Friday, March 25, 2011

Collective bargaining law published despite court order blocking it

CLAY BARBOUR and ED TRELEVEN |Posted: Friday, March 25, 2011

The drama over Gov. Scott Walker's controversial measure limiting public sector collective bargaining took a sharp turn Friday when the Legislative Reference Bureau published the law — normally the last step before legislation takes effect.

But the surprise publication on the Legislature's website had lawmakers and their attorneys arguing over whether the law will be in force Saturday.

Walker's legislation has been stuck in court ever since he signed it two weeks ago, challenged by critics who say Republicans violated the state's open meetings law to pass the measure.

A restraining order prevented Secretary of State Doug La Follette from publishing the act. But the state constitution says only that laws must be published before they can take effect; it does not specify by whom.

State statutes require the secretary of state to set a publication date no more than 10 working days after a law is signed, while a related statute requires the Reference Bureau to publish legislation within 10 days of enactment.

Bill Cosh, a state Department of Justice spokesman, said no action by the secretary of state was required for the Reference Bureau to act, adding that La Follette did not direct the publication of the law and thus is not in violation of a temporary court order barring him from publishing the law.

And the governor and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said flatly Friday the law will take effect Saturday.

But officials with the nonpartisan Reference Bureau and the Legislative Council — the Legislature's drafting and research agency and its legal service, respectively — said publication of the act online was only an administrative step.

Reference Bureau Director Steve Miller and Legislative Council staff attorney Scott Grosz both said La Follette still needs to designate a date for publication and actually publish the act in the Wisconsin State Journal — something the court order bars the secretary of state from doing.

"This bill has been under a cloud of suspicion since day one," said State Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. "Today's actions and statements are only perpetuating the problem."

After he was ordered not to publish the law, La Follette sent the Reference Bureau a letter March 18 rescinding his instructions setting Friday as the publication date.

But Fitzgerald said attorneys have told him the letter has no standing.

"Every attorney I have consulted said this will now be law," Fitzgerald said. "It wasn't a secret. I think they left the door open for this."

Still, Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi's March 18 order appears broadly aimed at stopping the law from taking effect until questions about its passage could be addressed.

"I do, therefore, restrain and enjoin the further implementation of 2011 Wisconsin Act 10," Sumi said, according to a transcript. "The next step in implementation of that law would be the publication of that law by the secretary of state. He is restrained and enjoined from such publication until further order of this court."

If the bureau's action did constitute publication, it could make moot the state's appeal of Sumi's order, now before the state Supreme Court.

That could actually simplify the case that District Attorney Ismael Ozanne is seeking to make on the alleged open meetings violation if he doesn't have to worry about whether a judge has the authority to stop legislation before it takes effect, said Madison lawyer Lester Pines.

"I suspect that if Judge Sumi was willing to take up a (temporary restraining order) against publication I suspect she'd do the same thing on enforcement" of the new law, Pines said.

Pines said it would also open up legal channels for other groups who have been waiting to challenge the law but had to wait until it was enacted.

"This is going to unleash a tsunami of litigation," Pines said.

US Finances Rank Near Worst in the World: Study | 24 Mar 2011
The US ranks near the bottom of developed global economies in terms of financial stability and will stay there unless it addresses its burgeoning debt problems, a new study has found.
In the Sovereign Fiscal Responsibility Index, the Comeback America Initiative ranked 34 countries according to their ability to meet their financial challenges, and the US finished 28th, said David Walker, head of the organization and former US comptroller general.

"We think it is important for the American people to understand where the United States is as compared to other countries with regard to fiscal responsibility and sustainability," Walker said in a CNBC interview. "Americans are used to rankings and they're used to ranking very high, but frankly in this area we rank very low."

While the news is bad, there is a bright side.

"Here's the good news: Some of the top countries had their own fiscal challenges, made reforms and now rank highly," Walker said. "If we adopt the recommendations of the National Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Commission or ones that have similar bottom-line impact, we move from 28 to 8."

As the US languishes near the bottom, these countries make up the top five: Australia, New Zealand, Estonia, Sweden, China and Luxembourg.

Walker acknowledged that some of the countries that rank ahead of the US do not have the same type of challenges.

But he said policymakers in Washington can learn much from countries like New Zealand, which faced a currency crisis and made the necessary reforms to get back to prosperity.

"First, they're arguing over the bar tab on the Titanic," Walker said. "We need to cut spending. Frankly we need to cut spending more than what has been talked about but over a longer period of time. But what's imperative is that we need to attach some conditions to increasing the debt ceiling limit that will bring back tough budget controls..."

Walker predicted the US will have a debt crisis "within the next two to three years" and implored Washington lawmakers to "wake up."

Bedbugs Have Evolved to Live With Mankind

The rise of bedbugs has followed the rise of mankind living indoors; their latest resurgence illustrates the survival of the fittest.
By Rob Dunn,
Posted on March 24, 2011
Bedbugs sure is evil, they don’t mean me no good. Yeah, bedbug sure is evil, they don’t mean me no good. Thinks he’s a woodpecker and I’m a chunk of wood.” — Bessie Smith (“Mean Old Bedbug Blues”)
Bedbugs are small and sneaky. Bedbugs do nasty things. Bedbugs are also becoming more common, a trend likely to expand and worsen this spring. But none of this is new, not really. The story of the bedbugs in our lives begins no less than 4,000 years ago. It is a kind of parable about the difference between what we want and what we make. We wanted a realm inside our houses, where we would always be happy and might live forever.

Instead, we made the bedbug, a modern chimera we seem unlikely to ever really escape.

It began innocently. Once we were like the birds. The rain fell on our naked shoulders. The sun beat down on our heads. There was no inside or outside. We built our nests of sticks and mud. Then we moved out of the trees. On the ground, the world was more dangerous. Leopards crouched in the darkness between resting spots, venomous snakes hid under leaves. We sought safety, shade and cover and found them all in caves.

Caves changed the world. In moving into caves, we invented the more constant conditions of the “indoors.” No matter that this particular indoors lacked an actual door, it was still the rough seed of what would come. It was the beginning of our efforts to make the place we lived “better” than everywhere else.

It was when we began to try to find even more favorable conditions for ourselves, to engender them even, that we began the process of making bedbugs from the sticks and mud of natural selection. Bedbugs belong to two or three species, depending on exactly how you are counting and who is counting. The most common species is — thanks to a modest failure of scientific creativity — the common bedbug (Cimex lectularius). Bedbugs were originally bat bugs. Their ancestors lived in caves, on bats (where most of their kin still live), and when our ancestors moved into caves, they jumped down onto us. A few found us where we slept. Those that did prospered on our blood as we prospered.

When they moved onto us, many things would have had to change for these bat/cavemen bugs. The platelets in our blood, for example, are wider than those of bats, and so the mouthparts of the bedbugs had to widen so that they wouldn’t clog up with blood. Their mouthparts changed in length, too, because of the thickness of our skin, a thickness through which their mandibles must meander to find blood vessels. Their activity patterns changed, too. Bat bugs feed during the day, when the bats are sleeping. Bedbugs, well, they had to feed at night, when we were sleeping.

Bedbugs changed so much in moving onto us, in fact, that now they are stuck. They can’t easily go back — and why would they want to? They ride us wherever we might lead them, which, it turns out, is all around the world.

Bedbugs evolved more as our culture evolved, changing as we changed and moving as we moved. Early Egypt was dense with bedbugs. Cleopatra would have had them. Aristotle definitely did. Socrates whined about them frequently.

Bedbugs came to take advantage not just of our abundance but also of the new environments we created inside our houses, environments that are similar realms of warmth and predictability whether we live in New Jersey or Cairo. Many valiant attempts were made to control bedbugs. Democritus recommended hanging the feet of a hare at the foot of the bed, presumably with no effect on bedbugs, though with negative consequences for the hare. Cyanide was sprayed around rooms. Rooms were heated to 45 degrees C, all to relatively little permanent avail.

Then, during World War II, scientists pioneered new chemicals for warfare. We used some of those chemicals, in particular DDT, around our apartments and houses in our war with pests. These pesticides appear to have controlled the bedbugs by making the indoor environment more toxic than most bedbugs could stand. This, we hoped, would be good for us. It was certainly bad for the bedbugs, for a while.

It was clear as early as 1947 that bedbugs could evolve resistance, first to DDT and then, one by one, to its chemical descendants. They evolved similar but sometimes unique forms of resistance in many different places all around the world (and in each bedbug species), which is to say that genetically they may have actually diversified. This was possible because we never, ever killed them all. We only killed the weak, and so, just as in those first caves, they evolved once again: They changed when we made them change. Recently, the inevitable has happened. These survivors have started to become abundant again, separately, in different regions of the world. We made our bed and they slept in it.

This is where we find ourselves now, reunited again with the species we have been shaping all these years, our evolutionary masterwork. The bedbugs, after their brief hiatus, seem foreign to us now. News stories call them strange or unusual, which they certainly are. The males have sex with females traumatically (by penetrating their bellies). They smell bad (an odor one scientist described as “an obnoxious sweetness”) so that even if we find them we are unlikely to try to bite them back (speaking for myself, I was never really tempted). Male bedbug nymphs compete with each other by trying to block each other’s sexy smells.

