Tag: Congress

For want of a half penny, a future was lost…

March 13, 2012 | By | 4 Replies More
For want of a half penny, a future was lost…

Yesterday, my son shared the video below – Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “We Stopped Dreaming (Episode 1)”. It took me back to childhood memories when I was inspired to be a scientist. I remember watching the Apollo launches. I think I remember listening to the Gemini 4 space walk – I was four, and my father recorded it on reel-to-reel, but I don’t remember him ever replaying it. I remember staying up late and falling asleep…thankfully to be awoken by my mother just before Apollo 11 landed on the moon. …Skylab, …the test flight of the Space Shuttle Enterprise.

Years later, I left behind aspirations of a science career (practicalities…how much money does the average physicist make anyway?) for one of engineering, but the love of space, cosmology, NASA…all still with me…which is why what Neil deGrasse Tyson is saying in this video saddens me all the more.

I worry that decisions Congress makes doesn’t [sic] factor in the consequences of those decisions on tomorrow.

Apart from the applicability of that to just about any of the current Congress’s decisions, he’s dead right in this specific instance. We are not funding science. We are not encouraging and developing engineers. We are failing in educating our young people, not only in the technical fields, but in general.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) compares 15 year olds in 65 industrial countries. From the 2009 report:

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a collaborative effort among OECD member countries to measure how well 15-year-old students approaching the end of compulsory schooling are prepared to meet the challenges of today’s knowledge societies. The assessment is forward-looking: rather than focusing on the extent to which these students have mastered a specific school curriculum, it looks at their ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. This orientation reflects a change in curricular goals and objectives, which are increasingly concerned with what students can do with what they learn at school.

“…to meet real-life challenges.” Care to guess how the U.S.A. fared in the latest, 2009, assessment? You can see here for yourself, but I’ll spoil it:

  • Reading – 17th (out of 65)
  • Mathematics –31st (significantly below the average)
  • Science – 23rd

We fail. We fail across the board. We fail where it matters. I’m not sure how we will fare in the 2012 PISA, but I seriously doubt we’ll improve. Our system doesn’t support it anymore.

Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, in their book “That Used to Be us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back”, quote Matt Miller, one of the authors of a 2009 McKinsey & Company report titled The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools, who said

They [American students] are being prepared for $12-an-hour jobs – not $40 to $50 an hour.”

I don’t know what the answer is. I admit a selfish cop out – we home educate our children – so I don’t think often on what can or should be done; we’ve taken responsibility for preparing our children ourselves. Still, one simple solution seems to be to promote science, math and engineering.

And we start doing that by not cutting NASA’s budget.

Fat chance. How much would YOU pay for the universe?

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Matt Taibbi on Congressional corruption

July 22, 2010 | By | Reply More
Matt Taibbi on Congressional corruption

Once again, Matt Taibbi says it like it is.

This is a classic example of how the Senate works . . . Bernie Sanders had put forth a proposal in the Senate to put a 15 percent cap on credit-card interest. Who isn’t in favor of this kind of legislation? The only difference between credit card companies and loan sharks at this point is that you can choose to not patronize a loan shark. As an adult professional in this country one has to have a credit card – it’s impossible to rent a car, buy a hotel room, shop online or do countless other things without one.

But all the credit card companies use the same insane formulae based on FICO scores to charge exorbitant interest rates for anyone who slips up – and they don’t exactly make it easy to not slip up . . . Almost everyone has horror stories about consumer credit and my guess is that if put to a national referendum, something like the Sanders 15% cap would pass pretty easily. In Washington, of course, it’s another story.

If we had a national referendum, the 15% cap would pass 90-10 if we had an honest debate. Of course, if there were really a national vote on the issue, the airwaves would be filled with bank-financed fraudulent ads telling us how the entire country will go bankrupt if we don’t charge a minimum of 30% interest rates on credit cards, or some similar bullshit.

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Why we need public funding for our elections

April 26, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
Why we need public funding for our elections

Members of Congress are supposed to assert independence regarding their deliberations and actions, but it has long been clear that campaign cash corrupts this entire process.

