March 10, 2007


For first time readers, this blog runs fairly serious commentary during the week on social and economic justice issues.

The gratuitous animal pictures that accompany the posts are just kind of there.

During the weekend, however, the animals get to speak for themselves.

This week, we introduce a creature recently banished from Goat Rope Farm for looking with inappropriate longing at our fuzzy chickens. He declines to give his name and his behavior led us to refer to him simply as "The Hypnotist Possum."


You do not see me. This is because I am not here.

And if I was here, I would be perfectly hidden by this tiny branch of a tree which is hanging down in front of my nonexistent and invisible face.

I am invisibility itself.

And if I was here, I would be dead and you have a deep and abiding fear of dead possums.

Given that I am a combination of nonexistence, invisibility, and lifeless organic matter, I am no concern of yours. And if I was here, visible, and/or living, I would not be looking with longing at your stupid fuzzy little chickens.

Go on about your business. And, yes, you are getting sleepy, very sleepy...

Gotta go. It's nap time.


March 09, 2007


Caption: Time to get out of the web.

The national AFL-CIO executive board called on the United States to seek an end to its military involvement in Iraq.

Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the statement:

No U.S. foreign policy can be sustained without the informed consent of the American people. Last November, the people spoke clearly, calling on the president and Congress to change course in Iraq. Rather than heed the will of the citizenry or listen to the military leaders speaking out against the current policy in Iraq, the president has chosen to escalate military action. This blind pursuit of the war now undermines the very war on terror that was its justification.

And here's one from the middle:

It is time to bring our military involvement in Iraq to an end. Admittedly, there are no good options now in that country. It has descended into a sectarian civil struggle, with American troops caught in the crossfire. The latest National Intelligence Estimate reports that the greatest violence comes not from al Qaeda and foreign terrorists, but from sectarian militias caught up in their own internal conflict.

And here's one from the end:

The AFL-CIO continues to strongly support initiatives and programs to promote democracy, workers’ rights and economic development in the Middle East. We believe the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (the Baker-Hamilton Commission) provides the president and Congress with a broad range of recommendations to address the wider regional conflict as well as economic and reconstruction assistance while charting a path for reducing the U.S. presence in Iraq.

We, therefore, call on President Bush to reconsider the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. Specifically, the administration should open up a diplomatic offensive with allies and Iraq’s neighbors. This should include a new initiative to revive a peace process in the Middle East and it should include a timetable for redeploying U.S. troops out of Iraq’s civil strife. We also call on Congress to support these actions and insist on a timetable for disengagement. If the president refuses to act, Congress must use its powers under the Constitution and act.

Works for me.

WV UPDATE. The WV House Finance Committee modified a Senate-passed corporate tax cut bill. The house version includes combined reporting, which closes corporate tax loopholes and cuts in the business franchise tax. Combined reporting is a good step. The overall business tax package is less that what passed the senate. So that's a victory of sorts.

Here's the deal: about half of WV's general revenue fund goes to K-12 education, about 10 percent to higher ed, about 20 percent to health and human services, the the rest covers everything else from parks to public safety. Going nuts on tax cuts means cutting the things we most need for a better future. Cutting education money to give goodies to out of state corporations when we can't adequately give teachers or public employees a decent raise is a little weird.

RANDOM BUT INTERESTING NEWS ITEM. Here's the lead of a cool but random news story:

Scientists studying how sleep affects memory have found that the whiff of a familiar scent can help a slumbering brain better remember things that it learned the evening before. The smell of roses — delivered to people’s nostrils as they studied and, later, as they slept — improved their performance on a memory test by about 13 percent.

Who'd a thunk it?


March 08, 2007


Caption: Venus is a non-conformist.

It seems to El Cabrero that most of the horrors and crimes committed by humanity over the ages have not been perpetrated by the occasional sociopath but by fairly "normal" people either doing what they are told or going along to get along.

I call them "sins of obedience."

Partly because we are inherently social animals (or else we wouldn't have lived this long), there are powerful pressures on us to conform to perceived social norms. Much of the time,that's not a bad thing. But it often can and has led to disastrous consequences.

"Group think" has been blamed among other things for the bad intelligence going in to the unnecessary war in Iraq, to use just one example.

A famous psychological experiment Solomon Asch first conducted in the 1950s shows how conformity can lead people to ignore the obvious evidence of their own senses.

As Cass R. Sunstein describes it in his recent book Why Societies Need Dissent,

In these experiments, the subject was placed in a group of seven to nine people who seemed to be other subjects in the experiment but who were actually Asch's confederates. The ridiculously simple task was to "match" a particular line, shown on a large white card, to the one of three "comparison lines" that was identical to it in length. The two nonmatching lines were substantially different, with the differential varying form an inch and three quarters to three quarters of an inch.

