December 31, 2009

Cutting remarks and New Year wishes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a guy's view of the world varies in direct proportion to the functionality of his chain saw (I'm being literal, in case there are any underemployed Freudians out there). El Cabrero has spent a good bit of this week fighting with those devices. If I make another trip to the saw shop, they're going to think I'm stalking them.

But, for today anyhow, at least one saw worked.

This is newsworthy since I am a mechanical idiot and have bad machine karma. I'm sure there's a scientific reason for this. My pet theory is that I offended the Greek god Hephaestus at some point in this or a previous life. He has jurisdiction over such things. I should probably make some kind of offering, preferably not one inflicted by said chain saw.

At any event, have a happy 2010 and may all your chain saws start on the first pull.

Regular semi-serious posts to resume on Monday.

URGENT SOPRANOS UPDATE. It looks like Netflix and or the Postal Service stiffed me for a day so I may not complete my New Year's Week resolution to finish the last season of the Sopranos before the Spousal Unit returns. It almost makes me want to whack somebody.

LEFTOVERTURE. I'm still slacking, but here's the latest edition of the Rev. Jim Lewis' Notes from Under the Fig Tree. It's a New Year's edition filled with leftovers and brains.

AND ON A POSITIVE NOTE, here is an encouraging tale of friendship under fire from the Middle East.


December 29, 2009

Country matters

Venus singing about a man after midnight.

Christmas is a holiday rich in family traditions and rituals. Each household has its own customs of a more or less elevated nature.

I am somewhat chagrined to bring up one such custom that seems to prevail at Goat Rope Farm. It nearly always comes to pass that right around Yuletide the female goats at the farm express a none too subtle desire to spend a bit of time in the company of a Gentleman Companion. It's pretty unmistakable.

I draw from this the conclusion that goats as a group have little reverence for Christian festivals. Indeed, they seem to me to be thoroughly pagan. No wonder they show up so much in Greek mythology.

At such times, we usually pack them in the back of the Spousal Unit's vehicle and visit the nearby farm of some friends.

I don't know if the Gentle Reader has had much experience with caprine Gentlemen Companions, but they are a randy and smelly lot and have somewhat unorthodox ideas of personal hygiene and appropriate cologne.

The courtship is somewhat abbreviated, although less so than that which follows. It's a pretty businesslike transaction.

There are no missed signals or any trace of ambiguity. It occurs to me that if humans were more like goats, there would be no romantic comedies or tragic tales of star-crossed lovers like Romeo and Juliet. Jane Austen would have had to find a different subject to write about and Sigmund Freud could have stuck with dissecting eels or prescribing cocaine. The course of true love would run smooth--or it wouldn't run at all.

The question of whether that would be an improvement is above my pay grade.

STILL SLACKING. Here's one item on procrastination that I meant to link earlier.

SOPRANOS UPDATE. The project to watch both parts of season 6 before the return of the Spousal Unit is in jeopardy. Either the postal service or Netflix messed up and I lost a day.

FALLEN TREE UPDATE. It's kicking my hiney.


New from the Hillbilly Health Club

It's way bigger in real life.

Anxious to lose those extra holiday pounds? Feel no fret. The official Goat Rope Hillbilly Health Club has a special plan for you.

Our staff of professional trainers has devised the perfect workout using the latest equipment, in this case a tree that fell on a neighbor's yard. The workout consists of using a chainsaw, which around here is defined as a device that works for about 15 minutes, a handsaw and a splitting maul.

The routine, which combines cardio with resistance training, involves deconstructing the tree, loading it onto the "farm use" truck (if it starts) and then turning it into firewood. The stuff that is too small for the wood stove is to be dragged off and dedicated to the bi-annual Celtic bonfire (for which wicker bonfire sacrifices are strictly optional).

Don't be the last kid on your block to sign up!

SOPRANOS UPDATE. El Cabrero's heroic effort to make it through parts 1 and 2 of season 6 of The Sopranos before the Spousal Unit returns is still in progress. So far 9 episodes have been devoured and things don't look too good for Vito right now, even though he's enjoying New Hampshire. After this, progress may be delayed until Netflix and the US Postal Service do the right thing.

I'M STILL SLACKING, but here's a good summary of what the final version of health care reform is likely to do. As flawed as it is, there is some decent stuff in it.


December 28, 2009

The purpose-driven week

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero has the feeling that a lot of people are slacking off this week. I know I am. While I am technically off, my overly developed (gasp) sense of duty compels me to continue posting.

Here's what's up: I am on a mission this week. The Spousal Unit is out of town for a few days. Of course I am prostrate with grief and all that. Indeed, it is only the fact that I have a higher calling that allows me to survive.

My calling consists of watching parts 1 and 2 of season 6 of The Sopranos. That's 20 episodes, give or take a few.

For some reason, the aforementioned Spousal Unit has refused to watch the series on the grounds that it is too violent, not that she's seen any of it or anything. I have tried to explain repeatedly that there's really not all that much violence in it, aside from people getting whacked. And what else are you going to do with a guy like Ralphie anyway?

I'm off to a modest start (only about seven episodes done so far). Whether I finish or not depends on the vagarities of chance, the US Postal Service and Netflix. But at least my life has a purpose.

I may or may not get through it by the time she returns. But what are you gonna do?

JUST ONE link. I told you I was slacking this week.


December 24, 2009

Annual Christmas Shakespeare quote

These lines from Hamlet are like a favorite ornament I like to take out once a year:

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

(So have I heard and do in part believe it.)

Here's hoping that holds true this year. Best holiday wishes to all from Goat Rope Farm!

You can expect another post on Monday--just don't expect much.


December 23, 2009

This and that

Random animal picture.

El Cabrero is attempting to play holiday catch up from the storm today but here are a few items that caught my eye:

ONE GOOD THING about the Senate health care reform bill, according to WV Senator Jay Rockefeller, is that it limits the amount insurance companies can spend on administration and profits.

SPEAKING OF WV SENATORS, here's the Washington Post on Senator Byrd.

DON'T BE ABSURD. No wait, cancel that. A new study suggests that reading absurdist literature may be good for your brain.

PLANTS apparently don't like to be eaten either.

ATTENTION HOLIDAY DRINKERS. Darker liquors may lead to worse hangovers. (El Cabrero prefers red wine.)


December 22, 2009

Game on

So how's the weather, anyway? This blog missed a day yesterday since Goat Rope Farm was among the 100,000 or so households without power in West Virginia after the snowstorm that hit this weekend.

