30 April 2006

Tim Russert and the Oily Hand

I've never been as disappointed in Tim Russert as I was today. His show focused on the problems of oil production in the US. His guests included Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman, American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Red Cavaney, CNBC's Jim Cramer, Senator Dick Durbin, D-IL, and energy analyst Daniel Yergin. Bodman, Cavaney, and Cramer were all on the same page: there's nothing wrong except that the government keeps trying to interfere. Tim didn't even tear into them when they were spewing their horse manure. Senator Durbin tried to hammer the point home: oil companies are posting record profits, which does not make sense if the oil market is tight, which it is. Both consumers and businesses are hurt if the market is functioning properly.

But the market doesn't function because there are only six corporations that control the domestic petroleum industry, and few more in the world that have any influence. And the market partially doesn't function because the petroleum industry receives huge subsidies from the US Government, which they apparently blew on executive pay rather than on investing in ethanol production. But, of course, that's not the entire story. The rest of the story is that the oil industry sat behind the scenes with Vice President Dick Cheney and drafted the nation's energy policy, which increased our dependence on fossil fuel technology and decreased our development of alternative energy technologies.

I realize that I am partially to blame for the crisis. I drive far more often than I should. I would feel better and look better and be better if I would just ride my bike a little more often. But my failure is miniscule compared to a press which toes the corporate line and government officials who understand the logic of dollars without any sense.

Save the Internet

COPE (Communications Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2006) made it out of the House Commerce Committee this week, but that doesn't mean that it's too late to stop the telecommunications companies from screwing up the Internet. If you haven't been to Save the Internet.com, then you need to go and let your representative know that selling out the Internet is not acceptable public policy. The idiots in Congress have decided that telecomms have more rights than citizens and have written this exceptionally stupid piece of legislation to turn over control of the Internet in the US to these massive companies. They have tried their hardest to get this done under the radar without the public knowing about it, because when the public understands what it contains, the ninnys that support it will lose their seats in Congress.

Haven't heard of COPE? Here's the synopsis: if you want your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to control what you can access on the Internet and what mail you may receive, if you want to receive less bandwidth and pay more money, or if you just like the idea of creating a Ma Bell for the Internet, then you should certainly vote for COPE. If, on the other hand, you believe that you should be free to determine what you access and what you email, you should be furious! If you understand that Telecommunications companies will sell you less service at a higher price if they are unregulated, then you must act to stop COPE!! And if you believe that telephone service was better in 1985 than in 1975 (and I understand that it was), then you need to vote against anyone and everyone who votes for COPE as it is currently written. The choice is yours, but the consequences are yours as well.

23 April 2006

Sunday Morning Musing

Not surprisingly, I woke up early this morning. It's a Sunday, which means that I could have slept. But for many reasons sleeping is not something I'm doing much these days. In fact, I think I slept more when I was a graduate student, which is kind of amazing. Due to an impending deadline, if I'm up, I'm working or waiting to work. As I type this, I'm waiting for software to compile and hoping to all that is holy that after three days of frustrating work I will be able to meet tomorrow's deadline.

As I wait, I decided to turn on the television. Since we choose not to have expanded cable, my choices are fairly limited. I can listen to a few policy wonks on CSPAN, another round of Back to the Future on TBS, ComCast Sports News, News in French on Scola, or I can watch right-wing evangelicals on at least five different stations. My television is off, but I am suddenly struck by the lack of moderate or liberal religious broadcasting. This is not just true for 7 am CST. It is also true for all of Sunday morning. TV is a ritual for me on Sunday morning. It's not so much that I'm glued to it, as that I want to know who Tim Russert, Bob Schieffer, and George Stephanopoulis have as guests. It tips me off on how the main stream is going to spin the topic de jeur. But I'm a channel surfer, so while Tim and Bob are in commercial, I'm seeing what else is available.

Here's my observation: the zealots of Sunday morning evangelism are not actually Christians, nor are their "church services" actually religious ceremonies. They are a business. There are lots of people who would read this and declare my soul damned, and there are still more people (like much of my family) who might read this and think that I'm just off on a commie rant, but let me explain and see if cooler heads can prevail.

First, let's be clear: getting on television is not cheap. For this reason, most of the local congregations would be excluded automatically from these commercial stations. In my experience, most churches are not rolling in cash. This is not because God doesn't love them or because they are wrong, it is because they are actual churches that hold bake sales, pancake breakfasts, and car washes to provide tangible services to their members.

