Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Meet the Hypocrites: Steve Jobs

The tech blogosphere has been abuzz with discussion over the last few days in reaction to Apple's publication of a column by CEO Steve Jobs, entitled "Thoughts on Flash". The column (some news reports are referring to it as an "open letter" is an attempt to explain why Apple has refused to make its mobile devices interoperable with Adobe's Flash plug-in.

Jobs doesn't waste time trying to refute Adobe's contention that Apple is locking Flash out of the iPhone and iPad to protect its own self-interest. Early on his column, he argued that "technology issues" are behind Apple's position (which Adobe's CEO later dismissed as "a smokescreen".)

That led to the following paragraph:
Adobe’s Flash products are 100% proprietary. They are only available from Adobe, and Adobe has sole authority as to their future enhancement, pricing, etc. While Adobe’s Flash products are widely available, this does not mean they are open, since they are controlled entirely by Adobe and available only from Adobe. By almost any definition, Flash is a closed system.
Notice anything curious about that paragraph? It's a perfect description of Apple's own business practices! Just replace "Adobe" and "Flash" with "Apple" and "iPhone", "iPad", "iPod/iTunes", or "Mac" and you get a nicely worded four sentence critique of Jobs' own company. Seriously... How can Jobs talk about openness when his notoriously secretive company is not only hypocritically on the warpath against Adobe, but recently goaded police into initiating a criminal investigation over the disappearance of Apple's fourth generation iPhone prototype, which was lost by one of Jobs' own employees!?

Jobs goes on to admit that his own company's products are proprietary, but quickly moves into self-congratulatory mode, extolling the greatness of WebKit:
Apple even creates open standards for the web. For example, Apple began with a small open source project and created WebKit, a complete open-source HTML5 rendering engine that is the heart of the Safari web browser used in all our products. WebKit has been widely adopted. Google uses it for Android’s browser, Palm uses it, Nokia uses it, and RIM (Blackberry) has announced they will use it too. Almost every smartphone web browser other than Microsoft’s uses WebKit. By making its WebKit technology open, Apple has set the standard for mobile web browsers.
A reader perusing this paragraph might get the impression that the "small open source project" Jobs refers to was something brewed up in Apple's labs, which Apple turned into a major success story.

Actually, that "small open source project" was a component of a much larger free software project called the K Desktop Environment, better known as KDE. KDE is developed by a community of free software enthusiasts; it is one of the most popular desktop interface choices for GNU/Linux distributions.

Here's the backstory Jobs doesn't bother to provide in his column.

Back at the beginning of this decade, Apple took the code from two KDE projects (KHTML and KJS) and quietly modified it to suit their own purposes. The overall results became WebKit. Although the source code for Apple's modified versions of KHTML (WebCore) and KJS (JavaScriptCore) were made available at the time Apple released Safari, Apple did not open source WebKit as a whole for three long years.

Moreover, Apple failed to work constructively and openly with KDE's developers to further develop the code they had ported. Five years ago to the day tomorrow, one of KDE's developers commented on Apple's relationship with KDE at the time, reflecting in a message to Apple's Dave Hyatt:
At some point the Open Source ideals which we apply to KHTML and commercial setup in which you emerge yourself went in two different directions. At this point we have two completely separate groups developing two different versions of KHTML. We have absolutely no saying in the way you develop your version of KHTML and you don't participate at all in the way we develop KHTML.
Eventually, Apple's modified version of KTHML did become the new KHTML, and it is now used as the engine for KDE's Konqueror and even GNOME's Epiphany, both browsers native to GNU/Linux. But that only happened after KDE developers had bitterly protested the way they were being treated by the Cupertino software giant.

Since WebKit's major components come from KDE, and Apple did not create KDE, it's misleading for Jobs to claim that "Apple... creates open standards for the web." Imagine if Microsoft tried to claim it "creates open standards" because it had released some code under the GNU GPL. They'd be laughed at. But that's what Steve Jobs is deceptively doing here.

Apple's contributions to the free software community have, to date, been nothing more than token offerings compared to companies like IBM, Red Hat, Canonical, or Novell. When Apple releases its Mac OS X operating system, iLife productivity suite, or Final Cut Pro production program under a free software license, then they'll have the right to brag about openness.

Later on his letter castigating Flash, Jobs argues that it's time for websites to re-encode video and display it using H.264, rather than Flash. Again, Jobs fails to acknowledge something important: H.264 may be an "industry" standard, but it's not an open standard. Here's Mozilla's Mike Shaver:
In many countries, it is a patented technology, meaning that it is illegal to use without paying license fees to the MPEG-LA. Without such a license, it is not legal to use or distribute software that produces or consumes H.264-encoded content. Indeed, even distributing H.264 content over the internet or broadcasting it over the airwaves requires the consent of the MPEG-LA, and the current fee exemption for free-to-the-viewer internet delivery is only in effect until the end of 2010.

These license fees affect not only browser developers and distributors, but also represent a toll booth on anyone who wishes to produce video content. And if H.264 becomes an accepted part of the standardized web, those fees are a barrier to entry for developers of new browsers, those bringing the web to new devices or platforms, and those who would build tools to help content and application development.
So much for freedom. H.264 may have advantages over Adobe Flash, but its disadvantages are just as significant as Flash's are. If Steve Jobs were honest, he would have acknowledged that H.264 is proprietary, and that Apple is among H.264's patent holders. But he conveniently fails to do so.

Like Jobs, we're not big fans of Flash. It's a flawed, proprietary technology. But then, so are the iPhone, the iPad, the iPod, and the iMac/Mac Pro/MacBook family of computers. Anyone wanting to use Apple software legally has to first buy Apple's hardware. Though a user may own the hardware they purchase to gain that privilege, they don't own the software... they're simply renting it from Apple. Conversely, Microsoft Windows can be rented without needing to first purchase any hardware at all, and of course GNU/Linux distributions can be installed on any hardware configuration a user might wish to create.

Steve Jobs and Apple have the right to make it impossible for Flash to work on the mobile devices they sell. But they should be honest about it. Apple only cares about openness when openness is in Apple's best interests. It's too bad that Steve Jobs doesn't have the courage to simply admit this.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ubuntu 10.04 "Lucid Lynx" released

The end of April is now less than forty eight hours away, which means that it's once again release day for the world's most popular GNU/Linux distribution.

Ubuntu Version 10.04, codenamed "Lucid Lynx" was made available for download earlier today. It contains a number of new and nifty features, like desktop support for social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter (as well as Flickr, Status.Net, Qaiku, plus several others) and simplified font installation (a user can now open a font file on his or her desktop and simply click an Install button to activate it, obviating the need to use the command line).

Lucid also ships with a new default theme, called Ambiance, and a new alternate default theme, called Radiance, which Canonical's design team says were inspired by light. I'm personally not a fan of Ambiance (it's too dark for my taste) and I'm reserving judgment on Radiance for the time being.

What perplexes me is that the prior look and feel hasn't been included among the Appearance options (though it can be downloaded from the repositories).

One of the most annoying changes in Ambiance and Radiance is that the window buttons have been moved from the right edge of the top bar to the left edge. This change is easy for a knowledgeable user to reverse, but I have a feeling many new users won't appreciate it. It seems like design tinkering for tinkering's sake.

And that's usually not a good idea.

In my testing of Lucid to date, I've stumbled across several bugs... several annoying and too trivial to mention here, but one particularly problematic and worthy of commenting on. The problematic bug in question is a glitch that frequently (but not always) results in a cryptic error when attempting to connect to a server (like a Windows share). This is apparently a problem with a GNOME component which will hopefully be fixed very soon.

On a more positive note, Lucid incorporates new versions of several important desktop applications: like Firefox 3.6, Thunderbird 3, and OpenOffice.org 3.2.

Additionally, the Ubuntu Software Center, a graphical frontend for easy installation of free software packages, has been significantly retouched. And Lucid boots much faster on solid state drives than previous versions of Ubuntu.

Flaws and drawbacks aside, Lucid Lynx is a strong release, and certainly a worthwhile upgrade for any current Ubuntu user. Lack of bloatware alone makes it an incredibly attractive alternate to Windows for users who are not technologically savvy. Lucid can be downloaded free of charge at Ubuntu's website.

And now... Announcing the keynote speaker for our 2010 Spring Fundraising Gala

Last week, after months of planning, we revealed that our second Spring Fundraising Gala is going to be held this June 9th at the Community Center at Mercer View on Mercer Island, featuring King County Executive Dow Constantine, Democratic congressional hopeful Suzan DelBene, State Representative Hans Dunshee, and Seattle Port Commissioner Gael Tarleton.

This afternoon, we're thrilled to announce that our gala's keynote speaker will be John de Graaf, one of our region's most eloquent and passionate progressive speakers. John is the national coordinator for Take Back Your Time, which is fighting to liberate Americans from the stress and anxiety caused by being overworked. He is the coauthor of several bestselling books and an independent producer of television documentaries for KCTS9; more than a dozen of the programs he has worked on have aired nationally in primetime on PBS.

We anticipate announcing still more special guests in the days ahead, but we strongly encourage you to secure your tickets for the gala now... space at this event will be limited and we can't guarantee last-minute availability.

There are two rates available: Individual ($45) and Household ($75).

The latter is easily the better value for any family. The household rate was rather popular at our first gala, and we're happy to be able to offer it again.

Use this button to buy a ticket at the individual rate:


Or, use this button to buy a ticket at the household rate:


We hope to have the pleasure of seeing you on June 9th!

Drill, baby, drill? How about burn, baby, burn!

The “Drill Baby, Drill” crowd has been conspicuously silent in the week since the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, killing eleven workers and spewing 210,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico.

As currents and tides move an oil slick towards the ecologically sensitive Louisiana coast, officials who don’t have the luxury of changing the subject are stuck trying to explain how this isn’t such a big deal.

"It's premature to say this is catastrophic,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry. “I will say this is very serious."

Well thanks, Mary. You might want to visit the burn unit where some survivors are still listed as being in “very serious” condition, or maybe send a condolence card to the families of those dead oil-rig workers.

Meanwhile, a last-ditch effort to prevent oil from hitting environmentally sensitive marshlands and valuable oyster grounds seems like something from a bad Hollywood movie: corralling thousand gallons of the thickest oil on the surface, towing it to a remote area, and burning it.

"When you can get oil ignited, it is an absolutely effective way of getting rid of a huge percentage of the oil," said Greg Pollock, head of the oil spill division of the Texas General Land Office, which is providing equipment for crews in the Gulf. "I can't overstate how important it is to get the oil off the surface of the water."

Thanks Greg; there are some of us who can’t overstate how important it is to not put that oil in the water in the first place.

Meanwhile, there’s no word on whether or not Sarah Palin – who make a big deal of brining camera crews along to show what a hard-working family she has, fishing in the frigid waters off Alaska – will be going rogue and helping to clean up the mess that “drill baby, drill” has caused.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hewlett-Packard buys Palm for $1.2 billion

Unable to compete against the likes of Research in Motion and Apple on its own, Palm is selling itself to one of the biggest manufacturer of desktops and servers:
Hewlett-Packard Co., the world’s biggest personal-computer maker, agreed to acquire Palm Inc. for about $1.2 billion, stepping up efforts to compete in the smartphone market.

The price of $5.70 a share represents a 23 percent premium over Palm’s closing price today. The transaction should be completed by the end of July, Palo Alto, California-based Hewlett-Packard said in a statement.
To date, H.P. has been unable to make much headway in the smartphone market on its own, while Palm, despite introducing several innovative devices, has struggled to compete due to a lack of resources. Since each party can solve a problem that the other has, this is one acquisition that probably makes sense.

Last year, Palm tried to reinvent itself by introducing the Pre and Pixi handsets, which shipped with the new webOS operating system. Palm built webOS on top of the Linux kernel, with a number of free software libraries, adding a number of proprietary components. Essentially, all they did was customize their own GNU/Linux distribution without giving back to the free software community by releasing their own work under the GNU GPL.

Although Palm's new phones and webOS were praised by many critics, and sales have been decent, the platform has not proved to be as popular with users or developers as Research in Motion's BlackBerry, Apple's iPhone, and Google's Android. Palm probably wouldn't have stood much of a chance competing against those platforms and Microsoft's forthcoming Windows Phone 7 on its own.

Now that Palm is part of Hewlett-Packard, it at least doesn't have to worry about its own future anymore. Its fate is intertwined with one of the technology industry's biggest behemoths, which sells a diverse mix of products and services.

The feckless hypocrisy of Lindsey Graham

Yesterday, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had this to say about Arizona's horrible new Jim Crow law, which deputizes Arizona state law enforcement officials to enforce federal immigration law, and which further mandates that Arizona's cops stop anybody they think is an illegal and demand proof of citizenship:

"Look what good people will do when they're under siege. What happened in Arizona is that good people are so afraid of an out of control border that they had to resort to a law that I think is unconstitutional."


As others have said, this law effectively mandates racial profiling.

"Good people," of course, is Super Sekrit Code for "white people." It's nothing more than blowing the Tea Party dog whistle. If you can stomach it, listen to how he says it not once, but twice, on YouTube.

Oh, poor, poor white people! Under siege by the invading brown hordes from the south! They're so scared, downright terrified in fact, that they just had no choice but to pass this horrible, unconstitutional, racist, 21st century Jim Crow law that will as sure as California's Prop. 187 be stricken down by the courts.

I mean really, what else could those poor scared white folks do? What other option did they have?

Ahem.

That's a sufficiently craven bit of race-baiting, wedge-issue politicking that I could just leave this post right there. But Senator Graham goes on to add, in his "Shocked! Shocked, I am!" disapproval of Arizona's law, this further bit of utterly feckless--and moderately Freudian--hypocrisy, saying that we need to:

"...address the big elephant in the room and that is that our borders are broken and there's a war going on."


Interesting choice of words, Senator. Freudian slip, perhaps? Because the elephant in the room is the Republican party. How dare you try to score points on America's "broken borders?" As if foreigners' desire to come here were some kind of problem to be eradicated, rather than an opportunity for America to become stronger? How dare you try to score points on this issue when the major obstacle in the way of meaningful immigration reform is the Republican Party itself?

Jackass.

You're right about one thing, though, Senator. You're right that we need to address the big elephant in the room. You're absolutely right that nothing is going to get better until we address the enormous dysfunction in American politics that is the "party of no," the "party of 'no we can't'," the Republican Party.