Heat and cooking weren't too much of a problem thanks to wood and gas stoves. Water, electricity, telephone and plowed roads were a bit of a setback however. By the time power came on yesterday, personal hygiene took priority over blogging.

Here's hoping the Gentle Reader made it through intact.

Note to self: you know that generator you keep thinking of getting and figuring out how to use? This might not be a bad time to get on that.

SPEAKING OF THINGS THAT HIT WEST VIRGINIA, a new report by the WV Center on Budget and Policy (small parts of which were co-authored by yours truly) was released that documents the impact of the recession on West Virginia. Here's a press release with a link to the full report and here is coverage from today's Gazette and the West Virginia News Service.

ON THE BRIGHT SIDE, several provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act blunted the impact of the recession on hard hit state residents, as documented in this op-ed by yours truly.

THE BIG NEWS seems to be the progress of health care reform through the US Senate, although many challenges remain before anything reaches the president's desk. AFSC did not take a direct position on the Senate bill, although it supports universal health care and did urge passage of the House bill. It is my own opinion that letting the whole thing die would be a bad idea. There are some good things in the flawed Senate bill and other problems could be dealt with later.

THE OTHER BIG NEWS was a tentative deal on climate change. This should be good for another hissy fit or two in WV.

FINALLY--a venomous dinosaur!


December 19, 2009

Walk on

Arpad and Smiley, his chicken killing Platonic girlfriend, love a good walk.

Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.--Gary Snyder

December 18, 2009

Virtu and fortuna

Goat Rope has been looking at public policy and how it happens these days. It occurred to me (not for the first time) that the author of Ecclesiastes was right about there being nothing new under the sun.

Some of the wisest words ever written about political strategy come from my old pal and sometime patron saint Niccolo Machiavelli, who admittedly does have a bit of a PR problem.

But let's put in in context. In his book Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy, political scientist John Kingdon looks at how public policy gets made. His most interesting idea--and one that rings true in my experience--is that there are policy windows that open sometimes. When they're open, you have a chance at getting things done and when they close, you don't. (Speaking of which, the jury is still out on the window for health care reform.)

A policy window could be a crisis, a change in mood following an election, the expiration of a piece of legislation that has to be revisited, or any number of things. Sometimes--rarely--you know in advance when a window might open. Most of the time you don't. That means you need to do a lot of preparation in advance to be able to seize the moment when it comes.

In his classic The Prince, Machiavelli talked about virtu and Fortuna. Virtu basically means the voluntary things we have control of while Fortuna referred to the unexpected opportunities that might come along. Machiavelli believed that we could at least anticipate and prepare for these opportunities:

...I think it may be true that fortune is the ruler of half our actions, but that she allows the other half or thereabouts to be governed by us. I would compare her to an impetuous river that, when turbulent, inundates the plains, casts down trees and buildings, removes earth from this side and places it on the other; everyone flees before it, and everything yields to its fury without being able to oppose it; and yet though it is of such a kind, still when it is quiet, men can make provisions against it by dykes and banks, so that when it rises it will either go into a canal or its rush will not be so wild and dangerous. So it is with fortune, which shows her power where no measures have been taken to resist her, and directs her fury where she knows that no dykes or barriers have been made to hold her.

The key to success, in Machiavelli's day as in our own, is the matching of virtu to Fortuna, which above all means adapting to the needs and opportunities of the moment:

...the prince who bases himself entirely on fortune is ruined when fortune changes. I also believe that he is happy whose mode of procedure accords with the needs of the times, and similarly he is unfortunate whose mode of procedure is opposed to the times....

I therefore conclude then that fortune varying and men remaining fixed in their ways, they are successful so long as these ways conform to circumstances, but when they are opposed then they are unsuccessful.

FORTUNA IS FICKLE. Here's reaction from the AFL to the health care reform goat rope in the Senate.

ANOTHER VIEW. Krugman says pass it.

A STATE VIEW of what reform, especially Medicaid expansion, would mean to WV is given here.

COOL VIEW of an undersea volcanic eruption here.


December 17, 2009

Catching the wave

The eminent philosopher Tom Petty was right: the waiting is the hardest part. But it also seems to be an indispensable part of working for social change. It's like learning to fall in judo--if you aren't willing to do it you might as well stay off the mat.

As an analyst told political scientist John Kingdon in Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies,

When you lobby for something, what you have to do is put together your coalition, you have to gear up, you have to get your political forces in line, and then you sit there and wait for the fortuitous event....As I see it, people who are trying to advocate change are like surfers waiting for the big wave. You get out there, you have to be ready to go, you have to be ready to paddle. If you're not ready to paddle when the big wave comes along, you're not going to ride it in.

That pretty much says it all.

SPEAKING OF GOAT ROPES, how 'bout the health care mess in the Senate?

AS DISAPPOINTING AS THE SENATE BILL IS, it would be huge for El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia.

JOBS, JOBS, JOBS. Here's labor's five point plan for generating them.

TICKING CLOCK. Jobless workers are about to lose health insurance subsidies unless those are extended.

HOW'S THE FISHING? A big planet with lots of water has been found not too far away (in cosmic terms).


December 16, 2009

When the time comes

Timing is everything.

Lately the theme here is public policy and how it gets made--or doesn't. I've been bouncing off some of the research of political scientist John Kingdon's very useful book Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. Although this book was written in the 1980s about federal legislation, it rings pretty true today even at the state level.

If you are interested in this kind of thing, you can get in touch with your inner policy wonk by clicking on earlier entries.

As mentioned earlier, Kingdon refers to wonks as policy entrepreneurs, who are people willing to put time and effort into developing ideas for how laws and programs could work.

Let's say a given wonk or group of wonks develops a really good policy idea. As the saying goes, that and a couple of bucks will buy you coffee in most places unless you like the fancy kind. It's important in this early stage to get the idea out there to as wide an audience as possible--and especially the audience that pays attention to such things and can help make them happen. He calls this process "softening up," a term that brings artillery barrages to mind.

As he put it,

Who are policy entrepreneurs trying to soften up? Some of the time, they speak of educating the general public. Presidential speeches, for instance, are used to "bring the public along," in the words of one bureaucrat...

A second target is a more specialized public, peculiar to a particular issue.. As with the general public, the purpose of the softening up is to insure that the relevant public is ready for a certain type of proposal when the time does come...

I think the key words are "when the time does come." I've frequently written here about the similarity of this kind of work to my martial arts hobby. As much as one might like to, you can't usually kick someone in the head (in a friendly way) just because you want to; you can only do it when an opening exists.

