Friday Reads

tumblr_ll19xnMqf61qzmxo9o1_400Good Morning!

It’s still raining here and we’re under a flash flood warning and have been since yesterday afternoon.  It’s May!  Enough of the April Showers already!  My magnolia tree out front is blooming up a storm on its own.  The huge white blossoms are picture perfect!

Well, you knew it was coming!  It was just a matter of time before Debtors Prisons came back given the way Banana Republican States are trying to shove us back several centuries.  Why do people feel like the poor should be punished?

The jailing of people unable to pay fines and court costs is no longer a relic of the 19th century American judicial system. Debtors’ prisons are alive and well in one-third of the states in this country.

In 2011, Think Progress’ Marie Diamond wrote: “Federal imprisonment for unpaid debt has been illegal in the U.S. since 1833. It’s a practice people associate more with the age of Dickens than modern-day America. But as more Americans struggle to pay their bills in the wake of the recession, collection agencies are using harsher methods to get their money, ushering in the return of debtor’s prisons.”

In 2010, the ACLU did a study titled In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons, which revealed the use of debtors prison practices in five states, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia and Washington.

In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson said: “Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope – some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”

Nearly 50 years after Johnson’s address, which launched the “War on Poverty,” “poverty in America has not dissipated,” the ACLU’s report states that “the number of people living in poverty in Ohio grew by 57.7% from 1999 to 2011, with the largest increase coming from suburban counties.”

This year’s ACLU report – which takes its name from a phrase in Johnson’s speech – points out that many poor “Ohioans … convicted of a criminal or traffic offense and sentenced to pay a fine an affluent defendant may simply pay … and go on with his or her life [find the fine] unaffordable [launching] the beginning of a protracted process that may involve contempt charges, mounting fees, arrest warrants, and even jail time. The stark reality is that, in 2013, Ohioans are being repeatedly jailed simply for being too poor to pay fines.”

According to the report, Ohio courts in Huron, Cuyahoga, and Erie counties “are among the worst offenders. In the second half of 2012, over 20% of all bookings in the Huron County Jail were related to failure to pay fines. In Cuyahoga County, the Parma Municipal Court jailed at least 45 people for failure to pay fines and costs between July 15 and August 31, 2012. During the same period in Erie County, the Sandusky Municipal Court jailed at least 75 people for similar charges.”

Meanwhile, suicide rates are on the rise in the US.

More people now die of suicide than in car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which published the findings in Friday’s issue of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In 2010 there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and 38,364 suicides.

Suicide has typically been viewed as a problem of teenagers and the elderly, and the surge in suicide rates among middle-aged Americans is surprising.

From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7. Although suicide rates are growing among both middle-aged men and women, far more men take their own lives. The suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.

The most pronounced increases were seen among men in their 50s, a group in which suicide rates jumped by nearly 50 percent, to about 30 per 100,000. For women, the largest increase was seen in those ages 60 to 64, among whom rates increased by nearly 60 percent, to 7.0 per 100,000.

It is likely the stress of joblessness, lack of access to health care, loss of assets like the values of homes and retirement funds is correlated with 9022athis.   Bank abuses, however, are “in your face” and out of control according to Jeffrey Sachs.  Sachs is a Columbia University Economics professor.

When I really started to count in fact and keep track of the number of lawsuits, and the number of settlements, and it’s amazing actually how many there are, of course. Libor, Abacus, other financial fraud scandals, money laundering, insider trading. The list is actually extraordinary. The frequency of new cases, new settlements, new SEC charges, is stunning. And the lack of any apparent remorse from leaders of the industry.

[There hasn’t been one] major figure in the industry acknowledging this rot, and also calling upon the industry to clean itself up. And I find that amazing because I would’ve expected at least one or two voices that would’ve have played that role and that hasn’t happened yet.

Why the lack of prosecution?

