Monthly Archives: June, 2006

Kerry Blogs on Net Neutrality

From Sen. John Kerry, guest-blogging for Savetheinternet.com:

On Wednesday in the Senate Commerce Committee I warned that those of us who believe in net neutrality will block legislation that doesn’t get the job done.

It looks like that’s the fight we’re going to have.

The Commerce Committee voted on net neutrality and it failed on an 11-11 tie. This vote was a gift to cable and telephone companies, and a slap in the face of every Internet user and consumer.

It will not stand.

I voted against this lousy bill for two reasons: because net neutrality and internet build-out are crucial to building a more modern and fair Information Society, and both were pushed aside by the Republicans.

Everyone says they don’t want the new world we’re living in to be marked by the digital divide — the term is so clichéd it’s turned to mush — but yesterday was a test of who is willing to ask corporate America to do anything to fix it, and the Commerce Committee failed miserably. Why are United States Senators afraid to say that companies should be expected to foster growth by building out their broadband networks to increase access?

Free and open access to the internet is something all Americans should enjoy, regardless of what financial means they’re born into or where they live. It is profoundly disappointing that the Senate is going let a handful of companies hold internet access hostage by legalizing the cherry-picking of cable service providers and new entrants. That is a dynamic that would leave some communities with inferior service, higher cable rates, and even the loss of service. Not to mention inadequate internet service — in the age of the information.

This bill was passed in committee over our objections. Now we need to fight to either fix it or kill it in the full Senate. Senator Wyden has already drawn a line in the sand — putting a “hold� on the bill, which prevents it from going forward for now. But there will be a day of reckoning on this legislation soon, make no mistake about it, and we need you to get engaged — pressure your Senators, follow the issue, demand net neutrality and build-out.

You can have an impact on whether the internet will be an engine for democracy, innovation, and competitive commerce by calling Lincoln Chafee at 453-5294 and urging him support net neutrality.

Those Who Cannot Remember The Past…

This past Sunday was an occasion to reflect on the life and times of George, a woeful leader if there ever was one. How did such a man—a mediocre student in his younger days who would rather pull a prank on a classmate than pull a book off a shelf—later ascend to such authority? How did such a man—who, at one point in his service career, abandoned his duties and went A.W.O.L.—later come to command a powerful military force? How did such a man—bristling with ego and so brash and glory-seeking—later attain a position of respect and responsibility? Given such qualities and prior experiences, is it any wonder what came to pass? Is it any wonder that George became responsible for a military misadventure of historic proportions, one in which he foolishly and unnecessarily put troops in harm’s way? Is it any wonder he was so ill thought of by some military officers, such as Major General David Stanley, who at one point had the following to say about George:

“I have seen enough of him to convince me that he is a cold-blooded, untruthful and unprincipled man. He is universally despised by all his officers…�

And consider, too, the words of the renowned historian, Stephen Ambrose, who offered the following assessment:

“His undoubted audacity and courage were offset by a criminal lack of good judgment, a refusal to take the time to gather intelligence about the enemy, an insistence on attacking at the earliest possible opportunity, a petty jealousy toward his fellow officers, a monumental ambition, and a total disregard for the lives of his men.� (Americans At War, p. 60)

Such criticism is not unwarranted. George brought it all on himself. Without question, his actions were reckless and ill-conceived. And, as a result, on the 25th of June in the year 1876, George Armstrong Custer died for his sins.

Who did you think that I was writing about?

Whitehouse: Republicans Making College Unaffordable

In 2005, the cost of attending a private college was $29,026 per year on average, including room and board. For public universities, the average cost in 2005 was $12,127.

Sheldon Whitehouse is calling on lawmakers to stop the impending hike in the interest rate on student loans. Rates for student loans are set to increase by almost 2% on July 1, 2006. From a report released by the Whitehouse campaign:

The Budget Reconciliation Bill passed by Congressional Republicans cut $12 billion from federal student loan programs. $2 billion of the reduction in government spending on student loans will result from raising the fixed interest rate on PLUS loans from 7.9% to 8.5% for all loans disbursed after July 1, 2006. The Republicans in Congress put their true priorities on display by advocating $70 billion in tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans at the same time they were making federal loans $2 billion more expensive for parents.

