Archive for July, 2008

Are there bipartisan solutions for the oil crisis?

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Hi. It’s Chad. We’re still filling in from

We know Democrats and Republicans agree on very few things. And oil should be one of those things. But is the oil solution so partisan that we can’t find common ground.

Republicans are like, “Let’s drill anywhere we can.” Democrats say, “Why don’t you drill where you already have leases and where you aren’t drilling.”

And Republicans want to drill in places that won’t get much oil, and certainly won’t anytime soon. And this story from last week where House Republicans stopped a bill to release 70 million barrels of oil — about a three-day supply — from the national stockpile. Democrats introduced the bill hoping the action would help lower gasoline prices by forcing the Energy Department.

And Democrats also point out that this has worked in the past, with similar releases in 1991, 2000 and 2005. And in two of those cases, a Bush was in the White House.

It’s likely Republicans defeated the bill because they don’t want Congress to have success, hoping Democrats will be blamed.

But oil, gas, energy conversation is an issue that impacts all Americans, whether we drive or not. So are there bipartisan solutions for the oil crisis?

A Rat Race Less Rosy

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Hey, it’s Meg again, working the lunch rush for Steve today.  As usual, I read something in the newspaper this morning that bugged me…

On the front page of The New York Times Tuesday was a very misleading headline.  “Women Are Now Equal as Victims of Poor Economy” at first said to me that perhaps the gender gap in wages had closed.

Nope.  According to data released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women still earn less than 80 cents for every dollar that men do in similar occupations.  The New York Times article merely shows that women are dropping out of the workforce at such a rate that the number entering the workforce is actually in decline for the first time since the Women’s Lib movement.

The big difference now, the article says, is that women are less likely to accept a pay cut, and instead drop out of the rat race entirely.  As a woman who recently dropped out of the job market to go to graduate school, I can commiserate.

The article blames the poor economy, which certainly has something to do with it.  But I’d also posit that wages play a role.  If a family has to choose one member to drop out of the workforce (usually to avoid work-related expenses such as daycare or commuting costs) logic dictates that the main breadwinner remain employed.  So though the stigma against stay-at-home dads may have dropped away, moms still earn less, and therefore their jobs are more expendable.

In fact, there are indications that women have been taking a harder hit in this economy when it comes to decreasing wages.   Back in 2004, a study released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research indicated women’s wages were already falling while men’s were merely stagnant.

The only mention of the pay gap in the Times article is parenthetical:

“Pay is no longer rising smartly for women in the key 25-to-54 age group. Just the opposite, the median pay — the point where half make more and half less — has fallen in recent years, to $14.84 an hour in 2007 from $15.04 in 2004, adjusted for inflation, according to the Economic Policy Institute. (The similar wage for men today is two dollars more.)-Emphasis mine.

Has the gender gap become par for the course, so cliché as to be hardly worth mentioning?  Is it so common that it has become acceptable?

As a new member of the (admittedly vast) age group the article cites, I’ve had my fair share of paycheck pain.  Part of it is my distaste for working for large corporations.  Small businesses are less able to weather difficult economic times and have fewer opportunities for advancement.  But that doesn’t account for the entirety of the wage disparity I’ve experienced.

When I finally decided to go to graduate school rather than stay at my job managing two office clinics, I helped choose my replacement.  The doctor who signed my paycheck confided in me that hiring a male to replace me would be difficult, in part because they expect to be paid more.  And guess who replaced me?  A highly talented single mother of two who had been laid off from her last job.

It seems “dropping out” is okay for the married woman on which the article focuses:

“[Tootie] Samson, the former Maytag worker, says she can afford not to work because she qualified under the terms of the plant closing for two years of unemployment benefits as long as she is a full-time student. She lost health insurance but shifted to her husband’s policy.

His $40,000 income as a truck driver and her $360 a week in jobless benefits gets them by while she takes an accelerated program at a William Penn University campus near her home. Graduation is scheduled for January 2010.

‘If I were a single parent or did not have benefits,” Ms. Samson said, “I would have had to find a job. I could not have gone back to school to get my degree and the promise it holds of a better job.’”

So, single mothers and women without access to affordable healthcare may not have the luxury Samson does.  They may not be able to wait for the recession to end.  Maybe they’ll just have to shut up and take what they can get.

