Author Archives: James Ridgeway

Aging Heroes of 9/11: Search and Rescue Dogs

The UK’s Daily Mail last week ran a feature with photos of search and rescue dogs sniffed through the rubble of the Twin Towers a decade ago. Of more than 100, only about a dozen survive, and most are well into their teens. Click through to the original article for a full portrait gallery.

Moxie, 13

Tara, 16

Obama, Can You Spare a Job?

One of the latest attacks on Obama’s failed policies claims that his economic stimulus created few jobs at exorbitant cost to taxpayers: $278,000 per job, to be exact. Fuzzy math aside, what these attacks omit to mention is that the stimulus, like all else these days, operated under the conservative creed that everything has to be done through the private sector. This ethos, firmly embraced by Obama
himself, prevents the government from taking the far more efficient route of simply employing people, which might have created many more good jobs for the same price tag.

Had Obama had heeded FDR’s experience during the Great Depression, we could have put unemployed people to work rebuilding American infrastructure—bridges, tunnels, railroads, roads–not to mention restoring and shoring up wetlands and carrying out other environmental projects. That’s what Roosevelt
famously did
with his Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation
Corps.

Such an initiative might conceivably have been possible, on some scale, prior to the midterm elections. But with the gridlock in Congress and diminishing confidence in the President and government, any such course now is hard to imagine. Instead, the austerity imposed by the debts deal will likely further impede any chance at real job growth–as Roosevelt himself found in 1937 when he briefly adopted austerity measures, only to see falling unemployment rates spike once again.

But even at this dismal stage, there are nonetheless a handful of realistic projects that ought to appeal to some fiscally minded conservatives as well as to Democrats.

Jonathan Alter, who is a historian of FDR’s New Deal as well as a journalist, has promoted an idea that involves allowing states to “convert their unemployment insurance payments from checks sent to the jobless into vouchers that can be used by companies to hire workers.” The amount of the unemployment checks would in effect become subsidies to the employers, so that “for instance, a position paying $40,000 might cost employers only $20,000, thereby encouraging them to hire…If a mere 10 percent of unemployed Americans persuaded employers to accept such vouchers, more than a million people would find work with no new spending beyond some administrative costs.”

Alter believes the plan, first suggested by Alan Khazei, a Democratic candidate for the Senate in Massachusetts, might appeal to “a Republican House  that loves the concept of voucher.” But so far there’s been no interest from either Congress or the Obama Administration.

Another option is the already much-discussed German experience with the short work week. As Kevin A. Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explained this scheme back in 2009.

Firms that face a temporary decrease in demand avoid shedding employees by cutting hours instead. If hours and wages are reduced by 10 percent or more, the government pays workers 60 percent of their lost salary. This encourages firms to use across-the-board reductions of hours instead of layoffs. Here’s how the program works.

A firm facing the challenges of the recession cuts Angela’s hours from 35 to 25 per week, thus reducing her weekly salary to 714 euros from 1,000 euros. Angela does not work for the firm during those hours. As part of its short-work program, the government now pays Angela 171 euros–60 percent of her lost salary. Most important, she still has a job. Effectively, the government is giving her unemployment insurance for the 10 hours a week that she is not employed.

Senator Jack Reed and  Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro have put this program into legislation which so far has  gone nowhere, with only a handful of co-sponsors. This despite the fact that as Dean  Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research points out: “Twenty  one  states (including California and New  York) already have short-time compensation as an option under their
unemployment insurance system. In these states a governmental structure already  exists to support work sharing, although there would have to be changes to make  the system more user friendly so as to increase take-up rates.”

Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post last week pointed to another way of immediately putting people to work, which harkens back to the idea of rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure:

Over the next decade, the federal government is slated to spend hundreds of billions of dollars building roads, schools, airports, trolley  lines and airport terminals, modernizing the air traffic control system, replacing computer systems and buying planes, ships, tanks, trucks and cars.  Moving up some of that spending from years 8, 9 and 10 to years 1, 2 and 3 won’t cost any more in the long run, or increase the long-term deficit any more, but could sure help put a floor under the economy in the short run. For those worried about pork, the actual spending decisions could be left to an independent Infrastructure Bank.

