Sunday, April 27, 2008
During the summer and fall, the 4,000-ft. summit of Larch Mountain is easily accessible by road from Portland. In the winter and spring, it's an altogether different experience: skis or snowshoes are required. If the snow level is low, as it is now, a very long trek (6 miles or more, one way) may be required. The reward is an expansive view from the summit pinnacle, including Mt. Hood (above) to the east, the Columbia Gorge and the Washington Cascades to the north and the Willamette Valley and Portland (below) to the west. Skiers can finish the day with a glorious downhill run through dense forest that, on rare occasions, opens onto fresh clearcuts. [Warning: the road is open to snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles, but so far I've been lucky enough to avoid them.]
PHOTOS: M.J. O'Brien
The result of all the unneeded road signs is visual clutter that is distracting, ugly and, quite possibly, unsafe. The safety concerns have been reinforced by a "Shared Space" study that was recently conducted across the Atlantic:
"The experiment, funded by the European Union, began in 2004 in seven villages, towns and municipalities in Denmark, Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands. One Dutch town, admittedly tiny with a population of 1,000, has not only taken down stop signs and directional signs but has yanked its parking meters and scraped off the lines on its streets.Traffic signals work best, it seems, when they're separated by at least a quarter mile--a principle often violated in U.S. towns and cities.
"While the experiment has generally been tried in areas of smaller populations, the city of London conducted a similar experiment on one of its most crowded shopping streets - and saw a 40 percent reduction in accidents. In response, the city next will yank out traffic signals on a main street in its busy museum district."
The Shared Space innovations have attracted considerable attention around the world. Maybe similar experiments could be conducted here, although we have a long history of government paternalism in regulating our highways. In brief, transportation planners assume that drivers in the U.S. are complete dolts. The Shared Space designers took a different approach:
The goal of the Shared Space experiment is paradoxical:
"The theory behind the philosophy: Drivers will speed, run yellow lights and generally drive like idiots when they think they are protected from the consequences of their actions because they assume other drivers will follow the rules.
"Throwing in a little anarchy sharpens drivers' senses, say advocates of the Shared Space philosophy.
"Or, as the German magazine Spiegel put it in a story on the experiment: 'Where the situation is unclear, they're forced to drive more carefully and cautiously.'"
"The assumption is that drivers are accustomed to owning the road and rarely pay attention to speed limits or caution signs anyway. Removing traffic lights and erasing lane markers, the thinking goes, will cause drivers to get nervous and slow down.The benefits of the Shared Space approach may extend beyond the streets and highways:
"'Generally speaking, what we want is for people to be confused,' said Willi Ladner, a deputy mayor in Bohmte [Germany]. 'When they're confused, they'll be more alert and drive more carefully.'"
"There is another underlying assumption to Shared Space: Without signs and signals telling motorists what to do, they will revert to the courtesy and good manners they show in other parts of their life. That means watching and adapting to the movements of other drivers and peering into the eyes of pedestrians and bicyclists to reach some unspoken accommodation with others on the road."It's easy to imagine nightmare scenarios in the U.S. involving drivers on cellphones without traffic signs to guide or inhibit them. But the experiment hasn't produced mayhem in Europe. Quite the contrary: accident rates have fallen dramatically in most locations.
So and it may be worth a try here. To date only West Palm Beach, Florida, has undertaken a similar approach to traffic signs.
In many communities across the U.S., on the other hand, New Urbanist designs (like "skinny streets") have successfully achieved traffic calming in neighborhoods and reduced the aesthetic impacts of an autocentric culture. But traffic engineers, by and large, remain convinced that the principal goal of a street or highway is to move vehicles as efficiently as possible from point A to point B.
The local 10-mile freeway connection was upgraded a couple years ago by the addition of two roundabouts at a couple dangerous intersections. The traffic flow has slowed considerably, reducing accidents and making them less harmful when they do occur.
But the number of road signs, alas, hasn't changed. They're just a small part, easily overlooked, of the aesthetic nightmare that the built landscape of the U.S. has become.
PHOTO: Traffic-light sculpture in the U.K.
A change of pace: this single was released for free by Nine Inch Nails on April 22nd. This "video" consists of just a few still photos. Ghosts, Trent Reznor's instrumental album, was released last month.
Thursday, April 24, 2008
Prior to the latest survey, the highest disapproval rating — 67% — belonged to Harry S. Truman in 1952. Even Richard Nixon had a 66% rating at the time of his resignation in 1974.
