Saturday, August 30, 2014

Kentucky Kickback: How the Olmsted Dam Project Exposed Mitch McConnell's Hypocrisy on Government Spending

by Nomad

Though McConnell now says he is dead set against any more government shutdowns, Kentucky voters have every reason to be a little dubious.

After all, in the last shutdown, Senator McConnell was able to parlay the last one into what one conservative group called a "boondoggle" sticking with an eye-watering $3 billion bill for taxpayers.

Back in October 2013 U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were pitted against each other at the negotiation table, in an attempt to work out some kind of compromise to end the 16-day-long government shutdown. The Republicans had refused to increase the debt ceiling in an attempt to roll back Obamacare- or Affordable Care.

Despite the usual talk about limiting Big Government spending, McConnell managed to slip a provision into the debt ceiling bill on the sly that included nearly $3 billion for a dam project.
A provision in the funding bill includes $2.918 billion in funding to the Army Corps of Engineers to install locks as part of the Olmsted Dam and Lock Authority Project on the Ohio River.
That was in fact an increase in the $1.5 billion funding that Congress had authorized several years earlier.

The Dam that Ran Away
According to an investigation by the St. Louis Post Dospatch, the Olmsted dam project has run way over budget since it was first proposed back in 1988. 
A Post-Dispatch review of thousands of pages of documents and more than two dozen interviews reveal a project plagued by cost overruns, delays and engineering challenges stemming largely from the corps’ stubborn insistence on an innovative construction method that met its match in the unruly Ohio River.
It was originally given a budget of $775 million (that's not accounting for inflation). According to the builders, the price tag has soared to an estimated $ 3.1 billion dollars. (So the McConnell deal in effect doubled the funding.)

This project- if it is ever finished- will be the largest and most expensive inland water navigation installation ever built in the United States. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has called the whole project a "boondoggle’ and in an unusually clever turn of phrase said that it was a case of "one of these things where we're damned if we do, damned if we don't." According to Paul, as expensive as it has become, we have no choice but to plow ahead. 

With cost soaring for Olmsted project, Rep. Ed Whitfeld, a Republican from Kentucky, who had ushered through the House of Representatives critical funding for project in 2009, was even more blunt back. By 2011, he was calling the project "a complete failure."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Arkansas, the Ebola Virus, and the License to Lie

by Nomad

When the town of Harrison, Arkansas decided to cancel a planned visit by a delegation from Ghana, was it just ignorance about Ebola or old-fashioned racism?

Lately a lot of people from the Far Right have been making some pretty irresponsible and ignorant remarks about Ebola. It's not just hysteria. Actually, it's a symptom of something worse- an outright betrayal of the public trust. 

Africa and Ebola in Perspective
Sarah Palin might not realize it but Africa is not a country. It is a continent and a mighty large one at that. Africa covers a full six percent of the Earth's total surface area and over 20  percent of the total land area. But then geography - along with any other subject you wish to name- isn't really Palin's forte.  

As the second most populated continent, Africa has a population of around 1 billion people. Depending on who you ask, there are 47 countries on the African continent, (53 if you count some of the islands off the coast.)  Of those 47 nations, only five of them have had reports of the much-discussed, much-feared disease known as Ebola.

As scary as it is, the deaths and the infection rates from the Ebola virus are not very impressive. The disease has up to now claimed more than 1,400 lives and infected over a thousand more across West Africa. 
Dreadful, terrible. And yes, it is better to do something before the situation gets any worse. Now is the time to act.

However, let's compare those Ebola numbers to malaria. Ninety percent of all malarial deaths occur in Sub saharan Africa and according to the World Health Organization,
There were an estimated 207 million cases of malaria in 2012 (uncertainty range: 135 – 287 million) and an estimated 627 000 deaths (uncertainty range: 473 000 – 789 000).
In that year, malaria killed an estimated 482 000 children under five years of age and put. an estimated 3.4 billion people are at risk. Of that number, 1.2 billion live in  high risk areas where more than one malaria case occurs per 1000 population. And your chances of catching malaria are far higher than catching Ebola.

That's not to say that Ebola presents no threat but when it comes to pandemics, there are a lot more nasty things ready to carry you off. Even the boring influenza virus, which most of us deal without much fuss, claims about 250,000 to 500,000 yearly deaths.
So, it is important to put things in their proper perspective.
*   *   *   *
The reason I bring these facts up was because I saw a related story in a local Arkansas newspaper. A proposed tour of Harrison, Arkansas by a delegation from the nation of Ghana was canceled at the last minute due to Ebola fears. The tour was supposed to include a visit to North Arkansas Regional Medical Center, the Harrison School District and North Arkansas College.
The idea was suddenly nixed, (though who actually made that decision the article doesn't specify.)

Never mind that there has been no report of the Ebola virus in Ghana since well, since forever. In the present outbreak, the most severe yet, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and DR Congo have had cases.(Uganda saw cases back in 2012.)

