Sunday, November 21, 2010

If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars.

I have ignored this blog for some time for reasons described earlier. I'll summarize by indicating that maintaining a blog that is rant-based is antithetical to my nature. This stuff motivates me, but the work of creating a meaningful blog was bringing me down. I considered posting this to my regular blog (eyeDance) but it seemed too heavy for that venue. So here it is, where it rightfully belongs, on Pitchforks and Torches.

I will reiterate that anyone who feels moved to contribute to this blog so that its presence is less sporadic, please contact me and I will grant you the status to contribute directly. So, onward...


On Saturday I attended a pro-train rally here in Madison, WI. There is a push to (re)introduce higher-speed passenger rail to the state. Our Governor-Elect, Scott Walker(R) has clearly stated his intent to kill the rail project and return the federal funds already allocated to WI to improve rail beds and establish new track and a station in Madison.

Trying to Get Wisconsin on the Right Track

The rally was small, and poorly announced. The spots I heard on the radio indicated day and time, but not location (duh!). Several speakers presented good information, including one Republican who is a Walker supporter.


Generally the information was fact-based rather than emotional and I couldn't help but to feel cognitive dissonance: This rail option is so clearly a conservative approach to infrastructure growth. What was I missing? I wasn't alone.

Transit Trains ARE Conservative.  We Libruls want them.

There's lots of room for conspiracy about Walker being beholden to road building and other transportation (read: Truck and Auto) based organizations, but it really can't be that simple. I don't believe he's that short-sighted. Or is he caught up in the paradigm that says cars=freedom and poor people travel by train or bus? Has he ever been to the East Coast? Interestingly, a friend who was also at the rally mentioned in passing GM and other corporations buying up and destroying urban rail. That rang a bell deep in my memory, so I came home to do some research.

in the 1920s automaker General Motors (GM) began a covert campaign to undermine the popular rail-based public transit systems that were ubiquitous in and around the country’s bustling urban areas. At the time, only one in 10 Americans owned cars and most people traveled by trolley and streetcar.

It sort of reminds me of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit". It turns out GM wasn't alone in their efforts, and they were hugely successful. They were joined by Standard Oil, Firestone Tire, Mack Truck and Phillips Petroleum.

GM began by funding a company called National City Lines (NCL), which by 1946 controlled streetcar operations in 80 American cities.

“Despite public opinion polls that showed 88 percent of the public favoring expansion of the rail lines after World War II, NCL systematically closed its streetcars down until, by 1955, only a few remained,”

Over the course of three decades, this group of corporations worked to almost entirely decimate rail options in cities. I'm no fan of trolleys and think buses are a fine alternative. My wife has relied on Madison Metro buses for commuting for more than two decades. But they didn't stop there.

Alfred P. Sloan, GM’s president at the time, said, “We’ve got 90 percent of the market out there that we can…turn into automobile users. If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars.”

Getting inside the government was a logical step, and GM wasted no effort to do so.

GM was later instrumental in the creation of the National Highway Users Conference, which became the most powerful lobby in Washington. Highway lobbyists worked directly with lawmakers to craft highway-friendly legislation”

When GM President Charles Wilson became Secretary of Defense in 1953 [emphasis mine], he worked with Congress to craft the $25 billion Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Referred to at the time as the “greatest public works project in the history of the world,” the federally funded race to build roads from coast-to-coast was on.

Fortunately, GM is not in the same position it was in then, and there is more interest in rational mass transit. Road building is costly, and traffic is getting significantly worse even here in WI. A rail option reduces some of that load - but leaves drivers free to choose to drive - and eliminates a couple of key headaches such as fender-benders and the traffic jams they create, rush-hour crawl, tolls, and most weather related snarls like snow, fog, and heavy rain.


Currently the Amtrak passes about 30 miles from Madison and there is no way to get to the station except by car. The Empire Builder line runs from Seattle-Chicago via Minneapolis and Milwaukee, making it a logical option for a Mnpls-Madison-Chicago connection if it only ran closer or there was a rail line that served the station from here. The trip from Chicago to Columbus, WI, takes 2:45, so a route through Madison instead would not significantly alter that. Driving time to downtown Chicago from here is about the same if all goes well. While riding that train I could read, have a beer, talk with my companions or work mates without the hassle of driving. A weekend getaway becomes a breeze and I don't have to spend upwards of $20/day to park my car. The trip from here to Minneapolis is 5:30, a bit longer than the typical drive time if all goes well.