While it’s true I don’t have children to take care of, it’s also true that I’ve never been in the financial position to even think about having any.  I haven’t had affordable, comprehensive healthcare coverage since I finished my undergraduate degree and was forced off of my father’s healthcare plan.  Luckily, I don’t have any major health issues besides extremely poor eyesight, and vision is so rarely covered by insurance that I’m in good company when I pay cash at someplace like America’s Best for a sorely-needed pair of new glasses.

So if I were pregnant or chronically ill, I never would have had the luxury of going back to school.  I’d be one of millions of women stuck in low paying jobs all over the country, without The New York Times having the journalistic fortitude to even mention my plight.  And it looks like these women can’t depend upon Congress to stand up for them either.

One day after Equal Pay Day, the Senate failed to garner the votes needed to stop debate and vote on the Lilly Ledbetter Act.  The act would have strengthened existing anti-discrimination legislation to make it harder for employers to knowingly underpay their workers.  The House passed the bill last year.  President George W. Bush threatened to veto it, but it looks like he won’t have to.

While it was largely ignored by the mainstream media, I think it’s important to know how presidential candidates voted.  Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) voted for the bill’s passage, while Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was one of only two who missed this important vote.  Click here to see how others in House and Senate voted.

I’m not suggesting that legislation or a front-page article in The New York Times will solve the pay equity issue.  But I simply can’t feign shock that women are dropping out of a system that doesn’t work for them.  And I do think that 45 years after the Equal Pay Act was passed is as good a time as any to ask why we’ve given up on the idea of equal pay for equal work.

Republican economic policy includes taxpayer-funded corporate daycare

Monday, July 14th, 2008

Hi, it’s Meg again. I was ruminating on boarded-up buildings this weekend, and that was before hearing about Paulson’s bailout of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. The whole thing seemed so familiar…

One of the favorite assurances of Republicans for longer than I’ve been around is low taxes. Even the least of the politically-aware citizens of this nation know the supposed main difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Democrats tax and spend, while Republicans cut both taxes and government programs.

While the current occupant of the White House isn’t exactly known for his frugality in government spending, he is highly associated with tax cuts. Sure, the deficit is ever-growing, but how can you say a man who hands you $300 doesn’t care about gas prices and ballooning mortgages?

But what good is a tax cut when the taxes we still do pay go to rescuing failing businesses? And don’t even get me started on the proposed gas tax holiday that would pilfer federal funds dedicated to highway infrastructure!

In light of the pending bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (on the heels of the Bear Stearns rescue operation and multiple interest rate cuts), it’s time to re-examine the idea of a tax cut, free markets, and capitalism.

First, the idea that a failing business should be bailed out as a matter of course is dangerous to the idea of free market capitalism. However, the “moral hazard” game is one Republicans would rather play with individual homeowners than corporations. “If we bail you out now,” they say to us as if we were teenagers spending our college fund on a jalopy, “you’ll never learn.”

However, as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich so artfully points out in his blog, individuals learn from their mistakes, while corporations do not. He also notes that corporations should be held to a higher standard:

“Many of the mostly poor home buyers who got into trouble did NOT in fact know they couldn’t afford the mortgage payments they were signing on to. The banks and mortgage lenders that pulled out all the stops to persuade them to the contrary were in a far better position to know; after all, they had lots of experience at this game. So did the credit-rating agencies that gave these loans solid credit ratings, as did the financiers who bundled them with less-risky loans and sold them to other financial institutions, and the hedge fund managers who quietly tucked them into their portfolios.”

Clearly, it’s a bad precedent to set in a free market system. Furthermore, when the government bails out companies that made bad bets, it’s taxpayers who foot the bill.

After saying the government wouldn’t bail the two out last week, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced the bailout of mortgage holders and backers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac this weekend. The plan still needs Congressional approval, which Paulson hopes will come in the form of an add-on to the housing bill currently being finalized by lawmakers.

The brother and sister in mortgages guarantee nearly half of mortgages in the U.S. Paulson’s plan seems reasonable, until you look at the fact that Freddie and Fannie are not benevolent government-owned loan providers. Fannie’s been in private hands since 1968 and Freddie has been since his invention.

Even the timing of the announcement belied the true beneficiaries of the deal. With the news coming out Sunday night, Wall Street could open on a sunnier note this morning.

The debate on the housing issue has not been about whether or not the government should step in. The housing crisis is so advanced and far-reaching that there is virtually no one who would debate the merits of financial isolationism at this point. Instead, the debate rages over who should get the help.

