Friday, December 12, 2008

Maverick News: Coping with Recession

ECONOMIC SHOWDOWNS. On December 5, workers at Republic Windows and Doors, members of UE Local 1110, occupied their factory, which was due to close after the Bank of America, just weeks after getting $25 billion in bailout money, refused to continue extending credit to the company. In case that wasn’t sufficiently ironic, Republic makes energy efficient doors and windows in Chicago. B of A also told the company to refuse workers compensation pay, vacation pay or severance. But this story has a happy ending. After six days, the standoff ended Wednesday when the bank and other lenders had a change of heart and agreed to provide about $2 million in severance, vacation pay, and health insurance. That’s one for the workers.

In other not-so-happy, jobs-related news: Sony has announced plans to cut 8000 jobs, and the Screen Actors Guild said it will ask members to authorize a strike over a new contract. The guild represents 120,000 people. The results of a strike vote will be announced at the end of January. About a year ago Hollywood screenwriters went on strike for 14 weeks, bringing prime-time TV production to a halt and costing LA $3 billion.

The big sticking point is how much actors should be paid for content on the Internet. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the big studios, says the actors are being asked to "bail out a failed negotiating strategy by going on strike during one of the worst economic crises in history."

Also in job news, leisure time for American workers took a dive this year. On average Americans worked 46 hours a week, while playing only 16 hours.

And now, some political follies…

EXORTIONIST-IN-CHIEF. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested on criminal charges Tuesday, including trying to sell the US Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. He’s also accused of threatening to withhold state help to the Tribune Company in connection with the sale of the Chicago Cubs' baseball home Wrigley Field unless the company fired members of the newspaper’s editorial board members who have criticized him. What else did the governor want? To head a multi-million dollar foundation, become an ambassador, or take the Senate seat himself – before running for president in 2016. Obama isn’t implicated in the scandal – so far – but it’s likely to cut his political honeymoon short.

SENATOR MATHEWS? TV Host Chris Matthews is considering a run for the US Senate in Pennsylvania. He’s shopping for a house and may quit MSNBC to prove his interest, according to his colleagues and friends. But some NBC insiders think it's just a negotiating ploy to jack up his contract.

Writer David Sirota said recently, “I really hope Chris Matthews runs for the US Senate in Pennsylvania, and is humiliatingly obliterated in a Democratic primary (preferably by a good progressive like, for instance, former Rep. Joe Hoeffel). The sense of entitlement that this blowhard personifies is truly stunning. He's spent his entire life as a principle-free political gossip in Washington… and yet, he really thinks he can just parachute into one of the largest states in the country, buy a mansion in Philadelphia and be a senator on sheer celebrity alone.”

A new Rasmussen survey shows Sen. Arlen Specter, whose seat Matthews would go after, "is potentially vulnerable" in his 2010 bid for re-election. In early polling, Specter leads Matthews by just three points, 46% to 43%.

CANADA: DEMOCRACY ON HOLD. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has suspended Canada's parliament to avoid a challenge from opposition parties that want to oust him. A 3-party coalition – the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois — decided to remove Harper because of his strong opposition to a stimulus package that was designed to minimize the effects of the financial crisis. They also opposed his proposed elimination of subsidies for political parties, a three-year ban on the right of civil servants to strike, and limits on the ability of women to sue for pay equity. Governor General Michaelle Jean helped Harper by using her authority to close the legislature for seven weeks. The country is in an uproar.

Harper is a conservative ideologue and was president of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC), a conservative advocacy group that opposes national healthcare and supports privitization and tax cuts. Its motto is "more freedom with less government." He’s been a loyal supporter of Bush and the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His critics says he’s in bed with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Bilderburg Group. He also allegedly supports plans for a North American Union, a scheme to merge Canada, the US, and Mexico into a superstate.

Closer to home…

NOW HE TELLS US. George W. is apparently having an attack on candor. During an interview on ABC's Nightline, he revealed that his belief that God created the world isn’t incompatible with scientific proof of evolution. He also admitted that he’s not a literalist when reading the Bible.

SHRUB’S LAST STAND. One casualty of Bush’s departure from Washington is a talented comedian who played George Shrub, the singing CIA agent. He’s currently on his Shrub’s Last Stand Tour. He recently offered these words of wisdom:

“Now that the country is bankrupt, we’ve given it to the black guy… Our leading Financial Citizens are working hard to rescue their economy while some near-Americans are whining about their 4 - make that 201Ks, and other mental recessionary issues. But the bailout is misunderstood. Some say it’s socialism, but it’s not: it’s partial, temporary, side-door nationalizing, not socialism. Sort of a temporary national socialism kind of thing.”

LOCAL CURRENCIES. Speaking of the economic crisis, residents of two Milwaukee neighborhoods may begin printing their own money. The idea is to encourage local spending, using local cash at neighborhood stores and businesses. The local currency couldn’t be spent at Wal-Mart or Home Depot, but an incentive being considered is to let people trade $100 US for $110 local, essentially meaning a 10 percent discount at participating stores.

It's not a new concept. There are at least 2,000 local currencies around the world, including Burlington Bread, but it could gain some ground during troubled times. During the Depression, scores communities relied on their own currencies.

And it's legal. As long as communities don't create coins or print bills that resemble federal dollars, they can print their own money.

And finally…

SPREADING LAUGHTER. We say that laughter is contagious. Turns out, so is happiness. And it’s not an individual but a collective phenomenon, according to a study in the British Medical Journal. The researchers followed almost 5,000 people over 20 years, and found that happiness can spread through three degrees of separation within social networks. That means the happiness of a friend, a friend’s friend, and even a friend’s friend’s friend can infect you with a good mood.

The study suggests that the happiest people are those at the center of a social network, comparing the contagion of emotions to catching a sexually transmitted infection. Luckily, the study says sadness doesn’t spread as easily.

Maverick News will return in 2009.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Podcasts: Unintended Consequences

News headlines, deconstructing politics, and outrageous dialogues. This edition: the Mumbai attacks and reflections on India; assessing Obama’s cabinet, Trilateral dynamics, and the financial meltdown; regime change theories; bailout costs. Media Watch: Who do we trust, and upcoming movies. Drug News: Afghanistan takes the lead, and failed US strategies.

Special Segment: Film producer Jesse Guma discusses family ties, making it in Hollywood, and his latest project, the action/action movie Relentless.

