Monday, February 7, 2011

Last Call

I know I bemoan Kentucky politicians, but the people of this state, like most Americans, are basically hard-working good folk who are just trying to get by.  And every now and then they'll surprise even me.

Some 83 percent of Kentuckians believe gay people should be protected from discrimination in the workplace, in housing and public places such as restaurants, according to a survey released Monday by the statewide Fairness Coalition. That is an increase of 18 percentage points since 2004, when a similar survey was conducted.

"I think the numbers will shock people across the state," said Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, one of five groups that are part of the umbrella coalition that works for equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Kentuckians.

Hartman said he was astounded at the level of tolerance reflected in the answers to 10 questions in the survey.
"I believed the numbers were going to be good, but with all of them hitting the 80s or sometimes 90s (percent), that was surprising," he said.

What made the difference since 2004?

"The times have simply changed," Hartman said. "More people have gay, lesbian or transgender friends or family members who have come out. That has changed the way people think across Kentucky."

Good for us, Kentucky.  Five out of six believe in workplace equality?  I'll put those numbers up against any other state.

Thai Feud, Anyone?

By the time the armies of Thailand and Cambodia end their battle for Preah Vihear, an 11th-century temple on the border between the two countries, there may be nothing left to fight over.
It's hard to say what, exactly, sparked this latest round of violence - the triggers seem as murky as the conflicting territorial claims.

I love history.  I have a great appreciation for the labor and cultures of our ancestors.  It bothers me to read about this destruction and that nobody really seems to know for sure why they are doing this.  Meanwhile, a treasure that is irreplaceable is being torn apart.

Danger Prone Daphne Strikes Yet Again

One of my very first articles was about a woman whose five-year-old son wanted to dress up as Daphne from Scooby Doo.  The mother allowed it, and some moms at school said unkind things about his choice of costume, and her parenting skills.  In a well-written response, the mother very eloquently calls them on it and a viral blog post was born.

I go through and follow up on topics from time to time, and I was surprised to see that her blog post has led to the mother being bullied by her pastor, who gave her an ultimatum that included an apology to those mothers she so offended, and the pastor included a helpful draft in case she needed help saying she was sorry.  The pastor claimed she broke the 8th Commandment and bore false witness.  She was told she couldn't transfer to another church and be considered "in good standing" if she did not apologize and meet the terms of the agreement he was proposing.

And again I say to you that bullying is not okay, even if you wrap it in a bow and call it ‘spiritual care.’
Congrats to this woman, for having common sense and the ability to write about it in a way that is respectful and thoughtful.  I wish her luck in fighting The Stupid.

You're On Your Own, Florida

GOP Gov. Rick Scott is going the full Galt with his budget proposal, balancing Florida's budget solely on the backs of state employees and the poor in order to approve billions in property tax cuts for the wealthy and corporate tax cuts for businesses.

Gov. Rick Scott on Monday afternoon will unveil a proposed state budget that includes deep spending cuts of an estimated $5 billion and will ask lawmakers to approved a dramatic reduction in property taxes.

He will announce his budget - his first as governor - before a crowd of tea party activists in this small central Florida town about 190 miles from Tallahassee at a rally, beginning at 1 p.m. He will then return to Tallahassee to brief reporters on his budget plan at about 4 p.m..

The budget blueprint, which must be approved by the Legislature, includes promises Scott made on the gubernatorial campaign last fall when he pledged to revolutionize government by running it like an efficient business. He said the leaner budget would set the foundation to create jobs throughout recession-weary Florida.

Scott, a former hospital chain executive, wants legislators to cut more than $1 billion in school property taxes and then transfer money from other sections of the budget. To offset the lost revenue, state workers would contribute to their pensions - for the first time - by contributing five percent of their salaries.

He also wants to trim about $700 million in corporate income taxes in Florida, which already has one of the nation’s lowest rates.

Another big target for savings: the growing health insurance program for the poor and financially challenged, Medicaid.

More than half of Medicaid’s $20.3 billion tab is picked up by the federal government, which can halt some wholesale changes. Scott and the Legislature can cut up to half of the program’s so-called optional services, many of which are popular and are designed to save money, however. Regardless, the state would lose hundreds of millions in federal matching money.

Slashing billions from schools and Medicare in order to give tax breaks to the wealthy and businesses, and making state and local employees pay the difference out of their own pockets.  What a nice guy.  Welcome to the realm of the "laboratory of democracy" there, Florida.  Enjoy your stay.

Remember, Florida's property values have dropped like a rock thanks to the housing depression.  Now Scott wants to cut property taxes even further.  Revenue?  What's revenue?

Hope those Tea Party folks cheering Scott on know that their services are about to get ravaged.

