Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Keystone Pipeline - What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Oil spill bird

A farmer lights ground water bubbling up from a fresh water spring on his farm in Western Pennsylvania.  The gas bubbles started one day after this property was fracked for natural gas extraction.  The farmer's horses stopped drinking this water the day the bubbles appeared.  This spring flows into a creek which feeds a larger river.

I've been keeping a file lately of all the various environmental catastrophes in the U.S. I once kept the clippings in a manila folder but lately I've had to move it to an expando-file.

In the latest event, a ship and a barge containing "bunker oil" (an thick, viscous oil used as fuel for marine vessels) collided in the Houston Shipping Channel. Officials estimate that 168,000 gallons of oil escaped into the canal (and if experience is our guide, this is probably an under-estimate since energy companies are not known for being candid). The Channel, which links the Gulf of Mexico and America's largest petro-chemical complex is now closed in order to try to contain the damage.

The occurrence previous to this one was a coal ash leak into the Dan River in North Carolina. The broken pipe that leaked millions of gallons of sludge (containing copper, arsenic, selenium, cadmium and aluminum, among other hazardous materials) into the river was owned by Duke Energy.

It turned out that environmental groups had been trying to get Duke Energy to clean up its act regarding coal ash ponds for quite a while. They'd even filed lawsuits to make that happen but, low and behold, when the new Republican governor (who happened to be a 30-year employee of Duke Energy) came into office, he ordered the state to take over the lawsuits. North Carolina then settled with Duke for the measly sum of $99,000 and no promise to improve their practices. Oh, and guess what? The lawyer who is supposedly on the side of the state in this latest spill had also worked as counsel for Duke Energy. Can anyone say Fox and Chicken House?

Prior to that, of course, was the chemical leak into the Elk River in West Virginia on January 9, The chemical storage facility was owned by a rather shady company named Freedom Industries. Freedom Industries eventually owned up to 10,000 gallons of a substance called MCHM leaking into the Elk River, which affected the water of over 300,000 West Virginians. No one appeared to know quite what MCHM, which is used in the coal production process, consisted of - not Freedom Industries (who declined to give up its formula) or environmental officials.

At first, West Virginians were told, not only not to drink their water, but not even to bath in it. They were to use it only to flush toilets. Eventually, everyone one seemed to simply throw up their hands and say, "oh, go head, it's probably okay". This, even though by February 5, school drinking supplies were still testing positive for chemicals.

Freedom Industries declared bankruptcy and skittered away (probably to start another shadowy corporation somewhere else under a different name. Too bad, so sad, West Virginians. And state officials were still adamantly stating that "this has nothing to do with the coal industry, NOTHING!"

And then there are the earthquakes. These are happening in several states where fracking is utilized (Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Ohio) but most notably in Oklahoma.

Between 1975 and 2008, Oklahoma typically experienced one to three 3.0 or greater magnitude earthquakes per year. Between 2009 and 2013, that number grew to 40 a year. So far, since January 1 of 2014, Oklahoma has experienced over 500 quakes of all sizes.

Oklahoma is home to 4,400 fracking wells and fracking is said to be the "most reasonable hypotheses' as the cause of the increased earthquake activity. But we really didn't need science to tell us that. Study a graphic of what fracking is and does and your commonsense will tell you the same.

Over three years ago, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy spilled 800,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. This kind of oil is known as "dilbit" (for diluted bitumen). It is so thick, it has to be diluted with gas to keep it flowing and it erodes pipelines much more quickly than regular oil. All this time later and while the Kalamazoo River has made progress in its clean-up, it is far from the pure, clear river it used to be.

Recently, the Sierra Club and EarthJustice revealed that hidden cameras showed that Louisville Gas and Electric was pumping its coal ash wastewater directly and continuously into the Ohio River. The company has a permit allowing them to do this "occasionally". "Oh, well," says the State of Kentucky, "it all depends on what the meaning of the word occasional is".