The latest Gallup result offers more evidence to support the growing consensus that Dubya is the worst president in U.S. history.
The Gallup result is consistent with Pollster.com's current "trend estimate" for 19 national polls that show an average approval rating of 28.3%.
Meanwhile, Pollster.com's trend estimate for the Democratic race shows Obama with a 50-40% lead as of April 21st, the day before Clinton's 10-point win in Pennsylvania.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
Clear-cutCarol Ellis' poems have been published in Windfall, Fireweed, Voice Catcher and Verseweavers. She lives in Forest Grove and is an active member of the Oregon State Poetry Association.
When the quiet forest has been taken down
to bare earth, the brown hills stand like soldiers
shorn, every bump and crevice visible, dark stubble
where Douglas fir made a canopy and trillium opened
in early spring.
Memory continues, green hills scarved in mist, dog tooth
violets yellow on the forest floor, silence shattered only
by bird song or the rush of a small stream.
When the last truck leaves with its burden of logs
there’s a new silence, the brown earth heaped up like fresh
graves, slash piles smoldering, the stillness of a battlefield
when only the dead remain.
PHOTO (M.J. O'Brien): Fresh clearcut in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, southern Washington Cascades; this hillside is hundreds of feet high.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Hedge fund managers, those masters of a secretive, sometimes volatile financial universe, are making money on a scale that once seemed unimaginable, even in Wall Street’s rarefied realms.To provide some kind of context, consider that $3.7 billion equals $10,136,986 per day, $422,374 per hour and $7,040 per second. Paulson's income for each second is equal to that of a wage earner who works for five months at $8 per hour. Anderson continues:
One manager, John Paulson, made $3.7 billion last year. He reaped that bounty, probably the richest in Wall Street history, by betting against certain mortgages and complex financial products that held them.
Their unprecedented and growing affluence underscores the gaping inequality between the millions of Americans facing stagnating wages and rising home foreclosures and an agile financial elite that seems to thrive in good times and bad. Such profits may also prompt more calls for regulation of the industry.
[...]To put that in perspective, each year Paulson earns as much as 61,157 "median" families. While his hedge fund creates wealth for a select group of investors, he creates no "product" that has any social utility. His company employs only 45 people, but it manages some $12 billion in assets. Its market activities, in fact, may be socially and economically harmful:
The richest hedge fund managers keep getting richer — fast. To make it into the top 25 of Alpha’s list, the industry standard for hedge fund pay, a manager needed to earn at least $360 million last year, more than 18 times the amount in 2002. The median American family, by contrast, earned $60,500 last year.
Top hedge fund managers made money in many ways last year, from investing in overseas stock markets to betting that prices of commodities like oil, wheat and copper would rise. Some, like Mr. Paulson, profited handsomely from the turmoil in the mortgage market ripping through the economy.
With a combined $2 trillion under management, the hedge fund industry is coming off its richest year ever — a feat all the more remarkable given the billions of dollars of losses suffered by major Wall Street banks.
Despite the explosive growth of the industry — about 10,000 hedge funds operate worldwide — it is relatively lightly regulated.
Hedge fund managers can easily defer taxes on their vast incomes by depositing unlimited amounts of money in offshore accounts. Investors in hedge funds generally pay taxes at the capital gains rate of 15%, which is much lower than rates for ordinary income taxes.
Meanwhile, worldwide prices for basic food commodities like wheat, corn, soybeans and rice continue to rise astronomically. Today, for example, rice futures soared to record levels on the Chicago Board of Trade, a preview of global increases yet to come. India and Vietnam have restricted rice exports. Desperate rice importers like the Philippines have offered to pay up to $1,200 a ton, a price increase of roughly 500% since 2005. Rice prices have increased by more than 50% in the last few months. Thailand, Vietnam and the U.S., in that order, are the largest producers of rice on the planet.
The big winners in the futures markets, including the hedge funds, have been the managers who wagered that rice and oil prices would rise — and that the subprime mortgage market would go into meltdown because borrowers would default on their payments. It hardly seems to matter to these global speculators that their strategies would, in themselves, increase market volatility and contribute to the planetary misery quotient.
In response to criticism, a few hedge-fund companies have followed up on the Bush administration's ludicrous proposal that the industry adopt a system of "voluntary guidelines" in an effort to preempt any regulatory action by Congress. But they hardly need to worry about aggressive regulation, since their generous contributions to both parties ensure that Congress will remain (in the words of an economist interviewed on NPR today ) "asleep at the switch."