The government's reimbursement rate for auto travel is $0.50/mile for 2010. Minneapolis is 270 miles. At $0.50, that's a transportation cost, excluding parking, of $135. Let's for the sake of argument assume there are two travelers, so the minimum cost per traveler is $67.50. An Amtrak ticket from Madison (Columbus) to Minneapolis is $56.00. Intracity mass transit will get me around pretty well for that extra $11.50 per person. Chicago is 148 miles, or, using the same rates as above, $37.00 per person for two to drive. Amtrak from Madison to Chicago is $32.00 per person. (Aside: It's interesting to note that my computer's dictionary doesn't even recognize the word intracity. Telling, no? Talk about paradigms.)

Make no mistake: This is still a corporations versus people issue. Substantial corporate dollars are being invested to quash intercity passenger rail in favor of roads and personal transit such as cars. Are you really a fiscal conservative? Then rail makes sense both as a stand alone choice on a dollars to dollars basis, but also as simply an alternative to the private automobile.

And before you jump up and down and yell about Amtrak subsidies, you had better have your ducks in a row and be prepared to talk about the subsidies to road building, GM (hello?), the petroleum industry ($50 Billion/year) and ethanol (which is a rant unto itself). I leave you with this:

Much is made of the $30 billion spent on Amtrak over the last 30 years, but in that same period the federal government spent $1.89 TRILLION on air and highway modes, according to the New York Times and Washington Post.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Rent-A-Front: New Group Wages Stealth Battle Against Wall Street Reform. TPM has an article posted today indicating a supposedly grass roots advocacy group, Stop Too Big To Fail, supposedly seeking sane finance reform is actually a front for corporate interests seeking to kill the proposed reform legislation.
But as TPMmuckraker has looked into the group, every indication is that Stop Too Big To Fail is an astroturf operation funded by corporate interests to give the appearance of grassroots opposition to reform.

The group's leader has a long history running a rent-a-front operation: offering up his services to large corporations who are willing to pay top dollar for a "consumers group" that will engage in stealth advocacy on behalf of industry. The group refuses to divulge its funding sources. The respected economist whose support the group touts now says he was deceived.
Referring to itself as a movement, the group has launched a campaign on typically left-leaning websites and blogs. They are, quite literally, trying to fake out readers and sow disinformation in an effort to kill reform. Disgusting.

Here is a little history of the group's past "grass roots" operations:

- Consumers for Cable Choice. That group was funded by big telecoms like Verizon and fought to deregulate the cable industry.
- Consumers Voice, founded in the late 1990s, was "a self-described watchdog fighting against broadband legislation" that was funded by AT&T.
-, a website funded by mega-insurer Assurant, that says it helps people navigate the individual insurance market.

Do not be fooled.

Mea Culpa

I have noticed that feeding this blog creates an energy-state in me that I find unpleasant. That by itself is not too surprising, but I have to acknowledge it. Raking through the muck in our political system is draining. So, while I apologize for not posting more here, I do not expect the infrequency to change.

If YOU, dear reader, wish to be a contributor at this blog, please drop me a note and I'll hand you the opportunity. I don't care if you are politically left or right, as long as you are interested in honestly pointing out the inherent lies, obfuscations, cover-ups, and treachery in our system.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Not THAT Foreign Aid!

