Friday, February 28, 2014

Illness And Honesty

At this time of year, it's not always easy to be anything but tired, grumpy, and even a bit pessimistic. After a week of stupid political battles, some minor technical glitches, and struggles to keep healthy, staring down yet another weekend of bitterly cold winter weather isn't exactly a recipe for a positive Friday.

The vile threesome of intolerance, hate, and bigotry represented by the events in Arizona might have been enough to spoil this weekend weekend on its own, if Arizona's Gov. Brewer hadn't finally vetoed the gay hate bill this week.

Indeed, since much of our focus this week has been on the anti-gay legislation in Arizona and around the country, that some other very important stories have slipped through the cracks, as Alec Macgillis pointed out on Thursday.

From the Medicaid expansion fight that Macgillis wrote about, to the fight over voting rights Ana Marie Cox addressed beautifully, to the economic wedge between mainstream Republicans and right-wing extremists that Greg Sargent honed in on, there were plenty of other important political topics that didn't get the ink and pixels from us that they deserved this week and we were all set to tackle more than a few of those topics today.

Then one of our staff members came across the story of comedy writer Laurie Kilmartin and her father - and we pretty much gave the bird to covering any more intolerance, hate, and bigotry this week.

Kilmartin - who is a friend of a friend of one of our staff members - is a well-known stand- up comedian, and also a comedy writer for the Conan O'Brien show.

She's also been "live tweeting" her father's last days on her Twitter account, in a raw, real, funny, running stream of thoughts and images that shook us up just a little bit. As Carol Hartsell covered over at the Huffington Post, Gilmartin's account of her father's exploits right now are both gut-bustingly funny, and heart-breakingly sad.

Those 140-character messages from Gilmartin remind us of how funny being brutally honest and totally real can be.

We usually seek to remain a bit more removed from you, our audience, as you aren't coming here to see any of our staff members. You want to see our work, Paul's fantastic cartoons, our finely honed prose, and the trove of links in our expanded daily edition.

The personal struggles we face daily - sick kids, sick pets, being mind-numbingly sick ourselves, business trips, family trips, tripping over new technology. These are all things we usually choose not to share with you, our audience, in large part because doing so isn't professional.

Being a journalist or a member of the professional media most often means you don't make yourself the story, you don't draw yourself, and you don't insist that the part of the content you're creating that you identify with most is kept in - especially when it's the one part you need to edit out.

Every once in a while, though, you say "What the hell," you throw the rulebook out, and you do what Laurie Kilmartin is doing now. You be brutally, totally open to the world - and you laugh.

Sometimes, giving the world the bird and just being real is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Rising Tides Of Consequence

Actions have consequences. Poorly thought out actions often have drastic, unforeseen consequences.

The perfect example of these axioms were visible this past week in Arizona, as the state's proposed anti-gay "religious freedom" bill nearly passed into law. As we thoroughly discussed on Wednesday, and throughly displayed in Wednesday's extended edition, the bill would not have protected anyone's religious freedom. It also could have led to severely negative economic consequences for Arizona, from the potential loss of next year's Super Bowl, to the potential loss of jobs from major businesses like Apple & Intel.

In an action that only seemed to surprise the bigots on the extreme right, after being blasted by progressives, liberals, Democrats, and in a pleasant surprise, corporations and even some Republicans, the tide made a signifcant turn and Wednesday evening Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed the anti-gay bill. What's more, the firestorm that exposed the heinous Arizona bill also seems to have scared politicians in Georgia and Ohio who've now dropped similar doomed legislation.

As we recently mentioned here, when Democrats and rational Americans stand together, America tends to win. That theory has been proven through growing numbers of wins on major policy issues, and those successes have continued to embolden progressives and liberals. Some Democrats have even begun to go on the offensive against major right-wing boogiemen like the Koch Brothers, as Greg Sargent pointed out yesterday.

Winning is something everyone likes, but like any action, winning has consequences, too. We think it's important Democrats take a look at some of the consequences of our energy policies, before a rising tide of small political victories, relatively cheap oil, and high efficiency technology blind us to the mess we're creating around us.

Even as one of our own staff members is now driving a car that gets over 100 mpg daily, and even as America's position as a world oil and energy leader continues to grow, that still doesn't mean we've solved the problems of our dirty energy economy.

A major oil spill in the Mississippi River just last weekend closed the mouth of the nation's largest interior shipping lane and the Port of New Orleans. Federal regulators are issuing emergency testing guidelines for shipping oil by rail, even as railroads scramble to institute new safety measures.

The pipeline and fracking wars aren't over yet either. As Dave Domina, the attorney for the Nebraska landowners battling TransCanada, assured his clients and the public this week, the fight to stop that pipeline isn't yet a done deal. As Katie Valentine detailed in Think Progress, a second 600 mile pipeline known as the Flanagan South line has aready been rammed through with very little media attention.

Meanwhile, even as cities like L.A. are moving to ban fracking, major oil companies like Exxon continue to push for more fracking almost everywhere - except in the neighborhood of Exxon's CEO - even as more negative consequences of fracking continue to be discovered.

There are some wins, even on the issues of dirty energy. Colorado's Gov. John Hickenlooper successfully pushed through the Colorado legislature tighter pollution rules for oil and gas producers. The world's largest solar power plant opened in the Nevada desert earlier this month, and after seeing what the U.S. did with that power plant, Mexico is now set to build Latin America's largest solar farm to replace an aging, oil-driven power plant.

Every step forward, as a society, is a good thing. That said, if we're going to truly support progress, we must make sure that the political moves we make, as well as those we stop, don't have unintended negative consequences that rise up and drown out any good we might do.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Even Children Can See It's Wrong

America today is not the freewheeling place millions of Americans remember it being when they were young and strolled the streets with their friends.

It's not that America is a more dangerous place. In fact, as the recently released FBI Preliminary Semiannual Crime Statistic report proves, America in general, is the safest it's been in many years.

If you listen to the right-wing media though, there seem to be victims everywhere you look in America. From the poor little billionaires being "attacked" for acting like selfish, arrogant jerks, to the fake Christians terrified they or their kids might have to sit next to a gay person in a diner, the right wing in America continues to see boogiemen everywhere.

