Monday, March 29, 2010

Insurers: We Don't Have To Cover Your Kids Yet

At what point might we be willing to question our unconscious social creed that corporate profit is a suitable engine for providing necessary human services such as health care?

This is, after all, why there was never any possibility of our Congress voting on universal public health insurance. No way. We are supposed to trust in the beneficence of the free market system. So we got a "health reform" bill that mandated 30 million new paying customers for the private insurance industry, while instituting a few reforms of that business. Advocates of an overhaul were told to shut up and be happy with the bill's salutory features, like the fact that kids with pre-existing conditions have to be covered, starting this year.

Except maybe they don't. The New York Times reports.

William G. Schiffbauer, a lawyer whose clients include employers and insurance companies, said: “The fine print differs from the larger political message. If a company sells insurance, it will have to cover pre-existing conditions for children covered by the policy. But it does not have to sell to somebody with a pre-existing condition. And the insurer could increase premiums to cover the additional cost.”

Senators are shocked -- shocked! -- that insurance companies would already be seeking loopholes to deny coverage between now and 2014, when they will be required to accept everyone who applies for coverage. (Barring any additional loopholes, that is.)

Pardon my childish sarcasm, but -- duh! Private insurance companies are not in the business of helping human beings. They are in the business of making money and, absurdly, that means they profit by denying coverage, denying claims, withholding reimbursements, and raising premiums.

How is it that patriotic Americans believe this is the best we can do for our own people? It happens because we can't let go of the idea that competitive, private business will somehow deliver efficiency, cost control, and fair distribution of health services.

It simply is not true. Another way must be developed. Other ways have been developed, in other countries. We could study these and improve on them. But for some reason, maybe national pride, we won't do that.

Instead, we debate the profitability of helping sick children who require expensive medical care.

We're #1....we're #1...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Measuring Climate Change by Economic Sector

Climatologist Nadine Unger, from the Goddard Institute's web site.

Gosh, what a useful thing! Several climatologists at NASA's Goddard Institute have assembled a report that measures the contribution to climate change by various sectors of human economic activity. And according to an interview Nadine Unger, this is just the introduction: they intend to examine economic sectors and regional impacts in greater detail.

The story and an easy summary of their work (with pictures and charts) appears here. And here is the PDF file of their research paper, Attribution of climate forcing to economic sectors, by Unger et al.

A fascinating interview with Nadine Unger appears here.

For your convenience, here are excerpts:

For decades, climatologists have studied the gases and particles that have potential to alter Earth's climate. They have discovered and described certain airborne chemicals that can trap incoming sunlight and warm the climate, while others cool the planet by blocking the Sun's rays.

Now a new study led by Nadine Unger of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City offers a more intuitive way to understand what's changing the Earth's climate. Rather than analyzing impacts by chemical species, scientists have analyzed the climate impacts by different economic sectors.

Each part of the economy, such as ground transportation or agriculture, emits a unique portfolio of gases and aerosols that affect the climate in different ways and on different timescales.

"We wanted to provide the information in a way that would be more helpful for policy makers," Unger said. "This approach will make it easier to identify sectors for which emission reductions will be most beneficial for climate and those which may produce unintended consequences."

In a paper published online on Feb. 3 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Unger and colleagues described how they used a climate model to estimate the impact of 13 sectors of the economy from 2000 to 2100. They based their calculations on real-world inventories of emissions collected by scientists around the world, and they assumed that those emissions would stay relatively constant in the future.

So let's get to the top honors!

In their analysis, motor vehicles emerged as the greatest contributor to atmospheric warming now and in the near term. Cars, buses, and trucks release pollutants and greenhouse gases that promote warming, while emitting few aerosols that counteract it.

The researchers found that the burning of household biofuels -- primarily wood and animal dung for home heating and cooking -- contribute the second most warming. And raising livestock, particularly methane-producing cattle, contribute the third most.

On the other end of the spectrum, the industrial sector releases such a high proportion of sulfates and other cooling aerosols that it actually contributes a significant amount of cooling to the system. And biomass burning -- which occurs mainly as a result of tropical forest fires, deforestation, savannah and shrub fires -- emits large amounts of organic carbon particles that block solar radiation.

The new analysis offers policy makers and the public a far more detailed and comprehensive understanding of how to mitigate climate change most effectively, Unger and colleagues assert. "Targeting on-road transportation is a win-win-win," she said. "It's good for the climate in the short term and long term, and it's good for our health."

There are also surprises. Remember when we worried about aerosols, and worked hard to reduce aerosol emissions? Apparently, unbeknownst to us, aerosols were exerting a short-term cooling effect that has masked our predicament to a large extent. This does not mean aerosols are good for us, it just means that the warming process will be even faster than we anticipated as we "clear the air," so to speak:

Due to the health problems caused by aerosols, many developed countries have been reducing aerosol emissions by industry. But such efforts are also eliminating some of the cooling effect of such pollution, eliminating a form of inadvertent geoengineering that has likely counteracted global warming in recent decades.

"Warming should accelerate as we continue to remove the aerosols," said Unger. "We have no choice but to remove the aerosol particulate pollution to protect human and ecosystem health. That means we'll need to work even harder to reduce greenhouse gases and warming pollutants."

