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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

After “Cyber Monday” comes “Toxic Tuesday”

Full Disclosure: I wear more than one hat... in addition to being part of the NPI team, I am also an advocate at the Washington Public Interest Research Group (WashPIRG), a state affiliate of U.S. PIRG.

I love the holidays just as much as the next person.

Alright, that's not entirely true. While I love the excuse it provides for parties, I don’t care for most of the other stuff — especially the blatant commercialism.

It’s bad enough to see Christmas marketed to us in big-box stores when the Halloween candy is still marked down, and gets worse with the faux news stories of stores opening at ever more obnoxiously early hours on “Black Friday.” Somehow I can never reconcile the equation of money saved versus sleep lost.

Next, of course, is “Cyber Monday,” a term that was created by the National Retail Federation five years ago to promote — wait for it — online shopping! It’s a complete fallacy that everyone is sitting at work doing their online shopping on the first Monday after Thanksgiving, but so what – it makes for a good news story.

Of course, an even better story would depict, in nauseating detail, how major toy retailers are endangering children’s safety for the sake of a quick buck (let's call it “Toxic Tuesday", to keep the theme rolling).

“Toxic Tuesday” is the day that all those online and big-box toy retailers begin shipping out all the dangerous toys they said they’d stop selling the last time there was a major toy safety recall.

Back in 2008, Toys “R” Us publicly promised to reduce their distribution of toxic toys that contain polyvinyl chloride (also known as PVC) and to offer more PVC-free products. But today, according to MomsRising.org, independent researchers have established that Toys "R" Us continues to sell products made out of PVC, the "poison plastic” that has been linked to reproductive problems, increased allergies, and obesity. Good intentions have clearly not been followed up with action.

And major retailers — including Toys “R” Us, K-Mart, Target and Amazon — continue to sell toys with a wide range of other dangerous chemicals including lead, antimony and phthalates.

In their 25th annual “Trouble in Toyland” toy safety report, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and its local affiliate WashPIRG detailed some of the dangers posed by toxic toys, including:
  • Plastic toy handcuffs available in the dollar section of a local Toys "R" Us that contain antimony, a known cancer-causing agent, on the surface coating at 1,200 parts per million (ppm) – 20 times the legal limit of 60 ppm.
  • The “Bright Stars Travel Book,” an infant’s toy available at Toys "R" Us, contains antimony, at twice the legal limit.
  • A “Dora the Explorer” backpack manufactured by Global Design Concepts and available at a Clare’s store in downtown Seattle contains phthalates, a chemical used to make plastic softer but which has been connected to adverse reproductive and developmental health effects.
  • The crown in the “Princess Expressions Tiara and Jewelry” set manufactured by Almar Sales and available in local K-Mart stores contains 87 ppm lead. Lead has been banned in paint since 1977, and in gasoline for nearly as long, because it is a powerful neurotoxin that causes chronic problems including lower IQ and behavioral problems.
Things are getting better at both the federal and state level.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is doing a good job under its expanded authority, and this year the Legislature passed SB 6248 to ban the phthalate BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and similar containers beginning in July 2011 and plastic sports bottles in July 2012.

But more can — and should — be done.

USPIRG has called on Congress and the Obama Administration to reform chemicals policy to address the tens of thousands of chemicals that are in the products that children come in contact with every day; to help consumers this shopping season, they’ve released an app that shows if toys are safe.

Meanwhile, MomsRising.org is calling on families to tell Toys “R” Us to keep their promise to keep kids safe from toxic PVC chemicals in toys and is promoting an app at HealthyStuff.org to help shoppers.

The traditional media, controlled by giant corporations who count many of the aforementioned retailers as loyal advertisers, only seems to care about serving as a watchdog when there's a big scandal to report on. Since they're often too busy reporting on the latest celebrity gossip, we have to rely on organizations like USPIRG, WashPIRG and MomsRising.org to alert us to the presence of harmful carcinogens in many of the toys that are being aggressively marketed to children. Sadly, it seems like "Toxic Tuesday" needs to become an annual tradition.

Suzan DelBene accepts job as Director of Washington's Department of Revenue

At an event this morning inside the statehouse, Governor Chris Gregoire announced that she has tapped Suzan DelBene, the Democratic nominee in WA-08, to be the next director of the state's Department of Revenue.

"Suzan’s background with both large and small businesses will be an asset as the Department of Revenue works to simplify the tax code and reduce costs for businesses," the Governor said.

"Suzan knows firsthand how the tax system impacts businesses and possesses the skills and vision to lead the agency through this transformation."

DelBene echoed the governor's comments.

"I know how businesses work and what government can do to help lay a strong foundation for the private sector. Simplifying the tax code and reducing administrative burdens will save small businesses money and time and let owners and employees focus less on paperwork and more on how to operate in this tough economy. This will help small businesses in all of our communities and improve our entire state’s competitiveness."

While there are undoubtedly many steps DelBene can take to optimize the Department's operations and minimize the cost of doing business, simplifying the tax code is not something the executive branch has the power to do on its own. Much of the tax code is codified in statute. And under our system of government, only the Legislature has the power to make laws. That's why our representatives and senators are often referred to as lawmakers.

And the trouble is, the Legislature — as an institution — has repeatedly demonstrated that is unwilling to act boldly and to act with foresight.

That's why we don't have an equitable and fair tax structure.

In fairness to the Legislature, its leadership cannot undertake any reforms with the certainty that a corporate cartel won't spend millions trying to undo them through initiative or referendum a few months later. Still, that's not a legitimate excuse for dithering. Real leadership means having the political courage to do what's necessary and proper for the well-being of society, even if it's difficult.

If Suzan can persuade legislators to take on the challenge of tax reform, and make even incremental progress towards a simpler and fairer tax structure, then she will have provided a great service to the people of Washington State.

We're sure that reaction to this appointment — in some circles — will center on what this means for Suzan's political future, and whether she's positioning herself to run for office again. Such speculation is perhaps inevitable, but it's shallow. Knowing Suzan, she's taking on this job because she thinks she can make a difference.

Whether she runs for Congress or another office in the future is not a decision she is making now, despite what pundits might claim.

We wish her the best as she enters public service.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Censorship is as easy as domain name seizure: U.S. seizes dozens of addresses

Yesterday, the Department of Justice once again reminded activists and hackers that it would rather do corporate America's bidding than hold Wall Street accountable when it executed a court warrant allowing for the seizure of several dozen domains, all ending in the .com TLD (top-level domain). Several of the domains pointed to sites that provide search functionality for finding content (music, movies, books, games, etc.) to download via BitTorrent or other means, but did not actually host any "unauthorized" copies of content themselves.

“As this is an ongoing investigation, there are no additional details available at this time," the New York Times quoted Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Cori W. Bassett as saying.

TorrentFreak has a fairly comprehensive list of the domains that were taken. Many served as the addresses for sites where counterfeit goods were sold.

It's important to understand that ICE did not seize the physical machines or even take the actual websites offline. They simply disconnected the sites from their addresses, apparently by getting VeriSign, the operator of the .com registry, to give them control of the nameservers.

If the above paragraph doesn't make sense to you, then imagine that you've just logged on to your email one morning, but unusually, there are no new messages in your inbox. You ask a friend to send you a test email but it never arrives. You ask your service provider what's up. At first, they have no idea. Later, they notify you that the U.S. government has seized your address, and any/all message traffic is being routed to government agents. That's basically what happened to the people operating the websites listed on the page linked above.

Losing a domain is a big deal, because a site's primary domain is its identity. Hardly anybody bothers to memorize the numbers that are assigned to the computers hosting the various websites they want to visit, especially since the numbers may change. The domain name system (DNS) helps us find what we want by providing a uniform resource locater, or URL, such as nwprogressive.org.

Now, it may be that the seizure of some of these domains was warranted. People who sell counterfeit goods are crooks trying to make a quick buck at others' expense. But people operating sites that simply provide access to information shouldn't be treated like criminals. If Torrent Finder and RapGodfathers are engaging in illegal activity, then so is Google. So are thousands of other search engines. Should they all be shut down? No, that would be ridiculous.

It's scary that censorship is this easy. If a domain is registered through a registry based in the United States, all the federal government has to do to disconnect it is convince a judge to sign a warrant. That's not that hard to do.

And then, just like that, they can pull the plug.

Gilmore's Law (named after John Gilmore, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) holds that the Internet treats censorship as damage and routes around it. Consequently, it is impossible for the government of a democracy to suppress its citizens' access to content without turning into a totalitarian regime. Torrent Finder and RapGodfathers remain accessible through alternate domain names, and can quickly make large numbers of people, plus crawlers of major search engines, aware of their new addresses through social media.

And those sites' owners have done exactly that.