In my experience as in Kingdon's analysis, it takes a long period of preparation to be able to move quickly to get something done when this happens. But without an opening or a window, it probably won't happen. That's what makes it interesting.

NOTHING BUT SHAME. Here's E.J. Dionne on dirty deeds done dirt cheap (to coin a phrase) in the US Senate. And here's the way the prospects for health care reform looks now.

EASY MONEY. Economist Dean Baker calls for a tax on financial speculation here.

FREE MEDS. 270,000 West Virginians may be eligible for free prescription drugs under the WVRx program.


December 15, 2009

Softening up the target

The theme at Goat Rope these days is public policy and how it happens (or doesn't). If you're interested in this kind of thing, please click on earlier posts. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

Political scientist John Kingdon's Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies looks at the political ecosystem from major players like presidents and senators down to humble policy wonks. We're on the wonk part now.

One pleasant surprise for me in reading Kingdon's analysis is his assertion that ideas actually matter (to a degree anyway). This is especially true in what he calls the policy community, which consists of interest groups, think tanks, academics and others interested in this kind of thing.

You might think that policy ideas are developed as solutions to particular problems. Kingdon agrees that this happens, but also maintains that "people in and around government sometimes do not solve problems. Instead, they become advocates for solutions and look for current problems to which to attach their pet solution."

Just because one has a viable idea that holds up well to arguments and critiques, it doesn't follow that it will become a reality--but it might. The next phase involves what he calls "softening up:"

To some degree ideas float freely through the policy primeval soup. But their advocates do not allow the process to be completely free-floating. In addition to starting discussion of their proposals, they push their ideas in many different forums. These entrepreneurs attempt to "soften up" both policy communities, which tend to be inertia-bound and resistant to major changes, and larger publics, getting them used to new ideas and building acceptance for their proposals. Without this preliminary work, a proposal sprung even at a propitious time is likely to fall on deaf ears.

That rings true in my experience of working at the state level. Once you've developed an idea, you need to get it out there to all kinds of people in all kinds of ways for it to stand a change of going anywhere. This involves both public education and coalition building. Sometimes this can take years.

IT'S TOUGH OUT THERE. A new poll of unemployed workers shows the damage done by the recession.

AFGHANISTAN. Economist Jeffrey Sachs suggests a different approach in that country.

ANOTHER TOOL USING ANIMAL. Would you believe the octopus?


December 14, 2009

Policy entrepreneurs

Arpad is quite the entrepreneur during deer season. This picture represents his idea of heaven.

The theme at Goat Rope lately has been public policy and how it happens or doesn't, although you'll also find links and comments about current events. As mentioned previously, one of the most useful explorations of this area is John Kingdon's Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies, which was written in the 1980s but still holds up pretty well.

And, while Kingdon was writing primarily about federal policies, it seems to fit pretty well at the state level as well. To recap, usually it's the political big dogs who get to set the agenda, which is basically what's on the table for legislation at any given time. They tend to be big picture people responding to what they consider to be a major problem.

The specific policy alternatives, for example how to reform health care, are often developed by people in a less visible position, such as congressional and administration staffers, researchers, etc.

Before anything makes it to that stage, ideas continually emerge and recombine in what he called "the primeval soup" of the policy community, which consists of wonks, interest groups, academics, etc.

Kingdon identifies one group in which I must claim membership which he calls "policy entrepreneurs" who advocate for specific options. He says that these

are not necessarily found in any one location in the policy community. They could be in or out of government, in elected or appointed positions, in interest groups or research organizations. But their defining characteristic, much as in the case of a business entrepreneur, is their willingness to invest their resources--time, energy, reputation, and sometimes money--in the hope of a future return. That return might come to them in the form of policies of which they approve, satisfaction from participation, or even personal aggrandizement in the form of job security or career promotion.

In his view, policy entrepreneurs have different motivations. For some, it might be the advancement of personal interest, while for others it might be attempting to promote their values or the sheer fun of the game.

(Personally, I like it when you are trying to do something that is rational, doable and in the interests of low income and working people. But, yes, the game can be kind of fun.)

More later.

A DOG THAT DON'T HUNT. The Associated Press conducted an exhaustive survey of all the intercepted "climategate" emails and concludes that the science of global warming is still solid.

GO BYRD. This op-ed by yours truly attempted to send some love to WV's senior senator for his recent statement on the future of coal in this state.

LESSONS LEARNED? Here's Krugman on reforms in banking and finance.

MONKEY SAY, MONKEY DO. Here's more on the "language" of certain monkeys.


December 12, 2009

I heard a fly buzz

I have confessed before my fondness for Emily Dickinson, who was wild in a quiet kind of way. Here's one of her oddest, which is about death, one of her favorite themes.

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Was that odd or what? Good though!

December 11, 2009

Primeval soup

Lately Goat Rope is looking at the messy but interesting process of how public policy gets made (or doesn't). You'll also find links and comments about current events. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

Before any major new public policy is introduced to the public or placed on the agenda, it often begins as an idea developed by a peculiar human subspecies popularly known as policy wonks.

As John Kingdon put it in Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies,

Picture a community of specialists: researchers, congressional staffers, people in planning and evaluation offices and in budget offices, academics, interest group analysts. Ideas float around in such communities. Specialists have their conceptions, their vague notions of future directions, and their more specific proposals. They try out their ideas on each other by going to lunch, circulating papers, publishing articles, holding hearings, presenting testimony, and drafting and pushing legislative proposals. The process often does take years...and may be endless.

Kingdon compares the development of policy proposals to the biological process of natural selection:

Much as molecules floated around in what biologists call the "primeval soup" before life came into being, so ideas float around in these communities. Many ideas are possible, much as many molecules would be possible. Ideas become prominent and then fade. There is a long process of "softening up": ideas are floated, bills introduced, speeches made; proposals drafted, then amended in response to reaction and floated again. Ideas confront one another (much as molecules bumped into one another) and combine with one another in various ways. The "soup: changes not only through the appearance of wholly new elements, but even more by the recombination of previously existing elements. While many ideas float around in this policy primeval soup, the ones that last, as in a natural selection system, meet some criteria. Some ideas survive and prosper; some proposals are taken more seriously than others.

Believe it or not, ideas actually matter, although it's a long way from conception to implementation.

HEALTH CARE AND THE HOUSE. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says nice things about the Senate compromise on health care reform here.