The legal defenses are very powerful, the lobbying is very powerful, the government in general is completely squeezed even if it would like to regulate. But we also have a revolving door of senior regulatory officials, congressional staff, congressmen and senators. Everyone’s in on this. So the question is how is this going to be cleaned up, what will it really take to get this under control? We just haven’t seen glimmers of that yet.

What will it take to change the system?

I think that the public is utterly disgusted, of course, and that is a major start.

There’s going to be a massive backlash. But some thought, and I thought at the beginning, that Obama was going to bring in control, that’s essentially what he promised, but he actually essentially brought in Wall Street to do the clean up. Perhaps the next government, or perhaps the next crash, it’s hard to say. But what one does feel is that the extent of abuse, the stench of it, is reaching such a high level that we’re not in an equilibrium, political or social, right now.

This is explosive stuff (scandals like Abacus and insider trading). It’s unbelievable. So far it hasn’t stopped the practice, but it can’t get more in your face than this actually.

I think in the end the question will be for our politics in general, whether a political movement not based on mega-donations can win political control. I believe that it can actually.

Some movement like the populist movement or the progressive era of the past is going to rise and say ‘we don’t need contributions, we’re not taking them, and if you the American people want a way out of this that doesn’t involve politicians bought for big money, we’re the ones.”

But short of that I don’t see a way out. Our politicians are not heroes, to say the least, and they seem to have no taste for this.

Will Dodd-Frank be effective?

It’s clearly being eaten alive and at critical points — of too big to fail and the control of derivatives — I doubt that it’s going to have any real effect as it is right now. The lobbying is just simply so overwhelming that I doubt that it’s going to have much sticking power.

63879aedf477efee36fbc1014943f7d9There’ a great book reviewed about some of the women who really helped win World War II.  It’s called “The Girls of Atomic City” written by Denise Kiernan.   Here’s an excerpt from a review at td.

In the fall of 1942, residents of a rural swath of east Tennessee began receiving official notifications that their homes and farms were no longer theirs and that they would have to move. The new owner was the U.S. government, which swept up some 59,000 acres of land and in a matter of months built an instant city of 75,000 people so secret it wasn’t even listed on maps.

Its purpose? To process uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb.

The fascinating story of the Manhattan Project has been told often, and often told well—Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” placing high on that lengthy list. But given the project’s significant and lasting impact, there’s plenty more mining to be done, and Denise Kiernan has found a rich vein in “The Girls of Atomic City.” Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets.

The secret Tennessee city eventually became modern Oak Ridge, built to support what was known as the Clinton Engineer Works. The sprawling complex was off-limits to anyone without proper ID. It was so vertically segregated in its operations that only a handful of people at the top knew what was really going on, and so swaddled in internal secrecy that to speculate on the purpose of your job invited immediate dismissal and eviction.

To see long excerpts from “The Girls of Atomic City” at Google Books, click here.

As Kiernan demonstrates, because of the shortage of manpower during the war years, much of the work at Oak Ridge was done by women. They were drawn from cities in the Northeast, farms in the South, and small towns in the Midwest, were paid good money for the time and the place, and were crammed into dormitories and trailers; and for the small contingent of African-Americans, there were four-person, 256-square-foot “hutments,” each one “a square plywood box of a structure that had a potbellied stove sitting right smack-dab in the middle.” Houses, impermanent as they were, were reserved for families.

Women may have migrated to Oak Ridge in droves, but they were still hemmed in by the social and racial narrows of the time. Few achieved levels of authority at work; housing policies forbade gender or racial mixing; a household wasn’t a household unless it was led by a man, which meant women with children who arrived ahead of their husbands struggled to find shelter.

Kiernan has amassed a deep reservoir of intimate details of what life was like for women living in the secret city, gleaned from seven years of interviews and research.

Here’s some fun from Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong. This is part of the Rubber Duck Project conceived by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman.

The artist has used this installment in other cities. The artist explains its purpose.

The piece, called Rubber Duck, is by Dutch conceptual artist Florentijn Hofman, internationally renowned for his large-scale sculptures, which often originate from recognisable, everyday objects. He said: “The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn’t discriminate people and doesn’t have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: It can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them.”