The elephant in the room, Senator, is you.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Special election today for some local governments throughout Washington

A number of jurisdictions across Washington State are concluding special elections today to determine the fate of several ballot propositions.

If you live in a city, county, or special district that is holding an election (you can check by visiting the website of your county auditor), please don't forget to drop off your ballot at the post office or at a collection site if you haven't already.

In King County, the City of Black Diamond and Skykomish School District each have levy propositions on the ballot.

Voters in South King County, meanwhile, are being asked if they'd like to merge the City of Kent's Fire Department with King County Fire Protection District #37 to create the Kent Fire Department Regional Fire Authority.

To the north, the Whatcom Transportation Authority is asking taxpayers to approve a slight increase in the sales tax to prevent potential deep cuts in bus service. Walla Walla's Valley Transit is doing the same to the east of the Cascades (there are also several school levies and a hospital district levy on the ballot in different parts of Walla Walla County).

Unless you're in Pierce County, you vote by mail, so if you have a ballot lying around in a stack of mail next to the telephone, or buried under some newspapers, dig it out, mail it in, and do your civic duty.

Monday, April 26, 2010

FCC holding net neutrality workshop this Wednesday in Seattle

A quick heads up for readers who care about net neutrality: This Wednesday morning, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is holding a workshop on preserving the open Internet at the Jackson Federal Building in downtown Seattle.

According to the FCC, the workshop will consider...
...how the Internet’s openness can best be preserved, including by examining historical and ongoing efforts to protect Internet openness in the United States and other countries, and by discussing the key technological, economic, and legal considerations relevant to the need for and substance of the Commission’s proposed open Internet policies.
The FCC itself - that's the five-member Commission, comprised of three Democrats and two Republicans - is not actually coming to town, as it did a few years ago, but the workshop will influence its decision-making.

Commission staff are in town and will be facilitating the workshop.

Details for the event are as follows:

FCC Workshop on Preserving an Open Internet
Jackson Federal Building
915 2nd Avenue, Seattle, WA
Wednesday, April 28th, 2010, from 9:30 AM to noon
Sponsored by the FCC
Open to the media and the public

Ben Nelson, Senate Republicans block debate on American Financial Stability Act

Surprising no one, Senate Republicans — along with wannabe Republican Ben Nelson — voted today to block debate on the American Financial Stability Act of 2010, prime sponsored by Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut.

The final vote was 57-41, with two Republican senators not voting.

(Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid voted with the Republican minority after it became clear which way the vote would go; he did this as a strategic maneuver, so he can bring the bill back up for another vote).

As readers know, it takes sixty votes to pass a cloture motion and break a procedural filibuster. Republicans have been using Senate rules to obstruct the progress of all the Obama administration's legislative priorities.

S. 3217 is just the latest victim of Republican obstructionism.

Every Democratic senator from the Pacific Northwest cast an "aye" vote on the cloture motion for S. 3217, while every Republican cast a "nay" vote.

"I am deeply disappointed that Senate Republicans voted in a block against allowing a public debate on Wall Street reform to begin," President Barack Obama said in a statement released by the White House not long after the vote.

"Some of these Senators may believe that this obstruction is a good political strategy, and others may see delay as an opportunity to take this debate behind closed doors, where financial industry lobbyists can water down reform or kill it altogether. But the American people can’t afford that," the President declared.

"Instead of voting to allow the bill to be debated in public view, they [Republicans plus Ben Nelson] want more backroom negotiations and delay as they try to kill Wall Street reform," Senator Jeff Merkley concurred in a press release.

"It is nothing short of remarkable that after everything our country has been through in the last two years, Senators continue to defend the anything-goes ideology that puts the foxes in charge of the henhouse."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters today he thinks Republicans will eventually buckle and stop obstructing the bill's progress.

I seem to recall him saying something like that about healthcare reform before it got completely bogged down. It's never a good idea to assume that Republicans are going to act in the best interests of the country.

Tremendous pressure will have to be brought to bear on Republicans if the administration wants to fracture McConnell's caucus, which has been well disciplined to date, to the detriment of the country's well-being.

Thanks to a consumer advocate, flying just got a little smoother

I can remember back when flying used to be fun. Not anymore. Now it’s a crap shoot: flight delays, flight cancellations, erupting volcanoes, missing luggage. Getting stranded in a strange city, trapped inside a motionless airplane or sleeping on the airport floor.

I have to admit, despite all the travel headaches I’ve dealt with, I never did anything more than complain about it. With summer travel season on the horizon, I am grateful that Californian Kate Hanni did more than complain after she and her family spent nine hours during the 2006 holiday travel season trapped in a grounded American Airlines jet. Ms. Hanni is a fine example of the saying “don’t just complain, do something about it.”

On Thursday, new U.S. Department of Transportation rules meant to protect travelers will go into effect thanks to Hanni who has been promoting the “three hour rule” since her 2006 ordeal. The new rules stipulate:
On domestic flights, airlines will be required to allow passengers off the plane if they've been sitting for more than three hours. Flight crews also will be required to keep the lavatories working, provide medical attention to anyone who needs it, and — once the delay hits the two-hour mark — supply adequate food and water.

Airlines that don't comply will face fines of more than $27,000 for each inconvenienced passenger.
This means a fine of more than $4.1 million for a Boeing 737 with 150 passengers, exceeding the profit made by continuing the flight.

Months before her negative travel experience, Hanni was sexually assaulted, causing her to vow to never be a victim again. Her determination to fight back created Flyersrights.Org. With over 25,000 members, FlyersRights is the largest U.S. non-profit organization representing airline passengers, and it claims to be the fastest growing grassroots coalition in history, collecting over 16,200 members in less than six months. Apparently quite a few people can relate to Hanni’s bad experience.

The conditions that Hanni and her family had to endure were harsh. According to FlyersRights.Org's Emergency Kit:
One of 121 flights diverted to regional airports that day, conditions on Hanni’s and other planes deteriorated to the point where police were called to quell riots, toilets overflowed, people with a variety of medical conditions were unable to get relief, and there was no food or water.
This treatment is despicable. The new transportation department rules are about more than just comfort. They are about airlines treating their customers with humanity. Airlines have fought the new rules by insisting that they will only lead to more flight cancellations and inconveniences for passengers, but we think that passenger’s well-being in an emergency should be airlines’ first consideration. We feel confident that the airlines will find ways to accommodate both their customers and their flight schedules. (I mean, how much worse can it possibly get?) Consumers should not be held hostage, literally or figuratively, to protect corporation’s bottom lines.

A negative experience can lead you to push for change like it did for Kate Hanni, or it can inspire you to join a movement. Either way, it’s this grassroots action that improves society. Think health care, think drunk driving, think tax reform. Citizen action makes a difference and we have people like Kate Hanni to inspire us to get involved or to even get out in front.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

If The Seattle Times editorial board were in charge, they'd be incapable of governing

As expected, The Seattle Times has come out against the high-earners income tax initiative spearheaded by William Gates, Sr.

In an editorial released Friday and published in today's paper, the Times stupidly assails Initiative 1077 as a "high-risk gamble" which would prevent job creation. The Times goes on to make a number of patently ridiculous claims, like:
Washington is already a high-cost state. The tax employers pay for unemployment benefits is higher than in most other states. So is the tax they pay for injuries at work. So are the costs of environmental protection. But Washington compensates by having no personal income tax. We are one of the few states that can say, "We levy no tax on success."
So regressivity's a good thing?

This is misleading argument which doesn't consider the big picture. According to an analysis by the Department of Revenue, Washington State ranks thirty fifth when compared to the level of taxes levied by every other state. Thirty fifth.

That means most other states are investing more in their common wealths than we are. We're in the bottom half. State expenditures as a percent of personal income haven't risen in decades. We're barely keeping pace. Is it any wonder we're struggling to figure out how to pay for our most vital public services?

The premise of the Times' argument is the conservative notion that wealth equals success, and success should not be punished. This notion assumes that all a poor person needs to become successful is discipline. A sufficiently disciplined person can pull him or herself up by their own bootstraps and use the "free" market to become prosperous... no matter impoverished he or she might be.

As George Lakoff has explained, this right wing economic freedom story is a myth. There are no self-made men or women in America. Everyone who starts or runs a business takes advantage of the vast infrastructure paid for by taxpayers: the interstate highway system, the postal service, the Internet, or the judiciary, where nine-tenths of cases involve corporate law, to name a few examples.

Consequently, those who use the common wealth to become personally wealthy owe their success to their fellow taxpayers. It is their patriotic duty to help sustain the common wealth by paying their fair share in dues.

Considering how much Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen hates the state estate tax, it's funny that it goes unmentioned in this editorial. That's a voter-sanctioned "tax on success", and its existence has not prevented businesses from setting up shop here. Nor has its existence stopped Forbes Magazine from repeatedly naming Washington one of the best states to do business in recent years.

Rather than deconstructing the Times' editorial point-by-point, though, I want to consider a more important question: How can Frank Blethen and Company reconcile their opposition to a strong common wealth and a progressive tax system with their opposition to the decay and destruction of public services? Because that's the alternative. As I and other NPI staff have written on so many occasions, there is no free lunch. If we want public services, then we must pay for them.

The Times wants to have it both ways. From their offices in Fairview, they have the luxury of being able to condemn Washington's elected leaders for strengthening our common wealth with new revenue one day and alternately decry the sorry state of our underfunded services another day. It's like the Voice of the Blethens is continuously morphing from Jekyll to Hyde and back again.

I excerpted Hyde earlier in this post. Let's hear from Jekyll. In 2004, in an unsigned editorial on the gubernatorial race, The Times opined:
Students deserve a stable source of funding not perennially subject to economic turn and political whim.

There are 100,000 more students in the state's K-12 system than a decade ago. A growing number are learning English and about one-third of them are poor. Too many are not succeeding.

Providing a solid education for every student is the next governor's paramount duty.
Well, that's the whole point of Initiative 1077: to provide a stable source of funding not perennially subject to economic turn and political whim.

The high-earners income tax proposed by the initiative would generate a billion dollars for public schools and healthcare coverage, after offsetting tax cuts for small businesses. The Voice of the Blethens notes that the initiative would generate a billion dollars, but never acknowledges that the money is specifically dedicated to the two aforementioned priorities.

That fact is immaterial; it doesn't fit in the Times' narrative du jour.

To a sensible person, here is the Times' position on education: We want to fully fund public schools, but we don't really want to fully fund public schools.

Yeah, that's consistent.

The constant, arrogant editorializing we find in the Times makes me wonder would happen if the company's executives were put in charge of the state. How would they govern? What budget would they write, what cuts would they make?

I believe that if the Seattle Times editorial board were put in charge — or in other words, were given the responsibilities that the offices of governor, representative, and senator entail — they'd be incapable of governing.

I would love to put them to the test, not as the state's actual leaders, but as the elected officials of Evergreen, a simulated version of Washington.

Nearly six years ago, I participated in a government simulation exercise with the same name in Ellensburg, as part of Boys' State, a program organized by the American Legion. We elected a governor, House of Representatives, Senate, Supreme Court, Attorney General, Lands Commissioner, Secretary of State, Auditor, Treasurer, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Lieutenant Governor.

The exercise was great fun, but it was also an eye-opener. I think everyone who attended came away with a better appreciation for how difficult governing is.

If could devise my own simulation of Evergreen, populated by employees of The Seattle Times Company, it would look something like this:
Executive Officers
Governor: Frank Blethen (Hyde Party)
Lieutenant Governor: Robert C. Blethen
Secretary of State: William K. Blethen
(Attorney General could be the Times' general counsel or top lawyer, Treasurer its chief accountant, Public Lands Commissioner its real estate manager, etc.)

Unicameral Legislature
Hyde Party: Speaker Ryan Blethen, Majority Leader Carolyn Kelly, Majority Whip Kate Riley, Bruce Ramsey, Joni Balter, Lynne Varner
Jekyll Party: Minority Leader Lance Dickie, Minority Whip Danny Westneat, Jon Talton, Jerry Large
To help populate the Legislature's loyal opposition, I threw in a few Times columnists who frequently share their own, more enlightened political views in the paper's Metro/Local and Business sections.

In the simulation, Governor Blethen would be faced with a budget crisis, much like Chris Gregoire was in real life at the end of last year. He would have to decide whether to ask the Legislature to cut essential public services like the Basic Health Plan or "buy back" those services with new revenue.

What would he do?

My suspicion is that Governor Blethen would not be able to stomach either of these options. He'd be paralyzed, especially after learning from his budget director that privatizing liquor stores, closing Evergreen's government printing office, and insisting on additional efficiencies in technology would not make a dent in the deficit threatening his state's fiscal health.

Maybe he'd propose selling off state parks and public lands. But he'd have to deal with the opposition of Minority Leader Lance Dickie, who in anticipation of such a move, would doubtless have already found couple members of the Hyde Party to join the Jekylls in wholeheartedly rejecting the idea.

Or maybe he would ask the Supreme Court to dissolve the Joint Operating Agreement between the State of Evergreen and the United States of Sims, so that Evergreen could escape many of its federally mandated obligations.

One thing's for sure: He would discover that governing is much harder and not at all like running a business. Since we know he's bad at the latter, there is no reason to think he'd be any good at the former. Even in a simulation.

All the same... I think I'd pay just to see him try.

Friday, April 23, 2010

City of Seattle asks Supreme Court to force Rob McKenna to back out of anti-reform suit

Upset over Rob McKenna's decision to involve Washington State in the partisan Republican lawsuit that seeks to invalidate the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes has filed a writ of mandamus with the state Supreme Court (with the backing of Mayor McGinn and the City Council) asking that the Court order McKenna to withdraw from the suit.

Holmes' contention is very simple: McKenna didn't have the authority to sign Washington State up for the suit (which originated in Florida) on his own.
The Washington Constitution provides that, "The Attorney General shall be the legal adviser of the state officers, and shall perform such other duties as may be prescribed by law. Wash. Const. art 3, § 21 (emphasis added). When the term "as may be prescribed by law" is used in the Constitution, it means the officer has only the powers expressly given by the state Legislature. He has no common law powers. Yelle v. Bishop, 55 Wn.2d 286, 295-96, 347 P.2d 1081 (1959); State ex rel. Winston v. Seattle Gas & Electric Co., 28 Wash. 488, 497, 68 P. 946 (1902).
Holmes goes on to examine the relevant statutes, going through several sections. He concludes that "none of the provisions of RCW 43.10.030 grant authority for the Attorney General to make the State of Washington a plaintiff in the Florida lawsuit without the Governor's concurrence."