There's much more here -- click the link and have a read.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

No Bumper Stickers on Me

Here is an extreme example of why I don't put bumper stickers on my car -- especially not political ones.

(If you follow the link, go ahead and watch the video of the news report.)

I drive a little silver Honda with no bumper stickers on it whatsoever. I prefer my car to be as uninteresting as possible, especially to the jackasses out there.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Whither the Supernatural?

Short and somewhat silly today, after yesterday's "thinky" post.

Some of the blogs I follow are responding to a new book about Buddhism and atheism written by somebody famous. The posts are interesting. Check out this one, this one, or this one (and scroll down to Adam's post "Atheism vs. (?) Buddhism"), if you're interested. There are more, too, if you follow the links within the posts themselves. Wheeee.

The book is new, I haven't read it; but it's a perennial topic. Is Buddhism atheistic? Theistic? Is it even on the spectrum? The Zen tradition takes an indifferent stance on these questions, which soon opens up the can of worms about Zen's relationship to Buddhism. Before you know it, it's 1:00 am and your brain hurts from the long conversation.

I'm not going to keep you up til 1:00 am listening to all my views on this subject. It's 7:00 am right now and I'm going to be interrupted any moment. And like Nathan says, it doesn't really help anybody's practice. So I'll just share one piece of this, which is my long-standing problem with the word "supernatural."

When I was a very small boy, head always in a book, I sat in the back seat of my grandfather's station wagon while he proved God's existence to me. I remember him saying, in a tone of voice I did not often hear from him -- much softer and full of wonder, like a child gazing up at the stars, not at all the strict schoolteacher and disciplinarian -- that the more he learned about the universe and the planet, the systems of life and the patterns of nature, no one could deny that the source of all this wholeness had to be "supernatural."

I knew what the word "supernatural" meant, but suddenly it made no sense to me anymore. If I think something is "super-natural," outside of nature, and I find out that the supernatural thing actually does exist somewhere, then how could it be supernatural? It was now natural. If God was proven, then God was now part of it.

Then and there, I asked my grandfather about this. He was quiet for a moment and then my grandmother was getting into the car so the conversation ended. We never resumed. As we drove out to where we were going, my grandfather told me I needed to go outside and play more.

Decades later, I heard someone say, "You can't get away from God, all you can do is run around inside God." This is my problem with the word supernatural. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On the Political Event of the Week

So the United States Congress passed legislation regarding health insurance, and the President signed it into law Tuesday. You may have heard something about this.

Perhaps you've read a post or two, on this very blog, on the subject of these reforms.

This will be a brief response. It is complicated, and it takes some time for me to sort through what I am learning about this.

In the New York Times, David Leonhardt wrote yesterday that we are seeing the "biggest attack on economic inequality since inequality began rising more than three decades ago." This is something I would like to see, something that is possible to do. I'm not so sure we have earned this praise yet.

What has not changed is that Reaganaut laissez-faire capitalism, and its pumped up global scion, neoliberalism, are still linked in the American imagination to the idea of liberty. This is the major political achievement of the Reagan revolution.

The idea that human beings can use government to pool resources and distribute services in an equitable way is still held as suspect. A socialist enquiry into these matters is still widely feared without being understood. It is still true, to paraphrase Dom Helder Camara, that if one asks about the system of production and distribution itself, you get labeled as the worst thing in the world.

Herein lies the difficulty in getting a national health program. We could, if we had the will, take what has been done in so many industrial nations and improve on it, establishing something effective and providing oversight to keep it running well. Yet we can't even vote on it in our legislature; nay, we cannot even have a serious discussion about it, at a policy level.

So we have this bill instead, which will now have to go back to the House for another vote.

The Obama Administration promises that, because of the bill he signed yesterday, insurance companies will have to behave more decently toward their customers. No more dropping us when we get sick, no more refusal to cover us because of pre-existing conditions, and improvements such as free preventative care. There are unproven and uncertain promises that the legislation will keep costs down and control prices binding on consumers and businesses. It modifies a competitive and private market, and then obligates us as citizens to buy products from these same private insurance companies. The requirement helps the Administration's boast that it has "expanded" coverage to Americans who don't have it (read, are now forced to buy it), and generates a bonanza of new business for an industry that is already massively wealthy and has been most untrustworthy.

These improvements are better than nothing. I do not believe, however, that "better than nothing" is the best we can do. Sadly, it may be the best that our unworthy political system can do, where only two badly corrupted political parties are permitted to govern.

The vanishing middle class will not be totally protected from financial ruin if they become ill: despite spending a chunk of their income buying mandated private insurance, there will still be co-pays and deductibles.

At a time when the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the same free-speech rights as people, and can spend unlimited amounts of money to dominate media with their political messages, the insurance industry stands to gain, some say, $447 billion in public subsidies (helping poor people buy the mandated insurance). I will not only be paying the industry for my family's premiums, I will also be paying them in taxes so as to increase their power.

Safety-net hospitals take a hit in the legislation, which is going to hit the percentage of Americans who will remain uninsured.

This plan follows the Massachusetts model, where health costs have continued to rise.