Bedbugs smell us, on the other hand, by the scent of our bodies but also, probably, the scent that the microbes on our bodies emit. All of that is weird, but it is also our fault, the consequence of the world we have created around ourselves, a world just right for us and, once again, for them.

But … you might reasonably contend that we try to control bedbugs. We chase and kill them. That’s true. But all this chasing has not done away with them. It has made them stronger, or better adapted anyway, to our ways and lives. In the process, it may have actually made them more common than they would have been otherwise had we never tried to beat them away. They may be more common because our houses have become ever more warm and because we have become ever better at ferrying them from one place to another. Also, we seem to be getting better and better at killing the other species that live around us, species other than the bedbug (and a handful of other equally sneaky beasts) that have learned to love it this way.

All things being equal, bedbugs would probably be more rare if we were just a little bit sloppier in controlling our environments and keeping species from coming in our door. Take the example of the Pharaoh ant.

The Pharaoh ant, Monomorium pharaonis, like bedbugs, spread with us all around the world and is now on every continent except Antarctica (though it may be there). The Pharaoh ant is a species that we have been able to exclude from our houses relatively well. It is present here and there, but no longer ubiquitous. That is bad news, bad news because the Pharaoh ant is very good at eating bedbugs. During the U.S. Civil War, Pharaoh ants cleaned a camp in Meridian, Miss., of bedbugs “in a single day.” The ants could be seen carrying the bedbugs back to their small, dark queens.

Nor is this ant the only species that is good at eating bugs. So, apparently, are other species of ants, including Argentine ants (Linipithema humile), species of the ant genus, Formica, a fire ant, Solenopsis geminata, and, one presumes, many other species. Nor are the ants alone. Several species of spiders have been reported as bedbug decimators. Then there is the masked assassin bug (Reduvius personatus) that appears to turn up in houses only when bedbugs are present. It may well be a bedbug specialist, feeding specifically on the species that feed specifically on us.

In the caves of our ancestry, Pharaoh ants, masked assassins, spiders and predators more generally were present. With their small arms and mouthparts they ate at bedbugs. In doing so, they may not have gotten rid of them, but they almost certainly made them less common. They were part of a diverse food web that kept the life that plagued (and plagues) us in check, the way the mountain lions, coyotes and their kin once ate the deer that now graze densely in our yards.

This is the secret about bedbugs: From the perspective of our broad history, they are common because we are common but also because we have made decisions that have made them more common, more specialized on us and more uniquely part of our lives. They are common because we have inadvertently given them a place to live, free of parasites or predators, to dine on our ankles and then return to their hiding places, to sleep and mate in their complicated, awful ways.

What we will undoubtedly try to do when the bedbugs begin to unfold out of their eggs in the spring is to figure out new ways to spray our lives down and make the door separating inside from outside more exclusive. I would argue for the opposite, leaving the door just a little more open so that the Pharaoh ants and their kin might walk inside and do what they have been doing since long before we had coffee makers, indoor plumbing or even houses — gathering what they find, one piece or body at a time. To crudely paraphrase the Japanese poet Issa, don’t worry Pharaoh ants, I keep house easily.

In the end, we made the bedbug, generation by generation, what it is today. But we could choose to make something else, a more diverse world around us, whether in our backyards or bedrooms, a world in which there are bedbugs sometimes, yes, but also the predators that chase them from corner to corner hunting them down, the way leopards once pursued us, into caves, where this whole story started.

Owners' Lock Out of NFL Players Raises Some Big Questions

Public employees in Madison and professional football players in Green Bay both face powerful and hostile managements trying to undermine their unions.
By David Morris, AlterNet
on March 24, 2011

What do public employees in Madison earning $40,000 a year and professional football players in Green Bay earning $1.5 million a year have in common? They both face powerful and hostile managements trying to undermine their unions.

The battle between labor and management is always uneven. Up until the 1930s management didn’t even have to negotiate with its workers. Owners could fire union organizers. Courts routinely declared unions an illegal “restraint of trade” and ruled that by trying to negotiate collectively unions were violating the “contract rights” of individual employees and giant corporations to freely negotiate salaries and working conditions.

Only in 1937 did workers finally gain the legal right to form unions and bargain collectively. Corporations were legally required to bargain “in good faith”. Congress established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and gave it judicial authority to enforce labor rights. The NLRB did so enthusiastically for the first few decades, modestly in the 1970s, and not at all after Ronald Reagan took office when he nominated, and Congress confirmed as Chairman of the NLRB Donald Dotson, a man who viewed collective bargaining the way 19th-century courts did, as “the destruction of individual freedom, and the destruction of the marketplace as the mechanism for determining the value of labor”.

Public service unions came of age when private sector unions were strong and the word “union” was a respected word. It was a time when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower could announce, with widespread approval, "Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of their right to join the union of their choice."

But even when unions were respected by society as a whole, they were rarely as respected by employers, public or private. Only in 1959 did Wisconsin become the first state to allow collective bargaining by public employees at the local level. In the South, public employee unions had to struggle for recognition, especially when they were composed largely of blacks.

We might recall that when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968 he was there to support a strike by sanitation workers. Two months earlier two black sanitation workers had been crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. In response to the tragedy, the city’s sanitation department gave each of the grieving families one month’s pay and $500 for funeral expenses. No one from the city government attended the funerals.

On February 12, 1968 more than 1,100 black sanitation workers began a strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. King's assassination did not dissipate the workers’ struggle for dignity. As Taylor Rogers, one of the strike’s organizers recalled, “If you stand up straight, people can’t ride your back. And that’s what we did. We stood up straight.”

The sanitation workers won. Their contract included union recognition, higher wages, a dues check-off, and the updating of the antiquated sanitation equipment. Another practice that had infuriated black workers—sending them home on rainy days without pay while white supervisors stayed and collected a paycheck—was also ended.

A Brief History of the Football Players Union

Professional football players also began to organize when private sector union density was at its peak. But neither the respect of neither unions nor the law convinced the team owners to negotiate. In 1956 players on the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns formed an association and made minimal demands on their team owners: a minimum wage, per diem pay to cover expenses and, believe it or not, a request that the teams pay for their uniforms and equipment!

The owners never met with the players and refused to respond to any of their proposals.

As would be the case for the next 40 years, the players turned to the courts for help. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NFL did not enjoy the same antitrust immunity that Major League Baseball did, opening the door to many NFL rules that limited player mobility and negotiating power to be viewed as illegal restraints of trade. Rather than face that prospect through another lawsuit, the owners granted several of the players' demands, including setting up a minimal pension plan. But the owners refused to enter into a collective bargaining agreement with the association.

In 1968, threatened by the possibility that the players would join the powerful Teamsters union, the owners said they would recognize the NFLPA if the Teamsters were rejected. The players did, but the owners reneged on their promise. The players voted to strike. The owners countered by declaring their first lockout. A few days later the owners relented, but the concessions won by the players were modest. According to Wikipedia, the owners agreed to contribute about $1.5 million to the pension fund but maintained current minimum salaries at $9,000 for rookies, $10,000 for veterans and $50 per exhibition game. The owners refused to allow for independent arbitration of player-management disputes.

In 1970, after the NFL and the AFL merger, their two players’ unions also merged. After a brief lockout, the players went on strike. They returned two days later when the owners threatened to cancel the season. The players did, however, gain the right to bargain through their own agents with the clubs and impartial arbitration but only for injury grievances. They gained some improvements in basic salaries and pensions, and dental care. Following negotiations, the owners retaliated by letting go many union player representatives from their teams.

In 1963, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had unilaterally imposed what became known as the Rozelle Rule. The timing was instructive. That was the year after he negotiated the NFL’s first broadcast contract with CBS--$9.3 million for two years. Each team began the season with $332,000 in the bank, a sum greater than most teams’ payrolls at the time. Thus all teams were guaranteed a profit even before they sold a single ticket or played a single game. Flush with cash, the team owners could have started a bidding war if players were free to sell their services to the highest bidder. The Rozelle Rule all but eliminated free agency by allowing any team that lost a free agent to another team to receive something of equal value from that team. Few teams were willing to risk signing a high-profile free agent only to see their own rosters depleted.

Coincidentally but not accidentally, the agreement by the NFL owners to share national broadcast revenues equally not only opened up the specter of higher player salaries; it also raised the possibility of future Green Bay Packers---non-profit teams in small cities owned by their fans. So in 1963 the League also adopted a rule banning any further such ownership structures.

In 1974 the players again went on strike, this time focusing on the hated Rozelle Rule. The players rallied under the banner, “No Freedom, No Football” but gave up six weeks later. They again turned to the courts for help.