The Howie Rose Show airs live weekly on Friday morning at WOMM, and streams on The Radiator from Burlington, ground zero in the People’s Republic of Vermont. Click to hear this edition of Maverick News @ Noon or the Jesse Guma interview, originally aired on November 28, 2008, 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. Thanks to Big Heavy World and Sonny Fortune.

Check the sidebar for other installments.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Maverick News: Strategy Shifts

This week: War Zones – Afghanistan at the brink, the geopolitics of Mumbai, and the problem with pirates; Prospects for Single Payer, food stamps soar, and an obesity update. Music: Vinyl Resurgence and celebrating Odetta. Vermont: Gearing up for Gay Marriage, and Burlington’s Mayoral race. Plus, Drug News: Meth moves south and ending drug prohibition. Live Broadcast Friday, December 5, Noon EST, on The Howie Rose Show (WOMM), streamed on The Radiator.

AFGHANISTAN AT THE BRINK. The collapse of Afghanistan is closer than you think. Kandahar is in Taliban hands - all but a square mile at the center of the city - and the first Taliban checkpoints are scarcely 15 miles from Kabul. Hamid Karzai's corrupt government is almost as powerless as the Iraqi cabinet in Baghdad's "Green Zone." Lorry drivers carry business permits issued by the Taliban, which runs the courts in remote areas.

The Red Cross warns that humanitarian operations are being drastically curtailed. More than 4,000 people, at least a third of them civilians, have been killed in the past 11 months, along with NATO troops and about 30 aid workers. Both the Taliban and Karzai's government are executing their prisoners in greater numbers.

According to one Kabul business executive, nobody wants to see the Taliban back in power, but people hate the government and there's mass unemployment.

Afghans working for charitable groups and the UN are being pressured to give information to the Taliban and provide them with safe houses. In the countryside, farmers live in fear of both sides in the war. In short, seven years after 9/11 and the US overthrow of the Taliban we’re almost back to square one.

MUMBAI: WHAT’S AT STAKE. A virtually unknown group called "the Deccan Mujahideen" has claimed responsibility for the recent attacks in India. The Deccan Plateau refers to a region of central-Southern India. According to police sources, attackers who survived say they belong to Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, a Pakistani Kasmiri separatist organization covertly supported by Pakistani military intelligence, known as the ISI. Both Western and Indian media point at Pakistan and its alleged support of Islamic terrorist groups.

Here’s where it gets complicated. The ISI is a proxy of the CIA. Since the early 1980s, Pakistani intelligences has worked closely with its US and British intelligence counterparts. Thus, if the ISI was involved in a major covert operation directed against India, the CIA should have had prior knowledge about the nature and timing of the operation. The ISI isn’t known to act without the consent of its US intelligence counterpart.

Due to this connection, some analysts say that, whether or not US intelligence knew in advance, the US will use the Mumbai attacks to stir up divisions between Pakistan and India, justify US military actions inside Pakistan, and extend the "war on terrorism."

If you don’t buy that, there’s at least one other possibility. As a result of the attacks, Pakistan may relocate 100,000 troops currently at the Afghan border to the Indian border. If that happens, US operations on the border with Afghanistan will become more difficult, since it relies on Pakistani troops to assist with its border operations, and especially to protect the supply route for US operations. Who gains in this scenario: Al Qaeda.

Whoever knew or did what, what are the options? Bomb suspected terrorist cells in India? Send the Marines to Kashmir? Regime change in Pakistan? None or these would be very helpful. Yet the Bush administration pursued similar tactics against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and suspected terrorist hideouts in Pakistan. Heck of a job.

The Taliban is back in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, which didn't exist in Iraq before the invasion, has a foothold there now. And Pakistan, thanks to former dictator Pervez Musharraf and his intelligence agency, remains Terrorism Central.

Unfortunately, India may now go down the same road, staging its own war on terror. According to the Times of London, "The Indian government is now considering a range of responses, including suspending its five-year peace process with Pakistan, closing their border, stopping direct flights and sending troops to the frontier." It's one thing when the US squares off against the Taliban. But both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, so any "war on terror" between those two can go global at a moment's notice.

There is an alternative. Instead of using the military, for example, the British have largely relied on police work to track down and neutralize terrorists. Both the UN and Interpol focus on sharing information among police forces and shutting down the financing of terrorist networks. In other words, instead of fighting fire with fire, the flames could be doused with water. And the most effective fire extinguisher is still the rule of law.

PIRATE POLITICS. In the 18th century, Britain hung pirates in public. The idea was to make it look like not a very good career option. Now, three centuries later, pirates sail the high seas with near impunity – stealing, blackmailing and intimidating commercial ships. And it's not clear who can or should be the pirate police.

An international fleet of warships, including US, British, Danish, Italian, Greek, French and Canadian ships, is operating in the waters off Somalia. The International Maritime Bureau estimates 100 pirate attacks have occurred there this year.

Last week, for example, pirates tried to attack a US cruise ship, the MS Nautica, with over 1,000 people on board. The ship outran the pirates, but other ships haven’t been as lucky – like the Saudi oil tanker seized late last month with its crew and $100 million worth of oil.

Anyone can step up to battle the pirates. But bringing weapons on board ships is "strongly discouraged" by the UN International Maritime Organization, and experts say that arming commercial crews is a bad idea since it can lead to an international incident.

Since most crews don't carry weapons, ships resort to non-violent methods to ward off the pirates, including long-range acoustic devices that blast loud, irritating noises. Sounds wimpy, but it’s apparently the most annoying sound you've ever heard. It can actually make you nauseous. Other non-lethal methods include electric fences and hoses that spray pirates with water and knock them off their ladders before they can climb on board.

But non-violence isn't always effective. Last week, when pirates struck a chemical tanker in the Gulf of Aden, three guards from a British anti-lethal security company, Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions, couldn’t fend off the pirates and eventually threw themselves overboard to avoid capture.

The UN Security Council has extended its authorization for countries to enter Somalia's territorial waters with advanced notice and to use "all necessary force" when combating piracy. The US security firm Blackwater, which operates in Iraq, announced in October that it was making its 183-foot ship, the McArthur, available to companies looking to hire security. Great movie concept. But as a foreign policy, not so much.

And still, even when the pirates can be defeated, there’s a problem. Nobody wants responsibility for the pirates, especially when they come from war-torn places like Somalia. Plus, if they hand the pirates over to the wrong country, they sometimes claim asylum. So far, the new pirates are apparently beating the system.