Despite the congratulatory media analysis of Obama's achievement, this is not the kind of reform he promised in his campaign. In some aspects, it is a total reversal.

I cannot find any basis for the belief that the profit motive is a decent engine for controlling costs and delivering health care universally. If it can be done in the free market, why isn't it? If it can be done in the public sector, why don't we?

Physicians For a National Health Program has more.

[Photo: A sight we should not have to see in our country: a free health clinic organized by a non-profit organization because we, as a society, cannot muster the will to do so.]

Monday, March 22, 2010

Monday Morning Gehry

Frank Gehry has been turned loose on another city, and is reportedly delighted with his latest feat of ugliness. Really, what am I missing here? This is a world-renowned architect and I'm just not seeing anything beautiful about his buildings. I am astonished he thinks of that as an antidote to the "cacophony" of Vegas.

In Los Angeles, his Disney Concert Hall had to be expensively modified because the glare from his polished-steel monstrosity was blinding drivers and causing car accidents, and raising temperatures in nearby apartments.

Nothing personal -- I'm just not getting it. Yuck. What on earth is the appeal of designs like this? My eyes wish they could vomit.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

An Audition

Open call auditions are not ideal.

Open call is when they put a notice in the papers and invite anyone, everyone, to show up. The people on the other side of the table are going to be seeing as many people as possible, with no idea what the quality will be. People will be processed as quickly as possible, and ushered out the door quickly. For the actor, it likely means very little time -- as little as thirty seconds for a prepared monologue, and for a camera audition it may mean no time at all to look over your lines before you do your slate and read.

But if you're new in town and don't have an agent to get you an appointment, it's what you do. Show up and be okay with chaos.

Since there is a growing film industry in New Mexico, and I am still an actor even if I live in a desert, I presented myself last night at an audition in Las Cruces. A local filmmaker is preparing to shoot a horror film (horror being the genre that still makes money) and the company wants to build a database of actors in southern New Mexico. Worth a trip. I figured I'd go, do a slate, visit Starbucks, and head back home.

Auditions are worth it for no other reason than having a chance to act. Go, meet people, learn whatever you can about stuff that's going on. And you get a platform, even if it's for a few seconds. It keeps you sharp. If there's an audition, just go. That's what I say to anyone interested in acting. Go for it, do your best, expect nothing. Auditions can actually be a lot of fun.

Just like a film set, it was mostly waiting around. I was twelfth in line, at a rented storefront in a quiet corner of Las Cruces. They had no room inside for people to wait, so we were outside. Unfortunately, a cold winter front blew across southern New Mexico late yesterday, so it was very cold. Those who had blankets in their cars eventually got them. I felt especially sorry for some of the young women who showed up hoping to make an impression by showing lots of leg. Poor things had to go wait in their cars.

They had a table, and that's where I met people.

Like the 25 year old man with brilliant blue eyes who proudly said that the cold wasn't bothering him because he was using "mind over matter." It worked for him for a little while, but his short sleeves revealed goose flesh. He ended up in his car, too.

The young woman who looked like a French cover girl, smoking a cigarette with studied nonchalance, who carried on erudite one-sided conversations that covered literature, dance, politics, and a lengthy discourse on the inequities of wealth and power in the first world compared to Africa. She was actually quite well informed and was wroth in her expose of the spoiled, privileged world of the white, which spends money on luxuries while others have nothing. What was ironic was that her makeup was NOT from a drug store, her hair had been professionally and painstakingly done, as were her immaculate nails, and she wore a fur coat (also not fake).

Another woman who lived in a small town in Texas until her marriage broke up and her job wasn't covering the bills for her and her little boy anymore. Her boy is my Gabriel's age. She moved to Las Cruces hoping to find something better. Always "interested in acting," but had never done it. So she was throwing herself at a film audition, hoping to get in and get out in time to show up at a contradance somewhere else. No friends. (Who was with her son? I didn't ask.) I suggested she find a scene class, maybe offer to work in exchange for some classes, see what she thought. She shook her head and said she had never been good at anything. She seemed much younger than her years.

They kept me all night, reading me for another part -- a baddie, a tough biker who lives and dies in violence. My scene partner, another biker, is a professional wrestler who also acts. My age, has been wrestling for ten years, feels it in his knees. He had to slap me upside the head for the scene, asked my permission to do that, was relaxed and professional. Couldn't wait to be released so he could smoke a cigar. I liked him.

The filmmakers were far friendlier than anyone I met in the industry in L.A.

And after spending most of the night sitting around outside making small talk, and a few minutes acting for a camera ("Hello, I'm number twelve, and I'm a mean-looking Italian guy with a buzz cut") it was time for the long drive back to Deming, listening to the blues on KRWG.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Crappy Proposal

I have not researched the data that supports Will Allen's speech, but it's definitely an out-of-the-box or maybe an out-of-the-pot idea. (Sigh, let the jokes begin.)

Incidentally, this seems like an appropriate moment to announce, as a sidebar, that Gabriel now says, "Poo" to identify the solid matter in his diaper.

Will Allen of the Organic Consumers Association gave this speech at the San Francisco sludge dump on March 4. Another tale of infrastructure disintegrating without new investment, and a heavy price tag for improvements.

