Sense from Seattle

Common sense thoughts on life and current affairs by a Seattle area sexagenarian, drawing on personal experience, years of learning as a counselor to thousands of families and an innate passion for informed knowledge, to uniquely express sensible, thoughtful, honest and independent views.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Global Free Pollution

NPR ran an interesting piece this morning on apparent pollution coming from a Canadian smelter contaminating the upper Columbia River here in Washington State. The Bush EPA surprised many people in 2003 by issuing an order for the smelter to pay for a study of the problem. Less surprising is that the EPA has done nothing to enforce the order. Frustrated Indians brought suit to force the smelter to comply and a panel of the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed with the Indians. The Republican dominated Supreme Court is still in position to overturn the ruling, and the Bush EPA could still rescind the order.

The business communities on both sides of the border are outraged that a court has ruled the citizens and government of a polluted nation have the right to seek recourse from the polluter, even if the transgressor is located in another country. What in fact is outrageous is that the North American Free Trade Agreement did not address this issue. A sensible trade agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico should have included meaningful provisions regarding such issues as pollution prevention, fair labor standards and consumer protections. But representatives of those interests are not allowed to participate in multi-national trade talks. Only business interests and the governments they influence participate in such talks.

The only thing free about such trade agreements is the freedom for businesses to be insulated from government regulation, and freedom for them to pollute, treat workers unfairly and ignore consumer protections.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Culture Shock Redux

Last May when son Anthony returned to the US with his Thai bride Pat, I posed here a Question for Readers: Culture Shock.

Fifteen months later, with classes and practice, Pat’s English is greatly improved and she is so acclimatized that she now goes out in shorts sometimes when I, a native Seattleite, consider the weather too cool. Of course, she has shapely legs to show off, while mine are skinny with fading hair.

Since his return to the US, Anthony has been closely studying what our country has become and he has been reflecting on what that means for him. He has decided not to pursue a career working for corporate enterprise, but instead to obtain certification to teach science at the high school level.

This month son Chris has been visiting from Thailand, with his wife Nat, who despite any formal English training, does quite good at communicating. Coming to visit America for the first time in August eased the weather shock for Nat. She has been enjoying making comparisons of our area with Thailand. While Pat comes from southern Thailand around Bangkok, Nat’s roots are in the more mountainous north. In fact, she points out she is not actually Thai, but 1/4 Chinese and 3/4 Lanna. The Lanna people have a long and proud heritage for many centuries before being absorbed by Thailand. Nat and Chris live in Bangkok, but her heart is still in the highlands. She very much enjoyed our hike at Sunrise on Mount Rainier. Her late mother was a fruit farmer and Nat has enjoyed our “exotic” fruit here, picking blueberries in our back yard and apples at a friend’s house.

With Anna visiting from Vermont and Jonathan resident here, this is the first time the four children have been together since Jon got married four years ago. And now we have been blessed with two grandchildren and two more daughters-in-law joining Jon’s wife, Tanzi.

I have offered this quick family visit note partly as an explanation, or excuse, for not posting much here during August. Nat and Chris will be leaving for Thailand tomorrow evening. The month went so fast and there is lots more we would like to have done during their time here, but we all agree the visit has been fun and exciting for everyone.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Dilemma of Democracy

Power to the people. Vox Populi - the voice of the people. Let the voters decide. This is what democracy is all about.

But what if the popular power, the public voice and the decision of the people all turn out to be wrong? And who gets to say what results are wrong? The practical democratic answer to this last question is the same voters who originally voted plus those who did not vote but decide to do so in a recall election or in a re-election bid. The undemocratic answer is some outside power other than the voters.

Since the end of WWII, the US government has used its power, sometimes openly and sometimes clandestinely, to overturn the results of democratic elections in other countries. A fairly recent example was the overthrow of democratically elected Aristide in Haiti. Our government decides which elections are important enough to our perceived self-interest to justify intervention, first in influencing the election itself, and then if the outcome is not what we wanted, in overturning the results by encouraging demands for new elections or by supporting a military coup.

Our invasion and occupation of Iraq has increased the popularity of militant political groups in the middle east, resulting in electoral gains for them. With our military forces spread thin and our international reputation severely tarnished, the US may be stuck with the results of these elections for the foreseeable future, ironically forced to accept the electoral results the neo-cons were so sure would not result from our promotion of a tsunami of democracy.

Noam Chomsky in his latest book, “Failed States” scholarly analyzes this US abuse of power in interfering with other nations the US sees as democratic failures. He concludes his book with a look at our own country and the likelihood that it is in some ways also a failed state. Chomsky cites numerous polls showing the American public largely favoring progressive stands on issues, even though the public has voted for reactionary right candidates many times since 1980, starting with Ronald Reagan. Why the disconnect?

Our Founding Fathers struggled with the dilemma of democracy, how to give power to the people, yet protect against impulsive and irrational decisions. They came up with limitations and compromises, some more fair and wise than others, and we have made a few changes through the years, by judicial interpretations and a few Constitutional amendments. Yet the central dilemma will always be there - the appeal to human impulse and irrationality can be effective at the polls. Chomsky documents the drive by the rich and powerful reactionary right in America to hire professional marketers and intellectual think tanks to deceive the American public into making decisions based on falsehoods and misconceptions, rather than on an honest look at the issues.