In the video below, Lawrence Lessig succinctly makes the case that corporate contributions have made a farce out of Congress. Truly, how can Senator Scott Brown (featured in the video) take a position opposing a bill when he doesn’t even know why? Rather than considering the merits of the financial reform legislation with an open mind, Scott Brown is giving the terms of the bill no consideration. Instead of understanding the bill, then weighing the pros and cons, he is merely granting the wishes of his biggest contributors, who happen to be big corporations. This is political malpractice, and We the People deserve far better than this. This is the equivalent of turning on your kitchen faucet and hoping for clear water, but seeing only raw sewage come out. The “Congress” we have is not a functioning Congress. Because it is devoid of the critical deliberative function that should serve as it’s heart and soul, it is a charade and it should be the highest priority of this country to Fix Congress.

The solution Lawrence Lessig proposes is to enact a law called the Fair Elections Now Act, which will allow publicly-funded elections. One such bill is currently pending in Congress: the Fair Elections Now Act. You can read the full text of the Senate version of the bill here.

If you click on the “Take Action” page, you can encourage additional sponsors for this desperately needed legislation. There are many co-sponsors to both the Senate and House versions of the bill, but there is a long way to go. It would only take you five or ten minutes to review the bill, and make a few calls to voice your support to your representatives.

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Exhibit A regarding Congressional dysfunction

February 7, 2010 | By | Reply More
Exhibit A regarding Congressional dysfunction

How is it that one senator can stifle government function? Tim Rutten of the LA Times explains:

In the face of these daunting issues, what was it that preoccupied the Senate on the eve of its long weekend recess? The legislative drama du jour is the standoff between the White House and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who has put a personal hold on more than 70 executive branch appointments until the Obama administration agrees to fund a couple of pork-barrel projects he has earmarked for his state. One involves tens of millions of dollars for an FBI laboratory focusing on improvised explosives — something the bureau doesn’t think it needs. . . . Unless the administration agrees to give Shelby what he wants, he intends to invoke an archaic senatorial privilege that allows him to prevent the chamber from considering any of the administration’s nominees to executive branch vacancies, no matter how crucial. Without the 60 votes to force cloture — another archaic convention — there’s nothing the Democrats or the White House can do.

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NASCAR Patches for Congressmen

January 28, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More
NASCAR Patches for Congressmen

I heard one new idea in last night’s State of the Union. In response to the Supreme Court deciding that multi-national corporations should have all the rights of individual breathing citizens — allowing them to spend whatever they want to influence elections (as reported here) — Obama suggested that all contacts between lobbyists and public servants be publicly documented. This includes the identity of the client corporations and amounts of money and time involved. The applause were uneven.

This morning a new FaceBook group appeared: ‘Our Corporate Congress’: Make NASCAR-type patches mandatory Congress-wear. I’m not much of a joiner, but I like this idea. Allow the Congressman from Exxon to proudly wear the oil patch right next to his Monsanto and Pfizer badges. Let the senator who filibusters public transit bills proudly show his AAA patch and Ford logo.

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Congress Approves $500 Billion For Monument To Human Folly

November 4, 2009 | By | Reply More
Congress Approves $500 Billion For Monument To Human Folly

As reported by The Onion, “Congress Approves $500 Billion For Monument To Human Folly.”

In recognition of mankind’s inherent propensity for tragically foolish decisions, Congress allocated nearly $500 billion Monday for the construction of a new national monument honoring human folly.

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My recurring nightmare

October 11, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More
My recurring nightmare

What I am posting here is a gnawing, recurring and growing concern that sometimes seems like a nightmare to me. It embarrasses me that this thought keeps recurring because it makes me look like one of those crazy conspiracy theorists.