Some highlights:

Almost everyone agrees that the U.S. system of sewers and treatment plants are in serious need of repair or replacements, in spite of recent huge investments in maintenance and updates. Non-federal state and local spending on waste systems and sewers was $841 billion from 1991 to 2005, or an average of $56 billion every year since 1991. By contrast, congress has only approved $77 billion on sewage facilities since 1972. Clearly, states and municipalities have carried the heaviest part of the sewage removal and treatment costs. In spite of all this investment we still have a very dangerous and antiquated sewage system that regularly fouls our waterways, basements, and our drinking water with raw sewage. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's sewage and wastewater facilities a D-.

Allen quotes EPA estimates that 850 billion gallons of sewage leaked per year in 2004 into waterways from storm runoff (really?) and an additional 10 billion from bad pipes. That's something I want to check out -- seems like an awful lot. The problem exists, but I wanna confirm these numbers, because -- wow.

Further, he quotes EPA saying (in 2002) that $390 billion would be needed to upgrade the piping and waste treatment facilities. Congress in 2008 calculated a smaller price tag to upgrade the facilities -- but I don't know if that included new piping.

Instead of investing massive cash in updating the current system, Allen proposes a different approach to human waste altogether. Put on your hip-boots and let's wade right in:

Lets say there are 150,000,000 residences in the U.S. If we spent $2000 on each household installing a composting toilet, that would cost about $300 billion. This would eliminate the off site movement of raw sewage, which has never been accomplished without periodic spillage. The cost for the composting toilets is significantly less than the EPA estimate (by $90 billion) to fix the outmoded and inefficient sewage disposal and treatment facilities. With composting toilets, human fertilizer becomes a valuable resource for the community and for farmers, instead of the toxic waste disposal nightmare that we have now.

U.S. consumers are leery of fertilizers made from their own poop, but what they don't know is that more than 70 million acres per year in the U.S. are fertilized with toxic sludge from sewage treatment plants. Of course, most Americans don't know that they are eating food grown with this toxic sludge. Most of the public doesn't realize that the sludge is toxic waste and commonly has high levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic, copper, zinc, resistant bacteria and viruses, flame retardants, pesticides, medical waste, and a host of other noxious products. Apparently, even [San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom] does not know this.

This toxicity comes from hospitals, factories, oil, and chemical industries and every other polluter who dumps their toxic load into the public sewers. The only solution to this rampant industrial and medical dumping is to collect our manures and urines at our homes and apartments. Without the publicly financed sewers and treatment plants each industrial or medical facility would be required to manage their own waste instead of contaminating human sewage with their toxins.

Allen points to pilot projects in Oregon and a few other countries (Mexico, Germany, Sweden, and Mongolia. Mongolia?? Okay, Mongolia). Now I want to see if I can find anything on those projects and get, you know, the straight poop. (Oh dear.)

Man, this is serious recycling.

Here's how a composting toilet works, by the way. Kinda neat, actually.

Seriously, even if Allen is quoting the EPA accurately and the EPA's numbers are correct, this will be a tough sell. For all our praise of innovation in the business sector, in public policy innovation is feared and invariably dies in committee or is hopelessly compromised. You would have to spend additional money in a nationwide effort to educate the public, who would be very wary of changing how we deal with waste.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ongoing Stories From Around The World

The underlying theme is: profit is more important than human life or dignity.

Let us follow up on some international stories we've been following off and on. Please click and read as you find interest...

From Haiti, a statement by the leader of the Peasant Movement of Papay. It's a perspective on Haiti by a Haitian. He is critical of models that "save" Haiti by making it "a market for international export and for labor in the free trade zones." This is the way the larger countries tend to 'help' smaller countries and people who are suffering. We sort of enfold them into our economic system regardless of their identity or their needs. It's the paternal hand of global trade and it is worth examining, for the sake of our ecology as well as human dignity.

In Honduras, where a coup has been successfully laundered with a new president serving and being recognized by our own Secretary of State, journalists are being killed and farmers who have given up on reversing the coup are back to agitating for land reform. Of some interest, if you really find politics interesting, is this manifesto for a "refoundation of Honduras." No, I don't read Spanish, either. Yoshie Furuhashi translated it, though. English version here. In the meantime, working with the current regime, it does not hurt to push back and ask our own State Department to support a truth commission.

Ending the travel ban in Cuba? Good idea. While we're at it, let's really do an agricultural exchange. Not just opening up markets for products, but mutual farming education. Cuba has had some fascinating success with its urban farming and local distribution. We can learn from them, and they could probably learn from us. Of course, again, the first impulse would likely be to enfold them into our big-ag economy and send in Monsanto.

In Peru last summer, we shared some stories with you about the government's violent crackdown on indigenous people protesting the sale of the land out from under their feet and the virtual (and literal) strip-mining of eco-systems. The government still wants those minerals and other resources, so it is working to relocate entire villages. This is, sadly, an ongoing story.