As Jonathan Chait pointed out Tuesday, when they're caught lying about an issue like the Affordable Care Act, conservatives and Republicans today immediately crumple into a metaphorical fetal position and cry that they're the victims. They even claim to be victims in their inability to pass major legislation like immigration reform, even though - as Greg Sargent has consistently proven - the only people who are victims are the Americans still waiting for Republicans in Congress to do any kind of worthwhile legislating.

Nowhere has this false meme of victimhood been more obvious lately than in the attempt to legalize bigotry and 'Jim Crow'-style treatment of LGBT Americans through a series of laws in states all over the country, generally referred to as "religious freedom" laws.

In truth, these proposed laws do absolutely nothing to protect the rights of any American of any religion to worship as he or she sees fit.

In fact, as Cecile Richards pointed out in the Daily Beast on Monday, these "religious freedom" laws - along with the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga cases that the Supreme Court will hear next month - are simply legal fictions, designed to allow both for profit corporations and not-for-profit organizations like religious groups to pick and choose which laws the people running them would like to follow.

Want to have slaves in America today? Under these "religious freedom" laws, you may be able to simply claim you're a Christian, and quote Leviticus 25:44-46. Want to beat your wife and get away with it? Christians also have that covered multiple times in the Bible. Most other religions have similar justifications for heinous acts from murder to vandalism that are authorized under their tenets, even if the civil laws of the land don't allow it.

Of course, we realize that those examples sound ridiculous. Then again, so does the idea of attempting to make a class of Americans into second-class citizens, using legal attempts at nullification, which is what these bills would do to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Americans.

The fact that so-called Christians are pushing so hard to have bigotry enacted into law, in America, at a time when Americans are more rapidly than ever accepting gay and lesbian Americans as their equals, is both sick and sad.

The sheer terror that many of those on the right seem to have right now, that the view of America they have may be under siege from an evil force is something we can totally empathize with.

The problem is, the force that is committing those acts of exclusion and evil is the one in their own mirrors - a fact that even children can see.

Too bad right wing Americans can't seem to.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Forecast For The Future

As much of America continues to suffer through this year's roller coaster winter weather, even the patience of Nebraskans like those on our staff has been tested. As Zachary Goldfarb noted in the Washington Post, the weather this winter has been so intense that it's even put a temporary freeze on the U.S. economy.

Still, conditions will soon thaw out across America, and then the weather, business, and politics will all heat up once again.

Right now, though, the governing forecast is for a continued drought in actual legislation on the federal level, with occasional political storms at the state and local levels. In contrast, the political forecast is for Republican extremists to continue to cause pointless storms that create lots of noise and hype, but do almost nothing to generate favorable growing conditions actual policy solutions to problems Americans face every day.

In other words, America's political and governing forecast for 2014 looks an awful lot like its recent weather forecasts: All over the map, with pockets of extremism, and no logical pattern. It's a mess that might drive any normal person insane.

Take what's going on in Arizona right now. We can't think of a better example of a pointless political storm.

The Grand Canyon State is engulfed in a huge media tempest over a proposed law that's already passed both houses of the Arizona state legislature. The incredibly bad bill would institute virtual Jim Crow-style segregation by allowing any business or government organization in Arizona to refuse service to any member of the LGBT community. Since the proposed law has been exposed in the media, growing numbers of Arizona lawmakers have been backpedaling away from the proposal at high speed. If passed, the law could even derail the plans to hold the Super Bowl in Arizona next year, which would be a huge hit to that state's economy.

It should come as no surprise to any experienced political storm chaser that the political squall in Arizona was caused by right-wing extremists, most of whom consider themselves Tea Partiers. Across the country right now, GOP extremists just like those in Arizona are taking aim at more traditional and moderate Republicans as the 2014 primary season begins.

Sadly, most of the Republican extremists we're seeing are people who have no real intention of governing — they're effectively false fronts, propped up by yet another wave of cowardly right-wing billionaires, filled with hot air but no real substance, too gutless to actually run for office themselves.

Of course, there are already smaller, more localized disturbances. Laura Bassett of the Huffington Post pointed out one, a misogynist rant from a Virginia state Republican senator who insisted pregnant women are 'just a host' instead of 'mothers.'

Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal created another disturbance Monday, when - just after meeting with the President and other governors - tromped out to the driveway of the White House and thundered about President Obama to the media. That incredibly stupid political move not only broke protocol, but was a perfect display of how disrespectful modern Republicans are of the very office of the President.

It also likely did nothing to engender the kind of political goodwill that could have helped those in Jindal's state who could have used a boost from a positive relationship between their governor and the President.

So as we mentioned above, the forecast for 2014 looks to be filled with lots of pointless little political storms, with continued drought on governing and policy issues. That could always change though.

As we say in Nebraska, if you don't like the weather right now, wait a bit. Other weather you also won't like will be here shortly to replace the current stuff.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Anything But Ancient Artifacts

After a weekend of watching college athletics, the Olympic Closing Ceremonies, and reading online, our staff members were all struck by how far physical technology has come in just our lifetimes. At the same time, some not-so-modern realities have begun to make us wonder how much real progress we've actually made, especially in the United States.

From the anti-union vote in Tennessee last week - which is now being officially contested because of improper interference by Republican lawmakers - to the 'Jim Crow'-style anti-gay bill now sitting on the desk of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, many Americans find themselves having to re-fight many of the same battles small-minded extremist conservatives lost forty and fifty years ago.

From the corrupt actions of Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie, to the class warfare being waged against workers, to the modern-day version of slavery the one-percent seem to want to reinstate, it seems that both the workers and the wealthy have forgotten the lessons America learned in the post-World War II period, often driven by labor unions.

Sadly, it appears America may be about to repeat some of those same kinds of Stone Age mistakes on a global platform, specifically the internet.

Over the weekend, streaming content giant Netflix finally agreed to pay the ransom demanded by telecom giant Comcast, so that Netflix customers could finally watch their videos smoothly. Under the net neutrality law Congress signed in 2010, and under the longstanding de facto net neutrality rules, there shouldn't have been any problems for either Netflix or its customers.