Whitehouse also helpfully suggests that borrowers contact their lender before June 30 (that’s tomorrow!) to see if they can consolidate their loans at the lower rate.

Borrowers who have taken out at least one federal loan may be able to consolidate loans to lock in lower interest rates and save money, if they act by June 30. Information on federal student loan consolidation is available at http://www.loanconsolidation.ed.gov or by calling 1-800-557-7392.

Walter Cronkite Video on Medicare Part D

This video, produced by Families USA, gives a good summary of how the drug benefit is not working for seniors, is benefiting the pharmaceutical industry, and is costing taxpayers.

The Cost of Reduced Funding for Medicare/Medicaid

The New York Times Reports:

Employers and consumers are paying billions of dollars more a year for medical care to compensate for imbalances in the nation’s health care system resulting from tight Medicare and Medicaid budgets, according to Blue Cross officials and independent actuaries.

A new study commissioned by Premera Blue Cross, based in Seattle, has found a rapid acceleration in higher costs to private payers in Washington State, for example, as hospitals and doctors grapple with constraints in the federal health insurance programs.

The study found that in 2004, the most recent year for which full data are available, hospitals in Washington State charged an additional $738 million — or 14.3 percent of their revenue — to private payers to make up for Medicare and Medicaid underpayments. Similarly, doctors shifted $620 million, or 12 percent, said John Pickering, an actuary at Milliman Inc., a consulting and actuarial firm that conducted the study.

A similar Milliman study in California for 2004 said that health plans and consumers paid an additional $4.5 billion for hospital care in that state to compensate for Medicaid and Medicare constraints. Milliman’s California study, commissioned by Blue Shield of California, did not include physicians’ charges. [full text]

More Bushwa

As has been reported widely, President Bush had a rather noteworthy exchange with a reporter yesterday, during which he took umbrage at the actions of the terrorist-abetting news media in this country:

Q: Sir, several news organizations have reported about a program that allows the administration to look into the bank records of certain suspected terrorists. My questions are twofold: One, why have you not gone to Congress to ask for authorization for this program, five years after it started? And two, with respect, if neither the courts, nor the legislature is allowed to know about these programs, how can you feel confident the checks and balances system works?

THE PRESIDENT: Congress was briefed. And what we did was fully authorized under the law. And the disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America, and for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America. What we were doing was the right thing. Congress was aware of it, and we were within the law to do so.

The American people expect this government to protect our constitutional liberties and, at the same time, make sure we understand what the terrorists are trying to do. The 9/11 Commission recommended that the government be robust in tracing money. If you want to figure out what the terrorists are doing, you try to follow their money. And that’s exactly what we’re doing. And the fact that a newspaper disclosed it makes it harder to win this war on terror. [full text]

The brief press conference concluded with this inflammatory vignette. It is worth noting that, in his response, Mr. Bush did not in the least address the issue of how well (or poorly, as the case may be) “the checks and balances system works� at present. In addition, he apparently did not show a trace of irony when he categorized the behavior of the press (specifically, the New York Times) as “disgraceful.� Well, if anyone should know something about disgraceful behavior, it’s this law-flouting, war-mongering President. In response to his blame-the-media, cut-and-run-from-the-facts horse manure of a statement, Mr. Bush is taken to task today by Washington Post columnist, Dan Froomkin. An excerpt of the article, which is well worth reading in full, follows:

Nuke The Messenger

In accusing the press — and specifically, the New York Times — of putting American lives at risk, President Bush and his allies have escalated their ongoing battle with the media to nuclear proportions.

Here’s what Bush had to say yesterday: “We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America, and for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America.”

Here’s Vice President Cheney: “The New York Times has now made it more difficult for us to prevent attacks in the future.”

Here’s press secretary Tony Snow: “The New York Times and other news organizations ought to think long and hard about whether a public’s right to know, in some cases, might overwrite somebody’s right to live, and whether, in fact, the publications of these could place in jeopardy the safety of fellow Americans.”

It’s a monstrous charge for the White House to suggest that the press is essentially aiding and abetting the enemy. But where’s the evidence?

The White House first began leveling this kind of accusation immediately after a New York Times story revealed a massive, secret domestic spying program conducted without congressional or judicial oversight. See, for instance, Bush’s December 17, 2005 radio address, in which he said the disclosure put “our citizens at risk.”