That doesn't excuse what the government did, however. No valid justification has been supplied for the seizure of these names. A cryptic statement about an "ongoing investigation" is bureaucratic stonewalling, not a legitimate explanation. A legitimate explanation is owed both to the domain owners and to the public whenever a draconian action is taken. No such explanation has been forthcoming in this case... and that's a serious problem.

POSTSCRIPT: There's been some discussion on other blogs about how much of the worldwide domain name system is under U.S. jurisdiction. DNS was created in the United States, and the company that operates the .com and .net registries (VeriSign) is also solely responsible for the Internet's root zone file. However, other nations are not subject to U.S. law, so a domain registered through a registry based outside of the United States is theoretically protected from being seized. Some registries, like .org, are based in the U.S., but operated under contract by a company based in another country. It's not clear whether ICE can seize .org domains as easily as it can seize .com ones.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Kris Froland: 1958-2010

One of the Washington netroots community's most eloquent and inspiring activists, who became a featured writer at Daily Kos last year, has died, her family and friends announced today.

Kris Froland, fifty-two, wrote under the screen name exmearden at Daily Kos, maintained her own blog on BlogSpot, and was a regular attendee of Netroots Nation. Like many of us at NPI, she called the Eastside her home, and like all of us, she was passionate about people-powered politics.

She once described herself as follows:
A writer, mother of three adult children, newly minted grandmother, and lifelong Pacific Northwesterner, aside from a brief habitation in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early 1980s, her first memories of politics were pegged to family dinner discussions at a certain yellow formica table in a small coastal Oregon motel owned and operated by her "Kennedy Democrat" parents in the 1960s.

Once upon a time, exmearden had thoughts of becoming a professional golfer, a hermit driftwood sculptor, a CIA agent, a maritime attorney, or a civil war historian. Real-life endeavors in advertising, property management, high school teaching, library research, a two-week stint as an X-rated film projectionist, software trainer for the Air Force Reserve, and her subsequent two decades in the software industry persuaded her that alternative paths also offer a curious narrative.
We are grieved to hear of Kris' passing and offer our deepest condolences to her family and many friends. It's painful to lose a great blogger like Kris — because we need more people writing about progressive politics, not less — but we know she's still with us in spirit. Her written works, fortunately, will remain available.

Kris is survived by several children and grandchildren. In accordance with her wishes, there will be no funeral, but a celebration of her life is planned for the spring. Seattle area netroots activists will be invited to that gathering. When details are finalized, we'll announce it here on The Advocate.

Rest in peace, Kris. You'll be greatly missed.

Take a few moments to watch The Story of Stuff today with family and friends

If media hype is to be believed, the day after Thanksgiving — which has come to be known as "Black Friday" — is one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Regardless of whether the hype is justified or not, today is a good day to think about the environmental cost and consequences of our use it up and throw it out culture, which is extremely wasteful and unsustainable.

Activist Annie Leonard, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person earlier this year, has become one of the progressive movement's best advocates for zero waste. In 2007, she wrote and narrated an animated documentary, The Story of Stuff, which has been viewed by an estimated twelve million people. The film's success led to more films focusing on specific products (the latest category being electronics) and a book, also titled The Story of Stuff.

If you haven't seen the original documentary, take a few moments to watch it now. It's so well done that was condemned by Glenn Beck and was the subject of a critique by the corporate-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has received money from the likes of the Scaife Foundations, Exxon Mobil, the Ford Motor Company Fund, and Pfizer.

Unlike Glenn Beck, and unlike the hacks who work for America's major corporations, Leonard has actually traveled the world, exploring the extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of stuff.

She's more than just a storyteller; she's an eyewitness to one of the greatest problems of our time. That's what makes her films so powerful.

If you have seen The Story of Stuff before, watch it again with a friend or family member. It's released under a Creative Commons license, so you can download it and reproduce it to your heart's content.

Put it on a USB flash drive so you can share it with your friends when you're away from your desktop. Burn it to DVD and mail it to acquaintances who have dialup Internet connections. Or store it on your own server if you have one.

It's incredibly important that the progressive movement master the art of storytelling, so we can better communicate our values, principles, and policy directions to the American people. Annie Leonard has set the example for what we must do if we want to broaden our reach and our impact.

Her work is incredibly important and there's no better time to share it than the holiday season, when Madison Street is in overdrive.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving 2010!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Since World War II, Americans have gathered together on the fourth Thursday of November to celebrate the year's bounty and blessings, sharing food, friendship, and — in many houses — football.

The holiday actually dates all the way back to the 1500s, when some of the first Europeans to reach North America gave thanks for what they had. The first Thanksgiving in what is now the United States is thought by many historians to have been celebrated by the Spanish at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565. There were also Thanksgiving celebrations in Virginia in 1619, two years before the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans commemorated the much-depicted lifesaving harvest at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts.

Owing to its history, Thanksgiving is a uniquely North American holiday with rich traditions. It's cliche to say this, but it's a good time to reflect on what we've got, and pray for those who aren't as fortunate.

From President Obama's Thanksgiving proclamation:
As we stand at the close of one year and look to the promise of the next, we lift up our hearts in gratitude to God for our many blessings, for one another, and for our Nation. This Thanksgiving Day, we remember that the freedoms and security we enjoy as Americans are protected by the brave men and women of the United States Armed Forces. These patriots are willing to lay down their lives in our defense, and they and their families deserve our profound gratitude for their service and sacrifice.

This harvest season, we are also reminded of those experiencing the pangs of hunger or the hardship of economic insecurity. Let us return the kindness and generosity we have seen throughout the year by helping our fellow citizens weather the storms of our day.
Here are some of the things we're thankful for:
  • We're thankful that voters defeated three of the five corporate initiatives, turning back the insurance giants and the alcohol profiteers, who were soundly trounced.
  • We're thankful that respected attorney Charlie Wiggins, who narrowly prevailed over entrenched incumbent Richard Sanders, will soon be our state Supreme Court's newest Associate Justice.
  • We're thankful that Patty Murray and Rick Larsen will continue to represent Washington in the United States Congress. 
  • We're thankful that NPI alum Michael Finkle, who was appointed to King County District Court earlier this year, has been elected to serve a full term. 
  • We're thankful that Roger Goodman and Luis Moscoso, who were behind on Election Night, have come from behind to defeat their Republican opponents.
  • We're thankful that Representative Nancy Pelosi has refused to throw in the towel, and is remaining the House Democratic Leader through 2012.
  • We're thankful that Keith Olbermann continues to anchor Countdown on MSNBC, speaking truth to power five days a week.
  • We're thankful for Jon Stewart's parodies of Glenn Beck on The Daily Show, and for his willingness to talk about his comedic and political philosophy with Rachel Maddow in a recent interview. 
Finally, like our friends at the Center for American Progress, we're thankful for redistricting reform. We already have a bipartisan Redistricting Commission here in Washington that redraws the political map after each census, but gerrymandering has remained a problem in other states. However, this year, voters in California and Florida approved measures which make their redistricting processes more like ours. We salute voters in the Golden and Sunshine states for following our lead.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Meet the hypocrites: Senator Jon Kyl

Well, that didn't take long.

Only three days after Republican Senators and Senators-elect made a big show of forsaking earmarks, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) inserted a $200 million earmark into a bill for an Arizona Indian tribe.

Of course Senator Kyl, who now must surely be scared of getting a Tea Party primary challenge in 2012 (much like his colleague John McCain this year), is playing the semantics game and claiming the funding he secured is not an earmark, even when it is.
Only three days after GOP senators and senators-elect renounced earmarks, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican, got himself a whopping $200 million to settle an Arizona Indian tribe's water rights claim against the government.

Kyl slipped the measure into a larger bill sought by President Barack Obama and passed by the Senate on Friday to settle claims by black farmers and American Indians against the federal government. Kyl's office insists the measure is not an earmark, and the House didn't deem it one when it considered a version earlier this year.

But it meets the know-it-when-you-see-it test, critics say. Under Senate rules, an earmark is a spending item inserted "primarily at the request of a senator" that goes "to an entity, or (is) targeted to a specific state."[Emphasis is mine.]

What makes Senator Kyl's acts particularly hypocritical is that he's the Minority Whip, a member of his party's leadership in the Senate. Forget his deeds matching his words, Jon Kyl can't even keep to the internal policy set by members of his own caucus. Here are his words of just two days ago, when he penned an op-ed for the Prescott eNews.

One message Americans sent was that they want Congress to cut spending. One of the ways Congress can do that is ending the practice of earmarking. More than 9,000 earmarks scattered throughout last year’s spending bills consumed $16.5 billion of taxpayer funds, according to the nonpartisan group Citizens Against Government Waste.

Taxpayers expect their money to be used to support important activities of the government, not a pet project of a lawmaker. Do taxpayers send the Treasury a check in April so that the federal government can spend, for example, $1 million on a Woodstock museum in upstate New York?