What brought this “nightmare” to a head was watching Bill Moyers’ interview with U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur. Here’s an excerpt:

MARCY KAPTUR: Let me give you a reality from ground zero in Toledo, Ohio. Our foreclosures have gone up 94 percent. A few months ago, I met with our realtors. And I said, ‘What should I know?’ They said, ‘Well, first of all, you should know the worst companies that are doing this to us.’ I said, ‘Well, give me the top one.’ They said, ‘J.P. Morgan Chase.’ I went back to Washington that night. And one of my colleagues said, ‘You want to come to dinner?’ I said, ‘Well, what is it?’ He said, ‘Well, it’s a meeting with Jamie Dimon, the head of J.P. Morgan Chase.’ I said, ‘Wow, yes. I really do.’ So, I go to this meeting in a fancy hotel, fancy dinner, and everyone is complimenting him. I mean, it was just like a love fest.

They finally got to me, and my point to ask a question. I said, ‘Well, I don’t want to speak out of turn here, Mr. Dimon.’ I said, ‘But your company is the largest forecloser in my district. And our Realtors just said to me this morning that your people don’t return phone calls.’ I said, ‘We can’t do work outs.’ And he looked at me, he said, ‘Do you know that I talk to your Governor all the time?’ He said, ‘Our company employs 10,000 people in Ohio.’ And I’m thinking, ‘What is that? A threat?’ And he said, ‘I speak to the Mayor of Columbus.’

As I watched this, I was thinking how amazing it was that a bank president would dare to treat a U.S. representative as though she meant nothing to him, even though she is a sitting member of Congress and a member of the political party that controls both Houses and the Presidency. How is it that all the big financial players such as Chase, AIG, Goldman Sachs, always get exactly what they want out of Congress? How can Congress allow these entities to continue to grow (since the meltdown), even though it is clear that the reason Congress felt that they needed to be propped up with tax money is that they were considered “too big to fail?” Name even one other industry that can snap its fingers and watch meaningful Congressional regulation completely dissolve. Name another industry that can demand hundreds of billions of no-questions-asked tax dollars from Congress. Consider the vast power and potential abuses of the Federal Reserve, which works arrogantly and opaquely. Consider Matt Tabbi’s recent articles regarding these financial giants and Congressional Corruption (and see here). We’re not even finished paying off the damage from the S&L scandal from the 80’s, and now, in the past year, we’ve taken on a new debt that dwarfs that S&L debt. And consider that when someone like federal Judge Rakoff has the integrity to stand up to speak truth to power, he seems to be a lone voice calling from a distant hilltop, not part of any sort of chorus. Consider, too, the monumental struggle faced by Elizabeth Warren, Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel , who is facing immense opposition in Congress to establishing a strong Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) to make sure that consumers stop getting ripped off by banks through the use of unintelligible contract language (how can this possibly be controversial?).

Pardon my French, but what-the-fuck?

Using Occam’s Razor (the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the best), how does one explain that huge numbers of our representatives have completely tanked on The People.

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What KIND of health care?

September 7, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More
What KIND of health care?

The raging health care debate “debate” is almost entirely devoid of facts, an issue on which I’ve previously posted. Instead of discussing fact, then, we tend hurl vague accusations, like calling the reformers “communists” (and you’ve GOT to see this).

I “blame” Obama for this lack of specificity, but I realize that the vicious opposition mounted by huge self-interested insurance companies and health care providers might require that he not play all of his cards at this point.

But isn’t it odd that our politicians aren’t at least clarifying the term “health care coverage” when they refer to national health care coverage? Defining this term would make a huge difference to the public reaction to any national plan. Here are two possibilities (though there are others):

A) The national plan will offer gold-plated coverage much like the expensive United Health Care coverage I buy for my family through my employer. For the record, the pre-tax cost of this coverage is about $20,000 per year for my family. Is the Obama proposal to provide every citizen with this kind of coverage? If so, I can see why there is massive resentment to the proposal. Many working people can barely afford health insurance coverage at all, and the coverage many people do purchase is not nearly as comprehensive as the expensive coverage I purchase. Of course people who can can only afford to buy their own rudimentary policies will resent that the government might buy gold-plated policies for everyone else, including many highly irresponsible people.

