Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Religion In America 2009

NOTE: Cathy notes in the comments that Aunt B.'s post today on America and religion is decidedly more crazy-dangerous than weird.

Morristown Bankruptcy Looms Large

City officials have been trying hard to duck and cover from massive waste and abuse in taxing and spending and there seems to be no end in sight - taxpayers will likely be slammed again with ever higher taxes during a crushing recession and double-digit unemployment. Worse, elected officials flee from accountability - they've been lumping all blame on a parade of city administrators who serve a few years, set all fiscal policy, and when it becomes impossible to ignore the problems, they boot the administrator and seek a new one. Yet, there are zero changes in how city policies are created and implemented, once again protecting those elected to city council from blame.

Starting in 2007, the city raised property taxes by 40 cents, then cut them after voters were told if they okayed a sales tax increase, the property tax increase would be less. Backed into a corner, voters gave the city the okay to raise sales taxes to the highest limit possible. But the increase took place at the moment the economy fell hard.

Sewer and water rates are also on a multi-year phase of ever-rising increases as the city tries to repair and replace a system that has been overwhelmed for at least a decade or more. The city is currently facing massive fines from the Tennessee Dept. of Environment and Conservation, whose recent survey of the sewer system noted over 50 sewage overflows over the course of a single year and flow meters which were not working for that entire time. City officials said they had never heard of any problems at all until October of this year.

City employees got more bad news last night - there's an expected $900,000 shortfall already in the budget for '09-'10 which the city recently approved, so layoffs and cuts must take place. Bankruptcy is the word on most people's minds, but few are willing to say it.

Reports finally are hitting the Knoxville media - WBIR, WVLT and WATE news are on the story. As for local news reports ... there are too few until after problems reach the levels where hard decisions and votes are before elected officials and city residents. With council meetings held at 4 p.m. and not broadcast on local government channels, very few residents know what's been taking place -- or perhaps they simply assume all is well and seldom attend meetings.

Attorney, blogger and former County Commissioner Linda Noe has been trying to follow the financial mismanagement, such as a recent discovery of an illegal transfer of $2.5 million in city funds, for quite a while now -- she says of the most recent cuts:

To make up a projected budget shortfall of approximately $900,000, the cuts by various departments included a reducton in hours for many city employees, vacant positions left unfilled or changed to part-time, and the elimination of the positions of two newly-hired firefighters who had just recently been sent for training.

Voting "no" on the cuts were Gene Brooks and Claude Jinks. All others (Bob Garrett, Mayor Sami Barile, Claude Jinks, Doc Rooney, and Frank McGuffin) voted yes.

After the cutting was done, Interim Administrator Wampler asked that the council consider at a future date a number of ways of raising more money for the city. Among the proposals put on the table were raising the hotel-motel tax (which will have to be approved locally, sent to Nashville as part of a private act, and then passed again locally with a 2/3 majority), garbage pick-up charges, and eliminating recycling pick-up and having people deliver their recyclables to convenience centers instead."

She also notes the ongoing federal lawsuit against the city and Koch Foods in Greeneville, but again, local news coverage is virtually non-existent.

The city is also wrestling with a debt of over $70 million, yet eagerly announce a new airport terminal as the "Front Door to the City".

Indeed, job creation and city attract-ability are vital to the financial success of all concerned -- but it sure looks to me like the house and the roof are about to collapse too.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sarah Palin and The 'Twilight' Cult

I think there's a strong link between the popularity of the "Twilight" vampire novels and movies and Alaska's Sarah Palin.

I can't completely nail it down for you - it's this weird mixture of fantasy, immortality, sexuality, power and powerlessness. And heaps of plain old-fashioned shlock. It's about not just escaping reality but abandoning it, seeing it only as a hopeless realm and instead creating a fantasy of brilliant and daring success to call Home.

I've been trying to read the first "Twilight" book but it's slow going. Perhaps if I were 13 years old, it would seem to contain some kind of wisdom. But it just kind of bores me, seems kind of whiney, and why the heck would a 90 year old vampire want to hang out at high school? Don't get my wrong - I'll read all kinds of shlocky fiction - like the not-very-good-but-to-me-enjoyable series of Repairman Jack novels by F. Paul Wilson. I've read 5 or 6 of them and like them all, but I know it's like a bad bag full of drive-thru cheeseburgers.

A few things link Palin and the adventures of Bella -- like the way Palin keeps reacting to the childish antics of 19-year-old Levi Johnston, her grandbaby's daddy. And the way Palin writes about herself on Facebook. It's as if Palin sees Levi as one of the Bad Vampires rather than the Good Vampires Bella bonds with. And of course, there was the recent Oprah shows with "Twilight" creator Stephenie Meyer on Nov. 13th and Palin on the following show on Nov. 16th.

Here's a simple experiment - read an excerpt from Palin's book here and then read an excerpt from "Twilight" here. Reads like the same tortured adolescence to me.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Congress Dances To Billionaire Fiddlers

Congressional debate on most legislation is often mingled with information provided by lobbyists - hardly a news flash to folks who follow politics. Still, a few recent examples show the members of Congress from both parties make sure that the info they include in the record of their debate shine a bright light on a dark reality - they represent the will and demands of lobbyists and not of the residents of their districts.