Long before the right-wing activist Supreme Court struck down the net neutrality law, telecom companies like Comcast were already illegally throttling internet speeds for some kinds of content and some providers, while speeding it up for others. In short, under their unethical rules of conduct, if your internet service provider doesn't agree with your opinion? Too bad for you, they have the right to make getting to your personal or business website brutally, painfully slow for your customers. And if the Comcast/Time Warner merger is allowed to go through? Companies like Comcast will likely swallow up most of their competitors, creating only three or four massive companies that own nearly all the access to the internet in the U.S. - and leaving you even less choice for internet than you already have.

For those of you who might be confused by arguments about technology, consider this situation in terms of media. In the United States, there is no law about who can say they are a "news" provider. There are so many outlets, all across the ideological spectrum, that call themselves "news" organizations, but are very far from legitimate news organizations.

Americans looking for an unbiased perspective - which the news is supposed to provide - may be surprised indeed to hear about how the Russian-backed, now-former government of Ukraine recently paid U.S. conservative "news" websites to push their anti-western propaganda.

That, by the way, is one of the reasons the FCC wanted to do a survey of newsrooms and journalists across the nation - to make sure Americans were getting a true diversity of opinions, as well honest, unbiased news. Sadly, the FCC gave in once again to the cries of right-wing radio and Fox "News", and decided to back off on their survey, pointing Americans back down the road of corporate media censorship.

Humans, in general, tend to welcome new technology while at the same time decrying some of the changes it brings. However, there are some things that should be obsolete and forgotten. Bigotry, segregation, indentured servitude, and oligopoly are all ideas that need to go the way of the dodo bird, slavery, or even manually building pyramids.

In contrast, the principles of justice, honest pay for honest work, and competing fairly in the marketplaces of both business and politics, are ideas that are anything but ancient artifacts.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Celebrating Vision & Patience

From nearly the beginning of this publication, over six years ago, we've occasionally given both credit and blame where due. We've also paused to count moments of successes and failures.

This week, the number of successes we've been counting has been much greater than normal.

There were plenty of successes at the Winter Olympics this week, even as the games head to a close this weekend. There were national political successes too, like President Obama pulling Chained CPI out of his 2015 budget plans, or California beating their Obamacare sign-up goal nearly six weeks early.

There were personal successes for our staff too, as our editor Amy celebrated the birthday of her eldest daughter, even as we celebrated having her input back among our staff. Our webmaster Shawn & his wife celebrated getting a brand new Ford Fusion Energi by getting nearly 80 miles per gallon this week. Of course, we all celebrated the decision by Nebraska Judge Stephanie Stacy, that a 2012 Nebraska law is unconstitutional, meaning the Keystone XL pipeline is at a standstill in Nebraska, at least for the time being.

None of these successes happened overnight, and they all took an enormous amount of patience, dedication, hard work, and vision. For example, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, America's first gold medal-winning ice dancing team ever had been working for seventeen years on the success they finally achieved this week.

The Keystone pipeline fight has gone on for a good number of years too, and it doesn't look to be over anytime soon. Because of the delays caused by a lack of vision by some Keystone XL pipeline supporters like Gov. Heineman and Republicans in the Nebraska Legislature, a majority of U.S. voters are now asking important questions about the pipeline. Some of those questions include wanting to know where the oil will go, and what their lawmakers actually know about the pipeline.

The same lack of vision that seems to have Americans outside of Nebraska finally paying attention to the pipeline battle has also brought more attention to fuel efficiency standards in the U.S.

After a banner 2013 for hybrid and pure electric cars, sales of those kinds of vehicles for manufacturers like Ford, Tesla, and Toyota have stayed strong so far this year. President Obama also used his executive authority this week to raise the federal fuel standards for heavy-duty trucks over the next few years.

This positive focus on renewable energy was also easily seen in the most recent report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, pointed out to us by journalist Michael Grunwald on Twitter. "Of the 325 MW of new US power generation in January, only 324 MW were renewable," Grunwald noted.

That's not perfect - but it's a good way to start the year, especially when there are plenty of horrendous news stories happening all over the world.

From the violent revolutions happening in both the Ukraine and Venezuela, to the ongoing environmental disasters in North Carolina and West Virginia, to yet another nasty winter storm in parts of the Midwest and Ohio Valley - not every story in life is a gold medal-winning success.

If you take the time, put forward the effort, have the patience and the vision though…

Like we said: There are plenty of reasons to celebrate this weekend. We hope you find some of your own.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bigfoot-ing The Facts

Even while our staff members were cheering Wednesday - both for the Olympics and for the legal decision blocking the Keystone pipeline in Nebraska -  we once again noticed a disappointing media phenomenon.

Facts are like Bigfoot to those in the right wing media today. To them, facts don't exist, and even if facts do walk right up and introduce themselves, the right-wing ideologues who work in so-called conservative media don't believe any facts they don't like.

That much was blisteringly clear on Wednesday, as the right-wing dominated media crowed about only a small part of the latest report by the CBO, on how a nationwide minimum wage hike would really affect the economy in America. Of course, if anyone at Fox or at any of the right-wing radio talk shows had any intellectual integrity, they would have also mentioned what we and others pointedly noted Wednesday: That the CBO also said raising the minimum wage would generate little to no negative effect on the numbers of jobs lost, while creating a $2 billion boost to the U.S. economy.

That's a mighty big fact for any legitimate media organization to overlook - a fact that proves how illegitimate many right-wing media organizations really are.

For those people who believe that actions speak louder than words, they needed only to look at the actions of major U.S. clothing retailer Gap, Inc. on Wednesday, when they announced they will raise their hourly minimum wage companywide to $10 per hour. 65,000 U.S. workers will be earning more money for the work they do, a major change that earned the retail giant an official statement of support from President Obama.

As Aviva Shen pointed out on Wednesday, other major brands like Costco, Whole Foods, and In-N-Out Burger have already done the same. While Wal-Mart now denies rumors that popped up Wednesday that they might join that group of respectable companies, that there were even legitimate rumors that Wal-Mart might join the ranks of employers who provide a living wage is a very good sign indeed.