WHAT ABOUT SINGLE PAYER? You might not know it, but in each of the last several sessions of Congress, Rep. John Conyers has introduced single payer health care legislation. The current bill is HR 676, the Conyers-Kucinich National Health Care Act, endorsed by dozens of city councils, state legislatures, county governments, and 90 members of Congress, including more than 30 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Organizations like the Citizens Alliance for National Health Care are raising money to buy ads for a national media campaign. Yet, the bill has been virtually invisible in mainstream media.

While Barack Obama has promised "universal health care," he and his advisors have explicitly rejected single payer health care. During the campaign, he managed to avoid mention of it except for a few unscripted moments when asked in public. Instead, he and his team want to make government money available to buy private health care, and subsidize a new risk pool, most likely through private insurers, for people who can't find any affordable private coverage.

So, if single payer legislation doesn’t make it to the floor this time, the blame can clearly be laid at the feet of the new president and his party.

FOOD STAMPS SET A NEW RECORD. The US poised to set a new record in food stamp use, more than 30 million people. The previous record was set in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina displaced a million refugees from one of the poorest cities in the country. If all the eligible people were enrolled, another 10 million families might be getting them.

A dollar spent on food stamp benefits generates $1.73 of economic activity, according to economists. This multiplier affect beats even the impact of unemployment insurance. But the purchasing power of food stamps hasn’t kept pace with the inflation in food prices, currently 6.5 percent and expected to hit 8 percent by the end of the year.

TO LOSE WEIGHT, HOLD THE ADVERTISING. Want to cut national obesity? We could cut at least 18 percent of America’s fat just by banning fast-food advertising to children. That’s according to a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research and National Institutes of Health. Not unexpectedly, the Center for Consumer Freedom, a front group for the restaurant and fast-food industry, calls the study "erroneous" because one of the authors admits that "a lot of people consume fast food in moderate amounts and it doesn't harm their health." But this doesn’t contradict the study's basic findings. Previous studies have reached similar conclusions.


VINYL RESURGENCE. Shipments of LPs jumped more than 36 percent from 2006 to 2007 to more than 1.3 million, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. During the same period shipments of CDs dropped more than 17 percent to 511 million, losing ground to digital formats. Based on the first three months of this year, Nielsen Sound Scan says vinyl album sales could reach 1.6 million in 2008.

The resurgence of vinyl centers on a long-standing debate over analog versus digital sound. Digital recordings capture samples of sound and place them very close together as a complete package that sounds nearly identical to continuous sound to most people. Analog recordings on most LPs are continuous, which supposedly produces a truer sound – though some new LP releases are being recorded and mixed digitally, then delivered analog.

But it's not just about the sound. Audiophiles say they also want the overall experience – the sensory experience of putting the needle on the record and lingering over the liner notes or large format extras.

"I don't think vinyl is for everyone; it's for the die-hard music consumer," said Jay Millar, director of marketing at United Record Pressing, a Nashville based company that is the nation's largest record pressing plant.

Independent music stores, the primary source of LPs in recent years, say many fans never left the medium. "People have been buying vinyl all along," says Cathy Hagen, manager at 2nd Avenue Records in Portland. "There was a fairly good supply from independent labels on vinyl all these years. As far as a resurgence, the major labels are just pressing more now."

Some of the new fans are baby boomers nostalgic for their youth. But to the surprise and delight of music executives, increasing numbers of the iPod generation are also purchasing turntables and vinyl records. Contemporary artists have begun issuing their new releases on vinyl in addition to CD and MP3 formats. As an extra lure, labels are including coupons for free audio downloads with their vinyl albums so that Generation Y music fans can get the best of both worlds: high-quality sound at home and iPod portability for the road.

While new records sell for about $14, used LPs go for as little as a penny or as much as $2,400 for a collectible, autographed copy. In October, introduced a vinyl-only store and increased its selection to 150,000 titles Its biggest sellers? Alternative rock, followed by classic rock.

VOICE OF A MOVEMENT. Odetta, the folk singer with the powerful voice who moved audiences and influenced fellow musicians for a half-century, died last week at 77 of kidney failure. In spite of failing health that restricted her to a wheelchair, Odetta performed 60 concerts in the last two years, singing for 90 minutes at a time.

With a booming, classically trained voice and spare guitar style, Odetta gave life to the songs by workingmen and slaves, farmers and miners, housewives and washerwomen, blacks and whites. First coming to prominence in the 1950s, she influenced Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other singers who had roots in the folk music boom. When she sang at the March on Washington in August 1963, "Odetta's great, full-throated voice carried almost to Capitol Hill," The New York Times wrote.

Among her notable early works were her 1956 album "Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues," with songs like "Muleskinner Blues" and "Jack O' Diamonds"; and her 1957 "At the Gate of Horn," featuring the popular spiritual "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."

In a 1983 Washington Post interview, Odetta theorized that humans developed music and dance because of fear, "fear of God, fear that the sun would not come back, many things. I think it developed as a way of worship or to appease something. ... The world hasn't improved, and so there's always something to sing about."

"I'm not a real folksinger," she told The Post. "I don't mind people calling me that, but I'm a musical historian.”


GEARING UP FOR GAY MARRIAGE. Last week Windsor Senator John Campbell promised to reintroduce and push a gay marriage bill in 2009. Governor Douglas has reiterated his opposition, arguing that the debate will distract Vermont from other important issues. He declines to say whether he would veto a bill. Senate leaders have indicated that they aren’t sure whether this will be a priority, and some have questioned whether the Legislature can address our civil rights and deal with the economic challenges in the same session.

Here’s what Senator Campbell wrote in defense of the bill:

“Please rest assured, the civil rights of all Vermonters will be a central issue for me in the upcoming session, alongside the economy, the State's financial challenges, and other critical matters. Although I had hoped that the Governor would step up and share leadership on this important issue, I am not waiting for his advance approval on this. It's too important, and our job is to lead. There's no tension between eliminating discrimination in our laws and meeting the economic challenges we face. Our legislature works through committees, and always tackles dozens of important matters at once. With the foundation laid by the Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection, on which I served, the Legislature should be able to address a marriage bill thoughtfully and efficiently. Plus, making Vermont a discrimination-free zone will help our economy by supporting our tourism industry and giving our businesses a competitive advantage.

“I realize that Vermont is ready to move forward. In my work on the Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection I heard from hundreds of Vermonters whose lives are impacted in a real and significant way by our marriage law's exclusion of same-sex couples. It's time to take the next step. Together, I'm confident we can."

