the substance of the Secretary's allegations of complicity between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda (here). Those who support it will point to Powell's speech and shout "eureka!" to the four corners of the universe...or at least the blogosphere.

For me, it's a question of trust.

I lost confidence in this administration's interest in catching the bastards who blew up the World Trade Center the day the President's spokesman said: Well, I think at the beginning, right after September 11th, Osama bin Laden, in the minds of most American people, was an important symbol, that Osama bin Laden was the head of the organization that carried out the attack on September 11th. I think as the months have come and gone since then, the American people have recognized that this is a bigger war than about any one person, which is what the President had been saying all along. And I think as time has gone on, people have come to see that increasingly for themselves. My misgivings grew as the administration seemed to nominate some of the worst possible people to head the investigation (Henry Kissinger?!), and, once the membership was established, starved it of funds (check out P.L.A. for a discussion of the costs of investigations in the past few years).

Suddenly, it was all about Saddam Hussein. Even as evidence against Saudia Arabia and Pakistan surfaced, it was still about Saddam Hussein.

Even if we agreed that all the allegations in Powell's report about a link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein are true, we are still left with a situation in which two of our allies have been clearly linked to terrorism, and we have done nothing about it as we gallop down the road to Baghdad.

I am not going to dispute that Saddam Hussein is six kinds of a bastard to his own people, or that he is in violation of Resolution 1441. I am saying, however, that if the administration's goal is to destroy anti-American terrorist networks and make Americans citizens safer, their actions do not seem to lead logically to that result. And, if I cannot trust their actions, can I trust their reports?

What In Heck Is Going On Here?
Just a few days before Secretary of State Powell is scheduled to speak to the UN and offer proof of Saddam's complicity with Al-Qaeda, the British Secret Service leaks a report saying they can find no current links (thanks to Lisa at Ruminate This).

Either Tony Blair can't keep his crew under control or he's trying to tell us something...

Monday, February 03, 2003

The Corporate Welfare State At Its Best
Yesterday I finished my post about NASA with a snarky remark about the Farm Bill, linking it to a BusinessWeek story I had seen by chance. After rereading the story, though, I decided to take my own advice and take a closer look at the Farm Bill. Most of the report below will be composed of quotes from different documents, websites, and newspaper stories. I don't think I need to add anything, except to say that this is not a partisan issue. Both Republicans and Democrats have participated in this boondoggle.

From the Heritage Foundation: Legislators promoting subsidies take advantage of the popular misconception that farm subsidies exist to stabilize the income of poor family farmers who are at the mercy of unpredictable weather and crop prices...Eligibility for farm subsidies is determined not by income or poverty but by the crop that is grown. Growers of corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, and rice receive more than 90 percent of all farm subsidies, while growers of most of the 400 other domestic crops are completely shut out...the amounts of subsidies increase as a farmer plants more crops...thus, large farms and agribusinesses--which not only hve the most acres of land, but also, because of their economies of scale, happen to be the nations's most profitable farms--receive the largest subsidies. Meanwhile, family farmers with few acres receive little or nothing in subsidies. In other words, far from serving as a safety net for poor farmers, farm subsidies comprise America's largest corporate welfare program.

From BusinessWeek: The farm bill is dreadful economic policy...Three quarters of these subsidy payments will accrue to the biggest and richest 10% of farmers. By design, the subsidy schemes will encourage farmers to increase production when prices fall below specified levels, exactly the wrong response from a market point of view and one what will understandably ignite the wrath of our trading partners by encouraging American exports and depressing global prices.

Also from BusinessWeek:The trouble started just three months after President George W. Bush signed the 10-year, $182 billion farm bill. On Aug.8, Mexican President Vincente Fox went tit for tat by promising to "armor plate" Mexico's farm sector against a flood of cheap U.S. imports... Don't blame Mexico, though, when American farmers suddenly face stiffer barriers abroad. The big crop production subsidies in the US farm bill will certainly invite similar retaliation from trading partners. Even worse, Washington's payouts to politically powerful farmers and big agribusiness threaten to derail the Administration's ambitious plans to extend NAFTA throughout the Western Hemisphere and to craft bilateral free trade deals around the globe.

