Avoiding public debate on major issues

Two of the enduring myths in American politics is that there is deep animosity between the two major parties and that the US Senate is the greatest deliberating body in the world. But as Glenn Greenwald points out, backroom bipartisanship is the norm when it comes to serving the interests of the one-party state, such as extending the USA Patriot Act. Public debates are either largely symbolic where the outcome has been pre-determined or involve issues that are not important to the pro-war/pro-business one party that rules this country. The idea of having a genuine debate on an important issue in which the outcome is not pre-determined is viewed with horror by the leadership of both parties.

The extent to which the Senate goes out of its way to avoid discussing major legislation in public is described well in this letter in response to the Greenwald post, in which Senator Rand Paul describes how little work is done by the Senate and how hard it is to get the Senate to debate important issues, such as war. The method of choice to prevent a debate on anything is what is known as a ‘fake quorum call’.

The US as Europe’s slum

Last month I wrote about how the Swedish corporation IKEA became transformed from a model employer in Sweden to an abusive one in the US and that this was because the US does not provide the same level of protections for workers that Sweden does.

Harold Meyerson writes that IKEA is just one example of a trend in which foreign companies see the US as the new home for sweatshops. Deutsche Bank, for example, has been accused of becoming the largest slumlord in Los Angeles, doing things it could never have done in its home country of Germany.

But slumming in America is fast becoming a business model for some of Europe’s leading companies, and they often do things here they would never think of doing at home. These companies — not banks, primarily, but such gold-plated European manufacturers as BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen and Siemens, and retailers such as IKEA — increasingly come to America (the South particularly) because labor is cheap and workers have no rights.

In their eyes, we’re becoming the new China. Our labor costs may be a little higher, but we offer stronger intellectual property protections and far fewer strikes than our unruly Chinese comrades.

As a report released by Human Rights Watch late last year documents, companies that routinely welcome unions, pay middle-class wages and have workers’ representatives on their corporate boards in Germany and Scandinavia have threatened their U.S.-based employees with permanent replacement by other workers as the penalty for protesting wage cuts (that was the German manufacturer Robert Bosch), ordered workers to report on fellow workers’ pro-union activities (that was T-Mobile, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom) and disciplined workers who couldn’t show up for unscheduled weekend shifts announced on Friday night (that was IKEA, according to a Los Angeles Times story).

In Germany, Robert Bosch, according to Human Rights Watch, has never threatened a single worker with losing his job for protesting wage cuts, and Deutsche Telekom repeatedly touts its “social partnership” with its union. In Sweden, IKEA, like the vast majority of Swedish companies, is unionized and affords its workers a range of rights and benefits that are all but unimaginable to American retail workers.

The advantage of the US over Asian countries as the site for sweatshops is the high levels of worker education and productivity here, coupled with the removal of worker protections and elimination of unions. So expect to see a rise in the future in low-level jobs with appalling conditions.

Meanwhile, this article lists 36 statistics that illustrate the steady decline of the American middle class. One telling indicator is the fierce competition for low-level jobs that were once considered temporary fall back positions, to fill time until something better came along. For example, when McDonalds ran its “National Hiring Day” on April 19, nearly one million people applied for 50,000 jobs.

Bitcoins

One of the dangers of the global financial system is that it gives far too much power to a few giants corporations which can choke off access to entities they do not like or which they think threaten oligarchic interests. For example, a few credit card companies now dominate and they can and will use their power to serve the coercive needs of governments. Recall how Visa and MasterCard banned transfer of contributions to WikiLeaks to serve US government interests, even though WikiLeaks has not been accused of any crime.

Enter bitcoins, a new peer-to-peer decentralized digital currency that seeks to bypass this system. Here’s a brief video that explains how it works.

This Wikipedia page explains more about how it works. I can’t say that I fully understand it yet. But it looks promising as a way of undermining financial monopoly power.

Film review: Gasland

This award-winning documentary provides a stark warning about the danger that hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ as it is popularly known, poses to the water supply in the nation and to its air quality. It blasts the notion that natural gas is a ‘clean’ source of energy. It may be clean when it is used but the way that fracking extracts it from shale rock formations underground creates very serious environmental and health hazards.

