Thursday, June 30, 2011

TIME Article on Elizabeth Warren


Elizabethan Drama
By MICHAEL CROWLEY Thursday, June 30, 2011

Here's some good news for consumers who feel themselves trampled by soulless banking and credit giants: on July 21, a new consumer-protection agency will open its doors in Washington, with the mission of making everything from mortgage documents to credit statements fairer and easier to understand and generally giving the little guy more power against the financial corporate juggernauts.

Here's the bad news: it's not clear that President Obama will be able to appoint anyone to run it.

It's an unexpected twist to a larger Obama policy achievement that has been slowly unraveling in recent months. Last July, Obama signed a sweeping bill, passed by the Democratic Congress, that overhauled Washington's regulation of Wall Street banks and other financial-services companies whose greed and risk taking helped wreck the U.S. economy. The idea was to prevent another financial crisis through tighter rules and closer supervision. A year later, Obama is fighting off emboldened Republicans who — backed by Wall Street money and lobbyists — are trying to gut the measure. The battle is raging mostly out of public view, in the realm of regulators and budgetmakers.
(See TIME's cover story: "The New Sheriffs of Wall Street.")

But a more visible showdown is unfolding over what some advocates say is the best feature of the Wall Street reform bill: a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created to safeguard ordinary Americans from confusing, sneaky and downright dishonest tactics by the likes of banks, mortgage lenders and credit-card companies. Obama has hailed the office as "a new consumer watchdog with just one job: looking out for people — not big banks, not lenders, not investment houses ... as they interact with the financial system."

Now the fate of that watchdog is in doubt. At the center of the fight is Elizabeth Warren, a strong-willed Harvard Law professor who has become the most celebrated consumer advocate since Ralph Nader. Warren's supporters — and there are many, especially on the activist left — argue that she's the obvious choice to run the new bureau. In part that's because it's her brainchild: it was Warren who asked in a 2007 essay why consumers were protected from buying appliances with unseen faulty wiring that could burn down their homes but not from hidden terms, fees and risks that could sink their finances. Obama picked up her idea for a consumer-protection bureau and campaigned on it in 2008, even before the financial crisis gave the concept some urgency.
(See "The Elizabeth Warren Test.")

But Obama has yet to appoint Warren to the top job, and Republicans have long made clear that they will oppose Warren's appointment if he does. In May, they upped their ante. In a letter to Obama, 44 Senate Republicans — enough to filibuster any Senate action — declared that they would oppose any nominee to run the bureau unless Obama agreed to changes in its structure and funding. Democrats say those changes would effectively neuter the bureau and hand the financial industry yet another victory over the little guy.

That leaves Obama with three options, none of them appealing. He can muscle Warren into a short-term recess appointment this summer, an act sure to enrage Republicans and prevent Warren from serving a full term. He can officially nominate her, or someone else, and hope a public-relations effort will force the GOP to capitulate. Or he can try to cut a deal to sacrifice Warren but save her agency, which would surely disappoint his already restive liberal supporters. (One progressive group has warned that such a deal would show "complete and utter weakness.") At the moment, no one is sure what he'll do. Including Warren.


Monsanto Under Federal Investigation For Cash Incentives Program

Monsanto Under Federal Investigation For Cash Incentives Program
by Lucia Graves
First Posted: 06/30/11 11:58 AM ET Updated: 06/30/11 02:07 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Global agribusiness giant Monsanto is under federal investigation for using cash incentives to persuade distributors to use Roundup, the world's top-selling weedkiller.

Monsanto announced Wednesday the company would cooperate with the Securities and Exchange Commission's probe of its "customer incentives" programs and a subpoena for documents pertaining to the sale of Monsanto's glyphosate products in fiscal years 2009 and 2010.

The US-based company has allegedly been offering distributors up to $20 per acre to use Roundup, as well as Roundup Ready seeds, which have been genetically modified to resist the glyphosate-based herbicide.

The announcement came as the agricultural biotechnology giant reported a 77 percent jump in net income, an increase attributed mostly to the strength of its core seeds and genetic traits businesses.

"We made significant changes to our business this year, and those changes resonated with our customers," said Hugh Grant, Monsanto's president and chief executive officer, in a statement. "We earned their business and achieved what we set out to achieve: unit volume growth in our core crops, a successful implementation of our agricultural productivity strategy and sustained cost-discipline across our operations. That positions us well for the coming years and the mid-teens earnings growth opportunity we see for this company."

Net income attributable to Monsanto Company for the third quarter, which ended on May 31, rose to $680 million at $1.26 per share, from $384 at 70 cents per share a year earlier.

The agribusiness giant also raised its full-year ongoing earnings guidance to $2.84 to $2.88 per share, from $2.72 to $2.82 per share

Net sales increased 21 percent, to $3.59 billion, up from $2.96 billion in 2010.

When questioned about the SEC's probe on a Wednesday conference call with reporters, Grant declined to comment in detail, but he assured reporters Monsanto was taking the investigation seriously.

“Out of respect for the SEC and their processes, there’s really not a great deal I can say at the moment,” said Grant, according to a report by the Associated Press. "It's focused on (Roundup) and it's focused on our customer incentives and it's focused on the 2009-2010 time frame, and we are - it's early days, but we are, we're just starting document production and we are cooperating to our full ability."

Monsanto is also currently being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for a possible violation of anti-trust laws regarding its dominance of the genetically-engineered seed industry.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Headlamp: FOUND!

   My missing headlamp (see Prepping For The First Backpacking Trip of 2011) was found last night! My wife found it in an old nap sack we had forgotten we had taken with us to Mt. Rainier. I had looked there, but I apparently missed a pocket.

   Of course this comes the day we bought it's replacement.

   Oh well, now we each have one and, to be honest, I'm glad we didn't get a less-expensive replacement because it's a good, versatile lamp.

   We haven't replaced the french press. This last trip we took tea bags and single-serving coffee bags. It creates a little more waste to pack out, but it works for now and we can compost them when we get home.

   We did get the wife new hiking boots and a new pack. Her old boots were cheap to begin with and pretty tired, but we've had a difficult time finding solid, affordable, comfortable boots for her. More or less the same story with the backpack. After the North Fork of the Skokomish trip we agreed to put the debt pay-down on hold for a moment and remedy those two issues. We took advantage of REI's Summer Sale and upgraded or replaced a few other items.

   I can't wait for the next trip!

   Where's my map?...

Trip Report: Backpacking The North Fork of the Skokomish River. June 19-21, 2011

   Sunday, June 19th. The forecast called for a 30% chance of rain until 4pm, so we didn't hurry as we got some coffee, loaded our packs into the car, and stopped for food on our way to the Olympic National Park. Our driving destination was Staricase, an area on the southeast corner of the park. The first year we moved to Washington we did most of our camping at Staircase and Big Creek nearby in the National Forest. (My hike up Mt. Ellinor started from Big Creek.) From there we would don our packs and hike four miles up the North Fork of the Skokomish River Trail to Spike Camp.

   The weather was a bit overcast with highs in the low 60's. This was our first backpacking trip of the year and we were all out of shape after a long winter. My son was not thrilled about the four-mile hike with a pack on his back. I wish we could have worked up to it and done a few warm-up hikes, but the weather has been awful and we've been so busy. The first day is always the hardest.

   At our first stop to take a break and drink some water we realized that my wife's water bottle was gone. Somewhere it had fallen out of the pouch on her pack. Only a minor setback as we carry an extra water bottle to have at camp for cooking, cleaning, etc. We stopped at the next creek crossing to fill up the spare bottle and top off the other two.

   When we arrived at Spike Camp we still had plenty of daylight, so we took our time setting up. Before I had the tent up our son had rebounded from his misery and was bouncing off the trees. We set up the tent, sleeping bags, filtered water, built a fire, had some food and drink, and were almost ready to call it a day before the sun went down. I was able to start the fire without a match using tinder from the area, a small bit of tissue, some magnesium, and a flint.