Second, who are these people who have syndicated their television religion? I don't know, and I'm not going to waste my time finding out because I can tell you pretty much who they are based on what they say. I'll break it down into the following characteristics:
  • They are rich. They have to be. More importantly, what else could they be when they spew Gospel of Wealth crap and urge their audience to support conservative's and their tax cuts. And lest the poor should actually inherit the earth (not capitalized, according to scholarly findings), if they were poor they wouldn't be hung up on welfare mothers.
  • They are white. I'm not going to make an argument here. Just look at the screen.
  • They are men. Again, look at the screen.
  • They don't care about you. Have you ever noticed that they all live in Florida? When they ask you for your check, the address they give is Florida. What's up with that? If these are truly representative of a real constituency, then shouldn't you be sending your check to North Dakota, Kansas, Wyoming, etc.?
The fact is that these rich, white, men have found a way to bilk people out of money with promises of God and redemption. They prey on people who seek God's strength and mercy and they mobilize these people to vote for political leaders who are more interested in lining the pockets of the wealthy than actually implementing the theocratic platform that won them the election. It's not that I'm for theocracy, but wouldn't it be better if there actually was a theocratic party, a big business party, a socially-conscious party, etc? Then at least everyone would have some representation, rather than having two parties that both serve the needs of AT&T, Halliburton, KBR, and other multinational conglomerates. Okay, rant over.

21 April 2006

Wilentz's article on the Bush Presidency

For those who don't subscribe to Rolling Stone, Sean Wilentz's article about the Bush presidency is available here through Truthout.org. I haven't taken the time to digest it, but it is certainly worth ten minutes of your time.

20 April 2006

The Bosnians Built the Pyramids

There is an joke among former Yugoslavs about how the Montenegrins discovered the cell phone. I'm not going to tell the joke because I would assuredly mess it up, even in writing, but the storyline is simple:

A Bosnian, a Serb, and a Montenegrin are sitting around, drinking coffee, and smoking. Each takes turns bragging about how his (always a he) nationality discovered the cell phone, each story being more unlikely than the next, with the Montegrin, who does something completely idiotic, as the punch line.

I mention this because an AP story carried by Salon.com has declared that a new pyramid has been found in Bosnia. I'm not sure what to make of it, but it makes me chuckle to think that somehow the joke about the Montenegro might just get turned on the Bosnians.

16 April 2006

Network Neutrality Part II

Farhad Manjoo has a new article in Salon about the plans made by AT&T, ComCast and other major telecommunication's companies to hijack the common carriage that has made the Internet the economic engine it has become. Last week, while doing some research on the price of Internet access for local consumers, I wondered how AT&T had managed to cut their monthly charges in half. Manjoo explains exactly how they can afford to do this.

12 April 2006

Why We Fight

President Dwight D. EisenhowerI spent this evening at Boardman's Art Theatre watching a documentary by Eugene Jarecki. The movie is titled Why We Fight, a consideration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous farewell address to the American public. In it, Eisenhower warned that the creation of a standing army in the wake of World War II created an unprecedented and dangerous "military-industrial complex", an alliance between the military and American industry. Jarecki's film, whose title alludes to the Frank Capra propoganda film series bearing the same title, challenges his audience to think deeply about why America has engaged militarily in so many conflicts over the last half-century through his use of news footage and interviews, often with neo-conservatives like Richard Perle and William Kristol. For more background, check out Andrew O'Hehir's interview with Jarecki in Salon. (Salon offers free day passes if prompted to log in.)

For those interested in a disturbing, if not completely disheartening, look at the military-industrial complex, I strongly encourage you to see this film. At first glance, the film operates as a seemingly incoherent montage of issues. Most of the criticisms I have read focused on this surface-level experience of the text. Some of these criticisms are justified, as certain scenes don't necessarily contribute as strongly as others to the deeper inquiry about why America has maintained a bellicose foreign policy over the last sixty years. As the film unfolds, the montages snap into place like parts of a gun pointed directly at the incestuous relationships between the Pentagon, America's defense contractors, think tanks, and Congress.

Ebert & Roper don't have much praise for the film, but their reviews basically miss the point. Ebert (who usually resonates with me) dismisses the film as a not very well put together version of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Roper thumbs up the film because he thinks that most people still don't know that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with Al Quida or the attack on 11 September 2001. Sadly, both miss the point, as the movie is not about exposing the administration's blatent fraud regarding Iraq. Rather it is about the duplicity of politicians from both parties in supporting an arms industry that bankrupts America's social institutions. I would place a couple of links to more conservative reviews, like that of Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, but I refuse to link to anything that requires special software (I despise RealMediaPlayer.) or for which you have to pay-to-play. However, my quick take on Morgenstern's review is that he must have left the theatre before Richard Perle's final comment in the film.

If Why We Fight is a call to question the nexus of violence, military power and corporate greed, it is also a strong confirmation of the raison d'etre of the anti-war movement. Eisenhower reminds us of the cost of the militarization of the American government: food for the hungry, schools for our children, homes for our families.

