Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Idi Amin's Briefs Rodeo: Yer Fracking Dead

Note: every week, news aggregators address hundreds of worthwhile stories or opinions that never catch on, either because they lack an obvious follow-up or because sites that live off ad revenue would rather bang high-traffic drums over and over. Idi Amin's Briefs Rodeo provides a summary of good stuff you might have missed. He has a Bachelor's degree in political science, the rank of Field Marshal and was the last ruler of a free Uganda. He has not eaten anyone since 1980.

Wake up to Five-Hour Energy from Glorious Leaders' Natural Gas Plan
of Explosive Prosperity

Former Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN) desperately wants you to pay attention to him. Come on, he's doing all sorts of neat stuff! He's mangling history and likening the National Labor Relations Board to the Soviet Union. He's simultaneously calling Obama a "champion of class warfare" and advocating class warfare, by calling for the elimination of the capital gains tax, the estate tax, interest income taxes and dividend taxes.

That's not all. Pawlenty proposes a flat tax rate of 10% for everybody earning under $100,000 and 25% for everybody earning above that. He claims these tax cuts for the wealthy on an unprecedented scale would lead to 5% growth of the economy over ten years — despite the fact that 5% growth of the economy over ten years has never been done. Ever. Do you care about him yet? Really—no? You're still doing that thing where you stand alone in your driveway shooting free throws and saying to yourself, "If this goes in, it means that Melissa likes me"? Jeez—uh, okay, how about this: he casually mentions a "Google Test" that says if you can find a service being offered by the internet, it should be done by private industry and not government. Some astute people observe that this covers "everything ever."

That Pawlenty is thoroughly unexciting despite his best attempts has been satirized on The Daily Show and Colbert Report for the past few months. However, the media's portrait of him as a non-entity because of his boringness rather than as the sort of person who can destroy the social composition of America via his radical views allows the Republican narrative to slip even further to the right without consequence, so you probably should care about him.

Speaking of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, the White House's chief economic advisor Austan Goolsbee has retired from what must be the most frustrating job in the world. Goolsbee appeared multiple times on both programs, appearing more exasperated with each subsequent appearance. His last appearance on The Colbert Report, three weeks before his departure, contained a subtle aura of immense bewilderment at how absolutely nothing has changed. Imagine the stagnation that has to set in to get you to abandon selling Obama product to the Daily Show audience, which is like selling charismatic Christianity to southern Baptists who like clapping. We wish him happiness with his future endeavors, which will presumably involve him not visibly struggling to keep a straight face parroting the White House's years-old but unchanging line, "Things are going to be rough for a while but are slowly getting better, due to compromised non-corrective acts dwarfed by the scope of the Second Great Depression."

The conservative think tank Club for Growth has recently expressed some concerns about Mitt Romney's controversially unprincipled Republican way of life. Club for Growth leader Chris Chocula Chocola posited that the Television President candidate opposes "pro-growth tax code reform," which really means he's doubtful Romney will create an economic environment that would allow money to be funneled into their bank accounts so fast it'd burn out high-end monitors to watch the numbers in real time. This sounds flippant until you consider Chris Chocola's entire purpose in life is to watch a billion dollars move from the middle class to the upper class while cackling, "One thousand million! Ah! Ah! Ah!" then repeat.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack assures the United States that we're safe from Europe's E. coli outbreak, while Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest gently reminds us that no regulations are in place that would prevent such an outbreak from occurring in the US. If you're afraid of meat from Europe, just eat vegetables from China. Problem solved.

On the bright side, for a food supply to be tainted, that implies an adequate food supply to taint, which is rapidly making many countries today "in the clear" on that front. Because of global warming, Europe and the United States are likely to join those countries sooner than scientists' worst-case scenarios. There probably really isn't any kind of problem at all.