In 1977 John Mackey of the Baltimore Colts became the first NFL player to successfully defeat the League owners in court. Along with 35 other NFL players, he challenged the validity of the Rozelle Rule. The owners argued that the rule was part of a collective bargaining agreement and therefore exempt from antitrust law, a legal argument that, as we shall see, has played an important role in player-management conflicts. The court disagreed, concluding the Rule was not the product of good faith bargaining but had been forced upon a weak players union.

The owners reached a settlement with the union. Impartial arbitration of all grievances was implemented. Some free agent restrictions were ended. But the League’s new version of free agency was almost as restrictive as its first. Indeed, from 1977 to 1987 only one player changed clubs out of the thousands of free agents who were eligible.

In 1982, the players again took on free agency. They went on strike for 57 days. The owners refused to budge. One reason was that their TV contracts with the networks, which provided about 60 percent of the owners' income, guaranteed they would be paid whether games were played or not. The players capitulated.

In 1987 the players again tried to allow individual players to enter a true marketplace for their talents. When no progress was made in the negotiations after two weeks of regular season play, the players voted to strike. The league responded by canceling games and hiring replacement players. The strike was broken. The union voted to return to work.

The day the strike ended, the players once again turned to the courts. The NFLPA filed an antitrust suit in Federal Court. The Court of Appeals ultimately rejected that suit. You might have to be a lawyer to understand the logic, so read closely. The Supreme Court held that even in the absence of current collective bargaining agreement, as long as a bargaining relationship still exists the antitrust immunity holds. In other words, so long as collective bargaining was deemed to be continuing, the antitrust law could not be invoked. The Chief Judge presciently dissented, noting, “this court’s unprecedented decision leads to the ineluctable result of union decertification in order to invoke rights to which players are clearly entitled under the antitrust laws.”

Gabriel Feldman, law professor at the Tulane Sports Law program explains, “Essentially, players are required to choose labor law (and collective bargaining) or antitrust law (and individual bargaining and litigation). If the players choose labor law, an antitrust shield is raised that prevents them from attacking NFL rules under the antitrust laws. To lower the shield and choose antitrust law, the players must end the collective bargaining relationship.”

Forced to make this choice, in December 1989 the players voted to end the NFLPA’s status as the players’ collective bargaining agent. The NFLPA then re-formed as a voluntary professional association.

Since the NFLPA no longer represented the players in collective bargaining, individual union members were free to bring an antitrust action against the NFL challenging its free agency rules as an unlawful restraint of trade. A group of players, led by New York Jets running back Freeman McNeil filed suit challenging the restrictions on free agency. An all-woman jury in Minnesota heard the case in 1992. Pat Bowlen, owner of the Denver Broncos complained to the Rocky Mountain News that he didn’t want “eight women who are basically domestic housewives to decide the future of the National Football League.”

In 1992, they did by ruling in the players’ favor.

That verdict and the threat of a class action suit filed by Philadelphia Eagles player Reggie White on behalf of all NFL players brought the parties back to the negotiating table. Under the auspices of U.S. District Court Judge David Doty, the NFL finally agreed on a formula that permitted free agency. In return, the owners demanded and received a salary cap, albeit one tied to a formula based on players' share of total league revenues.

Once the agreement was approved the NFLPA reconstituted itself as a labor union and entered into a new collective bargaining agreement with the league. Players won unrestricted free agency for the first time and were guaranteed a higher percentage of major league revenues in return for giving the owners a salary cap on payrolls.

The NFLPA and the league have extended their 1993 agreement five times, most recently in March 2006 when it was extended through the 2011 season after the NFL owners voted 30-2 to accept the NFLPA's final proposal. In 2010 the NFL exercised its option to terminate that contract, effective March 3, 2011.

The NFL owners had an ace up their sleeve. Just as they had in 1982, in 2010 they had signed a contract with broadcasters—CBS, ESPN, NBC, and Direct TV—such that the NFL would accept significantly lower revenue in return for a guarantee that it would receive about $4 billion even if the season were not played. This was designed to give them enormous bargaining leverage.

Two days before the lockout, Judge Doty ruled that by insisting on this lockout provision as part of the broadcast contract, and by agreeing to take significantly less money in return, the NFL had breached its collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA, an agreement that required both parties (players and owners) to act in good faith to maximize total revenues that both parties would receive. That stripped away, at least for the time being (the owners have appealed), the owners' $4 billion lockout fund.

They locked out the players anyway. The NFLPA sued, asking for the courts to issue an injunction ending the lockout. A hearing on the issue will be held April 6. Meanwhile the union has again decertified, again to allow its players to challenge the owners under the antitrust law. The owners have filed a complaint to the NLRB, arguing that the decertification is an unfair labor practice.

And that’s where things stand today.

Millionaires vs. Billionaires?

Currently the revenues are split about 50-50 between players and owners. (The net revenues, after the owners subtract some of their expenses from the total, an amount worth more than $1 billion in 2010, are split 57-43 in the players’ favor, a percentage you often read in the media.) The owners want the players to give back about $1 billion that is coming to them under the 2008 contract.

The owners argue that while the players’ percentage will decline, the amount they receive will not if they agree to another of the owners’ demands: extending the regular season to 18 regular games. The current schedule has 16 regular season games, up from 14 in 1977 and 12 in 1960.

Another issue is whether to cap the rookie’s pay scale and if so, what to do with the money saved. Both the players and the owners agree that there should be a rookie pay cap. But the players want half of the estimated $200 million in savings put toward retired players and the other half toward veteran players. The owners want to keep the money.

The media so far is describing the labor battle as millionaires fighting billionaires. And it is true that the median salary across the NFL is a handsome $1.4 million a year. The rookie minimum is $310,000.

But the length of an average NFL player’s career is only 3.6 years. And even a short career takes a heavy toll on their bodies. The owners watch from cushy seats in heated skyboxes. The players are down on a hard, cold field, engaged in a very violent game. In 2010, 350 players were on the injured reserve list for an average of nine and a half games.

At the Superbowl we watched Packer star cornerback Charles Woodson exit the game with a broken collarbone, Packers cornerback Sam Shields leave with an injured shoulder and Steeler star receiver Emmanuel Sanders sit out almost the whole game with a foot injury. Green Bay’s quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, has suffered two concussions this year. The announcers noted he now wears a special helmet.

Each professional football player now has a l0 percent chance of sustaining a concussion in a given season. Mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI), the medical term for concussions, has become the most common specified type of injury in pro football, occurring nearly twice as often as hamstring strains.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that l5 percent of patients diagnosed with MTBI experienced disabling problems on a “persistent” basis.

The long-term health risks associated with NFL injuries include a significantly increased likelihood of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

A 1994 study of 7,000 former players by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that football linemen have a 52 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population.

Essentially, the quality of life of an ex-football player is likely to be diminished from his life on the field. Even more damning, the quantity of his life will also be diminished. The average NFL player who plays for more than five years has a life expectancy of 55 years. If he is a lineman this drops to 52 years. U.S. life expectancy overall is 77.6 years.

To my knowledge, there have been no studies of the life expectancy of NFL owners. But since life expectancy is correlated with wealth it is likely they live longer than the rest of us.

Since a professional football player’s tenure is so short and the probability of debilitating injury so high, a key issue in labor negotiations is the level of medical benefits and pension. NFL pensions are skimpy. The pensions are vested only after four years. (Recall that the average player’s career lasts only 3.6 years.) Even long-term players receive little, especially in comparison to other professional sports leagues like major league baseball. According to former cornerback Bernie Parrish, Major League Baseball pays average pension benefits three times higher than those offered by the NFL: $36,700 vs. $12,165.

Former Packers guard Jerry Kramer gets a pension of $358 per month. Willie Wood, who helped Vince Lombardi win five championships during Wood’s 12 seasons, is now in a wheelchair. He receives a pension of $2,000 a month.

Baseball’s gross income is about $4.3 billion. Last year the NFL grossed over $7 billion. As Parrish says, “There is no excuse not to have the NFL retirement benefits matching MLB’s.”

As for medical care, only in 2007, after enormous public pressure and congressional hearings about the disabilities of professional football players, did the NFL create the “88 plan”. The number refers to the number worn by John Mackey who played for the Baltimore Colts in the 1960s, was the first president of the NFLPA, and was one of those let go by his team because of his role in the 1970 strike. It is also the amount the NFL currently pays for institutional care for an ex-player suffering from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia: $88,000.

It is possible the issue of disability benefits and medical care will be decided, as have so many other issues, in the courts. An increasing number of NFL players are suing the NFL on these issues. A class action suit would have a powerful impact.

The football players union is not perfect. For one thing, it hasn’t represented well the interests of all its members, focusing instead on enabling ever-higher salaries for its current players. Some 50 years ago the team owners agreed to share equally the network broadcasting revenue but the players have yet to divide up their collective revenue more fairly between current players and retirees.

The NFLPA can also be criticized for not using its member’s fame and influence to assist other workers. NFL stars do not walk the picket lines when other workers strike. They do not honor the picket lines of other workers. This has been starkly emphasized in Madison. To their credit, six members of the Green Bay Packers did sign a letter of support for the public employees that maintained, in part, “When workers join together it serves as a check on corporate power and helps ALL workers by raising community standards.”