JOBS AND THE FED. Here's Krugman on what the Federal Reserve can and probably won't do to boost employment.

THE HOLLY AND THE IVY AND MORE are discussed in the latest edition of Notes from Under the Fig Tree.

CHIMPS LIKE US dig music. They also like hugs.

TALKING COAL. Here's Ken Ward's Coal Tattoo post on public reaction to Senator Byrd's recent statement on the future of coal. And here's an item about coal and climate change legislation in the US Senate.


December 10, 2009

Agendas and alternatives

Little Edith Ann has a dirty mouth some days.

The theme at Goat Rope lately is how public policy is made, which is usually a lot messier in practice than it is in theory. You will also find links and comments about current events.

As discussed in earlier posts, in Policyland, there is a big difference between agendas and alternatives. Political or public policy agendas are the big picture priorities often laid out by political leaders such as presidential administrations or leading legislators. Alternatives involve the specific ways of dealing with or implementing the items on the agenda.

As John Kingdon put it in Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policy,

Apart from the set of subjects or problems that are on the agenda, a set of alternatives for governmental action is seriously considered by governmental officials and those closely associated with them.

Usually for any problem that makes its way onto a policy agenda--health care reform being one example--there are any number of ways of approaching the subject. Sticking with health care, alternatives might include single payer, a Medicare for all option to compete with private insurance (which would probably have been the easiest way to deal with it), or a mix of private insurance reforms with public ones like what seems to be on the table now.

While those who set the agenda are high profile public figures, often the specific policy alternatives are developed and floated offstage by experts, congressional or administrative staff, advocacy and interest groups. Usually, out of a wide range of possible alternatives, a select few are given serious attention.

Again, using health care as an example, President Obama made it an early priority and laid out a series of elements that he wanted it to contain, a priority shared by many in Congress. However, it was mostly left to Congress to develop specific legislation. In Congress, the specifics of the House and Senate versions were mostly developed offstage to meet the priorities set by congressional leadership.

People working at the grassroots have two challenges. One is to work as skillfully as possible to get specific problems on the agenda to start with. The second is to try to influence the alternatives that make it to the agenda.

I CAN'T BELIEVE IT, but I'm with Friedman on this one.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, a new poll shows that most Americans would support climate change legislation--and paying for it--if it increased jobs.

ONE MORE THING. Here's Wired Science on the psychology of climate change denial.

THE (LATEST) DEAL on the Senate's health care compromise is discussed here. For what it's worth, El Cabrero thinks the Medicare buy-in provision is a very big deal and could mean more in the long run than a weak public option.

KEEPING IT REAL. Here's a call for relevant social science research.


December 09, 2009

Problems and conditions

Seamus McGoogle has problems.

The theme at Goat Rope this stretch is how laws and policies get made, a process that Bismarck famously compared with sausage making.

One factor that seems to affect whether an issue will gain any traction in the policy arena has to do with how it is seen. As John Kingdon, author of Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies suggests, it makes a big different whether something is seen as a problem or a condition. In his words,

There is a difference between a condition and a problem. We put up with all manner of conditions every day: bad weather, unavoidable and untreatable illnesses, pestilence, poverty, fanaticism... Conditions become defined as problems when we come to believe that we should do something about them. Problems are not simply the conditions or external events themselves; there is also a perceptual, interpretive element.

To use climate change as an example, opponents of addressing either tend to deny it altogether or else to claim that it is not happening as a result of human activity, which would make it a condition rather than a problem.

Defining exactly what is and isn't a problem is a game with high political stakes. As Kingdon put it,

...Some are helped and others hurt, depending on how problems get defined. If things are going basically your way, for instance, you want to convince others that there are no problems out there.

Conversely, if things are not going your way, it makes sense to "define the problem in such a way as to place the burden of adjustment elsewhere, and to avoid changing one's own patterns."

From an advocacy standpoint, one of the most important tasks is to work to raise an issue from something seen as a condition to something seen as a political problem, one that has a solution. The unequal treatment of African Americans, for example, was seen as a condition in much of the country until the civil rights movement elevated to the level of a political problem.

But getting something to be seen as a problem on the public agenda is only part of the struggle. The next phase has to do with sorting out the specific alternatives, about which more later.

SPEAKING OF PROBLEMS, President Obama laid out his proposals for stimulating employment yesterday.

SPEAKING OF JOBS, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that plenty of those will be lost without additional aid to states.

HEALTH CARE. Wheeling and dealing galore is going on in the US Senate. Some good things on the table now are further expansions of Medicaid and a Medicare buy-in for workers 55 and over. The latter measure is one long proposed by WV Senator Jay Rockefeller and would help meet a huge need. Here's hoping both of those survive. Here's the latest as of late Tuesday night.

RANT ALL YOU WANT about those intercepted emails, but climate change isn't slowing down to fit the news cycle.

PERSONAL NOTE. El Cabrero is headed to DC the rest of the week for a conference on state fiscal policy. I'm such a geek that this is one of the high points of my year. The coolest part is that I plan on taking a train to get there. Trains are cool. Goat Rope should continue to appear as usual.

Also, this post was scheduled for publication late Tuesday. If anything bad happens between now and Wednesday, please accept condolences.


December 08, 2009

What's on the table

The theme at Goat Rope this week is public policy and how it gets made, a subject that I find to be often interesting and sometimes scary. In doing this, I'm drawing on some of the insights of John Kingdon, author of Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policy, a 1984 book that holds up pretty well.

The first step in getting any policy enacted into law is to get it on the agenda, which is basically what's on the political table for consideration at any given point in time. The agenda consists of all the things people in and around government pay attention to.

Agenda setting is important both for what it brings to the table and for what it keeps off it. For example in the Bush years, addressing climate change (and much else) just wasn't on it.

So who gets to do it? It probably won't be a surprise for readers to find that Kingdon's research found that presidents (with their staff and political appointments) generally get first whack at it, especially when they're still in the honeymoon phase or are acting in accord with a perceived public mood or addressing widely recognized problem. And, although his research was aimed at the federal level, it's safe to say that governors play a similar role at the state level.

Many other players--such as civil servants, congressional staffers, interest groups, researchers, academics, etc.--try with more or less success to influence the agenda, but these players often take the indirect route.

Congress (and state legislatures, by extension) are also major players in agenda setting. The power of Congress in agenda setting may wax while that of the president wanes. For example after the 1994 Republican congressional landslide, the new majority took the initiative in trying to set the agenda with its Contract With (On?) America.