The Cleveland Clinic finds that serving trauma victims in poor neighborhoods isn't profitable, so they're closing their hospital in East Cleveland. The city is considering suing, offering a fantastic reminder that leaving public services in the hands of private industry that profits from not delivering those services is fucking stupid and unconscionable.

A week after the Ohio legislature passed a set of bills that would allow citizens to carry guns into bars, three people were shot in a club in downtown Cleveland. I'm sure they're fine. They can just palm-slap great spankings of their own gushing blood on the locked doors of some kind of healthcare facility.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is furious that Betty Sutton (D-OH) accepted money from Anthony Weiner in April 2010, and demanded that she donate it to charity. She did, and gave it to a local veterans' organization. After Sutton issued the press release about donating the money to charity, the Ohio Republican Party issued its own press release demanding that she donate the money to charity because keeping it condones Weiner's behavior. Never let a good press release go to waste.

Upset over Michigan closing a state campground in 2009, an anonymous individual has become the land's unofficial caretaker — sweeping up fallen brush, mowing the grass, keeping up its facilities and becoming a criminal for trespassing on beautiful lands the state wants its citizens to forget.

Time magazine kills two birds with one stone by baselessly assuring its readers that fracking and cell phone radiation are probably perfectly safe, and anybody worrying about them is stupid. After all,
greens were primed to believe that fracking was dangerous, so they sought out, consciously or not, the science that fit their beliefs, not the other way around....

I'm an environmental communitarian; you're a probusiness individualist — what hope do we have of actually finding a common truth? Is there even a common truth?
Sure, you can light your drinking water on fire, and the gas company made you sign a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for the installation of a several thousand dollar high-end water filter on your property, but in the end, can we ever really know who's right?

Paul Ryan asks his constituents to read Ayn Rand. Catholics who actually know their faith plead with Paul Ryan to read the Bible instead, because slashing services for the poor is not what Jesus would do. Paul Ryan argues that, if there were a God, his head wouldn't be shaped like that. Catholics reply that Paul Ryan's head is proof of a just God.

While it's not news that inaction is the norm when it comes to high unemployment, Michael Scherer highlights the extent to which both parties are disinterested in helping anybody, even while using their campaign platforms.

Through the Christian Science Monitor, we can trace the evolution of far-right ideas in the country's political narrative, driven by the media. On June 14, they ran a story titled, "Ethanol vote: First step toward extinction for federal tax subsidies?" — which is a bit baseless but otherwise fair title. However, note the opening of the second paragraph:
The vote also opened a rare rift in GOP ranks on the question of what constitutes a tax increase.
Later that same day, they ran a story with this headline: "GOP quandary: Is a vote to eliminate tax breaks actually a tax hike?" — using the Fox News Favorite "The Question Mark" to ease assumptions into a discussion's narrative. Initially it was second paragraph material; later that day it was headline material. June 16, a mere two days later, they just said "fuck it" and ran a similar Question-Mark guest piece on the topic to solidify it: "A first crack in the GOP’s 'no new taxes' armor?"

"Ending a tax break or a tax subsidy" is a "tax increase" in much the same way that "missing an opportunity to let a car merge" is "literally murdering and exsanguinating the driver behind you," so it's great to see the Koch brothers and Club For Growth promoting the idea of ending all these ethanol subsidies: it's one of the rare instances where conservatives and liberals agree. It's certain they'll get behind what's best for the country if oil companies' tax breaks are ever laid out on the slaughtering table, with the "this is a tax increase!" talking point nowhere to be seen. Be sure to hold Tom Coburn accountable, as well, who states in the first article by the CSM that "Taxpayers should be encouraged that Republican senators overwhelmingly rejected the ludicrous argument that eliminating tax earmarks is a tax increase." Keep up that good fight, Tom!

As environmental groups ready a lawsuit against Ohio-based FirstEnergy for violating the Clean Water Act by dumping a shit-ton of coal-ash onto a site for which they don't have a permit, FirstEnergy's shareholders have been busy re-electing all of the company's directors and voting against any kind of examination of the long-term consequences caused by their environmental track record. Evidently anti-environmentalism is so corporately ingrained that they're doing this despite the fact that the proposal was written by the shareholders, and the proposal addressed the company's own financial health rather than actual environmental damage.