In 2013, the small town of Mayflower, Arkansas was the victim of an oil leak in an Exxon pipeline they weren't even aware ran below their homes. Two hundred and ten thousand gallons of heavy oil tar from Canada ran down their streets and into their homes. Twenty-two buildings were evacuated but the rest of the near-by residents weren't even told they could be affected by the chemicals until weeks later. By then, many of them were experiencing horrendous headaches, rashes and vomiting.

Exxon paid lip service to the damage it had caused Mayflower and then essentially, walked away from their responsibility.

Of course, if we go back far enough, we'll find the British Petroleum oil spill, still the largest in history, in which 800,000 gallons of crude oil were pumped into the Gulf of Mexico for a period of 87 days. Eleven people were killed in the initial explosion and 17 were injured. Sixteen thousand miles of coastline were affected in five states. Eight thousand birds, reptiles and mammals died in the first 6 month. We still don't know all the long-term consequences of this spill.

And the grand-daddy of them all - the Exxon-Valdez - celebrated its 25th anniversary on March 24. On that day, the Exxon-Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, one of the most pristine areas in all of America. Almost 11 million gallons of crude oil were released into the sound, despoiling 1,300 miles of rugged, remote coastline. After a quarter of a century, oil is still visible on the beaches. Thirteen of 32 monitored wildlife populations are considered "recovered or recovering". The pod of Orcas that considered the Sound home lost 15 of their 22 members after the spill and have never produced a calf since.

So, hell, yes - the coal, gas, oil and mining industries have proven to be such reliable and responsible citizens, by all means, let's approve the Keystone Pipeline. What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Uncle Sam Likes Them Better

Photo: When so few have so much, and so many have so little, our democracy and economy are under fierce assault.  This is not what America is supposed to be about.  This must change.            Photo: The typical CEO of America's largest companies and banks is now earning more than 475 times what America's average worker is paid. Fifty years ago, it was 40 times. This meteoric rise isn’t because CEO’s are “worth” it but because their boards want to give them more than the CEOs they compete with, giving the firm bragging rights on the Street and ensuring that the CEO will stay put. But this has resulting in an escalating arm’s race. And because CEO pay is fully deductible from corporate taxes, taxpayers are subsidizing this arm’s race -- even as median household income drops. In the table below you can see the ratio of CEO pay to average workers in the U.S. compared to other countries. 

Republican David Camp, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, recently proposed a way to stop this arm’s race: by not allowing corporations to deduct from their taxes CEO pay in excess of $1 million. That’s a good start. But how about going a step further and imposing an “excessive pay” surtax on corporations whose CEO pay exceeds 100 times that the average American worker?

When I worked as a real estate salesperson and, like an idiot, figured my own taxes, I totally screwed up on the self-employment portion. Eventually, I was audited and told by the IRS that I owed over $7,000. That included the original under-payments plus penalties and interest for three years. Up to that point, I'd never made as much as $30,000 in any year of my life so of course, I didn't have a quick $7,000 to pay them. They put a lien on my house. Not only on my house but on my ex-in-law's house as well. (My husband and I had owned the original land and had given them a life estate on the acre where their home was located, which meant my name was on the deed). My in-laws were of that generation of by-the-book Americans who believed in working hard, buying only what you could afford to buy for cash, paying your bills promptly, obeying even the most minor laws. They were, to put it mildly, horrified and humiliated to be notified that there was an IRS lien on their house. This was made worse by the fact that they'd always lived in this small rural county and knew almost everyone here, including the people at the Courthouse who would know of their shame and gossip about it behind their backs! They felt as if they had been branded with a red D (for deadbeats) on their foreheads.

So I was being hounded by the Internal Revenue Service on one side and by my ex-in-laws on the other and I honestly don't know which was worse.

Eventually, the IRS garnished my wages and as soon as I was able, I sold the house to get out from under my crushing debt.

Here is the point of this blog though - I had contacted a couple of tax attorneys during this terrible time to see if anything could be done to ease the situation. (I primarily wanted to know whether, if I could somehow pay half, would they release the lien on my in-law's home. Answer: no. It was all or nothing.) But, it turned out that if you owed the IRS big money, there was lots of room for negotiation. Sometimes, they'd settle for as little as 10 cents on the dollar. I knew a restaurant owner who owed $80,000 but his attorneys got him out from under the IRS by paying $8,000.