But no Packer stars or even, to my knowledge, players in the starting lineup at the Superbowl, have made public their support for other Wisconsin unions.

Indeed, the NFLPA shies away from the word, union. Instead, it calls itself an association. Probably because they believe union has disagreeable connotations in modern America where less than 12 percent of the workforce belongs to a union. Given the polls about public support of unions after the Madison uprising, they might want to reconsider that belief. The word "union" projects a strength and unity of purpose that "association" lacks. And that strength and unity will be crucial when faced with the power and influence of 32 team owners with collective wealth over $40 billion.

Plastic Particles Circulating Endlessly in World's Oceans

Thursday, March 24, 2011 by Inter Press Service
by Stephen Leahy

HONOLULU, Hawaii - That plastic bottle or plastic take-away coffee lid that has 20 minutes of use can spend decades killing countless seabirds, marine animals and fish, experts reported here this week.

On remote Pacific island atolls, diligent albatross parents unknowingly fill their chicks' bellies with bits of plastic that resemble food. The chicks die of malnutrition, and when their bodies decay all those plastic bottle tops, disposable lighters, and the ubiquitous bits of plastic detritus get back into the environment in a cruel perversion of 'recycling'.

There is now so much plastic in the oceans it is likely that virtually every seabird has plastic in its belly if its feeding habits mean it mistakes plastic bits for food. The same is true for sea turtles, marine animals or fish, experts say.

Northern fulmars, a common seabird numbering in the millions, have a collective 45 tonnes worth of plastic bits in their bellies, estimates Jan Andries van Franeker, a biologist with the Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem Studies at the University of Wageningen in Holland.

At least 95 percent of fulmars in the North Sea where van Franeker has been working for three decades have one to several dozen bits of plastic in their stomachs. The same is true for related species like the tiny Wilson's storm petrels, which unknowingly transport an estimated 35 tonnes of plastic from their wintering grounds in the North Atlantic to breeding grounds in the Antarctic, he says.

"If a seabird's feeding habits mean it could mistake plastic for food, then it will likely have plastic in its stomach," he said in an interview at the week-long Fifth International Marine Debris Conference, which ends Friday in Honolulu, Hawaii.

It has been 10 years since the last international marine debris conference and the hope is that industry, civil society, researchers and policy makers will find common ground on the strategies and best practices to assess, reduce, and prevent the impacts of marine debris.

"I sometimes have this kind of dream or nightmare where those fulmars drop all of that plastic on an audience in big conference room like this," van Franeker told IPS. "It would make a very clear statement."

It is a statement that needs to be made with the escalating problem of the world's oceans being filled a staggering amount of plastic, fishing gear, and all other kinds of debris. There is no accurate accounting of exactly how much but it appears to be in the tens of millions of tonnes each year and is mostly from land-based sources.

A 2006 United Nations Environment Program estimate suggested every square kilometer of world's ocean has an average of 13,000 pieces of plastic litter floating on the surface. A walk on an ocean shoreline anywhere in the world will provide ample evidence of the scale of the problem - unless it was recently cleaned up.

The Ocean Conservancy, a U.S.-based NGO, has been leading beach and shoreline cleanups around the world for 25 years. Over that time, nearly nine million volunteers in 152 countries have cleaned up and cataloged 66 million kilograms of trash, according a new report released here in Honolulu.

The top three trash items collected by number of items found were cigarette butts, food packaging and bottle caps or lids. Plastic bags, bottles and straws or stirrers also made the top 10.

"People don't realize that the cumulative impact of marine debris is a major issue for the oceans," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

UNEP and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are conference co-sponsors. (Full disclosure: UNEP provided travel funding for IPS to attend the conference).

Steiner said marine debris is an "out of sight, out of mind" type of problem but noted there was new science showing that tiny plastic particles called microplastics may be leaching endocrine disruptor chemicals affecting the health of marine species and possibly humans.


"We need to become less reliant on plastics," he told conference participants in a video statement.

About 260 million tonnes of new plastic is made each year. Plastic does not really biodegrade, it only breaks down into smaller pieces until it is microscopic - microplastic particles - that can remain in the environment for hundreds of years.

In 1950, just five million tonnes of plastic was manufactured globally. Today each person in developed countries uses about 100 kgs of plastic annually while less developed use 20 kgs and that number is growing rapidly.

Steiner said policies like South Korea's mandatory Extended Producer Responsibility System (EPR) are not only part of the solution but a new source of jobs and income. The EPR system requires manufacturers and importers to recycle a certain amount of their products. In the five years since the program's launch in Korea, six million tonnes of waste has been recycled, including 70,000 tonnes of plastic, producing a financial benefit of over 1.6 billion dollars.

Keeping plastic trash out of the ocean is as simple as setting up a mandatory deposit system with a high enough value on anything plastic to ensure it is too valuable to throw away, says van Franeker. Germany, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries all have deposit systems for plastic bottles and recycling rates are better than 95 percent as a result.

"Degradable or compostable plastic should be banned. The bio-plastics have as much plastic as those made from oil," he said.

The so-called degradable bio-plastics simply break down into microplastic particles faster than traditional plastics. "We might not be able to see them with our eyes but the plastic is still there," he added.

The industry pushes degradable and compostable plastics so that one-time short term use of plastic can continue, he said. "One time use of plastic is simply unsustainable."

Van Franeker is not anti-plastic. "It is a wonderful material. Real plastic is valuable. It can be made to be safe and reusable."

Another Gulf Oil Spill Shows Need for Better Oversight

Friday, March 25, 2011 by Facing South
by Sue Sturgis

There's growing frustration along the Louisiana coast over the lack of answers about the origin of a new oil spill in the Gulf.

First reported over the weekend, the oil has been washing ashore in places along a 30-mile stretch of the coast from Grand Isle south of New Orleans west to Timbalier Island. About a half-mile of shoreline in total has been affected, according to the Coast Guard.

The agency has notified Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners of Houston that preliminary samples of oil collected from Elmer Island west of Grand Isle match those from one of the company's wells damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But the company -- which disclosed spilling less than 5 gallons of oil in its report to the National Response Center, where spills are logged -- questions whether it's responsible for all of the oil washing ashore.

"We do not believe the spill along the coast is the result of our operations," said Anglo-Suisse CEO John Sherwood. "However, when the Coast Guard informed us that this might be the case, the responsible thing to do was mobilize."

That raises the question of whether the company significantly under-reported the spill -- or whether there is another source for the oil.

Earlier this week, Jonathan Henderson with the Gulf Restoration Network flew over the area from Timbalier Bay to Grand Isle to take a closer look and described what he saw:

We came across an area of obvious weathered oil and an oily sheen. This area, surrounding the Hercules platform, appeared to have oil coming up from below the surface. Still, with the amount of sheen visible on the horizon, we were not convinced that this area was the source or at least not the lone source. We continued east toward Grand Isle, then headed due south until we came across a massive amount of new oil including huge oil patties, streamers below the surface, and plumes. We also noticed some sort of activity by crew boats and a huge vessel that appeared to be a storage tanker for crude oil.

Henderson said it appeared that oil was coming from the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, a major oil transfer station in the Gulf. Also pointing to problems at LOOP was an analysis of satellite imagery by Skytruth.

While the exact origin of the spill remains under investigation, the incident highlights the ubiquity of oil contamination in the Gulf.

According to National Response Center data analyzed by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB), 3,638 toxic releases were reported in Louisiana in 2009 -- including more than 50 million gallons of oil.

Equipment failure led to about 56 percent of accidents reported. And even though there was relatively little tropical storm activity in 2009, hurricanes still accounted for 31 percent of the accidents. But many of the reports cited 2005's Hurricane Katrina and Rita and 2008's Gustav as the cause, indicating damage from those storms had yet to be repaired.

Offshore oil operation are not the only source of oil pollution in the state, either: LABB reports that state records shows that Louisiana's 17 oil refineries averaged 10 accidents a week from 2005 to 2009.

Environmental advocates say the latest spill points to the need for better federal oversight of the oil industry. The current regulatory system relies on the polluters to turn themselves in and accurately report what they've spilled -- even though they're subject to fines based on the amount released. At the same time, as Skytruth has noted, the companies know it's unlikely state and federal regulators will dispatch anyone to check on an incident, especially if it's relatively small.

Meanwhile, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement recently issued its third permit for deepwater drilling in the Gulf since last year's BP disaster and implementation of new safety standards. However, environmental advocates say this latest spill shows the need for even better oversight.

"This newest failure of industry and government again reinforces the need for a Regional Citizens Advisory Council that will have the resources to ensure that response plans are adequate and properly executed when necessary," said GRN's Henderson.

One Right-Wing Strategy Creates a Thousand Local Battles

Friday, March 25, 2011 by In These Times
by Amy Dean

Michigan? Ohio? Indiana? In the wake of Republican Governor Scott Walker's over-the-top attacks on public sector workers in Wisconsin, many people are asking which will be the next state to draw the public spotlight. However, looking at the state-level assaults by these arch-conservatives as individual battles might be the wrong approach. Ultimately, the right-wing maneuvers at the state level are part of a closely coordinated strategy. And together they add up to a national story.