Fortunately, the Senate was able to eliminate the funding for the museum in 2007. But, with thousands of projects hidden into lengthy spending bills, the Senate can’t vote to eliminate them all. Some wasteful projects will undoubtedly slip through the cracks. That’s why it’s important to stop the practice altogether.

Senator Kyl is representative of typical Republican leadership. For over 30 years, Republicans have railed against "wasteful spending" and "the size of government" and tried to assume the mantle of "the party of fiscal responsibility". Nothing could be further from the truth. This emperor has no clothes.

Texas jury convicts former Republican leader Tom DeLay of money laundering

Justice has been served:
Tom DeLay, the former U.S. House majority leader whose name became synonymous with the Republicans’ controversial rise to power in the Texas House, was found guilty this evening of laundering money in connection with the 2002 elections.

Jurors sent a note on yellow legal paper that a verdict had been reached to the judge at 4:46 p.m. They had deliberated for nearly 19 hours, since Monday afternoon.

The unanimous verdict on two criminal charges was read to a hushed courtroom three minutes later. DeLay, who moments earlier had been smiling, appeared shocked as the 12 jurors — six men and six women — reported their decision one by one.
No doubt DeLay thought that at least one juror would side with him and effectively nix a guilty verdict. But he got what he deserved.

He had his day in court and he lost.

DeLay will be free for another month until sentencing. He'll be back in court to learn his fate on December 20th, just five days before Christmas.

He is facing up to life in prison and a not insignificant fine. It's unlikely he will be sentenced to the maximum, but even if he serves only a fourth of his time, he'll still be incarcerated for the next twenty years.

We at NPI applaud this verdict and thank Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg for prosecuting DeLay. We believe this case — and its outcome — sends a strong message that nobody is above the law.

DeLay is unfortunately just one of many powerful right wing politicians who think the rules don't apply to him. He's just found out to his cost that there are still public servants in America who are committed to holding lawbreakers accountable no matter who they are, and won't be intimidated by bluster or money.

All passengers should be exempt from TSA's invasive new screening procedures

In the last few days, the Illusion of Security Administration has been doing all it can to keep the backlash against its invasive new screening procedures from exploding into a full-fledged air traveler rebellion. The primary measure that the TSA has been taking is, not surprisingly, to exempt those whose voices are the loudest from having to undergo the procedures.

First it was pilots. Then it was flight attendants. Now the TSA has confirmed it's letting some senior government officials enjoy the same "privilege".

If they're exempt, we should be exempt. Everybody should be exempt.

People clearly feel that the existing restrictions are burdensome enough. The only reason there isn't more outrage is because too many Americans are willing to fall for the "trust us, we know what we're doing" line.

But fortunately, not all. As the old saying goes, It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

Intrusive machines and uncomfortable crotch inspections are not going to foil the next terrorist attack. It's stupid that we're spending so much money trying to find out what's inside people's clothes and not ramping up our intelligence. The "Christmas Day bomber" would have been stopped before he ever boarded a plane if our much-vaunted intelligence community had been doing its job. Let's face it: Without better intelligence, we're blind. The checkpoints in the airports are just security theater. They're a big, high wall meant to make people feel safe.

Unfortunately, big, high walls simply doesn't prevent attacks. Ask France how well the Maginot Line worked for them during World War II.

A smart terrorist who wants to crash a plane into a building, or a power plant, or a dam, or some other structure could easily steal a small private plane and load it up with explosives. If Colton Harris-Moore (also known as the "Barefoot Bandit") — a teenager with no professional training — could figure out how to get a Cessna 182 into the air and fly it halfway across the country, so could a terrorist.

Or terrorists, plural. Several terrorists could plausibly hijack small planes, fill them with bombs, and then fly into the same target, creating an explosion with the same destructive force as an unarmed Boeing 767.

This is just one scenario. Terrorists could opt to create carnage at our seaports, or try to blow up trains, as they did in Europe. They could attack hotels, like they did in India. They're obviously not afraid to change their approach. The best way we can stop them from carrying out their plots is to intercept them. We do that by improving our intelligence. And specifically, human intelligence. The CIA, NSA, and intelligence community at large have gotten way too reliant on signals intelligence. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned spying?

As important as having good intelligence is, however, it only helps us treat a symptom. To address the root cause of terrorism against the United States, we need to examine what's driving the terrorists.

And the answer is our dependence on fossil fuels.

That's why our military is in the Middle East and in other places around the world: To protect our access to the gooey black stuff we need to make everything work. If we can get ourselves off of fossil fuels, we can pull out of places where we shouldn't be, and terrorists will have less of a reason to want to attack us.

It sure would be nice to be able to just walk on an airplane again, or meet family and friends at the gate as they're coming out of the jetway.

Middle class struggles, GOP advocates affluent aid

While American workers and their families continue to feel the effects of the Great Recession this holiday season, the Grinches Republicans in Congress continue to hold unemployment benefits hostage and corporations are reporting record annual profits of $1.66 trillion (largest in sixty years).

American businesses earned profits at an annual rate of $1.66 trillion in the third quarter, according to a Commerce Department report released Tuesday. That is the highest figure recorded since the government began keeping track over 60 years ago, at least in nominal or non-inflation-adjusted terms.

Corporate profits have been going gangbusters for a while. Since their cyclical low in the fourth quarter of 2008, profits have grown for seven consecutive quarters, at some of the fastest rates in history.

Even Wall Street looks to be doing well with projected profits of $19 billion. And let's not leave members of Congress out of the mix. Not only are almost half of the members millionaires, but they've seen their personal wealth increase by more than 16% in the last two years.

While it’s heartening that the economy is slowly turning around and business is returning to pre-recession levels, the American people have not yet begun to feel the effects. Corporations, Congress, and investment banks might be doing well, but families and individuals are still struggling. Have no fear, however, for the Republicans have a plan…

Backed by the newly emboldened Speaker-elect John Boehner (R-OH), Representative Pete Sessions (R-TX) has thrown down the gauntlet, preferring to conduct a giveaway to the rich rather than extend a hand to those who need it most effectively. As the need for government services has risen due to economic conditions, Republicans would prefer to conduct a giveaway to the rich than extend a hand to those who need it most. Make no mistake, this is class warfare.
A deal on a temporary extension of the Bush-era tax rates could also be linked to renewal of unemployment benefits for 2 million Americans about to lose them, a senior Republican in the House of Representatives said.

Representative Pete Sessions, a Republican in leadership, said he could back extending jobless benefits, favored by Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in exchange for an extension of all Bush-era tax cuts, including for the wealthiest groups.
If Congress fails to act and extend unemployment benefits by November 30, 800,000 people and their families will be affected. By the end of the year, 2 million will be affected.

Republicans claim that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans are necessary because the money spent will create jobs and the benefits will trickle down to everyone. The truth is, the rich didn’t get rich by spending money. Ask one of the wealthiest men in the world, the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett:
"The rich are always going to say that, you know, 'Just give us more money, and we'll go out and spend more, and then it will all trickle down to the rest of you.' But that has not worked the last 10 years, and I hope the American public is catching on."
Yesterday, President Obama drew clearly the line that separates Democrats and Republicans on the extension of unemployment benefits and .
Next year, taxes are set to go up for middle-class families unless Congress acts. If we don’t act by the end of the year, a typical middle-class family will wake up on January 1st to a tax increase of $3,000 per year.

So, in the next few weeks, I’m asking Congress to take up this issue. The last thing we can afford to do right now is raise taxes on middle-class families. (Applause.) If we allow these taxes to go up, the result would be that a lot of people most likely would spend less, and that means that the economy would grow less. So we ought to resolve this issue in the next couple of weeks so you’ve got the assurance that your taxes won’t go up when that clock strikes midnight.

Now, this is actually an area where Democrats and Republicans agree. The only place where we disagree is whether we can afford to also borrow $700 billion to pay for an extra tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, for millionaires and billionaires. I don’t think we can afford it right now –- not when we are going to have to make some tough decisions to rein in our deficits.
While the Republicans in Congress hold unemployment benefits for needy Americans hostage and advocate for frivolous tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, it's once again been made very clear that the Democrats are the party of the people and the GOP is the party of the privileged.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The low-hanging fruit: U.S. PIRG and Taxpayers Union agree on $600 billion in budget savings

Full Disclosure: In addition to being part of the NPI team, I am an advocate at the Washington Public Interest Research Group (WashPIRG), a state affiliate of U.S. PIRG.

It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t believe that the federal budget is polluted with wasteful programs and special interest giveaways, rife with payment errors that bleed money from coffers, and programs that are ineffective and no longer meet their mission. The catch is getting people from across the political spectrum to agree on which programs are “wasteful” or “ineffective,” which interests are “special,” and which missions are still worth pursuing (or were ever worth pursuing in the first place).