Andrew Sullivan posted a graphic a few days ago that has been bouncing around in my head for a few days. He re-posted it today, with a barb that clarified my thoughts. Here's the graph:

Foreign aid tops that list. Before I go any further with this thought exercise, let's have a pop quiz: How much of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid? Anyone? Buehler? The answer is about 1%, or $23.5 billion in 2008. Private philanthropy contributes more, at around $35 billion. (I think there is a reason for philanthropic donations, and I'll get to that in a moment.) So which destitute, impoverished nations receive that aid? Anyone? Those of you who followed that link above will have been led to think that poor African nations receive that money for food. [insert buzzer noise here] The top recipients (I could only find 2007 data) are Iraq ($8.1 billion) and Afghanistan ($5.8 billion). That is on top of the costs of our misbegotten wars in those countries. Next in order are Israel ($2.5 billion) and Egypt ($1.97 billion). Even Russia is getting $1.6 billion, and that excludes all the -istan countries, Georgia, and other former members of the U.S.S.R. Clearly this is not charitable donations for feeding the poor. It's military aid primarily.

Here's a proposal: Cut foreign aid by lopping off that $4.5 billion (likely more now) in aid to Israel and Egypt. Any "conservative" takers? Based on my reading of the news, I'll get none. They mean, cut aid to starving African nations.

There are good reasons to provide foreign aid, and that is likely why there is so much corporate and other philanthropic aid money. It helps stabilize unstable countries. War is a lousy tool of statecraft, and using it as a first tool is insane (unless you make bombs or bombers). I propose we immediately strip $50 billion out of the Defense budget ($515 billion, excluding the not budgeted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) and shunt it in place of the approximately $50 billion spent on foreign aid.

So, without that $50 billion per year as separate foreign aid, we can fund health care with a subsidized Medicare buy-in for five years.

*insert cricket sounds*

One last thought on that first graph. Something like 40% of conservatives want to cut welfare, but only about 12% want to cut "aid to the poor". What am I missing? Purely conjecture, but is it that "welfare recipients" are typically portrayed as unmarried black women with lots of kids, while "poor people" are your white neighbors who are down on their luck? Anyone? Buehler?

Friday, February 19, 2010

For I was hungry and you gave me no food

At what point does our supposedly free market fail to provide reasonable solutions? At what point does it become clear that corporate interests outweigh the interests of We The People? One possible way to answer that question is to say it occurs when monopolies (or corporate oligarchies) dominate a market so thoroughly that they can do whatever they want because there is no option to provide an alternative to their service. A case in point:
Anthem Blue Cross, the largest for-profit health insurer in California, announced huge rate increases for people who buy their own insurance: an average increase of 25 percent, and a 35 percent to 39 percent rise for a quarter of the purchasers.
Just what are the options in California, or nationwide, for those who reject such a rate increase? They are either limited, or seriously unpalatable. The can:
- Switch to another provider. Since there are seven main players in the health insurance industry, that does not really provide any meaningful option. Where Anthem goes on this, the others will surely follow simply because they can.
- Switch to a lesser policy for less money. A poor choice, but certainly possible, and one that free-market aficionados would surely champion (until it is their family forced into that situation, then they become Tea Partiers). This option will typically result in one illness causing bankruptcy and economic ruin to the family. If the goal is to exacerbate the trend of the rich getting richer and the poor poorer, this is a great solution.
- Go without. Ultimately, this is a death sentence. Easily preventable or treatable illness will be more traumatic because treatment will be out of pocket, and therefore avoided. Ask any doctor or dentist who treat those who pay as they go.

Free market lovers maximize corporate options while damning government options. In this situation, why not simply make Medicare an option for any American to buy in to? Note that I said both buy, and option. If any American is unhappy with the offerings of the major insurance providers, let them have an option to buy into Medicare at any age. The huge pool of insured should keep rates affordable, and the not-for-profit option helps as well. Further, those over 65 who currently get Medicare for free should be means-tested: If their income/savings allows for it, they should be required to pay for some or all of their premiums (including Senators and Congresspersons). For those who think government-offered health insurance would stink, they are free to continue to pay whatever the Big Guys want to charge for their coverage.

In other words, let competition re-enter the marketplace. If the government offered plan draws people in, the corporate offerings will adjust down to compete, right? And if the government option is awful, then no one will buy into it. As long as there are the likes of William McGuire around, those corporate rates will continue to skyrocket.

On a final note, I will add that America seems to always find money aplenty for dubious wars, but not a sou for taking care of her least brothers (Matthew 25:34-46 for those who profess to be Christian).