The right-wing's strategy is to blame complex economic problems on one of three scapegoats: teachers, immigrants, or government employees. The tactic of scapegoating consistently reappears throughout the history of politics for a reason. It offers politicians an easy way out. Instead of having to come up with real substance for their political agendas, they can tell a simple story with a simple villain. At a time when the country is in grave distress, they can pick out a select group and blame all of our problems on them.

While this strategy has become popular in many Republican statehouses, it is more ridiculous today than ever. The economic problems we face are complex ones. We live in a global economy, where national boundaries that previously shielded our industries have been eliminated and markets are affected by economic decisions made throughout the world. Yet, amid this complexity, conservative leaders insist that things are plain: teachers, immigrants, and government employees are at fault for our woes.

Hiding behind this absurd premise, the right-wing has launched a sneak attack. They are attempting to rush through different statehouses a set of laws that have nothing to do with creating jobs or strengthening the economy. Rather, the laws are about undermining the ability of groups to organize collectively and exercise political influence at the polls.

Teachers and government employees, in particular, have been selected because they are some of the last organized voices that oppose an unchecked corporate agenda. They have been strategically targeted because they represent the last vestiges of middle-class America.

From a distance, the types of measures being pursued in different states look diverse and varied. But if you examine them, these conservative initiatives fall into three basic categories. This three-pronged attack represents a national strategy, and it is what makes the state-level attacks a truly national story.

First, under the guise of targeting "lazy" and "overpaid" teachers, conservatives are working to dismantle public education. Eliminating the rights of teachers to bargain collectively and have a say in their schools, as in Wisconsin, is a first step toward this end, a means of clearing the way of organized opposition to privatization.

The effort in Florida to end teacher tenure is part of this same process, as is the pending legislation in Pennsylvania that would create a voucher program that would draw even more resources from public education. Furthermore, such moves go hand-in-hand with budget austerity for public schools. We see this in many states--including Kansas, where Republican Governor Sam Brownback is slashing this year's funding for schools by over $50 million.

Second, in the name of balancing state budgets, conservatives are seeking to undermine public sector's role in providing essential social services. Part of a decades-long drive to "starve the beast" of government, they are using attacks on public employees in a drive to hand over public activities to private corporations, which can then run them as means of generating profit.

John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio, is pursuing a budget that would sell state prisons and lease the state turnpike to private interests. Similarly, a bill in Michigan would privatize support services to public schools. And the Georgia State Senate is pushing to create a committee that would review all state agencies with an eye to possible privatization. In each case, organized workers are disempowered in the political realm and corporations strengthened.

Finally, conservatives seek to block the voice of immigrants in American politics. Despite a total absence of evidence that non-citizens have voted illegally in this country, New Hampshire Republicans are advancing a "Voter I.D." bill. This would create new barriers to voting and discourage people not yet registered from exercising their legal rights. Unfortunately, that state is not alone. Similar efforts are underway in Colorado, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Tennessee, among others.

Each of the three prongs of the Republican attack is crafted to target a chosen scapegoat. But none of them do anything to address the real economic problems facing Americans.

That these proposals lack any substance in terms of solving public problems is plenty appalling by itself. But making it even worse is the deafening silence from the other side—silence from the politicians and other public leaders who should be speaking out most forcefully against the scapegoating. The political landscape is bleak. One side has drastically oversimplified the difficulties we face in order to push through a disingenuous agenda. The other side can't seem to come up with anything to say in response.

Therefore, it's up to us. All of us who are concerned, disgusted, outraged, and revolted must step up. Grassroots campaigns have sprung up across the country, from "Stand Up Ohio" to "Not My Wisconsin." You can join these campaigns at the local level or get involved with national campaigns like "We Are One," which is sponsoring a national day of action on April 4.

No matter which group the attackers try to scapegoat in a given state, or how they try to disguise their true agenda, we cannot allow the evisceration of the common good in our country to continue.

Want to Cut the Deficit? Restore Fair Taxes on Corporations and the Wealthy (2 articles)

Friday, March 25, 2011 by
by Deborah Burger

If the deficit hawks in Congress are serious about righting our economic ship and reducing deficits in the federal budget and many state capitols, it would we worth listening to the voices rising from the streets suggesting a very different solution than more cuts in safety net programs, education, pensions, and worker’s rights.
Greed at the upper echelons of our society is bankrupting our governments at every level. "Suggesting corporations and the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share," writes Deborah Burger, "usually earns one the reproof of advocating class warfare. But class warfare when practiced by the elites is apparently perfectly acceptable. The average CEO who was paid $27 for every dollar earned by an employer 25 years ago – during which wages have mostly fallen or stagnated – now gets a ratio of about $275 to $1."

This is not a budget fight, it’s a fight for the future of an America in which everyone should be able to retire in dignity, not worry about whether they can go to the doctor when they get sick, or whether there will still be schools for their kids.

How will we pay for it? By increasing the revenues from those who can most afford it, not by punishing those who have the least. By requiring corporations and the wealthiest individuals to pay their fair share, and stop blaming working people for an economic crisis created by Wall Street and exploited by their politician acolytes.

We’ve all heard the arguments. Pass more corporate tax breaks because that’s what makes the economy grow. Except it doesn’t.

Corporate profits per employee are at record levels. At $1.6 trillion, third quarter 2009 corporate profits were the highest ever recorded. Yet official unemployment still hovers near 9 percent, and the real jobless number is probably double that. Whatever big corporations are doing with their record profits, they are not hiring more workers.

Or the argument that our 35 percent corporate tax rate is one of the highest in the world. Except few if any major corporations pay anywhere near that amount. Half of foreign companies and about 42 percent of U.S. companies paid no U.S. income taxes for two or more years from 1998 to 2005, according to a recent Government Accounting Office study.

How do they accomplish this? Pages of corporate tax loopholes that render the supposed tax rate meaningless, loopholes not available to the average working family.

Who are some of those tax scofflaws? Bank of America and Citigroup, two of the financial institutions that, unlike workers did actually create the financial meltdown, paid no taxes in 2009. Boeing, just awarded a new $35 billion contract by the federal government to build airplanes, also paid no taxes between 2008 and 2010 despite recording $10 billion in profits those year, reports Citizens for Tax Justice.

Where’s the shared sacrifice from these corporate giants? Not from General Electric which, as the New York Times reported March 24, made $14.2 billion in profits in 2010, but paid no U.S. taxes, and was rewarded with the appointment of their top executive to head President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. Apparently paying no taxes is a model for how to be competitive.

Then there’s the wealthiest Americans who won a two year extension on tax breaks in December and also profited from the near elimination of estate taxes, at a time when the richest 5 percent of Americans control 23 percent of total income, compared to just 12 percent for the 40 percent at the bottom.

According to Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management and Capgemini Consulting, there were about 3 million high net worth individuals and ultra high net wealth individuals in the US in 2009, those with investable assets, excluding primary residences and consumables, of from $1 million to $30 million.

Calculations by the Institute for Health and Socio-Economic Policy, research arm of National Nurses United, shows that a one-time wealth surcharge of 14% on those assets would more than pay for the $1.6 trillion budget deficit projection for 2011. Or, it would support about 33.8 million households at the national real median income level for 2008, pay for a year’s worth of AIDS medication for about 142 million patients, or create 34 million jobs at $50,000 per year.

In other words, we could more than balance our federal and state budgets without cutting Social Security or slashing pensions for public servants or depriving students of access to a decent education or far too many Americans of access to healthcare.

Turn off the Fox News echo chamber and you can hear the sounds of those calling for economic justice and a more fair tax system every day in the streets of Madison, Columbus, Indianapolis, and other cities across America. They have opened a door that will not be closed, and their voices are getting louder.


Friday, March 25, 2011 by
General Electric: King of the Tax Dodgers
by Chuck Collins

Congressional Republicans are about to cut the Tsunami Warning System from the National Weather Service budget. But if General Electric paid their fair share of taxes, we could reverse this and billions in additional budget cuts.

GE — best known for its light bulbs, refrigerators — and lately, its nuclear reactors — is one of the country's biggest tax dodgers.

Recent filings show that in 2010, General Electric reported global profits of $14.2 billion, claiming $5.1 billion from U.S. operations.

How much did it pay in U.S. corporate taxes? Zero. Actually, less than zero. We taxpayers paid G.E. $3.2 billion.

As David Kocieniewski reports in The New York Times, G.E. "has been cutting the percentage of its American profits paid to the Internal Revenue Service for years, resulting in a far lower rate than most multinational companies."

According to Citizens for Tax Justice, between 2006 and 2010, General Electric reported $26.3 billion in pretax profits to its shareholders but paid no U.S. taxes. In fact, they received $4.2 billion in refunds from Uncle Sam for an effective tax rate of negative 15.8 percent over these five years.