Delaware-based energy company Delmarva Power is more forward-thinking. Rather than risk non-compliance with energy initiatives, make energy initiatives compliant with you! When you're told to buy 25% of your energy from renewable resources by 2025 and you've got good business relations with a dirty energy fuel-cell company, Bloom Energy, be creative. Lobby for a bill that allows Bloom to sell that dirty energy directly to the power grid, say you've fulfilled your requirements, and call it a day. You know it's a sweet deal when a Republican state Senator expresses concern that it waters down the state's renewable energy portfolio, and a Democratic state Senator rolls his eyes and boasts that it adds manufacturing jobs and fast-tracks business activities, so will you just shut up about your precious environment already?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has set the bar so low that his removing a painting called "Wishes in the Wind" from the governor's mansion counts as merely conventionally shallow. The painting depicts three children playing with bubbles, each child representing a real case the artist personally researched. All three kids were poor. One was homeless; another had his father and brother killed by a drunk driver. The governor argues that he's super-pumped about the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, so he's redoing the entire floor in memory of that, and says more people will see it in some library or museum than his mansion, anyway. However, the artist is unsatisfied with this explanation:
"The homeless, central city children and victims of drunk drivers normally do not have a voice in politics," Lenz explained in an email. "This painting was an opportunity for future governors to look these three children in the eye, and I hope, contemplate how their public policies might affect them and other children like them."
The museum or library in which the painting might be housed will be lucky to have enough funding to even exist by the time the governor's term expires. Then again, based on Walker's policies, those three children in the painting likely won't exist either, so it's probably a null issue to him anyway.

Continuing with the theme of asshole governors and Democrats indistinguishable from Republicans, New Jersey's Chris Christie struck a deal with eight state senate Democrats that would force public employees to pay 2-4 times as much into their pensions and health insurance costs than they do now — which, contrary to popular belief, is a far from insignificant sum (pdf). Unions in the state had already filed a lawsuit over the government's refusal to pay into their pension funds under previously agreed conditions, meaning the financial situation for public employees was already even worse than it appeared. When coupled with a tax on millionaires that was rescinded when Christie was in office last year, this takes New Jersey closer to a regressive taxation system, where the poor are taxed significantly more than the rich.

Bruce Bartlett joins the ranks of kinda-sorta-well-known economists raising his hands futilely toward the heavens in frustration over conservatives stifling discussions about economics that are grounded in reality. He notes that the country's taxes are indeed at a record low. He even takes the trouble to debunk the GOP backup talking point that they're not at a historic low as a percentage of GDP, something which should be irrelevant anyway. What makes this special is that Bruce Bartlett served an important role in the Reagan administration. You can sense the well-founded exasperation of the editor for the New York Times' "Economix" section that we're still not having an adult conversation about this, simply by comparing Bartlett's introduction from one week to the next:
May 31, 2011: Bruce Bartlett has served as an economic adviser in the White House, the Treasury Department and Congress.

June 7, 2011: Bruce Bartlett held senior policy roles in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and served on the staffs of Representatives Jack Kemp and Ron Paul.
This guy isn't just some dime-a-dozen liberal crank plucked by the NYT, he was in the goddamn Reagan administration and worked for Ron fucking Paul, who wants to eliminate the income tax. When this guy says we're not having an honest and adult conversation about tax rates, it deserves some attention. Sorry, Economix editor, but it won't get any. Conversations about how radically far-right the country has moved in such a shockingly small span of time are relegated to a roughly bi-weekly column in the Washington Post, Paul Krugman a few times a week and FireDogLake.

