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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Akin and Assad: separated at birth?

Representative Todd Akin, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate for Missouri, and Hafez al-Assad, the late dictator of Syria, have a lot in common, not least of which is an obsession with rape. Akin has gained worldwide fame for his recent remarks that rape cannot lead to pregnancy, the underlying belief being that some pregnant women falsely claim to have been raped in order to get around restrictions on abortion. (On a related note, here is video of Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan claiming that a health-of-the-mother exception to abortion bans would be 'a loophole wide enough to drive a Mack truck through it'. Perhaps 'legitimate' health crises don't happen to pregnant women.) Hafez al-Assad, on the other hand, ruled Syria for thirty years under a state of emergency rampant with rape, torture, and murder by the government.

But famously obsessing over rape isn't all that Akin and Assad have in common. Look at this side-by-side comparison of their Wikipedia headshots: big foreheads, prominent combovers. Could they have been separated at birth? Legitimate photographic comparisons suggest an intriguing possibility.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

the end

If anyone had any doubt that petroleum, coal, and gas interests control the Republican Party (and much of the Democratic Party), it's time to put that doubt to rest. The New York Times is now reporting that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has announced a plan to end federal regulation of drilling and mining for petroleum, coal, and natural gas on federal lands and replace it with oversight by the state governments instead. As I have argued elsewhere, the state governments lack the capacity to regulate the drilling and mining operations already underway in their jurisdictions. This is land owned by the federal government. How much land? According to the Times:
The federal government owns about 28 percent of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States. But as of March 2012, only about 37 million acres were under lease for oil and gas operations, of which about 16.3 million acres have active oil and gas production or exploration, according to the Interior Department.
Romney claims that the Obama administration's policy on dirty fuel sources is 'to get those things so expensive and so rare that wind and solar become highly cost-effective and efficient'. And there we have it: the acknowledgement by the Republican nominee that he and his petro-baron backers will do anything they can—including turning over federal lands to weak state governments—to prevent solar and other non-polluting alternatives from ever becoming market-viable. And somehow they call themselves capitalists.

Meanwhile, New York State awaits Governor Andrew Cuomo's (D?-NY) decision as to whether he will allow fracking in the state. This is not going to end well, for New York, for the West, or for the planet.

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Monday, July 9, 2012

how to abolish the electoral college

My most recent article for 3 Quarks Daily is the first of a two-part series on the electoral college. In part one, I use arithmetic to overturn the main practical obstacle to abolishing it. Do feel encouraged to read it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

summer and taxes

The Ministry of Information is getting set to resume business soon. Check this space next month. In the meanwhile, do feel encouraged to read my article on tax justice for 3 Quarks Daily. You can also follow the Information at my Twitter account.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

abstract classicism

Cy Twombly continued to produce extraordinary work right up until his death last week. Although his paintings often included text, they challenge one to find the words to describe them. I have tried to do that in my latest contribution to 3 Quarks Daily, which I submit for your reading pleasure.

Meanwhile, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London is exhibiting works by Twombly and Poussin side by side. I will head down there this weekend to see what comes of pairing two such devoted classicists of such different eras and styles.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

frack that

My latest contribution to 3 Quarks Daily is now available for your reading pleasure. The subject is hydraulic fracturing, 'fracking' for short. Do feel encouraged to read it. Meanwhile, enjoy a nice, tall glass of cool, refreshing water.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

'I think art is difficult'

A very fine artist whose work you should see has just forwarded me a link to Charlie Rose's interview of Richard Serra, broadcast April 21, 2011. Serra speaks only in beautifully complete, hyper-articulate sentences. Whether you have seen the exhibition of his drawings at the Met or not, I am sure you will be moved by listening to Serra talk about his art and questions of making in general. People who teach should especially watch this interview, for Serra's habits of mind are exactly what we need to inculcate in our students.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Our Man in Panama

Earlier today, President Obama released his 'long-form birth certificate' on the premise that doing so would enable American political discourse to move on to more important matters. Here is his explanation from the official White House transcript:
We're not going to be able to do it if we just make stuff up and pretend that facts are not facts. We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.
Before we put the 'birther' issue to rest forever, I would like to offer my thoughts on how this rubbish started during the 2008 campaign. You see, one of the two major-party candidates for president had the problem of being born outside the United States. I am speaking, of course, of John McCain, native of Panama.

What's that you say? You did not know that John McCain was born in Panama? I wonder why. Every reference source agrees. According to Wikipedia, for instance, John McCain was born on August 29, 1936 at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station, Panama Canal Zone, where his father, John Sidney McCain Jr., was stationed. I should point out, for what it's worth, that McCain has always refused to release his birth certificate. [Update: McCain did provide his birth certificate in 2008 to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire in the case of Hollander v. McCain (2008), which challenged his eligibility to serve.]

Although Panama is obviously not part of the U.S., are U.S. military installations abroad in any way, under any statute or provision, 'part' of the U.S.? Is someone born at a U.S. military installation abroad somehow 'in' the U.S.? In a word, no. Let's take a look at the United States Foreign Affairs Manual, Volume 7, §1113, entitled 'NOT INCLUDED IN THE MEANING OF "IN THE UNITED STATES"'. According to paragraph (c)(1),
Despite widespread popular belief, U.S. military installations abroad and U.S. diplomatic or consular facilities abroad are not part of the United States within the meaning of the 14th Amendment. A child born on the premises of such a facility is not born in the United States and does not acquire U.S. citizenship by reason of birth.
Why is it such a problem for a presidential candidate to have been born outside the U.S.? According to Article II of the U.S. Constitution:
No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
The truth is, no one knows for sure what this clause means. No court has ever ruled on it regarding presidential elections, and legal experts are divided. (See summaries of facts and opinions here and here.) In the absence of clear constitutional or jurisprudential guidance, a president born outside the U.S. could be subject to suspicions of constitutional illegitimacy.

Aside from the obviously racist intent, the point of accusing Obama of being foreign-born in 2008 was to draw attention away from McCain's foreign birth. And it seems to have worked. Far more people have heard the lies about Obama's birthplace than the truth about McCain's. Once Obama won the election, the lie took on a life of its own.

I doubt that Obama's statement and document release today will be the final chapter in the history of the 'birther' conspiracy. But I do believe that the need to draw attention away from McCain's 'birther' problem was the first chapter.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Richard Serra at the Met

Last week I contributed an article on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition of Richard Serra's drawing to 3 Quarks Daily. Do feel encouraged to read it.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Egypt etc.

My latest contribution to 3 Quarks Daily provides fresh thoughts on the nascent Arab revolutions. Do feel encouraged to read it.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

more for us

More evidence of Republican zealotry/insanity, as if more were needed: Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas wants to eliminate the state arts commission by spinning it off into a private entity. This would make Kansas the only state in the Union without a state entity to promote the arts. Even [fill in the state you like least] has a state arts commission. The state's annual budget for the arts: $574,000. The Kansas Arts Commission, which is not taking the governor's plan lying down, reports that the state would consequently lose
•$778,300 in direct funding from the National Endowment for the Arts

•$437,767 in indirect grants and services from Mid-America Arts Alliance, the Kansas Arts Commission's regional partner[.]
My math says that would be a net loss to the state of $642,067. Add the $200,000 that the state expects the spinoff to cost, and the total rises to $842,067. That's before taking into account lost jobs, lost taxes on those jobs, and so on, not to mention the impoverishment of Kansan society as creative professionals flee the state. I could, if I were inclined, supply copious, convincing data demonstrating the revenue boost that the arts supply to cities and states across the country, but that's not really the point today.

I am more interested in seeing this as an example of ideological opportunism by the Republicans. We don't need any more data to know that Brownback's costly plan forms no part of a genuine budget-cutting effort. He is simply using the state's economic downturn to carry on the Republican culture wars. (Let me also take this opportunity to remind readers that, as a U.S. Senator, Brownback supported a far-right Israeli plan to annex the West Bank and Gaza deport all Palestinians therefrom.)

In the past, I might have written letters to whomever in Kansas in defense of the arts commission. In college, I organized a postcard-writing campaign to support the National Endowment of the Arts. We generated over a thousand postcards to students' individual members of Congress, and this was during a summer term. And now? 63% of the Kansas electorate voted for Brownback last year. After his fourteen years in the U.S. Senate, they surely knew what they were getting. Making matters worse, the comments from local readers at the Topeka Capital-Journal's website mostly support Brownback's plan and sneer at the arts.

I feel for the good people of Kansas who may now lose the Topeka Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1946, and other cultural riches. But my sympathy is fairly limited, for this is exactly what the people of Kansas chose in their elections. This is democracy at work. If the people of Kansas want to be governed by anti-arts, anti-math maniacs, that is their right. The one note of solace that we can take from this sorry episode: there may be more arts funding for the rest of us, who support the arts not just in the comfort of our seats at the symphony but at the ballot box as well.

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

shout it from the mountaintop

I have grown as weary of President Obama's premature compromises and bad salesmanship as the next Democrat. As I have pointed out elsewhere, his failure to trumpet his achievements is particularly keen in the matter of mining regulation. Case in point: the New York Times reported yesterday that the EPA has revoked the permit for a massive mountain-top removal coal project in West Virginia. According to the Times, 'It was the first time the agency had rescinded a valid clean water permit for a coal mine.' Yet somehow this major eco-political event has failed to become a major news item, nor should we expect to hear Democrats talk about it.

The permit was issued in 2007 by the Bush administation to the Arch Coal company to blast off the mountaintops over an area of 2,278 acres in order to mine the coal underneath. The millions of tons of debris would fill valleys, block streams, and pollute drinking water. The EPA's revocation comes in the form of a 99-page 'Final Determination' which you can read here.

Mining companies and West Virginia's 'Democratic' Senator Joe Manchin have unsurprisingly expressed outrage at the EPA's decision. Less interested parties have also objected, including the National Realtors Association, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association on the grounds that the government ought not revoke permits, i.e. do its job.

The authority for the EPA's revocation comes from 33 U.S.C. §1344(c), also known as §404(c) of the Clean Water Act:
(c) Denial or restriction of use of defined areas as disposal sites

The Administrator is authorized to prohibit the specification (including the withdrawal of specification) of any defined area as a disposal site, and he is authorized to deny or restrict the use of any defined area for specification (including the withdrawal of specification) as a disposal site, whenever he determines, after notice and opportunity for public hearings, that the discharge of such materials into such area will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas. Before making such determination, the Administrator shall consult with the Secretary. The Administrator shall set forth in writing and make public his findings and his reasons for making any determination under this subsection.
To the EPA's credit, its Final Determination includes, amidst all its ecological and statutory data, a section on 'Environmental Justice'. In addition to noting the relative poverty of Logan County, West Virginia, it also sticks up for the idea of the commons:
The mountains affected by Spruce No. 1 Mine are an important cultural resource for many residents. In many cases the mountains have helped define their culture, and they are an integral part of their daily lives. For example, the mountain ridges of southern West Virginia have for over two centuries been viewed largely as a 'commons', where local residents have gathered wild medicinal herbs such as American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) (Hufford 2003). In many cases, collection of these wild herbs provides much needed extra income to local communities during times of unemployment or economic hardship (Bailey 1999). Removing these mountains may have profound cultural changes on the residents in the area, and so it is important that cultural impacts be considered as well.
What dumbfounds me about all this is why the Obama administration allows stories like this one to be buried on page A14 of the newspaper and absent from television news. The mining interests are surely blasting this news to their constituents. Every mineworker who was hoping for one of the project's promised 250 jobs has surely heard from aptly-named Arch Coal that the project has been blocked by a tyrannical, overreaching government run amok. The people not getting the story are the everyday eco-friendly liberals whose votes the Obama administation will need in 2012. And so it goes.

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