So, that’s my bit for this morning.  What’s on your reading and blogging list today?DSCN0586


Tuesday Reads: A Mashup of Recent Stories I Liked

morning paper cat dog

Good Morning!!

Over the weekend, I came across this amazing story in The Daily Beast, and I just had to share it: An Auschwitz Survivor Searches for His Twin on Facebook. It’s the story of Menachem Bodner who was just four years old when the Nazi prison camp was liberated. He is now 72 and is now trying to find his twin brother whom he last saw when they were being used as experimental subjects by the infamous Josef Mengele.

It’s most likely that Menachem Bodner last saw his identical twin in 1945, in Dr. Josef Mengele’s gruesome Auschwitz laboratory. He was 4 then and doesn’t remember his time in the notorious death camp. But in the 68 years that have followed, Bodner says he’s “always” been certain he was one of a pair. He just didn’t have any proof until this past year. Now, he’s searching for Jeno, a man who probably looks just like him, and who has a distinctive “A-7734” tattoo on his forearm. And 1 million Facebook users are helping him look.

Mengele, known among prisoners as “the Angel of Death,” was deeply fascinated with twins and used them for research experiments in his macabre Auschwitz lab. Thankfully, Bodner, now 72, has no recollection of the cruelty he most certainly endured while undergoing experiments, though he can remember a sense of paralyzing fear. Unfortunately he also has few impressions of his family’s prewar life in a small town east of Munkacs, Hungary, which is now in the Ukraine. But despite the lack of memories from a war-marred childhood, Bodner says that throughout his life he’s felt a deep connection with his twin—and is positive he’s still alive and out there. But where?

Until last May, Bodner didn’t even know that his own name was once Elias Gottesmann. Now he knows that. And he knows for certain that he has a twin—thanks to the Nazis’ dogged, pathological documentation of their crimes. Ayana KimRon, a professional genealogist in Israel, found the evidence, clearly written in a record put together by the organization Candles, of twins who were “identified as having been liberated at Auschwitz or from a subcamp”:

A-7733, Gottesmann, Elias, 4
A-7734, Gottesmann, Jeno, 4

Incredible! As a result of his search, Bodner has already found family members that he never knew were looking for him, but his dream is to find his brother. What a story it would be if they could be reunited!

I don’t know if you have been following the latest episode in the ongoing battle between Joe Scarborough and Paul Krugman. Scarborough somehow got together with Jeffrey Sachs of The Earth Institute at Columbia University to publish an op-ed in the Washington Post last Friday: Deficits Do Matter. In the op-ed, they attacked Paul Krugman by setting up a series of straw men and then knocking them down–mainly the false claim that Krugman thinks deficits are never a problem for governments. Here’s the introductory paragraph:

Dick Cheney and Paul Krugman have declared from opposite sides of the ideological divide that deficits don’t matter, but they simply have it wrong. Reasonable liberals and conservatives can disagree on what role the federal government should play yet still believe that government should resume paying its way.

It has become part of Keynesian lore in recent years that public debt is essentially free, that we needn’t worry about its buildup and that we should devote all of our attention to short-term concerns since, as John Maynard Keynes wrote, “in the long run, we are all dead.” But that crude interpretation of Keynesian economics is deeply misguided; Keynes himself disagreed with it.

However, if you read Krugman piece that Sachs and Scarborough link to, you’ll see that it doesn’t say what they pretend it does. It says that deficits don’t matter in the short term, but it’s not true that they never matter. Krugman in the quoted column from March 2011:

Right now, deficits don’t matter — a point borne out by all the evidence. But there’s a school of thought — the modern monetary theory people — who say that deficits never matter, as long as you have your own currency.

I wish I could agree with that view — and it’s not a fight I especially want, since the clear and present policy danger is from the deficit peacocks of the right. But for the record, it’s just not right.