Why follow such stories? What grabs my attention about them, of course, is the violence and suffering, but the underlying theme is consistent: the need for a few people to make cash profit is more important than human life. We can move from country to country, and see the same story playing out. Those who do not have economic power are oppressed, dominated, strapped to the treadmill or called "useless," and even killed. This happens every day and there is scarcely more than a peep about it. When the Peruvian government opened fire on unarmed indigenous families who were sitting down in a road, few international journalists who took an interest. Likewise, the right-wing coup d'etat in Honduras, overthrowing a president because, perhaps, he was a bit too activist on behalf of the poor. The stories on that in the American press were embarrassing -- "look, this weirdo in the cowboy hat got deposed! He was probably a commie!"

Profit is more important than human life. It is an ugly truth about the human realm. It's behind the ugliness in our own politics, too. To the extent that the Tea Party movement has a consistent political idea, it is a libertarian idea: leave profit alone. Let it ride. People gotta die anyway. If you want to help the sick or the poor, you are compared to Hitler. The people who say such things are very well connected to political power in our country; the same is true in other countries.

Profit is more important than human life. Economic expansion is more important than human development. This is a powerful organizing idea on our planet -- and, for most of us, it is an invisible idea, like a contagion in the air we breathe.

Is there a way to bring this idea into our conversation, to name it and call it out?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Boogie Like A Happy Lobster

Some time ago, I had this cute idea. My wife directs a children's theatre troupe and after adapting one play for her from a fairy tale, I mused out loud (big mistake) that I might write an original one-act for them. Lickety-split, it became an assignment.

With school and everything else that comes up in the course of a day, this play sat on my mind's desk for months. A cute play called Revolt of the Lobsters. Just the thing for kids in a church theatre group: it takes place in an exclusive seafood bistro, anchored by a VERY temperamental French chef who is not what he seems to be. The lobsters decide to revolt, so they wait until closing and take the place over. In scene 3, the chef finds himself being served to his snobby guests as the main course.

You know, innocent fun. Hope they don't run me out of town for this one.

Anyway, spring break came and I finally got the thing done and emailed. Sayonara, lobsters.

And the sun is out, and the boy is now saying "flowers" and "poop" and counting to ten, and my wife smiles more because the weather is happier, and I still have a little bit of spring break left. How do I feel about that?

Whee, let's dance.

Parkinson's Victim Mocked By Tea Partiers [UPDATED 3/21/10)

No commentary does justice to this.

What. Are. We?


It got worse over the weekend.

If A Tree Falls In The Forest...

On forests, logging, fires in the desert, and the fire of dukkha.

Living in California for several years, I got used to hearing about dead trees, usually in warnings about wildfires. Dried deadwood and other scrub frequently provide fuel for fires. In the dry southwest, where fires routinely spread near highly populated areas, it is easy to forget that dead trees are also part of the life of a forest.

From Helena, Montana's Queen City News comes a brief but lovely introduction to the rich life of dead trees by George Wuerthner. He is of the view that current forest management focuses on trees to the point that they do not see the ecological life of a forest in its wholeness.

But what about deadwood and fires?

In another op-ed, he writes

The role of climate/weather in regional fire history is often ignored. There is now evidence that changes in ocean temperatures and currents known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, as well as similar changes in the Atlantic Ocean, influence regional climate and hence fires. It turns out that PDO created dry conditions in the Rockies at the turn of the century and we experienced some huge fires including the historic 3 plus million acres 1910 blaze that raged across Idaho and Montana. This was long before there was effective fire suppression to create so called “fuel buildups.”

Then beginning in the 1940s the PDO shifted and brought cool, moist weather to the region that lasted until the 1980s n with the 1988 Yellowstone fires signaling this change in regional climatic conditions. This post-war period coincides exactly with the period when some suggest fire suppression led to fuel buildups. But it may be that the fires that started just didn’t burn well because wet, cool weather limited fire spread. In other words, we probably would not have had large blazes whether we suppressed fires or not.

Since the 1980s the PDO has shifted once again bringing overall dry conditions, higher temperatures and high winds. Despite much more sophisticated fire fighting abilities we have been unable to halt large blazes. And thinning/logging appears to have little impact on fire spread when climate/weather conditions are severe.

When viewed from this larger regional climatic condition, current large fires and large beetle outbreaks are the “natural” response to these circumstances.

In a 2008 letter to the federal government, he summarized his critique of forest management. He is skeptical of the notion that thinning forests will actually 'restore' the forest eco-system.

Besides the notion that dead trees cause more fires, Wuerthner questions the notion that dead trees are being "wasted" if they are left on the ground or in a stream. Rather than science, is this the logic of profit speaking? From the perspective of profit, the perspective that has to convert every resource into cash, it may look wasteful to allow a tree to molder. From that perspective, it makes sense to import outdated science, perhaps, or perhaps a fire management model that makes sense in a different region, to support thinning and logging to make wood products.

I'm not sketching an argument against the logging industry as a whole, here. This reflection is more about mind and its process. The Buddha examined, and encouraged his followers to examine the way desires alter our perception. As a modern extension of this, how our economic drive - the desire for profit - alters our view of science and the world that supports our life.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Interview with Justice Stevens

If you haven't heard about it yet, Jeffrey Toobin has assembled a wonderful profile of and interview with Justice John Paul Stevens.

It not only conveys the man's fascinating character and acumen, but is an education on the Supreme Court as an institution and the Roberts Court in particular. Recommended reading.

