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Ethel the Blog
Observations (and occasional brash opining) on science, computers, books, music and other shiny things that catch my mind's eye. There's a home page with ostensibly more permanent stuff. This is intended to be more functional than decorative. I neither intend nor want to surf on the bleeding edge, keep it real, redefine journalism or attract nyphomaniacal groupies (well, maybe a wee bit of the latter). The occasional cheap laugh, raised eyebrow or provocation of interest are all I'll plead guilty to in the matter of intent. Bene qui latuit bene vixit.

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Thursday, May 13, 2004

THE MISSING ORDER
Sam Smith at
Progressive Review tells of something entirely lacking in the cabal's propaganda blitz about the prison torture in Iraq.
A reader points out something stunningly absent from all the verbiage about torture spewing out of Washington: neither George Bush nor Donald Rumsfeld has issued a direct order not to do it again: no more beatings, excessive restraints, torture of children, attacks on eyes, sexual threats and abuse, naked punishment, women's underwear worn on the head, hoods, sleep deprivation, pouring ice cold water or using dogs to bite prisoners.

Nothing. Nada. And until such an order is issued, all professions of shame, all promises of investigations, all preparations for trial are a fraud, because the implicit message remains that you will only be punished if the media finds out about it.

The order should be issued by Bush and should apply to federal prisons in this country as well as those in Iraq and Gitmo. Anything less is an implicit approval of torture at home and abroad.


posted by Steven Baum 5/13/2004 12:00:51 PM | link

30% OFF THE TOP
Christopher Byron tells what the percentage of the take is for the whores of war.
In America's war against terrorism, at least 30 cents on the dollar is winding up in the pockets of 100 or more "private military companies" - mostly American - that are thought to be operating in Iraq.

These companies are Corporate America's new "dogs of war," and thanks to the struggle in Iraq, business is booming.

Professor Deborah Avant of George Washington University, a specialist in Pentagon contracting practices, says the "30 cents on the dollar" may in fact be a lowball estimate.

"It's difficult to get reliable data," acknowledges Avant, who has been tracking defense contract awards since the attacks of 9/11. But, she points out, as the fighting has intensified this spring, spending on the war has escalated, and the share of it going to private military companies is probably increasing.

Until four civilians working for a Virginia contractor called Blackwater Security were slain in Fallujah, Iraq, in March, and their charred bodies were hung from a bridge, most Americans seemed unaware that civilian contractors were part of the U.S. front-line war effort in Iraq at all.

But employees of at least two separate private military companies - Titan Corp. and CACI International, both publicly traded on Wall Street - have now been implicated in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

And that in turn has helped call attention to just how deeply involved such companies now are in U.S. defense efforts.

The cost to U.S. taxpayers is hardly cheap. One such contractor, Reston, Va.-based Dyncorp, is currently recruiting ex-cops and others on a U.S. State Department contract to help set up an Iraqi police force and run that country's prisons.
...

DynCorp Sucks keeps track of all the dirt on DynCorp, and it's enough build a mountain on the south forty.
posted by Steven Baum 5/13/2004 11:41:30 AM | link

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

THE LOOMING PROPERTY CRASH
Clive Maund isn't an optimist about the future of the (sur)real estate market.
...
The time has finally arrived for the US property market too, but unfortunately, for most people, it will not be an occasion to celebrate. The plunge in the bond markets and in the REITS (real estate investment trusts) a few weeks ago signals that rising interest rates are in the pipeline and are thus sounding the death knell for the property boom. In particular, it is the alarming plunge in the REIT index that has provoked me into writing this article.

Fundamentally, there are a wide variety of factors that are set to exacerbate the collapse in the property market. The most obvious of these is the rampant, credit fuelled, highly leveraged and now maxed-out speculation in property that is approaching its inevitable nemesis. Most everyone associated with the property market have had a glorious few years, and many people have been basking in the glow of a treasure chest of unearned capital gains, and dipping their paws into the honey pot of increased equity to rush out and buy such essentials as flat screen cinema-sized TV's and SUV's and avail themselves of the vast array of cheap goods made in China, or on sale at Wal-Mart. Persons who would not normally be considered credit-worthy have been encouraged to buy homes with no down-payment whatsoever, and even, according to the half hour infomercial by someone who goes by the name of Carlton Sheets, that I happened to watch in the middle of the night in a hotel in Philadelphia in February, while seriously jet-lagged, can have it rigged so that they get $50, 000 cash whacked into their paw on conclusion of the deal. What a wonderful country, I thought, people are actually lining up to give you money.