A couple weeks ago, the co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility & Reform released their draft document that included some initial recommendations for trimming the budget, including a list of $200 billion in illustrative savings. Almost immediately, the report was assailed from all quarters by interests looking to prevent their oxen from being gored.

Less publicized was a recent report by two unlikely allies, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) and the National Taxpayers Union (NTU), which outlined even more ambitious measures that would balance out $600 billion of the federal deficit in the next five years.

The report, Toward Common Ground: Bridging the Political Divide to Reduce Spending, provided a starting point for reforming expenditures by relying on four key concepts:
  • Stop give-a-ways of taxpayer dollars to profitable, mature businesses that don’t need them, such as BP, McDonalds and Nabisco.
  • Stop paying for programs that are duplicative, wasteful or failing like the National Drug Intelligence Center.
  • Stop buying unneeded, unused or unreliable goods and services with taxpayer dollars like nearly $100 billion in unused or unneeded military parts and supplies.
  • Make government more accountable and transparent so that money is not lost to costly errors and inefficiencies like overpayments and errant payments.
Among the 30 specific recommendations listed by USPIRG and the NTU are cost savings and revenue enhancements, including:
  • $62 billion in savings by eliminating wasteful subsidies to farmers and large corporations, including $22 billion in subsidies each year for large oil companies to blend gasoline with corn-based ethanol. These credits, combined with a production mandate and stiff import tariffs, produce bad fiscal policy that raises costs to taxpayers.
  • $354 billion in savings by reforming inefficient contract and acquisition procedures. The bipartisan Panel on Defense Acquisition Reform has suggested financial management and information technology practices, including a system to check bids for commercial goods against past prices to spot unreasonable increases.
  • $77 billion in savings by improving the execution of existing government programs as well as eliminating unneeded programs. For example, Medicare’s Graduate Medical Education Program could save $22 billion by re-calibrating payments to cover actual cost.
  • $108 billion in savings from ending low-priority or unnecessary weapons systems, along with rightsizing other programs. For example, according to the Government Accountability Office, the V-22 Osprey program has had several scheduling, management, cost and production issues. It has experienced reliability and performance issues and come close to being cancelled several times according to the Sustainable Defense Task Force. Eliminating it could save $6 billion.
It’s doubtful that the final report offered by the president’s Fiscal Commission will ever be enacted as released (when has any commission ever had its recommendations enacted?) but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t low-hanging fruit that’s ripe for picking. If strange bedfellows like the National Taxpayers Union and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group can agree on $600 billion in cuts, what excuse is there for Congress not to act?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Evening commute: It's treacherous out there

This morning, I predicted that the Monday evening commute might turn into a repeat of the nightmarish horror of four years ago, when an afternoon snowstorm snarled traffic to a standstill and prevented people from reaching their homes before conditions became extremely hazardous.

It's not yet five o'clock, but already it has become very evident that the going is treacherous. All major highways are jammed, and many major arterials are also hopelessly congested. A summary of major developments:
  • A plane (a China Airlines 747) has apparently skidded off the runway at SeaTac, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Not many details are currently available, but emergency response vehicles are on scene.
  • The Alaskan Way Viaduct is now shut down in both directions due to extremely hazardous conditions. West Dravus Street between 20th and 27th Avenues is also closed. The West Seattle Bridge remains open... for now.
  • A serious collision on SR 99 is blocking southbound traffic from going through the Battery Street Tunnel.
  • Transit agencies are advising riders not to use trip planners, because buses are operating on snow routes and won't be making all the usual stops. OneBusAway is also out of commission because the transit agencies can't feed it accurate information.
  • King County DOT says it is working around the clock to keep roads passable. A list of closures is available on its website.
  • The City of Auburn reports that waste collection is being delayed because the drivers can't finish their routes.
  • Numerous cold weather shelters are opening for people who don't have a warm place to spend the night. RPIN has more information.
The forecast is for colder, snowier, windier weather through the rest of the day. The snow is supposed to taper off mid-evening, but then the winds will pick up, reducing visibility and increasing the chance of power outages.

The National Weather Service says:
NORTH WINDS ARE BEGINNING TO INCREASE ACROSS THE NORTH AND CENTRAL SOUND AREA. BY 5 PM THIS EVENING NORTH WINDS OF 10 TO 20 MPH WITH GUSTS TO 30 MPH ARE EXPECTED WITH AREAS OF SNOW. THIS WILL GENERATE WIND CHILL VALUES IN THE TEENS...BRIEFLY DIPPING INTO THE SINGLE DIGITS AS WELL AS CAUSE DRIFTING SNOW. AFTER 5 PM...THE WIND WILL CONTINUE TO INCREASE AS THE TEMPERATURES DECREASE. ALSO...AS THE SUN SETS...WET ROADS WILL LIKELY FREEZE OVER THIS EVENING CAUSING VERY SLIPPERY CONDITIONS.
A winter storm warning remains in effect until 10 PM.

POSTSCRIPT: It's now ten o'clock and there is still heavy traffic on Interstate 5. We're hearing reports on Twitter that it took some commuters three or four hours to reach home. Yikes! Many school districts have already announced they won't open at all tomorrow, including Lake Washington, Northshore, Seattle, and Mercer Island, among others. Many libraries are also curtailing their hours. Many municipalities canceled extracurricular activities this evening and are likely to do the same thing tomorrow.

WSDOT is desperately trying to get highways clear for those who have to travel tomorrow and is putting all of its resources into the effort. Via a news release:
Icy evening commute on Interstate 5 at Boeing Access Road WSDOT has a plan for the overnight hours with the snow still falling and temperatures still dropping.

Officials are shifting resources from Whatcom County, where the weather has let up, to Snohomish and King counties where icy roads are still a problem. We are also staggering 12-hour working shifts to get the maximum coverage. The shifting and clearing will continue overnight to focus on the greatest need. WSDOT has more than 100 trucks on the road.

“We continue to hit the priority roads with everything we have: de-icer, anti-icer, plows, loaders, and snow plows. Our goal is to get the roads back in shape before the morning commute,” said Dave McCormick, Assistant Regional Administrator for Operations.

Crews will use the morning hours to restock materials in the maintenance yards as well.
WSDOT also revealed that it set a new all-time traffic record today for its website. There were more than 6.2 million page views by 2:56 PM today, which explains why the site has been unresponsive and unavailable at times.

Seattle-based Attachmate buying Novell for $2.2 billion; Microsoft to get some patents

Washington State's largest privately held software firm (Attachmate) today announced that it has agreed to buy most of Novell Inc. for $2.2 billion, while a consortium led by Washington's largest publicly held software firm (Microsoft, also the world's largest), gobbles up the remainder.

Bloomberg has more:
Novell, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, rose 37 cents, or 6.6 percent, to $5.96 on the Nasdaq Stock Market at 2:34 p.m. New York time. It had gained 35 percent this year before today.

The company, which also competes against Oracle Corp. and BMC Software Inc., has said last year’s recession hurt customer orders. The company had $1.04 billion in cash and short-term investments at the end of the third quarter.

Novell makes Linux operating-system software, and its business units also include identity and security management, systems and resource management, workload management and its GroupWise e-mail system.

The consortium led by Microsoft is acquiring 882 patents, according to a regulatory filing. Microsoft declined to comment on the asset purchase, said Tricia Payer, a spokeswoman for the company. Novell Chief Executive Officer Ron Hovsepian also declined to elaborate on which patents were sold.
One quibble with this report: It's not quite accurate to say that Novell "makes Linux operating-system software". Linux is a kernel, not an operating system. Every free software distribution out there, including those maintained by Novell, includes components besides the Linux kernel.

The most important non-Linux components are usually GNU libraries, which is where the term "GNU/Linux distribution" comes from.

As TechFlash notes, this deal is another one of those instances where a smaller company is eating up a larger one:
Novell currently has 3,450 employees, while Attachmate employs 925 (including 350 in the Seattle area). A spokeswoman for Attachmate said that the company will operate four business units after the deal closes: Attachmate, NetIQ, Novell and SUSE. She added that the goal is to "do no harm" to the business units that Attachmate integrates.
Jon Talton, meanwhile, says the sale is just another example of predatory hedge funds and private equity firms forcing firms into deals that don't necessarily make sense. He cautions Microsoft — which got a piece of the action today — to remember that the capital markets are not its friends.

Here comes the snow... and the wind... and the cold... prepare for a wintery week

We in western Washington are sure in for it today:
THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN SEATTLE HAS ISSUED A WINTER STORM WARNING FOR THE SEATTLE...TACOMA...EVERETT METRO AREAS INCLUDING THE HOOD CANAL AREA...THE KITSAP PENINSULA AND THE EASTERN PUGET SOUND LOWLANDS FOR HEAVY SNOW...WHICH IS IN EFFECT UNTIL 10 PM PST THIS
EVENING. THE WINTER WEATHER ADVISORY FOR THIS AREA IS NO LONGER IN EFFECT.