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

So That Security and Liberty May Prosper Together

Americans like to bitch about how "The Government" spends the tax money of We The People. In our arguments we prop up straw men to shout about: Funding the National Endowment for the Arts, Tobacco or Ethanol subsidies, studies about trivialities like global climate change, etc. Yet we very rarely get around to taking on the Number One problem, the bottomless pit into which we throw trillions of dollars and insist on thinking of it as a tool of statecraft.

Yes, I refer to the military.

Every decade or so some pol steps up and makes a stand against this bomber or tank or ship, declaring it wasteful and unnecessary. Good for that vox clamantis in deserto, but until Feb. 1, 2010, I am fundamentally unaware of anyone who has the moxie to claim, as Andrew J. Bacevich does in "The American Conservative", that,
Since 1945, the United States military has devoted itself to the proposition that, Hiroshima notwithstanding, war still works—that, despite the advent of nuclear weapons, organized violence directed by a professional military elite remains politically purposeful. From the time U.S. forces entered Korea in 1950 to the time they entered Iraq in 2003, the officer corps attempted repeatedly to demonstrate the validity of this hypothesis.
He's referring to war working as statecraft, a tool to end some conflict or another. As in our current efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite all evidence to the contrary. Bacevich goes on:
Three times in the last 60 years, U.S. forces have achieved an approximation of unambiguous victory—operational success translating more or less directly into political success. The first such episode, long since forgotten, occurred in 1965 when Lyndon Johnson intervened in the Dominican Republic. The second occurred in 1983, when American troops, making short work of a battalion of Cuban construction workers, liberated Granada. The third occurred in 1989 when G.I.’s stormed the former American protectorate of Panama, toppling the government of long-time CIA asset Manuel Noriega.
He's not talking trash about "the troops". He's talking about results. The efficacy of the theoretical strategy of deploying troops to "win" something as nebulous as a "War On Terror". In plain speech, such a plan is analogous to nailing Jell-o to a tree.

Yet the current crop of "conservative" voices routinely demand that We "support the troops" by not uttering a single negative word about the deeply flawed mission. They castigate the president for being soft and spineless. The current darling of the GOP, Sarah Palin, is openly criticizing the president for not invading Iran. In what twisted world view are those things conservative? How is endless occupational military engagement with no clear victory to achieve a conservative virtue?

Imagine for one minute that We The People had resoundingly said No! to the proposed invasion of Iraq for specious, trumped up reasons. Imagine that we had thought rather than reacted in the wake of 9/11. (Imagine that my coworker had not called me a traitor for disagreeing with such a fallacious rush to war.) We would still have:

- $1.05 trillion dollars (which over 10 years could have provided funding for 1,490,431 elementary school teachers, or 30,839,695 people with Health Care, or 108,327,139 Homes with Renewable Electricity)
- 3,469 living US soldiers
- 27,790 unwounded US soldiers

Ponder that. Those lives are irreplaceable. For the cost of 7 years of war with no discernible goal ("Ending terror"? Please...) We The People could have outfitted pretty much every single U.S. home with the means of generating its own electricity. Just how much dead dinosaur juice consumption or coal burning does that avoid? Which one gets us out of conflict with the Middle East? Which of those solutions is conservative? Which one provides a return on invested capital?

Please note that the cost of the current wars is not analogous to the cost of having a military. It is above and beyond the cost of maintaining and effective military. Using said military for dubious results is expensive and not in the slightest conservative.

Eisenhower was right:
We face a hostile ideology -- global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger is poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle -- with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.

Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in newer elements of our defense; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research -- these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs -- balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage -- balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.
and right about this, too:
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
and once more:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Read the entire speech and recall what conservatism used to sound like. Remember what war looked like to a warrior rather than a glory-addled chicken-hawk. Remember that we were warned, and we ignored that warning. Remember that our leaders, both elected and corporate, prefer that we remain afraid of bogeymen so that the military machine remains showered with money, our money, and that the exchange for that false sense of security is money not spent on making America better.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Tax and Spend

'Nuff said. This is where the money comes from, and where it goes. Draw your own conclusions.