   I had traded my hiking boots for my new Vibram Five-Finger barefoot shoes as soon as we arrived and they were a welcome change. In fact, the only downside to the barefoot shoes I noted on this trip is that they are not warm on a chilly night. The Tevas aren't warm, either, but it possible to put on a pair of wool socks with the Tevas. Not so much with the barefoot shoes. Still, I think the barefoot shoes will continue to be a part of my warm weather backpacking gear.

    Monday, June 20th. That night, for whatever reason, we all woke up during the night and had a difficult time getting back to sleep. As a result, it was 10am before we got up the next day. After some coffee and a bit of food, we took down camp, packed up, and headed up the trail just before noon. It was mostly cloudy with a high in the low 60's. We filtered some water on our way out since the nearest water source is a little way up the trail. Our plan for today was flexible -- we would hike up to the next camp which is Big Log and at that point decide if we wanted to stay there or continue on to Camp Pleasant.

   This section is where we started to run into some minor obstacles. The trail winds along the side of a reasonably steep hill and there were places where a tree had fallen across the trail and had to be scrambled over. At one point I spotted what we believe to be a ptarmigan appear on the trail ahead and then duck back into the brush. As we approached we were able to spot her again with maybe a half dozen baby chicks following her.

   We got to the spur for Big Log and the sign said Camp Pleasant was only 1.4 miles further. We agreed to press on.

   There were three major creek/river crossings along the way: Madeline Creek, Donahue Creek, and the Skokomish River itself. The Donahue crossing was no problem as there was a log bridge over the water. There was a good-sized, well-built bridge high over the Skokomish River. The Madeline crossing, however, was a different story. There were still signs up indicating a river ford, but it was clear that flooding had seriously altered the terrain at some point. The current river crossing is a large log with a single rail on the downstream side about 20 feet over a pretty respectable water flow. My wife isn't a fan of high ledges. I, on the other hand, will jump off a bridge tied to a bungee cord. I found the crossing a little nerve-wracking; I can only image how my wife felt. It was the highlight of the trip for our son, of course.

   After we crossed the Skokomish River the trail followed pretty close alongside the river. There were a couple minor challenges like loose footing down and back up into post-flooded creek beds and scrambling under small fallen trees. A short distance before Camp Pleasant we rounded a corner to find a fallen tree over the trail -- not a small tree, but one that had been around during the founding of Rome. Seriously, it was probably seven feet in diameter where it covered the trail. It took a little exploration but we found where a handful of previous hikers had made a way over. After helping each other over we were happy to find Camp Pleasant just beyond the huge obstacle.

   Like Spike Camp the night before, we had the place to ourselves. We picked the spot next to the river, took off our packs, and set up camp. My wife took our son down to the river to play. I tried to start the fire using only tinder, magnesium, and the flint and got some smoke, but had to resort back to the tissue for flame. We ate some food, played games, and sat talking around the campfire. At one point my wife stopped, spotting a deer over my shoulder. The buck continued to come closer and we tried to be still and quiet so as not to scare it away. It wandered into the neighboring camp site, grazing along the way and did not seem very concerned with us. We were able to get pretty close and get some pictures before it decided to head up the hill.

   We enjoyed the campfire well after the sun set and then retired to our sleeping bags. We had not seen another person all day. With the sound of the river just outside, we all slept soundly through the night.

   Tuesday, June 21st. The next morning the sky was clear and blue. Our son was up before my wife and I. We had seven miles to hike out plus the drive home today. We didn't hurry, but after breakfast we divvied up the tasks of cleaning up, taking down camp, and getting packed so we could get going. The weather was beautiful and I was happy to have my sun hat. Since this trip was an out-and-back, it was nice to know what to expect. Once we were over the huge tree near Camp Pleasant, we knew the hardest part was over.

   As we approached the dreaded crossing of Madeline Creek, my son spotted a deer on the trail ahead. This deer was being followed by a fawn that still had it's spots. The two darted up the hill and into the trees. Just beyond was the bridge and on the other side was another hiker with his eyes on the hill behind us. "Did you see the deer?", he said, holding up his hands to indicate the size of the little one.

   We took a break on the other side of Madeline Creek and then continued on. We took another break at Spike Camp. We were making better time than expected. Some point beyond Spike Camp four hikers appeared ahead of us. The hikers turned out to be fly fishers who were just looking for a better spot to wet their hooks. They continued to disappear and reappear ahead of us as our pace varied. A wild rabbit came out onto the trail and ran away from the fishermen -- right at us! The little guy got surprisingly close before it finally noticed us and ducked back into the brush. We also spotted some other critter that I thought at first to be a chipmunk darting back and forth across the trail, oblivious to the fishermen and us. It turned out to not be a chipmunk and we're still not sure what it was, but there was a bird nearby squawking loudly at the critter. We suspect the bird may have been protecting it's eggs and the critter was looking for a meal.

   The last two miles were difficult. Again, I wished we had been able to work up to this trip. We never did spot our lost water bottle and there was no one at the ranger station to ask if it had been turned in. After stowing our packs in the car, we drove down to the campground restrooms for a quick clean-up and then headed for home.

   Over the course of the trip I kept notes of things we forgot or needed to acquire/change/upgrade. Being our first trip of the year, the list was disturbingly long and the subsequent trip to REI expensive. On our way back from the Olympic National Park I added one last thing to the list: don't forget a change of clothes to leave in the car for the drive home.

Monday, June 27, 2011

How Obama Can Fix the Housing Market and the Economy

From, By John R. Talbott:

Right now there are millions of residential properties that have been foreclosed on and are held by the banks. In addition there are tens of millions more homes that are underwater, that is the mortgage loan balance is greater than the current market value of the home. Such a large overhang of troubled mortgages and properties prevents the housing market from properly clearing and establishing a true floor to home prices. The uncertainty in the housing market as well as this debt overhang are the prime reasons consumers aren't buying, the economy is stalled and unemployment is stuck at a seemingly permanently high level. Companies are sitting on lots of idle cash, but before they invest it or begin to hire again they have to see consumer demand return for their products and services.

And Obama needs to do something about the economy if he hopes to win reelection in 2012. The big key electoral battleground states are already shaping up as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all of which are suffering from weak economies with high unemployment. Cutting taxes or increasing government spending doesn't seem to make much sense in a country drowning in government deficits and debt, especially given that previous tax cuts and government stimuli didn't seem to help much. The Fed has lowered short term interest rates about as low as they can go and no one seems enthused about the Fed pursuing any additional asset purchases financed with newly printed money as QE1 and QE2 seemed to have done little to help the economy but certainly harmed the value of the dollar. It would probably be prudent to look at ways to lower the deficit and get the debt under control, but it is hard to see how those efforts will do much to help stimulate consumer demand in the short run. What is Obama to do?

Before the invention of mortgage securitizations and CDO's in which mortgages are packaged by banks into securities and sold upstream to investors, mortgages were typically held on the books of the bank that issued them. This made it much easier for banks to negotiate changes in the terms of a troubled mortgage because any bank loss generated by forgiving a portion of the principal or interest on the mortgage loan would be offset by the fact that a successful restructuring of the loan would move the loan off the bank's list of non-performing or delinquent loans.

Securitization has broken this link and led banks to be very slow in offering any debt forgiveness on outstanding troubled loans. The reason is quite simple really. With securitization, one mortgage may be held by hundreds of different investors who are difficult to organize and have no real incentive to get the troubled loan off their books quickly, especially if it means recognizing a loss, much less do something solely to stimulate the general economy. There is an easy solution to this dilemma, but it needs the involvement of government to organize the effort as no single party in the securitization food chain has the proper motivation to get the ball rolling.

Right now, homebuyers with good credit and proper down payments can get thirty-year fixed-rate mortgages for around 4.5%. But this rate is not available to people with troubled mortgages or who are sitting on homes that are underwater and wish to remain in their homes. The government should step in and offer a 3% fixed-rate thirty-year mortgage to any person, regardless of credit worthiness or delinquency history, who is refinancing an existing underwater mortgage or any properly qualified person with good credit buying a foreclosed property from a bank. The new mortgage could be guaranteed by the U.S. Treasury and then packaged and sold upstream so the government's debt load is not increased.