So, what should have been a moment of pride for the local residents and an opportunity to demonstrate the local brand of Arkansas down-home hospitality, turned out to be source of embarrassment. It would have been a good chance to show the less developed countries the things Americans can achieve when we forget our differences and work together.
Instead it was American ignorance on full display.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Key to Happiness and the Death of the American Dream

by Nomad

A recent study on happiness can tell us why Americans are so angry with Washington. It has, the study suggests, been a long time coming.

According to a study highlighted in Psychology Today, researchers from University College London have discovered, after studying more than 18,000 people from all over the world, what really makes people happy. One key factor, they concluded, comes down to what we expect and how strongly we expect it. They were even able to derive an equation to predict the factors that created happiness.

Dr. Robb Rutledge, a cognitive and computational neuroscientist and lead author of the study,
“Life is full of expectations — it would be difficult to make good decisions without knowing, for example, which restaurant you like better. It is often said that you will be happier if your expectations are lower. We find that there is some truth to this: lower expectations make it more likely that an outcome will exceed those expectations and have a positive impact on happiness
But, according to Rutlege, that's only half of the story. Sometimes happiness comes solely from the expectation itself. When some people play the lottery, the expectation of winning and the plans of what they would do with the winnings is more than enough to keep people playing week after week. This is true when those expectations are known to be false or based on fantasy.

Using MRI scans, the researchers were even able to track the place in the brain where our happiness originates. They found that setting expectations and receiving the pay off trigger a release of a the pleasure hormone, dopamine, which excited those areas of the brain.
So, the researchers seem to suggest that having high hopes is one way to achieve short term happiness but having realistic expectations is more important to long term happiness. 

The American Dream and the Happiness of Fantasy
The findings on the surface might seem a little obvious. At least the results of the study fits pretty squarely with conventional wisdom about keeping your expectations low.

However, on a social and political level, there are some interesting implications. 
There are things that Americans have tended to believe to the core. One of those articles of faith is the American Dream. Some have argued that that dream is dead. The expectation that life will forever improve, that social mobility is possible if only one works harder and that you too can rise out of poverty by virtue of your ambition and your intelligence, all that is now forever lost. 

If the American Dream is truly dead, then America is going to be a particularly unhappy place to live. Especially for the middle class. The poor have learned from grim experience to expect less and many have been forced to rely on social programs. The rich tend to have their expectations met and can use the system to guarantee it. However, it is the middle class that will not so easily adjust to the downgrading of our dreams.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Frederick Douglass and the Hidden Truth about Slavery

by Nomad

A letter written while former slave Frederick Douglass toured England reveals a truth about the insults and attacks aimed him. What was the mindset of those that use this kind of language?

His observation gives us an insight into a half-hidden truth about slavery and the age that followed.

Exciting Hatred and Jealousy
The quote in  the meme above comes from a letter sent to the abolitionist and newspaper mogul Horace Greeley in 1846. It had been sent from Great Britain, where Frederick Douglass was giving a series of anti-slavery speeches and recounting his own history. 

Douglas' purpose for his trans-Atlantic journey was to lay bare the evils of slavery before the British people.
Slavery exists in the United States because it is reputable, and it is reputable in the United States because it is not disreputable out of the United States as it ought to be, and it is not so disreputable out of the United States as it ought to be because its character is not so well known as it ought to be.
In calling out the sins of America, both North and South, by indicting those that stood by hypocritically, he was subtly pointing out the British role as well. 

Using every possible rhetorical device, Douglass, in his farewell address to the British, pointed out how the Christians in England had been "hoodwinked" when American evangelicals alleged "that their peculiar circumstances make it a matter of Christian duty in them to hold their slaves." 

He warned the British "that slavery takes refuge in the churches of the United States " and for them not to be misled by the excuses the Americans had offered about slavery. 
He went still further:
The fact is, the whole system, the entire network of American society, is one great falsehood, from beginning to end. I might say, that the present generation of Americans have become dishonest men from the circumstances by which they are surrounded.
From the period of the first adoption of the constitution of the United States downward, everything good and great in the heart of the American people— everything patriotic within their breasts—has been summoned to defend this great lie before the world. They have been driven from their very patriotism, to defend this great falsehood.
*   *   *   *
There are, for a historian, some interesting points in the Greeley letter. In it, he referred to his numerous critics in the New York press who condemned him for being "a runaway slave" (as if there were some merit or nobility in remaining a slave.) 
As Douglass wrily noted, "There's no pleasing some people." (That's something President Obama has had to learn the hard way.)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Desolation Row: Scenes from the Syrian Civil War

by Nomad

Here are some images of the devastation in the three-year Syria Civil War. In addition to this appalling destruction and the deaths of over 191,000   it has sparked one of the biggest refugee crises since WWII. 

The UN has recently released a report on the Syrian Civil War. The number of dead had to be revised from an earler UN figure. Navi Pillay, the U.N.'s top human rights official told the press:
Tragically it is probably an underestimate of the real total number of people killed during the first three years of this murderous conflict."