Democrats are more likely to favor homeowner assistance plans and the restructuring of unfair and impossible-to-repay subprime mortgages.

The Bush Administration has introduced paltry homeowner rescue schemes like FHA Secure with great fanfare, while still insisting the real answer to our economy’s woes are tax cuts. Whatever happened to spending our taxes wisely?

Personally, I’d rather use my tax money to help my neighbor get a restructured loan and keep my street lined with occupied homes. Instead, the city I live in is being depopulated of stable residents and my rent is going up because of the increased demand for non-permanent housing arrangements.

The same Republican philosophy was at work with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s many interest rate cuts since the true nature of the housing crisis made itself apparent last year. Sure, it made loans easier to get. For financial institutions, that is. This was most apparent in the cut Bernanke made in the discount rate, allowing banks to get cheaper federal loans.

Now come reports that students can’t go off to college this fall, not because they can’t afford it (no, that’s been the case for decades), but because they can’t secure a loan.

What it all comes down to is a repeat of financial disasters of the past. Republican-led deregulation in the banking industry led to scandal, financial chaos and finally the Resolution Trust Corporation in 1989. This was a similar bailout notion ostensibly in order to help out an economy beaten down by the trickle-up economic policies of the Reagan Administration. But instead of helping out the economy, taxpayer money again went corporations.

Joseph Stiglitz wrote that the Resolution Trust Corporation was a sufficiently confusing and opaque way for Republicans to get support for subsidizing the banking industry.

History keeps repeating itself. A Republican administration trashes the economy until businesses begin to suffer (well after people like you and me lose our houses and jobs). Then, the government bails out businesses with a fancy word or two about bootstraps on the side.

Should George W. Bush be tried for war crimes?

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

Hi. It’s Chad once again. Sorry for the delays. I’m back from my own long vacation, and the brain takes a while to warm up. So the comments will be more updated. Thanks.

It’s no longer just a thought on a blog or two, or a conversation at the dinner table.

Dan Kennedy in the Guardian explores these issues this week. And the useless Congress certainly going to dish out any punishment for Bush or Cheney for their war crimes.

A process of some kind needs to be on the record. And a mug shot of Bush (and Cheney) would make great symbolism to the rest of the world that we really do care about how this travesty of an administration has made its impact on the world.

So do you think Bush should be charged and tried for war crimes? Cheney, too? How do we go about this? As always, let us know what you think.

“No more games, no more bombs:” Missing Gonzo

Monday, July 7th, 2008

Hey, there. Yeah, it’s Meg again, still filling in for Steve. How was your holiday weekend? I had a pretty good one, too. Saw a great documentary on Saturday. Oh, I definitely recommend it. How often can you catch a flick that includes the likes of Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, Tom Wolfe and Johnny Depp talking about a drug-addled, freak-movement journalist?

Sure, I was sad when I heard Dr. Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide in 2005. But I was downright depressed after seeing Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

While touching, it wasn’t the on-camera keening of his friends (and enemies) that got me. It was the portions of film dedicated to Thompson’s coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention riots in Chicago and the 1972 presidential election.

These were pivotal moments in Thompson’s life. While he watched the American Dream die off in the deserts of Las Vegas, he saw the death of the promise of both democracy and Flower Power in 1968 and 1972.

My reaction to the part about 1968 was largely visceral. I flinched repeatedly just watching the savage beatings Mayor Daley’s police force meted out in the streets of the beautiful city I call home.

I finally read Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 during primary season this year. It made me feel a lot like reading It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis in the current political climate. The plot points aren’t the same, but almost all of the emotions are.

I’ll admit to not being alive in 1968 or 1972, and to the fact that I may just be projecting. Either way, this new documentary brought all the feelings I felt reading Fear and Loathing… flooding back.

The renewal of hope in Thompson’s literary voice when George McGovern actually seems to have a chance at the nomination was so familiar to me. And, despite his somewhat childish glee, one can perceive an ominous guardedness in the way he writes about it. The book is a compilation that was originally written serially for publication in Rolling Stone, so besides some minor footnotes, there’s no indication Thompson knows what’s about to hit him until McGovern’s campaign implodes just after the convention.

At first, Thompson throws a temper tantrum about McGovern’s supposed sell out to the old-style Democratic machine. Observing Thompson slowly coming to terms with what you know is coming (Nixon’s re-election) is painful. But his sorrow reveals the depth of his patriotic zeal. The filmmakers wisely chose this excerpt from his September 1972 entry in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 :

“This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable. The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes… understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon. McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose… Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?”