Obviously, in all this elections matter. Using the Bush years as another example, the balance began to tilt away from the president after the 2006 elections, in which Democrats gained the majority. With the 2008 elections, much of the agenda setting lately has come from the Obama administration, although that may change in the future.

Major events--Pearl Harbor and 9/11, for example--can also alter the public agenda as well, as can grassroots pressure from below. One other factor that can do so is whether an issue as seen as a problem or a condition.

More about this to come.

UNEMPLOYMENT. Groups are urging Congress to act to extend unemployment and COBRA benefits about to expire.

SICK DAYS. Calling in is not an option for many low wage workers.

ONE WAY OR ANOTHER. The EPA is prepared to deal with climate change if Congress isn't.



December 07, 2009


Random animal picture.

Many Americans at one time or another were taught in public school a little bit about "how a bill becomes law." The textbook version leaves out a lot of the chaos, messiness and such. As a bit of a policy wonk, I find this kind of thing fascinating, but the subject really matters to lots of real people, with the current health care reform debate being a case in point.

I've found John Kingdon's 1984 book Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies to be as good an analysis of how these things happen as I've seen anywhere. According to Kingdon, public policy happens through a series of processes that includes:

*the setting of the agenda, which lays out the big picture list of subjects that are on the metaphorical table for action. Elected officials tend to play leading roles in this, but they aren't the only actors;

*the development of policy alternatives relevant to the agenda from which a choice is to be made. This is more detailed and specific and usually involves people less visible than presidents or elected officials, such as staffers, researchers, interest groups, advocates, policy wonks, etc.;

*a decision or choice among the alternatives that have been developed; and

*the actual implementation of the decision.

Agenda setting is very important because not much happens unless a policy option makes it there to start with. According to Kingdon, the agenda

is a list of subjects or problems to which governmental officials, and people outside of government closely associated with those officials, are paying some serious attention at any given time. Out of the set of all conceivable subjects or problems to which officials could be paying attention, they do in fact seriously attend to some rather than others. So the agenda-setting process narrows this set that actually becomes the focus of attention.

Just because an idea makes it to the agenda, there's no guarantee that it will happen: think about George W. Bush's 2005 effort to privatize Social Security. But sometimes it does happen, as was the case with President Obama's support of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The jury is still out on health care reform.

More on this to come.

IT'S (NOT) THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT. Krugman's latest argues that addressing climate change won't bring about the apocalypse.

MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL. Here's ABC News on how national awareness of mountaintop removal mining has grown in the last several years.

LETTER TO THE EDITOR DEPARTMENT. The following letter appeared in the Nov. 29 edition of the Charleston Gazette:

A proposed strategy for winning in Afghanistan and then getting out: Negotiate a coal mining deal between Afghanistan and Massey Coal.

Massey would then level all the mountains, and there would be no place for al-Qaida and the Taliban to hide.


ON THIS DATE IN HISTORY, my late father said "Where the $*%# is Pearl Harbor?" and prepared to join the Navy.


December 05, 2009

The carriage held but just ourselves

OK, I admit it. I have a thing for Emily Dickinson. In her lifetime, she was like a volcanic eruption that nobody saw. And, at the risk of being a downer, I think some of her best poems were about mortality.

If life is what happens when we're making other plans, that is probably even more true about death. Here's one of my favorites:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labour, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

December 04, 2009

Award ceremony

It is not the usual practice of this blog to issue awards, mostly because nobody cares what I think, but I'm making an exception in this case. The first official Goat Rope Rock On With Your Bad Self Award--the highest award I have to bestow--goes to WV Senator Robert C. Byrd for having the guts to speak some truth to the WV coal industry about climate change, mountaintop removal and the industry's bullying tactics.

Here's what he has to say.

Byrd deserves particular commendation for not caving in to the latest hissy fit by the WV Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber's latest stunt consists of urging Congress to torpedo health care reform unless and until that body bows down and worships the coal industry as its lord and master and supreme deity.

There are several problems with this approach, but I'll mention only two. First, the Chamber would have opposed meaningful health care reform anyway, even if there were no coal controversies. Second, exactly who died and left the most backward parts of WV's coal industry in charge of the United States of America?

I'm sorry if this offends anyone--and I know this may be a shock to some people--but that sector of the coal industry does not own the hearts, souls,and other bodily and spiritual parts of everyone in West Virginia, much less of the United States as a whole (even though it seems to for some folks).

The thing that I admire most about Senator Byrd is that he improves with age--may we all be so lucky. In the past, I believed that Byrd's greatest moment was his courageous opposition to the Bush administration's unnecessary war in Iraq and its assaults on the US constitution. I don't want to take anything away from that but I now believe that his greatest moment may be the one where he speaks truth to power much closer to home, which is always a much riskier proposition.

Thank you, Senator Byrd!

UNFINISHED BUSINESS. From the New Yorker, here's a look at the history of health care reform efforts in the US.

THE COST OF NOT REFORMING health care is too high, according to Krugman's latest.

BRIGHT SIDED AGAIN. Here's an interview with Barbara Ehrenreich on the perils of unrealistic positive thinking and its effects on the US economy.


"IMPROVING" THE BIBLE. Here's more on the "Conservative Bible Project." (Suggestion: it might be easier if these guys just took out all the stuff about Jesus and the prophets.)


December 03, 2009

Red light, green light

Victor Hugo in days before Disney and Broadway.

Victor Hugo once said, "Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come."

John Kingdon, author of Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, wrote that Hugo's phrase "captures a fundamental reality about an irresistible movement that sweeps over our politics and our society, pushing aside everything that might stand in its path." His 1984 book examines just how this happens in the context of American politics and it seems to me to hold up pretty well today. And while he focused on changes at the federal level, his theories hold up pretty well at the state level as well.

Anyone who has ever tried to influence policy at either level knows that sometimes you get a green light and sometimes (usually more often in my case) the light is red and can stay that way for a long time. In his analysis, which I'm going to be looking at over the next few days, there are three streams that flow their merry way but sometimes can link up. When that happens, major changes can occur.

The big three are the political, policy and problem streams. The political is the most visible and is mostly influenced by elections, the perceived national mood, and the ambitions of major elected officials. The policy stream is less visible and is inhabited by staffers, advocacy and interest groups, and policy wonks such as myself. The problem stream consists of events and opportunities that rise to national attention and seem to demand action.

In his view, when the major political players become aware of a a major problem or opportunity for which an already worked out policy solution might apply, things can happen. The first stream sets the agenda while the second works out possible alternatives that might address the problem.