As Lydia Depillis at The Washington Post noted, it makes solid business sense for Wal-Mart to support a higher minimum wage for a very simple reason: Some of Wal-Mart's most reliable customers are their own employees. If Wal-Mart's workers had more money in their paychecks, they'd spend more of it in their own stores. As Depillis noted, it wouldn't even be out of character for Wal-Mart to do, as the massive retailer backed a significant minimum wage hike just seven years ago.

Our key gripe with how the right-wing media handled the CBO study isn't that they pointed out some jobs may be lost. The CBO themselves made that fact clear from the moment they released their study.

No, our problem is that the coverage of this important piece of news was so incredibly slanted that anyone who only paid attention to the right-wing media would be misinformed about what Americans clearly recognize as the biggest problem our nation now has.

Maybe that's why we were so excited when we heard that the FCC appears to be going ahead with their nationwide multi-market study of America's "Critical Information Needs", the so-called CIN Study. In short, the FCC is finally going to investigate if there's a serious bias problem in our American media - and if so, how they can fix it.

That's the kind of monster investigation we think should have been done in the media long ago - a sizable action we don't think the right-wing will be able to deny the existence of.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Being In Congress Bites

Increasingly over the next few weeks, if you haven't already heard or seen political advertising for primary races in the 2014 midterm elections, we can almost guarantee you will. Avoiding being bombarded in that kind of situation will be like trying to handle snakes without getting bitten - a task crazy snake-handling preacher Jamie Coots just proved isn't exactly realistic.

In short, the 2014 election races have begun.

While the data-driven accurate political journalism of both Nate Silver's new team, and Ezra Klein's new group aren't yet ready for the 2014 elections, there is already some data - both scientific and anecdotal - that's already available. In short, for both Democratic and Republican politicians, the information we're seeing now could have some serious bite for this fall's elections, if the data continues through this fall as it is now.

To start with, Congress' current job approval rates, for both Democratic and Republican politicians, is still hovering near it's worst levels ever. To most thinking people, that level of disgust might spur members of Congress to pass a nearly universally popular bill, so they had some kind of achievement to sell voters come next autumn - for example, raising the federal minimum wage.

Conveniently, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office released a report on Tuesday that focused on what the impact would be of raising the federal minimum wage. The result was positive, if not a bit confusing.

The report effectively showed that if the economy continues its sluggish upward trend, a national minimum wage increase would likely help more than 16 million Americans, and would bring nearly a million working Americans out of poverty. There would be a price though, as a relatively small number of Americans - around 500,000 - would find their income go down. They might even lose their jobs.

According to a Gallup poll this week, though, unemployment and underemployment are considered the number one problem for all Americans.  A Federal minimum wage increase would help solve the underemployment problem, and if Congress would actually do things to help improve the economy, it's likely any economic drag from an increased minimum wage could be cancelled out by significantly greater economic growth.

Immigration reform is also a high priority for Americans right now - and as another Gallup poll confirmed, those Americans in favor of reform now equal the number who only want border enforcement. Immigration reform has also been proven to improve the economy, something even sane conservatives admit when they're being honest.

In short, Americans want more jobs, better paying jobs, and immigration reform, all items that Congress could help provide in the run-up to the fall elections.

However, as Robert Costa reported on Monday, Republicans in Congress have effectively said they can't handle voting on any major legislation this year - like immigration reform - for fear of angering their extremist base. Even if members of Congress intellectually wanted to pass the bill, as Greg Sargent has been saying for over a year, Republican leadership simply doesn't have the will to do what the majority of Americans want.

As the growing number of Congresspersons and Senators deciding not to run for re-election this year proves, it must really bite right now to be a member of Congress.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fat, Dumb, And Unhappy

From the asinine statements of Sam Zell, who recently claimed the rich just work harder, to the crybabies of affluenza like Tom Perkins who insist people like him should have more votes because they have more money, to the Kappa Phi Beta club that New Yorker writer Kevin Roose discovered in 2012, never have we seen in modern America more wealthy people so detached from reality.

History, in fact, has several examples of similar times, though. The 1920s in the United States were such an example - before Black Tuesday, when the gutless yet instantly un-wealthy couldn't handle reality and threw themselves out of windows on Wall Street. The rein of Louis XVI of France was another similar period, just before the guillotines made short work of the clueless wealthy.

As the billionaires themselves revealed to Kevin Roose, and as Ryan Cooper has been highlighting over at Greg Sargent's Plum Line recently, the paranoia of these "one-percenters" has revealed more than just their insecurity. It's also revealed the dangers of inequality once again.

It all boils down to what a history teacher we once knew called "The F.D.H. Rule" - or "Fat, Dumb, & Happy Rule": If you've got far more than you'll ever need, don't be an idiot. Be happy and don't whine about how unfair your life is to the people you're taking your extra portions from. Today, we might even call it the "Slim Shady" rule: Don't piss off the people making your onion rings at Burger King.

That more Americans than ever are taking second, or even third minimum wage, fast food jobs just to bridge the basic income gap to a living wage, puts the lie immediately to the ravings of fat cats like Sam Zell about who is working harder. As Matt Bruening of Demos pointed out on Monday, the selfish rich overwhelmingly think they're deserving of every benefit, while the rest of society can go to hell.

That the UAW vote failed by a slim margin in Chattanooga, Tennessee the other day - after questionably legal outside influence by Republican Sen. Bob Corker - makes the counterintuitive point that not every working American believes he or she deserves a living wage for a hard day's work.

As E.J. Dionne pointed out on Monday, that very anti-American mystery isn't an idea that springs naturally from the Republican Party. Raising the minimum wage to a living wage level promotes many ideas Republicans have traditionally belived in: Reducing the cost of social welfare programs, fostering economic growth, strengthening families, and promoting hard work as a way out of poverty.

When push comes to shove, as it obviously did recently for one-time tea party hero 'Joe the Plumber' Wurzelbacher, even the extremists on the right head for the fair rewards of union work and more appropriate wages over the 'just take any job at any wage, shut up, and like it' meme that Republicans have been seriously pushing for the past few years.