MAYORAL SWEEPSTAKES. The race for Burlington mayor got a little more crowded last week as Dan Smith, attorney for the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. announced his candidacy as an indepedent. Smith is the son of former US Rep. Peter Smith and great grandson of a founder of Burlington Savings Bank. The other candidates are current Mayor Bob Kiss, a Progressive, and City Council member Andy Montroll, a Democrat. Republican Council President Kurt Wright is also likely to run.


METH MOVES SOUTH. Drug violence, including decapitations and grenade attacks, has killed some 4,500 people in Mexico this year, but thousands of others are falling victim to a quieter crisis: addiction to methamphetamine. Mexico is now the largest producer of meth for the US market and traffickers are finding a growing number of users at home, many of them minors.

Meth use in Mexico has quadrupled in the last six years, according to a survey by their health ministry. As US authorities cracked down in recent years on the sale of the drug's ingredients, busting "mom and pop" labs in blue collar garages and bathrooms, Mexican gangs that already smuggled huge quantities of cocaine and marijuana into the US moved in to meet the demand for meth. They’re now churning out tons of meth in "super labs."

ENDING THE NEW PROHIBITION. Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. His definition perfectly fits the US war on drugs, a multi-billion dollar, four-decade exercise in futility.

This war has helped turn the US into the country with the world’s largest prison population. The US has 5 percent of the world’s population but around 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Under the headline “The Failed War on Drugs,” Washington’s middle-of-the-road Brookings Institution said in a November report that drug use hasn’t declined significantly over the years and that “falling retail drug prices reflect the failure of efforts to reduce the supply of drugs.”

This brings us to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization started in 2002 by police officers, judges, narcotics agents, prison wardens and others with first-hand experience of implementing policies that echo the prohibition of alcohol. Prohibition, widely regarded a dismal and costly failure of social engineering, came to an end 75 years ago this month.

As LEAP sees it, the best way to fight drug crime and violence is to legalize drugs and regulate them the same way alcohol and tobacco is now regulated. “We repealed prohibition once and we can do it again,” one of the group’s co-founders, Terry Nelson, told a Washington news conference on December 2. “We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.”

These advocates of drug legalization hope that the similarities between today’s economic crisis and the Great Depression will result in a more receptive audience for their pro-legalization arguments.

The budget impact of legalizing drugs would be enormous, according to a study prepared to coincide with the 75th anniversary of prohibition’s end. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that legalizing drugs would inject $76.8 billion a year into the US economy — $44.1 billion through savings on law enforcement and at least $32.7 billion in tax revenues from regulated sales.

Miron published a similar study in 2005 looking only at the budgetary effect of legalizing marijuana. That study was endorsed by more than 500 economists, including Nobel laureates Milton Friedman of Stanford University, George Akerlof of the University of California and Vernon Smith of George Mason University.

“We urge…the country to commence an open and honest debate about marijuana prohibition,” the economists said in an open letter to President Bush, congress, governors and state legislators. “At a minimum, this debate will force advocates of current policy to show that prohibition has benefits sufficient to justify the cost to taxpayers, foregone tax revenues and numerous ancillary consequences that result from marijuana prohibition.”

Friday, November 28, 2008

Maverick Media: Unintended Consequences

This week: To shop or not; Obama’s cabinet: small change; Bailout fever: The confidence gap, small bank complaints, and the bottom line; Obama’s donor base; News fatigue; and the costs of Daylight Savings. Media Watch: Who Americans trust and holiday movies. Plus, Drug News: Afghanistan and the US fails its own tests. Live Broadcast Friday, November 28, Noon EST, on The Howie Rose Show (WOMM), streamed on The Radiator.

TO SHOP OR NOT? Retailers often call the day after Thanksgiving Black Friday — the day many of them supposedly become profitable for the year. But despite all the talk these days about getting the economy out of the basement, some people still feel it would be better not to shop at all. Since the early 1990s they’ve called it Buy Nothing Day.

This year, the day is again being pushed by Adbusters and performance artist Bill Talen, aka Reverend Billy, who tries to convert people to his anti-consumerist "Church of Stop Shopping." Adbusters is promoting a "Credit Card Cut-Up," volunteers in a shopping mall with scissors offering to put an end to high interest rates and mounting debt with one cut. They also plan to stage "Zombie Walks," in which the "cheerful dead" wander around malls, marveling at the blank expressions of shoppers. Meanwhile, if you’re in a Toys R Us, beware the "Whirl-mart;" that’s 10 or so people silently pushing shopping carts around in a conga line without ever buying anything.

On past Buy Nothing Days, protesters have taken to malls with signs and banners, organized gatherings of anti-Santa Clauses, and encouraged shoppers to think if they really need the items they are shopping for.

The Mall of America, a repeated Buy Nothing target, was invaded by zombies for the 2007 documentary What Would Jesus Buy?, made by Reverend Billy and his Church. Since the movie’s website has links for visitors to order the DVD, maybe the Reverend doesn't want to stop all shopping.

Buy Nothing Day has been criticized as pointless, since many people who don't shop on Friday will go shopping soon. But the basic idea is to make people think about their spending habits, or maybe repair or recycle things instead of buying new stuff.

TOO MUCH INFORMATION. Young people are showing signs of news fatigue; that is, they appear debilitated by information overload and unsatisfying news experiences. That’s the conclusion of an Associated Press study of news consumption. Unfortunately, this leads to a learned helplessness response. The more overwhelmed or unsatisfied people are, the less effort they’re willing to put in.

Part of the problem may be that many people consume their news in airport lounges and taxicabs, on smart phones and PDAs, through e-mail and Internet search engines. Edward Hallowell, a Boston-area psychiatrist, says many of us are suffering from what he calls an attention-deficit trait, a culturally induced form of attention-deficit disorder.

In this environment, with people bombarded by more information than they can possibly absorb, journalism may need to reinvent itself as a source for people to assimilate, understand, and make sense of the news. In a news fatigue world, the most valuable journalism may be the kind that explains things.

DAYLIGHT – WHAT SAVINGS? It’s widely believed that daylight savings time has an agricultural basis, and is meant to save energy. If people moved up their summer schedules by an hour, Benjamin Franklin once argued, they could live by "sunshine rather than candles" in the evenings.

Today about 76 countries alternate between standard and daylight time. Energy conservation was the motivation during World Wars I and II and the oil embargo of the 1970s. It remains so today - even though there is little scientific evidence to suggest daylight time actually helps us cut back on electricity use and some to suggest that it ends up costing more.