Waterboarding, Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!

"Getting replaced by Katie Couric -- now that's torture! Har har har!"

Bob Schieffer, a veteran newsman and currently chief Washington correspondent for CBS, made a strange joke in his Monday morning summary of health reform's status in Congress:

Speaker Pelosi and Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod from the White House are all saying by the end of the week they will have the votes. I think that's going to be a tall fence to climb because they are really going to have to twist some arms. It may take them more than arm twisting with some of the Democrats who voted against this the first time around — it may take waterboarding or something of that nature — but they seem confident that they can do that.

I doubt this joke about the United States' admitted practice of torture is going to raise eyebrows. That alone raises mine: one of our mainstream news reporters can openly joke in a national news report about our international shame while reporting on a domestic story, and it is not even remarkable.

We already have seen former administration officials openly admit to war crimes without fear of being prosecuted in the United States. They'll even boast of it while promoting sales of their memoirs.

So there is likely little reason to feel surprised, exactly, that we can now reflexively joke about our participation in war crimes. (Like Joe Lieberman did here. Ha ha ha ha ha ha!)

But it turns my stomach a bit. Maybe it's just too soon. Or maybe I should drop my notions of honor and join in the fun.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Bored Hole, Bored Reader

Not much to report and don't feel like spouting off.

Deming Zen Group celebrated its first birthday this weekend with a public dharma talk that was well attended.

Gabriel counts to ten.

I sort of got dragged to Deming's annual "Rockhound Roundup," a lollapaloozah of rocks, gems, minerals, geodes, etc. Leave it to me to go to a stone expo and buy a piece of wood.

This guy was selling walking sticks. I looked through them -- some finished, some rough. A few had silly carvings on it, fake glyphs and stuff like that. There was one stick I admired because it was very simple and undecorated -- and I noticed this interesting hole in the wood.

I asked the guy what the hole was for, and he said, "I didn't do that." It was the work of carpenter bees. They bore holes to hide their larvae in there, hoping a woodpecker does not find them.

We joked about bees or honey coming out of the walking stick in a few days' time. I bought the thing. We'll see.

So, a bored hole -- and by now, at least one bored reader. Beware the Ides of March and idle blog posts!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Markos Moulitsas Shows The Ugly

On a recent broadcast of his highly-rated radio show, Rush Limbaugh hastily declared that if the health care reform legislation currently being kicked around in Congress becomes law, he might expatriate -- to Costa Rica, a state that (ironically) has a socialized health care system.

As far as I'm concerned, liberal media personality Markos Moulitsas can join Limbaugh.

I'm having a cranky reaction (obviously) to an interview Moulitsas gave on MSNBC tonight, tearing Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich to ribbons because Kucinich is heavily, vocally critical about the health care reform package -- and appears to be set to vote against it out of principle. As Kucinich put it in an interview of his own this week, the health care legislation is like "building on sand," and not, in fact, a solid base for reforming health insurance and the distribution of care in the United States.

I understand Moulitsas's point. He echoes the Obama Administration line that this package, though "imperfect," is a beachhead. Pass this bill, get it to the President, and use it as a basis for improvements and additional reforms in the coming years. If it fails, so the story goes, the political defeat will mean Democrats lose seats and it might be, who knows, centuries before we get another chance to pass badly convoluted and watered-down fake reform again.

Sorry, that wasn't exactly an objective summary. The point is, Moulitsas does have a rational argument here. He would like to see more progressive reforms, but thinks passing this is a pragmatic approach, and he's telling himself we'll get around to more meaningful reforms later. Even if it means generations later. That's where the Administration is, and much of the Democratic Party: hungry for a legislative victory even if it's pyrrhic. These are folks who have no use for the left.

So no surprise to see Moulitsas come up with the worst word he could possibly think of to smear Kucinich: naderism. He even went so far as to accuse Kucinich of "finding common cause with Republicans." In other words, a person with a different point of view cannot be sincere; they are actually conspiring with the right, just to spoil things for the rightful rulers. The rightful rulers are centrist Democrats, of course. No one to the left of them has a legitimate principle or an opinion worth fighting for.

The left are only there to suck it up and vote in the centrist Democrats. When they start having their own opinions, boy is that annoying!

So Kucinich is reduced to a spoiler, for the same reason Ralph Nader has no right to challenge Democrats in elections. It is the arrogant belief that the Democrats, even conservative Democrats openly working in the interest of their corporate sponsors, are entitled to hold power, and those who disagree with them, who think that reform can move in larger increments, that our steps can be more bold and effective, should simply shut the fuck up and re-elect Blanche Lincoln.

In plainer talk: it is not only arrogant, it is anti-democratic. By invoking the Democrats' rage against Ralph Nader, Moulitsas exposes the ugly undemocratic sentiment of the Centercrats and much of the media: a politically active left is bad for them and thus, in their view, bad for the country.

I already thought Moulitsas was kind of an ugly debater, a liberal counterpart to Rush Limbaugh. In a televised debate, also on health reform, with Tom Tancredo, Moulitsas inexplicably strayed from the topic and began talking about Tancredo's Vietnam war deferment in order to smear him personally. It turned my stomach to see the liberal media applaud him for that ugly display. So that stuff is okay when a liberal does it? Got it. Count me out.