The tax attorneys shrugged me off. They could do nothing for me. If you owed under five figures, the IRS wanted a dollar for a dollar. End of story. In other words, the guy who owed them $80,000 paid $1,000 more than I had to pay for owing $7,000.

If that isn't favoring the rich over the poor, I don't know what you'd call class warfare.

Another case in point - student loan debt. This is probably the harshest kind of debt you can owe and it impacts the poor the most....and most newly graduated students probably are poor. The government/banks are oh-so-generous about letting students pile up debt while they are getting their education but unless you are able to go out and get a high-paying job right away, it becomes a giant millstone around your neck, often for decades. And there is no way out, ever. You can't go bankrupt on it. It just sits there, piling up interest. It will still be with you when you're at the nursing home.

The government can take any tax refunds you get to pay toward your student loans. It can garnish your wages. It can attach federal benefits, like social security (which is judgment proof for most debts) but it has to leave you $9,000 to live on! Big whoop, huh? There is no time limit on when you can be sued for student loan default (even the IRS has time limits on how far back it can go on income taxes). There is no statute of limitations (again, there are conditions under which back tax debt fall under the statute of limitations.)

And then there is the tax code itself, of course. If you're single and earn between $36,900 and $89,300, your federal tax rate is 25 percent. The rates go up from there, depending on your income, topping out at 39.6 percent, although you'll only pay 20 percent on your dividend and capital gains income, which for many wealthy people is the bulk of their earnings.

Of course, I'm not a tax expert so I'm not going to delve to deeply into all the various breaks and loopholes and deductions that are available but it is a lot, and the richer you are, the more apply to you. It is these that would have allowed Mitt Romney to pay an effective nine percent tax rate on his extremely high income. (He neglected to take some of the charitable deductions he qualified for so it wouldn't look so bad when he ran for president but what do you want to bet, he amended his tax forms after he lost?)

Who originally came up with the idea that some income is more worthy than other income? Who decided that millionaires should pay less on their favored dividends and capital gains than the poor schlump who works in the factory pays on his hourly wage? Well, I expect it was the very ones who'd end up benefiting the most, don't you? And, of course, they also happen to be the ones with the money to hire lobbyists to "persuade" politicians to pass their desired legislation.

The saying, "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" has been around forever but it is certainly true today, especially in America, where the rich are getting richer at a whirlwind pace while the poor and middle-class are sliding downward like Alice through the rabbit hole.

And yet it is us at the bottom who are accused of stoking class warfare if we happen to notice how we're getting fucked over by our betters. We are admonished that we are showing unappealing "class envy" if we say it isn't fair.

And what amazes me most of all is how many of us agree with them! We'll fight to save poor Mitt Romney from having to pay more taxes. We'll go to the mat for Exxon's right to pollute our water. We'll go for broke to help get the Keystone Pipeline approved and worry about the damage it might do to our land and water later, like those resources are renewable and unlimited. We'll turn on our own and talk against a minimum wage increase or an expansion of unemployment benefits or equal pay for equal work. We'll excoriate the same unions that made a middle class possible in the first place (and you can do research to see how membership in the middle class is going down in correlation with union membership.) Mitt Romney can say right to our faces (well, he didn't know he was saying it to our faces, which makes it even worse) that he thinks half the country consists of lazy moochers but I guess many of us can believe, "oh, he isn't talking about me." But yes, he is. He's talking about you. You may consider yourself his peer but I can assure you, he doesn't.  

On the list of Forbes 400 richest Americans, 35 percent were born in lower or lower-middle class circumstances. The rest all inherited various degrees of wealth or had substantial help in starting up their businesses. It's nice to know that one/third of America's richest started from scratch so it is still possible to go from rags to riches, and we all hope that will be us, but who is surprised to discover that the other two-thirds began with a significant head start.

And that will continue all along their way as they coast down their glide path to ever-greater wealth because of the rules, laws, regulations and legislation that ensure it.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Green Eggs and Ham - Liberal Version


I do not like these Republi-Can'ts. 
I do not like their negative rants. 