A study was conducted recently in Indiana, where daylight time was instituted statewide only in 2006. Before that year, daylight time was in effect in just a handful of counties. The change offered a unique way to measure the overall effect on residential electricity consumption. The amount of energy used by households during the two years before they switched was compared with the amounts used during the year afterward.

Result: Daylight time caused a 1 percent increase in residential electricity use, though the effect varied from month to month. Daylight time costs Indiana households around $3.29 a year in higher electricity bills, or about $9 million for the state. Health and other costs of increased pollution emissions went from $1.7 to $5.5 million per year.

What explains this? Daylight time reduces demand for household lighting, but increases demand for heating in the early spring and late fall (in the mornings) and, more important, for cooling on summer evenings. In short, Franklin was right about candles, but didn’t consider the impact of air-conditioners.


DONOR RECAP. Barack Obama's donors may not have been quite as different as we thought. Throughout the election, we heard that he received about half of his contributions in amounts of $200 or less. After a more thorough analysis by the Federal Election Commission, however, it appears that repeaters and large donors were more important for Obama than analysts had appreciated.

"The myth is that money from small donors dominated Barack Obama's finances," notes Michael Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute. "Obama's fundraising was impressive, but the reality does not match the myth." Although an unusually high 49 percent of Obama's funds came in contributions of $200 or less, only 24 percent of his funds from donors whose total contribution was $200 or less. This is similar to the 25 percent for George W. Bush in 2004, 20 percent for John Kerry in 2004, 21 percent for John McCain this year, 13 percent for Hillary Clinton, and 38 percent for Howard Deal in 2004.

OBAMA’S CABINET: SMALL CHANGE. Most of the Obama cabinet has been announced. The National Security Team will include Defense Secretary Bob Gates, asked to stay on for at least one year, Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and Retired Marine General James Jones, former NATO chief in Europe, as National Security Adviser. Word on the street is that James Steinberg will be named deputy secretary of state, Susan Rice will become ambassador to the UN, and retired Navy Admiral Dennis Blair will be tapped as director of national intelligence. Blair formerly commanded US forces in the Pacific.

The Clinton influence is obvious. Steinberg served as deputy national security adviser under President Bill Clinton, and Rice was assistant secretary of state for African affairs. But both are also members of the Trilateral Commission’s North American Group. Other North American Trilateral members in Obama’s inner circle include Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Michael Froman of Citigroup, and former Congressman Dick Gephardt, along with Dennis Ross, Middle East envoy for Clinton and the first President Bush, Warren Christopher, Clinton National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, and the Commission’s North American Honorary Chairman Paul Volcker, who has just been named to head Obama’s new advisory group on jobs.

For the Domestic Team, we’ve had announcements about Eric Holder, another Clinton official, as Attorney General, former US Senator Tom Daschle to head Health and Human Services, and Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security.

Let’s look at Napolitano. As governor of Arizona, she’s been tough on immigration, especially businesses who hire undocumented people. If they violate a new state law twice, they now face what she calls a "business death penalty" – basically taking away their licenses. However, she opposes punishing immigrants who are already here and has vetoed bills that would have prevented illegal immigrants from getting state tuition assistance and require the police to arrest them. She also opposes a border fence. "You show me a 50-foot wall, and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder," she has said, and favors a "temporary worker program with no amnesty."

Obama wants Timothy Geithner, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, to head his Economic Team as Secretary of the Treasury, while Lawrence Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton, serving as Director of the National Economic Council. Geithner and Summers are touted as crisis managers. But they didn’t do so well in East Asia, helping to bring on a regional crisis in 1997 by pressuring governments to de-regulate international financial flows. At the time they insisted that all bailout money go through the IMF, and delayed aid until most of the damage was done.

What do they have in common? Ivy League backgrounds, stints at institutions IMF and World Bank, and activity in or very near private sector banking. They’re friends, have worked together before, and, for better and worse, have been actively involved in shaping the global financial architecture we have today.

The media say Obama's cabinet is mainly non-ideological. Yet many have a record of support for the corporate-friendly NAFTA trade pact, cutting public assistance programs under the guise of "reform," and deregulatory policies in the financial sector.

Overall, the Obama Team is a group of Washington insiders, widely considered among the brightest on the scene. We’ll see.


CONFIDENCE GAP. Citigroup joined the ranks of bailed out financial institutions last week, but the decision hasn’t inspired much confidence. According to economist Thomas Freidman, it revealed instead that “some of our country’s best-paid bankers were overrated dopes who had no idea what they were selling, or greedy cynics who did know and turned a blind eye. But it wasn’t only the bankers. This financial meltdown involved a broad national breakdown in personal responsibility, government regulation and financial ethics.

“Citigroup was involved in, and made money from, almost every link in that chain. And the bank’s executives, including, sad to see, the former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, were clueless about the reckless financial instruments they were creating, or were so ensnared by the cronyism between the bank’s risk managers and risk takers (and so bought off by their bonuses) that they had no interest in stopping it.”

These are the people whom taxpayers bailed out to the tune of what could be more than $300 billion. And we’re told that there was no choice.

The choice of Geithner to head Treasury raises some eyebrows. Many question his role in allowing the investment bank Lehman Brothers to collapse into bankruptcy, Like Summers, Geithner served at the Treasury under Robert Rubin, helping manage the Russian credit crisis in the late 1990s. He also played a role in the bailouts of Brazil, Indonesia, Korea, Mexico and Thailand. More recently, he helped shape the Bush administration's erratic responses to the current financial meltdown, up to and including the Citigroup bailout.

The question isn’t whether Geithner and Summers are smart talent, but what they’ve learned from their mistakes. As treasury secretary in 2000, Summers pushed the law that deregulated derivatives, the financial instruments – now known as toxic assets – that spread the financial losses from reckless lending around the globe. He ignored critics who warned of dangers to come. At the New York Fed, Geithner was a ringmaster of the current bailouts. His involvement includes the flip-flop in September when a no-new-bailouts policy allowed Lehman Brothers to go under - only to be followed by the even costlier bailouts of AIG and Citigroup.

So, what do they know now that they didn’t a couple of months ago?

FAIRNESS ALERT. Wall Street may be a little happier in recent days, but many small community banks feel that the government is ignoring them in favor of the big boys. Describing her reaction to the Citigroup bailout, Cindy Blankenship, who founded the Bank of the West with her husband in 1986, says “appalled is not too strong a word." Her bank has since grown to eight locations in Northern Texas and has about $280 million in assets.