At first, everyone agreed about the right answer. But in the third round, all the other members of the group picked the wrong line.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, most people ended up agreeing with the group when it was obviously wrong at least once in a series of rounds. And,

When asked to decide on their own, without seeing judgments form others, people erred less than 1 percent of the time. But in rounds in which group pressure supported the incorrect answer, people erred 36.8 percent of the time. Indeed, in a series of twelve questions, no less than 70 percent of people went along with the group and defied the evidence of their own senses at least once.

And, while the experiment was first conducted in America, the general pattern was fairly similar when repeated in other countries, although there were some differences.

Asch drew two conclusions. First, some people are independent most or all of the time (about 25 percent all the time and the rest not conforming 2/3 of the time. But, to quote Sunstein, "Most people, at least some of the time, are willing to yield to the group even on an apparently easy question about which they have direct and unambiguous evidence."

This is where it gets interesting. If at least one other person dissented from the group, the subject was much more likely to stick by his own observations. As Asch put it, "dissent per se increased independence and moderated the errors that occurred."

Need I say more?

TRADE, FAIR AND OTHERWISE. Although it's too soon to draw conclusions, it looks like the new Congress won't necessarily be a rubber stamp for fast track on future trade deals. Here's an interesting article on the possibilities by David Sirota on the subject.

A VOICE OF REASON ON ESTATE TAX REPEAL. This is some good news. Bill Gates Jr. of Microsoft and Gates Foundation fame, i.e. the world's richest man, came out yesterday against repealing the estate tax on those who inherit large fortunes:

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, the world's richest man, said Wednesday that he agrees with his father that the elimination of the estate tax would be a bad idea. Gates' father, Bill Gates Sr., has led a campaign against efforts to repeal the tax. "I do agree with my dad, I think what he's doing there has a lot of merit," Gates told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, in response to a question from Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt. Gates said he hasn't spoken out extensively on the issue because he is focused on innovation issues important to Microsoft and global health issues at the center of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's mission.

GAG ORDER ON THOSE POLAR BEARS. The NY Times reports today that the Bush administration issued a memo to Fish and Wildlife personnel ordering them not to discuss climate change, sea ice or polar bears if they were not explicitly authorized to do so. This must be because polar bears hate freedom.


March 07, 2007


Caption: This guy really needs cable.

FIRST ITEM...Here's more on the breaking story from Tom of how privatization and outsourcing hurt wounded U.S. Iraq and Afghanistan vets at Walter Reed and elsewhere.

WEST VIRGINIA ACTION ALERT: If you live in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia, please contact your representatives in the House of Delegates and urge them to reject the state Senate's irresponsible corporate tax cuts, which would force cuts to K-12 education, the college and university system, health care and human services, etc. Thanks to Prevent Child Abuse WV, here's an easy way to do it.

THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID. We will now move on to the topic of Cabrero's favorite TV show.

And, no, it's not American Idol.

It's...what else? The Office! (American version, although the British is OK too.)
The show is sometimes excruciating, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes very realistic. That's Thursdays on NBC at 8:30.

It's also the subject of the "That's What She Said" blog by Julie Elgar, a labor and employment attorney. The subject of the blog is all the legal and other trouble that could happen if people really acted that way in the workplace.

My favorite episode was the one about diversity training...

Still, if I had to pick, I'd prefer a workplace that tilts more towards craziness than to inhuman efficiency.

Full disclosure: El Cabrero received no compensation for this unsolicited endorsement of a network TV show. A tour of Scranton would be nice though.

FORGIVE US OUR DEBTS, REVISITED. Earlier GR posts have noted America's current negative savings rate, which is about where it was in the depths of the great depression.

Here are some nuggets from the March 12 issue of Business Week:

...The average U.S. consumer has four credit cards, according to a recent nationwide sampling of 3 million consumer credit files. The most credit-happy states: New Hampshire and New Jersey, where 20% of customers carry 10 cards or more...

According to the survey, 51% of Americans have at least two credit cards, 14% have at least 10, and 14% use at least 50% of available credit.

Can you imagine what would happen to the U.S. economy if people had to live on what they actually earned? Holy crisis of overproduction and/or underconsumption, Batman!


March 05, 2007

THE GOOD SAMARITAN EXPERIMENT, a WV alert, and privatization at Walter Reed

Caption: This man is not a terribly good man, but he might be a good Samaritan (although he'd probably rip off the victim's squeaky toys).

If El Cabrero had to pick, his favorite book of the New Testament would have to be the Gospel of Luke.

Luke is the most musical gospel. In its early chapters, people spontaneously break into beautiful songs that have become part of the liturgy of the church.