The challenge for progressive candidates is to get the voters to realize they are being fooled by the right and that voter positions on the legitimate issues, such as health care, social security, social spending, reigning in defense costs, and being an international force for good, are actually in agreement with the progressives.

The rich power elite that controls the reactionary right is no smarter than the average voter. In fact their front man Bush may actually be dumber than the average American. But as Chomsky points out, these people are very smart at what matters most to them - getting their people into political office and using the power of that office to advance and perpetuate their personal agenda of financial greed worldwide.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Lieberman Loses

Joe Lieberman’s loss in the primary election is well deserved. Granted he has a progressive record historically, but his willingness to be an out front face of supposed Democratic moderate policy on the invasion and occupation of Iraq put a target on him, and Connecticut Democratic voters struck the target and fired Lieberman. His late campaign zeal in fighting the Democratic challenger showed a capability he failed to bring to the 2000 campaign in general and his VP debate with Cheney in particular.

Lieberman was an odd and mistaken choice in 2000, which was quickly shown by his excessively gushy and overtly religious speech of acceptance of the VP nomination. That he values his own ego more than the voice of Connecticut Democrats is shown by his immediate filing for the general election as an independent. Hopefully the only votes Lieberman will draw in November will come from moderate Republicans and independent voters who would usually not vote for a Democrat anyway.

Lieberman’s position on the middle east seemed very similar to that of Bush and the neo-cons. Most voters reject that position and the dumping of the veteran Lieberman with all his Senatorial seniority shows voters are finally willing to get off the drowning war horses even if they are in midstream.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Economic Update

From my recent note file on some economic matters:

Cars and Gas - Cars are supposed to be useful and good looking. People lust for them. Gasoline is inherently dangerous and stinky and annoying to buy. Motorists complain loudly about the price of gas, even as they continue to pump it. General Motors had a $3.2 billion loss last quarter, while Exxon-Mobil had an $11 billion profit. Some of GM’s loss was related to costs of getting rid of workers, but that is not the answer. GM needs to figure how to make its cars more useful and better looking, and how to make them run on something other than gasoline.

Credit Cards - Many people are using credit and debit cards now for convenience reasons (as many as 60% of customers now in some grocery stores), but that is costing merchants over 2% in non-negotiable bank fees, which they either have to build back into prices or absorb. Some merchants have sued Visa and MasterCard under anti-trust laws for not negotiating fees and allegedly agreeing among themselves to price fix them. It also seems like the time banks are allowing to receive monthly bill payment have been shrinking - my most recent one allowed 13 days - perhaps to trigger technical default and interest rate acceleration.

Employee Flex Time - It is estimated that about 70% of US companies have some form of flexible working hours. Best Buy has taken it a step further. In 2002, after high employee turnover problems, Best Buy started the ROWE program (Results Oriented Work Environment), under which appropriate employees are only required to get their job done by a certain time, without a requirement of spending a particular number of hours working. Reportedly the result of such a program is 10-20% higher productivity.

Housing Prices - Nationally sales are down both for new and existing housing, while supplies are up. The bubble is deflating. People who speculated or bought too much house in hopes of quick gains are now going to pay for their mistake.

Minimum Wage
- Facing a November election disaster, the Republicans are trying to buy votes of people who care about lower wage workers, while also batting for their rich patrons. They are negotiating with some Democrats to agree to a stepped increase in the Federal minimum wage (the first since 1997), if it is tied in with more cuts in the Federal tax on the richest estates (already addressed several times during this Bush administration).

Off Shore Tax Havens
- A Senate report on tax cheats using phoney off shore maneuvering to avoid taxes says that such cheating amounts to 7 cents for every dollar paid by honest taxpayers. Two of the biggest offenders reportedly are Texas businessmen brothers Charles and Sam Wyly, who were the #9 campaign contributors to George W. Bush in 2000. The Senate will not be calling them to testify in further hearings on this subject, since the brothers have indicated they will invoke their fifth amendment privilege. George probably has them on his potential pardon list.

Trade Deficit - The US trade deficit in May was $63.8 billion, of which $17.7 billion was in China’s favor. Overall, China had a trade surplus of $14.5 for June. Someone bought my grandson an inexpensive remote control car made in China. It did not even last one day before the controller buttons jammed, the battery case cracked and the body broke off the chassis.

Wal-Mart - A Federal District Court Judge has ruled that an attempt by Maryland to require large employers to provide its workers with more satisfactory health insurance runs afoul of Federal law. The Judge said employers are entitled to provide just one plan for all fifty States. The ruling may be appealed. The idea of a Federal law on employer health insurance is good, if the law does what Maryland tried to do, make large employers provide decent coverage. Wal-Mart is selling all its stores in Germany, admitting it is unable to compete with established specialty discounters. They previously pulled out of South Korea.

Welfare Cuts - The Bush administration continues to target poor people, changing rules to pressure the States to get more people working or in training programs, or else lose Federal funding. States end up hiring unqualified recipients for State jobs, thereby fueling Republican mythology about governmental incompetency. Entrepreneurs selling training programs benefit further by the new rules. The total Federal government expenditure for one year of welfare is about equal to the cost of one week of the Iraq occupation, about three billion dollars.