Fracking involves pumping huge amounts of water mixed with about 600 chemicals (some known to be toxic and carcinogenous) deep underground at high pressure to create the equivalent of an explosion to fracture the shale rock, thus releasing the natural gas which is then extracted. But only about half of the contaminated water is recovered. The rest, mixed with natural gas, can end up in the water table and watersheds and streams and rivers, polluting them.

The film has much lower production values than Inside Job but, like that film, will make you angry at the way that big corporations, in this case the oil and natural gas industry, aided by its allies in government, ride roughshod over ordinary people, destroying their water supplies and air and, in the process, their very lives. It is heartbreaking to see ordinary people being treated like dirt and having nowhere to turn.

Here’s the trailer for Gasland:

It is a personal film, starting with Josh Fox, who was involved with the writing, directing, producing, and camerawork, receiving a letter from a gas company offering him $100,000 for the right to drill wells on the 20 acres of land in rural Pennsylvania, a wooded area with clear running streams, on which his parents had built their home.

Fox travels the country to talk with the people whose lives have been impacted by fracking. In investigating the effect of such drilling, he discovers that it can result in destruction of the environment and the health of the people in the vicinity. People’s wells become contaminated and the air gets polluted, resulting in people and animals developing serious health problems.

Most of us assume that industries are subject to regulations imposed by the government to protect people and the environment. The high water mark for such protections occurred in the early 1970s when presidents Nixon and Ford (both Republicans incidentally) signed the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974). What I had not been aware of, and was shocked to learn from the film, was that in 2005, the energy bill that was pushed through Congress by Dick Cheney exempts the oil and natural gas industry from those three laws as well as the CERCLA/Superfund Law (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability) Act (1980). The oil and gas companies were also exempted from even informing the public what chemicals were used in the fracking fluid. They could now act with impunity and they did. Cheney’s former company Halliburton benefited greatly from these exemptions.

But that is not the only way that these big companies get their way. They also use their power to defund the regulatory agencies that are supposed to provide oversight to protect people and the environment so that they cannot match the resources that these corporations can bring to bear. That is what this current push against ‘big government’ is largely about. It is not about eliminating waste or saving money or cutting red tape by reducing the bureaucracy. It is all about making sure that federal, state, and local governments, the only entities that (in principle at least) represent ordinary people and are large enough to act as a counterweight to industry, are made ineffective by cutting the budgets of their regulatory agencies, forcing them to reduce staff and creating working conditions so bad that they cannot attract the kinds of technical experts who are needed.

The people in the Tea Party and other groups who rail against ‘big government’ and think that ‘drill, baby, drill’ is a cute and catchy slogan, are being played for suckers by the big corporations and the oligarchy. I wonder how many of the ordinary people that Fox interviewed in the film, whose lives and livelihood were destroyed by the oil and gas industry, were among those who had bought into the idea that government is too big, and whether they now realize that they were duped.

One of the most alarming things in the film were the maps of the country that showed the network of rivers and watersheds, and superimposed on them were the shale formations and the natural gas wells that had been drilled. Much of it consists of public lands that the oil and gas corporations are eagerly eyeing to exploit for their purposes. You immediately see that almost the entire water supply of the US is threatened. Furthermore, they are discovering shale formations around the globe and you can be sure that fracking will spread as money is dangled before the eyes of poor people and nations to provide the oil and gas companies the same immunity they got here.

Gasland should have had people up in arms but although it received an Oscar nomination (it lost to Inside Job), it has not aroused much anger. Interestingly, the film has aroused public opinion in France against fracking and there are moves in that country for a nationwide ban on fracking, citing what we have learned in the US. It seems like people in the US are passively accepting the destruction of their once pristine lands and water supplies, and are reduced to serving as guinea pigs that other nations benefit from.

New York Times and David Brooks parodies

There is a remarkably good New York Times parody site. The site was created by Tony Hendra whom some may recognize as the put-upon manager of the band in This Is Spinal Tap.