Take a simple example. Imagine Joe and Mary bought their house for $400,000 in 2004 with no money down. Assume that the house today is worth $300,000. No bank would be anxious to refinance this $400,000 loan as the home is clearly worth less than the loan balance and the bank does not want to recognize a loss that may threaten its solvency. In addition, Joe and Mary may have financed their home purchase with an ARM so they may have seen their mortgage interest costs explode from an initial teaser rate of 2% or 3% to say 8% or 10% annually and their income just can't cover this level of interest expense.

Assume the Treasury steps in and offers Joe and Mary a refinancing deal in which they pay only a 3% fixed interest cost on a new, no closing costs $400,000 loan. There is now no risk to the homeowner that this rate may increase in the future. Joe and Mary can stop worrying about making their mortgage payments and go back to focusing on their real jobs which would have to help the overall economy. The plan should limit the refinancing to the currently amortized amount of the original loan and avoid any increases to the original principal amount the bank may have added on to cover penalty fees, delinquency charges, missed interest payments, deferred rate increases, etc.

Think of the benefits of such a deal to everyone involved.

  • The homeowner is given comfort that his rate will be fixed at a low affordable rate and not be subject to any future increases thus decreasing the likelihood of a possible default in the future.
  • The homeowner avoids a default which can damage his or her credit rating and avoids the trauma of possibly having to claim personal bankruptcy.
  • The banks and investors who hold the mortgage get out without taking a capital loss so the financial system is not further compromised. Banks, insurance companies and pension funds who hold this mortgage paper can all breathe easier.
  • The government has no additional annual cost to carrying these mortgages as the 3% interest they receive on the mortgage more than adequately covers their 3% cost of borrowing. There is no increase in the current government deficit as a result of this plan.
  • There is no loan forgiveness for the overaggressive homebuyer. He or she still needs to pay off the full amount of his or her original loan so other homeowners who were more conservative in their borrowing will not feel like this is a unfair giveaway to aggressive homebuyers.
  • Entire neighborhoods should improve as a large number of underwater mortgages are refinanced and many foreclosed properties find new owners.
  • The economy should improve as debt burdens on consumers ease substantially, the housing price decline moderates and the financial sector is strengthened as it finally deals with its bad loan exposure.

Of course, all risk has not been completely eliminated. There is still a risk that Joe and Mary may default on the new loan. This is problematic because the face value of the loan, $400,000, is still greater than the current market value of the home, $300,000. But this risk is minimized because the carrying cost to Joe and Mary has been so reduced and fixed as to make it very desirable for them to want to stay in their home. They aren't going to get this low of rate if they decide to sell the house and move.
You could lower this default risk even further by making the new loan clearly recourse to Joe and Mary's other assets in case of default or by making the new loan an interest only loan. By going the interest only route, the $400,000 repayment becomes a balloon payment due in thirty years further lowering Joe and Mary's carrying costs thus increasing its affordability and reducing the risk of default. Given any reasonable forecast of future inflation, such a repayment amount should be easily covered by the home value at that time in the future. As a matter of fact, in this example, if general inflation averages anything more than 1% a year for the next thirty years the home value catches up to the loan balance.

Qualified homebuyers with good credit who wish to buy foreclosed properties directly from the banks should be offered similar payment terms as this would help clean up the overhang of unsold and foreclosed properties on the market. Also, if Joe and Mary wanted to just get out and sell their home for less than the mortgage balance, the prospective home purchaser could be offered these attractive financing terms so long as he or she met all other credit and down payment requirements. Here, the transactions should occur at the fair market value of the home so the banks would have to recognize some loss, but much less than they otherwise would have without this plan.

This economy is not going to bounce back. We had too big a bubble in too big a sector of our economy to ever bounce back to the high prices, crazy borrowing and wild consumption that existed before the crisis. But if Obama doesn't do something to address the debt problems homeowners and the financial system face, the housing market will lie dormant for years, the economy will crawl along anemically for decades and Obama himself may join the ranks of the unemployed in 2012.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

What They Don't Know About the Deficit


June 11, 2011 – 10:32 a.m.
What They Don't Know About the Deficit
By Fred Barbash, CQ Staff

With Washington tied in knots over the budget deficit, pollsters lately have been trying to get a sense of exactly where voters stand on the issue. What they’re finding would not be terribly helpful to those trying to solve the problem.

That’s because many Americans’ perception of how federal spending is divvied up is just plain wrong. In fact, if their answers about the federal budget were even close to correct, slashing the deficit would be a breeze.

In a recent CNN-Opinion Research survey, 30 percent of the respondents guessed that a fifth or more of the budget goes for foreign humanitarian and development aid. The real figure is closer to six-tenths of 1 percent.

In a Bloomberg survey, 70 percent said cutting foreign aid would make a large dent in the deficit. Fewer than half said the same about cutting Medicare.

About 22 percent of the respondents, when surveyed, thought the Corporation for Public Broadcasting consumes more than a tenth of the budget. The reality is closer to a hundredth of a percent.

And about a quarter of those in the survey believed that more than 10 percent of taxpayer money pays for housing assistance for the poor. The real figure is about 1.2 percent.

At a time when the deficit is driving every debate in Washington, the fiscal intelligence of the citizenry is troubling but not surprising to experts on public opinion. Mostly, pollsters say, people are in a state of confusion on a broad variety of issues.

It isn’t that they don’t care. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of those responding in most surveys see the deficit as a “major problem.” It’s that they don’t know. Not knowing in America is an old habit that should have faded over the years, given Americans’ educational opportunities and access to information, but hasn’t, according to those who study public opinion.

Failed quizzes about the budget only scratch the surface. Research demonstrates fundamental misunderstandings across the spectrum about government, about which level of government does what and which official is accountable for what. Presidents get blamed for local problems, mayors for national problems. Incumbent office holders can even get a boost on voting day if their local team wins a major championship just prior to an election.

This ignorance creates a vacuum that politicians and activists are all too happy to fill — with their own spin.

Multiple versions of reality or wishful thinking distort the debate, particularly on issues such as government spending. “It explains why people say, ‘We don’t like deficits,’ and on the other hand say, ‘Don’t cut anything and don’t raise taxes,’” said Bryan Caplan, a George Mason University scholar and author of an oft-cited book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.”

It explains why many think that “raising taxes on rich people will do it” on the deficit, says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “Some knowledge about wealth might change that attitude.”

The fact that there’s so little understanding of the basic facts means there’s little agreement on what is actually being debated, complicating matters further. “The lack of an agreed-upon playing field makes the deficit debate a disaster,” says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who studies public opinion. “People are talking past each other.”

Confusion is the norm for many Americans, and every month brings another illustration in the form of surveys showing just what Americans don’t know. One of the most jaw-dropping recent results came from a Kaiser Family Foundation survey in which nearly half the respondents could not say whether the Obama administration’s health care law was still law. A quarter thought it had been repealed. Another didn’t know whether it existed or not.

A trove of data just before and after the 2010 midterm election showed serious misunderstandings among voters about virtually every issue they claimed to care about, from the economy to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the economic stimulus bill and the 2008 financial industry bailout.

On the economy, almost two-thirds of voters surveyed in a Bloomberg poll believed incorrectly that the economy hadn’t grown during 2010, when, in fact, it grew all that fiscal year.

In the immediate wake of the 2010 election, fewer than half of Americans, according to a Pew poll, didn’t know exactly how it came out, whether Republicans had won the House, the House and the Senate, or neither.

The more systemic problem, and one that disturbs academics and others who study this phenomenon, is the gap demonstrated by a series of studies of what citizens need to know to hold officials accountable: What level of government is responsible for what; who has control over certain events, and who does not.