General Electric accomplishes this feat by using is political muscle in Congress and lobbying for special tax treatment and corporate welfare. It also aggressively moves is profits to offshore tax havens including Bermuda, Singapore, and Luxembourg.

While several divisions of GE have struggled over the last decade, GE's accountants think of themselves as a profit center. The company¹s 975-member tax division includes many former Treasury and IRS officials who never a met a loophole they didn¹t love.

Why do we tolerate the behavior of companies like General Electric? These Benedict Arnold corporations reap all the benefits of doing business in the U.S. ­yet avoid their responsibilities for paying. Next time they have a fire at one of their plants, they should call the Fire Department in Bermuda.

GE will only pay its fair share when enough citizens wake up and demand that our politicians crack down on tax dodgers. No politician should be allowed to propose a budget cut or moan about austerity until they crack down on the scofflaws such as General Electric.

Fracking the Wind River Country

Poisoning the Wells

Pavillion, Wyoming.

Jeff and Rhonda Locker’s water changed abruptly one day in the mid-1990s while Rhonda was doing the laundry. A Denver-based gas company was working over an old well in back of their house, when the wash water turned black. “It happened just like that,” Jeff Locker says. “I stopped him and asked him what he did to our water, and of course he didn’t do anything to our water… It’s been bad ever since.”

Donna Meeks’ well water was so good, she used to haul it to town for the school office coffee pot. Neither she nor her husband Louis noticed anything wrong until her co-workers stopped drinking the coffee; it was 2004, and a Canadian company, EnCana, had just drilled a new well about 500 feet from the Meeks home. Some visiting friends later said they noticed the water tasted and smelled like gas, but didn’t want to be rude by saying anything about it.

John and Cathy Fenton had no reason to suspect there was anything wrong with their water—it tasted fine. But just to be neighborly, they went along with the Lockers, the Meeks, and other Pavillion-area residents when the Environmental Protection Agency came in 2009 for an initial round of testing. That’s when they found out that their family had been drinking water laced with methane. Follow-up tests a year later found a whole soup’s worth of semi-volatile organic compounds in the family’s stock well.

There’s something karmic about the possibility that Pavillion, Wyoming, might be the first community to prove its water damaged by natural gas production. While water literally is life everywhere in the arid West, here it’s the epicenter for deep social and political divisions.

Pavillion sits exposed to the wind and weather on the rolling high plains of the Wind River Valley’s northern flank. The town boasts two bars, two restaurants, one grocery, and serves as a social center for the community of farms and ranches that populate the Midvale irrigation district. It’s the schools—practically brand new—that bring people together here, says Jeff Locker, who sits on the school board. “Even retired people come to the ball games,” he says. By ball, Locker means basketball because this is a reservation town.

Louis Meeks lost two horses within a few days of each other: one was 24 years old, the other six--his daughter's barrel racing horse. He suspects they drank contaminated water, but was unable to convince the local veterinarian to do autopsies. "There's people who just don't want to get involved," he says. "That's when I was fighting it by myself." (Photo by Andrea Peacock)

The Eastern Shoshone chose the oblong-shaped valley as their home in 1868 for its relatively temperate winter weather. They were joined here nine years later by the Northern Arapaho, when the Great White Father in his infinite wisdom decided the traditional enemies ought to live together.

The Bureau of Reclamation proclaimed in the early 1900s the Indians weren’t using their land to its fullest potential, so the feds opened up the reservation to homesteaders who settled the north side of the Wind River, with native communities concentrated on the south side. Rich with scenery and poor in industry, the towns all are small, none with more than a few traffic lights.

The Anglos immediately started digging ditches (Midvale being the largest) and diverting water for flood irrigation, decimating fisheries and essentially turning the Wind River into a slough at certain times of the year. The tribes fought back, as chronicled in Geoffrey O’Gara’s book What You See In Clear Water, eventually winning a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision that the water was theirs to allocate, but the state declined to enforce the ruling and the reservation communities still simmer with bitterness over this injustice.

Water also links everyone—lakes and creeks from both the Anglo and Indian sides of the reservation empty into the Wind, connecting towns from Dubois at the far western end of the valley, 80 miles downstream to Riverton. What biologists call the nation’s charismatic megafauna populate the mountains that ring and define the basin: grizzlies and wolves, moose and lion haunt the Owl Creek, Wind River, Absaroka, and Granite ranges.

Now, Pavillion area farmers and ranchers have learned that this water they fought so hard to control is—in places—undrinkable.

Louis Meeks has a schtick for visitors. He fills up a mason jar full of tap water, swirls it around, then offers it up. The dizzying fetor of gasoline is unmistakable. “Would you drink that?” he asks, his voice full of frustration. When Meeks started his family after returning from Vietnam more than 40 years ago, they lived in town, in a trailer. He worked the oil fields, which was good money, but not the kind of life he wanted for his kids. “When we first bought it, we only bought that house and three acres,” he says. “Then we added another eight, and then the 40 across the road.

“I wanted my kids to rodeo and stuff like that. I’ve always loved to garden and live in the country. Even now we’ve got a little bunch of chickens, we raise our own lamb and our own beef… We’ve got apple trees, a couple pear trees out there. We’ve got plum trees and cherry trees. So you know, it was a pretty nice place.”

The Meeks kids are grown now, but Louis and Donna are not relaxing into retirement. Instead, they find themselves shuttling between town and the farm, alternatively choosing between their home and their health. Louis was diagnosed with neuropathy and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and Donna has endured eight operations for polyps in her lungs. Donna moved in with their daughter for a while, then back with Louis, because she didn’t want him out there all by himself. The federal government has warned the Meeks and their neighbors to vent their bathrooms while showering, and avoid open flames and running water in the same room due to the danger of explosion from methane in their drinking water. The Meeks family heats with a propane boiler and pellet stove; these warnings effectively render their home uninhabitable in the winter.

Louis helps out his daughter by picking his seven-year-old granddaughter up after school. He serves her dinner on paper plates—afraid to feed her from dishes washed with tap water—and won’t let her bathe at the farm. “What are they going to do if me and my granddaughter and my wife are here and this house blows up and kills us all?” he says. “Isn’t anybody going to feel bad about it?”

Just a couple years ago, the dynamics of energy development in the United States changed dramatically. Where a 2008 U.S. Geological Survey inventory of oil and gas resources had predicted we would exhaust our undiscovered onshore federal natural gas reserves of roughly 200 trillion cubic feet in 50 years, more or less, industry researchers announced later that year that by combining two technologies—hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling—some companies had been able to wrest gas from shale in Pennsylvania and Texas. This innovation exploded established estimates, with more than 500 trillion cubic feet possibly lying trapped in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale alone; theoretically, this success could be reproduced in shale formations all over the country.

Hydraulic fracturing has been around for more than 100 years, but is nonetheless a marvel of human ingenuity. Basically it involves leaving perforations in the cement casing that lines an oil or gas well, pumping water, sand and a variety of chemicals into the well through these holes at such high pressures that the surrounding rock cracks and releases whatever fossil fuel treasures it holds. Some of the liquids and chemicals used in the process are recovered—often much is not.

A 2004 EPA study on the effects of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater in coalbed methane deposits found that a third of fracturing fluids are expected to get left behind, and that these “will likely be transported by groundwater flowing according to regional hydraulic gradients.” There are more than 30 water-bearing formations lying under the Wind River Valley; according to the USGS, a lot of intermingling goes on down there.

But EnCana is skeptical. A spokesman from America’s largest natural gas producer and owner of the Pavillion area fields declined an interview, but answered questions in writing. Randy Teeuwen explains that the weight of the overlying rock keeps fracking chemicals from mixing with other zones. “It’s based on the law of physics,” he writes. “The volume of fluids required to create a fracture from several thousand feet below the surface that would push through layers of solid rock to a domestic well several hundred feet below the surface is significantly greater by an order of magnitude than any fracture operations ever employed in Pavillion.”

The state of Wyoming has the strictest fracking disclosure requirements in the nation. Tom Doll, of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (the state permitting and watchdog agency), says he believes that despite whatever happened in the past, Wyoming’s current layers of rules make contamination unlikely. “As part of their plan… they have to run their surface casing at least 120 feet deeper than the deepest permitted water supply well,” he says. “They have to identify to us any groundwaters that they might drill through… And then when they do the well stimulation, they have to provide us with the estimated pressures and the estimate height of the frack and the length of the frack as part of their plan.” Wyoming also now requires companies to divulge the kinds and amounts of chemicals they frack with—the first state to do so. If all that information comes together, Doll says, it becomes “easy to prove” that contamination hasn’t happened.

While the EPA is now conducting a study about the effects of fracking chemicals on people’s drinking water (with a initial results due out by the end of 2012), fracking was exempted from the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act in President Bush’s landmark 2005 Energy Policy Act (this exemption is often referred to as the Halliburton Loophole), and regulation was left to the states.