At one point in the documentary, the screen splits. On one side shows footage from the Vietnam war; the other side shows our current “police actions” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The makers of Gonzo aren’t the first to make the comparison by a long shot. But the stark juxtaposition had me curled up in the fetal position in the darkened theater.

After the multiple tragedies of the late 60s, Thompson yearned for change and a candidate he could believe in. Instead, along came Watergate and the country sank into a deep political cynicism from which it may only now be recovering.

Today’s tragedies are less blatant and identifiable. Al Gore wasn’t assassinated, just politically beaten and mugged. FEMA didn’t start riots in New Orleans with billy clubs and police arsenals, but our government left hundreds to die needlessly. Our My Lai comes in cloudy little doses called Abu Ghraib and Haditha.

It’s almost as if someone took the tapestry of recent history and washed it in boiling hot water until the colors ran together and faded, hoping no one would notice we’re wearing the same outfit as before.

I desperately want to believe this election will pull us out of our current malaise. But I’m also afraid of getting my hopes up. For some reason I’m inclined to believe it wasn’t the drugs or alcohol that dulled Thompson’s once-sharp literary sensibilities, but the sheer bummer of it all. And its thoughts like those that get the empathetic coward in me all worked up. I don’t want Barack Obama to be today’s Bobby Kennedy or George McGovern.

Above all, the movie gives the indisputable impression of Thompson as passionate patriot. And despite its long-for-a-documentary run time, the film leaves the viewer wanting more. Maybe that’s because it’s times like these that really scream out for a little Gonzo.

Hey, Gloucester: Where do babies come from?

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

Hey there. This is Meg, filling in for Steve. Want a warm-up on that coffee? You know, it’s weird. That Gloucester High School “pregnancy pact” left me with strange cravings for answers to questions that went largely unanswered in the mainsream media coverage…

In following the media circus that ensued after the 17th teenager became pregnant in a year in Gloucester, MA, I noticed no shortage of theories on what went wrong.

Many articles cite young Jamie Lynn Spears’ early motherhood and the new movie Juno as reasons pregnancy has become “cool.” While the media must share in all society’s ills, it seems to me that the portrayal of pregnant teens in popular culture is a mere reflection of their continued presence. Ignoring teen pregnancy is not the answer.

Some of those same articles also faulted maternity clothing designers for making pregnancy more comfortable for fashion-conscious teens. Until Hannah Montana comes out with her own line of “materniteen” wear, however, I’m not going to fault Liz Lange for making pregnancy chic.

Some blamed depressed economic conditions in the small fishing town. They postulate that the girls felt there was no way to move up from their station in life. Maybe they were so depressed about their future prospects that the teens wanted a baby to love them unconditionally?

Though there is no government data beyond the last census on the growing financial troubles many writers point to as a reason for the increase in childbirth in Gloucester, it can be helpful to look at data from 2000. At that time, the national poverty rate was 12.4 percent, Massachusetts was 9.3 percent, and Gloucester was 8.8 percent.

Even if newer numbers do end up supporting claims of economic depression in the town, I’d caution those who suggest that’s the reason for baby season in Gloucester. Let’s give these girls some credit: They all know a baby is not the solution to financial problems.

Cuts in education funding combined with the constant test preparation mandated by No Child Left Behind meant that the Gloucester High School had to cut their sex education classes. Also, the school’s clinic is prohibited from distributing contraception to students due to protests from the hospital that grants operational money to the facility. In May, the clinic was left sorely understaffed when the doctor and nurse practitioner resigned in protest over the contraceptives ban.

“This is one of the most outrageous things I have ever been a part of in my career,” said Dr. Brian Orr after turning in his resignation.

According to a recent AP report, there are only 28 states still enrolled in federal abstinence-only education programs. Almost half have opted out to avoid teaching restrictions and funding insecurity that have become par for the course in the program, known as Title V.

A House Congressional study analyzing the content of abstinence-only education should give educators considering Title V pause. The 2004 study found that two-thirds of abstinence-only curriculums included errors and distortions about public health, contraceptives, abortion, and basic scientific facts. The report also criticized certain programs’ use of religious language and use of stereotypes about the differences between the sexes.