The US economy has now become so distorted and abnormal, as a result of artificially low interest rates and the resultant across the board explosion of credit and pyramiding of derivatives, which have fuelled asset bubbles, misallocation of resources and a continuation of massive consumption, that it has become perilously unstable and vulnerable, with the result that any significant rise in rates will lead to an economic implosion.
...

He does, however, offer some advice for weathering the storm.
...
In any case, appropriate defensive action will depend entirely on the personal circumstances of the individual. If you are perfectly happy in the house in which you live, if it is a real home, then you have quality of life, and in a sense it is irrelevant whether your house is worth $15 or $500,000. Appropriate action for you would probably be to pay down debt to ensure that if, in the coming recession/depression, you get kicked out of your job, you won't also end up being booted out of your home. On the other hand, if you have additional discretionary property, such as a second and maybe a third house, I believe you would be very wise to take of advantage of the fabulous, insane prices currently on offer and cash in, in the knowledge that you can buy back a similar property for perhaps half the price, maybe less, in a few years. Property speculators in particular would be very wise to cash in their chips now, in my opinion. Homeowners who are undecided about a potential move, perhaps due to having neighbours like the Osbournes, would probably do well to rent for a while and then move in to buy a really nice place after prices have plunged.
...

posted by Steven Baum 5/12/2004 02:09:21 PM | link

WHY RUSSIA STILL MATTERS
Those endearingly cynical blokes at the Exile have come up with a list of
50 Reasons Why Russian Still Matters, from which we'll purloin a few of the more entertaining entries.

3. North Korea's counterfeit dollars

Without the money it makes by selling counterfeit $100 bills, North Korea would soon collapse. Waves of refugees and illegal weapons would pour into Northern China and South Korea, leading to a crime wave, destabilization and massive suffering. Only Russia can provide North Korea with the criminal infrastructure it needs to ensure that those fake $100 bills make it to the world market.

9. Suitcase nukes

Regardless of the fact that no real experts take rumors of the arsenal of Russian suitcase nukes seriously, they do have a strategic value. The specter of a handheld bomb turning Manhattan into atomic dust is enough to encourage Americans to willingly surrender their civil rights, courtesy of the Freedom Support Act. Such paranoia feeds right into the hands of American security agencies. They've been gaining more power with every president since FDR (with a slight hiccup after Nixon), and surely they realize that the Russians can help them further consolidate!

16. Socialism

There's nothing like the occasional news report about a fire caused by an exploded glasnost-vintage Elektron TV burning down an apartment building to remind us of the problems caused by a centrally-planned economy. Plus, it keeps folks from agitating for universal healthcare and other commie programs.

20. NATO

Come on, aside from giving the Coalition of the Willing a few more yes-monkeys, what purpose does NATO really serve these days? If countries want to keep joining it, it has to stand for something, doesn't it? Serbia's hardly enough of a threat to justify its continued existence. So that "something" has to be containing the Russian Bear. Why else was the first NATO operation in the Baltics an airspace-sovereignty pissing contest backed up by a squadron of F-16s?

38. Mongol hordes

Unless you want the Mongol hordes sweeping westward again, you'd better pray that Russia stays alive. The Mongols may not seem very scary now, but it's historical fact that until the Russians finally drove them back, the Mongols wiped out everything in their path. If Russia vanished, the Mongol ponies would instinctively start galloping west. Next thing you know, diners at sidewalk cafes in Brussels would be keeling over with Mongol arrows in their throats. Which would not be a good thing, no matter what you say.

43. Adoptions

Go to the lobby of the Hotel Belgrade on a weekday evening and take in an eyeful: overweight Nebraskan housewives in jeans and sneakers playing with bewildered Russian toddlers while their NASCAR-jacket-wearing husbands surreptitiously eye the working girls at the lobby bar. Hey, we're not complaining; at least a few of those tykes are going to end up on Girls Gone Wild fifteen years from now, giving us something to jerk off to while we tearfully reminisce about the good old days. Besides, Russia's doing more than its fair share in keeping white trash white.
posted by Steven Baum 5/12/2004 01:28:05 PM | link

AN F FOR LEADERSHIP
The latest Texas Observer contains an
editorial about the machinations of the GOP-controlled (and soon to be even more GOP-controlled) Texas legislature's attempts to fund the increasing needs of the Texas education system while lowering property taxes for their wealthy constituents. Barring the kidnapping of Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, et al. by Martians, the solution will be an even higher regressive sales tax. An interesting facet of the situation is a lawsuit filed three years ago by 300 Texas school districts, as is explained in another article.
Savor the irony. Today, legislators face a deadline on school finance not of their own making. On July 26th the Travis County District Court is set to hear West-Orange Cove v. Alanis, the lawsuit brought by nearly 300 Texas school districts alleging chronic under-funding by the state.