The key thing to remember is that current conditions — lots of excess capacity in the economy, and a liquidity trap in which short-term government debt carries a roughly zero interest rate — won’t always prevail. As long as those conditions DO prevail, it doesn’t matter how much the Fed increases the monetary base, and it therefore doesn’t matter how much of the deficit is monetized. But this too shall pass, and when it does, things will be very different.

I guess Sachs and Scarborough assumed their WaPo readers wouldn’t bother to click on the link. Anyway, Mark Thoma wrote an epic takedown of the Sachs-Scarborough op-ed at his Economist’s View blog: Crude Sachsism.

Frankly, I doubt that Scarborough had anything to do with writing the op-ed, and I think it would be really hilarious if someone would ask him to explain it on his show. Why is Scarborough so obsessed with proving Krugman wrong? As for Jeffrey Sachs, he is a follower of Milton Friedman and The Chicago School of Economics who is famous for his failedMillennium Villages” project and his so-called “shock therapy” in Latin America, Russia, and Eastern Europe. Judge for yourself whether you want to buy into his neoliberal, modified supply-side arguments.

I know I’m kind of a weirdo, but I had a blast reading all this stuff over the weekend, including this post by Ryan Coooper (filling in for Ed Kilgore at The Washington Monthly) questioning why Sachs doesn’t even know what was in the stimulus.

Jeff Sachs has long been known as the celebrity-hobnobbing economist with the seriously flawed “shock therapy” plan for economic development. Lately he’s taken a weird turn in the public debate, coauthoring an op-ed piece with Joe Scarborough of all people, attacking Paul Krugman.

Today he’s back with one of the most bizarre pieces of economic analysis I’ve seen, arguing among other things that 1) the stimulus was too focused on short-term stuff like tax cuts which 2) aren’t effective stimulus anyway (huh?) and 3) should have had much more long-term investment.

Wrong again! Read all about it at the link.

The back and forth quieted down yesterday, but today Cooper–who is filling in for Ed Kilgore at The Washington Monthly–brought it up again with this post: How Does Jeffrey Sachs Explain The Great Recession?

I need to read it carefully and follow the links and responses to today–my idea of fun! I guess it’s partly the psychologist in me–I’m fascinated by these human interactions and the verbal battles over important issues of the day.

Continuing the economics theme, Alex Pareene has a great piece at Salon on The competitive advantage of deficit hacks. It’s all about how the media helps the false Village memes and tries to marginalize people like Paul Krugman who actually know something about economics. The gist:

I think a lot about contemporary political debates makes a great deal more sense when you realize that hacks, especially hacks shilling for awful ideas, have a competitive advantage over non-hacks: They do not care if they constantly repeat themselves, even if what they are constantly repeating is wrong.

For a writer or pundit who actually feels some sort of responsibility to inform and/or entertain his or her readers, writing the same damn thing over and over again seems wrong (it is also boring). But bad ideas are constantly being repeated by people who feel absolutely no shame about saying the same things over and over and over again. Indeed, “shamelessness” is in general a defining characteristic of hacks. Also, frequently, people are being paid to repeat the same awful ideas over and over again, and unfortunately usually there’s more money to be made repeating bad ideas than good ones. (Hence: Lanny Davis.)

Arguably, American conservatives are better at sticking to their pet causes in general, as liberals move from fight to fight. Look at how contraception “suddenly” became a matter of national public debate last year, years after liberals thought it a well-settled question. Or look at how long the movement spent trying to roll back the majority of the New Deal, a project that continues to this day!

And on the question of the deficit and the “grand bargain,” Pete Peterson and a few others have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and decades of their lives making the exact same argument, and setting up organizations that pay others to make the exact same argument, until a majority of Beltway centrists internalized the argument and began making it themselves, over and over again. When it comes to centrist pundits, the unsophisticated brainwashing technique that has utterly failed to move the public at large over the last 25 years has worked perfectly. (Because centrist pundits are simple, credulous people, by and large, and also because they will not rely on “entitlements” to survive, when they retire from their very well-compensated jobs.)

Plus— another must read from Alex Pareene: The undead, unnecessary, unhelpful Grand Bargain.