From the Ag Observatory: According to the Department of Agriculture, 47 percent of commodity payments now flow to large commercial operations with average household incomes of $135,000...Sixty percent of American farms get no crop subsidies.

Who Benefits?
From the Agobservatory story cited above: The outcome of the debate [in Congress] is especially important to Arkansas, where the top 10 percent of subsidy recipients--or 4,822 of the total--received more than 73 percent of federal farm subsidies, with average payment of more than $430,000 per recipient...A number of the state's largest farms can be found in the fertile but economically depressed Mississippi Delta region of eastern Arkansas. Tyler Farms is headquartered in Phillips County...a complex partnership involving 39 local investors...organized into 66 separate "corporations", an arrangement that allows the farm to maximize benefits under allowable payment limits and also limits owners' liability...From 1996 through 2001, records show, Tyler Farms received more than $38 million in federal crop subsidies for its bountiful yield of cotton, rice, corn, sorghum, soybeans, and wheat.

From Salt of the Earth: The San Francisco Chronicle, in a story entitled "Rich Get Richer On Subsidies," oulined how stockbroker Charles Schwab, whose net worth is estimated to be $4 billion, received $564,000 in federal price support for his Californian rice farm. "True, Schwab raises rice on his property," the report says, "but his primary reason for ownership is duck and goose hunting".

From Organic Consumers Association: That's how the heirs of billionaire John R. Simplot, a retired tycoon worth $4.7 billion...received $167,000 in aid through the family's Idaho farming empire... In New York's Hudson Valley, former Chase Manhattan Bank chairman David Rockefeller, grandson of famed oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, received $146,000 in subsidies...Agriculture department records show checks sent to at least 20 Fortune 500 companies, including Chevron($100,770), Archer Daniels Midland($17,793), and Caterpillar($59,184)...Montana received $5.4 million for land set aside for the state in its constitution to help pay for public schools...Louisiana was among at least 14 states to get subsidies on crops grown by convicts on prison farms.

From USA Today: Former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers, under increasing fire for the $408 million in personal loans he got from the company, also harvested millions in farm subsidies from U.S. taxpayers. These farms owned in part by Ebbers or linked to him got more than $4 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture aid from at least 1998 through 2001.

How's Your State Doing?
If you want to check how your state is doing, go to The Environmental Working Group Farm Subsidy Database. You can check by county. You can also look at the conveniently compiled tables, such as the "Commodity Certificate Subsidy Recipients," which shows a single company, Riceland Foods, Inc, receiving $220,821,862.98 in subsidies over two years.

In the Meanwhile
Aid to Families with Dependent Children is gone. Food stamp benefits are down. Social Security is teetering. Health care is going to hell in a handbasket.

Ah, yes. The benefits of free trade and unfettered capitalism.

Sunday, February 02, 2003

Why NASA Pays for Itself--Several Times Over
The Columbia tragedy has already brought out the "the-money-would-be-better-spent-here-on-Earth" crowd. These people seem to think that the paltry little amount spent for space exploration in this country (relative to the rest of the budget) somehow takes the food out of babies' mouths and returns nothing to the nation.

For your information, here's a list of products developed from NASA technology: keyboards for disabled people; CAT scans; tracking systems for large fleets of vehicles; home water filters; dustbuster vaccums; an incredible array of tools for every kind of industry; durable coatings for ceramics; advanced instrumentation for aircraft; robotic manipulators to assist in laparoscopic surgery; anti-icing systems for commercial planes; and on and on and on. There's a good website here. Currently NASA and its partners are working on developing non-intrusive breast cancer mammography using something called Charge Coupled Devices which were developed for the Hubble Telescope. This one alone could save the lives of thousands of women within three years.

If you are entepreneurally minded, check the current crop of possibilities at the Technology Opportunities website.

And for those of you who are still concerned about the budget, let me draw your attention to the Farm Bill.

Who Knew?

I'm terza rima, and I talk and smile.
Where others lock their rhymes and thoughts away
I let mine out, and chatter all the while.

I'm rarely on my own - a wasted day
Is any day that's spent without a friend,
With nothing much to do or hear or say.

I like to be with people, and depend
On company for being entertained;
Which seems a good solution, in the end.
What Poetry Form Are You?