As Ryan Cooper also pointed out on Monday, in a consumer-based economy like the U.S., the economic incentives government can use to help goose the economy into a stronger position aren't just for the wealthiest "job creators". They're also for those who consume the products and services that keep everyone else afloat.

If the members of the one percent want to truly prove they are better than everyone else, they shouldn't be fighting against simple economic incentive programs like raising the minimum wage. They should welcome and even support the change in policies to help those at the other end of the economic scale.

That the one-percenters are terrified of competing on a truly balanced playing field tells us - and the rest of the world - their braggadocio is just hollow talk from people who'd be wise to follow the old F.D.H. Rule.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Monstrous Potential

If the news of the potential merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable didn't have you angry last week - regardless of whether you receive any service from either corporation - it should.

To say the resulting union would simply be an ugly little monster reaching for your wallet would be like saying King Kong was just a little misunderstood monkey. This disastrous merger would actually be more like the 1976 movie "Network", come to life in a terrifying new way.

The cable and telecom oligopoly in the United States is already a perfect example of how modern so-called conservatism is just another smokescreen for the corporatocracy of Wall Street. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston noted in his 2012 book, "The Fine Print" our cable and telecom companies have carefully worked around the law to make sure they don't truly have to compete with one another.

On the rare occasion when someone like the city of Chattanooga decides to buck that trend, and create real competition - as they did in 2006 - the private sector can't keep up - so they try to win in court. Thankfully, for Chattanooga, Comcast failed in their attempts to shut that whole thing down.

Sadly, Comcast, Time Warner, and the other telecom companies have broadly succeeded in their goal to prevent real competition across America. As a result, America has some of the slowest internet speeds in the developed world, at some of the highest prices.

John Cassidy wrote last week in The New Yorker, "It’s the predictable outcome of Congress bowing to the monopolists, or quasi-monopolists, and allowing them to squelch potential competitors." In other words, this monster corporate baby grabbing at our wallets and purses isn't some kind of rare accident.

As Time Warner Cable's relatively new CEO confirmed just three months ago - when he denied a merger would happen - the merger between the two companies wouldn't be to improve internet speeds, quality of service, or move into new areas. It would be "100% driven by what’s in the best interest of our shareholders." Those shareholders may be seriously disappointed in short order, though. After all, the combined Comcast/Time Warner corporation would control 57% of all cable subscribers, and would far and away have more phone and internet customers than any other U.S corporation.

As Daniel Gross of The Daily Beast noted, why would Comcast improve when they could just buy Time Warner, and sit on their ass?

The fact that both Comcast and Time Warner have a long and embarrassing history of poor customer service, and that a combined company would likely be even worse hasn't escaped notice. Satirist Andy Borowitz blasted the potential merger in his regular column last week in a piece that would be funny, if it might not truly be an example of the future.

Some Americans may think they'd be immune to the effects of this merger, especially those who use satellite TV and only have cell phones for internet. As Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times points out,  they'd be wrong though. The joining together of Time Warner and Comcast - along with the recent decision by a federal appeals court to effectively kill net neutrality - could affect everyone.

In short, with nearly two-thirds of the cable, phone, and internet traffic under its control, Comcast could effectively hold the nation hostage to any pricing demand it wanted. Since Comcast also owns all the networks of NBC, it's highly unlikely you'd hear anything other than corporate-sanctioned propaganda in favor of the merger on any of their stations.

Rep. Anna Eshoo of California has promised to put forward a a bill in the U.S. House to make sure the FCC could continue to keep the internet open and equal. However, we don't think we have to remind either her or you that the House is controlled by Republicans, who frankly, like the CEO's of both Comcast and Time Warner, seem to only have the best interests of Wall Street on their minds, as The Nation's John Nichols reminds us all.

If you've been waiting for a signal to get involved in politics?

When your next cable bill skyrockets through the roof, as the monsterous cable and telecom companies grab for your wallet? We'd say that's a pretty big signal that now's the time.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Putting A Lid On It

Today may be Valentine's Day, but thanks to a slew of problems across the nation, we're certain more than a few Americans will be reaching for that bottle of ibuprofen alone at the end of today, instead of reaching for a glass of wine with their honey.

We're nearly certain that North Carolina's Governor Pat McCrory will be one of those people downing some strong headache pills. After the massive coal ash spill created by Duke Energy, that we discussed here Thursday morning, a new Federal criminal investigation was announced Thursday afternoon, involving both Duke Energy and members of the governor's administration. Add that investigation to Gov. McCrory's ongoing oversight of the cleanup of the Dan River, and the massive ongoing winter storm cleanup, and you've the got makings of a killer migraine.

Anyone who would like a cheaper cable bill, or claims to support competition and a free market, is likely reaching for a bottle of little headache relievers today, in light of the potentially disastrous merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

We'd bet the group of Americans with the biggest headache today though, are establishment Republicans, who've been dealing with the headache of their extremist wing for the last several years - and who finally appear to be willing to put a lid on the Tea Party.

As Greg Sargent and Michael Tomasky both addressed on Tuesday, and as we spoke to in Wednesday's commentary, the debt ceiling deal this week - and especially Speaker Boehner's move to effectively blow off the extremist wing of his caucus - seem to have proven that establishment Republicans are finally willing to put a lid on the insanity of their Tea Party wing.

Not surprisingly, that may be why the extremist crazies like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, and nearly the entire state government of Kansas seem to be trying to kick their insanity to a whole new level.

Cruz introduced a new national anti-same-sex marriage bill this week, at the same time he undercut Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and many other Senate Republicans on the debt ceiling vote. Rep. Labrador, for his part, insisted the debt ceiling - which was a win for the nation - wasn't a win for Speaker Boehner or Republicans. Meanwhile, the Kansas House passed a bill Wednesday that would allow bigots  in business and government organizations to deny fully legal services to same-sex individuals, on the basis of the bigot's claimed religious beliefs.

The good news? As Greg Sargent, Steve Benen, and Paul Rosenberg all dissected brilliantly yesterday, on issues from immigration to the ACA, Republicans in leadership positions finally seem to be seriously worried about the far-right wing crazies like Cruz, Labrador, and others. For what seems like the first time in years, Democrats are finally standing up to Republicans - and Republican leaders aren't being allowed to hide the core contradictions between the different factions of their party anymore.