McKenna and his state Republicans, of course, have claimed that the Attorney General is an independently elected official and does not need the governor's permission to act on the state's behalf. They suggest the phrase "as may be prescribed by law" gives the Attorney General broad latitude to act as he sees fit.

Holmes argues otherwise:
In Washington, unlike some other states, the Constitution gives the Governor "supreme executive power." Wash. Const. art. III, § 2. The Attorney General is one of the "other" executive officers. Id. art. III, § 3. By statute, the Governor, "shall supervise the conduct of all executive offices." RCW 43.060.010(1).
Figuratively speaking, Holmes' petition is great tinder for a fascinating discussion of constitutional law. At least that's how we see it.

The question we'd like to ask McKenna is how he would feel if the shoe were on the other foot. If he were governor and Chris Gregoire was still the Attorney General, how would he feel if Gregoire involved the state in a lawsuit against major federal legislation without even bothering to consult him?

Our guess is that McKenna would probably be none too happy, and might go off in search of his own legal representation, as Governor Gregoire has done.

Apologists for McKenna have pointed out that when Chris Gregoire was Attorney General, she negotiated a settlement with tobacco companies on the state's behalf. However, Gregoire involved the state in that case with the governor's support. Not only did McKenna fail to get Gregoire's concurrence when he joined the Florida action, he did not even bother with the simple courtesy of notifying her in advance. She found out from reporters. That's just inexcusable.

We'll be watching to see what happens to Holmes' petition. Will the Supreme Court rule on the merits of this question, or toss it to Superior Court on a technicality? We will hopefully find out the answer to that question soon.

Tickets now on sale for NPI's 2010 Spring Fundraising Gala on June 9th

Earlier this week, we revealed that we're holding our second Spring Fundraising Gala on Wednesday, June 9th, 2010, at Mercer Island's beautiful Community Center. This morning, we're pleased to announce that tickets are now on sale for the event.

There are two rates available: Individual ($45) and Household ($75).

The latter is easily the better value for any family. The household rate was rather popular at our first gala, and we're happy to be able to offer it again.

The speaking lineup at this year's gala includes King County Executive Dow Constantine, Democratic congressional hopeful Suzan DelBene, State Representative Hans Dunshee, and Seattle Port Commissioner Gael Tarleton.

We expect to announce additional special guests in the months ahead.

We can't guarantee ticket availability on the day of the gala, so we strongly encourage you to purchase tickets in advance.

Use this button to buy a ticket at the individual rate:


Or, use this button to buy a ticket at the household rate:


We hope to have the pleasure of seeing you on June 9th!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

State Senator Darlene Fairley retires

Longtime State Senator Darlene Fairley, who represents the 32nd Legislative District and chairs the Senate's Government Operations & Elections Committee, has decided to retire from the Legislature. (Her term expires at the end of this year).

She announced her decision in an email to colleagues and Senate staff today:
To Everyone:

Around Christmas time last year I was griping and groaning about having to go back to Olympia soon. My husband (who had just about had it with my complaints) said I should wait until the end of this session to see if I felt the same.

If anything, my feelings are more negative than before.

I've always believed that if you hate what you're doing, and you can't give it your best, stop doing it. Life is too short to waste on things you don't enjoy doing.

We never know what's going to happen next, but I do know that I'm not running again. 16 years is enough.

To all of you--take care,

Darlene
That's Senator Fairley: direct and to the point. She's long been one of my favorite senators, in part because she always has a retort ready when Tim Eyman insults the Legislature from the table in front of her.

We at NPI wish her the very best in retirement. She'll be missed.

Democrats in the 32nd must now find a successor to Fairley. State Representative Maralyn Chase is reportedly thinking about running; she has served in the House for over a decade. If she runs, that would make her own position an open seat, but it makes sense to take that risk, since this is probably the best chance she'll ever have to move over to the Legislature's smaller chamber. She'll have to make up her mind quickly if she doesn't want Democratic rivals.

Happy Earth Day 2010!

Today, across the United States (and around the world) progressive activists are celebrating the fortieth annual Earth Day by cleaning up their communities and rallying in support of environmental justice.

Here's a roundup of Earth Day news and events that we've been tracking:

Senator Maria Cantwell is chairing a Commerce Subcommittee hearing on ocean acidification, an issue related to the climate crisis that is of top concern to many activists. The hearing will examine a new report from the National Academies of Science (PDF) which concludes ocean chemistry is chaning at an unprecedented rate and magnitude. "While more research is needed, there is a clear link between carbon emissions and the resulting impact on the chemistry of the world’s oceans," Washington's junior senator declared in a news release.

The Democratic nominee in Washington's 8th Congressional District, Suzan DelBene, made the most of an opportunity to critique her opponent's record on environmental protection, observing that the League of Conservation Voters recently gave Dave Reichert a failing on grade on its report card, and listing her own priorities in a campaign news release (PDF). "Last time I looked, a 64 percent is a D," DelBene said. "That may be good for an incumbent Republican politician in an election year, but it’s not good enough for the 8th Congressional District."

The White House's Katelyn Sabochik has posted a rather substantive Earth Day roundup on behalf of the administration, highlighting what different Cabinent members (including our former Governor, Gary Locke) have been up to. President Barack Obama also issued a statement commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day. The White House did not attempt to reconcile the President's support for needless oil drilling, more nuclear power, or the continued burning of coal with his professed commitment to environmental protection.

Seattle and Portland are each getting twenty million dollars to retrofit and weatherize buildings, the Obama administration announced yesterday. Both cities would have undoubtedly liked to have been awarded bigger grants, but twenty million apiece is nothing to sneeze at. The weatherization efforts are expected to help create and sustain thousands of jobs.

The Earth Day Network is organizing a massive rally in support of climate action on the National Mall this Sunday, April 25th. Although we agree that it is imperative the United States take action to address the climate crisis, we are opposed to the bill that is currently working its way through the United States Senate. As Winston Churchill once famously declared, "The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences." We have entered that period of consequences, but too many senators think our response should be something less than quarter measures. Unacceptable.

Gmail hacking epidemic demonstrates the peril of trusting Google's "cloud services"

Are my email and contacts safe?

The above is a question that anybody who uses the Internet's messaging protocols should be asking themselves on a regular, frequent basis. Sadly, all too often, people blindly trust the companies they do business with to keep them and their data protected, rather than making their security online their own concern.

Case in point: Over the last few days, I've received a spate of emails which appeared to come from other people I know in the progressive movement, but in reality were sent by spammers who had hijacked their Gmail accounts.

The emails contained nothing but a meaningless subject line and a link in the body to Canadian pharmaceutical companies selling cheap drugs.

Some of the people whose accounts were hijacked realized what was going on before I could warn them, and sent out a note asking their acquaintances not to click on the link and apologizing for the inadvertently generated spam.

Gmail, which is one of Google's oldest non-search offerings, has had a strong allure ever since it debuted six years ago. It has a slick interface, generous storage limits, it supports the POP and IMAP standards, and it doesn't cost money.

But Gmail has never been free.

Anybody who opens a Gmail account is forced to agree at the time they sign up to let Google robotically peer over their shoulder and index their messages so it can serve up customized ads. That's always been the "price" of Gmail.

It's bad enough that Google figuratively looks over the shoulders of its users, but now spammers seem to have the power to do the same thing.

And they're unfortunately doing more than just looking.

It's amazing how many accounts have been hijacked. Google claims Gmail is secure, but of course it would be foolish for them to say otherwise. If they said anything to the contrary, people would panic. It would be bad for business.

But just because Google says there isn't a problem doesn't mean that's the case. The hijackings are evidence that Gmail is clearly not secure, in addition to not being private. Since Gmail's flaws outweigh the strengths of its featureset, it's not worth using. There are many better alternatives. The best alternatives cost money, but they also tend to come with real technical support.

Those who decide to stick with Gmail ought to at least take the opportunity to change their password. The best passwords consist of a mixture of letters, numbers, and punctuation, and don't contain any words. Words make passwords easier to crack. Changing passwords regularly is also a good idea.

Finally, having internet security software installed can help reduce the possibility that spammers will be able to capture sensitive information using malware.

A week after Verizon gets okay to leave state, Qwest gets snapped up by CenturyTel

First it was Verizon. Now it's Qwest.

A week after Washington's Utilities & Transportation Commission okayed Verizon's multistate megadeal with Frontier — which would triple the size of the Connecticut-based rural phone provider and allow Verizon to shed all of its Evergreen States landlines — Qwest Communications, which serves a big swath of the state, has announced it's agreed to be acquired by CenturyTel:
The combination would have about 18 million phone lines serving customers in 37 states, but would still be dwarfed by AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. It would be based at CenturyTel's headquarters in Monroe, La., rather than in Denver, where Qwest is based.

The number of landlines in the U.S. shrinks by about 10 percent per year as consumers chose to rely on their wireless phones or service from cable companies. The fourth-largest provider of landline phone service in the country, by number of subscribers, is now cable company Comcast Corp.
The annals of failed or unsuccessful mergers have grown with each passing year, but for some reason that has not disabused American business executives of the notion that bigger is better. And so we continue to see deals like this.

CenturyTel, which rebranded as CenturyLink after merging with Embarq (a Sprint spinoff) last year, is actually smaller than Qwest, but it's apparently richer, and so can afford to buy the Denver based company.

NPR reports that, as with the Verizon/Frontier deal, this transaction is also expected to be conveniently exempt from taxes, probably under the RMT loophole (that's just a guess... we haven't confirmed that).

No word yet on how Qwest customers might be inconvenienced. We assume the new company will allow people to keep their @q.com email addresses.

It's also unclear what happens to the Qwest Field name, though it will probably stay as it is, if history is any indication. Safeco Field didn't change its name after Safeco Insurance was bought by Boston-based Liberty Mutual Group two years ago.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Yes on Initiative 1077: Let's put real tax reform on the ballot this November

It's on.

After months of discussion and deliberation, a coalition of progressive public interest groups is moving forward with a ballot measure (Initiative 1077) that asks the people of Washington State to approve the creation of a state income tax on wealthy couples and individuals, to be dedicated to schools and healthcare.

At a press conference this morning in Seattle's Central District, renowned philanthrophist and tax reform expert William Gates (Sr.) announced that the Yes on 1077 coalition will seek to qualify the initiative for the general election ballot this November. The confirmed news was greeted with cheers and applause from activists standing shoulder to shoulder behind a row of television cameras.

William Gates Sr. signs Initiative 1077
"We've talked about the need for tax reform in this state for too many years," Gates told the crowd assembled in SoHo Coffee. "So, today — this day — we're going to begin to do something. We're launching I-1077."

"Our tax code is unfair," he explained. "It harms our economy and fails to provide the stable revenue we need for important state services, particularly priorities like education and healthcare... We can do better."

Gates neatly summaried the intent of Initiative 1077, noting that most Washington families would see their taxes decrease if enacted. State property taxes would be reduced by twenty percent and the hated business and occupation tax would be eliminated for eighty percent of the Evergreen State's small businesses.

The ballot drawn up by Attorney General Rob McKenna's office alludes to these provisions in the measure; it is as follows:
Statement of Subject: Initiative Measure No. 1077 concerns taxation.

Concise Description: This measure would tax “adjusted gross income” above $400,000 joint ($200,000 individual), reduce the state property tax levy, reduce certain business and occupation taxes, and direct any increased revenues to education and health.

Should this measure be enacted into law? Yes [ ] No [ ]
Of course, Mukilteo initiative profiteer Tim Eyman showed up for the press conference, though he did not attempt to interrupt any of the speakers (he likely would have been quickly shooed out of the coffee shop if he had). He invited reporters to follow him outside afterwards, where he proceeded to dismiss the initiative as best he could, jeering that the press conference should have been held in a church "because it requires so much faith in something."

It was an unusual role reversal for Eyman, who is accustomed to peddling his own initiatives instead of critiquing others.

"I just don't think the voters are going for go for it," Eyman said, who conceded that the coalition behind Initiative 1077 would have no trouble qualifing it for the ballot. "When you've got billionaires on your side, it's usually pretty easy to get your measure qualified," he quipped.

Naturally, Eyman knows all about buying his way onto the ballot, because he does it every year with the help of his sugar daddy Michael Dunmire, an ill-tempered investment banker who has a low opinion of the Legislature. For half a decade, Dunmire has fronted three quarters or more of the money Eyman has used to force public votes on his schemes, and we expect he'll be doing so again in 2010, although he hasn't written any checks to Eyman for I-1053 yet.

Eyman contends that after two years, the Legislature will increase property taxes and business and occupation taxes on small businesses back to what they were, or extend the income tax to everybody. Or both.

His hypothetical is implausible because legislators don't like having to vote to raise taxes. And in fact, Initiative 1077, if approved, will do some of their work for them. It would provide an estimated $1 billion in new revenue for education and healthcare after offsetting property tax cuts and the elimination of the business and occupation tax for small businesses in the budget.

An Initiative 1077 petition
Getting Initiative 1077 passed won't be easy. Rich conservatives like Michael Dunmire are sure to dump money into an opposition campaign which will attempt to scare voters. The right wing will level all sorts of absurd charges. For example, they'll claim the wealthy will move out of state, an argument that's so phony that William Gates Sr. dismissed it with laughter when a reporter had the audacity to bring it up. "I'm not leaving," he said with a smile, pointing out that nearly every state in America has an income tax. (Washington is one of seven that do not).

After the press conference was over, I had the honor of becoming one of the first Washingtonians to sign the initiative petition. I think I'm the twenty fifth or twenty sixth signatory. Readers, if you'd like to help gather signatures for Initiative 1077, please get in touch with the campaign. They're going to need all the help they can get between now and the first week of July.

Eyjafjallajökull eruption should be a wake-up call for local agriculture

The most dramatic thing about the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano in Iceland this past week was the closure of European air space to commercial flights. The ash has abated enough now that flights are resuming today. European air traffic controllers are taking heat for the closure, which inconvenienced millions of travellers and ruined some people's vacations, even though it was the right call. Hit your favorite search engine with "1989 Redoubt Volcano 747" to see why.

But beyond the inconvenience to travelers, this interruption to normal air traffic ought to serve as a serious wake-up call to the way food is grown and delivered all over the world.

Consider Britain, which imports 75% of its vegetables from abroad, and as much as 90% of its fresh fruit. That stuff usually comes via air freight, but for the past several days, hasn't. Some markets in England, as of yesterday, were reporting running out of fresh produce and weren't sure when they'd be able to get more. With the air ban lifted, I'm sure deliveries will resume with all due haste.