Washington has Grand Bargain fever, again. Thanks to the sequestration, Republican government-shrinking mania and Barack Obama’s apparently sincere desire to get some sort of huge long-term debt deal done, the Grand Bargain is looking more possible than at any point since the heady days of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility.

For some reason, the options for dealing with sequestration — a self-inflicted made-up austerity crisis — are being purposefully and pointlessly limited to a) spending cuts, either those in sequestration or different ones, or b) spending cuts and tax increases. “Let’s just not do this, everyone” is rarely presented as a viable option. Instead, the single best end result, according to lots of pundits, Democrats and even Republicans, is tthe Mythical Grand Bargain.

This is awful news, for most people. A “grand bargain” is not going to be good. But after Barack Obama had fancy dinners with some Republicans last week, everyone is again hopeful. The president is hopeful. John Boehner is hopeful. David Gergen is probably hopeful. They can all taste the Bargain. Ooh, it’ll be so great when we get that Bargain!

Read it, and you’ll laugh and cry at the same time!

Now a few more reads that tickled my fancy–in link dump fashion:

LA Times: Harvard faculty outraged after administration spies on emails

WBZ Boston: Harvard University Issues Explanation Of Resident Deans Email Search

The Guardian: World’s top 100 universities 2013: their reputations ranked by Times Higher Education

The Daily Mail: Meet the former Harvard University admin assistant who built up a multimillion-dollar empire… selling sex toys

Cleveland Plain Dealer: Steubenville rape trial will center on issue of consent

New York Daily News: Mike Bloomberg’s supersized ego does in planned soda ban

Now it’s your turn. What’s on your reading list today? Please share your links in the comments.

Have a fabulous Tuesday!!


“Newt Gingrich Is a Disgusting Person” Open Thread

On Morning Joe today, Mika Brzezinski and Columbia Economics Professor Jeffrey Sachs reacted to Newt Gingrich’s advice to Occupy protesters “Go get a job right after you take a bath.” I’m not a fan of Brzezinski, but I have to applaud her today. And can we please see a lot more of Jeffrey Sachs and a lot less of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin?

From Raw Story:

“That was about the most arrogant and unself-aware, and those are probably the only words I could use to think for any Republican politician in this field could say,” Brzezinski said. “Someone needs a bath, and I don’t think it’s people on Occupy Wall Street.”

Sachs summed up Gingrich’s comments in one word.

“Disgusting,” he said. “Absolutely disgusting. No sense of any meaning in all of this. Absolutely revolting actually. And especially when what they’re protesting against is the incredible abuse of power the criminality on Wall Street, it’s shocking.”

Sachs added: “For a guy who has slipped millions of dollars from Fannie Mac to quote, ‘be a historian,’ months after he left the Congress, it’s especially disgusting. But this man is a disgusting person.”

Wow! Tell it like is, Professor! Every time Newt Gingrich gets back into the spotlight, he quickly demonstrates what a total a$$hole he is. Tomorrow night there will be another Republican debate, and for now Newt is the front-runner. I’m betting he’ll say or do something so repulsive it will even turn off Republican audiences.


Today’s Successful Economies

Swedes are happier and more globally competitive than the US. Is this the real secret of blondes having more fun?

I wrote a blog post a while back about heaven having fjords. I’m very much interested in economics from a development standpoint so it’s always worthwhile checking out the top performers in the world for lessons.  It is also quite apparent when you do that Libertarian and Republican memes fail and fail badly.  It’s probably why we never hear these things in corporate media.

Societies are better when the pull together instead of pull apart.  The best performing countries in economics are the same countries that have a high commitment to public education and society at large.   The high performers–in economics, in health, and in education–are the Scandavian countries with their highly progressive tax rates, intense regulation of commerce and harmful activities and emphasis on making sure the rising tide rises all the boats rather than sinking a huge number of them to the benefit of the mega yachts.  These are also countries with parliamentary systems which makes them highly democratic. They’ve been winning consistently with the advent of the global economy.  The US has lost its position as leader of the developed nations and is moving way down into the losing positions below still developing nations. We could learn some lessons from Scandinavia.