To spur private investment in equipment and research, the government could immediately allow companies of all sizes to deduct 100 percent of such expenses made in the next three years, rather than “depreciating” them over many years. That incentive to invest now will increase the deficit in the short run but have little or no impact on the long-term deficit.

As Suzy Khimm reports in the Washington Post, “The question of infrastructure funding will come up as soon as Congress returns from its August recess,” since “a bill reauthorizing  spending on surface transportation — which would help build roads, highways,  and the like — is set to expire in September. There’s a big gap between the House GOP proposal, which would slash federal spending to 35 percent less than Fiscal 2009 levels, and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer’s two-year plan to spend $55 billion a year. Boxer’s proposal would require revenue beyond what’s in the Highway Trust Fund, which receives money from the gas tax, promising yet another fight over which will be better for the economy — reducing the deficit or Keynesian spending on infrastructure.”

We all know how that fight is likely to turn out. And as Jonathan Alter points out, even these modest approaches to job creation call for an attitude of what Roosevelt called “bold, persistent experimentation” on the part of the government–and the leadership to back it up. And as we’ve seen all too clearly, Obama is no FDR.

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Behind the English Unrest

This comment in the Guardian by Nina Power sheds some light on the situation in England:

Since the coalition came to power just over a year ago, the country has seen multiple student protests, occupations of dozens of universities, several strikes, a half-a-million-strong trade union march and now unrest on the streets of the capital (preceded by clashes with Bristol police in Stokes Croft earlier in the year). Each of these events was sparked by a different cause, yet all take place against a backdrop of brutal cuts and enforced austerity measures. The government knows very well that it is taking a gamble, and that its policies run the risk of sparking mass unrest on a scale we haven’t seen since the early 1980s. With people taking to the streets of Tottenham, Edmonton, Brixton and elsewhere over the past few nights, we could be about to see the government enter a sustained and serious losing streak.

The policies of the past year may have clarified the division between the entitled and the dispossessed in extreme terms, but the context for social unrest cuts much deeper. Read More

Stieg Larsson’s “Expo” Reports on Oslo Suspect’s Far Right Connections

The politicazl ideas of Anders Behring Breivik, the man accused of carrying out the Oslo attacks, remain a bit of a muddle. In his manifesto and on the website where he regularly posted, he portrays himself as a conservative Christian—going so far to say that he is a modern example of the Knights Templar. (The Templars went on crusades to protect Christian shrines against Muslims.)

At the same time, he is reported to support the racist English Defense League and wants to see something like it take shape in Norway. The EDL favors flash events—sending hooligans in swarms into  muslim neighborhoods. He also appears sympathetic to the established racist line of ther  British National Party and National Front. And he has been a member of the anti-immigration Progress Party, the second largest political party in Norway. It is likened to Le Pen’s far right anti-immigrant following in France.

Much of the new information about the alleged shooters is coming from Searchlight, the British anti-fascist magazine, and its sister publication in Sweden, Expo. The latter is best known to U.S. readers because its chief editor was Stieg Larsson, author of the Milennium Trilogy. Larsson died of a heart condition in 2004 before his novels achieved their extraordinary popularity. The bulk of his working life was devoted to exposing the racist far right in Sweden and beyond.

It is Expo that is reporting Breivik’s connections to the Swedish nationalist group
called Nordisk. The following is from Expo (in imperfect Google translation):

The man who is arrested on suspicion of on Friday, killing more than 90 people in a bomb attack on government building and in connection with the shootings of students at a political camp on Utøya have online have expressed anti-Muslim values. On his Facebook page, he under vg.no made ​​nearly 75 posts that were racist as well as Islamophobic. According aftenposten.se was Anders Breivik member Fremskrittsspartiet [Progress Party]. He became a member in 1999 and paid the membership fee up to and including 2004. He was also involved in Fremskrittsspartiets youth (FPU) from 1997 to 2007. He should have been President of the FPU Oslo Vest 2002 to 2004.