This vacuum in understanding, say public opinion experts, lets officials off the hook and also licenses their finger-pointing exercises as they try to shift responsibility elsewhere.

Overwhelmed with Information

It isn’t news that the public is badly informed on public affairs. The dark arts practiced by political consultants are predicated on the idea that some proportion of voters will believe almost anything in part because their knowledge is limited. Thus the standard campaign ad can treat opinion as fact just as voters do in surveys: “Republicans voted to end Medicare” is one example; Democrats passing a “government takeover” of health care is another.

Nor is it a revelation that voters often choose “facts” to suit their opinions. The notion that public broadcasting eats up a sizable chunk of the budget gets life from Republican efforts to eliminate appropriations for National Public Radio. “Conservatives have heard a lot about this on Fox and so are very energized about this issue,” says Kohut.

But civic-minded activists, indeed generations of civics teachers, used to hope that as people became better educated and as news became more accessible, America’s political IQ would improve. That does not appear to have happened.

There’s been no formal measure of public ignorance over time since the 1950s. But Kohut said he did a study in the 1990s showing that young people “knew less about what was going on in the world than they had in the ’60s and ’70s. Since then we’ve gone through a coaxial revolution and a digital revolution of news flows, and the levels of information are the same as they were in the early ’90s.”

Indeed, scholars and surveys suggest that the proliferation of new media outlets — cable television news, the Internet, Twitter and all the rest — have become part of the problem.

“The level of information saturation in the highly advanced economies is not all a good thing,” said Clay Ramsay, research director for the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland. “If you have so many choices” of information, “your sorting problem is increased to the point where you don’t have time for it. You have your kids. You have your marriage. And you have your job. And then you have some time left over for the wider world. If you are constantly trying to thrash your way through extravagant competing claims because no one is helping you filter it out, your ability to see the world gets impaired.”

Studies by Pew and others have shown that people increasingly congregate primarily or exclusively at news sources they know will cater to their existing beliefs. Thus, they are less and less likely to hear information that conflicts with their point of view.

Research by Nyhan and others has confirmed empirically that the speed and ubiquity of new media sources, combined with mastery of the field by partisan activists, has brought the level of misinformation in America to new heights.

Nyhan studied the origin and spread of the claim that the Democratic health care bill included “death panels,” which would determine who would get treated and who would not. In the study, titled “Why the ‘Death Panel’ Myth Wouldn’t Die,” he wrote that as politics has become more polarized, “legislators, pundits and interest groups have waged a vicious communications war against each other, making misleading claims about the other side and its policy agenda. These claims are then rapidly disseminated to the public via both the mainstream media, which often reports misleading rhetoric in a ‘he said, she said’ format, and the growing array of talk radio hosts, cable news shows and websites that cater to the demand for preference-consistent news and (mis)information.”

People tend not to engage on issues, if they do at all, unless and until they feel they have a direct stake and a direct impact on the outcome. “To a certain degree, the public has the policy world and politics on a need-to-know basis,” says Kohut. When people have a need to get interested, he says, they get informed.

Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University who has researched voter ignorance extensively, says the voter who chooses not to know is behaving rationally. Individuals will do a lot of research in advance of decisions they really control, such as whether to buy a new car. But they have miniscule control over who gets elected to the presidency or to Congress, and thus choose not to spend a lot of time prepping in advance of election day. There’s no incentive, Somin says, to become informed just to be a “better voter.”

Congress itself hasn’t done anything to improve voter understanding of the issues, particularly when it involves the complexities of the federal budget.

Political stalemate in Washington means that the annual appropriations process has broken down more often than not in the last decade. Lawmakers use continuing resolutions and omnibus spending bills rather than the more painstaking and deliberative process they designed for themselves to use.

So the civics class notion that the “president proposes and Congress disposes” in federal spending is very far from reality. It’s hard enough for close observers of Congress to understand, much less people watching from afar.

Another distortion comes from the fact that much of the debate over the budget and spending happens around the edges. Two-thirds of all spending is mandatory — meaning interest payments on the debt and entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security — while only a third is spending that can be readily adjusted up or down on a yearly basis. Lawmakers are starting to talk about the need to get Medicare costs under control, but until now much of the noise in budget debates has been over a small slice of the pie. So that small slice takes on outsized importance in the minds of voters. Earmarks are a more minuscule sliver, and they have generated some of the loudest fights.

Another reason the voter may be confused is the sheer complexity of the issues at hand. If Congress decides not to raise the debt ceiling, the perception that the United States is in imminent danger of default might cause a spike in interest rates and do real harm to the economy. On the other hand, no one really knows what would happen, because the government has never before defaulted.

Studying the Ignorant Voter

The study of voter ignorance, which began in the 1940s, has become a modest industry in the academic world. Conservatives over the years associated the “ignorant voter” idea with supposedly elitist and paternalistic liberals. But libertarians such as Caplan and Somin have taken up the subject eagerly.

“Before you study public opinion, you ask why things aren’t better,” says Caplan. “After you study public opinion, you ask why things aren’t worse.”

Somin writes in the draft of his forthcoming book, “Democracy and Political Ignorance,” that the “sheer depth of most individual voters’ ignorance is shocking to many observers not familiar with the research.” He sees public ignorance as “a type of pollution that infects the political system rather than our physical environment.”

Much of the recent research by Somin, Caplan and others does indeed go to the heart of the political system, shedding light on why political professionals do what they do and why it so often works.

Nyhan and Jason Reifler of Georgia State University showed in an ambitious experiment how resistant voters can be to adjusting their version of reality even when presented with the corrective facts. Non-truth sticks, especially when it reinforces an existing bias.

That’s why misleading ads, Nyhan said in an interview, are so popular with consultants — and even more so when such ads create a controversy, which serves to reinforce the falsehood. The consultants’ position “may take a negative hit,” he says, “but they know that once these things are out there, they’re hard to walk back.”

As proof, he says the “death panel” myth persists to this day.

While voter biases reinforce misinformation, voter ignorance is what licenses politicians and their operatives to dish it out. “People who are insiders understand what they can get away with,” says Caplan.

The frailties of homo Americanus are on wider display than they have ever been, thanks to frequency and repetitiveness of polls in recent years. The Pew Research Center’s regular surveys of political knowledge has become a standard index on the subject.

The last one, in March, showed that:

• 43 percent of the public didn’t know the unemployment rate.

• 57 percent didn’t know the name of the Speaker of the House.

• 60 percent didn’t know that most U.S. electricity comes from coal.

• 62 percent didn’t know that Republicans had a majority in the House.

• 71 percent didn’t know that the single program on which the government spends the most money is Medicare., a project based at the University of Maryland, conducted a similar study in December 2010. It found “strong evidence that voters were substantially misinformed on many of the issues prominent in the election campaign,” including the economic stimulus law, the health care overhaul, the state of the economy, climate change, campaign contributions and President Obama’s birthplace.

Voters uniformly misattributed the origins of both the financial and auto bailouts, saying Obama started both, when in fact both began under President George W. Bush.

Only 10 percent of the voters knew that their taxes had gone down in recent years. About 38 percent of them believed they had gone up during Obama’s presidency.

The Larger Problem

More revealing is the accountability gap that researchers documented most recently in an unpublished paper titled, “Systematically Biased Beliefs about Political Influence,” by Caplan, Somin, Eric Cramton of the University of Canterbury and Wayne A. Grove of Lemoyne College in Syracuse.

What we found,” said Grove, an economist, “is that if you look item by item at the budget, the economy, and so on, you see that the public does not distinguish the role of Congress from the role of the president from the role of state and local officials.” As a result, he said, “it’s hard to hold politicians accountable,” and the politicians know it, he added.

In addition to being wrong about who does what, voters tend to be wrong about the capacity of officials to influence events over which they have little or no control.

Politicians, political operatives, campaign advertising gurus and pollsters have operated for decades on this very assumption: that the electorate indiscriminately hands out blame and credit. Grove believes this phenomenon bears some responsibility for the deficit, for the intense focus now on spending and taxes, and for the deadlock as Republicans and the White House grapple with the debt ceiling.