All corners of the energy industry are coming together to help childhood education! We've already covered the coal industry's generous gift of propaganda classroom materials to teachers in geographical locations that, coincidentally, are really close to where coal mining takes place. Now, natural gas wants to pitch in. Because the area is right over the Marcellus shale, Western Pennsylvania public middle school students will soon be learning about fracking, courtesy of groups that engage in the activity — you know, the one which pollutes your groundwater, soil and even your air. The state's Department of Environmental Protection is already gearing up to issue its own curriculum on the Marcellus shale, which will outline wicked awesome shit like how rocks form and the history of drilling, and it'll totally tear students away from other boring material, like how high-powered water blasts that are totally safe for the environment magically produce jobs and power the TV, which is where Pokemans come from.

To ensure you, the reader, are up-to-date on information presented here, a follow-up: remember how New York's Attorney General was so disgusted with a mega-half-assed study that was supposed to investigate the dangers of fracking that he filed a lawsuit against the state's regulators? Apparently, nobody bothered to check if that was cool with the state's Democratic Governor, Andrew Cuomo, as he's now seeking to lift the state's moratorium on fracking. But hey, you can't place all the blame on him. The former Democratic Gov. David Paterson vetoed a bill that would have actually, formally banned the environment-wrecking profit-boosting regulation-exempt practice. He opted instead to only ban fracking until further studies were completed, leaving plenty of time for industry lobbyists to educate regulators on complex matters like wads of cash and what it means to take a biracial stripper "around the world."

But then again, fracking might not be as profitable as we've been led to believe, according to some industry insiders. The New York Times has released hundreds of internal documents and emails detailing skepticism about multiple aspects related to fracking, including profitability and production capability per well. This might sound kind of like a big deal, but if it's true, it's actually a really big deal. Words like "Ponzi scheme" are being thrown around. A geologist who used to work at a major energy company compared the current public operations vs. the behind-the-scenes reality to that of Enron's. You can read tons more fun things in both the linked article and the emails linked from the article itself — lots of stuff like "bubble" and "inherently unprofitable" and "reminds you of dot-coms" and "big problem" and "profound consequences." You know, existentially damning things like that, for both the economics of the practice and the environment. But that probably doesn't sell papers, so, hey! Look over there! Debt ceiling! Class warfare! Culture clash!

While this might sound like great news to anybody who likes the existence of vegetation or potable water, it's important to address a historical context when it comes to gigantic corporations and following through on something in which they've invested a lot of resources, no matter how evil and stupid they discover it to be after they've already committed to it. For instance, the financial reform bill left the Credit Default Swap market completely unhindered, and banks are going right back to putting their hand on that hot stove with the knowledge that they'll get rewarded with billions of dollars for their troubles, and citizens who had no part in the crisis will bear the entirety of the pain.

So while natural gas companies probably can't justify a bailout, it turns out there's a bit of a slapfight between T. Boone Pickens and the Koch Brothers on whether natural gas companies should receive subsidies for developing vehicles that run off their product. Even if natural gas companies lose that battle of the billionaires, they've got a President in office encouraging utility companies to switch from coal to natural gas to generate electricity, so they know they're going to be able to wrangle a profit as long as there's somebody in a position that's remotely important extolling the virtues of what they're selling. And even if it does turn out that it's not as profitable as initially portrayed, they've been sticking with natural gas extraction ever since they got fracking fluids exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act regulations in 2005, and damned if they're not gonna fight to the finish to keep their public image as one of making good decisions. That's what the socially darwinian supermen atop the free markets always do, right? That's motherfracking rational-actor theory, homes.

Democrats are calling for changes to the country's weak energy policies, asking that the nation's leader show some responsibility. While nuclear reactors are already being closed by 2022 in response to the Fukushima station disaster, and renewable energy output requirements by 2020 have been raised to 35% from 17%, Democrats are demanding that power companies foot the bill for clean energy changes rather than consumers. They say companies already receive enough government aid, and are moving to implement a cap of 3.5 cents a kilowatt hour for a citizen's power bill attributable to infrastructure upgrades. Germany has its shit down.