More on this to come.

SPEAKING OF PROBLEMS AND ALTERNATIVES, President Obama's jobs summit starts today. One solution used with success in Minnesota might be worth a look.

WHILE WE'RE AT IT, the Economic Policy Institute has proposed its solution to unemployment crisis here.

ETHICAL CAPITALISM. Here's how one economist's vision of policy alternatives found an audience.

HEALTH CARE. Versions of health care reform in both the US House and Senate contain major expansions of Medicaid eligibility, which would extend coverage to millions of Americans. Here's a look at how this would benefit West Virginia.

ACTION ITEM. If you are in the Charleston area this evening and want to publicly oppose military escalation in Afghanistan, WV Patriots for Peace is sponsoring a vigil from 5:15pm - 6:15pm at Brawley Walkway (across from Chili's on Court St).

CHANGING THEIR TUNE. Blue whales are singing differently than they used to.


December 02, 2009

Hanging day

John Brown keeps showing up on this blog from time to time, but today he's here for a reason. This date marks the 150th anniversary of his execution in Charles Town, back when it was still part of Virginia.

Brown was a real Captain Ahab whose white whale was slavery. His monomania, to use a favorite 19th century term for an abnormal fixity of purpose, matched that of Melville's character. And unlike the captain of the Pequod whose quarry escaped, Brown was ultimately if posthumously successful.

As he was leaving the jail for his execution, he handed this message on a to an attendant:

I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.

It is also said that as he sat on what would be his coffin on the wagon ride to the gallows he looked around at the scenery, saying "This is a beautiful country. I never had the pleasure of seeing it before."

NOT GOOD. This item from The New England Journal of Medicine looks at the consequences of failure to pass health care reform.

CHAMBER OF WHATEVER. WVU-Tech professor and Gazette columnist John David takes the WV Chamber of Commerce to task for urging senators to hold health care legislation hostage over coal mining regulation.

GETTING WARMER. This Reuters article looks at WV's role in making or breaking climate change legislation in the US Senate.

LONELINESS CAN BE BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH and it might be contagious.

HOW'S YOUR INNER CHIMP? Bill Moyers talks with primate researcher Jane Goodall here.

OLD EUROPE. Here's a look at a lost civilization that thrived in the Balkans around 5,000 years ago.

ACTION ITEM. If you are in the Charleston area Thursday and want to publicly oppose military escalation in Afghanistan, WV Patriots for Peace is sponsoring a vigil from 5:15pm - 6:15pm at Brawley Walkway (across from Chili's on Court St).


December 01, 2009

100 years in the making


When it comes to public policy, it seems that windows of opportunity for action sometimes open--and sometimes they close. And if the boat is missed, it may not come back for a very long time.

Health care reform is a case in point. We now have one of those rare openings to significantly expand access to health care in this country. If we don't get it done soon, we may have to wait for years or decades to try to do this again...or maybe it will never happen.

The idea of providing some kind of system of universal care goes back in mainstream US politics to Republican president Theodore Roosevelt around 100 years ago. It was a plank on his 1912 bid for the presidency on the Progressive ticket.

It was part of his distant cousin Franklin's unfinished New Deal agenda from the 1930s. President Truman made a serious but unsuccessful push for it in the late 1940s, after which it lay dormant for decades.

The 1960s saw a significant expansion of health care with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, which provided coverage for the elderly, the poor, and low income people with disabilities, although comprehensive reform remained elusive.

Another push for universal care began in the early 1970s and peaked briefly during the Carter administration before fading away again. It wasn’t until the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 that the issue again emerged, only to be torpedoed in 1994. Since then progress has been incremental at best, the most notable example being the creation and reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

The chance for reform has been nearly a century in the making--here's hoping we don't blow it this time.

THE BALANCING ACT between debt and recovery is discussed here.

MARKET FUNDAMENTALISM. Here's another whack at one of my favorite targets.

ANOTHER LOW RANKING. El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia doesn't usually do too well on state rankings for most topics. Here's the latest low grade.

GOOD-NATURED. Humans may have an innate urge to help, according to some researchers.



November 27, 2009

Weekend special--the untrustworthy reptile returns

Editor's note: It is the policy of this blog on occasion to provide space for the contributions of several of the animals in and around Goat Rope Farm.

This holiday weekend we are not entirely pleased to note the return of one such commentator, a snapping turtle who declines to give his name and is known only as The Untrustworthy Reptile. We hesitate to take this step but feel compelled to do so given our strong commitment to the First Amendment, although the extent to which it applies to animals is unclear.

We must also once again remind the reader that the management of this blog assumes no liability for anyone who actually takes the advice of any such animal.

(Regular posts will resume Monday, Nov. 30 if the creek don't rise too high.)


Hey you there. Yeah, the one who looks like a blimp with feet. Jeez, you look like you're about to pop. Looks like somebody's had their snout in the trough a little too long.

Lucky for you I'm here. I have a simple remedy for overeating that'll take away that bloated feeling and make you look like a human again, not that that's any great shakes. It also fights aging and tooth decay and makes you irresistible to people you think are hot.

Let me see...where did I put that. Oh yeah, I remember now. It's in my mouth. Way back there. All you gotta do is put your fingers part way in just for a second or two. Come on, reach right in there just for a little second...

Hey! Where are you going! Come back here! I hope you do pop--I hate you!


November 26, 2009

2009 Annual Thanksgiving Possum Recipe

One of the great things about holidays are the enduring traditions that grow up around them. And there's one tradition at this blog that comes at this time of year. That's right--it's annual possum recipe time!

(We must remind the Gentle Reader that no self-respecting WV hillbilly would use the word "opossum.")

((We must also confess that no self-respecting WV hillbilly of my acquaintance actually EATS possums. However, as befits citizens of a state with the motto "Montani Semper Liberi" or "Mountaineers are always free," we will defend your right to do so.))

So, without further ado, here's a link to an interesting recipe for possum stew. Enjoy!


November 25, 2009

A cosmic ATM?

The last few days have been devoted, among other things, to giving a shout out to Barbara Ehrenreich's newest book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

While there's clearly nothing wrong with happiness, being cheerful and having a sense of one's ability to improve things, some versions of this kind of thinking view the universe or God as a kind of cosmic ATM or good fairy, one which has nothing more important to do than to grant the wisher a Hummer, MacMansion, or some other object of conspicuous consumption.