Grove credits tea party activists with breaking the accountability code by focusing so much attention on the deficit, and by pointing directly at Congress, which is responsible for the red ink.

Grover Norquist, president of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, also illustrates how a single savvy activist, who understands government, can effectively use that knowledge to inform and mobilize voters who otherwise might stay on the sidelines.

Since Ronald Reagan was president, Norquist has made his organization a powerful force in Republican politics largely by eliciting from candidates signed pledges not to support any measure that looks like a tax increase, whatever it is called. Although the average American might not understand the intricacies of the tax code, they do understand a simple statement like that.

All but 14 sitting Republicans in the House and Senate have signed Norquist’s pledge, and he has a proven track record of mobilizing voters against anyone who breaks it. Among those he is credited with helping to defeat was President George Bush in 1992, who famously broke his “read my lips” pledge against a tax increase.

In recent months, Norquist has figured prominently in the deficit debate, feuding with some GOP senators who think he’s getting in the way of a possible compromise that would bring Republicans on board to raise the debt ceiling by Aug. 2 to avoid what Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner says would be catastrophic consequences.

GOP leaders are demanding significant spending cuts as a condition of support for the debt limit increase, and most say they’re unwilling to make revenue measures, or tax increases, part of the mix. Democrats say they’ll talk about cuts if Republicans show more flexibility on revenue.

But when some Senate Republicans, including Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn, signaled flexibility on taxes, saying they would consider eliminating some tax deductions and credits as a way to simplify the code and rid it of what they call unneeded “tax expenditures,” Norquist said he would treat those as pledge violations. He certainly isn’t the primary cause of the budget deadlock, but some argue that he contributes to it.

“Simplification of the tax code was something Republicans have talked about for a long time,” says Maryland’s Ramsay. “But Grover Norquist says ‘no.’ The question is why is that so potent. . . . Where does this depth of perception that he has this power come from? The biggest political decision was Grover Norquist sitting alone and deciding that reforming the tax code consisted of a tax increase. Had he decided the other way, the road might have been open” to agreement.

Norquist, in an interview, counters that he isn’t standing in the way of a deal, only of a deal that includes tax increases. “There will be a deal,” he said. “There just won’t be tax increases.” And he took issue with the suggestion that he personally is such a “potent” force. The power comes from the pledge, he says. “If I said tomorrow that we should raise taxes, it wouldn’t matter” because the pledges would still be in effect.

What the pledge does, he says, is to save voters time and effort they would have to expend studying issues to determine what a candidate stands for. “The pledge reduces the cost of being an informed citizen,” he says. Taxation “is an issue that tells you everything else you need to know about the person. If a candidate won’t raise taxes, he won’t be a spender either.”

Activists such as Norquist may be simplifying things for voters. But some believe that the black-and-white inflexible distinctions they draw discourage political deal-making in Congress, Grove said. Meanwhile, citizens who might support compromise largely remain in the dark and on the sidelines. Recent polls do in fact show the public to be more receptive than Congress to a compromise of tax measures and spending cuts.

Kohut says, in his experience, voters ultimately catch up. But it can take time. He cites George W. Bush’s proposal when he first ran for president to create personal accounts under Social Security. “When we started testing the idea of privatizing Social Security, the Bush initiative, we were getting 70 percent of the public saying they liked the idea. Once Bush wins and begins to talk about it, that 70 goes down to a 40. So you have to be very leery about asking questions about things people haven’t thought about,” Kohut says.

“Opinions do change when people get information,” he says, “and they will get the information on things they’ve not thought about when they see an opportunity, or when they feel threatened.”


The cost-effective way to feed the world - Wire - Lifestyle -

The cost-effective way to feed the world - Wire - Lifestyle -

By 2050, the world will have to feed 9 billion people, adapt to climate change, reduce agricultural pollution, and protect fresh water supplies - all at the same time. Given that formidable challenge, what are the quickest, most cost-effective ways to develop more productive, drought-, flood- and pest-resistant crops?

Some will claim that genetically engineered (GE) crops are the solution. But when compared side-by-side, classical plant breeding bests genetic engineering. Coupled with ecologically based management methods that reduce the environmental harm of crop production, classical breeding could go a long way toward producing the food we will need by mid-century.

Producing better crops faster certainly would help the world feed itself, but genetic engineering has no advantage on that score. Not only can classical breeding programs introduce new varieties about as fast as genetic engineering, technical improvements are making classical practices even faster...

Whole Foods Includes GMOs In “All Natural” Foods

Whole Foods Includes GMOs In “All Natural” Foods

If roughly 86% of corn and 93% of soy grown conventionally in the U.S. is genetically modified, and the “natural”chickens in Whole Foods are fed conventional corn and soy, then how are they GMO free?

Whole Foods employees are terribly unhelpful in answering this question, as is The Great Oracle Google. Fortunately, though, there is an answer! In an interview with Dr. Mercola, Whole Foods’ Senior Global VP, Michael Besancon, ADMITTED their foods are contaminated with GMO’s....

READ: Whole Foods Includes GMOs In “All Natural” Foods

Wal-Mart Gets a Free Pass For Bias From the Supreme Court - COLORLINES

Wal-Mart Gets a Free Pass For Bias From the Supreme Court - COLORLINES

The Supreme Court issued its decision in the Dukes v. Wal-Mart sex discrimination case yesterday, a frustrating ruling that doesn’t challenge the existence of bias, but that exempts the company from accountability. The case highlights the difficulty of addressing discrimination at a time when intentional bias is both illegal and socially unacceptable, and yet obvious gender and racial gaps remain. If much, perhaps even most, discrimination is unintentional on a personal level, what responsibility do employers (or our government, or each of us as individuals) have for addressing its institutional consequences?
The court decided 5-4 that up to 1.5 million female employees cannot file suit together as a class. The court’s conservative majority raised questions not just about whether the women were discriminated against through the same mechanisms, but also about the validity of the plaintiffs’ central argument—that the combination of a highly centralized corporate culture and excessive discretion among managers systematically disadvantaged women.
Wal-Mart’s numbers are not in question. Women comprise more than 65 percent of hourly employees, but only 34.5 percent of managers. This is significantly different from similar retail chains, in which women hold 56.5 percent of management jobs. It takes women on average 4.38 years to rise to a management post at Wal-Mart, but takes men only 2.86 years. Of 41 Wal-Mart regional vice presidents, only five are women, and only 9.8 percent of Wal-Mart’s district managers are women. Wal-Mart’s internal documents acknowledge that they are far behind the rest of their field...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Report Warns Of Mass Extinction From Current Rate Of Marine Distress


Travis Donovan
First Posted: 06/20/11 05:19 PM ET Updated: 06/21/11 09:09 AM ET

If the current actions contributing to a multifaceted degradation of the world's oceans aren't curbed, a mass extinction unlike anything human history has ever seen is coming, an expert panel of scientists warns in an alarming new report.

The preliminary report from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) is the result of the first-ever interdisciplinary international workshop examining the combined impact of all of the stressors currently affecting the oceans, including pollution, warming, acidification, overfishing and hypoxia.

“The findings are shocking," Dr. Alex Rogers, IPSO's scientific director, said in a statement released by the group. "This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level. We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime, and worse, our children's and generations beyond that."

The scientific panel concluded that degeneration in the oceans is happening much faster than has been predicted, and that the combination of factors currently distressing the marine environment is contributing to the precise conditions that have been associated with all major extinctions in the Earth's history.

According to the report, three major factors have been present in the handful of mass extinctions that have occurred in the past: an increase of both hypoxia (low oxygen) and anoxia (lack of oxygen that creates "dead zones") in the oceans, warming and acidification. The panel warns that the combination of these factors will inevitably cause a mass marine extinction if swift action isn't taken to improve conditions.