No doubt John Paulson would be unembarrassed to learn that his $3.7 billion paycheck would provide a modest daily ration of rice to the entire population of Bangladesh for a whole year, even at $1,000 a ton. But the real embarrassment should be reserved for the political classes in Washington, who have done nothing to stabilize — much less reverse — the increasing concentration of wealth in a minute percentage of the population. And on a scale that equals or surpasses the years before the Great Depression.
 Day to Day, National Public Radio, April 17, 2008.
 The 2006 tax cuts only facilitated this massive transfer of wealth. Consider:
GRAPH: Congressional Budget Office (with data from 1979 to 2004).
- "In 2006, households in the bottom fifth of the income spectrum received tax cuts (averaging $20) that raised their after-tax incomes by an average of 0.3 percent.[...]
- "The top one percent of households received tax cuts in 2006 (averaging $44,200) that increased their after-tax income by an average of 5.4 percent.
- Households with incomes exceeding $1 million received an average tax cut of $118,000 in 2006, which represented an increase of 6.0 percent in their after-tax income."
UPDATE (April 18th): The International Herald Tribune reports:
Politicians are facing the wrath of angry voters, government budgets are being stretched to pay for increased food subsidies and the potential for civil unrest looms, especially if the cost of essential items like cooking oil and rice continues to climb...The rice market, in sum, seems to be taking its cues from the oil producers and refiners.
Singaporeans on average spend only 8 percent of their income on food, compared with 15 percent in Malaysia, 26 percent in Indonesia and Thailand, 28 percent in China, 33 percent in India and around 40 percent in Pakistan and Vietnam, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture...
Arroyo, the Philippines' president, and many other leaders across the region have blamed hoarding by traders and millers for the price increases. Thai Grade B rice, a widely traded variety, reached $854 per ton last week from $322 a year ago, a rise that appears speculative as much as driven by market fundamentals. [My emphasis.]
Saturday, April 12, 2008
President Bush says he knew his top national security advisers discussed and approved specific details about how high-value al Qaeda suspects would be interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency, according to an exclusive interview with ABC News Friday.And from the Associated Press, April 11th:
"Well, we started to connect the dots in order to protect the American people." Bush told ABC News White House correspondent Martha Raddatz. "And yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved."
As first reported by ABC News Wednesday, the most senior Bush administration officials repeatedly discussed and approved specific details of exactly how high-value al Qaeda suspects would be interrogated by the CIA.
The high-level discussions about these "enhanced interrogation techniques" were so detailed, these sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed -- down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic.
These top advisers signed off on how the CIA would interrogate top al Qaeda suspects -- whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding, sources told ABC news.
[See also this related story from ABC on these "Principals" meetings.]
Finally, the Washington Post reports: "I told the country we did that," Bush said. "And I also told them it was legal. We had legal opinions that enabled us to do it." Nonetheless, "State Department officials and military lawyers were intentionally excluded from these deliberations, officials said. [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales and his staff had no reservations about the proposed interrogation methods and did not suggest major changes, two officials involved in the deliberations said."
[A] former intelligence official described Cheney and the top national security officials as deeply immersed in developing the CIA's interrogation program during months of discussions over which methods should be used and when.
At times, CIA officers would demonstrate some of the tactics, or at least detail how they worked, to make sure the small group of "principals" fully understood what the al-Qaida detainees would undergo. The principals eventually authorized physical abuse such as slaps and pushes, sleep deprivation, or waterboarding. This technique involves strapping a person down and pouring water over his cloth-covered face to create the sensation of drowning.
COUNTERPOINT: [Note especially 18 U.S.C. Section 2340A (c), with relevant part in bold.]
Title 18, United States Code, Section 2340: Definitions
As used in this chapter—(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality...
Title 18, United States Code, Section 2340A: Torture
(a) Offense.— Whoever outside the United States commits or attempts to commit torture shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both, and if death results to any person from conduct prohibited by this subsection, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life.(b) Jurisdiction.— There is jurisdiction over the activity prohibited in subsection (a) if—
legal and political questions, check this out.]