They do a particularly good job with their David Brooks column on Michele Bachmann, where they capture perfectly his technique of seamlessly blending the banal and the obvious and delivering the result with an air of profundity.

They also have a report on what caused the Rapture to not occur on schedule.

Why people believe in gods

A new book Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith explains the basis of religious belief and the mechanisms that go into creating religious belief structures. I have not read it yet but it looks interesting and I will get to it soon.

Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith — Dr. Andy Thomson from Kurt Volkan on Vimeo.

(Via onegoodmove.)

Film review: Inception (no spoilers)

Following in the tracks of Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this film takes a speculative look at how the brain works while maintaining at least some level of plausibility, unlike the case of the Matrix franchise which seemed to have been a case of special effects run amuck.

Inception examines the possibility of one or more people entering the dream of another and thereby manipulating that person’s dream to discover secrets or, as in the main storyline here, plant the germ of an idea in the mind so that the person thinks it originated spontaneously. I found it to be an interesting film. It plays with the age-old question that everyone has speculated about at some point about how we would know whether the lives we perceive we are living are real or a dream.

One has to follow the film closely because the story involves a dream within a dream within a dream, i.e., three levels down, and the story jumps between the three levels. The plot depends heavily on the idea that time in dreams elapses ten times faster than it does in real life, so that when one has descended to the third level, one second in real life corresponds to about 1,000 seconds in dream time, or about 15 minutes.

I read recently (but unfortunately did not keep the reference and cannot find it now) that this view has been challenged and that dream time and real time are similar. I dream a lot and since seeing the film, I have tried to remember on waking if the events in my dreams seemed to cover a lot of time and haven’t noticed such an effect.

Inception is the kind of film that, like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, requires a second (or even a third) viewing in order to try and fill in some of the details that confused one the first time around. But I will not be doing so. The reason is that the film is too long, running about two and a half hours. While I think that the ideal length for a film is 90 minutes, some films require a longer time to do the story justice and I have no problem with that. David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, for example, runs well over three hours and is well worth it.

What I dislike are films (Casino Royale is another example) that seem to spend a lot of time on chases and shootouts that seem highly repetitive and do not serve to advance the story. I am guessing that filmmakers add these scenes to make things exciting and suspenseful but I find them boring and this film could have eliminated about 30 minutes without any loss and that would have, at least to me, made it better. Maybe I have seen too many such chases since the classic one (below) in Bullitt (1968), where Steve McQueen’s Ford Mustang flying through the air in San Francisco created the template. Maybe younger filmgoers are not as jaded as I am and enjoy these extended chases.

Inception has lots of special effects, such as an entire cityscape being folded over so that the streets of one part get placed upside down on top of another part so that cars drive along a street that turns upwards and then come back upside down. But I find that with the advent of sophisticated computers, these effects don’t wow me anymore. Since Star Wars came out in 1977, we know that computers can produce all these spectacular visual effects and creating these effects have become the province of graphic artists. Although they do require a lot of painstaking work, they don’t arouse any more wonder than the effects produced by cartoon animators because animations and computers both enable you to ignore the laws of science,

It was different before the days when computers could seamlessly blend live action with illustrations. When you saw special effects in a film you wondered how they did it and when the secrets were revealed you marveled at the cleverness of the filmmakers. I remember watching 2001: A Space Odyssey when it first came out in 1968 and wondering how they captured the effects of space travel. Decades later I watched the DVD version that in its bonus section explained some of the tricks used and it was impressive to see how with ordinary objects and clever camera work they managed to do extraordinary things despite having to work within the constraints of the laws of science and with gravity. That required real ingenuity.

Here’s the trailer for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Rapture, we hardly knew ye

Well, it is time to wrap up the Rapture stuff. It was fun while it lasted and for me at least it provided some amusement to see the kind of idiotic certainty that religion can give people. It was also amusing to watch mainline religious leaders squirm as they tried to argue that believing that the Rapture would occur yesterday was crazy while believing that the Rapture will occur some time in the future was quite sensible.

So here are some final thoughts.

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