SOME AFFECTED LOCATIONS... EVERETT... GOLD BAR... SEATTLE... NORTH BEND... BREMERTON... SHELTON... TACOMA... AND ENUMCLAW.

TIMING...BANDS OF SNOW WILL INCREASE THROUGH THE EARLY AFTERNOON AND CONTINUE INTO THE EVENING HOURS. THE SNOW WILL END LATER THIS EVENING FROM THE NORTH... BUT SOME DRIFTING OF THE SNOW LIKELY TONIGHT AS NORTHERLY WINDS INCREASE TO 20 TO 30 MPH AND GUSTS TO 40 MPH.

ACCUMULATIONS...EXPECT 2 TO 6 INCH AMOUNTS. SNOWFALL ACCUMULATIONS WILL BE QUITE VARIABLE AROUND THE AREA WITH HEAVIEST AMOUNTS OCCURRING CLOSER TO THE CASCADE FOOTHILLS AND IN LOCALIZED BANDS AROUND THE CENTRAL PUGET SOUND AREA.

WIND...LIGHT AND VARIABLE WINDS THROUGH MID AFTERNOON WILL BECOME NORTH AND INCREASE TO 20 TO 30 MPH WITH GUSTS TO 40 MPH THIS EVENING. THE GUSTY NORTH WINDS TONIGHT WILL CAUSE SOME BLOWING AND DRIFTING OF THE SNOW. THE COMBINATION OF THE STRONG WIND AND TEMPERATURES FALLING INTO THE LOWER 20S WILL GIVE WIND CHILL VALUES OF 0 TO 10 DEGREES ABOVE ZERO TONIGHT.

IMPACT...GUSTY WINDS NEAR 40 MPH COULD RESULT IN LOCAL POWER OUTAGES...THUS CONSIDER ALTERNATE...BUT SAFE...SOURCES OF HEAT IN CASE THIS OCCURS. OTHERWISE MAKE SURE YOU HAVE PLENTY OF EXTRA WARM CLOTHING OR BLANKETS.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS...

A WINTER STORM WARNINGS MEANS SEVERE WINTER WEATHER IS OCCURRING OR IMMINENT. THOSE PLANNING TRAVEL IN THE WARNED AREA SHOULD BE PREPARED FOR HAZARDOUS...WINTER DRIVING CONDITIONS AND PLAN ACCORDINGLY.
It might be a good idea to leave work early today.

Temperatures are forecast to fall as the day progresses. The thermometer has already fallen to 28° F in Redmond and is on its way down to 26° F. Tonight's low will be 21° F, according to the NWS. What that means, of course, is that none of the snow on the ground is going anywhere.

It's been slow going out on the highways this morning. Many are still jammed full of traffic as of 10 AM, including State Route 520, which is backed up into Overlake. Northbound I-5 through much of Seattle is also a real mess. Metro is on snow routing; that decision was prudently made last night, and appears to be paying off. Sound Transit has also made some adjustments to a couple of its Express routes. Collisions are responsible for some of the slow traffic.

Best advice? Don't go out if you have to, and if you do, drive extra defensively. Don't plan on getting anywhere in a hurry. The commute tonight looks like it might be a repeat of the infamous evening of horror from four years ago.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Backlash against TSA still rising; more passengers sharing their horror stories

If John Pistole and his subordinates at the Illusion of Security Administration thought these last few days were a tough week, they haven't seen anything yet. The scope and intensity of the backlash against its invasive new screening procedures is certain to increase as Thanksgiving travel week gets underway.

Millions of Americans will join the ranks of those who have been unfortunate enough to experience the TSA's virtual strip searches and intrusive pat-downs.

In Portugal, President Obama was asked by MSNBC's Chuck Todd at an afternoon press conference today if he would "care to comment on the dustup over TSA pat-downs". (The press conference took place at 8:47 AM Pacific Time).

The President began by saying:
With respect to the TSA, let me, first of all, make a confession. I don't go through security checks to get on planes these days, so I haven’t personally experienced some of the procedures that have been put in place by TSA.
We'll give credit where credit is due. The President gets an accolade for admitting he hasn't had the misfortune of being robbed of his dignity by the TSA.
I will also say that in the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing, our TSA personnel are, properly, under enormous pressure to make sure that you don't have somebody slipping on a plane with some sort of explosive device on their persons. And since the explosive device that was on Mr. Abdulmutallab was not detected by ordinary metal detectors, it has meant that TSA has had to try to adapt to make sure that passengers on planes are safe.
Actually, plans to put these machines in place had been in the works long before the incident that occurred last December 25th, and what's more, the TSA has not refuted experts who say its procedures and machines would have have failed to detect Abdulmutallab's improvised explosive device.
Now, that's a tough situation. One of the most frustrating aspects of this fight against terrorism is that it has created a whole security apparatus around us that causes huge inconvenience for all of us. And I understand people’s frustrations. And what I’ve said to the TSA is that you have to constantly refine and measure whether what we’re doing is the only way to assure the American people’s safety. And you also have to think through are there ways of doing it that are less intrusive.
It's more than an inconvenience, Mr. President. It's a serious erosion of the civil liberties that are guaranteed to us by the U.S. Constitution.
But at this point, TSA, in consultation with our counterterrorism experts, have indicated to me that the procedures that they’ve been putting in place are the only ones right now that they consider to be effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bombing.
Maybe you should stop listening to the TSA and ask the folks who are responsible for security at Israeli airports why they consider porno scanners to be ineffective.
But I’m going to — every week I meet with my counterterrorism team and I’m constantly asking them whether — is what we’re doing absolutely necessary? Have we thought it through? Are there other ways of accomplishing it that meet the same objectives?
Sorry, Mr. President. You may be sincere in your desire to protect our country — and we commend your intentions — but you need to develop a stronger skeptical reflex. Don't accept what your subordinates tell you to be the divine truth. Consider other perspectives. Read EPIC's letter for yourself (PDF).

And reach out to some of the people who have had to go through hell.

People like Tom Sawyer
:
A retired special education teacher on his way to a wedding in Orlando, Fla., said he was left humiliated, crying and covered with his own urine after an enhanced pat-down by TSA officers recently at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

“I was absolutely humiliated, I couldn’t even speak,” said Thomas D. “Tom” Sawyer, 61, of Lansing, Mich.

Sawyer is a bladder cancer survivor who now wears a urostomy bag, which collects his urine from a stoma, or opening in his stomach. “I have to wear special clothes and in order to mount the bag I have to seal a wafer to my stomach and then attach the bag. If the seal is broken, urine can leak all over my body and clothes.”

On Nov. 7, Sawyer said he went through the security scanner at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. “Evidently the scanner picked up on my urostomy bag, because I was chosen for a pat-down procedure.”

Due to his medical condition, Sawyer asked to be screened in private. “One officer looked at another, rolled his eyes and said that they really didn’t have any place to take me,” said Sawyer. “After I said again that I’d like privacy, they took me to an office.”
And it all went downhill from there.

That's just one of many other horror stories.

What's ridiculous about all of this is that nobody — not pilots, flight attendants, passengers, or even the TSA's even own officers — is comfortable with the new procedures. So why are we tolerating this insanity?

Because John Pistole and Janet Napolitano say we must?

We need to start standing up for ourselves and our rights. If we accept what we're told, like President Obama, then we are letting ourselves be led down the dangerous road that leads to the destruction of democracy.

Fortunately, there are some courageous folks out there doing all they can to educate the flying public. Editorial cartoonists have piled on, producing some scathing, brilliantly-drawn critiques of the TSA. And one blogger used his Playmobil airport security set to poke fun at the absurdly invasive procedures.

We add our voices to those of the many other true patriots protesting the TSA's immoral assault on our liberties. We refuse to meekly submit and be told what's good for us. We urge readers who have to travel this week to travel prepared and be unafraid to politely express contempt for these invasive new procedures.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Democratic lawmakers at the state and federal levels choose leaders for 2011-2012

Though only half a month has passed since General Election Day 2010, Democratic lawmakers at both the state and federal levels have already gotten down to the business of selecting their leaders for the next two years.

At the federal level, Senate Democrats confirmed Harry Reid as Majority Leader, Dick Durbin as Majority Whip, Charles Schumer as Conference Vice Chair, and Patty Murray as Conference Secretary. House Democrats, meanwhile, elected to keep Nancy Pelosi as their leader, ignoring the misguided complaints of Blue Dogs. Steny Hoyer will serve as Democratic Whip, and James Clyburn will move into the newly-created position of Assistant Democratic Leader. Pelosi has tapped New York's Steve Israel to head up the DCCC for the next two years.