B) The national plan will offer a rudimentary coverage only. It will cover x-rays and casts for broken arms, but not heart transplants and expensive drugs that only marginally increase one’s chances of surviving an illness. It wouldn’t keep people suffering from terminal illness on life support when there is no reasonable chance that they would ever leave the hospital. It would cover only a small subset of the treatments covered by gold-plated policies. It might be akin to the Oregon Plan.

I believe that there would be massive resistance to the national coverage described in A) but far less resistance to the coverage described in B).

At least Oregon’s legislators had the cajunas to specifically state what was covered under their plan and what was not (Oregon’s prioritized list is available for all to see). Oregon had the fiscal responsibility to make certain that they could afford the level of health care to which they were committing. Oregon dealt head-on with the accusation that they were “rationing” health care; absolutely they were, just like private plans ration health care only to those who pay those high premiums. Both responsible and irresponsible health care plans “ration” health care. Therefore, it is not a criticism of any health care plan that it “rations” health care. Here are the guiding principles to the Oregon Plan:

In 1987, the Oregon Legislature realized that it had no method for allocating resources for health care that was both effective and accountable. Over the next two years, policy objectives were developed to guide the drafting of legislation to address this problem. These policy objectives included:

• Acknowledgment that the goal is health rather than health services or health insurance
• Commitment to a public process with structured public input
• Commitment to meet budget constraints by reducing benefits rather than cutting people
from coverage or reducing payments to levels below the cost of care
• Commitment to use available resources to fund clinically effective treatments of
conditions important to Oregonians
• Development of explicit health service priorities to guide resource allocation decisions.

Our national conversation regarding health care is so dysfunction on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. I’ll make only one more point in this post, however. Opponents of current proposals often make accusations that there will be “death panels,” indicating that some sick people will be allowed to die. As a nation, we need to grow up and deal with the fact that this happens every day in every hospital in the country: we shouldn’t be allocating huge amounts of money to maintain pulses in people who have become living corpses. There are some families who “can’t let go” no matter what (e.g., Terry Schiavo), and our national plan needs to have specific guidelines for these situations. In fact, every private insurance plan should have guidelines for determining when further treatment is likely to be futile and a provision for ending coverage at that point. The alternative is to make policies so horrifically expensive that many people can’t afford policies that cover tratments likely to make an immediate positive impact on their lives.

Only when we put these issues clearly on the table can we begin to have a real conversation.

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Elizabeth Warren faces fierce resistance to regulation of non-bank lenders

September 6, 2009 | By | Reply More
Elizabeth Warren faces fierce resistance to regulation of non-bank lenders

Elizabeth Warren is one of my heroes. Barack Obama appointed her to be Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel created, which was established to oversee the banking bailouts. For many years, Warren has fought tough battles on behalf of consumers. [See the related posts to this post; and here’s a video of Warren being interviewed by Jon Stewart that will give you an idea of what she is about (and especially consider Part II)].

Warren is now facing an incredibly tough uphill battle. Her main weapon is common sense. She wants to regulate banks and non-bank lenders, to stop them from defrauding consumers with their fine print, their outlandish fees and their arithmetical hocus-pocus. In a fair fight, her position should easily win the day. But it’s not a fair fight, because the financial services industry owns much of Congress. Therefore, Warren has spent much time advocating for the need for a strong Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). Here’s what Warren has to say about the need to regulate non-bank lenders:

There is more that we can do to deal with non-bank lenders, but only if Congress creates a strong CFPA. If we stick with the status quo — which treats loans differently depending on who issues them and places consumer protection in agencies that consider it an afterthought – we know what will happen because we have seen it happen before. Lenders will continue their tricks and traps business model, the mega-banks will exploit regulatory loopholes, and the non-banks will continue to sell deceptive products. In that world, small banks will need to choose between lowering standards or losing market share, and they will still get too much attention from regulators while the non-banks and big banks get too little. Dangerous loans will destabilize both families and the economy, and we’ll all remain at risk for the next trillion-dollar bailout.

Regulating the non-banks hasn’t been tried in any serious way. The CFPA offers a real chance to level the playing field, to add balance to the system, and to change the consumer lending landscape forever.

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