But what if it hadn't? What if the Eyjafjallajökull hadn't lessened its ash output, and commercial jet operations across Europe had been nixed for months? What then?

Well, systems would adjust, eventually. People would, of course, figure out how to move freight around over land or by sea. And the price of fresh strawberries in England would go through the roof.

All of which ought to serve as a very loud wake-up call for the whole world's food production and delivery system. It ought to be a wake-up call for consumers, too: the practice of shipping food all around the world on planes and freighters is incredibly dangerous.

Our modern food delivery system is modeled after just-in-time inventory practices from the manufacturing sector. When you're making cars, it's great to have parts delivered to you as you need them. It's more efficient than keeping a warehouse full of parts on hand.

Just-in-time delivery models fail if the supply chain breaks for a long time, as could have happened with a more serious Eyjafjallajökull eruption (and, who knows, may yet happen). It's not a big deal, really, if a massive supply-chain failure shuts down an auto plant. Nobody dies. But when the supply-chain for food breaks down, people starve. It's just not a wise model to be using.

The system we have is very good at letting the spoiled consumers in developed nations eat seasonal produce with no regard to the actual calendar. But it is also very brittle. Any major interruption in worldwide shipping, as might be caused by volcanoes, tsunamis, acts of terrorism, economic forces, and so forth, can quickly cause grocery stores to run out of things we take for granted.

If it was just a question of not being able to eat Argentinian strawberries in the middle of a London winter, I wouldn't really care. But it's not. This same brittle system is also being used for staple foods, meats, grains, beans. For grocery stores, it's more efficient: they can keep the shelves stocked without having a massive back-room stocked with cans and bottles.

But the very presence of this brittle delivery system has undermined local agriculture across most of the developed world. Chances are, you've already eaten something today that came from more than 100 miles away from where you live. Chances are, in fact, that more of what you've eaten today has come from far away than has been local.

No problem, when the delivery system works. But as Eyjafjallajökull has shown us, one dinky little volcano in the middle of the Atlantic can bring large chunks of the system to a screeching halt.

Just-in-time delivery is fine for making cars. But it's stupid, un-sustainable, and downright dangerous for keeping people fed. We need a return to local agriculture. It's a question of safety versus luxury. Do you want to be able to eat strawberries in winter, or do you want to know that even if a volcano erupts half way around the world you're still going to be able to put food on your family's table?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Initiative that would levy a state income tax on high-earners is set to move forward

Betting that Washingtonians are in the mood for real tax reform, a coalition of progressive organizations has decided to move forward with an initiative that would impose a state income tax on wealthy couples and individuals, NPI has learned.

The coalition has called a press conference for tomorrow morning to officially announce its plans, billing it as a "major tax reform announcement."

The event will be headlined by William Gates (Sr.), the father of the well known Microsoft founder, who is among the state's most respected experts on tax reform. Gates chaired a commission on fixing the state's tax structure several years ago; among its recommendations was the creation of a state income tax.

(The Legislature has, of course, largely failed to heed Gates' advice in the months and years since the report was completed and delivered.)

If enacted, individuals who make more than $200,000 a year (which is only a fraction of Washington's six million residents) would be subject to the state's first income tax in decades. Conversely, the much-hated business and occupation tax would be almost completely eliminated for eighty percent of small businesses, and property taxes would be reduced by twenty percent.

The genius of Initiative 1077 is that is that it pares back regressive taxes while replacing them with a progressive revenue source to cancel out the loss. It's just the kind of revenue neutral solution our common wealth needs.

The challenge will be getting Washingtonians to tune out the campaign of fear, uncertainty, and doubt that the right wing is certain to wage. We have long believed that extensive public outreach and education are necesssary precursors to realizing the goal of a state income tax. It is true that Initiative 1077 only proposes to impose an income tax on the wealthy, but if it falls short and is rejected by the people, achieving real tax reform will be harder than ever.

Still, as the old saying goes... no risk, no gain. The Great Recession has proved just how problematic our overdependence on consumption taxes is. If it qualifies for the ballot, Initiative 1077 will provide the people of Washington State with an opportunity to address this most serious problem.

Save the Date: NPI's 2010 Spring Fundraising Gala will be June 9th, 2010

We have some exciting news to share this morning.

For the past few weeks, the team at NPI has been working to plan our second Spring Fundraising Gala, continuing a tradition we began two years ago, which allowed us to not only stay in business but significantly strengthen our resources.

Today, we're pleased to announce that our 2010 gala will be held on Wednesday, June 9th, 2010, at the Community Center at Mercer View (on Mercer Island).

Speakers will include King County Executive Dow Constantine, Democratic congressional nominee Suzan DelBene (running in the 8th District), State Representative Hans Dunshee, and Seattle Port Commissioner Gael Tarleton.

We expect to announce additional special guests in the coming weeks.

The event will begin at 6:30 PM (when registration opens) and be over by 9 PM.

We're not selling tickets just yet, but we will be very soon. The individual rate will be $45, and the household rate $75. Students will be welcome for just $20. Tickets will be available for purchase from NPI's website.

As at the first gala, a delicious buffet will be served, and yours truly will be giving a short presentation about NPI's work.

So please mark June 9th, 2010 on your calendars as the date of NPI's second Spring Fundraising Gala. We're very much looking forward to putting this event together, and we hope that we'll have the honor of seeing you there!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Human garbage is everywhere

As if one Texas-sized area of plastic in the Pacific wasn’t enough, this winter, ocean researchers found a second patch big enough to rival the first—the great Atlantic garbage patch. It seems that no part of the world can escape the human touch.

From the Miami Herald:
The floating garbage - hard to spot from the surface and spun together by a vortex of currents - was documented by two groups of scientists who trawled the sea between scenic Bermuda and Portugal's mid-Atlantic Azores islands.

The studies describe a soup of micro-particles similar to the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a phenomenon discovered a decade ago between Hawaii and California that researchers say is likely to exist in other places around the globe.
Some of the trash found in the ocean is recognizable stuff: water bottles, buckets, and crates, but most of the plastic is in small pieces. These pieces pick up chemicals from the water and are eaten by fish and water birds who mistake them for plankton. The plastic later turns up in the bellies of dead fish and birds.

It’s hard to measure the size of the two garbage patches since they shift with the currents, but scientists guess that the Pacific patch is around the size of Texas, and the Atlantic patch could be even larger.

The most appalling thing about discovering more of society’s waste swirling around in the ocean is just how pervasive our waste is. Researcher Anna Cummins, who documented the Atlantic patch, calls it a global problem. She told the Miami Herald:
It's shocking to see it firsthand. Nothing compares to being out there. We've managed to leave our footprint really everywhere.
Cummins' comment reminds me of one of climate change skeptics’ favorite arguments, that human beings can’t possibly effect something as large as climate change--there must be a natural cause. But as we find Starbucks cups littering our landscapes and bits of plastic swirling in our oceans, we also know that our sky contains carbon dioxide that comes from our factories and tailpipes. It’s hard to avoid the reach of human society.

Congratulations to Mike Town for winning the NEA Foundation's first ever Green Prize

One of my favorite high school teachers, who I've always believed is one of the most innovative and pioneering educators of his generation, was today honored by the NEA Foundation as the recipient of its first ever Green Prize.

Mike Town, fifty one, was presented with the award and an accompanying $25,000 check this morning at Redmond High School's performing arts center by the grandson of one of his heroes, Philippe Cousteau. During his career as a teacher, Town has taught thousands of Mustangs — including yours truly — about conservation, pollution, waste treatment, energy use, the climate crisis, and pretty much every other topic falling under environmental science that an activist could think of. It's not an exaggeration to say he's a living legend.

And that's because he doesn't just teach. He inspires.

His students know that he's walking proof that each of us has the power to lead more sustainable lives. He and his wife Meg (also a teacher at RHS) live in a solar-powered house in east King County; they grow much of their own food themselves and they commute to work in a hybrid. When Town is not at RHS, he is often exploring Washington's wilderness or advocating for its protection; he worked incredibly hard for many years to make Wild Sky a reality.

Three years ago, in collaboration with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, he developed the Cool Schools Challenge, an effort to reduce the carbon footprint of schools here in the Pacific Northwest and across the United States.

Around one hundred and fifty schools have taken up the challenge so far, saving an estimated 1.7 million pounds of carbon.

RHS has led the way, reducing its own emissions by about 200,000 pounds, and saving the Lake Washington School District tens of thousands of dollars in the process. Posters inside and outside of classrooms remind students, faculty, and visitors of the school's commitment to environmental protection.

The Redmond Reporter and The Seattle Times each have their own coverage of the award ceremony, for readers who are interested in learning more.

On behalf the entire NPI team, I'd like to offer my congratulations to Mike Town and salute him for his many years of outstanding service to Redmond High School. He will be missed when he is in our nation's capital next year working for the National Science Foundation. It's a good thing that fellowship is only for one year!

Friday, April 16, 2010

State Utilities & Transportation Commission okays Verizon's exit from Washington State

Verizon Communications, one of the nation's largest phone and Internet service providers, has received the green light to bid adieu to the Evergreen State.

Washington's Utilities & Transportation Commission issued a final order today giving its stamp of approval to Verizon's mulitstate deal with Frontier Communications, a Connecticut based company that mostly serves rural areas. Verizon will receive $8.6 billion in exchange for its landlines in Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

If the deal goes through as expected, Frontier will triple in size, becoming the new phone and Internet provider for hundreds of thousands of Washington homes and businesses. It would also become the new television provider for customers who subscribe to Verizon's FiOS television service, which is available in several of the Evergreen State's suburban neighborhoods (like Redmond).

Verizon Wireless, which is jointly owned by Verizon Communications and Vodafone of Europe, is not affected by the transaction.

Curiously, Verizon is continuing to aggressively market its FiOS service (fiber to the premises) without mentioning to would-be customers that it is selling its Washington fiber to Frontier. Frontier reportedly has an agreement to use the FiOS name for a few years after it takes over, although we haven't confirmed that.

Comcast, however, is running ads on the sides of Metro and Sound Transit buses announcing that "Verizon FiOS is Leaving Washington". In Oregon, Comcast has sent letters to some of its customers, urging them to switch away from Verizon.

In its order, the UTC acknowledges that previous Verizon deals - in which Verizon unloaded landlines in several New England states and Hawaii - didn't work out so well for consumers. (For instance, the acquiring entity in New England - FairPoint - was forced to file for bankruptcy). Nevertheless, the UTC has decided to put its faith in Frontier. From page nine of the final order:
The overarching decision we face here is which entity, Frontier or Verizon, is the most capable and willing to address the long-term interests of the assets and consumers affected by the proposed transaction. Although we consider the choice between approving and disapproving the transaction to be a close call, we are persuaded that, on balance, Frontier is that entity.
And isn't it convenient that that's also what Verizon and Frontier want?

The UTC may think the Frontier/Verizon transaction should go ahead - albeit with certain conditions which Verizon and Frontier have ten days to accept - but the Communications Workers of America disagree.

They've set up a website dedicated to opposing the deal, contending the proposal is "good for Wall Street, bad for you."

CWA notes that Verizon will not be paying taxes on the deal, thanks to a federal tax loophole, which allows the company to pocket an extra $600 million. (That loophole, incidentally, would be closed by the passage of H.R. 4849, the Small Business and Infrastructure Jobs Act of 2010.)

CWA is not, however, a party to the joint application filed by Frontier and Verizon before the UTC in Washington State, so its opposition is unmentioned in the commissioners' final order. But that doesn't mean nobody is objecting.

The text of the ruling notes that Attorney General's Public Counsel unit believes the deal is not in the public interest and should not go through, even with the conditions imposed by the UTC. (The Attorney General's Public Counsel unit represents the customers of state regulated utility companies).

Last November, in a news release announcing its filing of expert witness testimony with the UTC, Assistant Attorney General Sarah Shifley explained why Public Counsel opposes the sale. "As proposed, the transaction raises serious risks that Verizon customers will be transferred to a new company, Frontier, that will be financially weakened by the takeover. We are concerned those customers could experience poorer service quality," she said.

The UTC's final order extensively documents Public Counsel's concerns, laying them out point by point. We at NPI share those concerns and agree that the UTC has not done enough to protect consumers. The UTC, however, contends:
We are convinced that Frontier has the managerial and financial capability to operate the acquired property. Frontier has extensive experience operating telecommunications systems in rural, suburban, and small urban areas; areas comparable to those being acquired in this transaction. Frontier's experience acquiring telecommunications properties included incorporating such systems into its operations. Its managerial and financial capability, combined with the technical expertise in operating the replicated systems possessed by current Verizon NW employees, should ensure that service quality remains at, or exceeds, its current level.

Moreover, as a result of this transaction, Frontier should emerge a financially stronger company with greater access to financial markets and the resulting ability to obtain capital at lower rates.
That remains to be seen. Although most of the states that must sign off on the deal have done so, regulators in Illinois and West Virginia have not yet given their approval, and could potentially torpedo the whole thing. Such a possibility doesn't seem that far-fetched, considering that Verizon's exit from West Virginia would make Frontier a near monopoly in the Mountain State, and that CWA is concentrating its opposition to the transaction there.

SEC sues Goldman Sachs for fraud

Finally, our federal government acts to hold Wall Street accountable:
Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street powerhouse, was accused of securities fraud in a civil lawsuit filed Friday by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which claims the bank created and sold a mortgage investment that was secretly intended to fail.

The move was the first time that regulators had taken action against a Wall Street deal that helped investors capitalize on the collapse of the housing market.
It's a small step, but a much appreciated one.

For far too long, Wall Street banks have been operating under their own set of rules, scheming, wheeling, and dealing their way to higher profits. Bonuses are handed out like candy, regardless of whether the firm has done well or not. When there's a crisis, executives simply go to Congress and get a blank check so they can cover for their mistakes on the taxpayer's dime.