Here’s Jeffrey Sachs at Project Syndicate with some things to think about in that vein. He has written a new book called The Price of Civilization which basically outlines the missteps that we’ve taken that were primarily started as a result of the election of Ronald Reagan. For some reason, many Americans don’t want to pay for some very simple modern facilities like roads, electric grids, airports, and railways.  They prefer to buy junk from China they probably don’t need in search of happiness in the form of hoarding and consuming.

Rather than respond to globalization with more government spending on education, infrastructure, and technology, Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 by pledging to slash government spending and cut taxes.

For 30 years, the US has been going in the wrong direction, cutting the role of government in the domestic economy rather than promoting the investments needed to modernize the economy and workforce. The rich have benefited in the short run, by getting massive tax breaks. The poor have suffered from job losses and cuts in government services. Economic inequality has reached a high not seen since the Great Depression.

These adverse trends have been exacerbated by domestic politics. The rich have used their wealth to strengthen their grip on power. They pay for the expensive campaigns of presidents and congressmen, so presidents and congressmen help the rich – often at the expense of the rest of society.  The same syndrome – in which the rich have gained control of the political system (or strengthened their control of it) – now afflicts many other countries.

Sweden–as an example other than Norway who can use their oil to leverage their improvements–has been called an economic miracle.  After feeling the global recession, they are now growing GDP at rates that are twice to three times the averages of most industrial countries.  They are growing 5 times fasting than the US.   So, look at their numbers  there on the CIA Factbook and marvel where under the poverty rate comes the label: not applicable. Sweden blends capitalism with a social democracy in a way that makes the swedes the 6th most prosperous country on the planet.  They are above the US who is number 10.  They are behind  Norway, Denmark, Finland, Australia and New Zealand.  They are number 23 in GDP per capita  The US is number 11. They are also highly globally competitive ranking #3 in Global Competitiveness Index after Finland and Switzerland. The US is number 1o.

The Swedes are number 9  on the human development index.  We are number 4.  Norway is  number 1.  Sweden has high marginal tax rates (sometimes over 70%), very powerful unions, immigrants, and generous vacations and work weeks.  Under Republican fairy tales, Sweden and Norway should be worse off than Haiti.  Rather than looking at countries that are achieving great things and leaving us in the dust, we are grasping at a rigid ideology that is designed to tank us.

I haven’t read the Sachs book but I’m definitely putting it on my reading list. You may recall that this is also something Fareed Zakaria examines in his TV show, in books, and at TIME magazine. Here’s a good summary from a recent Time article.

The following rankings come from various lists, but they all tell the same story. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), our 15-year-olds rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. We rank 12th among developed countries in college graduation (down from No. 1 for decades). We come in 79th in elementary-school enrollment. Our infrastructure is ranked 23rd in the world, well behind that of every other major advanced economy. American health numbers are stunning for a rich country: based on studies by the OECD and the World Health Organization, we’re 27th in life expectancy, 18th in diabetes and first in obesity. Only a few decades ago, the U.S. stood tall in such rankings. No more. There are some areas in which we are still clearly No. 1, but they’re not ones we usually brag about. We have the most guns. We have the most crime among rich countries. And, of course, we have by far the largest amount of debt in the world.

We’re in the process of watching the Cat Food Commission Redux set our priorities for our future and its basically an agenda meant to downsize the American Dream for every one except the Mega Wealthy.  I hope that the Cheddar Revolution and the Occupy Wall Street movement turn into an American Spring Movement.  We have to regain the positive momentum towards modernity before the powers that be force us all back into a pre-civil war paradigm of laws, economic servitude, and society.

Meanwhile, as I write about these healthy economies, 90% of US citizens say our economy stinks and they are pretty unhappy about it. Its time to look at some best practices of other countries and dump the ideologues that keeping making the wrong decisions for us.