A chairperson for the DSCC (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) has yet to be named. Reid has reportedly approached several senators already, who have each declined. Democrats will be defending twice as many seats as Republicans in the next cycle, which means the job will be especially tough.

At the state level, Senate Democrats have again united behind Lisa Brown of Spokane as their Majority Leader. They haven't filled their other leadership positions yet, but Margarita Prentice is expected to become President Pro Tempore (succeeding Rosa Franklin), while Karen Fraser is likely to end up as Majority Caucus Chair. Tracey Eide will likely remain Majority Floor Leader.

In addition, a panel of Senate Democrats have come up with recommendations for committee chairmanships which will be voted on by the caucus. If the recommendations are adopted, new committee chairs will include Ed Murray (Ways & Means), Craig Pridemore (Government Operations & Elections), Kevin Ranker (Natural Resources & Marine Waters), Rodney Tom (Higher Education & Workforce Development) and Steve Hobbs (Financial Institutions, Housing & Insurance).

On the House side, Frank Chopp has been unanimously reelected Speaker, to nobody's surprise. Pat Sullivan will serve as Majority Leader, Kevin Van De Wege will become Democratic Whip, and Dawn Morrell will serve as Caucus Chair if she manages to eke out victory over Hans Zeiger.

House Democrats will decide who should serve as committee chairs when they meet in Olympia during the first full week of December.

Randy Gordon slips for the second consecutive day, not gaining on Steve Litzow

After gaining serious ground on his Republican challenger Steve Litzow on Wednesday, the 41st LD's incumbent Democratic senator, Randy Gordon, has since slipped backward for two consecutive days — although not by much.

Gordon had pulled to within one hundred and fifty votes as of forty eight hours ago; he is now behind by one hundred and seventy. Litzow widened his lead by twenty six votes yesterday and twelve today. However, it's important to keep in mind that not many ballots were processed over the last forty eight hours. Only one hundred and five ballots have been tabulated since yesterday afternoon in the 41st, which is a tiny fraction of the 62,784 cast and counted in that district so far.

Whether Randy still has a shot at winning depends on how many ballots are still outstanding from the 41st, and to what degree they will break in his favor. Turnout has now surpassed seventy three percent in the district, which covers Mercer Island, Newcastle, and parts of Bellevue and Renton.

In a similar predicament to Gordon is House Appropriations Chair Kelli Linville, who is only one hundred and fifty eight votes behind Republican challenger Vincent Buys. There has been no change in that contest since Wednesday.

Meanwhile, not much has happened in the closely-watched race in the 25th LD (Pierce County), where Democrat Dawn Morrell remains agonizingly close behind extremist Republican Hans Zeiger.

The difference is down to thirty nine votes, which isn't much of a change. There may be more of a shift when the ballots are recounted... we'll see.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Flying this Thanksgiving? What you need to know about the TSA's new invasive (and un-American) screening procedures

"Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

— Motto from A Historical Review of the Constitution and Government of Pennsylvania, published in 1759 by Benjamin Franklin

As many readers are undoubtedly aware, the Illusion of Security Administration — er, I mean, the Transportation Security Administration — has introduced new invasive screening procedures which are ostensibly intended to make it easier for authorities to catch would-be terrorists before they can board a commercial flight.

In reality, all the new procedures do is empower a few thousand federal employees across the nation to look at naked pictures of airline passengers, or feel up their genitals (and for women, breasts), at taxpayer expense.

Achtung! TSA CheckpointWhole body scanners, which the TSA calls "Advanced Imaging Technology", and which many critics are calling porno scanners, come in two varieties.

The first uses a millimeter wave to create an image of a passenger's naked body. The other uses a backscatter x-ray to accomplish the same thing. Originally, the TSA claimed these machines would only be used as secondary screening measures, but for no good reason, they are now being employed as the primary screening method at many airports, including SeaTac.

Passengers can choose not to go through the machines, but those who make that decision may be subjected to what the TSA calls an "enhanced pat-down", which is a bureaucratic way of saying that a TSA employee has the power to aggressively manipulate their hands all over passengers' bodies.

The following is a compilation of excerpts from articles about TSA's invasive new procedures, covering their ineffectiveness, health hazards, and privacy implications.

I. Whole body scanners don't work and are a waste of money.
A leading Israeli airport security expert says the Canadian government has wasted millions of dollars to install "useless" imaging machines at airports across the country.

"I don't know why everybody is running to buy these expensive and useless machines. I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747," Rafi Sela told parliamentarians probing the state of aviation safety in Canada.

"That's why we haven't put them in our airport," Sela said, referring to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport, which has some of the toughest security in the world.
Full-body scanners are waste of money, Israeli expert says (Canwest News Service, published April 23rd, 2010)

II. The TSA's procedures greatly inconvenience passengers but do not actually provide real protection against would-be hijackers.
“Counter­terrorism in the airport is a show designed to make people feel better,” [cyrptographer and security expert Bruce Schnei­er] said. “Only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.” This assumes, of course, that al-Qaeda will target airplanes for hijacking, or target aviation at all. “We defend against what the terrorists did last week,” Schnei­er said.

He believes that the country would be just as safe as it is today if airport security were rolled back to pre-9/11 levels. “Spend the rest of your money on intelligence, investigations, and emergency response.”
The Things He Carried (by Jeffrey Goldberg, feature piece for The Atlantic, published in the magazine's November 2008 edition)

III. The TSA's whole-body scanners were explicitly designed with image storing and sending abilities. Only TSA policy supposedly prevents these capabilities from being used, and it could be changed at any time.
A privacy group says the Transportation Security Administration is misleading the public with claims that full-body scanners at airports cannot store or send their graphic images.

The TSA specified in 2008 documents that the machines must have image storage and sending abilities, the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said.

In the documents, obtained by the privacy group and provided to CNN, the TSA specifies that the body scanners it purchases must have the ability to store and send images when in "test mode."

That requirement leaves open the possibility the machines — which can see beneath people's clothing — can be abused by TSA insiders and hacked by outsiders, said EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg.

EPIC, a public-interest group focused on privacy and civil rights, obtained the technical specifications and vendor contracts through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

The written requirements also appear to contradict numerous assurances the TSA has given the public about the machines' privacy protections.
Body scanners can store, send images, group says (by Jeanne Meserve and Mike M. Ahlers, CNN, published January 11th, 2010)

BY THE WAY: EPIC's letter to the Transportation Security Administration requesting that deployment of the whole-body scanners be canceled is available for your reading pleasure (PDF).

IV. The backscatter version of the TSA's whole-body scanners may increase your risk of getting cancer, according to scientists.
US scientists are warning that radiation from controversial full-body airport scanners has been dangerously underestimated and could lead to an increased risk of skin cancer - particularly in children.

University of California biochemist David Agard said that unlike other scanners, the radiation from these devices is delivered at low energy beam levels, with most of the dose concentrated in the skin and underlying tissue.

“While the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high,” Dr Agard said.

"Ionizing radiation such as the X-rays used in these scanners have the potential to induce chromosome damage, and that can lead to cancer."
'Naked' scanners may increase cancer risk (by Kate Schneider, news.com.au, published May 19, 2010)

BY THE WAY: The full text of the letter sent by the University of California at San Francisco scientists to President Obama's Office of Science and Technology Policy is available at the University's website.

V. Airline pilots are refusing to be subjected to the scanners because they are ineffective and invasive. Pilots are also objecting to being groped and fondled in hand searches.
Pilot unions at two of the nation's largest airlines are advising their members not to submit to body scanners at airport security checkpoints as tension grows over what they see as intrusive or risky checks.

Unions representing pilots at American Airlines and US Airways have advised their more than 14,000 members to avoid the scanners, which peer beneath clothing, and instead get a pat down from Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers.
Unions tell pilots to avoid body scanners at airports (by Alan Levin, USA Today, published November 11th, 2011)

VI. TSA employees have been caught (or suspected of) stealing passengers' personal property in the past and cannot be trusted to safeguard travelers' privacy and belongings.
In February, Michelle Sugg's $3,000 watch disappeared from one of the bins as it went through x-ray at a JFK checkpoint. She strongly suspects a TSA agent took it and that she finds deeply disturbing.

"They're stealing from us, this is a national security issue. What if somebody gives them $10,000 and says 'look the other way, let's put this bag through?'" said Sugg.

Gwen Bartlett and her mother lost $940 dollars in cash from a bag as they recently went through JFK screening.

She was hopeful security cameras would reveal her suspicion that a TSA worker stole it.