Well Of Course It's Worse

Anyone who has been paying attention to this blog for the last 2.5 years knows that the unemployment numbers are full of crap and have been for a couple decades now.  We've simply stopped counting the long-term unemployed as being in the labor market, hence last Friday's numbers that we gained less than 100k jobs in the last two months but that the unemployment rate dropped from 9.7% in November to 9.0% in January, so of course the numbers are worse.

"These numbers were bad if we look at a little bit of trend in composition, and not just one month at a time," David Stockman, former OMB director under President Reagan, told CNBC Friday.

"Where is the half-million jobs that were lost in the last thirty days that no one talked about? I'm talking about the once a year, re-benchmarking of the number of absolute jobs in the economy," Stockman said.

"Thirty days ago we were told 130.7 million jobs in the economy, in December, this morning it was 130.2," he said, adding, "that's the half million."

"Over the last 19 months, since the recession ended, we had 130.7 million jobs in the economy. This morning they said we had 130.2, we're still down a quarter of a million jobs from when the recession ended," Stockman added.

In addition, the U.S. is issuing three times more bonds a month than the GDP is growing, he said, adding, "I don't think we are headed for a cliff, I think we are heading for a wall."

One look at the Shadow Government Statistics web site, where unemployment numbers are counted the way they were before the 1990's, shows our functional unemployment has been north of 20% for  two years now, and it seems neither the Democrats nor the Republicans care enough in Congress to do much, if anything, about it.

We're told the problem is deficit, austerity, and sacrifice.

The real problem is Washington doesn't give a damn about jobs.  Democrats were punished in the polls for the economy, and Republicans newly in power in the House are responding by looking for as many cuts as they can find...oh yes and trying to redefine rape and fighting Obamacare.

Meanwhile the country burns.  Maybe that's the point.

Endless Wonder Down Under

If things weren't bad enough in Australia with massive flooding in the east in December and a massive Category 5 cyclone wrecking the northern states in January, the problem this month is on the island's west coast:  massive drought and wildfires near Perth.

Western Australia’s state premier, Colin Barnett, declared an area near the state capital of Perth a natural disaster zone after a bushfire raging out of control on the fringes of the city destroyed 59 structures.

Homes, sheds and carports have been destroyed by the blaze, Natasha Thorson, a spokeswoman with the Fire & Emergency Services Authority, or FESA, said in a phone interview today.

The fires started yesterday in the Roleystone and Kelmscott areas in Perth’s south-east from sparks by a machinist using an angle grinder, cited a FESA spokesman, which it didn’t identify, as saying.

More than 100 firefighters are battling the blaze, which is moving at 100 meters an hour in numerous directions with flames reaching three meters, FESA said. The bushfire poses a “threat to lives and homes,” the authority said.

The blaze has burned about 440 hectares, has cut power and closed two schools in the area. Two helicopters are assisting, FESA said. There are no reports of injuries.

The state government will provide immediate financial help to people affected by the fire, Barnett said in an e-mailed statement today.

That of course is adding to Australia's wheat farming woes, as if the world doesn't have enough disaster-related food shortages as it is.

So it goes.

Meanwhile In Baghdad...

Oh yes, ladies and gentlemen, the protests in Egypt have not gone unnoticed in Iraq.

Hundreds of Iraqis took part in scattered demonstrations on Sunday, calling for an improvement in basic services and the resignation of local government officials as unrest sweeps much of the Arab world.

In Baghdad, around 250 people gathered in the impoverished district of Bab al-Sham to protest against a lack of services. "It is a tragedy. Even during the Middle Ages, people were not living in this situation," said engineer Furat al-Janabi.

Some carried a coffin with the word "services" written across it, while others called for the resignation of all members of the local council in their area.

Almost eight years after the U.S.-led invasion, Iraq's infrastructure remains severely damaged. The country suffers a chronic water shortage, electricity supply is intermittent and sewage collects in the streets.

While public frustration is a challenge to the government as Iraq emerges from the sectarian war after the invasion, the country has already been freed from the autocratic rule that protesters in other countries such as Egypt are seeking to end.

In the oil city of Basra, 420 km south of Baghdad, around 100 protesters demanded the resignation of the governor and members of the city council, saying they were corrupt.

The demonstrators carried yellow cards symbolising the warning card a referee carries in a soccer match.
"I and my children depend totally on food rations, without it we will die. I find work for one day, and then nothing for 10 days after that," said 43-year-old Nuri Ghadhban, a day labourer in the construction industry and father of six.

"I have been looking for kerosene for a month and I cannot find it. We have had enough. What do they want? For us to burn ourselves until they think about us?"