But his political engagement online has been much more radical. 2009 registered himself as a member of the nazististiska nätforumet Nordisk. A forum with more than 22,000 members, primarily from the north. The forum discusses everything from vitmaktmusik to political strategies to crush democracy. On the forum there are also calls for violence. For example, wrote an anonymous user: “I mean obviously not isolated actions. Cars parked next to the towers with fertilization powder + diesel gives a nice effect. Skyscrapers go down like the World Trade Center towers. Do not forget that I have said something about taking human life . When the actions set in motion so to be hoped that there are people in the houses.”

• Nordisk launched in 2007 and quickly became a hit among so-called “nationalists” in Sweden. The forum currently has over 22,000 members — and one of them was Anders Breivik. Among the forum members will find everything from Sweden’s Democratic MPs to senior Nazis. What unites the members is a critical attitude to the current refugee policy and immigration.

• The topics under discussion are often a racist nature. On the forum you can also find topics on such book Turner Diaries. Turner Diaries is a novel that served as a manual for terrorism and has been called “terrorist Bible” by the FBI. It was partly the basis of the Oklahoma City massacre 1995.

• The Forum is described as a portal “with the Nordic identity, culture and tradition as the theme. “Behind the Forum is the organization Nordic Association which was founded in 2004 by people with backgrounds in the National Democrats and the Nazi organization Swedish Resistance.

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Soylent Greenbacks: David Brooks Wants Some People to Die for Debt Reduction

To help solve the debt crisis, the best thing I can do is die. Maybe not right now, but certainly before I put too much strain on the public purse—and since I’m 74, that means pretty soon. If I should be lucky enough to contract a fatal disease, I can do the right thing by eschewing expensive medical care that might extend my life. If that doesn’t happen, and I enter a slow and costly decline, then in the interests of the greater good I should take the Hemingway solution.

That’s pretty much the message of David Brooks’s column in today’s New York Times. “This fiscal crisis is about many things,” he writes, “but one of them is our
inability to face death — our willingness to spend our nation into bankruptcy
to extend life for a few more sickly months.”

Here’s how Brooks comes by his position: To begin with, he says: “The fiscal crisis is driven largely by health care costs.” Never mind two futile wars and ten years of tax relief for millionaires—it’s primarily health care that’s driving us into national penury.

Furthermore, Brooks argues, the reason for these soaring health care costs is that very old and very sick people insist on clinging on to their miserable lives, when they ought to be civic-minded enough to kick off. It’s not the insurance companies, which reap huge profits by serving as useless, greed-driven middlemen. It’s not the drug companies, which are making out like bandits with virtually no government regulation. It’s not the whole corrupt, overpriced system of medicine-for-profit, which delivers the 37th best health care in the world, according to the WHO, at more than twice the cost of the best system (France). No. It’s all about us greedy geezers. We’re the ones who are placing an untenable burden on the younger, heartier citizenry, with our selfish desire to live a little longer.

Brooks cites the usual figures: “A large share of our health care spending is devoted to ill patients in the last phases of life,” he writes, and Alzheimer’s patients will soon cost us hundreds of billions. He continues: “Obviously, we are never going to cut off Alzheimer’s patients and leave them out on a hillside.” (Thanks, Dave.) “We are never coercively going to give up on the old and ailing.” Nonetheless, Brooks hopes than many “old and ailing” people will make the choice made by Dudley Clendinen, a man suffering from A.L.S., who wrote a moving essay in the Times about his decision to end his life before the disease takes its full course and renders him “a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self.”