Friday, April 11, 2008
A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to it's true principles. It is true that in the mean time we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war & long oppressions of enormous public debt. But who can say what would be the evils of a scission, and when & where they would end? Better keep together as we are, hawl off from Europe as soon as we can, & from all attachments to any portions of it. And if we feel their power just sufficiently to hoop us together, it will be the happiest situation in which we can exist. If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, & then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are the stake.Jefferson added the following postscript:
—Philadelphia, June 4, 1798
P. S. It is hardly necessary to caution you to let nothing of mine get before the public. A single sentence, got hold of by the Porcupines, will suffice to abuse & persecute me in their papers for months.With a tip o' the hat to Scott Horton at Harper's, whose article "Vote machine: How Republicans hacked the Justice Department" is well worth a read.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
In an informal survey of 109 professional historians conducted over a three-week period through the History News Network, 98.2 percent assessed the presidency of Mr. Bush to be a failure while 1.8 percent classified it as a success.Overlooking the shocking disclosure that anyone could deem this administration a "success," this survey is devastating to Bush's contention that he'll be vindicated by historians.
But Bush has already declared that he can serenely ignore such judgments. As he said to Robert Draper, his official biographer: "You can't possibly figure out the history of the Bush presidency - until I'm dead." As mentioned in an earlier post, such declarations have the practical benefit, for Bush, of deflecting all criticism: "he cannot be held accountable by anyone during his lifetime."
The survey also revealed that 61% of the respondents considered Bush to be the "worst" of the 42 presidents, and another 35% considered him to be with the bottom quarter (see chart below). Only four historians ranked this administration among the "top two-thirds," which offers little consolation to Bush.
Robert S. McElvaine, who conducted the unscientific survey, describes its limitations and potential flaws in some detail. For example, the respondents were self-selected from a larger group, though participation was open to any professional historian.
Here are a few comments from the historians, as reported by McElvaine:
“No individual president can compare to the second Bush... Glib, contemptuous, ignorant, incurious, a dupe of anyone who humors his deluded belief in his heroic self, he has bankrupted the country with his disastrous war and his tax breaks for the rich, trampled on the Bill of Rights, appointed foxes in every henhouse, compounded the terrorist threat, turned a blind eye to torture and corruption and a looming ecological disaster, and squandered the rest of the world’s goodwill. In short, no other president’s faults have had so deleterious an effect on not only the country but the world at large.”McElvaine offers his own conclusion:
“With his unprovoked and disastrous war of aggression in Iraq and his monstrous deficits, Bush has set this country on a course that will take decades to correct,” said another historian. “When future historians look back to identify the moment at which the United States began to lose its position of world leadership, they will point—rightly—to the Bush presidency. Thanks to his policies, it is now easy to see America losing out to its competitors in any number of area: China is rapidly becoming the manufacturing powerhouse of the next century, India the high tech and services leader, and Europe the region with the best quality of life.”
One historian indicated that his reason for rating Bush as worst is that the current president combines traits of some of his failed predecessors: “the paranoia of Nixon, the ethics of Harding and the good sense of Herbert Hoover. . . . . God willing, this will go down as the nadir of American politics.” Another classified Bush as “an ideologue who got the nation into a totally unnecessary war, and has broken the Constitution more often than even Nixon. He is not a conservative, nor a Christian, just an immoral man . . . .” Still another remarked that Bush’s “denial of any personal responsibility can only be described as silly.”
“It would be difficult to identify a President who, facing major international and domestic crises, has failed in both as clearly as President Bush,” concluded one respondent. “His domestic policies,” another noted, “have had the cumulative effect of shoring up a semi-permanent aristocracy of capital that dwarfs the aristocracy of land against which the founding fathers rebelled; of encouraging a mindless retreat from science and rationalism; and of crippling the nation’s economic base.”
“George Bush has combined mediocrity with malevolent policies and has thus seriously damaged the welfare and standing of the United States,” wrote one of the historians, echoing the assessments of many of his professional colleagues. “Bush does only two things well,” said one of the most distinguished historians. “He knows how to make the very rich very much richer, and he has an amazing talent for f**king up everything else he even approaches. His administration has been the most reckless, dangerous, irresponsible, mendacious, arrogant, self-righteous, incompetent, and deeply corrupt one in all of American history."
Like a majority of other historians who participated in this poll, my conclusion is that the preponderance of the evidence now indicates that, while this nation has had at least its share of failed presidencies, no previous presidency was as large a failure in so many areas as the current one.With 98% of respondents in this survey describing his presidency as a failure, Bush will have to look elsewhere for signs that history might yet redeem him.