All of which might give anyone sane a headache - especially if that person were a current political leader of the Republican Party.

So while we commend the current GOP leaders for finally beginning to put a lid on their tea party fanatics, we're also thinking of those Republican Party leaders as our staff members head off for an energizing and fun-filled Valentine's Day weekend - and we're extremely glad we don't have the headaches they have to deal with.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Water, Water Everywhere...

As the horrible weather has millions of Americans once again either huddling in their homes, or trying to recover from the latest unusually large winter storm, our staff members are doing a bit of both, while trying to remain positive. All the recent disasters around the U.S. haven't exactly made that easy.

We are glad that this week none of us has been stuck in an airport due to the weather, and no one we know has died from weather-related problems. We're also glad we've all had the basics: Safe, comfortable homes to stay in, nice clothes on our back, and plenty of healthy food and water, in both our homes and offices. After recent man-made disasters in both West Virginia and North Carolina, we consider ourselves extremely lucky to be able to go any of the many faucets in our offices or homes, open the tap, and simply drink the water.

Over the last month, major chemical and waste spills have happened in both West Virginia and North Carolina, not once, but twice. These man-made natural disasters have made drinking water for nearly half a million people effectively unusable - even untouchable. It's certainly not been safe to drink.

These disasters are the kinds of monstrous problems that Americans don't usually think happen here at home - unless you live in West Virginia. Or North Carolina. Or in war-torn, barely regulated, third-world nation, filled with greedy industrialists and clueless citizens.

In a sad way, those places in West Virginia and North Carolina where the disasters have happened now partially fit the description of a third-world country.

There's no question that both states have had their safety and health regulations gutted by major industries, including corporations like Duke Energy. Duke was responsible for the "spill" that dumped 82,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina this past week. Residents there now have to deal with levels of arsenic in their water that are far beyond safe, while being told by officials that they should 'avoid prolonged contact' with the water.

In West Virginia, their initial water disaster surfaced more than a month ago, though their experiences with the massive coal corporations foreshadowed this latest incident years ago. Many West Virginia residents are already giving up hope that their state government will do anything to resolve the situation.

It doesn't really surprise us that either state is having problems due to a lack of effective regulations. We also wouldn't be at all surprised to see similar major disasters happen in Wyoming or Idaho in the next few years, as state legislators in both states are currently doing the bidding of ALEC - the American Legislative Exchange Council - in trying to gut their own EPA-style regulations.

Republicans in the U.S. House -  some of whom we're certain were also getting large campaign donations from ALEC-related and affiliated donors - tried something similar earlier this year, when they voted to try to curtail the EPA's ability to regulate things like polluted water. Thankfully, President Obama has already made it clear he'll veto any legislation the House passes with such ignorant ideas.

Unfortunately, for those people in West Virginia and North Carolina affected by the spills, the monster is out of the bottle, and the damage has already been done. Who knows how long it'll be before they can simply go to their taps, and get a refreshing glass of water?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Time To Stand Up

This week may end up being a mess for millions of Americans east of the Rockies again, mostly due to the weather. Even though that area includes all of our office locations, the week is turning out very well, as the proof of a concept we've been preaching for years has delivered fantastic results, in both politics and sports.

In the world of sports, Michael Sam, the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, and a key player on the Missouri Tiger's highly successful football team, very publicly stood up for himself, and in two major media interviews announced to the world he was gay.

In a perfect world, Sam's announcement would have been received by the world like a mouse squeak in a stadium, - or as Lt. Col. Robert Bateman put it in Esquire, "So frigin what." However, as realists - and especially progressives - know well, we don't live in a perfect world.

Michael Sam's announcement became like the mouse that roared - and as Dave Zirin of The Nation noted, it rapidly began exposing the bigotry and hypocrisy of NFL coaches and executives. Pete Thamel's interviews in Sports Illustrated of anonymous NFL executives and coaches, and and ex-NFL coach Herm Edwards' comments were perfect examples of what Zirin stated. Sam's change in his pre-draft rating also seems to clarify further where the not-so-subtle bigotry remains in the NFL.

Players, however, seemed to show the kind of maturity on this issue we were glad to see. As Michael Sam noted in both his interviews, his teammates at Mizzou knew he was gay since last summer, and no one publicly "outed" him. Interviews with other NFL pros like former Vikings punter and LGBT advocate Chris Kluwe and NFL Player's Association Director Demaurice Smith further supported Sam, and seemed to highlight that Michael Sam's courage seems to be welcomed by a growing number of players.

That kind of courage, to stand up to bullies and stand up for what's right led to another big win this week, in Washington DC, in Congress.

Of course, we're talking about the debt ceiling debate, which ended Tuesday afternoon in a 221-201 vote, with 28 sane, moderate Republicans voting with 193 Democrats in the House to suspend the debt ceiling until March of 2015.

Greg Sargent of the Washington Post forecast Tuesday morning that the debt ceiling extortion House Republicans have been using for several years now was dead. Sargent, like us, has been saying for years that all Democrats needed to do to defeat the extremist Republicans in the House was to stand up to them - and once again, he was proven correct. Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast went one step further, declaring the era of Republican hostage-taking to be over.

Meanwhile, the petulant tea party extremists in the House turned their anger on House Speaker John Boehner, weakly threatening they'd replace him. As journalist Robert Costa reported though, even Speaker Boehner no longer seems to be afraid of the extremists. During a House Republican breakfast meeting Tuesday morning, Boehner himself finally stood up for what was right, standing up to the fanatics in his own party, declaring he was putting forward a clean debt ceiling bill and that his decision was final.

To us, this kind of action, whether taken by Michael Sam or John Boehner, is a hallmark of being progressive - of making progress on serious issues that matter, while knocking aside petty issues that don't.

Who our leaders and heroes sleep with, marry, or date really doesn't matter much. What they get accomplished, on the field and in office, matters far more.

That may seem to be a simple, small declaration - but it's one we think has the power to make the intellectually and ethically weak scream and run in terror, while empowering the truly strong and just to do what's right.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Last Train From Austerity Point

As winter's long train keeps blasting through our northern office locations, the bitterly cold air has kept that portion of our staff indoors, working, and often listening to news and discussions on the radio.