In comparing two state-by-state studies (online here and here), I found a correlation between abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates. In 2006, the three states that received the most funding for abstinence-only programs were Texas, Florida and New York. Those states were fifth, sixth, and fourteenth in terms of teen pregnancies that same year. Vermont and North Dakota had the lowest amount of federal money devoted to abstinence-only programs and also had the least amount of teen pregnancies in 2006.

A more recent study shows students who receive comprehensive sexual education are 50 percent less likely to become pregnant than students subjected to abstinence-only education.

I don’t mean to suggest that sex education will end teen pregnancy as we know it. Young women already know that babies don’t come from storks. However, I’m young enough to remember sex education class, and it’s not the condom-over-the-banana lesson I remember most.

I recall vividly watching a video of a woman giving birth. It was frighteningly real and made it clear that childbirth is not for the weak or unprepared. Not that I was ever really inclined to reproduce, but that video convinced me that any of my potential progeny should come from an adoption center and not my womb.

However, statistics and personal anecdotes bear little on Congressional proceedings on the matter. As Steve wrote last week, Democrats are laying pretty low on the issue. So low, in fact, that they increased funding for abstinence-only education even while more and more states are opting out.

Still, there’s something extra fishy in Gloucester, and it’s not coming from the port. Teen pregnancies have been on the rise nationally over the past few years according to a 2007 Centers for Disease Control report.

The report shows that between 2005 and 2006, the birth rate for teenagers 15-19 years rose 3 percent to 41.9 births per 1,000. This follows a 14-year downward trend in which the teen birth rate fell by 34 percent from its last peak in 1991.

However, Gloucester High School’s average of annual teen pregnancies is still well above the currently heightened national average. According to school officials, an average of four students become pregnant in a typical year, putting their average at more than 60 per 1,000. The national average is about one third less. The 17 pregnancies for this year put the school way above average, at around 280 teen pregnancies per 1,000.

In the Time Magazine article that broke the story, Gloucester High School Principal Joseph Sullivan claimed some of the girls entered a pact to become pregnant together.

At a news conference days after the story broke, Gloucester Mayor Caroline Kirk said there was no evidence to back up Sullivan’s pregnancy pact theory.

“He was foggy in his memory of how he heard about the information,” Kirk said. “When we pressed him for specifics, about who told him, when was he told, his memory failed.” No media outlet has been able to reach Sullivan for comment since.

Kirk’s denial of Sullivan’s assertion raised more questions for me. Why would Sullivan make up a pregnancy pact to explain the rising trend? Which is worse: young girls bonding together to make poor decisions or a big spike in young couples independently making unfortunate choices?

But whether a pact was actually made is immaterial. There are multiple reports of students rejoicing at the receipt of a positive pregnancy test. Reporters trawling fast food restaurants and playgrounds found plenty of extremely young mothers who were very happy with their station in life. There is something about Gloucester that turns teen pregnancy from a crisis to a blessing, and the rest of us may never understand it.

Adolescence is a time when young adults get to start making their own decisions. If girls in Gloucester, or anywhere else, decide to pick out onesies for their babies instead of college majors for themselves, we cannot blame the media, the economy, or anyone other than the girls themselves.

However, in order to determine this was a decision made via free will and not the absence of alternatives, we need to make sure today’s young women know what’s out there. They need to have access to college preparation materials and birth control. They need to be told about the multifarious joys and difficulties of post-secondary education, employment, and childrearing.

Childbirth is a miracle and a blessing for many. So are education and birth control.

‘Too big for government to solve alone’?

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

Hi cafe kids. Christy here, with a knee-jerk reaction to Senator Obama’s new expression of faith in faith-based initiatives.

As conceived and implemented by the pious George W. Bush, this program seemed to serve primarily as a channel for directly rewarding Bush’s faith-based base and culture-war donors. Of course, faith-based folks should do good deeds, and they have a long history of doing so using their own money. Government, too, should do good for the people, using taxpayer funds. Where’s the good in blending and blurring the two financially and in their missions?

I concur with the Rev. Barry Lynn,  executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who told the AP today: “I am disappointed that any presidential candidate would want to continue a failed policy of the Bush administration. … It ought to be shut down, not continued.”

It seems to me that Obama has other avenues for earning the votes of the religious faithful. I don’t see the need for this on strictly political terms, and I don’t like it as a policy position.  What was wrong with separation of church and state?

Obama wants to expand faith-based programs