It is also primarily the gospel of and for the poor. And it contains some of the best-loved sayings and parables of Jesus.

It's the only source for the ones commonly known as the Prodigal Son, Lazarus and the Rich Man, and the Good Samaritan.

The one I'm thinking about today is the latter.

It's hard for us today to understand how baffling the words "good" and "Samaritan" would have sounded together to Jesus' Jewish contemporaries, for whom Samaritans were the lowest of the low.

It's been called "a parable of reversal," where the listener is led to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable. As John Dominic Crossan wrote in In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, "The whole thrust of the story demands that one say what cannot be said, what is a contradiction in terms: Good+Samaritan."

The other shocker in the story was that the Samaritan's compassionate actions contrasted dramatically with the official "good guys," i.e. the priest and the Levite walked by the victim on the other side of the road.

In case you need to refresh your memory, here's the text.

The point of all this today is that this parable was actually the subject of a psychological experiment the results of which are both sad and amusing.

I quote from Frans de Waal's book Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals:
One of my favorite experiments, by John Darley and Daniel Batson, re-created this situation with American seminary students. The students were sent to another building to give a talk about... the Good Samaritan. While in transit they passed a slumped-over person planted in an alley. The groaning "victim" sat still with eyes closed and head down. Only 40 percent of the budding theologians asked what was wrong and offered assistance. Students who had been urged to make hasted helped less than students who had been given lots of time. Indeed, some students hurrying to lecture on the quintessential helping story of our civilization literally stepped over the stranger in need, inadvertently confirming the point of the story.
You don't know whether to laugh or cry on that one...

WEST VIRGINIA ACTION ITEM. If you happen to live in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia and care about education, fairness and fiscal sanity, check out the posts "Action Alert: Fighting a Corporate Giveaway" and "Tax Cuts for Big Business" at WV Blue (although the latter was written by a shady character upon whom El Cabrero may have to open a can...)

Here's the backstory...last week, the WV Senate, for reasons best known to itself, passed gazillions of dollars in corporate tax cuts with little thought of how to pay for it. Unlike the U.S. under this regime, WV has rational spending priorities, with about half of general funds going to K-12 education, 10 % going to higher ed, 20+ percent going to health and human resources, and 20+ for everything else. Cutting corporate taxes means cutting education and health care.

The Action part is to contact WV House Finance chair Harry Keith White (304-340-3230 or toll free at 1-877-565-3447) and leave the following message:

Businesses will gain little if tax cuts come at the cost of education, infrastructure and the long term well being of West Virginians. We need a responsible approach to state taxes and revenues, not careless corporate tax cuts with no plan for the future.

IT'S THE PRIVATIZATION. If you share the outrage of millions of Americans over the treatment of U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, here's a major factor not generally covered by the big media: problems at Walter Reed and elsewhere have been made worse by the Bush administration's mania for privatization. Keep scrolling down at WV Blue for background and check this post at Main Street USA.



Caption: You can almost hear them...

The latest stunt of the Taliban/jihad school of Christianity would be funny if not for the fact that it isn't funny.

But then again, it kind of is.

Here's the story:

Leaders of several conservative Christian groups have sent a letter urging the National Association of Evangelicals to force its policy director in Washington to stop speaking out on global warming.

The conservative leaders say they are not convinced that global warming is human-induced or that human intervention can prevent it. And they accuse the director, the Rev. Richard Cizik, the association’s vice president for government affairs, of diverting the evangelical movement from what they deem more important issues, like abortion and homosexuality.

The letter underlines a struggle between established conservative Christian leaders, whose priority has long been sexual morality, and challengers who are pushing to expand the evangelical movement’s agenda to include issues like climate change and human rights.

The letter was signed by such religious right luminaries as James C. Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, Gary L. Bauer, onetime presidental candidate and current leader of Coalitions for America, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; and Paul Weyrich, chairman of American Values.

Allow me to try to fairly sum up the position of the letter writers: Poverty? Who cares? Injustice &#%* it! Oppression? Bring it on! Screwing up the planet? Big whoop!

Now that's some religion.

It is hard for me to fathom how some people think that following Jesus of Nazareth consists of obsessing about other people's sexuality while ignoring what Jesus called "the weightier matters of compassion and justice."

They ought to crack open a gospel every once in a while.

To NAE's credit, Cizik apparently continues to enjoy their support.

HEALTH CARE RANT: If you are really bored, here's an op-ed of mine on the U.S. health care crisis that ran in yesterdays' Charleston WV Sunday Gazette-Mail.

AND SPEAKING OF HEALTH CARE...This item from today's NY Times shows that being uninsured isn't just for poor people anymore.