But as the U.S. ramped up its domestic onshore exploration and production, disturbing reports began leaking out of Pavillion and the rest of the country’s gas fields. In the documentary Gasland, Americans were treated to footage of people lighting their tap water on fire, ostensibly because of contamination from hydraulic fracturing. People repeated the refrain to journalists from the nonprofit ProPublica and anyone else who would listen: Our water was good and now it’s bad. But they had no baseline data, which allowed industry executives to appear before a Congressional committee in 2009 and deny any connection, correctly pointing out that no one has proved such a link. Not anywhere. Not ever.

Gas-related water pollution has turned farmer John Fenton into a reluctant activist. "I've met with people from all over the country. You might be in a different state, it might look different, the people might have a different accent, but the stories are the same... I just don't know when people are going to realize that you can't drink dirty water and you can't breathe dirty air. And once that stuff is messed up, it may never be fixable." (Photo credit: Andrea Peacock)

The state capital in Cheyenne is called the People’s House. Like a lot of Western legislatures, it is populated by part-time representatives who travel here for 40 day sessions every other year. They used to wear Carhartt and cowboy hats at their real jobs, but the gas boom in Wyoming has changed all that. “Now it’s filled with suits,” Jeff Locker says. “It’s different.”

Which could account for Louis Meeks’ frustration as he tried to get someone to help him with his water. He called EnCana, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the state Department of Environmental Quality. In 2005, Meeks decided to just drill himself a new water well. At 240 feet, it exploded. “They figured it was making two million cubic feet of gas,” he says. The DEQ asked EnCana to test the Meeks water repeatedly, at least eleven times in between 2004 and 2007. The results always came back clean. The governor’s office finally asked Meeks not to call any more.

At the same time, Meeks’ neighbors were struggling as well. Rhonda Locker’s neuropathy was crippling. “When it first started, she described it has someone driving, running a knife through her bones in her legs,” her husband Jeff says.

She went to the University of Denver for toxicological tests, but was told that unless they knew what to look for, “well, there’s so many tests and they’re so expensive that you can’t do it.” The toxicologist told the Lockers the chemicals that might have precipitated her illness had probably not lingered long enough to be identified. “The damage is there, but the evidence is gone,” Jeff says. “And sometimes I wonder if we still should be living there, but I don’t know. That’s our home.”

Even if the Lockers decided to leave, they’d have an awfully hard time finding a buyer for their house. In 2009, John and Cathy Fenton pushed the issue with the county appraiser’s office, protesting their property tax valuation on seven different grounds related to the impacts of oil and gas. As a result, nine Paradox-area families have had their taxes reduced—and their home values cut in half.

In the meantime, Meeks ran out of patience with the state of Wyoming. In 2008, he got through to the regional EPA in Denver. By early 2009, the feds were on the scene.

The EPA narrowed their focus to domestic water wells within a four-mile radius of a gas well pad just north and west of the Meeks house, affecting the drinking water of an estimated 123 people. They flushed each water well three times its volume to ensure they were getting at the groundwater itself. Then they tested for a whole range of chemicals not commonly included in water analyses, and looked for contaminants at levels far below public health standards (though many of these constituents, EPA project director Greg Oberley says, are so uncommon there are no health standards for them).

They found two so-called “contaminants of concern” in six wells: two forms of a volatile organic compound called adamantane, and 2-butoxyethanol (2-BE), a solvent that is used in fracking foaming agents, and is suspected of causing a whole range of ailments, from cancer to respiratory issues to nervous system problems. And the EPA found methane in eight wells. Investigators began referring to the contamination as a plume.

The second round of tests in 2010 confirmed the initial contaminants, and as well found petroleum compounds in 17 out of 19 water wells tested. The EPA sank three monitoring wells that caught more petroleum compounds—benzene, xylene and naphthalene; a component of jet fuel called methylcyclohexane; and phenol, which is used to make resin-coated sand for fracking—in the groundwater itself.

Fracking could have polluted the water, the EPA says, but so could have any of the 32 reserve pits lying around the field, used by gas companies over the years to temporarily store mud and liquids from the drilling and production process. EnCana has entered three of these pits into the state’s voluntary remediation program.

A third possibility would be the gas wells themselves. According to Tom Doll, of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, there are several which have caught regulators’ eyes as possibly having poor structural integrity.

One of the chemicals found—2-BE—is an ingredient in household cleaners. EnCana—which acquired the fields in 2004 when it bought out the Denver-based Tom Brown company—is quick to offer these and other alternatives, though the idea leaves locals like Jeff Locker wondering how many gallons of Simple Green he would have had to pour down his 460-foot well for it to have shown up on EPA tests after all the purging.

Without any other kind of major industry anywhere near this rural landscape, the list of culprits is short. The EPA’s Greg Oberley says methane has a fingerprint which can be analyzed and linked—or not—to the gas EnCana has been producing.

EnCana spokesperson Randy Teeuwen points out that the groundwater in the Wind River Basin historically has been marginal, with high levels of salt, sulfate and total dissolved solids. Teeuwen notes as well that derivatives of adamantanes are used in vaccines and hydraulic fluid, and 2-BE can come from rubber gaskets and washers. “In all cases,” he writes, “we don’t believe these compounds are associated with oil and gas.”

John Fenton can tick off all the usual ways oil and gas affects rural people: it’s noisy and smelly; workers treat locals like they’re the intruders; he has a heck of a time irrigating around the equipment and well pads; the gas companies take shortcuts around the rules, while government inspectors might as well be invisible. And his family’s health is at risk.

His wife’s parents bought this farm 40 years ago, and the Fentons moved in next door to live a different kind of life. He had been working as welder for the gas companies, and while he makes it clear he begrudges no one their choice of jobs, the work left a bad taste in his mouth.

“We were making $50 an hour and we could work all the hours we could work. We’d make in a month what we make in a year now” he says. “But I felt like a hypocrite because I was already starting to see what was going on. And we just decided that… we'd rather be poor and have a clean conscience.”

Now there are four generations living on the property, including John and Cathy’s baby granddaughter. Cathy and her mother have both lost their sense of taste and smell. Their youngest son developed epilepsy after the move to the farm. And John’s got headaches and chronic fatigue that only went away once when he left to spend a week in the clean environment of Washington, D.C.

“This should be as clean as it gets,” he says, gesturing at the view of the valley and mountains outside their picture window. “There’s no way to tell how it was caused, but it sure is a hell of a coincidence.”

Like a lot of folks who live in the gas patches of America, Fenton understands the big picture better than the average American. The true cost of this so-called clean energy, he says, is paid for by workers with their health as well as by families like his. Wyoming has the worst job-related fatality record in the nation, and much of that is due to the oil and gas fields. To make matters worse, he reads that companies are building liquefied petroleum ports in Oregon and the Gulf Coast. “They can get people all riled up and say, ‘We’ve got to get rid of the Arab oil so we can be independent,’ and in the meantime they’re making plans to ship it overseas so they can make more money off it.

“It’s false patriotism, the biggest hypocrisy in the world.”

Which leaves him wondering what to do for his family. “The problem is that this is not really just a job, you know. It’s a whole lifestyle when you live like this,” he says. “You want to hold out and prove that they can’t destroy your way of life, but then you question, is it worth it? If you’re damaging yourself, or your children, your future, is it worth fighting the fight? Because after all, it is just a piece of land.”

Housing's Double Dip

The Bottomless Pit?

The housing market is now in full retreat. This week, the Commerce Department reported that sales of new homes plunged nearly 17 percent in February to a 250,000 annual pace. That's a record low. At the same time, the median price fell 8.9 percent from February of last year. The news comes on the heels of Monday's equally-dismal report that showed existing home sales dropped 9.6 percent in February. These are Depression era stats and builders know it which is why they're unloading homes as cheaply as possible. It's been 5 years since housing prices peaked in July 2006, and the market is still nowhere near the bottom. In fact, the rate of decline is accelerating. This is shaping up to be the worst spring in history.

If you want to know where the housing market is headed, keep an eye on inventory. That's the whole ball of wax. When inventory balloons, prices go down. At present, inventory is rising (8.9 month's supply) which means that prices have further to fall. But these figures don't include the vast shadow inventory that the banks are holding off-market. Many analysts think there could be another 5 to 6 years of inventory stacked up on bank's balance sheets. The Wall Street Journal's Mark Whitehouse takes an even grimmer view. He thinks the backlog could be in the vicinity of 9 years. Here's a clip from his article in the WSJ:
"Banks' vast pile of foreclosed homes doesn't appear to be diminishing. That's a troubling sign for the future of the housing market.
Back in April, this column tallied up all the foreclosed homes sitting in banks' inventory, as well as the "shadow" inventory of homes in the foreclosure process or on which owners had missed at least two mortgage payments. At the time, we reported that at the current rate of sales, it would take 103 months to unload it all.
Over the past six months, that number has actually risen. Banks managed to pare down the shadow inventory, but largely by taking possession of foreclosed homes. As of September, they owned nearly 994,000 foreclosed homes, up 21% from a year earlier. The shadow inventory stood at 5.2 million homes, down 7% from a year earlier. Grand total: 107 months of inventory.
The numbers aren't exactly comparable to the April analysis, as the providers of data have changed. The inventory data now come from RealtyTrac, the shadow inventory data from LPS Applied Analytics, and the sales data from Core Logic. But no matter how you slice it, the housing market faces almost nine years of foreclosure hangover…..
The mountain of foreclosed homes casts a long shadow." ("Number of the Week: 107 Months to Clear Banks' Housing Backlog", Mark Whitehouse, Wall Street Journal)
If this glut of homes was suddenly dumped onto the market, prices would go into freefall and the banks would be swallowed up by the red ink. That would force the Fed would to initiate another bailout. (which Bernanke definitely does not want) So the banks are releasing homes in dribs and drabs while concealing the number of non-performing loans they're holding from shareholders. It's all a giant coverup.