One of the stories that stuck out last week, that the cable "news" channels seemed to pass right by, was a story on NPR, about how Amtrak passenger rail service in the U.S. is currently having to fight to use our nation's rail lines, thanks to both coal and oil companies hogging up the available space on the rails.

Maybe it's because some of our staff members have literally ridden trains from coast-to-coast across America, and we often ride the commuter trains near our Washington, DC offices. Maybe it's because we've also ridden trains across Europe, and have seen how large-scale, high speed rail can work well. What we are certain of, after looking into the story that NPR reported last week, is that America doesn't have enough rail lines - a problem President Obama has been attempting to remedy since the Recovery Act, enacted during his first year of office.

As of December, the Obama Administration, through efforts within the Congress, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in expanding capabilities for rail lines. Investments from adding secondary spur tracks, to retrofitting or replacing bridges, have improved America's rail system significantly over the past five years - especially in areas like the Northeast corridor, where some high-speed passenger rail projects remain on schedule.

Unfortunately, outside of that Northeast corridor, the benefits of President Obama's push for investment have gone almost entirely to freight companies. Meanwhile, passengers across the U.S. have effectively been left sitting in their chairs at stations, playing "train," while they wait for the backlog of freight and oil trains to get off the tracks.

The traffic jam of oil trains in the U.S., especially in the North Dakota and Minnesota regions, have begun to seriously hurt passenger traffic routes. As we'd heard on NPR last week, both vacation destinations, like Woodland Resort, as well as overnight cross-country passenger routes have been the primary victims of the rail-bound oil boom.

Passenger trains haven't been the only victims of this limited resource problem though.

Major business interests, like American Crystal Sugar, have also had to severely curtail production due to the lack of sufficient open rail space, costing the company millions. These delays are massive and unprecedented over the last forty years, and for a company like American Crystal Sugar, using alternate transportation methods like semi-trailers simply isn't a comparable substitute for rail lines.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers has also been pushing Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to get off his backside and reassert the rules of rails, that give passenger trains priority over oil and freight trains.

One fact has become clear to us once again though, in researching this story. No matter how many taxpayer dollars and even private dollars that have gone into upgrades and repairs over the last few years, America's passenger rail system - outside the Northeast corridor - doesn't currently even rate being called "third world."

For all those Republicans in Congress who've poked fun at the idea America needs to heavily invest once again in infrastructure issues like America's rail system? We invite them to take the train and meet us somewhere in middle America, like Woodland Resort.

We'd advise they should expect a few hours of sitting in the station "playing train" and doing nothing first - something many in Congress from both parties have already proven they're experts at.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Red Meat & Reticence

Even as the Olympics began ramping up last week, that big event pushed other stories out of the headlines, much like the daylong correction and apologies of many media organizations surrounding the right-wing lies about the CBO report on Obamacare.

In all the distractions, much of the greater media also missed key stories about immigration and the farm bill that came down last week. Greg Sargent, as he often does, had a fantastic roundup Friday of the issues surrounding immigration reform - and we highly recommend you read his work on the subject, and all the pieces he recommended as well.

The Farm & Food bill that President Obama signed into law on Friday received no similar wide-angle roundup from anyone - sadly, not a surprise in today's media environment. So we rounded up some of the best explanations about the bill, that's now law.

Brad Plumer summarized the bill in a great chart two weeks ago, making it instantly clear where the $956 billion in funding went. As Plumer also noted last week, many people - both inside and outside of Congress - hated the bill. David Dayen made brutally clear that the Farm & Food bill once again gave wads of cash to agribusness. Congress just gave the money away in a sneakier way. Meanwhile, the "compromise" on food stamps wasn't really a compromise at all. As Ned Resnikoff made clear, Congress didn't compromise between raising or lowering the amount of help poor Americans would get on food issues. The only "compromise" members of Congress made was in how much they pandered to the extremists on the right and to big ag - and how badly they were going to screw over the poor.

The bill wasn't as bad as it could have been, though, and after almost three years of fighting over how generously they were going to reward the rich agribusnesses, and screw the poor, both the House and Senate passed the bill, and President Obama signed it into law last Friday.

It should be noted that even in the midst of bad weather and other commitments, for better or worse, several powerful Democrats - some up for re-election this year - stood with President Obama as he signed the Farm Bill. Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress, who will most assuredly take credit for the parts of the bill that rewarded their corporate donors, didn't have the courage to stand with the President as he signed the bill they helped to pass.

If a bill - now a law - like this makes you angry, we understand that feeling, and we empathize with you.

Billions of taxpayer dollars are unnecessarily going to whiny, ungrateful billionaires who have been perpetually claiming they work harder than 99% of Americans, thanks in part to this Farm & Food law. Meanwhile, millions of Americans who've been desperately searching for jobs that simply don't exist have been ignored on both unemployment and now again on food assistance.

There are many reasons for this failure, one of which is that poor Americans of all kinds - along with women, minorities, and left-leaning political groups and SuperPACs - have for far too long sat out the midterm elections in this country. Whether it's because of the two or three jobs they're working, or because the members of those left-leaning political groups got their political panties in a bunch because President Obama couldn't precisely control the outcome of any number of bills that 535 members of Congress sent him, or because of simple tribalism, those voters stayed home in 2010. As we all know now, that allowed the obstructionist and insane tea party extremists to take over Congress - and do nothing ever since.

Unfortunately, it already looks like the biggest SuperPAC on the left, Priorities USA, has already decided to make this same mistake again, by staying completely out of the races in 2014. Apparently, they've decided to put all their money on the chance that Hillary Clinton can take it all in 2016. We don't think we need to remind anyone that the President isn't the Green Lantern, and he - or she - won't be able to do very much if they don't have a decent Congress, and decent progressive officials at the state and local levels.

That kind of failure and reluctance on the part of the 99% to get involved in politics, and stand up for their share of the Federal budget, has also continued to allow the rich and corporations to pick the choicest cuts off the budget, while those Americans most in need of help are still getting just the leftover scraps.