Meanwhile, our existing regulations are not being enforced. Regulators are too cozy with the folks they're supposed to regulate. That has got to change. We'd like to think today's news is the beginning of that. The New York Times notes:
Goldman vigorously denies any wrongdoing, calling the S.E.C.’s charges “completely unfounded in law and fact.” It will undoubtedly assemble a daunting legal team and mount a vigorous defense. But if the S.E.C. makes its case, it will be a watershed moment, changing the dominant narrative of the financial crisis.
Imagine how much good could be done if the Obama administration used its full investigative and enforcement powers to go after the banks. There's no reason to wait. The case for financial regulatory reform will only be strengthened when the unethical activities that went on before the Great Recession are exposed. More congressional oversight wouldn't be a bad thing, either.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bold, imaginative leadership needed from our governor to protect our common wealth

Last night, on the latest edition of KCTS' Ask the Governor, our state's chief executive fielded a number of calls from Washingtonians concerned about our state's fiscal health and the future of our common wealth.

As most readers know, most of Washington's revenue comes from consumption taxes, particularly the sales tax. Our dependence on sales tax creates an inextricable link between our use-it-up-then-throw-it-out culture and the public services we rely on every day in our communities.

Very simply, if we aren't buying stuff - especially new homes and automobiles - then Washington's common wealth is adversely affected.

State leaders have known about this problem for years, but haven't done much to address it. In fact, they've made it worse.

As one caller, Wayne, pointed out, it used to be that Washington had a motor vehicle excise tax, or MVET, which funded many public services... particularly ferries and transit. That was before Tim Eyman came along with Initiative 695, intending to not just reduce the MVET, but wipe it out altogether.

Initiative 695 ultimately failed when it was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. However, Chris Gregoire's predecessor, Gary Locke - now the U.S. Secretary of Commerce - foolishly asked the Legislature to reinstate I-695.

Lawmakers did, and just like that, one of the state's only progressive sources of revenue was gone. (Admittedly, the MVET was not levied fairly and consistently before I-695, but the Legislature could have fixed those problems rather than killing it outright. They squandered the opportunity to do so).

Anyway, Wayne wanted to know if there had been any discussion about reinstituting vehicle fees. Unfortunately, the answer he got from the governor painted an incomplete and somewhat misleading picture of the situation:
GOVERNOR GREGOIRE: Well, well said. Part of... how we're struggling today - in particularly local government - is when they lost the car tab tax. It disproportionately hit local government, because they were using those dollars for their essential services. I have to admit, there really hasn't been talk of going back to the old way. There's a belief...

ENRIQUE CERNA: Too politically, sensitive? They [lawmakers] don't want to do that?

GOVERNOR GREGOIRE: Yeah. Yeah, I think the belief is the voters said what they had to say, and therefore, we can't go back. The only thing that's been done, Enrique, is that there's been some allowance at the option of the locals. If the locals wanted to add a minimum [minimal?] amount for local roads, inside their downtown city, or what have you, they could do so with a vote. But other than that, there hasn't really been any conversation.
So what's wrong with this answer? Several things.

First, Gregoire's contention that "we can't go back" because "the voters said what they had to say" is the same kind of argument that Tim Eyman would use against repeal or suspension of any of his initiatives (and has). It's also the same argument that Gregoire herself rejected when she came out in favor of setting aside Initiative 960. As she and other Democrats have noted, the Legislature has often voted to change or amend statutes that became law through initiative.

There's nothing stopping the Legislature from bringing back vehicle fees, save political will. In fact, there's already precedent. Five years ago, a newly inaugurated Governor Gregoire asked the Legislature to approve new vehicle weight fees on passenger cars as part of the 2005 Transportation Package. She personally lobbied hard for the legislation, and was key in ensuring its passage.

As a result, Washingtonians began annually paying ten dollars for every car they owneed under four thousand pounds, twenty dollars for vehicles between four thousand and six thousand pounds, and thirty dollars for vehicles weighing between six thousand and eight thousand pounds, on top of the preexisting $33.

(Tim Eyman tried to repeal these fees with Initiative 917, but he failed. I-917 imploded as a result of his incompetence and never qualified for the ballot.)

What's more, in 2009, Legislature voted to give transit agencies the authority to ask constituents to okay local vehicle fees to sustain bus service. This was included as a provision in SB 5433. Problem is, Gregoire used her veto pen to eliminate that language. Thanks a lot, Governor.

Gregoire left out - perhaps accidentally - the backstory I've just provided from her answer to Wayne. She said "the only thing that's been done" is permit local governments to ask voters to approve vehicle fees for roads. Not true.

Research indicates that voters (at least in Puget Sound) prefer vehicle fees as a funding mechanism for transportation projects and services, instead of sales taxes or property taxes. Vehicle fees are even more popular than tolls.

So why not bring back vehicle fees? What are we waiting for? For things to get worse? Last year, the governor and lawmakers did everything they could to avoid raising taxes, but that didn't work for long. A few months later, they learned that they had only postponed what we at NPI knew was an inevitable decision.

Our ferries and buses are vitally important parts of our transportation system. They're used by millions of Washingtonians every day. But the future of both is in jeopardy. Consumption taxes aren't generating enough to cover expenses, and they're not even a fair way to raise money for our common wealth.

It's time for Governor Gregoire to muster the courage to admit that we're going to need to raise vehicle fees to keep our ferries and buses in motion.

And it's also time for Governor Gregoire to start thinking and acting more boldly about the broader challenge of tax reform. It's evidently a topic that's not just on the minds of activists, for several callers brought up the idea of an income tax on Ask the Governor. Sadly, Gregoire's reaction left much to be desired:
CALLER: I was just wondering... when do you think there would be a income tax to keep the budget balanced? A state income tax?

CERNA: Okay.

GOVERNOR GREGOIRE: Well, Cheryl, I uh... [smiles uneasily] I don't know, honestly, whether Washington State will go [with] a general income tax, ever. My friend... Governor Booth Gardner... tried desperately... went out, had his head of revenue go out and educate the public for a year, and couldn't get the votes. So... But there's some talk though, uh, about whether there should be a consideration of some form of income tax on higher earners, maybe those who earn over $250,000 a year. There's also been some questions about, you know, our business and occupation tax in Washington State. Is it fair? I don't think it is. I've asked the business community to consider a new form of tax, and some have said, how about a corporate income tax. I've asked the business community to debate it. To ask, is there a fairer way to do things? So... that's the only realm in which I think there's discussion, to be honest with you. But a general, overall income tax in the state... uh, I don't, I don't hear discussion of, and I don't hear an appetite for.
That last sentence is sweetly ironic, isn't it? What was going through the governor's mind when she said that? Here she's being asked for her perspective on implementing a state income tax by a caller, and she closes her response by saying she doesn't hear discussion about the idea. Hello! Governor?

The transcript above seems to symbolize what's wrong with the mindset of our elected leaders. Gregoire (and many of our Democratic lawmakers) need an attitude adjustment. Where's their can-do spirit?

Defeatism is the last thing we need in these tough times.

Instead of automatically concluding that the goal of a state income tax is unattainable, Democratic leaders should be sizing up the challenge... then breaking it apart into less daunting parts.

How about talking concretely about action for a change, instead of talking about... talk? Conjecture isn't going to move us forward. When I listened to Governor Gregoire's answer to Cheryl last night, it felt to me like she was passing the buck. Our state's fiscal health is our gravest problem right now, and we need to do something about it. The Legislature may be adjourned for the year, but it's never too early to start laying the groundwork for the next session.

Washington needs real tax reform, and Washington needs a governor and legislators who are committed to making it happen. Our future is at stake here.

Tax reform doesn't have to begin with an income tax. It will take time to build public support and understanding for the idea.

In the meantime, we could enact a sunset tax exemption review law that would force loopholes to expire after a certain period of time unless explicitly renewed. We could make property taxes fairer. And we could greatly streamline, or simplify, the collection of existing consumption taxes.

It is true that former governors Dan Evans and Booth Gardner tried years ago to convince the public to adopt an income tax, and they came up short.

We must learn from their mistakes and try again.

We need bold, imaginative leadership to secure our future and protect our common wealth. We at NPI are confident that Governor Gregoire can provide that leadership. All we're asking is that she embrace this challenge head-on.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why we need a national commitment to basic scientific research

Today was my daughter's last day at her preschool. They had a little goodbye ceremony for her. Decry, if you will, the rise in "graduation" ceremonies for every grade level from birth to 12th grade, but they sure are cute little ceremonies. (Be patient! I'll get to the part about basic research.)

I haven't visited her school much, because of course she goes while I'm at work, and it's my wife who ends up taking her there. It's a preschool that serves a lot of kids with special needs. There was a kid in my daughter's class--I'll call him Chip--who is maybe two years old. He was doing what two year olds do: walking around, playing, bumping into things, and standing around looking confused.

Cute kid. At first I didn't even notice his hands. But then I did. On one side, his forearm never developed. His hand connects at an awkward angle to the end of his upper arm, and it's clear he has no control of that hand. On the other side, his arm mostly developed, except for his thumb. I could see the dark purple scars from surgery he'd had to move his index finger so it can function like a thumb.

An immobile and inconveniently placed hand on one side, three fingers and a pseudo-thumb on the other. And I couldn't help thinking what a hard life this kid is going to have. He's lucky, he's at a preschool where they know how to help kids with special needs do the best with what they have. Most kids with similar congenital issues around the world wouldn't get any help.

But still, I couldn’t help think "what a hard life Chip is going to have." Gradeschool and high school are going to be hell for him. You know how kids are. His whole life, he's going to have to work harder and struggle more just to do the things everyone else takes for granted. He'll be fighting to overcome fear and prejudices from others around him, every day, just because his body came out differently than theirs.

But then I remembered Amiee Mullins. Her story is, if anything, more heartbreaking and yet astonishingly inspiring. She was born with no shin bones, had her feet amputated in infancy. Now she's a record-holding runner (yes, really), model (yes, really), actress (yes, really), and outspoken advocate on behalf of the potential of people in all their many forms. To watch her walk around on a stage on her prosthetic legs, delivering a riveting speech about her experiences, you'd never know she was any different than you or me.

And then I remembered Dean Kamen, famous inventor of the Segway two-wheeled mobility platform, talking about his recent efforts to build high-functioning prosthetic arms for vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who have lost the ones nature gave them.

And I thought to myself about how fast technology is advancing, in engineered materials that are light, strong, flexible, and extensible. In new battery systems that are lighter, safer, greener, but still hold a lot of power. In the continuing miniaturization of computer systems, advances in robotics, and human/computer interfaces.

And then I realized that I was probably wrong about Chip. I won't, honestly, be all that surprised if in five years or ten years, all these technologies come together through the passion and brilliance of people like Dean Kamen and give Chip prosthetic arms that will be every bit as useful and natural looking as yours or mine.

Chip's particular challenges are ones for which we can see the solution coming. And that's a wonderful thing. But think about how many other challenges other people face--people with neuro-degenerative diseases like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, paraplegics and quadriplegics with spinal cord injuries. People with failing organs or rheumatoid arthritis.

None of the technologies I listed, ones that will help people like Chip and Aimee, were originally developed for those purposes. But then, Velcro wasn't invented to make it easy for toddlers to get their own shoes on, either. They were all developed for entirely different purposes, and it was only later that their relevance to alleviating human suffering became evident.

Which is why I say we need a renewed national commitment to basic scientific research, because none of it happens without basic research. We don't know what we can achieve until we know what's possible--what the physical rules of the universe will allow--and we won't know what's possible until we look.

We need scientific and technological advances for many very practical and obvious reasons. We need advances in materials science so we can build better buildings and more fuel efficient vehicles. We need advances in energy storage technology in order to make green energy sources like solar and wind economically viable. We need advances in computers to enable us to solve complex problems in physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. We need advances in robotics in order to free people from the dangers and drudgery of all the dirty jobs no human being should have to do.

We need those advances for all the obvious reasons. But we also need them, and so many others too, because they will also work miracles in reducing human suffering.

We need them because they will help kids like Chip to really live.

Ken Schram gives Eyman another Schrammie, but no bobblehead for Tim this time

At least one commentator in our local media has realized the reason why Tim Eyman filed eight anti-2010 budget initiatives yesterday: He wanted to goad reporters, editors, and anchors into once again mentioning his name in print and on-air. His success has prompted another commentary from KOMO's Ken Schram, normally a reliable Eyman critic (except in the aftermath of the passage of an Eyman initiative, which is when he switches to Eyman's side).

As KOMO viewers know, Schram has an award called the Schrammie, a bobblehead doll of himself that he sends to people he thinks have made poor choices or embarrassed themselves through "asinine behavior".

The Schrammie was introduced back in 2006, and although everybody's favorite former watch salesman was considered for the inaugural bobblehead, he didn't get it because Schram figured, "he's so money hungry, he'd just put my bobble-headed self up for sale on eBay."

When Schram did get around to awarding Eyman a Schrammie last year, Eyman promptly went and auctioned it off on eBay to raise money for Initiative 1033.

But Eyman won't be able to do that this time. Here's Schram on those eight anti-budget initiatives that Eyman filed yesterday.
Playing off people's disdain for increased taxes, Timmy gets to make splashy headlines in an effort to paint himself as a champion of the people as he pushes for donations to accomplish the near impossible: Gathering several hundred thousand signatures on each one of his eight measures by July 2.

Timmy, you're a scoundrel.

And while you're being awarded the "Schrammie," you'll not take possession of it. Instead, the bobble head will reside on the balcony outside the KOMO 4 newsroom for all to see; a reminder of your self-serving, transparent ways.
How fitting.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Democrat wins first special federal election since passage of healthcare reform

The first special election for U.S. Representative since the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has been won by a Democrat, according to unofficial results from Broward and Palm Beach counties.

In the contest to succeed Robert Wexler, who resigned from Congress to head the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, Democrat Ted Deutch has triumphed over Republican Ed Lynch, who conceded defeat earlier this evening.

Now, the South Florida district that Wexler represented is very Democratic - it voted for Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama by sizable margins - so Deutch's victory isn't a shocker. Still, it puts a damper on Republican claims that voters desperately want to boot Democrats out of power, as Deutch himself pointed out in his victory speech to supporters at the Mizner Park Cultural Arts Center:
Let me just make one more point that cannot be lost in the results from today. We heard for months that tonight and today is a referendum. It’s a referendum on health care. It’s a referendum on the administration. It’s a referendum on the direction this country is going. Let me tell you something: What we learned today is that in Broward County and Palm Beach County Florida, the Democratic Party is alive and well.
Congratulations, Representative-elect Deutch, for a well-deserved victory.

Washington Mutual's former top executives testify before Senate investigative panel

It's Washington Mutual Day in Washington, D.C.

A parade of former executives from the thrift is testifying today before the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a tenacious truth-seeker. The subcommittee is looking into the "causes and consequences" of the Great Recession.