Further, this kind of thinking has permeated a corporate culture in which CEOs are viewed as charismatic visionaries who never allow themselves the luxury of a negative thought. In that climate, anyone a couple of years back, for example, who might have suggested that sub-prime mortgage securities might not be the ideal road to prosperity might well have been dismissed or discharged as a negative person.

Even worse is the kind of magical thinking which views the universe as a projection of one's own mental attitude. In that view, people who are wealthy and powerful are getting what they deserve. Those who are dying of poverty, drowned in a tsunami, languishing without health insurance, or are blown up as collateral damage in warfare are presumably only getting back from the universe the kind of energy they sent out.

I'll pass on that one.

On the other hand, one doesn't need delusional thinking to be grateful for the good things in life. So on that note, happy Thanksgiving!

NO LINKS TODAY. El Cabrero is on a long road trip so no links today other than this earlier post from one of Goat Rope Farm's talking animals, Self Help Guru Rooster.

If anything bad happens between the time this post is written and when it's posted, please accept my condolences.


November 24, 2009

Shiny happy people

As I mentioned yesterday, Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book, How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, is a real hoot. In it, she traces America's penchant for positive (and sometimes magical) thinking from roots in the 19th century, where it began as a reaction against the dour Calvinism that was such a strong ingredient of early American life.

In Calvinism, each soul has been predestined from the beginning of the world for either damnation or salvation, with most of us getting the former. There is nothing we can do about it, nor can one be totally sure one is among the elect. Believers were often urged to continually examine their consciences in fear and trembling.

That could be a bit of a downer. No wonder people sought for some kind of relief. One version that emerged in the late 1800s was called the "New Thought." According to this view, the universe was largely seen as a mental construct willing and waiting to come to our aid if we only got our minds right, to borrow a phrase from the classic movie Cool Hand Luke.

The first half of the twentieth century saw the popularity and commercial success of such enduring best-sellers as Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, which in turn inspired many similar efforts.

While the popularity of positivity is hardly new, modern Americans have consumed and have often been force fed a steady diet of motivational speeches, prosperity "theology," and magical thinking--even while living standards have gotten worse for millions.

Purveyors of this viewpoint sometimes promote the view that one's status and level of material success and health are primarily a matter of mental attitude, which means that people are getting pretty much what they deserve at any given time.

While clearly there's nothing wrong with having a cheerful outlook on the world, once an ideology dismisses other social factors that can hit us no matter how positive our attitude is, then it becomes just another justification for inequality.

If you buy all that, then the 10.2 percent of Americans who are jobless or the 47 million who lack health insurance or the 45,000 or so who die prematurely each year because they don't have it don't need better policies--they just need think positively.

As the saying goes, whatever.

FROM THE HORSE'S MOUTH, here's an interview with Ehrenreich about the book.

STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTS are facing shortfalls which could compound the recession, reduce jobs, and cut vital services in the absence of additional aid.

SAVING THE PLANET. Here are some weird ideas about how to do that.


November 23, 2009

Smiley faces

El Cabrero would like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I just finished listening to an unabridged recording and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I haven't read all her books, but the ones I have tend to fall into two categories. Some, like Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy and Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, are interesting and sometimes speculative investigations about human history, culture and evolution.

Others, like Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream are snarky investigations of current economic and political trends. Bright-Sided is the author at her snarky best.

More on this to come.

WHILE WE'RE AT IT, the Rev. Jim Lewis also touches on this theme in the latest twilight edition of Notes from Under the Fig Tree.

WHO'D A THUNK IT, CONTINUED. Health care reform cleared another hurdle in the US Senate this weekend after having been declared DOA on more than one occasion. The lady with weight issues has not yet sung however.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, WV Senator Jay Rockefeller continues to be a champion of reform.

TOO MUCH OR TOO LITTLE? In responding to high unemployment, maybe the latter.

HOT AIR. Here's a Gazette op-ed by yours truly about climate change and WV's response to it.


There is a tide...

El Cabrero spends a good bit of time working on public policy issues at the state and federal level. I find it fascinating that some issues seem to rise to the surface and get a lot of attention while others--often very important ones--don't.

Sometimes, when issues get "hot," the result can be the passage of significant legislation, but other times they fade from public view for years, decades or even for good.

Sometimes openings exist to get things done and other times they don't. When an opening occurs, one needs to be able to act swiftly and skillfully. And when there is no immediate opening to accomplish a particular goal, the best one can often do is lay the groundwork to take advantage of an opening when it eventually occurs.

It kind of reminds me of these lines spoken by Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Over the next few days, I'm going to try to follow that thread through the labyrinth. I just hope I don't get eaten by the Minotaur...

THE STIGMA IS FADING FAST about food stamp usage, as the NY Times reports. Nowadays, one in eight Americans and one in four children are depending on them.

JOBS! In this op-ed, Paul Krugman calls for direct public sector job creation.

DEFICIT DISORDER, REVISITED. Here's economist Dean Baker talking sense on the federal deficit.

STATUS AND US. This op-ed by yours truly on the social determinants of health came out in the Gazette and Common Dreams yesterday.

LABOR. This Gazette article looks at the future of the labor movement in WV.


November 21, 2009

A little weekend death poetry

George Gordon, Lord Byron.

When coldness wraps this suffering clay,
Ah! whither strays the immortal mind?
It cannot die, it cannot stay,
But leaves its darken'd dust behind.
Then, unembodied, doth it trace
By steps each planet's heavenly way?
Or fill at once the realms of space,
A thing of eyes, that all survey?

Eternal, boundless, undecay'd
A thought unseen, but seeing all,
All, all in earth or skies display'd,
Shall it survey, shall it recall:
Each fainter trace that memory holds
So darkly of departed years,
In one broad glance the soul beholds,
And all, that was, at once appears.

Before Creation peopled earth,
Its eye shall roll through chaos back;
And where the farthest heaven had birth,
The spirit trace its rising track.
And where the future mars or makes,
Its glance dilate o'er all to be,
While sun is quench'd or system breaks,
Fix'd in its own eternity.

Above or Love, Hope, Hate, or Fear,
It lives all passionless and pure:
An age shall fleet like earthly year;
Its years as moments shall endure.
Away, away, without a wing,
O'er all, through all, its thought shall fly,
A nameless and eternal thing,
Forgetting what it was to die.

November 20, 2009

Marching on--updated

Note to email subscribers: I apologize for flooding your mailbox, but a reader pointed out that some of the phrasing in the original needed some work.