The report is the latest of several published in recent months examining the dire conditions of the oceans. A recent World Resources Institute report suggests that all coral reefs could be gone by 2050 if no action is taken to protect them, while a study published earlier this year in BioScience declares oysters as "functionally extinct", their populations decimated by over-harvesting and disease. Just last week scientists forecasted that this year's Gulf "dead zone" will be the largest in history due to increased runoff from the Mississippi River dragging in high levels of nitrates and phosphates from fertilizers.

A recent study in the journal Nature, meanwhile, suggests that not only will the next mass extinction be man-made, but that it could already be underway. Unless humans make significant changes to their behavior, that is.

The IPSO report calls for such changes, recommending actions in key areas: immediate reduction of CO2 emissions, coordinated efforts to restore marine ecosystems, and universal implementation of the precautionary principle so "activities proceed only if they are shown not to harm the ocean singly or in combination with other activities." The panel also calls for the UN to swiftly introduce an "effective governance of the High Seas."

"The challenges for the future of the ocean are vast, but unlike previous generations we know what now needs to happen," Dan Laffoley of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and co-author of the report said in a press release for the new report. "The time to protect the blue heart of our planet is now, today and urgent."


Man Robs Bank Demanding $1 In Hopes For Health Care

   From The San Francisco Chronicle:

John Thorpe
Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Having already set his affairs in order, James Verone calmly walked into an RBC bank in North Carolina and committed his first crime in his 59 years on this planet. Verone handed the teller a note that read "This is a bank robbery. Please only give me one dollar," took the dollar from the terrified clerk, and sat down on a couch in the bank's lobby.

"'I'll be sitting right over there in the chair waiting for the police," Verone told the bank teller. And wait he did. Police arrived moments later and apprehended him, hauling him off to the jail cell he so desperately wanted to enter.

No, James Verone isn't crazy. He isn't a career criminal. He didn't rob the bank to get drugs or booze. He didn't do it to get attention or on a lark. James Verone walked into that bank and committed a felony because going to jail was the only way he could receive the health care he needed to survive.

Verone is one man, but he could really be any one of us. He's 59 and well past the point of finding a new career. He was laid off from his 17-year job and, with unemployment hardly a survivable wage, took the first job that came his way. He developed a growth on his chest - the sort of medical condition that could be life-threatening - and earned two ruptured disks in his back, along with problems with his left foot.

After depleting his life savings and realizing he had, literally, nowhere else to turn, Verone committed the crime, hoping he could get the medical care that he so desperately needs.

This is what America has come to? Otherwise honest folks, with no where to turn in life, have to resort to fake-robbing a bank with the hopes they'll be arrested so they can receive medical care?

There is absolutely no reason for an allegedly civilized country, particularly one as wealthy as America, to pass the buck on providing health care for everyone. Yes, everyone: the employed and the unemployed; the sick and the healthy; old and young.

Before you scream "oh no, socialism!!!" stop and consider what you mean by that. How do socialist systems pay for health care? Taxes are collected from businesses and citizens, and a portion of those taxes go to cover the health care costs of everyone in the plan - in other words, everyone in the country.

How do health insurance systems pay for health care? Premiums are collected from businesses and employees, and a portion of those premiums go to cover the health care costs of everyone in the plan.

The difference between the two? Socialized care costs less (because it has a much larger pool of people to draw from), covers everyone at all times, and prevents people from purposefully committing crimes to get treated. Insurance systems ARE socialized systems, except they don't cover everyone and allow a corporation - and entity that neither receives nor provides the medical treatment - to skim a profit off the top.

In what sort of twisted mind is that the rational way to provide medical care? It's not like the marketplace can rationally set prices for health care. A dying man has no ability to check prices and compare services before deciding which hospital he'll take his heart attack to.

Chemotherapy cannot wait for patients to decide if they want to upgrade to the premium service that ABC Cancer, Inc is offering, or if they'll settle for the basic package. Health care is not cable TV and cannot be solved with these over-simplified market solutions. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar, a fraud, or a charlatan - and perhaps a moron. (I would bet on "moron".)

At some point, Americans need to grow up and accept that providing single-payer, government-paid health care for the entire country is not only mandatory - it is the only morally acceptable choice.



   We got home last night from our backpacking trip up the North Fork of the Skokomish River in the Olympic National Park. I'm working on a trip report, but I also have much to do, clean up, put away (and the lawn needs to be mowed)...

   So until I get the report up, here are a few pictures:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Prepping For The First Backpacking Trip of 2011

   I'm taking a break from stuffing stuff sacks, rinsing water filters, consolidating food into minimal packaging, and sorting out who ends up carrying what. I am reminded that our camping french press that served us well for several years cracked last season and has not yet been replaced. I'm also disappointed to learn that I cannot locate my headlamp. I know I used it in recent months for getting firewood for the woodstove, but it is not where I thought I left it and has not turned up in the 37 other places I thought it might be. Frustrating.

   The weather today is wet and grey, but I've been watching the forecast closely and the next few days promise decent weather. The plan is to head out to Staircase in the Olympic National Park and hike up the North Fork of the Skokomish Trail. After consideration it was agreed that excursions around Mt. Rainier would wait until later in the summer.

   I am looking forward to bringing my new Vibram Fiver-Finger shoes for camp shoes, river fords, and such. I love my Teva's which have taken this role in the past, but the Five-Fingers are so much lighter and will certainly give me better traction in the water. I also have a new sun/hiking hat I picked up at the big annual REI sale. This will be my son's first camping trip with his headlamp that he got for his birthday (I wish I knew where mine was...).

   I have the SPOT set up to let our family know we're okay while we're away. There's still a lot to do. I should get to it...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Japanese Researcher Creates Artificial Meat From Human Feces

   The fact that someone would even consider doing this just shows where our food system is headed.

POOP BURGER: Japanese Researcher Creates Artificial Meat From Human Feces
by Lori Zimmer, 06/15/11

Some hardcore carnivores have a hard time finding meat alternatives such as soy protein or tofu burgers to be palatable. But non-meat eaters may lose their appetite along with their carnivorous friends over this one – a meat alternative made from HUMAN EXCREMENT. Yep, you heard me correctly — Japanese scientist Mitsuyuki Ikeda has developed a “burger” made from soya, steak sauce essence, and protein extracted from human feces.


Gay Marriage

    Why is gay marriage a huge pubic issue of debate but no one seems to care that any hedonistic pagan can become an ordained minister and perform legal weddings? Kevin Smith, the creator of films like Dogma and Zack and Miri Make A Porno, performs weddings at his podcast theater.

   Don't get me wrong, I'm fine with it. What I don't understand is the uproar against who is getting married with no attention at all about who officiates the marriage.

   Can you say, "double standard"? Doesn't matter.

   Actually, none of it really matters, does it?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Documentaries and the Truth We Can Still Tell (But for How Long?)

Documentaries and the Truth We Can Still Tell (But for How Long?)
by Vivian Norris, Phd, Based in Paris-Globalization Studies
Posted: 06/13/11 09:19 AM ET

There may be an awful lot of lawyer jokes out there but for more and more documentary filmmakers, the legal challenges they are up against when trying to tell a story are no laughing matter. Forty years after the initial publishing of The Pentagon Papers, the full truth about Vietnam is finally being released. Daniel Ellsberg has stated that what he did back then as an investigative journalist was actually legal. Today, post-9/11 and Patriot Act, not only would it be illegal, it would be much more difficult to find any published information at all. Some information has indeed disappeared completely. And for those wonderfully stubborn souls who keep searching for the truth and trying to get it out there in front of audiences, they often find themselves, especially in the US, attacked by layer upon layer of lawsuits funded by corporations with deep pockets.

Take the case of Bananas! and the hell the Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten and his producer went through when putting on the screen the stories of workers who were "allegedly" suffering from infertility due to exposure to pesticides while employed by the biggest fruit company in the world. The well-known legal story of Joe Berlinger's never-ending battles with his film about Chevron's pollution and the health affects on people in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Crude, overshadowed his message at times. And some turn to fiction to avoid the lawsuits by making feature films such as Michael Clayton which refer to the wrongs of companies such as Monsanto. And the list seems to be growing longer. Documentary filmmakers have enough problems trying to find the money to get their films made, but adding to that the mountains of legal bills and the time-consuming reality of defending oneself and one's film from being sued, one imagines the corporations are hoping that the filmmakers will back down and their docs will disappear.