Currently testifying before the panel are Stephen Rotella, formerly the President and Chief Operating Officer of Washington Mutual, and Kerry K. Killinger, formerly the Chief Executive Officer and Chairman.

Killinger, readers may recall, once boasted:
We hope to do to this industry what Wal-Mart did to theirs, Starbucks did to theirs, Costco did to theirs and Lowe’s-Home Depot did to their industry. And I think if we’ve done our job, five years from now you’re not going to call us a bank.
That was in 2003. Five years later, as Killinger had unwittingly prophesied, Washington Mutual ceased to be a bank, following its closure and seizure by the Office of Thrift Supervision, and its fire sale to JPMorgan Chase.

Killinger has said little in public since he was forced out as CEO a few weeks before WaMu's seizure, refusing to go on the record and declining interviews. Now, he'll be questioned by well briefed lawmakers seeking a better understanding of why WaMu pursued such a risky growth strategy.

Killinger, who left WaMu with a golden parachute, paid lip service to the principle of responsibility in his opening statement, and then simply want on to defend his actions as CEO and Chairman. Here's an excerpt from his opening statement:
I was an employee of Washington Mutual for more than 30 years and was honored to be its Chief Executive Officer for 18 of those years. Thanks to the efforts of tens of thousands of Washington Mutual employees, the Bank enjoyed many successes over most of my tenure as CEO as we produced solid financial results and a growing customer base, and received numerous awards for customer service and corporate philanthropy.
What about WaMu's risky growth strategy and corner-cutting? How can the decisions made in the early 2000s - which arguably led to WaMu's downfall in September 2008 - be characterized as successes? They resulted in the failure of the bank! But that's not how Killinger sees it:
The Washington Mutual Board decided to replace me with a new CEO in the beginning of September of 2008. At the time I left the Company, Washington Mutual’s capital greatly exceeded regulatory minimums, deposit flows were stable, sources of liquidity appeared satisfactory, and the OTS had not directed us to raise additional outside capital or to seek a merger partner. Because regulators normally would go through a process of escalating concerns through various directives and enforcement actions prior to taking such draconian actions as forcing the sale or seizing of a bank, I believed that the Company was in a relatively good position to survive the crisis.
So he says, but evidently the Office of Thrift Supervision felt WaMu was in danger of failing, or else the bank would not have been seized and handed over to JPMorgan Chase. Had WaMu been more competently managed, the company would not have struggled under the weight of so many risky loans following the collapse of the housing market.

We can debate whether Washington Mutual was treated fairly by OTS and the FDIC. But what Killinger can't seem to acknowledge is that WaMu would have never have found itself in dire straits if he hadn't been so greedy.

He wanted growth at any cost. He wanted profit.

Killinger says he's sorry, says he's "deeply saddened" by what happened to WaMu, but then, it's easy for him to say that. He made off with millions while WaMu's stockholders were wiped out. He escaped unscathed after running one of the Pacific Northwest's oldest institutions into the ground.

State House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler announces her retirement

Just after midnight this morning, House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler made public some surprising news: She's decided not to seek reelection.

Kessler, who has been in the House for nearly two decades, is perhaps best known outside of her district as the House leadership's de facto spokesperson; she is quoted more often by the Olympia press corps than Speaker Chopp. Her no-nonsense rebuttals of Republican theatrics became a staple of wire stories about key issues facing lawmakers.

Reporters aren't the only group of people Kessler made friends with during her time in the Legislature. She also cultivated ties with powerful lobbies, as reflected by the source of the $50,000 in campaign contributions she has taken in just this cycle. The list includes Wal-Mart, Vulcan, Premera Blue Cross, Intelius, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, AT&T, Verizon, Boeing, Microsoft, Teck, Sprint Nextel, and the Washington Oil Marketers Association.

Keep in mind, that's a mere sampling of donations. Kessler, Speaker Chopp's top deputy, has so many corporate contributors she doesn't need activist support.

As the second-in-command of the House Democratic caucus, Kessler has a lot of power. So why is she giving that up? Why is she retiring? Well, it turns out, she wants a life. As she put it in her farewell speech on the House floor before the Legislature adjourned sine die: "I’m almost seventy, for God’s sake."

Kessler's decision to retire could potentially put her seat in jeopardy; the district she represents is rural, and Republicans will surely view it as a top pickup opportunity. However, the 24th LD encompasses most of three of Washington's most progressive rural counties (Clallam, Jefferson, and Grays Harbor) and the other two members of its delegation are both Democrats (Kevin Van De Wege and Jim Hargrove). Whether Kessler will be succeeded by someone from her own party or not depends on how strong of a candidate Democrats can field.

One thing is for sure: the Democratic House leadership will look very different when the Legislature convenes for the 2011 regular session next January.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The federal government should protect the public from dangerous chemicals

Americans should be thinking about the chemicals that they put on their bodies or ingest. Because the federal government sure isn’t.

The chemical bisphenol a is a good example. After 40 years of use as a hardening agent in plastic bottles and metal food and beverage cans, this January, the Food and Drug Administration issued a report stating that new studies had caused “some concern about the potential effects of BPA [bisphenol a] on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.”

So, what took them so long?

Last week we learned that the FDA is taking a second look at an even more ubiquitous chemical, triclosan. You may know it as the “germ-fighting” agent in those orange-colored liquid hand soaps, but this chemical can also be found in over 140 different types of products, from toothpastes and deodorant, to towels and clothing. Probably due to its all-present nature, it is also found in the urine of 75 percent of the U.S. population.

Scientific studies indicate that there are some problems with triclosan. Some studies have linked it to cancer, liver damage and endocrine problems, and it may also increase bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics. The non-profit educational organization, the Environmental Working Group suggests that some triclosan studies have never been disclosed to the the Environmental Protection Agency.

It took a letter from Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) to the FDA this January to finally spur the FDA into action. Representative Markey was seeking information on the FDA's plans to finalize its regulation of over-the-counter topical antiseptic drug products. According to Markey’s letter, the agency has been working on the rules governing these products for a “startling” 37 years.

From the letter from Representative Markey to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg:
The pace of activity on the part of the FDA is especially perplexing in light of advances in science that question both the effectiveness and safety of certain antimicrobial agents, and that indicate that their widespread use may increase antibiotic resistance and have complex endocrine disrupting effects.
Six months prior, a coalition of health, labor and environmental groups had petitioned the FDA to ban triclosan in non-medical products. A similar petition was submitted to the EPA in January 2010 by a group of 80 organizations.

It takes a strong shove to get our federal regulatory bodies to do the work necessary to protect the American public.

Numerous studies have shown that hand washing with regular soap and water eliminates bacteria just as well as washing with a product containing an anti-microbial agent like triclosan, and the American Medical Association released a report in 2002 stating that “it is prudent to avoid the use of antimicrobial agents in consumer products.” Why is a product with questionable value and uncertain safety so omnipresent, and why hasn't its use been addressed sooner?

Perhaps the connection between our regulatory bodies and the industries they oversee is too strong. Consumer watchdog group Public Citizen found that the revolving door between members of Congress and lobbying organizations, often of the industries they governed while in office, is spinning fast.

A study by Public Citizen found that about 43 percent of all members of Congress who left office between 1998 and mid-2005 are now registered lobbyists.

American taxpayers spend billions of tax dollars supporting the public agencies that often protect the businesses that they are charged with supervising. As seen with triclosan, regulators often act slowly to make rules governing commercial products. Sometimes research indicating problems with these products is suppressed or overlooked, and it takes an organized public to bring safety issues to light.

The national campaign director for the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, has three suggestions for improving chemical regulation:
First, the chemical industry should be required to develop basic health and safety information for all chemicals, and make that information public.

Secondly, EPA should be able to restrict, rather than further study, the relatively small group of chemicals that are already widely understood to be a problem.

Finally, for the vast majority of chemicals that will need a new scientific assessment, the latest science and real-world scenarios should be considered. Right now agencies often pretend that we're exposed to a chemical one use at a time. In the real world, people are exposed to the same chemical from multiple sources. Also, different chemicals can often act in concert against a particular part of the body.
Federal regulators should be required and empowered to make and enforce tough rules for chemical use, based on all available best practices science ,and do so in a timely fashion. In addition, the public should be able to see what chemicals are in the products that they buy.

Americans shouldn't have to wonder what's in their toothpaste.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Legislature reaches agreement on budget

The standoff is over.

After weeks of being at loggerheads, Democratic negotiators in the House and the Senate have finally come up with a budget deal that their members can agree on, less than seventy two hours before the special session is due to end.

The final budget proposal incorporates close to $800 million in new revenue and assumes the federal government will chip in a half billion, sparing Governor Chris Gregoire from having to implement horrendous budget cuts (like the elimination of the Basic Health Plan). That doesn't mean nothing will be axed... the budget also includes around $1 billion in cuts.

The six major revenue components are:
  • a temporary business & occupation surcharge,
  • a temporary rise in the beer tax (fifty cents per gallon, with Washington based microbreweries exempt),
  • a temporary rise in the tax on soda (two cents per twelve ounces, with bottlers doing less then ten million dollars in volume exempt),
  • an increase in the tax on cigarettes,
  • application of the sales tax to bottled water, candy, and gum,
  • and finally, the tightening or outright repeal of several tax exemptions that are collectively costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Legislature also appears set to refer a jobs referendum to the people this November. Crafted by Representative Hans Dunshee, the referendum, if approved, would authorize several hundred million dollars in bonds to modernize public buildings, making them more energy efficient.

The weatherization and conservation projects would create jobs and result in significant cost savings (originally estimated at $191 million a year) to the state.

Since the measures would ultimately pay for themselves, the proposal is a win/win. It's progressive thought in action. NPI will campaign in strong support of this referendum if it makes it onto the ballot as expected.

The Senate is expected to vote on the budget tomorrow.

The Senate's Ways & Means Committee met today to consider the Jobs Act, as well as a bill that would allow the Secretary of State's office to adjust corporate filing fees on its own, so it can more flexibly cope with demand in the future and avoid backlogs. Both bills were sent to the Rules Committee following a public hearing with a "do pass" recommendation.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Lake Washington area musicians aim for Guinness World Record at String Jam 2010

In a show of organizational prowess and artistic skill, musicians from around the Eastside and Puget Sound joined with the combined orchestras of the Lake Washington School District's forty-three schools tonight for a world record-setting attempt at Juanita High School's giant Fieldhouse.

The event, String Jam 2010, sought to set the record for the Largest String Instruments Ensemble, or, more specifically, the greatest number of people playing the same tune on string instruments at the same time at a single venue.

String Jam Panoramic View
Sponsored by the City of Redmond and KING FM, the concert consisted of three pieces: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Canon in D, and Smoke on the Water.

The consecutive performances were carefully observed by two independent witnesses - Dr. Gary K. Stimac and Dr. David L. Ege - who will be sending notarized statements to Guinness World Records attesting that all the requirements laid out in advance for the record attempt were successfully met.

The concert really was something. We're talking about some four hundred musicians playing together in the middle of a massive gym, supervised by a group of stewards watching to ensure that participants were actually performing. Most of the performers played violins; the rest played violas, cellos, and double basses.

It was a sight to behold. There were so many it wasn't really possible to fit the whole group into one panoramic shot with the camera, though I tried.

Violinists at String Jam 2010
Joining conductor Paula Ferguson on stage for the concert was renowned musician Geoffrey Castle, who wowed the audience with his mastery of the six-string electric violin. Castle later performed several of his own selections while the independent witnesses were checking to see whether participants met all the criteria necessary before submitting evidence to Guinness World Records.

In adherence with the record attempt guidelines, participants were cordoned off on the gym floor by yellow caution tape. Every performer had to sign his or her name in a log book, fill out an index card with contact information, and then exchange that for a green numbered wristband. The logbook and index cards will be submitted to Guinness, along with extensive photographic and videographic proof. Guinness will then determine whether a record truly was set.

Whatever Guinness' determination is, students and community members from across the Lake Washington School District and beyond proved tonight that an appreciation of the fine arts is alive and well here on the Eastside.

Top Polish leaders, including President Lech Kaczyński, lost in deadly plane crash

Last night, as much of America slept, a terrible tragedy befell the nation of Poland. A Tupolev Tu-154M, carrying the Polish president, several Polish military commanders, and other top government officials crashed outside of Smolensk in Russia, killing every person on board, including the eight crew members.

The delegation had been traveling to Russia to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Katyn massacre, itself a very grevious moment in Polish history.

Although the cause of the crash is not yet known, news reports have suggested it may have been pilot error, as Russian ground control had advised the crew to try to land elsewhere due to heavy fog. The plane reportedly struck treetops during the pilot's fourth attempt to land, leading to the aircraft's destruction.

Courtesy of the New Warsaw Express, here is an incomplete list of the deceased, illustrating just how many Polish political leaders perished:
  • President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria Kaczynska
  • Aleksander Szczyglo, head of the National Security Bureau
  • Wladyslaw Stasiak, the president’s chief of staff
  • Slawomir Skrzypek, governor of the National Bank of Poland
  • Franciszek Gagor, general and chief of staff of the Polish military
  • Janusz Kochanowski, civic rights ombudsman
  • Ryszard Kaczorowski, Poland’s last president in exile
  • Janusz Kurtyka, head of the National Remembrance Institute
  • Jerzy Szmajdzinski, deputy speaker of Sejm, lower house of Parliament
  • Andrzej Kremer, deputy foreign minister
  • Aleksander Szczyglo, head of the National Security Bureau
  • Wladyslaw Stasiak, the president’s chief of staff
  • Slawomir Skrzypek, governor of the National Bank of Poland
  • Franciszek Gagor, general and chief of staff of the Polish military
  • Janusz Kochanowski, civic rights ombudsman
  • Ryszard Kaczorowski, Poland’s last president in exile
  • Janusz Kurtyka, head of the National Remembrance Institute
  • Jerzy Szmajdzinski, deputy speaker of Sejm, lower house of Parliament
  • Andrzej Kremer, deputy foreign minister
  • Krzysztof Putra, deputy speaker of the Senate
  • Krystyna Bochenek, deputy speaker of the Senate
  • Jerzy Bahr, Polish ambassador in Moscow
  • Stanislaw Komorowski, deputy defense minister
  • Tadeusz Ploski, general and bishop plus other clergy
A national week of mourning has been declared in Poland. International reaction has been swift and heartfelt, with heads of state on every continent except Antarctica releasing statements of sympathy. President Obama's was as follows:
Today, I called Polish Prime Minister Tusk to express Michelle's and my deepest condolences to the people of Poland on the tragic deaths this morning of President Lech Kaczynski, First Lady Maria Kaczynski, and all who were traveling with them to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Kaczynski family, the loved ones of those killed in this tragic plane crash, and the Polish nation.