As originally filed three years ago by the wealthiest districts, the suit alleged that the wealth-equalizing “Robin Hood” system deprived them of meaningful local control. As of late last year, however, the suit has been joined by hundreds of poor and mid-wealth districts, and the focus has shifted away from eliminating recapture. The litigation now asks the state to step up it’s share of school funding.

To appease districts now, says David Thompson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, legislators will have to decrease reliance on local property taxes and make up the loss with state money, as well as substantially increase the amount of money that goes into the system. And, Thompson says, they’ll have to do it without increasing the funding gap between rich and poor schools.

No strategy offered to date would seem to meet the suit’s requirements. The governor proposed a statewide tax, capped at $1.40 per $100 of valuation, on commercial property; local governments would keep revenues from residential property, capped at $1.25. This plan essentially excuses so-called “mansion districts,”—those whose property wealth is in high-dollar homes—from the equalization system. Under the plan, the ritzy Highland Park district would keep $13,900 per student, while kids in Dallas ISD’s largely poor and minority schools would get $179.

If legislators were hoping to derail the lawsuit by bribing wealthy districts to drop their case, they’ll be disappointed.

“We’ve had these conversations, and we’re all in this together,” Thompson says. “The idea that you’re going to peel off particular groups, we’re going to resist that. You’re going to see a proposal that serves all districts equally or you’re going to see the lawsuit move forward.”

So as long as both the wealthy and poor districts stick together, it's going to be even harder for Tom DeLay's puppets to fulfill their primary goal of further enriching their Enron-esque pals. Now for the editorial.
It’s easy to forget that there are children involved in the ongoing special session on school finance. Talk by the leadership at the Capitol seems mostly focused on how to further shift the tax burden from the wealthy to the poor. It’s clear the main priority for much of the Texas GOP is property tax relief. In most speeches, it comes first and the kids trail second like an afterthought. The party’s suburban base and some of its biggest campaign contributors bet on lower property taxes back in the 2002 election, and payday has finally come. For the governor who called the session without the consensus he declared a prerequisite, this exercise appears to be all about spin for the 2006 election.

But before you can give to Paul, you have to rob Peter. The way it’s practiced in 2004, Texas school funding is like a balloon. Want to lower property taxes but can’t afford politically or legally to take money away from schools? Press down, and out the difference comes as regressive sales and gambling taxes. A perfect example of who could soon be paying for public education in Texas can be found in a House proposal to tax coin-operated laundry machines.

And what about those children? A July court date looms for a lawsuit against the state by property wealthy and poor school districts. They demand an increase in state education funding. And yet, despite the deadline, GOP leaders lack the will to provide more revenue to invest in the future of Texas.

Of course, they’ve been flunking that one for months. During the regular session, this Legislature slashed $350 million worth of education funding out of the budget. The cuts included money for at-risk third graders, the Reading/Math/Science Initiative, and a program that removes disruptive students from regular classrooms but still educates them.

The problem with taking money from the poor is that they don’t have much of it. That leaves business taxes. But these days, Texas corporations occupy a rarefied perch far removed from the GOP’s tiny revenue-raising universe. If only those working families just scraping by could collectively scratch up enough to donate generously to Gov. Rick Perry and hire a lobbyist like Buddy Jones—maybe then they would have a chance.

And those children? Nearly half of their teachers want to leave the classroom, according to a recent study by Sam Houston State University. Schools throughout the system are already understaffed. Estimates put teacher vacancies as high as 50,000. Add the stress of a single indicator test that determines the fate of both pupil and teacher. Throw in teaching to the test which demolishes the creativity in learning that makes the profession so attractive in the first place. If all of that wouldn’t motivate a teacher to flee the state, during the regular session this Legislature hacked the health insurance program for teachers too. It also helped push the teacher retirement system toward insolvency [See “First the Children, Then Their Teachers,” March 28, 2003].

And those children? Well, when a proposal to tax pollution that is sickening kids across the state at this very moment is laughed off the stage, need we ask that question anymore?

The 78th Legislature has shown itself to be a lousy steward of the environment and to be partial to a stacked system of justice. The Lege declared war on low-income children, with 130,000 to date off the health insurance rolls. Now, it’s side-stepping a real crisis in education funding to shift the tax burden away from the rich and powerful.

That has to be at least a trifecta. If only it was taxable under the new plan.


posted by Steven Baum 5/12/2004 01:03:58 PM | link


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