Also, I like to encourage readers to contact their senators to support the health care vote scheduled for tomorrow which would bring the bill to the Senate floor. The bill itself is far from perfect, but there will be time to improve it later and doing nothing would be worse.

For contact information, click here. If you can't get through on the DC number, please consider calling their local office.)

Here's the original and edited post:

"Against an enemy. How good bad music and bad reasons sound when one marches against an enemy!"--Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dawn

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Health care reform faces a crucial vote in the Senate this weekend.

SQUANDERED TRUST. Being too nice to bad banks may have more than financial costs.

THIS COULD BE AMUSING. Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is set to debate Robert Kennedy Jr. in January. My guess is that this won't be the only entertainment that night.



November 19, 2009

Two bad ideas

Two bad dogs.

It occurs to El Cabrero after reflecting on human history that two really bad ideas have shown up over and over and done lots of harm.

The first one is the belief that we can do X to Y and it will be over and there will be no consequences.

The second is that we can do whatever we want over here and it will have no effect anywhere else.

Does the Gentle Reader have any other suggestions?

IT'S ALIVE. There is movement on health care reform in the US Senate.

AND SO IS support for a public option in health care reform.

SPEAKING OF HEALTH, coal may not be all that good for it.

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY may have been heart disease.


November 18, 2009


Image courtesy of wikipedia.

(Editorial note: Apparently I got up so early yesterday morning that I thought I posted the following but didn't. My bad. On the bright side, this fact relieves me from having to think of something new for today. Just to be safe, I'm scheduling this in advance lest I sleepwalk again through the morning. If anything really bad happens between now and then please accept my condolences.)

A while back a friend visited Goat Rope Farm at night and commented on how bright the stars were. I guess one thing about living out is that you get kind of spoiled about certain things--like having bright starts. My friend, however, lived in a major city where light pollution makes the nightly light show dimmer if not invisible.

It reminds me of something Emerson said in his essay Nature:

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!

I guess we take things for granted.

IT CAN BE DONE. Student activists have just won a major fight against sweatshops.

HUNGER hit a 14 year high in the US.

JOBS. Here's a call to action for serious action on un- and under-employment.

IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT. Here's a look at 2012 hysteria.

RACIAL DISPARITIES. A new report found some major ones between whites and African Americans in Kanawha County, WV.

THOSE DARWIN FINCHES are at it again on the Galapagos Islands.


November 16, 2009

Another Dante moment

It's been a while since El Cabrero has discussed his old pal Dante Alighieri, but I've been thinking about a passage from his Inferno recently in the context of current political controversies.

In Canto III, at the outskirts of hell, Dante and his guide Virgil pass a large number of condemned souls driven eternally in circles and tormented by gadflies and hornets. They had it so bad that "They are envious of every other fate," which in Dante's version of hell is really saying something.

These unfortunate creatures are those who didn't take a stand for either good or evil during their days on earth and are equally unwanted in either heaven or hell.

What is interesting to me about this is that Dante also includes in this group those people who considered themselves too pure to get down and dirty in the real human world. He singles out Celestine, who was elected pope in 1294 but abdicated, leaving the spot to be taken by someone he considered to be much worse:

I looked, and I beheld the shade of him
Who made through cowardice the great refusal.

The Catholic Church didn't see things that way--Celestine was later canonized--but I see Dante's point. Holding out for perfection in an inherently flawed world can amount to choosing uselessness and allowing even worse things to prevail.

CAIRNS 'R US. This item from yesterday's Gazette is about cairns or rock structures found on a nearby farm and believed to be the work of American Indians. (We have some at Goat Rope Farm but they're not as big and could just be more recent rock piles.) When asked to estimate their age, Roger Wise, an archaeologist friend of mine gave a great reply. As the article reported,

"It's probably somewhere between 1750 A.D. and 10,000 B.C.," he said with a grin.

And you know what--I'll bet he's right!

INEQUALITY AND HEALTH. The social determinants of health, as in things like status and inequality, have been a frequent theme here lately. Here's an op-ed by a friend of mine on an issue we're working on in WV.

THEATER OF WAR. Greek tragedy has also been a favorite theme here. Now, the Department of Defense is taking a look at what some of the plays of Sophocles (Philoctetes and Ajax) can say about the problems of combat veterans.

(Has anyone noticed that it's been a long time since my last ancient Greek jag? I'm feeling another one coming on.)

GAME THEORY. This item looks at auctions and the psychology of commitment.

DEFICITS AND DEFICITS. In a post from his blog, Paul Krugman observes the following about politicians:

many, if not most, are perfectly happy to incur huge unfunded liabilities for the wars they want to fight, and/or to eliminate inheritance taxes for the heirs of multimillionaires. It’s only deficits incurred to help working Americans that get them all moralistic.


November 14, 2009

To sleep

I don't know about you, Gentle Reader, but on weekdays El Cabrero gets up at 5:00 AM. One nice thing about weekends usually is the absence of an alarm clock, a satanic invention if ever there was one. To celebrate blessed Morpheus, here's a poem by Keats:

O SOFT embalmer of the still midnight!
Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas'd eyes, embower'd from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes.
Or wait the Amen, ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities;
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still hoards
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.--John Keats

November 13, 2009

High horses

The Tao Te Ching, for my money the wisest book ever written, has a line in it that has confused readers for 2000 years or so:

Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,
And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.

I'm with Lao Tzu on that one. It seems to me that when members of an inherently flawed species adopt impossible standards of righteousness and purity, they can often wind up doing more harm than good. This is especially true in terms of public policy where, as the saying goes, the perfect can become the enemy of the good.

It is true that all legislation is messy and imperfect--but then so is every other human endeavor, including the criticism thereof.

Getting down to cases, it is probably true that any health care reform bill that passes Congress and makes it to the president's desk is going to have some serious flaws and will be subject to many unsavory compromises. That's the way the world works. But I would argue that this is no excuse for doing nothing.

Once a major measure like that passes, there will be all kinds of opportunities to improve it, but once it dies, it could be decades before the chance comes around again.

JOBS. New claims for unemployment insurance have recently dropped, but job growth seems far away. Economic growth, as in raising the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is often seen in the US as a panacea. The idea seems to be that if that goes on long enough, eventually people will benefit. In this op-ed, Paul Krugman makes the case that this is cold comfort without public policies that protect and create jobs, especially during a recession.

WHO SAID THE COURSE OF TRUE LOVE NEVER DID RUN SMOOTH? Actually, it was Shakespeare, but that's not the point right now. The WV Supreme Court's love affair with Massey Energy continues without a hitch.