Today’s loss is devastating to Poland, to the United States, and to the world. President Kaczynski was a distinguished statesman who played a key role in the Solidarity movement, and he was widely admired in the United States as a leader dedicated to advancing freedom and human dignity. With him were many of Poland’s most distinguished civilian and military leaders who have helped to shape Poland’s inspiring democratic transformation. We join all the people of Poland in mourning their passing.

Today, there are heavy hearts across America. The United States cherishes its deep and abiding bonds with the people of Poland. Those bonds are represented in the strength of our alliance, the friendships among our people, and the extraordinary contributions of Polish-Americans who have helped to shape our nation.

It is a testament to the strength of the Polish people that those who were lost were travelling to commemorate a devastating massacre of World War II as the leaders of a strong, vibrant, and free Poland. That strength will ensure that Poland emerges from the depths of this unthinkable tragedy, and that the legacy of the leaders who died today will be a light that continues to guide Poland – and the world – in the direction of human progress.
The Seattle-Gdynia Sister City Association is inviting its members to gather in sympathy at one o'clock tomorrow at the Polish Home in Seattle. Gydnia is one of Poland's largest cities; it is an important seaport on the Baltic coast.

We at NPI extend our deepest condolences to the people of Poland, and Poland expatriates abroad, especially those here in the Pacific Northwest. Our thoughts and prayers are with you during this difficult time.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Democratic county conventions tomorrow

A quick heads-up for readers: Democratic county organizations across Washington State are scheduled to hold their 2010 conventions tomorrow morning.

The state party's website has a list of convention locations. Most county organizations are holding conventions in union halls or at high schools. King County's convention is at an IAM hall, Snohomish County's is at the Everett Labor Temple, and Pierce's is at an IBEW hall. Kitsap's is at Olympic High School and Thurston's is at Capitol High School.

At the conventions, delegates will adopt platforms and resolutions to be forwarded on to the State Convention, to be held this June in Vancouver.

A few county conventions will also serve as joint LD caucuses, which means delegates will be elected to the state convention.

Any registered voter in Washington who considers him or herself publicly to be a Democrat may attend and participate in their respective 2010 county convention, owing to the elimination of the precinct caucuses, which would normally be held first. Precinct caucuses will return in 2012, the next presidential election year, unless the state party chooses to utilize a presidential primary to allocate delegates for the 2012 National Convention.

Justice John Paul Stevens announces his retirement from U.S. Supreme Court

A couple months shy of a year after Justice David Souter announced he was leaving the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens is following suit, as widely expected, after thirty four years as an Associate Justice.

He sent news of his decision in a letter to President Barack Obama, hand delivered this morning by a representative of the Supreme Court:
My dear Mr. President:

Having concluded that it would be in the best interests of the Court to have my successor appointed and confirmed well in advance of the commencement of the Court's next Term, I shall retire from regular active service as an Associate Justice, under the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 371(b), effective the next day after the Court rises for the summer recess this year.

Most respectfully yours,

John Paul Stevens
Stevens, who is one of the Supreme Court's four liberal leaning justices, is also the oldest; he will turn ninety on April 20th, less than two weeks from today. Appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1975, he has served alongside three different chief justices (Burger, Rehnquist, Roberts) and through seven different presidencies (Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, W. Bush, Obama).

Stevens' retirement appears to be the latest chapter of a carefully planned exodus by the Supreme Court's liberal wing. Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer all managed to make it through the Bush error, denying Dubya a chance to replace them with extremist conservatives.

Now they're retiring, one by one, so that President Obama has the power to choose their successors before his first term ends.

They've taken control of their own destinies so that their legacy remains alive on our nation's highest court. We can't thank them enough for their outstanding service to the United States of America.

Bart Stupak won't seek reelection

Many progressives won't miss him:
U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak will step down at the end of his term this year, saying today he's exhausted from the grind of covering the second-largest congressional district east of the Mississippi.

It "became a chore for me," said Stupak, a Democrat from Menominee on the Upper Peninsula.
The Democratic Party establishment doesn't want Stupak to retire - even though he gave President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi a lot of grief over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act - because it means having to defend another open seat.

When the Associated Press asked Stupak if he was retiring because of pressure from the right wing, he responded, "The Tea Party did not run me out. If you know me and my personality, I would welcome the challenge."

He also told the press that he believed the Democratic Party could hold his position in Congress, and pledged to work to elect a Democratic successor. "I've seen the Republican field and obviously, I'm not impressed."

Stupak already had a primary opponent - former Charlevoix County Commissioner Connie Saltonsall, who was urging her supporters to help "retire Stupak" last night - but now other Democrats are sure to seek the nomination.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Eric Oemig, Roger Goodman draw Republican opponents in 45th LD for 2010

Republicans in Washington's 45th Legislative District have finally found candidates to go up against the two progressives first elected in the Democratic landslide of 2006, according to filings with the Public Disclosure Commission.

Challenging Representative Roger Goodman is Kevin Haistings, forty nine, of Carnation, who ran against Roger's seatmate, Larry Springer, last cycle and lost. A Seattle police officer who works in and has headed SPD's Harbor Patrol's dive-rescue unit, Haistings gained some notoriety for tossing Democratic Party cameraman Kelly Akers out of an event the Seattle Police Guild hosted for Dino Rossi in the summer of 2008.

His voting record is rather spotty; he's missed more than half of the primary elections held in the last decade, as well as the 2001 and 2005 general elections. Since King County switched to all-mail voting, he has not missed an election.

Challenging Senator Eric Oemig is Andy Hill, forty seven, a newcomer, Harvard alum, and past president of the PTA at Emily Dickinson Elementary, who helped develop educational software for Microsoft before leaving the company.

Hill's sparse campaign website is light on substance and heavy on platitudes. True to form for a legislative candidate, Hill is promising to address "the problems we have in our schools and the congestion on our roads" if he is elected.

Now there's an original platform.

It's true that Senator Eric Oemig made his campaign four years ago about education and transportation, but unlike most politicians, he actually delved in and started working on those priorities once elected.

A self-professed data guy, Oemig has led the push in the Legislature to make our schools more transparent, and, together with Senator Rosemary McAuliffe, he has served as a key bridge between teachers, parents, and students concerned about the Legislature's inability to fully fund education.

Hill and Haistings' campaign announcements appear to have been carved out of standard Republican boilerplate. For instance, Haistings quotes himself as saying:
There’s a real disconnect right now between Olympia and our community. So many families are struggling, but all the Legislature is focused on is how to raise our taxes. We need new leaders in Olympia who actually believe state government needs to live within its means.
...while Hill says:
After watching our government over the past few years, it’s apparent that our elected representatives have lost touch with the voters and their families. There is a fundamental disconnect between what the people want and need - and how our legislators represent us.
And later, one of Hill's bullet points reads, "It’s time for the state to live within our means, just like every family and every small business does."

Another bullet point: "we need to reduce the oppressive regulations that hamper our businesses from creating jobs." What would those regulations be?

He and Haistings both call for state government to help businesses to create jobs, while in the same breath, they complain about rising taxes and unemployment insurance rates. Perhaps they'd care to tell us how it's possible for the state to help businesses create jobs while it is laying off its own employees. Because layoffs are inevitable if the state doesn't raise taxes.

Hill's voting record is somewhat incomplete; he has missed several elections over the last decade, including the 2008, 2005, and 2001 primary elections.

Like Haistings, he also missed the 2008 Republican presidential primary, which was used to partially allocate delegates to the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hill has not missed any general elections since 2000.

Republicans have not managed to find a challenger for the 45th LD's most senior legislator, Representative Larry Springer, although it is expected that they will.

No Republican has won a legislative election in the 45th since 2004.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Another right wing extremist arrested for threatening an elected Democratic leader

One day after the FBI announced the arrest of Charles Alan Wilson for threatening the life of our own Senator Patty Murray, we learn the Bureau has taken another individual into custody for threats against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:
A man arrested by the FBI for threatening U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was allegedly upset over federal health care legislation passed last month, two law enforcement officials said.

Gregory Lee Giusti, 48, of San Francisco, was detained today and will appear in federal court there tomorrow, said Joseph Schadler, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The charges against Giusti are sealed, he said in an e-mail.
You'll never guess where Giusti's eighty-three year old mother thinks he got his inspiration to threaten Speaker Pelosi from:
"Greg frequently gets in with a group of people that have really radical ideas and that are not consistent with myself or the rest of the family, which gets him into problems," Eleanor Giusti said. "I say Fox News, or all of those that are really radical, and he, that's where he comes from."
Right wingers will no doubt cry foul over these remarks, but Eleanor's comments are spot on. As I wrote yesterday, hate speech begets violent rhetoric, and violent rhetoric begets acts of violence.

Hate speech may be protected under the First Amendment, but Rupert Murdoch is under no obligation to broadcast it. Neither are the suits who control most of the radio stations that carry Rush Limbaugh and his ilk. Regrettably, they do it anyway, and it has serious consequences, as David Neiwert wrote in The Eliminationists:
All freedoms entail responsibilities, and when you do media work in America - and especially when you have a nationally prominent platform - you have not only the freedom of the press as your ally but a responsibility to the public as your burden. And chief among those responsibilities is to not abuse your power in a way that harms your fellow citizens or inspires others to harm them.

It is possible, after all, to use your megaphone to lie shamelessly. You can use it to smear the good name of public officials. You can use it to rewrite history. You can use it to intimidate the "little people" who don't possess the same kind of power. And you can use it to dehumanize others, turning them into potential targets for hatefulness and violence.

Eliminationists, as we've observed, never act in a vacuum. Someone specific almost always inspires them.
Several conservatives have expressed deep discomfort with the garbage that the Republican Noise Machine produces these days. Perhaps none have been more outspoken than David Frum, who presciently wrote last summer:
All this hysterical and provocative talk invites, incites, and prepares a prefabricated justification for violence.

And indeed some conservative broadcasters are lovingly anticipating just such an outcome.
That column, (The reckless right courts violence) cites over a dozen examples of hate speech, many from Fixed Noise shows, like Glenn Beck's joking about poisoning Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But it isn't just Frum who believes that right wing hate speech is toxic for the country, for conservatism, and for the Republican Party.

Senator Tom Coburn - who is as conservative as they come - recently told constituents at a town hall not to let FNC do their thinking for them:
What we have to have is make sure we have a debate in this country so that you can see what’s going on and make a determination yourself... So don’t catch yourself being biased by Fox News that somebody is no good. The people in Washington are good. They just don’t know what they don’t know.
Coburn described Speaker Pelosi as "a nice lady", according to the Capitol News Connection, which has audio of his remarks. When the audience hissed and hooted, the Senator would have none of it. “Come on now. She is nice... how many of you all have met her? She’s a nice person," he declared.

If Coburn's attitude was shared by the megaphone wielding media personalities who comprise the Republican Noise Machine, there'd be far more civility in American politics. But that's not going to happen. The likes of Michelle Malkin and Glenn Beck would rather get a kick out of demonizing liberals and then disclaim culpability when their hate speech predictably inspires a fanatical follower to commit a crime.

Maybe we'll look back on the Great Recession as a good thing

Obviously, being stuck in it right now, the Great Recession sucks. Hard. But I wonder if someday we'll look back on it and see it as one of the best things that could have happened to the nation?

The other day I blogged about giving up the greed, and how greed is such a root cause of so many problems we face. Greed also manifests in the form of consumers, well, over-consuming. That is, you and me being addicted to buying cheap crap from China.

Last month, marketing firm Ogilvy & Mather released a study showing that this recession might just break us of that addiction.

The study makes fascinating reading, but here are some of the highlights:

Today's worker values security over money and advancement. Fully 75% of those surveyed said they'd take a job that was more secure over one that paid more or promised future raises. Another 75% say they'd rather escape the corporate rat-race entirely than spend their lives climbing the corporate ladder.

Another three quarters say (perhaps unsurprisingly) that they'd rather have more quality time with loved ones than have more money. It would be nice to see a statistic on that question from before the recession, but regardless, it's a reassuring majority who seem to have their priorities straight on this one.

People are tired of spending money on shoddy goods that break quickly and can't be fixed. Yet another three quarters of people surveyed (what is it about that number?) say they'd rather have less stuff, if it were of higher quality, than more stuff. I can empathize; I've lost count of the number of poorly built lamps and other household items my family has brought home from Target, only to have them break or wear out after a year. Ridiculous.

The recession has renewed people's interest in the local economy. With the collapse of the financial system, driven by mega-banks engaging in behaviors that are entirely destructive to "main street" America, people have lost trust in those large financial institutions. Almost 80% of those surveyed said they'd rather see their money stay within the local community. They place more trust in a local economy, one whose actors are local people and businesses they can put a name and a face on, than to have their economic fates resting in the hands of Goldman Sachs and their ilk.

All in all, people's conception of the American Dream is changing, and for the better. If Ogilvy is to be believed, the New American Dream recognizes the value of sustainable behaviors and sustainable careers. The New American Dream recognizes the value of work--that is, actual productive labor--as the driver of America's future success rather than faux-value created through non-productive financial shell games and arbitrage.

The New American Dream is built not on a foundation of greed and consumption, but rather, on more meaningful values. Quality of life, rather than quantity of stuff. Sustainability, as the report says, is the new happiness.

If that's true, I for one will be dancing in the streets.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dino Rossi, Republican Party condemn threats of violence against Patty Murray

Shortly after the Department of Justice announced the arrest of Charles Alan Wilson - who is charged with threatening the life of Senator Patty Murray - Dino Rossi and the Washington State Republican Party offered their sympathies to Murray and denounced Wilson's conduct, described in a fourteen page criminal complaint.

Around 12:30 PM, Rossi's former spokesperson, Mary Lane, emailed the following statement to state political reporters:
We have just learned about the threats made to Sen. Patty Murray. Dino is horrified by this awful news, prays for Sen. Murray's safety, and condemns any threats made to any public official. He is relieved that the person in question has been apprehended and charged.
Less than a half hour later, Republican Party Luke Esser said:
The Washington State Republican Party strongly condemns the threats against Senator Murray. Threats of violence have no place in our political process. We are pleased that this man has been taken into custody.
Rossi and Esser may be sincere in expressing their sympathies to Murray and denouncing Wilson, but they certainly had a secondary motive in reacting so speedily to his arrest: They don't want decent people to think they tacitly approve of this sort of thing by staying silent.