07 April 2006

Bottling the Internet: Why You Need to Know about Network Neutrality

Let's just imagine that you have a broadband connection to the internet. I don't mean broadband in its technical sense (Wikipedia--"...data transmission where multiple pieces of data are sent simultaneously to increase the effective rate of transmission."), I mean the "broadband" that telecommunications and cable companies (e.g. Cox, Insight, the New AT&T, etc.) have been offering for exorbitant prices for the last decade. Yes, I said exorbitant. When the Dutch pay 40% less than I do for more bandwidth (i.e. a faster connection), someone is getting ripped off and that someone is me. And that someone is you!

Again, we are imagining that you have actually taken the step to get "broadband" access in the form of a DSL or cable connection to the Internet, and we will imagine that you use Insight Broadband. And let's imagine that one of the reasons you purchased "broadband" is that you like getting music from ITunes. (If you don't know what ITunes is, substitute "looking at pretty pictures".) You download the music for a dollar and you are jammin'! You try out everything from Jimmy "the Yodlin' Cowboy" Rogers to Bootsy Collins. You're cruisin' and the downloads just keep comin' (so long as your pocketbook can afford it). A good alternative for exploration, by the way, is The Pandora Project.

Let's imagine that you have just discovered the wonder that is The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash and you have decided to purchase from ITunes the entire oeuvre. Just as you begin your download, a message appears from Cox Cable that says, "We are sorry, but in order to download this file you must pay Cox Cable an additional $1 per file." Of course, you are mad as hell, because now you will pay twice as much for a song.

You call Insight and demand an answer as to why you must pay this fee in addition to the high monthly cost of connecting to the Internet. They explain that they do not have an agreement with Cox Cable and therefore they have the right to charge for access to their network.

This is why you care about network neutrality and this is why you need to tell your representative in Washington, DC, that network neutrality is not an option, it is a demand of their constituency. If telecomm companies manage to discard network neutrality, this is the world you face, whether you want to view pretty pictures or listen to great music.

05 April 2006

Massachusetts Mistake?

The New York Times and the Washington Post are singing the praises of the Massachusetts legislature and Governor Mitt Romney for passing the first "universal health care" plan for Massachusetts citizens. While the Times and the Post both gush over the proposal as a triumph of the liberal idea of government mandates and the conservative insistance on individual responsibility.

Two things should be cause for caution. First, as Steve LeBlanc notes for Associated Press (reported in Salon.com), "The plan hinges in part on two key sections: the $295-per-employee business assessment and a so-called "individual mandate," requiring every citizen who can afford it to obtain health insurance or face increasing tax penalties." Romney, who has line-item veto power under Massachusetts state law, has already told reporters that he will veto the business assessment (see the Post and Times stories). If he does, the business incentive to provide health insurance will be eliminated and all of the cost of the insurance mandate will fall on individuals.

Proponents of the plan compare the program to auto insurance, where everyone who has a driver's license is required to provide proof of insurance. Of course, not everyone in Massachusetts has a driver's license. Some people opt out of that mandate and choose to rely on public transportation. There is no such choice in the health insurance plan without paying an income tax penalty.

The other thing that should be cause for concern is that there doesn't seem to be any stipulation about what kind of health coverage is required. As my recent experience with Seven Corners insurance offered through the Americorps VISTA program suggests, health coverage varies widely. While the goal of any universal plan should be to ensure that all citizens can afford necessary medical care, insurance plans often determine "necessity" based on an outcomes test. If, for example, your doctor declares that a test is medically necessary but the test turns out negative, the insurance company can and will declare the test unnecessary based on the results. Nothing I have read about the program has any stipulations that change the way insurance companies interfere in health care. (If someone knows of that kind of stipulation in the bill, I welcome the correction.)

Because Governor Mitt Romney has already promised to destroy the balance of responsibility in the bill and because insurers are allowed to continue to interefere in medicine, the "victory" of the legislature is pyrrhic at best.

04 April 2006

Back in the Race

For several years, I have had moments of sunlight surrounded by large periods of fog. Moments of love, triumph, and enlightenment have been like islands of calm in a rolling sea. While friends and family have helped to ground me, I have often felt adrift, unable to communicate my needs or wants even to my wife.

There was no moment when the fog lifted, no time that I can identify as the clearing of the storm. Instead, to further the island metaphor, it is more as though distant islands have been strung together into island chains, archipelagoes of opportunity in which I can remember what it felt like to be powerful and whole. Since I have begun working as an Americorps VISTA, I have felt better about myself, my friends, my family, and the community in which I live. None of that actually has anything to do with Americorps VISTA itself. I could have volunteered my time for Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Networks (CUWiN) independently, after all. I am convinced that my improved mentality is the result of remembering what it felt like to make real contributions to something that was larger than myself.

From that fog I have emerged and have decided to get back into the race. Watch out world.