GRAPHIC: History News Network
Friday, April 04, 2008
Excerpt from the final speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 - April 4, 1968) in Memphis, during the sanitation workers' strike, on the eve of his assassination (the full audio version is here).
A year earlier, on April 30, 1967, Dr. King made a powerful speech on Vietnam at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Here's an excerpt:
Now, let me make it clear in the beginning, that I see this war as an unjust, evil, and futile war. I preach to you today on the war in Vietnam because my conscience leaves me with no other choice. The time has come for America to hear the truth about this tragic war. In international conflicts, the truth is hard to come by because most nations are deceived about themselves. Rationalizations and the incessant search for scapegoats are the psychological cataracts that blind us to our sins. But the day has passed for superficial patriotism. He who lives with untruth lives in spiritual slavery. Freedom is still the bonus we receive for knowing the truth. "Ye shall know the truth," says Jesus, "and the truth shall set you free." Now, I've chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal. [The full text is here.]A personal note...
I was having dinner with friends at their dilapidated brownstone in Harlem on the night of the assassination. We were just ten blocks from the rioting that resulted in at least one serious injury — a cab driver who was dragged from his car and beaten. I was a social worker at the time, fresh out of college, and these friends, an middle-aged African American couple with twelve children, were also my clients. We were sitting around the table and talking after a fine dinner when two of their teenage sons came into the kitchen and reported that "they've shot Martin Luther King." The riots in Harlem were already on the TV news, so we debated whether I, a white person in a suddenly-hostile environment, should spend the night there — as they strongly suggested. We decided instead that the teenage boys would escort me to my nearby car, which I foolishly kept in Manhattan at the time, and then to the onramp for the West Side Highway. I made it to my apartment at West 83rd and Columbus without incident.
Few, if any, political or moral leaders can lay any claim to greatness since World War II. King stands at the top of a very short list.
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
"Israel said Monday that it would build hundreds of new homes on occupied land it considers part of Jerusalem, just hours after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice wrapped up a three-day visit to the region by saying the peace process is 'moving in the right direction.'To make such an announcement just hours after Rice's departure is insulting and provocative, but her response was predictably mild and ineffectual. Years of denunciations of settlement policy by Washington have left the Israeli government unimpressed. Rhetoric is meaningless, and Rice clearly must know it, compared to the political authority of the Israeli lobby — especially in an election year.
"The announcement of the new construction, the latest in a series of similar projects advanced by Israel in recent months, was likely to anger Palestinians. The issue also elicited criticism from Rice, who called on Israel to stop building in contested territory even before Monday's announcement.
"'Settlement activity should stop -- expansion should stop,' Rice said at a news conference after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
"The Israel-based advocacy group Peace Now released a report Monday saying that construction in West Bank settlements has boomed since the Annapolis peace conference four months ago. The organization documented new construction in 101 settlements."
A more effective device for curtailing these illegal settlements would be to reduce Washington's military aid to Israel by $1 million for each new housing unit. If the new development will include 800 new apartment units, as planned, then the aid will be cut by $800 million.
Israel is pursuing an expansion plan that was adopted after the 1967 war, of which the new "Israeli only" road on the West Bank is an important part. As Gershom Gorenberg writes in the excellent Israeli blog South Jerusalem:
…the road was planned in the mid-70s as part of a wider plan for Israeli settlement around Jerusalem. In turn, that plan reflected the original Allon Plan, drawn up by the-Labor Minister Yigal Allon in July 1967, immediately after the Six-Day War. The road’s purpose was to serve settlements and the eventual annexation of West Bank land to Israel. Everything else was purely a cover story…Successive Israeli settlements have been declared to be "facts on the ground" by the Israeli government, the subtext being: Deal with it. And, of course, neither the U.S. nor anyone else was willing to seriously challenge Israeli policy. A proposed freeze on settlements has been totally ignored.
If Israel can create "facts," so can the U.S. and the rest of the world. Consider:
U.S. military aid to Israel for 2007 totaled $2 billion, an increase of 25% over the previous year. The U.S. finally cut economic aid last year, reasoning that the 16th wealthiest nation on the planet might not need it despite an economic downturn similar to our own. Loan guarantees of up to $9 billion will continue, however.
A deduction of $800 million in U.S. military aid would equal 40% of current levels. Such a "fact" would certainly be noticed in Tel Aviv.
MAP: Wikimedia Commons