But they won't.

And that was obvious by the lineup at the Sex, Docs and Rock and Roll Festival and Market in Sheffield in the UK this past week. The screenings were full of both industry folks and regular folks and the conversations in the pubs afterwards showed that documentary film attacking serious subjects is alive and well. But will many of these docs go on to have a life on television and in cinemas?

In Europe, Asia and other parts of the world independent documentaries can find a home, on a national broadcaster, but when we hear the stories of the thousands of indie docs applying for small pools of funds, the only reason they end up being made is because of the passion of the filmmakers.
People across the globe are indignant about everything from the deadly silence on Fukushima to the reality behind the BP disaster and how our health is being affected, and many recent documentary films are showing us why we should be. I argue we need these factual-based programs more than ever before and the stories they tell are more urgent and more dramatic than ever before. The subjects they deal with affect our lives, our children, our planet.

More foundations, film institutes, equity funds as well as more and less well known production companies such as Participant, are supporting "social issue" campaign-driven documentaries. But what can they do when a film they are supporting is attacked by a company which has endless cash to throw at some of the toughest law firms around?

They tell their stories anyway.

Brands are looking to documentary films as a way to help improve their corporate social responsibility image, and perhaps at times there are good "fits" between a company and the message in a doc beyond what might be considered to be "green-washing". But often this is not the case, take, for example, one doc about pollution and climate change released last year in France was supported by the same oil companies which seemed to be causing the problems being confronted in the film. The press exposed this hypocrisy and it lasted all of one week in the cinemas.

Taking this idea of brand support for a documentary to the extreme is Morgan Spurlock's Pom: The Greatest Film Ever Sold in which the filmmaker literally brands not only almost every scene in the film, he ends up branding his own body by wearing a suit covered by logos. We are bombarded by advertising more now than ever before, and the effects this is having on us and especially on our children, is disturbing. Spurlock travels to Sao Paolo in his film to show us what happens when people become fed up with swimming in Consumerstan, they simply ban advertising in all public spaces... the problem is, for much of the world, the privatization of what was once public has reached turbo speed.

How do you feel about visiting a national park and having your escape from it all experience sponsored by companies which want a piece of your down time? Would you sacrifice your integrity, or that of your family and community's common grounds to Starbucks, Wells Fargo and Coca Cola in order to keep services being cut because of the financial crisis? What about your children's school? A recent debate on the BBC over advertising in the classroom seemed quaint compared to what school districts are up against in the US. Spurlock's documentary shows one district in Florida in which administrators seem to be looking for ways to sell out to keep their schools able to offer the same things they did pre-crisis.

Have we already sold our souls to be branded? Have we started down that slippery slope, never to return to some kind of private sphere in which we remain protected from someone wanting to sell us something? Or have we all become as Roseanne Barr recently wrote in her magnificent diatribe about the media industry which is one of the most empowering pieces about the industry ever written. (Entitled "Fame's a Bitch, It's Hard to Handle Then It Drives You Nuts") in which she makes it extremely clear that there are no powerful people in television "... unless they work for an ad company or a market-study group. Those are the people who decide what gets on air and what doesn't."

And though this is not always the case in much of Europe, with its so-called bans on advertising, especially for children, and with its subsidies etc., it is a warning that if the private channels (or public channels which are acting like private channels, or yes, the monopolies owned by folks like Berlusconi or the near monopolies of Mr. Murdoch), don't watch out, there will be no truth told by documentary films, nor on the news, or very little of it and not the bits we need to know most. And we will have to either throw the television out the window and lose what could be one of the greatest most powerful forces of educational, entertaining good ever invented (though it seems the man who invented the television would not allow one in his home!).

Barr finds solace in the same words that documentary filmmakers trying to get the truth out there can find some comfort in, from Sun Tzu's Art of War, "He who cares the most, wins" -- but it does not pay the legal bills.

I agree with BBC's Nick Fraser that filmmakers should not risk their lives to make a film, and we spoke of a friend of his, the French filmmaker, Christian Poveda, who was killed when he returned to El Salvador to do a follow up on his powerful doc, Vida Loca. But perhaps that is indeed what they will find themselves doing as they work to tell the truth and penetrate the layers of corporate protection (someone please explain to me again why in the United States corporations are still given the same rights as human beings, in fact were given those rights before African Americans and women were?!). Why should filmmakers have to choose between life and truth?

If we lose the independence of the documentary voice, we have lost our freedom to know, to be informed, to look for and find knowledge which can help us as human beings, parts of communities, and as citizens of a world which needs us to know and to want to be curious about it.

Documentaries can be wonderful ways to lose ourselves in reality, not virtual reality, not reality tv, but "real" reality; they are not only enjoyable to watch, but because they are based on these facts, force us to question when we are fed lies. Good documentary filmmaking preserves our common human accomplishments and documents the natural world and ways of life (which in some cases sadly is disappearing. See a great doc about disappearing cowboys and shepherds in Montana called Sweetwater).

We don't want to find that documentary filmmaking has become extinct, or worse, that the truth is now inaccessible, privately owned by a tiny elite who can afford all those lawyers. I would hate to think that if we do not support documentary filmmakers, or worse, ignore their work, because it challenges us, that they may one day stop challenging us at all and will disappear from the party. If we, the audience, do not care, then nobody will. We need to notice. Because documentaries tell us who we are, what our world is about, and give us that Truth. Without this, you might as well throw your television out the window.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

What the White House Garden Would Look Like If They Followed Their Own Ag Policy

   I got this from It references Kitchen Gardeners International, but I was unable to find these illustrations on that website.

What the White House Garden Would Look Like If They Followed Their Own Ag Policy

Thanks to Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International, a Maine-based nonprofit, for putting together these great visual aids. He writes:

In a nutshell, I was really inspired by the diversity and nutritiousness of the crops planted in the White House kitchen garden this spring and thought it would be eye-opening - not to mention jaw-dropping - to see what the White House garden would look like if it were planted to reflect the relative importance of the crops that our tax dollars are actually supporting.

You'll see that there's very little resemblance between America's Kitchen Garden and our "Subsidy Garden"

Food Mill

   The food mill arrived yesterday. Today I went to the produce stand and spent most of the afternoon in the  kitchen. My taste for hot pepper sauce has been ramping up over the past year or so. I figured it was time to learn to make it myself and it would be a great project for the new food mill.

   A quick aside here... why make a condiment that I could find in a multitude of varieties in any grocery store? There are a number of reasons, but for me the primary reason is to be more connected to my own food supply. I appreciate knowing exactly what goes into what I am eating beyond a list of ingredients that include chemicals that I have to look up what they are and how to pronounce their names and can't find in any store. I like knowing (and being able to control) just how much sugar, salt, fat, etc. is going into my food (and my body, and my family's bodies). It's rewarding to learn how to make things like condiments and maybe even tweak the recipe to make it better. I am able to use fresh ingredients, know their origin, and deal with waste responsibly (i.e. chicken food and compost). On top of all of that, by doing it myself I take a lot of excess out of the equation such as the processing plant, warehousing, distribution, and advertising. Ultimately, I am able to produce a superior product that is healthier for me, my family, and the planet, and save money. The downside is that I have to take some time out every now and then and do it. It's worth it to me.

   Back to today's project: hot pepper sauce! The produce stand had approximately seven pounds of various peppers on the discount table, so I bought them all, along with a couple heads of garlic (they were 2 for $1 and I know we'll use it). At home I cleaned the peppers, cut them up, and started trying to process them through the food mill. I thought I could process them through the coarse plate and then process the mash a second time through a more refined plate. It quickly became evident that I had not properly prepared the peppers for the food mill.