HA Seattle blogger David Goldstein thinks Rossi (and McKenna) should go further and repudiate the right wing hate talk that enables fanatics like Wilson.
I wonder at what point allegedly mainstream politicians like Dino Rossi and Rob McKenna will stop fighting amongst themselves for the Tea Party mantle, and start condemning the hateful, violent rhetoric that fuels its base? A little more than a week ago McKenna basked in the glory of a Teabagger rally that vilified Democrats as “gangsters,” “socialists,” “fascists” and worse. McKenna’s mere presence was a tacit approval of the hateful signs being waved in front of him, and while his own words may have been carefully chosen he said nothing to condemn those that were not.
Hate speech begets death threats, and death threats beget violence (that's why they're investigated by the FBI). Rossi and McKenna's problem is that they want the support of both their rabid right wing base and that of independent voters anxious about their families' economic security. But they can't truly have one without seriously risking the loss of the other.

FBI arrests right wing extremist from Selah who had threatened to kill Patty Murray

The United States Department of Justice announced today that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has arrested a right wing extremist from Selah who had threatened to kill Washington's senior U.S. Senator, Patty Murray.

Charles Alan Wilson, sixty four, made a series of threatening phone calls to Murray's office in the District of Columbia between March 22nd and the end of Easter weekend, the Department of Justice said in a news release announcing the arrest. Wilson's conduct was described as follows:
Wilson stated that Senator Murray "had a target on her back." Wilson stated, "I want to (expletive) kill you." Wilson discussed assisting others in an attempt to kill the senator. Wilson's threats were in response to the passage of the Health Care Reform Act [properly known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act].

Wilson allegedly made the calls from a telephone line with a 'blocked' phone number. However, federally subpoenaed telephone records revealed the calls came from his home phone line. FBI agents were able to further confirm Wilson was the caller. Wilson told undercover FBI agents that he regularly carries a firearm with a concealed weapons permit. He also stated that he was extremely angry about the passage of the health care reform legislation.

Threatening a federal official is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Senator Murray's office issued a short statement in response to the arrest, saying, "“After receiving numerous phone calls that included threats of violence from an unidentified individual, our office notified the Capitol Police Department of the nature of those calls. The Capitol Police Department then instructed us to alert our local FBI offices regarding the situation."

The FBI's investigation subsequently resulted in Wilson's arrest.

We can all be thankful that Wilson was apprehended by the FBI before he had a chance to actually act on his threats. As David Neiwert has documented in his book The Eliminationists, the violent rhetoric of radicals like Wilson often leads to acts of violence. And that violent rhetoric is encouraged on a daily basis by hate talkers like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and a host of imitators.

The news of Wilson's threatening phone calls and his arrest comes several weeks after video surfaced of a speaker at a "tea party" rally in Asotin County who said she'd like Senator Murray to be hanged.

That individual was not prosecuted, but we hope Charles Alan Wilson will get the maximum if and when he is sentenced for his alleged crime.

Talking Points Memo has a copy of the complaint, which fittingly states, United States of America, Plaintiff, v. Charles Alan Wilson, Defendant.

Appeals Court says FCC can't use regulatory approach it chose during Bush error

Reading the headlines on traditional media websites this morning, you might believe that a federal appeals court has just slammed the door on the Federal Communications Commission's ability to require net neutrality (the idea that Internet service providers should treat all content, sites, and platforms equally) with its ruling in Comcast v. FCC (PDF, thirty six page opinion).

In actuality, the Circuit Court did not decide that the FCC cannot require Net Neutrality. Rather, it found that the FCC misread its authority under the Communications Act of 1934, which Congress has amended over the years. To understand what the court decision really means, a little background is in order.

As many readers know, the FCC is a five member body. The ideological composition of seats is determined by whichever party has control of the White House. During the Bush error, Republicans controlled the FCC, and while they controlled the FCC (and were implementing multiple schemes to deregulate the telecommunications industry), they decided to "classify" access to the Internet under a part of the Communications Act which gives the FCC broad authority.

The Appeals Court has effectively just told the FCC, Sorry, you can't do that. The Court agreed with Comcast, but its ruling has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of net neutrality. The FCC is free to revisit its Bush error decisions, and choose a new regulatory approach for the Internet on its own. It can find jurisdiction allowing it to regulate Internet service providers like Comcast in other parts of the Communications Act.

As the FCC's Jen Howard put it: "Today’s court decision invalidated the prior Commission’s approach to preserving an open Internet. But the Court in no way disagreed with the importance of preserving a free and open Internet; nor did it close the door to other methods for achieving this important end."

Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn added in a news release, "The Court’s decision... does not change the importance of our goal nor should it weaken our resolve. Indeed, we now have the kind of guidance that will enable us to develop the most effective and legally sound rules of the road to preserve Internet openness and to achieve other important goals set forth in the National Broadband Plan."

So Congress does not need to get involved... although it could, and it probably will, if the FCC doesn't respond to this decision in a timely fashion.

Among the organizations that will be pushing the FCC to act is Free Press. "The FCC must have the authority to carry out its consumer protection and public interest mission in the 21st century broadband marketplace," said Free Press' Research Director, S. Derek Turner. "The current Commission did not create this existential crisis, but it now has no choice but to face these tough jurisdictional questions head on, and do what is necessary to protect consumers and promote competition."

Monday, April 5, 2010

Employer-provided health insurance - a "Dead Idea"

Why are Americans so stuck on the idea that they should receive their health insurance from their employer? Is it because that’s the way they’ve always done it? Or is it because they've been told that the only alternative to our current system is socialized medicine, which they associate with long lines and limited choices? A little research will tell you that isn't true.

The idea that “your company should take care of you” is one of author and Center for American Progress fellow Mark Miller’s six “Dead Ideas.” He describes these ideas as a set of “tacit assumptions and ingrained instincts" that business and policy leaders cling to "regarding the way a wealthy, advanced economy like the United States should work." The problem is, what worked sixty to eighty years ago isn't going to fly these days. Some of our ingrained ideas are outdated and need to be changed to reflect how the world works today.

In his fascinating book, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, Miller explains how employer-provided health care came to be the norm in America. He insists that our national leaders shake free of this destructive Dead Idea so that American businesses can compete fairly with foreign businesses not operating under this burden.

According to Miller, in the early twentieth century, large, profitable industries, like steel and rail started offering their employees benefits in order to discourage labor strikes. Organized labor went right along with this idea because, at that time, they were ”deeply mistrustful of government.”

After World War II, the business community’s fear of European socialism motivated even more businesses to offer their employees generous benefits, which they were able do at a much lower price than they can today. Businesses believed that if they offered their employees benefits instead of the government, they were resisting the “socialist threat.”

Unfortunately, the generous benefits that companies could afford in the twentieth century are undercutting businesses’ bottom line in the twenty first. In his book Miller writes:
In aggregate, American employers now spend roughly $600 billion on health care and $200 billion on pensions, costs that no other advanced nation imposes on its companies. It’s crazy but true: Starbucks spends more on health care than on coffee; General Motors spends more on health care than on steel.
Why would corporate America defend this system? Their position is irrational. And it’s destructive.

But corporate America isn’t the only one clinging to a Dead Idea. One line of Miller’s book rings especially true in light of our debate over health care reform. After negotiating the ground-breaking 1950 United Autoworkers-General Motors labor contract that expanded workers’ benefits, UAW president Walther Reuther next wanted the country to move toward government-provided, universal health coverage. The problem was he, "found it hard to mobilize the beneficiaries of the private welfare state he had helped erect on behalf of similar gains for others."

In other words, nothing has changed. In 1950, the people who received employer-based health insurance, like the United Autoworkers, weren’t motivated to change the system that worked for them in order to benefit those without coverage. Today, most working people with health insurance get it through their employer. Most of these folkcs aren’t willing to jeopardize their comfortable situation by changing the system to benefit those without insurance.

Congressional Democrats and President Obama managed to pass significant health reform last month despite the fact that America’s leaders and workers are still operating under the Dead Idea of a paternalistic employer. That was quite a feat. Let's acknowledge that this model is going the way of the leisure suit and the gas guzzler. In the future, government must be more involved in providing basic human services like health care, so we can let business get down to the business of making products, services and money. It’s what they're good at.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter 2010!

Put on Christ. Put on Christ.
Come to the waters of everlasting life.
Put on Christ. Put on Christ.
Walk in the freedom of the children of God.


- Lyrics from Put on Christ by Bob Hurd © Oregon Catholic Press.

For your reading pleasure on this joyous Easter Sunday, here is an account of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the New Testament.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, "Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again."

And they remembered His words, and returned from the tomb and reported all these things to the eleven and to all the rest.

Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles. But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them.

But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only; and he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened.

- The Gospel of Luke, 24:1-12 (New American Standard Bible)
Like millions of other American households, the First Family journeyed to church this morning to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. The President, First Lady Michelle Obama, their daughters Malia and Sasha, and Michelle Obama's mother Marian attended an 11 AM Easter liturgy at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the District of Columbia. They stayed until 12:50, returning to the White House immediately thereafter, according to the pool report.

We were lucky enough at my parish to have our visiting Kenyan priest as the celebrant of our Easter Mass. He delivered an eloquent, graceful, and unconventional homily, which I'm excerpting for your enjoyment on In Brief.

If you're observing the holiday - perhaps spending time in the company of family and friends on this most glorious of Sundays - please accept best wishes from all of us at the Northwest Progressive Institute.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Batten down the hatches: Storm's coming

As anyone who has been within earshot of a local television newscast knows, a big storm is poised to hit Western Washington tomorrow, bringing plenty of wind and rain. The National Weather Service has issued a High Wind Watch for our area, and is warning ratepayers to expect power outages:
VERY STRONG...POSSIBLY DAMAGING...SOUTH WINDS MAY DEVELOP ALONG AND BEHIND A COLD FRONT ON FRIDAY...OVER PORTIONS OF INTERIOR WESTERN WASHINGTON. THERE IS STILL SOME UNCERTAINTY AS TO THE EXACT TRACK AND DEPTH OF THE ASSOCIATED SURFACE LOW MOVING NEAR OR JUST NORTH OF WASHINGTON. AT THIS TIME...THE MOST LIKELY SCENARIO WOULD GENERATE SOUTH WINDS OF 25 TO 35 MPH WITH GUSTS UP TO 55 MPH. HOWEVER...IF THE SURFACE LOW DEEPENS MORE THAN EXPECTED...WIND SPEEDS COULD REACH CLOSE TO HIGH WIND CRITERIA. THEREFORE THE HIGH WIND WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL DETAILS ARE MORE CERTAIN.

THE VERY STRONG WINDS COULD RESULT IN SOME POWER OUTAGES ACROSS PORTIONS OF WESTERN WASHINGTON FRIDAY AFTERNOON AND EVENING DUE TO POWER LINES BEING DAMAGED BY TREE LIMBS. SOME OF THE REGION'S TREES HAVE BEGUN TO LEAF OUT ALREADY...WHICH COULD ADD TO THE POTENTIAL FOR WIND DAMAGE TO OCCUR. RAIN SOAKED GROUND COULD ALLOW TREES TO EASILY TOPPLE OR BECOME UPROOTED.
Extremely powerful gusts could also force the Washington State Department of Transportation to temporarily shut down the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge and the mountain passes. Commuters and travelers should keep themselves apprised of conditions before setting out to go anywhere tomorrow.

And it wouldn't be a bad idea to get out flashlights, a portable radio, and extra batteries out tonight to prepare for the storm. Just in case.

Democratic Party launches parody campaign websites for Dino Rossi and Rob McKenna

Election season must be getting into full swing, because the national and state Democratic Party organizations have each unveiled new websites devoted to criticizing two of Washington's best known Republicans.

Responding to rumors that Dino Rossi might run against Patty Murray (he was in the District of Columbia recently meeting with NRSC Chair John Cornyn), the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has launched Dirty Deals Dino, a "one stop shop" for high information voters curious about Rossi's shady history.

The site features a rotating set of potential Rossi campaign logos at the top (which don't resemble any of the blue and gold logos previously used by Rossi). They include slogans such as Building a bridge to my benefactors and Helping Washington, Help Me. The "Kitchen Cabinet" page lists several of Rossi's dubious associates, who haven't been shy about exploring the gray areas of the law.

The state Democratic Party, meanwhile, has unveiled a project tracking Rob McKenna's ambition to be the state's most powerful officeholder at RobMcKennaforGovernor.com.

The site asserts that McKenna has been running for governor ever since 1984, which is probably true (even though he was only student body president at the University of Washington then). The site is very thorough, with an extensive set of excerpts documenting McKenna's hostility to light rail. There are also pages discussing his opposition to healthcare reform, his own carefully crafted legislative priorities, and his tenuous support for reproductive rights.

The "Friends & Allies" page notes, as we have here on The Advocate, that Tim Eyman and Rob McKenna have a history of collaborating. Dino Rossi and Tim Eyman are likewise good friends, as Permanent Defense has established.

April Fools' Day 2010 roundup

Today is April Fools' Day, the Internet's biggest holiday. For your amusement and enjoyment, here's a running list of the best jokes we've stumbled across so far:
Know of a good prank that didn't make the list? Let us know in the comments.

Deal in the works for state budget?

It looks like the Senate has finally blinked in the game of legislative chicken that's been going on for half a month now.

Scuttlebut out of Olympia has it that the Senate is working on a new budget proposal that does not include a sales tax increase as part of the revenue mix.

(Governor Chris Gregoire, the House, the state Democratic Party, and NPI are all opposed to raising the sales tax, primarily because there are better options available that would be fairer and less regressive.)

The House's budget proposal adds up to the same $800 million figure as the Senate's, but it gets there by closing tax exemptions that certain senators - including a couple of powerful committee chairs - seem loathe to closing. (Perhaps that's because they have lobbyists breathing down their necks).

Whether the votes exist in the Senate to pass an alternative budget proposal is another matter altogether, but the chamber doesn't have much of a choice. The sales tax is the dealbreaker that's killing negotiations. If it's taken out, House leadership has suggested that finding common ground from there on out would be easy, since there are no other major stumbling blocks.

The Legislature doesn't have much more time before the special session expires. If they can't reach an accord within the next two weeks, that'll mean another special session will be necessary. And nobody wants that.