Yes, I already knew Moulitsas was a dirty fighter. Until tonight, I didn't know he's not much of a democrat (small d).

So, whereas Moulitsas is yin to Rush's yang, I will gladly buy his airfare on Limbaugh's flight to Costa Rica. And I'll congratulate both men, because Costa Rica's health care system is pretty good. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be stuck here with a for-profit health insurance system that kills Americans, and a political culture that stifles debate and punishes dissent.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Sing To Me; or, That's Not A Balloon

Sing me a patriotic song, somebody. An empty feeling is coming on strong.

I am looking at a photograph of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Guatemala City. She is chatting with Porfirio Lobo, the coup-elected President of Honduras, a President legitimized in an election that was not free.

She is there to whip Latin American governments into a more active commitment to the war on drugs. The United States has authorized $1.6 billion over three years to the Merida Initiative, a security arrangement with Mexico and much of Central America, in support of this mythical struggle against the international narcotics racket. Secretary Clinton complains that a number of these governments are not enforcing the rule of law and “are not respecting democratic institutions.” There she is with Lobo, expecting that the newly rolled Honduran state will play ball, and speaking of the virtues of democracy.

There is a sense of emptiness.

For forty years, this has been called a war, yet who is dying? In Mexico, just one place where we spend millions of dollars to assist in this war effort, soldiers rarely die. In Juarez, 4,200 citizens, mainly poor, have been murdered in two years, and only three soldiers. A strange war, indeed, where soldiers are safe and civilians die.

Criminalizing drug use, we have succeeded only in building profitable industries feeding on violence and death. Those profiting from this misery live on both sides of the law. On the one hand, illegal drugs are the second most profitable industry in Mexico, enriching drug barons by tens of billions of dollars per year. On the other side of the law, $40 billion dollars employing narcotics officers alone. We blow hundreds of millions of public dollars building aircraft and surveillance software, equipment such as the aerostat radar devices the Air Force flies over border cities, like the one my son and I saw on the ground here in Deming, while we were driving around some back roads, which Gabriel pointed at and said, “Balloon?”

For all these procurements and armies of agents and expensive defense contracts, the drugs are still pouring in. If they didn’t, all of this economic activity would stop. A for-profit industry in building prisons, the largest prison system in the world, that depends on drug convictions. Lots of them.

Sing me a patriotic song full of hope for the society we are building.

The elementary school where I teach just lost a teacher. She left to join the Border Patrol. Who can blame her? Teachers’ salaries are being cut, and our workloads are increasing while we get scapegoated for our system's social failures. At the DEA, that teacher (for whom we chipped in and bought a cake) can work her way into a six-figure salary in just a few years. Some of her future colleagues pad that salary out even further by smuggling drugs into the country themselves.

There are darker stories, still. I read of a Mexican state police officer, paid while he was in training and receiving nearly ten times that salary by drug barons to be their double agent. He received additional training from our own FBI in Tucson. And he used his training lucratively, kidnapping people for ransom.

Sing me a patriotic song about our values; and then remind me, who is it that we pay well?

There is no real war, drugs are still available at affordable prices, and people are making a great deal of money from a system that destroys human lives. Our Secretary of State holds hands with the figurehead of a violent right-wing coup and speaks of honoring democratic institutions. In other appearances, she has laid blame for the kidnapping and murder on the consumers of drugs – that's the rationale of the Merida Initiative -- not on the war itself, not the criminal status of narcotic use that has created billions of dollars of economic activity in industries that depend on human suffering for profits.

Living near the border, this will in some way touch my son. It may be a friend who disappears. It may be a funeral. It could be a lot of things. I felt this when my darling boy pointed at an Air Force aerostat radar system, a bullet-shaped helium spy device, and saw a beautiful balloon.

It cannot be avoided. This is his country, here on this blood-soaked hemisphere where human life, for all our pomp and homilies, is regarded cheaply. We are fuel for remotely-operated machines, owned by the fortunate and operated by employees.

Sing me a patriotic song; and please tell me, what are we?

Call of the House, Taking A Walk

Here is a colorful sprinkle of New Mexico state politics.

The state has had a tough time getting a budget, requiring a special session that ended this past week.

The New Mexico Independent ran a story about a "call of the House" that took place before the legislature voted on tax increases:

It’s a request that can come from any member, at any time, during any debate: A “call of the House.” All of a sudden the doors to the chamber are locked and state police are sent to round up missing lawmakers. The reasons for requesting a call can be many, but near the top is politics.

Let's say you are a lawmaker from a city like Deming, where government and taxation are not popular. Perhaps you even have Tea Party rallies going on outside your office. It might feel convenient to skip on a tax vote. Indeed, what some lawmakers are known for doing is "taking a walk" at just the right time to miss the vote.

Thus, the procedure of locking the up the building and sending the sergeant at arms to go looking for lawmakers -- who are, after all, supposed to be voting. That's why we elect them.

One imagines them pulled in by the ear and plopped down to cast their vote.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Barrows Dunham and Social Myths

Man Against Myth, a 1947 work by Barrows Dunham, holds up remarkably well in 2010.