As long as any of the 99% stay on the sideline, scraps and bones is all the 1% will ever toss to us.

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Reason For Pipe Dreams

While Sochi, Russia may be a computer hacker's paradise, and many of its venues appear nowhere near ready for the crush of people already arriving from around the world, the 2014 Olympics has already begun in Russia, for better or worse.

For many years now, the Olympics have given our staff members a collective mix of both hope and sorrow. On the negative side, it's true that the Olympics in Sochi are the most expensive in history, cost over $50 billion, and were way over budget. Folks tend to forget though, that London's Olympics in 2012 were also over budget, as most Olympic events always are.

The history of cost overruns and ill-prepared host venues often gives rise to an idea around the beginning of each Olympic games, of a permanent home, or possible multiple rotating permanent homes around the world. As the editors of Bloomberg News noted, this year's games haven't been exempted from that idea reappearing.

Regardless of the problems with the Olympic games, there is a positive side to them as well. The Olympics almost always give people from all over the world a reason to stop, pause, and come together over a common unifying topic - kind of like the bad weather has done this winter for people across America.

From the record warm winter weather in Alaska, to the severe drought in the Western U.S., to the massive snowfall in the northeast, most of America has been talking about the same subject for a couple months now: The weather.

Frankly, if it was up to us, we'd be more than happy to share some of the snow we've had near our DC offices with friends of ours that live in California. We've even known people to toss around the idea of massive water pipelines criss-crossing the country, to take the excess moisture from those that don't need it, to those that don't have it.

As far as pipelines go, if some labor unions - like the AFL-CIO - want to get behind a pipeline idea that won't further endanger the environment, California's Gov. Jerry Brown has the perfect project for them.

Gov. Brown and other California officials are proposing two massive pipelines to carry water from Northern California to Southern California, and through the desperately dry Central Valley region of the Golden State. While the ideas currently being proposed are a bit farfetched, we see no reason that pipelines couldn't be connected directly to the ocean, run through desalinization plants, and then pumped inland to where the water is truly needed.

One member of our staff has thought for years now a massive pipeline, or even a man-made river should be built along the border between Texas and Mexico. A project like that could carry water from the Gulf of Mexico, along the Eastern edge of the Rockies, all the way up into Nebraska and the Dakotas. It would not only alleviate the perpetual drought problem in places like West Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle. It would also allow farmers and businesses to stop draining the Ogallala Aquifer nearly dry in some places, and make the breadbasket of the nation viable as a place to live long into the future, even with the effects of climate change.

We realize such ideas are - quite literally - pipe dreams. From a permanent sustainable, truly safe and open home for the Olympics, to a nationwide American water pipeline network, the chances of either major idea happening anytime soon are highly unlikely.

Like the games themselves though, both ideas give us hope. In the end, that may be the most redeeming perpetual feature of the Olympics.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Rendezvous With Irrelevance

In virtually every long-term social or political debate, there's eventually a point at which most sensible and intelligent people agree: The public has made a definitive decision.

On the subject of smoking, for example, after nearly fifty years of anti-smoking measures, only about 19 percent of Americans smoke any more. So while Wednesday's announcement by the pharmacy chain CVS that they'll no longer be selling tobacco products after October 1 was significant news, it wasn't exactly Earth-shattering. Americans already passed that decision point on tobacco use twenty years ago. Sure, smoking is still legal, though in far fewer places than it once was. For the most part, those who still remain addicted have been severely minimized as a political power group, effectively making smokers politically irrelevant.

In a similar, yet frightening way, recent studies have confirmed the American middle class has almost been nearly erased, politically, by right-wing political policies over the last forty-plus years. Politicians may still claim to pander to the middle class, but as stories in both Business Insider and the New York Times this past week confirmed, the businesses that depend on the middle class are struggling - because much of the economic and political power of the middle class has already been erased.

There is another major group of Americans that is about to become irrelevant though, and it's one we - and others - have been pointing to for some time.

Of course, we're talking about Americans on the political right, in general, and Republicans in particular.

From President Obama's in-person verbal smackdown of Bill O'Reilly and Fox on Sunday, to most Republicans in Congress knuckling under on the debt ceiling, to the disastrous actions of major media outlets that pandered to the right on the CBO report - nearly everything Republicans and conservatives have touched publicly this week has fallen apart.

If you're a political group with real and growing relevance, your heroes don't get dissed in person by the President on national TV, your party doesn't make weak threats on major policies only to meekly and quietly knuckle under to reality, and you don't act so bizzarely that those in the media trying to pander to you end making asses of themselves as so many did this week on the CBO report.

Michael Gerson of the Washington Post - who, we have to admit, partially inspired our work today - made a similar, if not more focused point about the way Republicans are failing to handle the issue of immigration reform right now.

On Wednesday, Dana Milbank nailed the single biggest reason Republicans keep losing relevance - their insistance on ignoring facts on key issues from Obamacare, to immigration, to the IRS scandal. Sure, the right-wing misinformation feedback loop may make Republicans and those who vote with the GOP temporarily feel better about their own racism, classism, misogyny, and bigotry.

But ask any smoker how they feel about having to stand outside, fifty feet from a building in the middle of winter, in twenty degrees below zero wind chills just to make the physiological monkey on their back feel better. You'll likely hear bitter complaints and whining from those smokers that this isn't the way America used to be. They may even sound eerily like modern Republicans, who also often haven't adapted to the way most Americans think about topics like race, class, and gender today.

We'll agree with the whiners for once - this isn't the same America today, and it won't be the same tomorrow either. As scientist Bill Nye explained clearly in his debate with creationist Ken Ham this week, the world is evolving by minor degrees every day. If we don't progress and adapt, we'll become irrelevant, and then eventually extinct - a scientist's way of saying we'll be erased.

That's the dilemma the GOP is facing now: Change, evolve, and get rid of the Neanderthals in their party holding on too tightly to the past. Or keep pointing and laughing at others, ignoring important but uncomfortable facts, even while their party's relevance and days of long-term influence disappear even further into history.

It doesn't sound like much of a decision to us - but then again, we've been told we have fairly evolved sensibilities.