I do not like their world of doom or how they lie and spread their gloom.
I do not like being berated for deficits that they created. 

I do not like fiscals cliffs or government shutdowns.
I do not like vicious humor that goes far out of bounds.

I do not like how they are anti-Latino and women and gay and black.
I do not like how they want to stop progress and take our country back.

I do not like how they give subsidies to the rich and cuts to the poor
and when oil companies ask, they vote - "more, more, more!"

I do not like how they pooh-pooh science and scorn learning
I do not like how they refuse to act to keep the economy turning.

Sarah said she does not like Obama's kind of hope
but in Tea Party World there is no hope, nope.

I do not like their world of sunless gray
where everyone's a user and grim pessimism rules the day.

I'll take Obama's brand of hope if it's all the same to you.
I prefer life with a more optimistic view.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Can You Think of an Exception?

After all this time of arguing political philosophies, it struck me that it can all be explained in one simple sentence - "Liberals are kind-hearted; Conservatives are hard-hearted." 

Conservative Take - "If they really want to get serious about lowering the cost of health care in this country, they would revisit another federal statute that has been there for a long time," Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) said at a University of Georgia political science alumni gathering. "It came as a result of bad facts, and we have a saying that bad facts make bad law." The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act is a 1986 law that requires hospitals to provide emergency health care treatment to anyone who needs it, regardless of citizenship or their ability to pay. It's provided life-saving care to countless people, but it's also strained hospital resources and turned emergency rooms into the first stop, instead of a last resort, for some.

Liberal Take - "The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied, but written off as trash."
John Berger

I have probably written millions of words about the differences between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives and differing political philosophies over the last 30 years. I have tried to think of new ways to same the same things to make my views clearer, to illustrate what I base them on. 


After all this time, it struck me that it can all be explained in one simple sentence - "Liberals are kind-hearted; Conservatives are hard-hearted." 

There you go, that's really all you need to know. This fact is illustrated by the two quotes above. 

Georgia declined to expand their Medicaid program and put 400,000 poor Georgians on the Medicaid rolls even though the federal government will pay 100% of the cost for the first three years and 90% after that. In the meantime, eight hospitals in poor, rural areas of Georgia have closed because so many of their patients can't pay them.

The law Governor Deal is referring to in the quote above is the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act of 1986, a federal law that mandates that hospitals that accept any federal funding must treat patients with emergency situations even if they can't pay. Naturally, this creates a hardship for hospitals located where most of their patients are poor and uninsured.

So instead of accepting the Medicaid expansion and creating 400,000 more paying customers at a cost to his state of zero for three years, the governor's solution is to rescind the law so that poor patients can no longer receive emergency treatment. There! Problem solved! See how easy that was? 

He doesn't say what would happen to those poor people. Would they simply die at the emergency room door to be carted away to some new Potter's Field created just for them? If this isn't the exact illustration of poor people being treated as trash, as in the second quote by John Berger, I don't know what would be.

And in the red states considering Freedom of Religion laws like the one Governor Jan Brewer just vetoed in Arizona, it doesn't have anything to do with money but instead, of sexual orientation. A doctor or paramedic could presumably refuse to treat an injured or ill homosexual. I guess a teacher could decline to teach a gay child. Or a nursing home could reject a gay resident. 

In Congress, Republicans have cut food stamps and unemployment and veteran's benefits and filibustered Democrats' attempts to restore these cuts. They support Stand Your Ground laws even when they are obviously racially biased. They oppose giving Latino kids, born here and knowing nothing except being Americans, the option of becoming citizens. They've tried to defund Planned Parenthood even though that agency is the major medical provider for hundreds of thousands of American women.

Conservatives in Tennessee fought hard against Volkswagen letting its employees form a union even though both the workers and the company were in favor of the United Auto Workers coming in. 

The most important mission of the last four years for the right has been to prevent uninsured Americans from obtaining healthcare. 

Meanwhile, they've been willing to go to the mat for investment bankers and oil companies and rich corporate farmers and chemical companies and mine owners.

On every issue I can think of, the conservatives are in favor of the cruelest option.

Can you think of an exception.