I have great respect for Clendinen’s decision. As I’ve written before in Mother Jones, I am a big supporter of what these days is called “choice in dying” or “death with dignity”—each person’s right to decide when and where and in what
circumstances they will die. But I don’t want anyone else making those decisions for me, or telling me when the time is right—not an insurance company or a Medicare bureaucrat, not Barack Obama or John Boehner, and certainly not
David Brooks. I have every intention of being my own one-man death panel. But I won’t be persuaded to die a moment sooner than I want to just because it might
save some money–money that could easily be saved by far more equitable and less draconian means.

Brooks writes that “it is hard to see us reducing health care inflation seriously unless people and their families are willing to do what Clendinen is doing —confront death and their obligations to the living.” But why is it “hard to see us reducing health care inflation” any other way? Because conservatives like Brooks don’t believe in challenging the profit-driven health care system, and the people who pass these days for liberals lack the moxie to stand up to them.

Based on models from countries like France and Canada, we could bring about whopping savings in health care expenditures through a single payer system without rationing or compromising the quality of care. Short of this, we could opt for much more regulation and still save more money than we could by pulling the plug on every geezer in the land.

If I have any “obligation to the living,” it’s to leave them with a better health care system than we have now—a health care system that values all human life above profits. But I know that’s not likely to happen before my death—which, if I listen to Brooks, could be right around the corner.

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Japan Sacrificing Its Elders to Nuclear Fallout

Having utterly failed to anticipate the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster following the earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese government and its parasite nuclear industry plod along amidst a worsening situation. They’ve dumped coolants from helicopters, brought in huge cranes, dug holes– all to no avail. They’ve tried humans in the form of nuclear plant workers, but they have begun to die by the ones and twos. In the meantime, there has been no serious consideration of criminal indictments against the government and industry officials responsible for this incredible industrial failure.

Finally they’ve been handed a genius solution: mass suicide by old people in the spirit of national pride. These volunteers will willingly march forward into the valley of death.  If they get cancer, the thinking goes, it won’t hit them until they are dead anyhow. And they will provide a valuable service to society: saving the young men and women  so they can procreate and provide labor for years to come. And it’s all being done amidst a wonderful flowering of national patriotism.

The death march of the old is described in the New York Times.

Seemingly against logic, Yasuteru Yamada, 72, is eager for the chance to take part. After seeing hundreds of younger men on television struggle to control the damage at the Daiichi power plant, Mr. Yamada struck on an idea: Recruit other older engineers and other specialists to help tame the rogue reactors.

Not only do they have some of the skills needed, but because of their advanced age, they are at less risk of getting cancer and other diseases that develop slowly as a result of exposure to high levels of radiation. Their volunteering would spare younger Japanese from dangers that could leave them childless, or worse.

“We have to contain this accident, and for that, someone should do the work,” said Mr. Yamada, a retired plant engineer who had worked for Sumitomo Metal Industries. “It would benefit society if the older generation took the job because we will get less damage from working there.”

Coming of Age: Michelangelo

Portrait of the aging Michelangelo by Daniele de Volterra

In her remarkable book The Coming of Age, Simone de Beauvoir insists upon looking unflinchingly at old age. Among other things, she quotes famous artists and thinkers who likewise wrote honestly about what it is like to grow old; I’ll be sharing these on the blog from time to time. This one comes from  from Michelangelo, who lived to be 88, long enough to experience his physical body breaking down while his artistic vision remained.

My long drawn out labors have broken, undermined and dismembered me, and the inn to which I am travelling, the inn at whose common table I shall eat and drink, is death…I cage a buzzing wasp in a leathery bag full of bones and sinews, and I have three balls of cobbler’s wax in a tube.  My face is a scarecrow’s. I am like those rags they hang out in times of draught and that frighten away the  birds. A spider runs about in one of my ears and in the other a cricket chirps all night.  Weighed down by my catarrh I can neither sleep nor snore.