Steve Benen at Washington Monthly points to a report that 42 members of Congress, 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats, made sure that words written by lobbyists for Genentech, a subsidiary of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche, and given to congressmen which were then offered in the recent House "debate" on health care reforms.

Now, don't necessarily expect tomorrow's "Daily Show" to have a segment featuring dozens of lawmakers repeating the identical lobbyist-written words over and over again. That's not quite how this worked.

The Congressional Record includes the transcript of what lawmakers said on the House floor, but members are also able to submit written statements that "revise and extend" their remarks. It's here where lawmakers submitted Genentech's preferred statements for the record. As Karen Tumulty noted, it lets the "lobbyists' paymasters" know that "they are getting good return on their investment."

What's noteworthy here is that it's "unusual for so many revisions and extensions to match up word for word. It is even more unusual to find clear evidence that the statements originated with lobbyists."

Note to congressional offices: if you're going to copy and paste someone else's homework, make more of an effort to pretend otherwise.

Asked about the statements, a lobbyist close to Genentech told the NYT's Robert Pear, "This happens all the time."

In another post by Benen, he cites an email from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is funding a report aimed at derailing passage of the health reform legislation by claiming economic disaster if such legislation is passed - even though the CoC already has the conclusions of their "study" ready to go to members of the Senate.

... the Chamber's memo already points to the agreed-upon conclusion of the economic review that does not yet exist. From its email: "The economist will then circulate a sign-on letter to hundreds of other economists saying that the bill will kill jobs and hurt the economy. We will then be able to use this open letter to produce advertisements, and as a powerful lobbying and grass-roots document."

The Chamber's James Gelfand, who wrote the memo, said the proposal for the trumped-up economic study was "suggested by our Congressional allies." It was unclear as to who those "allies" are, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that congressional Republicans asked the Chamber of Commerce to help kill health care reform with this spurious study.

It's not exactly a plan that screams "credible, independent analysis."

If this seems vaguely familiar, it was only a month ago that a dubious study by America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) was released, in the hopes of derailing the health care reform effort. It wasn't long before it was exposed as something of a political sham.

White House Deputy Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said the email is "proof positive that the opponents of health reform will not let the facts get in the way of their efforts to defend to the status quo that has been so profitable for the insurance companies."

(According the always dubious "reporting" at FOX, the US Chamber boasts 3 million members -- but the truth FOX ignored was that really their membership is closer to 360,000. But once the falsehood gets played up by FOX, most faithful viewers get another bogus talking point that President Obama is one of them there evil Socialists. Given that the US Chamber is one of the largest lobbying groups in Washington, they hold a huge amount of authority - none of it based on the demands of the average voter in elections.)

And lobbying influence is growing and growing - Open Secrets website notes there are currently some 13,000-plus active lobbyists in Washington, which means your Congressman or Senator will be speaking to and communicating with hundreds if not thousands of them daily. I'd say about 1,000 voters would need to contact that elected official each day on any one issue to counter the influence of lobbyists. And not just email or call them, they'd need to actually speak face-to-face and that just isn't happening.

Open Secrets also notes that so far in 2009 over $2.5 billion has been spent on lobbying Congress - and that's separate dollars from those supplied by campaign contributions. Here's a graphic on the recent trends via Open Secrets:

Total Lobbying Spending

1998$1,441,256,939$1.44 Billion
1999$1,440,661,347$1.44 Billion
2000$1,559,161,579$1.56 Billion
2001$1,636,290,131$1.64 Billion
2002$1,816,911,583$1.82 Billion
2003$2,047,622,456$2.05 Billion
2004$2,177,044,520$2.18 Billion
2005$2,432,561,826$2.43 Billion
2006$2,616,906,950$2.62 Billion
2007$2,857,688,519$2.86 Billion
2008$3,299,526,502$3.30 Billion
2009$2,499,860,287$2.50 Billion

Number of Lobbyists*

*The number of unique, registered lobbyists who have actively lobbied.

It's worth noting the massive power that providing or withholding information on issues vital to the average person can have literal life and death consequences.

Just last week at RoaneViews, they pointed to an EPA report kept secret for 7 years on the health risks to people who live near coal ash storage sites, such as the one operated by TVA in Kingston which broke apart and spent billions of gallons of toxic waste into the landscape. The report included the estimation that those living near such sites have a 1 in 50 chance of developing cancer. But that kind of public information would be bad news for the coal-fired energy business, so it was kept quiet. Now that hearings and legislation are underway to create actual standards for how such dangerous sites are constructed and monitored, the information is provided to the public.

Thankfully, more and more accurate information is available online on how Congress works and who they are working for -- but it's a monumental task to counter the effects of billions of dollars and armies of lobbyists whose goals are not driven by how best to serve the public. Too often, the public is distracted by the dog and pony show known as The Media while the real work and the real influence lives large.