As bad as things are, these protests have the potential to pretty much undo what little gains we have made in the region and delivering the country back into near civil war.  If ordinary Iraqis are starving on top of having no power, no jobs, and no hope of getting us out of their country, things are going to get ugly, fast.  But that's not the biggest problem.

The protests are moving eastward from Egypt to the Middle East.   If they continue on this trajectory, the next countries in line east of Iraq are Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and now we start getting into some serious international problems if those countries start protesting food prices, corruption, and despotism.  Pakistan's government is already fragile as hell.  Iraq and Afghanistan's governments are cardboard at best.  And if nuclear Pakistan goes into Egyptian-style turmoil, India isn't going to just sit around.

I mentioned last week that Saudi Arabia was the big domino at the end of this destabilization chain.  That's certainly true in the Middle East, but globally there are many worse places that could see chaos, and Pakistan has to be tops on that list.

Super Brawl

The big political story from yesterday's 31-25 Packers win over the Steelers wasn't Reagan's 100th birthday or Xtina botching the national anthem, but China being pissed over Groupon's commercial featuring a pro-Tibet message.

Tibet has long been a source of consistent domestic and international tension for China, which established control over the region in 1951. The Dalai Lama went into exile in 1959 following an uprising against communist leadership.

Tensions related to religious freedom, human rights, development and political sovereignty have plagued the region periodically ever since.

"Just saw the ad, are they oblivious?" asked user Mofei on's microblogging service Weibo.
"Groupon is doomed to failure now in China," wrote user Yageboo on Sina's Weibo. "Groupon's lax approach to the Chinese market is not going to work!" user cnbuff410 asked, "Groupon ... you play a 'free Tibet' advertisement during the Super Bowl ... do you actually want to enter the Chinese market?"

Vivek Kunwar, a co-owner of Himalayan Restaurant in the Chicago area, saw the advertisement during a Super Bowl commercial break.

"When we saw it, it was an 'uh-oh' moment, even for me," Kunwar said in a phone interview.

"There was nothing that we could do .. we were not even involved in the shoot."

And so once again, a US company doing business in China has to decide between human rights and their bottom line.  It's getting old, especially since the prospect of a billion customers tends to very quickly remove any pretense of principle from executives.

How fast will Groupon apologize?  Certainly before the end of the week, would be my guess.

The Kroog Versus A Food Fight

Paul Krugman notes that extreme weather in 2010 certainly isn't helping food prices globally.

Consider the case of wheat, whose price has almost doubled since the summer. The immediate cause of the wheat price spike is obvious: world production is down sharply. The bulk of that production decline, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, reflects a sharp plunge in the former Soviet Union. And we know what that’s about: a record heat wave and drought, which pushed Moscow temperatures above 100 degrees for the first time ever.

The Russian heat wave was only one of many recent extreme weather events, from dry weather in Brazil to biblical-proportion flooding in Australia, that have damaged world food production.

The question then becomes, what’s behind all this extreme weather?

To some extent we’re seeing the results of a natural phenomenon, La Niña — a periodic event in which water in the equatorial Pacific becomes cooler than normal. And La Niña events have historically been associated with global food crises, including the crisis of 2007-8.

But that’s not the whole story. Don’t let the snow fool you: globally, 2010 was tied with 2005 for warmest year on record, even though we were at a solar minimum and La Niña was a cooling factor in the second half of the year. Temperature records were set not just in Russia but in no fewer than 19 countries, covering a fifth of the world’s land area. And both droughts and floods are natural consequences of a warming world: droughts because it’s hotter, floods because warm oceans release more water vapor.

As always, you can’t attribute any one weather event to greenhouse gases. But the pattern we’re seeing, with extreme highs and extreme weather in general becoming much more common, is just what you’d expect from climate change.

The usual suspects will, of course, go wild over suggestions that global warming has something to do with the food crisis; those who insist that Ben Bernanke has blood on his hands tend to be more or less the same people who insist that the scientific consensus on climate reflects a vast leftist conspiracy.

But the evidence does, in fact, suggest that what we’re getting now is a first taste of the disruption, economic and political, that we’ll face in a warming world. And given our failure to act on greenhouse gases, there will be much more, and much worse, to come. 

The theory that climate change leads to food production shortages leads to political instability is nothing new, the Pentagon has been pushing that for some time now.

Recent war games and intelligence studies conclude that over the next 20 to 30 years, vulnerable regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia, will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises and catastrophic flooding driven by climate change that could demand an American humanitarian relief or military response.

Of course, the Pentagon may want to move up their timetable from 20-30 years to, you know, now.   The combination of economic turmoil and climate change is already turning out to be pretty potent.  Ask Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt, or Ivory Coast.  Krugman is right however when he says more is coming, and coming soon.

My guess is very soon.


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