Blankenship and other small bank owners are upset that the executives leading Citi and other banks are getting help but not being held personally responsible. In small banks, she notes, all the key decision makers have a large financial stake in the bank. If it goes broke, they lose their own investment.

"We haven't committed these sins but yet, our reputation is tarnished and yet, we still aren't too big to fail," she says. "If I had gone out and done what the big banks did, I would have been shut down."

THE BOTTOM LINE. How much have all our bailouts cost so far? Up to $4.6 trillion, the largest outlay in US history. In fact, crunching the inflation adjusted numbers it turns out to have cost more than all of the biggest budget government expenditures of the past combined:

The Marshall Plan (which cost $12.7 billion, or $115.3 billion adjusted for inflation);The Louisiana Purchase ($15 million, or $217 billion in today’s dollars);The Race to the Moon ($36.4 billion, adjusted $237 billion); The S&L Crisis: Cost ($153 billion, adjusted $256 billion); The Korean War: Cost ($54 billion, adjusted $454 billion); The New Deal: Cost ($32 billion, adjusted $500 billion); The Invasion of Iraq: ($551 billion, adjusted $597 billion); The Vietnam War: Cost ($111 billion, adjusted $698 billion); and NASA ($416.7 billion, adjusted $851.2 billion). The total cost of all of these: $3.92 trillion.


THE PEOPLE SPEAK. Who do Americans trust most to deliver the news? According a new Zogby poll commissioned by the Independent Film Channel, it’s the web – over TV and print combined. But among TV news sources, Fox News tops the list with 39.3 percent of those polled, beating out CNN at 16 percent and MSNBC at 15 percent. The results are great news for Fox in defending its claims of being "Fair and Balanced." Oddly enough, more people in the poll described themselves as Democrats than Republicans. Not so oddly, most have little faith in the media at all.

The online survey, taken two days after the recent elections, found that three out of four people think that the media influenced the outcome, and about the same number think that the media in general is biased. The New York Times was the most trusted newspaper and Rush Limbaugh (with 12.5 percent) came out on top among news personalities, closely followed by Fox's Bill O'Reilly (10.1 percent). Elizabeth Hasselbeck, Stephen Colbert and Chris Matthews were the least trusted personalities, all scoring under 2 percent.

FILM PREVIEWS. Tis the season for big budget – and often Oscar worthy – films. This year the Holiday offerings range from true political stories and Nazi sagas to the usual assortment of fantasy and romance tales. Among the true stories are Milk – with Gus VanSant directing Sean Penn and Josh Brolin; Che – Steven Sodeberg directs Benicio Del Toro as the revolutionary leader; Frost/Nixon, which dramatizes the infamous 1977 interviews; and Valkyrie, in which Tom Cruise dons an eye patch for Bryan Singer in a partly true WWII tale about a plot to kill Hitler. Other Nazi-related films on the horizon include Ralph Fiennes in The Reader, about a law student whose former lover is on trial for war crimes; Daniel Craig resisting the nazis in Defiance; and Viggo Mortensen as an unwilling Nazi propagandist in Good. In the fantasy category, there is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, with Brad Pitt aging in reverse; Seven Pounds, a Will Smith tear jerker; The Day the Earth Stood Still – Keanu Reeves as an alien in a remake of a classic 1951 film; and The Spirit, Frank Miller’s return to the big screen with another high octane graphic novel. For date nights, we’ll have Revolutionary Road – Leo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet are back together in a Sam Mendes romance about post-war disillusionment; Australia – Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman doing the epic thing; and Marley & Me – Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston and a dog trying three-way romantic comedy. Comedy offerings also include Jim Carrey in the Yes Man, and Adam Sandler in Bedtime Stories. Plus, The Tale of Desperaeux, an animated feature for the kids, in which big ears become a metaphor for being different.


AFGHANISTAN TAKES THE LEAD. Opium production in Afghanistan has increased by 150 percent since NATO arrived in 2001. According to Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, "Afghanistan has become the absolute leader in narcotics production, producing 93 percent of the world's entire opiates. Afghan drug dealers have in two years set up the successful production of cannabis with over 70,000 hectares of land being cultivated, taking Afghanistan into second place in the world behind Morocco in terms of the cultivation of such drugs." Since the Taliban regime was overthrown in the 2001 US-led campaign, the country has remained the world's leading producer of heroin. According to the UN, Afghanistan's opium production increased from 6,100 tons in 2006 to 8,200 tons in 2007.

US FAILING DRUG TESTS. Two recent reports show that the arrest and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug users in the US have done little to reduce the use and trafficking of non-legal drugs. A recent study by Jon Gettman of the George Mason University School of Public Policy finds that the "Bush Administration anti-drug policies have been unsuccessful in reducing the demand for and use of marijuana and other illegal drugs." Gettman also reports that the government's Office of National Drug Control Policy didn’t come close to reaching its recent goal: reduction in the use of non-legal drugs among adults by 25 percent between 2002 and 2007. After five years, use among adults declined by less than one percent.

Of the six programs designed by the Office to reach its goal, the Bush Administration's Office of Management and Budget found that only one program rated an "adequate" grade. The other five were rated "ineffective" or "results-not-demonstrated."

In another new report, Families Against Mandatory Minimums finds that "No conclusive studies demonstrate any positive impact of federal mandatory minimum sentences on the rate at which drugs are being manufactured, imported, and trafficked throughout the country." Congress first enacted mandatory sentences for drug offenses in 1951, but repealed the law in 1970 because it wasn’t reducing drug use. Then, in 1986, Congress set new mandatory sentences aimed at big-time drug traffickers. In 1988, the law was expanded to apply to simple possession of crack cocaine.

By 2008, more than half of all federal prisoners were serving time for drug offenses. But instead of filling federal prisons with drug kingpins, 66 percent of crack cocaine offenders in 2005 were low-level dealers, lookouts and couriers. Only 33 percent were higher-level suppliers. Instead of ending the drug war, mandatory sentences keep prisons full of nonviolent offenders.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Maverick Podcasts: Mixed Forecasts

Deconstructing politics with Greg Guma, FP Cassini, Sonny Fortune and Kevin Ryan. News headlines and outrageous dialogues. This edition: Bush Watch – secret operations and lame duck tactics, Alternative GOP futures, Barack as Marketer-in-Chief, Gay Marriage Update: Recent votes, Vermont could be next, Forecasting the next crisis, Cheney’s swan song, and drug news. Greg’s Comment: Honeymoon in Limbo. Vermont: Election Postmortem & First Amendment showdown in Burlington. PSA: The Howie Rose Show seeks new segment producers.