   I decided to run the chopped peppers through the food processor first, then through the food mill. That worked out well, though it added a step I had hoped to eliminate. Once all the peppers (and a couple cloves of garlic) had been reduced to liquid, I added an (approximately) equal amount of vinegar and seven teaspoons of salt. After stirring the solution well, I gave the spoon a conservative taste test and was very happy with the result! I brought the sauce to a gradual boil while I sterilized some pint jars and lids.

   I ultimately ended up with five pints of hot pepper sauce. Every recipe I read said that it needs to ferment for at least two weeks, up to three months (or more). At this point the jars have cooled and the vinegar and pepper juice seems to have separated, but a quick shake appears to solve the separation.

   I'll follow up on the pepper sauce experiment as it progresses. I think I might try steaming them first next time. I am really looking forward to making spaghetti sauce when the local tomatoes start coming in!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Regulators Knew World's Best-Selling Herbicide Causes Problems, New Report Finds

   Sadly, this doesn't surprise me at all...

Roundup Birth Defects: Regulators Knew World's Best-Selling Herbicide Causes Problems, New Report Finds
Lucia Graves
First Posted: 06/ 7/11 07:48 PM ET Updated: 06/ 8/11 05:36 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Industry regulators have known for years that Roundup, the world's best-selling herbicide produced by U.S. company Monsanto, causes birth defects, according to a new report released Tuesday.

The report, "Roundup and birth defects: Is the public being kept in the dark?" found regulators knew as long ago as 1980 that glyphosate, the chemical on which Roundup is based, can cause birth defects in laboratory animals.

But despite such warnings, and although the European Commission has known that glyphosate causes malformations since at least 2002, the information was not made public.

Instead regulators misled the public about glyphosate's safety, according to the report, and as recently as last year, the German Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety, the German government body dealing with the glyphosate review, told the European Commission that there was no evidence glyphosate causes birth defects.

The report comes months after researchers found that genetically-modified crops used in conjunction Roundup contain a pathogen that may cause animal miscarriages. After observing the newly discovered organism back in February, Don Huber, an emeritus professor at Purdue University, wrote an open letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack requesting a moratorium on deregulating crops genetically altered to be immune to Roundup, which are commonly called Roundup Ready crops.

In the letter, Huber also commented on the herbicide itself, saying: "It is well-documented that glyphosate promotes soil pathogens and is already implicated with the increase of more than 40 plant diseases; it dismantles plant defenses by chelating vital nutrients; and it reduces the bioavailability of nutrients in feed, which in turn can cause animal disorders."

Although glyphosate was originally due to be reviewed in 2012, the Commission decided late last year not to bring the review forward, instead delaying it until 2015. The chemical will not be reviewed under more stringent, up-to-date standards until 2030.

"Our examination of the evidence leads us to the conclusion that the current approval of glyphosate and Roundup is deeply flawed and unreliable," wrote the report authors in their conclusion. "What is more, we have learned from experts familiar with pesticide assessments and approvals that the case of glyphosate is not unusual.

"They say that the approvals of numerous pesticides rest on data and risk assessments that are just as scientifically flawed, if not more so," the authors added. "This is all the more reason why the Commission must urgently review glyphosate and other pesticides according to the most rigorous and up-to-date standards."


Spring Cleaning!

   The weather on Sunday and Monday was warm and sunny. The locals news even reported that the weather was the warmest it had been since September. It’s been a long winter…

   As much as I would have liked to load up the backpacks and spend the weekend with the family out in the wilderness, there were priorities at home. The wife got her serger back from the shop a little while back and her mom brought us the table that goes with her new sewing machine just last week. We finally got all of the files transferred from my wife’s old desktop PC and were ready to take it apart and rearrange some things. We moved the nice computer desk from the living room to the office and donated the desk from the office to the local thrift store. The new desktop set up is using the most efficient  components from each of the old set ups. Now that the entire family has graduated to laptops, I expect the desktop probably won't see a lot of use.

   Where the desk was in the living room we set up the sewing table, craft table from the office, and other crafty stuff scattered throughout the house. While we were at it we rearranged the rest of the living room furniture. Now the office is back to being a dedicated office and my wife has a functional craft space in the main living area.

   In the course of all of the moving and rearranging we were able to do a lot of spring cleaning. We opened all the windows and cleaned as we went along. We also thinned out a lot of stuff to donate, freecycle, and trade at the used bookstore.

   One reason we weren’t able to take a trip was because I had a work meeting scheduled for Sunday afternoon. While I did that my wife went out and picked up some tomato and pepper plants for the garden. We have a few starts from the heirloom seeds, but with the season getting such a late start we agreed we needed something further along if we were going to have much of a harvest. She also cleaned up the kitchen!

   After getting the office and living room rearranged we decided to focus on a few organization issues. The first part of Monday we spent running errands. We traded in some old books at the used bookstore (I picked up a 1st Edition copy of Fawn Brodie’s, Thomas Jefferson, an Intimate History. Inside was an old postcard from Monticello the previous owner had been using for a bookmark!), returned and picked up some things at the library, dropped off another load of stuff at the thrift store, and found a small bookshelf for the living room and a large bookshelf for the office at the local consignment shop.

   After cleaning the shelves and setting them up at home, we set out for the second round of errands. We stopped by the post office to mail a bunch of kid’s videos back to the friend who loaned them to us. We had a gift card for a big-box store, so we went in seeking some organizational help. We found some bed risers to create storage space under our son’s bed, magazine holders, a file box for our son’s extensive collection of Lego building instructions and magazines, and a set of stainless steel measuring cups to replace our plastic ones. After tax we had $0.31 left on the card. Dang near perfect! From there we stocked up on some things at Costco (most noteworthy – Costco had recycled bath tissue for the first time! We’re set for months now).

   When we got home we put the food away, put our son’s bed on risers, reorganized the books and magazines, and I spent some time rewiring and organizing the office.

   Today the weather took a turn. It was cold and wet. I made a run to the butcher store and produce stand and then spent most of the afternoon in the kitchen. Our most recent order from Amazon arrived this afternoon as well.

   I may have to go back to the produce stand tomorrow and get something to run through the food mill

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Charging Stations

   In the course of rearranging and reorganizing over the past couple days, one thing we needed to deal with was our charging stations. These are areas we've designated for charging our phones, game controllers, laptops, etc. (I know, I know, people think I want to drag humanity backwards two-hundred years. The truth is, I just want to take the real wisdom and truth from the past and apply it to the wisdom and truth of the present. I'm all for technology, innovation, and efficiency, just not at the expense of ourselves or Ma Nature. But I digress...) We have tried to set up convenient locations to charge things without having vampire power constantly running up our bill.

   We have a HYmini with four small solar chargers (the solar chargers our ours, the HYmini is actually borrowed, but that's a whole other story). We can charge our phones and anything else that has a USB power connector. That sits in one of the south-facing windows in the living room and usually works great for one phone at a time.

   For game controllers and/or two or more phones, we have a single power strip (with a surge protector) with all the various chargers plugged into it. The catch is, you have to remember to turn the power strip on when you want to charge something (not too difficult) and then remember to turn it off when you're done (a lot more difficult, it turns out).

   While reorganizing I was faced with the question of what to do with a one-foot tall, light-up Las Vegas  sign. The sign is plastic and a little tacky -- it lights up just like the real thing -- but my wife and I got married in Vegas and this was a wedding present from some dear friends who were there for the celebration. Be it what it may, it will always possess a place in our hearts and our living space.

   How do we remember to turn off the power strip when stuff is done charging?

   ...and where should we display the Vegas/wedding sign?


   Two questions solve themselves. I set the Vegas sign up on the charging station power strip so that it lights up and flashes whenever the power strip is on. Testing so far has proved the solution to be solid. Don't get me wrong -- the Vegas sign holds sentimental value that continues to make it a part of our lives. It just happens to also make a great visual cue that can't be missed.

   Re-wiring the office / music room / studio will be a whole other story...