"The cameras were actually pointed at the exits and they couldn't pinpoint my security lane because the videos weren't showing in that area at that time," Bartlett said.
Investigation into alleged TSA thefts at JFK Airport (by Jim Hoffer, WABC-TV New York, published May 17th, 2010)

VII. The TSA supposedly exists to enforce the law and keep us safe, but too many of its own agents behave inappropriately or unprofessionally, and seem to think they're above the law.
A TSA agent was arrested on January 3rd in Terminal One at LAX, a source told NBCLA. He had just gotten off duty and was behaving erratically, saying, "I am god, I’m in charge."

Meanwhile, a TSA Internal Affairs investigation turned up evidence of LAX TSA agents using drugs at an after-hours party.

TSA officials say a videotape of the party was of poor quality and the employees were not in uniform, but 4 employees were tentatively identified.

All 4 were tested for drugs. One came back positive and that employee was fired.
TSA Agent Arrested at LAX (by Kim Baldonado and Scott Weber, NBC Los Angeles, published January 6th, 2010)

VIII. The Department of Homeland Security's own Inspector General has previously faulted the TSA for lax security policies, including repeatedly failing to revoke access to employees who had left the agency.
The agency overseeing security at the nation's airports failed for years to track security passes and uniforms of former employees, creating widespread vulnerability to terrorists, says a government watchdog report obtained by USA TODAY.

The Transportation Security Administration lacked centralized controls over the secure passes issued to some of its employees, according to Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner. The passes grant people access to the most sensitive areas of an airport, such as where baggage is screened or planes are parked.

Investigators found numerous cases in which former employees retained their passes long after they had left the agency.
Report slams TSA failure to track security passes (by Alan Levin, USA Today, published October 12th, 2008)

The Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration have offered no proof that their invasive new screening procedures make America safer, let alone pass constitutional muster. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution — which is part of the Bill of Rights — reads:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
If TSA's new procedures — which have been described in graphic detail by many travelers — aren't a violation of the Fourth Amendment, then we don't know what is. It's outrageous that more Americans aren't outraged about what's happening in our nation's airports. No one should have to submit to this harassment.

Incidentally, not many of the news reports about the TSA's invasive scanners have mentioned that the House of Representatives incorporated a bill called the Aircraft Passenger Whole-Body Imaging Limitations Act of 2009 (H.R. 2027) into its last reauthorization bill for TSA, which passed on June 4th, 2009.

The bill has expired in the Senate, which did not act on it in time, but the provision could easily be tacked into some other bill as an amendment.

The provision requires that whole-body scanners not be used as a primary screening mechanism. The original text of H.R. 2027 is available on Thomas.

Outspoken libertarian Ron Paul, meanwhile, has introduced a bill of his own, which would prohibit TSA employees from escaping punishment for misconduct by hiding behind immunity. It's called the American Traveler Dignity Act (H.R. 6416).

It is fairly simple, and its text is as follows:
A BILL

To ensure that certain Federal employees cannot hide behind immunity.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

SECTION 1. NO IMMUNITY FOR CERTAIN AIRPORT SCREENING METHODS.

No law of the United States shall be construed to confer any immunity for a Federal employee or agency or any individual or entity that receives Federal funds, who subjects an individual to any physical contact (including contact with any clothing the individual is wearing), x-rays, or millimeter waves, or aids in the creation of or views a representation of any part of a individual's body covered by clothing as a condition for such individual to be in an airport or to fly in an aircraft. The preceding sentence shall apply even if the individual or the individual's parent, guardian, or any other individual gives consent.
President Obama meets with TSA Administrator John Pistole and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet NapolitanoIt's become evident that TSA and the Department of Homeland Security have no intention of scrapping their invasive new procedures, so ending this travesty is going to require action on the part of Congress and the President.

To the right: President Obama met with TSA Administrator John Pistole and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano last month. Photo by White House photographer Pete Souza. Reproduced with permission.

President Obama could step in and take immediate action by signing an executive order directing TSA not to use whole-body scanners as a primary screening mechanism. Unfortunately, it appears the President and his team are entirely unconcerned about the matter. From today's press gaggle aboard Air Force One:
QUESTION: On the TSA, does the White House support the actions with the magnetometer and the pat-down, or are you likely to maybe roll back those actions, especially with this chaotic week coming up?

ROBERT GIBBS: Well, look, I will say that we have all seen over the course of the past year that there are organizations like al Qaeda that continue with the intent on inflicting harm and damage in this country through airliners. I think what TSA has set up and what the public greatly supports — I think there was a CBS poll that said four out of five Americans are supportive of increased security to ensure that you feel rightly safe when you get on an airplane. I think the way — I think TSA administering this in a way that makes the public feel safe and comfortable is important, as well as implementing it to ensure the protection of privacy is important.

But, again, I think there is overwhelming support for ensuring that there is -- that people feel as safe as they can when they get on an airline.

QUESTION: But if somebody has a medical condition -- for example, if a woman is pregnant, can they be excused from the magnetometer?

ROBERT GIBBS: I will say this — I would point you over to DHS and TSA who will have more granularity on what all that means.
Gibbs, of course, gets to fly on Air Force One, so he doesn't have any idea what regular folks are going through when they clear security at a major airport. It's not surprising that he would cite that CBS poll, which is meaningless. Most of its respondents have no idea what these new procedures entail, and haven't suffered the indignity of having TSA employees sliding their hands over their bodies.

If they had, they'd feel differently.

This post has gotten rather long, so I'll end it by recommending several websites that have much more information, including details on protests planned for November 24th, which is less than a week away.
Remember, if you're flying this Thanksgiving, you have the right to opt-out of the porno-scanners. Just say, calmly, "I opt out" ... and they can't force you to go through. You may be groped and fondled, but at least you won't be virtually strip-searched, and you won't be subjected to x-rays.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

RE: Advice for Speaker Frank Chopp

Editor's Note: The following is the text of a message I sent to Seattle Times editorial page editor Ryan Blethen earlier today. I'm not expecting a response.

Hi Ryan:

I was reading your editorial directed at Speaker Chopp this morning and wanted to ask you to elaborate on how we can provide a quality education to Washington's youth without Initiative 1098 (which you fiercely opposed) and with Initiative 1053 (which you fiercely supported). In the editorial, you argue:
The region's future also depends on the vitality of four-year colleges and universities. Compare and contrast House and Senate budget proposals for the 2009-2011 biennium. The House was considerably less supportive of four-year schools. A budget reflects priorities of many members, and often, those of the speaker himself.

Consider, the job stirring and creative productivity of just the University of Washington and add in the other four-year schools.

Chopp denies his support for higher ed is flagging and prides himself on helping low-income students go to college. He does do that. But if weak support for four-year schools continues, the quality of higher education will be greatly diminished, a lousy idea for a region that prides itself on its high-tech bona fides and ability to generate jobs for the future.
Initiative 1098 would have strengthened our university system. You opposed it. Initiative 1053 weakens our university system. You supported it.

How can you profess to care about the vitality of our colleges and universities when you are not willing to support their financial well-being?

Connect the dots, Ryan. It just doesn't make sense. Your position — which was regrettably endorsed by voters — is absurd.

When are you going to acknowledge that there's no free lunch? You can't talk about building great public services in tough times, and then turn around and support austerity measures that make it impossible to democratically sustain our public services. A strong common wealth is a requirement for great public services. I've been trying to explain this to Tim Eyman's followers for years.

They just don't get it. And neither do you.

You say, we need a great university system. Fine. Tell me and the rest of your readers how you think we should pay for it. Otherwise, you have no credibility. You're just publishing platitudes. It's easy to say Washington deserves the best. It's an entirely different matter to turn that vision into a reality. Granted, you don't have that responsibility, but you see fit to dispense advice to those who do. Your advice, unfortunately, is worthless. There's no substance in it.

Your editorial page is what needs a reset. You don't stand for anything because what you profess to want is unattainable given your refusal to support or even identify any way to pay for it. You're evidently not embarrassed by this, or you wouldn't publish such lofty editorials. They make me laugh.

If you want to be taken seriously, Ryan, then start coming up with specifics. You think you know how to build a better budget than Speaker Chopp? Then come up with one and publish it in your newspaper!

Define, explicitly, where the cuts should be. Show us what services you're going to get rid of. Show us which ones you're going to keep. Do the math. I'm guessing that when you were in school, your teacher warned you that you needed to show your work to get credit on your assignments and tests.

Well, show us your work. You're suggesting that it's possible to have a great university system under Initiative 1053 and without Initiative 1098, which leads to job creation throughout our region. You suggest the problem is simply with the implementation, not with a lack of resources.

If that's the case, then specify what needs to be done differently. Speak up and spit it out. Don't print nonsense like "Spend less and legislate more toward the middle." That's an utterly meaningless sentence. What is "the middle" and how do we "spend less" without sacrificing quality of life?