Special Segment: Teacher Genese Grill discusses Burlington College, her recent firing, and the management style of College President Jane Sanders, wife of Vermont’s Independent US Senator. Greg Guma stops by.

The Howie Rose Show airs live weekly on Friday morning at WOMM, and streams on The Radiator from Burlington, ground zero in the People’s Republic of Vermont. Click to hear this edition of Maverick News @ Noon or the Genese Grill interview, originally aired on November 14, 2008, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. Thanks to Big Heavy World and Sonny Fortune.

Check the sidebar for other installments.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Maverick News: Hype, Hope & Hoaxes

This week: Cheney’s first indictment – in Texas no less, Why a bail out of the auto industry may be necessary, Fake campaign news and viral e-mails, the latest corporate scam – shrinking products, How Obama auditioned for power, and Cigarettes vs. Grass. Greg’s Comment: The Hype of Hope. Live Broadcast Friday, November 21, Noon EST, on The Howie Rose Show (WOMM), streamed on The Radiator.

RISE OF THE BLACK PRINCE. Here’s a bedtime story: Once upon a time a charismatic prince named Barack appeared magically (and nationally) by giving an instantly famous keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Sounds believable, doesn’t it? But, as Ken Silverstein revealed in Harpers two years ago, by this time Obama “had already undergone an equally successful but much quieter audition with Democratic Party leaders and fund-raisers, without whose support he would surely never have been chosen for such a prominent role at the convention.”

The first favorable elite assessment of Obama reportedly came in October, 2003. Vernon Jordan, the well-known power broker who chaired Bill Clinton's presidential transition team in 1992, placed calls to roughly 20 of his friends and invited them to a fund-raiser at his home. That event – not some living room cell group meeting in Bill Ayers’ home – “marked his entry into a well-established Washington ritual – fund-raising parties and meet-and-greets where potential stars are vetted by fixers, donors, and lobbyists."

Obama passed with shining colors. At social meetings with big "players" from the financial, legal and lobbyist sectors, Obama impressed people like Gregory Craig – a leading attorney, former special counsel to the White House, and now Obama’s pick to do it again; Mike Williams, legislative director of the Bond Market Association; Tom Quinn, partner at a top corporate law firm, Venable, and a leading Democratic power broker; and Robert Harmala, another Venable partner and big player in Democratic circles.

The good word about Obama spread through Washington's blue-chip law firms, lobby shops, and political offices, going massive after his win in the March 2004 Democratic primary. Elite financial, legal, and lobbyist contributions streamed in at a rapid and accelerating pace. The "good news" for insiders? Obama's "star quality" wouldn’t be directed against the elite segments of the business class. He was, wrote Silverstein, "someone the rich and powerful could work with." According to Obama biographer and Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, in 2003 and early 2004, Obama cultivated support by advocating fiscal restraint, calling for pay-as-you-go government and singing the praises of free trade and charter schools. He "moved beyond being an obscure good-government reformer to being a candidate more than palatable to the moneyed and political establishment."

"On condition of anonymity," Silverstein noted, "one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn't see him as a 'player.' The lobbyist added: 'What's the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?'"

AND THE OSCAR FOR FAKE NEWS GOES TO…. One of the lingering questions of campaign 08: Did Sarah Palin know that Africa is a continent? To get to the truth, let’s follow the source. Fox News broke the story, quoting an unnamed McCain person. Who was the source? The name finally popped up on a blog last week, and was then aired by MSNBC’s David Shuster. Supposedly, McCain Policy Advisor Martin Eisenstadt was the source of the leaks.

Trouble is, Martin Eisenstadt doesn't exist. He has a blog, but it’s a put-on. He’s a senior fellow at a Think Tank, the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy. But here’s where it breaks down. The Harding Institute, named for one of the least regarded US presidents, is nothing more than a fake website. TV clips of and documentaries about Eisenstadt are also fake. Claiming to be the source for the Africa charge is just the latest ruse. It’s an elaborate hoax that’s been going on for months.

Eisenstadt was created by two filmmakers, Eitan Gorlin and Dan Mirvish. As The New York Times has reported, they succeeded in fooling countless media outlets, including The New Republic and The Los Angeles Times, into believing he was a real political insider. Over a year and a half, under the guise of Eisenstadt, they repeatedly infiltrated political coverage, as media outlets picked up on their fake political commentary and video clips.

They say they created Eisenstadt, played by Gorlin, to help them pitch a TV show based on the character. At this point, there are some great moments and episodes of a fake BBC documentary, The Last Republican, on YouTube. Take a look:

Last June they produced what appeared to be an interview with Eisenstadt on Iraqi television promoting construction of a casino in the Green Zone in Baghdad. Then they sent out a news release in which he apologized. Outraged Iraqi bloggers protested the casino idea. In October, Eisenstadt blogged that Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber, was closely related to Charles Keating, the disgraced former savings and loan chief. It wasn’t true, but other bloggers ran with it.

After Election Day, Fox News cited anonymous McCain aides as having claimed that Palin didn’t know Africa was a continent. Palin’s people went after the anonymous source for taking the governor's comment out of context. Mirvish and Gorlin weren't the source, but they jumped at the opportunity to make fun of what they call the media's propensity to use anonymous sources. On November 10, they posted a blog entry about the Fox report in which Eisenstadt claimed to be coming forward as the anonymous source who leaked the Palin blunder. Shuster ran with it.

MSNBC corrected Shuster’s mistake. But groups like Source Watch, a media watchdog project by the Center for Media and Democracy, had been warning about Eisenstadt and the Harding Institute for months. So, Martin Eisenstadt is a hoax. Still, the question about Palin’s geographical knowledge remains unanswered.

DIGITAL RUMORS. Even without fake news and the occasional hoax, viral emails have emerged as a form of stealth propaganda recently, noticeably in the recent US presidential campaign. Barack Obama was dogged with false claims that he was a Muslim, that he refused to salute the American flag, that he wasn’t a US citizen, and so on. Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, attempted to trace the chain of one of those emails and found what the Washington Post called "valuable insight into the way political information circulates, mutates and sometimes devastates in the digital age."

The anonymous nature of viral emails, combined with the word-of-mouth way that they spread, makes them hard to counter. "This kind of misinformation campaign short-circuits judgment," Allen said. "It also aggressively disregards the fundamental principle of free societies that one be able to debate one's accusers."

INCREDIBLE SHRINKING PRODUCTS. You may not have noticed, but prices on your favorite grocery items are going up. Many companies have found a sneaky new way to raise prices without losing customers to less expensive brands: by shrinking their packaging.