In the United States, however, we've got regulators fighting tooth and nail to ensure that energy companies don't have to be compliant with jack shit. Mere months after the Fukushima disaster, which should have done more to weaken the image of nuclear power in the eyes of Americans than Homer Simpson's impression of the Slim Pickens climax to Dr. Strangelove, investigative reports have been released detailing how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not only weakened safety margins for acceptable damage to core components of reactors, but has also helped to cover up that 48 out of 65 examined nuclear power sites are leaking radioactive materials into groundwater because the piping used to carry them is old and corroded. From a business perspective, what's better: bribing your regulators to cover up bad shit, or replacing your aging infrastructure to ensure responsible handling of ultra-dangerous materials? Mhmm. You can't bill customers for kilowatt hours of electrical service from a lethally orange glowing orb cratering into a lava bath in the middle of the earth it used to stand on. But, hey, let's hedge the controversy on this bad science!

Not all stories of corrupt regulators working closely with the industries they're supposed to monitor have such happy endings, unless you count adventures with biracial strippers bused in on rented Greyhounds by Patton Boggs, LLP. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) worked so closely with Sunflower Electric Power Corp. that it was common practice for the KDHE to receive a public question and send it to Sunflower for a response, then passing off Sunflower's response as the board's own — if Sunflower advised the KDHE to respond at all. Hundreds of internal emails between the two have been released, confirming the cozy and shockingly close relationship which completely betrayed the entire purpose of the KDHE. The article exemplifies quality investigative journalism and contains a timeline of "convenient" events for Sunflower, comparisons of Sunflower-approved responses to public questions and KDHE's actual responses to them, quotes from several Republican state Senators who see nothing wrong with the relationship because Kansas "doesn't have mountains or oceans," and a 400+MB archive of all released correspondence.

Driven by the constant life-affirming need to innovate, the free market, undeterred by the vanishing status of lead paint chips, has decided to double-down on its efforts to introduce the brain-damaging substance into a child's body via a different and more exciting delivery system: the air they breathe.

When a piece of technology changes in a way that impacts a user's privacy, whether it be Facebook introducing automatic facial recognition or Apple tracking everywhere you've traveled geographically with your iPhone, reactions are different around the globe. In the United States, you might have Al Franken scold you in public and ask you to write in clear, simple language how your product is going to be a stalker's dream for anybody that uses it. In Europe, you might have a group of individuals dedicated solely to protecting the data of its citizens launch an investigation into why your product is creepy as hell and confirming what privacy rules it violates.

The Supreme Court of the United States has made a rare good decision, an occasion made even more surprising because of its subject matter: Miranda rights and juveniles. Anthony Kennedy joined the liberal justices in proclaiming that police must consider a suspect's age when using questioning that's coercive, because in the context of this case, they're talking about little kids. You know, the smaller people who sometimes still poop their pants and have to wear elastic waistbands on their jeans and, omigod, did we mention velcro shoes? While a casual observer might call this "common sense" they lack the wisdom of Samuel Alito, who considers the notion of pondering whether or not a child understands coercive questioning to be a slippery slope to remaking Miranda altogether. Samuel Alito is Death Gelatin masquerading as a human being.

In what's probably the most satisfyingly on-point article you might find about the current state of American politics, some guy named Drew Westen demolishes the falsehood that the Democrats even approach what can be considered "moderate," due to how conservative the party skews at this point in time. He does so without using the voice of a "far-left liberal" but rather with the terms of a moderate indistinguishable from a Rockefeller Republican. It's well-reasoned, and you should irritate your friends by making sure they come to terms with it. If they're birthers or fans of Palin and Bachmann, insist that they make it past the first page, because it's not so bad afterwards. Seriously, read it. Have you clicked the fucking link yet? Good, now send it to everybody, and send it twice to any "well, Democrats at least care about us" types.