Dunham was a trained philosopher who felt a responsibility to use philosophy as an instrument for conversation, as a way to help citizens notice and examine the ideas that help or hinder us. The book wields a pin, with enjoyable wit, and pops a number of social myths that have, all the same, endured long after Mr. Dunham.

Myths about human nature, wealth and poverty, racism, the ethic of selfishness, and many more are explored and released in puffs of humor and reason. More importantly, it is an amiable demonstration of the way social myths, unexplored, amass themselves and conceal unambiguous truths about the social arrangements that divide and oppress human beings.

In his own words, introducing the 1962 edition:

Every one of the myths in this volume has been used, directly or indirectly, to palliate, to excuse, or to justify human slaughter -- the violent extinction, that is to say, not of hundreds of men but of millions. The refutation and abandonment of these myths has thus become necessary to the survival of our race. In so dangerous an epoch of history, one will feel less a civilized Voltairean joy in the extirpation of error than an ardent and hastening wish to save mankind, so far as intellect can save it, by plain exposition of the truth.

Intellect cannot 'save' mankind. The most beautiful and cogent explanation of a myth does not stop the masses from embracing it. This is especially true in an era where, politically, the notion of a consensus reality has been dispensed with, and it is considered part of our politics to choose your own reality. (Dunham does have a chapter on the myth that "thinking makes it so," yet one wonders what he would make of our media culture.)

Until there is a willingness and a courage to try viewing things more as they are, and to learn how to see past our own filters, the mythologizing endures. Precious few are really interested in waking up, and opening up the can of worms of how to use insight and compassion in the world humans have made.

Sadly, Dunham is not here to help us pierce the myth that we can have an infinitely expanding economy on a planet of finite resources. That may be the myth that finally threatens our existence, or exposes us at least to a large reduction of population.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Deming Has Its Elections

Deming re-elected its mayor yesterday, with very low turnout. My own district saw 22% participation by registered voters, and that was higher than others. I do not know how many eligible voters were not registered.

To give you an idea of the size of this election, the mayor won a total of 662 votes, and his nearest rival won 301 votes. In a city of 15,000 people, there are 6,371 registered voters.

We can a whole lot better than that -- but I get the sense that this low participation favors the incumbents, who thus are not motivated to register more voters and get the turnout up.

What I do enjoy about the city elections is that party affiliations are left out of it. If the local parties so much as endorsed a candidate, you would never know it. The Luna County Republican Party headquarters is in my neighborhood, and I walk by it frequently -- a nice-looking storefront on Spruce Street, around the corner from the new coffee shop. All they have up in their window is their sign and a badly spelled Tea Party manifesto affixed to the window with scotch tape. There was nothing about the city elections.

These were the candidates, by the way.

This has been a follow-up on earlier posts. Forgive me for going local for a moment.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Does Buddhism Have a Liberal Bias?

Kyle blogged: I think I missed the introduction seminar where the ultra progressive liberal, sometimes Marxists membership cards are given out to new Buddhists.

That's because there is no such seminar, or shouldn't be.

In 2003, when I was Abbot of Dharma Zen Center, I helped organize an interfaith peace vigil in anticipation of our invasion of Iraq. When I contacted the leader of one Zen Center in Southern California, he declared in unambiguous terms that he would not be participating in any protest and that he supported our military objective there.

Okay then.

Buddhist practice invites us to investigate our beliefs and their source. The second noble truth of Buddhism is that our suffering is created by various kinds of craving, one of which is called bhava tanha in Pali, the craving for "becoming." We want our identity to be substantial, weighty, impressive. Defending our opinions, seeing our ideas vindicated, is one way we do this.

I remember a pretty impressive talk on this topic by Zen Master Dae Kwang shortly after the events of 11 September 2001. It was transcribed and is available to peruse here. It's short.

Germane to Kyle's question is Dae Kwang Sunim's classical hint about "no point of view." We examine our minds and our own conditioning, which is where our divisive views are inspired and nurtured.

In the process of doing this practice, we will likely reconsider many things we take for granted. Letting our opinions alone, they may stay around or they may change. Over the years, my understanding of relationships between human beings and the uses of power have changed, and some of what I "understand" puts me in the left-wing box, according to some.

On the other hand, I like to say I don't have wings; but I hope to have a heart.

So no, Buddhism does not require you to believe in certain political ideas; it does not require that you be a vegetarian or be soft or loving or generous. Some or all of those things might happen all by themselves, if you practice a while. But they might not. It happens the way it happens.

A Correction

This is one erratum I am happy to print.

In my New Year's Day post, I cited some dismaying research on the changes taking place in the ecological framework that sustains human life -- i.e., climate change. In the post, I cited one very dramatic example of how quickly things are moving. According to a 2007 report by the U.N.'s panel on climate change, the Himalayan glacier might have melted entirely away by the year 2035.

A recent review of this research has found that this prediction is not supported by the facts and should not have been included in the report.

Although I am glad this particular prophecy has fallen, the remaining 938 pages of that report remain in place. The glaciers are melting rapidly, river systems are being effected, and human beings in our own hemisphere are feeling the effects. The process has not been debunked, just one detail.