It is true that Speaker Chopp wields significant power as Speaker of the House. But he isn't just Speaker because he is an electoral strategist. He is Speaker because he cares about the future of our state, the economic security of Washington's families, and the health and wellness of our most vulnerable. The Speaker knows that somebody has to lead. Somebody has to try and make decisions that result in the greatest possible outcomes for the greatest number of people over the longest run. He's accepted that responsibility because he wants somebody in charge who is going to put together the best results from the worst conditions.

I don't always agree with Speaker Chopp, or concur with the rationale behind every decision that he makes, but what I do know is that he has a zillion times the courage and the class of your editorial page. You should be asking him to advise you on your editorial position instead of lecturing him on how to govern.

Randy Gordon moves in on Steve Litzow; now trails by only one hundred and forty two votes

State Senator Randy Gordon — who has represented the 41st LD in Olympia since succeeding Fred Jarrett earlier this year — took another step towards pulling even with his Republican challenger Steve Litzow today, narrowing his opponent's lead to just one hundred and forty two votes out of 62,252 cast.

To defeat Litzow, Gordon would need to make a very strong showing both tomorrow and Friday, as King County is running out of ballots to tabulate. Turnout in the 41st (which covers part or all of Mercer Island, Bellevue, Newcastle, Renton) has already surpassed seventy two percent and is on its way to seventy three.

As recently as Friday, Gordon was behind by twice as many votes as he is today. If the trend holds, he'll reach parity with Litzow on Friday or Monday.

And if he manages to take the lead and retain it, he will have won by the narrowest of margins, perhaps just a handful of votes.

Conversely, it's entirely plausible that he could lose to Litzow by the same amount, which would be heartbreaking for Democrats and progressives.

Already headed to a recount is the race for state House (Position 2) in the 25th LD between Dawn Morrell and right wing extremist Hans Zeiger, whose incendiary rhetoric has been regularly featured over at HA Seattle. Morrell trails Zeiger by just thirty six votes; the count was most recently updated yesterday.

Meanwhile, Charlie Wiggins' lead over Richard Sanders for Supreme Court justice has grown to more than ten thousand votes, out of 1.9 million cast. Sanders admitted his prospects for winning were dim at the end of last week, and effectively conceded to Wiggins, who is slated to join the state's highest court in just a few weeks. He will be serving with Barbara Madsen, Debra Stephens, Charles Johnson, Tom Chambers, Susan Owens, Mary Fairhurst, Gerry Alexander, and Jim Johnson.

NRSC first shot at Senator Cantwell in 2012 fizzles

Looks like the campaign for 2012 has already kicked off, in truly ludicrous fashion. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (which we won’t link to), issued a press release yesterday accusing Senator Maria Cantwell of marching lockstep with the Democratic leadership in the Senate by voting for Harry Reid as Majority Leader, and his leadership team, which includes her colleague Senator Patty Murray.

“By supporting a big-spending, tax-hiking, pro-ObamaCare liberal like Harry Reid, Senator Cantwell once again demonstrated that Washingtonians cannot trust her to represent their best interests and values in DC,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Communications Director Brian Walsh. “Cantwell’s lockstep support for her party bosses’ job-killing agenda puts her at odds with her state’s voters, and that’s why Washingtonians will no doubt elect a fiscally responsible leader as their next U.S. Senator in 2012.”

What the NRSC press release failed to note is that Republicans re-elected their leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, unanimously.

This is yet another cynical attempt by the NRSC to manufacture controversy where there is none. The truth is, when there is no challenge to the leadership, party leaders are re-elected unanimously. Did they really expect Senator Cantwell (or even members of the Republican caucus, for that matter), to not vote for the leaders who were running?

And with Senator Murray defeating Republican real estate speculator/foreclosure profiteer/professional candidate Dino Rossi handily, does the NRSC really expect that Washingtonians want Senator Cantwell to not support her colleague in her leadership position, when it brings benefits to our state? In case the NRSC hasn’t looked at the Senate roster lately, we’d like to remind them that obviously Senator Cantwell and Senator Murray have not been “at odds” with our states voters as they’ve been regularly returned to office.

As for who best represents our interests and values in the Senate, we know that the voters of our state are much more qualified than these smear merchants from the other Washington to make that determination. The NRSC's only interest, much like corporations, is padding the bottom line (in this case, adding seats to their caucus). They don't care about Washington state, they care about having a majority in the Senate.

The good news here is that the NRSC continues to produce such idiotic drivel, which serves to waste their time and resources, but really doesn’t do much else.

Chris Gregoire to succeed Joe Manchin as chair of the National Governors Association

Well, this is an unexpected honor: Our very own Governor Chris Gregoire has been selected to succeed West Virginia's Joe Manchin as the chair of the National Governors Association, the lobbying organization for America's fifty governors (both Democratic and Republican). Gregoire issued a rather lengthy statement to the press in response to her election, which is as follows:
I am honored that my peers have asked me to serve as chair of the National Governors Association. I look forward to continuing to work with such a diverse and talented group of governors from around the country. I also look forward to welcoming many of the newly elected governors.

Governors have an important role as we work to strengthen our states’ economies by creating jobs and promoting opportunities for economic development. We will also be focusing on education, health care reform, public safety and homeland security issues over the coming year.

The current economy makes this a very challenging time to govern. States are still faced with a historic fiscal crisis, and difficult choices must be made. Together, we will develop solutions that improve state government and strengthen the state-federal partnership.

In addition to the duties of the chair, I will be leading the ‘Complete to Compete’ initiative we launched last year, which aims to increase the number of U.S. students who complete college degrees and postsecondary certificates. This new role offers a strong platform for developing a stronger, better education system for all students.

I’m proud that Mike will work with the spouses of governors and continue his lifelong commitment to veterans affairs, particularly on mental health issues and in providing our veterans with the support they deserve.
Our congratulations to Washington's chief executive. Serving as the representative of America's governors is a demanding but important job. We hope Gregoire uses her new position to advocate strongly for progressive change across the states.

Retailers and radio stations trying to foist Christmas on us early... again

It's the most wonderful time of the year.
With the kids jingle belling,
and everyone telling you,
"Be of good cheer,"
It's the most wonderful time of the year.


— Lyrics from It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, written by Eddie Pola and George Wyle, and first performed by Andy Williams in 1963

As the Andy Williams song proclaims, the winter holiday season is supposed to be "the most wonderful time of the year" ... a time when everybody is in a festive, joyous mood, a time for community, a time for coming together with family and friends, a time for eating, drinking, singing, and dancing.

Retailers and radio stations have, for several years, tried their hardest to make "the most wonderful time of the year" start earlier, and earlier, and earlier.

Department stores put up Christmas displays, even before Halloween is over. Car dealers and clothing chains air Christmas-themed spots in mid-November. Shopping malls hang up Christmas decorations and even allow parents to sign their children up for a visit with Santa Claus.

And radio stations start playing Christmas music nonstop.

Annoyingly, both KRWM (Warm 106.9) and KJR (95.7) FM have begun playing nothing but Christmas tunes, more than a week before Thanksgiving and two weeks before the last day in November, which has caused me to reconfigure my channel presets. I just don't feel like hearing the likes of "Feliz Navidad" and "Winter Wonderland" coming out of my speakers before we've even observed Thanksgiving, which kicks off the final phase of autumn.

It's become an annual ritual for me to react to the commercial onset of Christmas in mid-autumn by watching Lewis Black's Comedy Central Presents special from 2002, in which he lampoons the growing length of the shopping season. (You can watch it here if you can manage to fool CTV's web server into thinking you live in Canada).

Lewis begins his appearance with a bit about the absurdity of the Super Bowl halftime show and commercials, and then tackles Christmas:
You know, I was surprised at this year at the Super Bowl that Santa didn't land, and that we just started Christmas again.

I will tell you that you Christians have created a holiday that has become a beast that cannot be fed. Every year, Christmas gets longer and longer and longer, and you don't care, do you? You just take more and more of the calendar for yourself. It's unbelievable. How long does it take you people to shop!? It's beyond belief. It's insane!

When I was a kid, Halloween was Halloween... and Santa wasn't poking his ass into it!
He continues:
Thanksgiving used to be Thanksgiving, and it was its own holiday... not Christmas, Part One. When I was a kid, you ate, and you drank, and you passed out, and nobody woke you up and said, "Let's go shopping!"
Amen. Leave it to Lewis Black to put absurdity in its place.

One final thought: Given how strongly we're urged to shop during the month of December, it's worth thinking about where all the Stuff we buy comes from, and what happens to it after we decide we no longer want it. If you've never seen Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff, you absolutely have to watch it; it's an eye-opener. If you have seen The Story of Stuff, then you should watch the just-released Story of Electronics, which is particularly timely, since retailers are going to be aggressively pitching all of us the latest gadgets this holiday season.