But not once has the White House definitively answered this question: How are any of these disclosures actually impairing the pursuit of terrorists? Terrorists already knew the government was trying to track them down through their finances, their phone calls and their e-mails. Within days of the Sept. 11 attacks, for instance, Bush publicly declared open season on terrorist financing.

As far as I can tell, all these disclosures do is alert the American public to the fact that all this stuff is going on without the requisite oversight, checks and balances.
How does it possibly matter to a terrorist whether the government got a court order or not? Or whether Congress was able to exercise any oversight? The White House won’t say. In fact, it can’t say.

By contrast, it does matter to us. This column has documented, again and again , that when faced with a potentially damaging political problem, White House strategist Karl Rove’s response is not to defend, but to attack.

The potentially damaging political problem here is that the evidence continues to grow that the Bush White House’s exercise of unchecked authority in the war on terror poses a serious threat to American civil liberties and privacy rights. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that an American president used the mechanisms of national security to spy on his political enemies.

The sum total of the administration’s defense against this charge appears to be: Trust us. Trust that we’re only spying on terrorists, and not anyone else. But what if the trust isn’t there? And what if they’re breaking the law?

That’s why it’s better to attack. It makes for great soundbites. It motivates the base. And perhaps most significantly, it takes attention away from Bush’s own behavior. [full text]

Tell Chafee to Keep our Taxes Fair

Even the Projo agrees: repealing the estate tax would not only be foolish economically. It also flies in the face of the American ideals of fairness and opportunity:

Yet more to the point is the damage that repeal of the tax would do to our civic culture. As it is, Americans with inherited wealth have a huge and growing advantage over others, in a society in which fancy educations and influential social contacts almost guarantee lifetime success.

Great inherited wealth can also ensure socio-economic and political power through a family’s generations. Such nepotism — on the rise in both politics and other American arenas — undermines the stabilizing effect of public faith in our system’s fairness and in America’s position as the “Land of Opportunity.” Indeed, today there is more socio-economic mobility in much of Europe than here.

In short, if our representative democracy and civil society are dominated by a hereditary plutocracy, they are bound to decline.

The estate tax may be more symbolism than anything else, but such symbolism matters much in a country with the stated values of America. Most Americans quite rationally consider the estate tax the fairest one we have. It is unlikely that the drive to eliminate it would have gotten so far if it were not for the fact that such an action would richly benefit big campaign contributors.

From Rhode Islanders for Social and Economic Justice:

Already, less than one percent of American estates—one in 370! Must pay this tax. But the Kyl proposal would exempt many multimillionaire estates from the tax, and would result in either more major cuts to vital programs and services, or in a larger share of taxes paid by lower- and middle-income families.

Where does Senator Chafee stand?

Thankfully, Senator Chafee voted against the full estate tax repeal last time it came up. But he has yet to take a public position on the dangerous Kyl proposal, stating only that he continues to oppose full repeal.

You can make a difference on this issue by calling Lincoln Chafee at 453-5294 and urging him to oppose the estate tax repeal or any compromise reduction in the estate tax.

In The Absence Of The Social

I am of the belief that much of what ails this republic and its citizenry is connected in some fashion to the ongoing erosion of community life. The less we are connected to one another and the less we experience interpersonal closeness, the more we grow discontented, alienated, and despondent, seeking to fill or numb the void with material consumption, an overemphasized work life, or other distractions and addictions. Yesterday, news of a recent study documenting a decrease in the core social network of many Americans was released, as reported here by Reuters:

Americans’ circle of close friends shrinking

Americans are more socially isolated than they were 20 years ago, separated by work, commuting and the single life, researchers reported on Friday.

Nearly a quarter of people surveyed said they had “zero” close friends with whom to discuss personal matters. More than 50 percent named two or fewer confidants, most often immediate family members, the researchers said.

“This is a big social change, and it indicates something that’s not good for our society,” said Duke University Professor Lynn Smith-Lovin, lead author on the study to be published in the American Sociological Review. Smith-Lovin’s group used data from a national survey of 1,500 American adults that has been ongoing since 1972.

She said it indicated people had a surprising drop in the number of close friends since 1985. At that time, Americans most commonly said they had three close friends whom they had known for a long time, saw often, and with whom they shared a number of interests. They were almost as likely to name four or five friends, and the relationships often sprang from their neighborhoods or communities.

Ties to a close network of friends create a social safety net that is good for society, and for the individual. Research has linked social support and civic participation to a longer life, Smith-Lovin said. more…

I am reminded of a wonderful parable that the author and psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom, offers in his book, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. I think that it pretty much says it all:

There is an old Hasidic story of a rabbi who had a conversation with the Lord about Heaven and Hell. “I will show you Hell,� said the Lord, and led the rabbi into a room in the middle of which was a very big round table. The people sitting at it were famished and desperate. In the middle of the table, there was an enormous pot of stew, more than enough for everyone. The smell of the stew was delicious and made the rabbi’s mouth water. The people around the table were holding spoons with very long handles. Each person found that it was just possible to reach the pot to take a spoonful of the stew, but because the handle of the spoon was longer than anyone’s arm, no one could get the food into his mouth. The rabbi saw that their suffering was indeed terrible. “Now I will show you Heaven,� said the Lord, and they went into another room, exactly the same as the first. There was the same big round table and the same enormous pot of stew. The people, as before, were equipped with the same long-handled spoons—but here they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. At first, the rabbi could not understand. “It is simple, but it requires a certain skill,� said the Lord. “You see, they have learned to feed each other.�

Online Folk Festival: Antidote for Bad Estate Tax Legislation

After reading the bad news that the estate tax (a compromise) passed the House, I decided it was time to get out my guitar and play some Dylan, Nanci Griffith, Suzanne Vega, and Indigo Girls for my ever-appreciative audience of three cats and a baby. Then I decided to go online looking for some sources of good folk music. I found The Online Folk Festival and listened to a duet by Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, some Traveling Wilbury’s, Paul Simon, and more.

And now, about that estate tax. It looks as though the Republicans are succeeding in their plan to turn the United States into a Third World country. They are willing to decrease our revenue via this tax compromise by an estimated $750 billion dollars over the next 10 years. So when we look at our country 10 years from now and find that we have more slums, more homeless families, more uninsured people, less quality public education, less social advancement, and more gated communities for the ultra-wealthy, we’ll know who to thank.

By the way, both Kennedy and Langevin opposed this compromise.

Almonte: Cranston No Model for Pension Funding

The Auditor General, Ernest Almonte, has an opinion piece in today’s Projo that corrects Ed Achorn’s baseless praise for Cranston’s pension funding. Of particular note:

Ironically, Mr. Achorn mentions Cranston as a community that has seemingly “staved off — temporarily, anyway — ” a pension disaster. In fact, Cranston is quite representative of the problem throughout the state. One could fairly conclude that Cranston’s police and fire pension, administered by the city, is in crisis.

In 2005, Cranston’s unfunded liability grew by more than $5 million, to $220.5 million — even after I had insisted that the city make the required contribution for fiscal year 2004. Unfortunately, in fiscal year 2005 the city failed to make the required contribution; its payment was short by more than $2 million.

Cranston reported an operating surplus for fiscal year 2005 of $3.5 million. Reporting a $3.5 million “surplus” could be considered misleading. This surplus could have been applied to the pension debt. Cranston based its contribution on an unrealistic 8-percent rate of return; it actually earned less than 4 percent. I hardly think Cranston should be held up as an example for other municipalities to emulate.

So our outgoing Mayor, Senator-wanna-be, sent a letter with the tax bills bragging about how pension assets are “Nearly $40 million! Continually funded,” when in fact the city did not make the required contribution for 2005.

Furthermore, the financial firm responsible for investing our funds, UBS Financial, is only producing a 4% return. Currently, a 4% return has become standard on many savings accounts, with some banks like Capital One offering rates as high as 4.75%. So the city could end its contract with UBS (a contract, which, if I remember Peter T. Pastore’s words correctly at the meeting to seal this deal, is “at will” and can be terminated at any time) and put the money in a savings account and make the same return or more without paying a financial firm one single dime. Or better yet, the city could invest in US savings bonds and make an average return closer to 5%, free of risk. Particularly now, as the stock market is looking shaky, US savings bonds or a savings account might be a prudent move.

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