This is from Bloomberg:
"The number of homes in foreclosure rose to a record 2.2 million in January, according to Lender Processing Services Inc. in Jacksonville, Florida. About 23 percent of homeowners with mortgages had negative equity in the fourth quarter, meaning their home-loan balances were higher than the value of their properties, CoreLogic Inc. said in a March 8 report."
Prices are falling, home equity is drying up, foreclosures are at record highs, and the incentive to "walk away" and let the bank take the mortgage-loss has never been greater. All of the mortgage modification programs have been a total failure. The Fed purchased $1.7 trillion of garbage mortgage-backed securities (MBS) from the banks, but hasn't lifted a finger to help homeowners. All of the pain from the $8 trillion housing bubble has all been shunted onto the backs of ordinary working people.

Present policy continues the same pattern of relentless class warfare. Since Bernanke announced his bond purchasing program (QE2) in November, the Fed has bought $440 billion of US Treasuries notes from the banks. This has pushed equities up nearly 15 percent which (according to the Fed's flow of funds report) makes it look like consumers are rebounding from the deep losses they experienced during the financial crisis. But the figures are misleading. The wealthiest 5 percent of Americans control more than half of all the nation's financial assets whereas the bottom 50 percent have almost none. So the uptick in stocks doesn't improve their situation nearly as much as a boost in home values. When housing prices go up, homeowners are more apt to spend which increases economic activity and stimulates growth. The New York Fed just released a working paper last week which showed that "Between 2000 and 2007, consumer borrowing added an annual average of about $330 billion to the cash they could spend; by 2009, consumers were diverting $150 billion away from potential spending in order to reduce the debts they had built up. This represents a remarkable $480 billion reversal in cash flow in just two years." (NY Fed)

So housing prices are critical to getting the economy back on track. But in a time when all the gains in productivity are upwardly-transferred to management, workers are more dependent than ever on rising asset values in order to increase their consumption. That's why consumer spending will stay flat until housing prices go up.

Obama's unwillingness to seriously address the housing crisis has extended the period of household deleveraging and added to economic sluggishness. He needs to force the banks to negotiate cramdowns (principle reduction) and keep more people in their homes. That's Job#1. Then he needs to boost fiscal stimulus to lower unemployment and increase demand for housing. The Fed's quantitative easing (QE2) can't fix this problem. It can buoy stocks and lower long-term interest rates, but it can't create jobs, patch household balance sheets, or stabilize housing prices. This week's plunging new home sales proves that Bernanke's strategy is a flop. It's time to move on to Plan B.

Motörhead Versus the System

"Just 'Cos You Got the Power, That Don't Mean You Got the Right"

"Nobody's crazy like me!" howls Motörhead front man Lemmy Kilmister on one of the scorching tracks from his band's latest release, The World is Yours. Now 65 years ageless, the bass guitar wrangler and rock and roll bon vivant still can let rip a grizzled heavy metal horror movie vocal like nobody's business (odd that only the Hellraiser film franchise mined that vein for scare flick soundtrack gold), and the band he founded 35 years ago still delivers with the tensile strength of a great white shark's bite.

The band's sustained power is rooted in years of continuous touring. From the early 1980s through the early 90s a four piece two guitar onslaught, Motörhead returned to its power trio roots when guitar strangler Wurzel (not his birth name) left the fold in 1994. Since then, Lemmy, Phil Campbell (on guitar for 26 years), Mikki Dee (pounding drums for 18 years), have tightened the band's pile driving sound – a precursor of speed metal but also a direct link to 50s and 60s rock and roll -- into a vertiable sonic tsunami. Since 1994, they've put out an album every two years, with all three bandmates writing the music that propels Lemmy's lyrics.

Though Lemmy's profligate shagging, drinking and drugging history is jaw-dropping (see his autobiography White Line Fever for incredible details of his late 60s/early 70s speed and acid binges), unlike Keith Richards, he never touched heroin or needles: Motörhead still performs the venerable chestnut "Stay Clean," which references opiate addiction, not personal hygiene. It's a twisted but oddly life-affirming tidal wave. They certainly still deliver transcendence live, as I can attest after seeing four consistently great shows on their recently concluded U.S. tour (as I type, the band is reconquering Australia, to be followed by South America and Europe).

Though Lemmy has penned a number of quite powerful ballads in recent years ("God Was Never On Your Side," "One More Fucking Time"), there isn't much danger of his lyrics ever getting cloying. "Devil in My Head," "Waiting for the Snake," and the misanthropic "Brotherhood of Man" ("We kill for money, wealth and lust. For this we should be damned/ We are disease upon the world. Brotherhood of Man") are unlikely to be cited in vacuous workshops on the power of positive thinking.

Among the standout numbers from 2008's Motorizer was "One Short Life," in which the mutton-chopped Briton sang what sounds like his personal code: "One thing is for certain, By all we know and love. If you compromise your integrity, you should drown in your own blood." On The World is Yours, the mood is largely one of disgust with greedy mediocrities who never had much integrity in the first place.

After 35 years of raging against conformity and injustice, Motörhead still cuts through bullshit with alacrity. Lemmy explained recently that the new album's title is strictly sarcastic, as the world is now owned by banks, not rock and roll enthusiasts. In the video for "Get Back in Line," one of the new songs the band has been performing live, the three Motörhead members approach a swank suite where bankers are engorging themselves on food and drink while throwing down cards that read "More Troops to Afghanistan" and "Break the Unions." Enter Lemmy, Phil Campbell and Mikkey Dee, who commence smashing furniture and physically assaulting fatcats. They really look like they're enjoying what millions of Americans fantasize doing to the "Too Big to Fail" set. You don't see Justin Timberlake or Lady Gaga attacking Wall Street kleptocrats in their videos, do you? Nor do they sing lyrics like "We live on borrowed time. Hope turned to dust. /Nothing is forgiven we fight for every crust./ The way we are is not the way we used to be my friend./ All things come to he who waits. The waiting never ends."

The 2011 biopic Lemmy: 49% Motherfucker, 51% Son Of A Bitch has a lot to recommend it, but die hard fans are left wondering why every semi-famous rock dude in L.A. with a tattoo had to be given a chance to sing the title subject's praises. Certainly showing a room full of kids attending the same school a young Lemmy went to in Wales singing "Ace of Spades" was a nice touch, and Captain Sensible of pioneer britpunk outfit The Damned talking about Lemmy's gigs with that band provides essential punk rock historical context. But why not more interview footage with the film's protagonist, or the crew and band members Mr. Kilmister has spent more time with in recent decades than any other humans? Or more than a glimpse of his side project Head Cat, a trio with Slim Jim of the Stray Cats and rockabilly guitarist Danny B. Harvey, in which Lemmy indulges his 50s rocker obsession by playing covers of Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins tunes? Not to mention the dearth of songs played in their entirety.

For those perhaps slightly damaged individuals who need a more complete look at the man and his band, the BBC documentary Live Fast, Die Old, which aired in 2005 and can be viewed on youtube, provides a more thorough view. For one thing, the BBC doc gives you a better dose of the great man's deranged wordplay, and acknowledges his passion for reading -- specifically P.G. Wodehouse while the camera was running. As Lemmy notes in White Line Fever, he glories in "lunacy for its own sake," as "that's the great British legacy to the world, humour like The Goon Show, The Young Ones, and Monty Python. Some people don't get it, which is too bad for them. You're supposed to laugh in life. Laughing exercises all the facial muscles and keeps you from getting old."

Long may he cackle.

The Cost of Cleaning Up BP's Big Oil Spill is Measured in Lives not Dollars

Obama's Campaign vs Obama's Presidency

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hidden Oil Rigs of Los Angeles

Another Illegal War

Judge Andrew Napolitano - Fox News' one semi-rational voice.

Alarmed by the so-called crisis in Japan?

The invisible hand of the free market explains nuclear safety
By Tom Tomorrow - Tuesday, Mar 22, 2011

"Trump could be the crazy third-world dictator America needs" says Lewis Black

Posted on 03.23.11
By David Edwards

Donald Trump, who may be running for president, boasted last week that he got the best of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in a real estate deal.

Comedy Central’s Lewis Black thinks Trump may have what it takes to be the crazy third-world dictator that America needs.

This video is from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, broadcast March 22, 2011.