A jar of Skippy peanut butter is the same height and circumference it’s always been. But now it has a hidden, inward "dimple" on the bottom that decreases the amount the jar holds by two ounces. Boxes of breakfast cereal: they appear to be the same height and width as always. But manufacturers have reduced the depth of the boxes from front to back, decreasing the amount of cereal they hold. Rolls of Scott toilet tissue contain the same number of sheets (1,000), but the length of each sheet has been cut from 4 to 3.7 inches. And a can of Starkist Tuna has been downsized from six to five ounces.

When asked about the shrinkage, most companies point to higher costs for ingredients, manufacturing and fuel. Can consumers fight back? Yes, by refusing to buy from manufacturers who engage in this tactic.

LET THE PROSECUTIONS BEGIN. It would be like getting Al Capone for tax evasion: Dick Cheney has actually been indicted in Texas on charges related to alleged prisoner abuse in federal detention centers. A grand jury in Willacy County, right near the US-Mexico border, has brought the indictments against Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at the urging of the county DA, Juan Angel Guerra.

According to the Associated Press, the indictment stems from Cheney's investment in the Vanguard Group — an investment management company that reportedly has interests in the prison companies in charge of the detention centers. It also charges that Gonzales halted an investigation into abuse at the detention centers while he was attorney general. So, not murder – Bugliosi style, just self-dealing and obstruction of justice maybe.

Sounds like a start. But it gets squirrely from here. Guerra has also indicted Democratic state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., and Lucio’s lawyer calls Guerra a "one man circus." We shall see. Exhibit One: In the March 2008 Democratic Primary, 70 percent of the Willacy County voters to remove Guerra as Willacy County DA. In a few weeks, he’s out of there. So, Lucio’s people say he’s just seeking revenge on those he sees as political enemies. And Cheney’s people: "The vice president has not received an indictment," they say. Stay tuned.

CRASH TALK. Is a bailout of the auto industry really needed? Some say the big companies are destined to go bankrupt, either now or in a few years. If that’s true, why bother saving them, right? The problem is that the economies of Michigan and Ohio are still heavily dependent on the Big Three. If they go under at the moment, a whole group of suppliers will suddenly incur large losses due to the money owed to them, as well as their lost orders. This will lead to a large second wave of bankruptcies as suppliers go under. State and local governments will see plunging tax revenue.

This would be extremely painful for the region at any time, but it could be devastating in the middle of the current recession. The federal government would have to step in with large amounts of money, helping governments in the region to provide essential services and support the unemployed workers.

On the other hand, in two or three years it’s reasonable to hope that the economies of Michigan and Ohio will have rebounded, at least enough to withstand a bankruptcy if it happened. So, if you’re opposed to helping out the auto industry, you might want to consider the short-term consequences.


LOOK WHO’S SMOKING WHAT. According to a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control, fewer Americans are smoking cigarettes than at any time in modern history. "The number of US adults who smoke has dropped below 20 percent for the first time on record," Reuters reports. This is less than half the percentage (42 percent) of Americans who smoked cigarettes during the 1960s.

Imagine that. In the past 40 years, tens of millions of Americans have voluntarily quit smoking a legal, yet highly addictive intoxicant. Many others have refused to start. And they've made the decision without ever being threatened with criminal prosecution and arrest, imprisonment, probation, and drug testing.

By contrast, during this same period of time, state and local police have arrested some 20 million Americans for pot law violations – primarily for violations no greater than simple possession. And yet marijuana use among the public has skyrocketed from an annual rate of 600,000 new users in 1965 to 2.5 million annual new users today.

There are lessons to be learned. To start, tobacco, though harmful to health, is a legally regulated commodity. Sellers are licensed and held accountable by federal and state laws. Users are restricted by age. Advertising and access is limited by state and federal governments. And health warnings regarding the drug's use are based upon credible science. In contrast, marijuana remains an unregulated black market commodity. Sellers are often entrepreneurs who, for the most part, operate undetected and can sell their product to anyone.


The Hype of Hope

You can almost feel the air leaking out of the change bubble that has been inflating this year. As the new political messiah begins to reveal his brain trust it becomes harder to continue believing the pre-election hype. Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Rahm Emanuel, Gregory Craig, Eric Holder – the first names announced for the Obama administration suggest that we may be heading forward into the past.

But it’s still too soon to know whether our expectations are just a bit high or the promise of real change turns out to be a hoax.

In the past, the revelation that we’ve been fooled has often led to a greater wisdom. In the 19th Century, we had the 1835 announcement of life on the moon, which helped expand the readership of the New York Sun, the Cardiff Giant (a fake missing link), and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic forgery about a Jewish plot to control the world. As a result, we realized that the media will sometimes create news to increase income, and that hate-filled rumors have considerable power.

Sometimes hoaxes appeal to our primal fears, like Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, possibly the most influential, through accidental hoax of the last century. Thousands believed that the Martians had landed.

Many hoaxes are just designed for personal advancement – Clifford Irving’s fake biography of Howard Hughes, for example, or Rosie Ruiz’s first place finish in the 1980 Boston Marathon – she actually road the subway to reach the finish line first.

In some cases, however, a hoax has influenced public opinion enough to change the direction of a country. A case in point: The so-called Zinoviev letter, created by British intelligence, that claimed a Soviet revolution was about to take place in England. The scare was effective enough to get Brits to elect a conservative government. The rationale for the War in Iraq may turn out to fall into the same category.

When they’re exposed, hoaxes sometimes help us to understand the world a bit better, or at least make us a little more skeptical when the next scam is tried.

Thus, it’s natural to be a bit suspicious about the current promise of change. At this point the rise of Obama certainly doesn’t qualify as a hoax, but we’re learning fast that, at least to some extent, there has been a bit of hype. Yet there’s still some hope that we haven’t been completely faked out.

In this media-manipulated world, it becomes harder each day to tell reality from fakery. Last year, for example, a reality TV show in the Netherlands, the Great Donor Show, focused on a terminally-ill woman donating a kidney to one of three people who needed a transplant. Turns out it was a stunt.

Still, there’s a chance that the Obama bubble is more than another bait-and-switch operation, a bit of hype mixed with enough reality to keep hope alive. I could be wrong, but just because the current news suggests that there won’t be as much change as promised, that doesn’t mean we’ve been completely punked.

One More Time

Fake McCain Advisor Martin Eisenstadt rants about community organizers: