Friday, October 10, 2008

Maverick News: Tipping Points?

This Week: Mammals vs. Reptiles, Crying Socialist, Wolf Cries Coup, McCain’s Craps Habit, Economic Armageddon: week four, Presidential Death Match Update, this week’s “Wow Moment,” and Health Care as a Right

MAMMAL ALERT: A quarter of the world's mammals are threatened with extinction, and half are in decline. That was the word this week from 1,700 researchers, who studied all 5,487 species of mammals, from Thailand's insect-sized bumblebee to blue whales. About 188 species are “critically endangered” – on the verge of extinction. The Iberian lynx, less than 150 left. The main threats are habitat loss and hunting. Any good news? Yes. Five percent of species are recovering due to conservation efforts. This includes the European bison and the black-footed ferret, found in North America. The African elephant has moved down a notch, from "vulnerable" to "near threatened."

So, mammals are threatened. And men and women are mammals. And who might benefit from this? Possibly reptiles. They’re cold-blooded, their body temperature is regulated by their environment. As a result, they have few energy requirements and can go for long periods without food. They also expend less energy than warm-blooded animals and tend to move less. Sounds perfect for a climate change world.

They’re on every continent except the Antarctic. There are around 8,240 species, mostly snakes and lizards, mostly carnivorous, with smooth, pointy teeth for grabbing their prey. Unlike mammals, they lack teeth specialized for chewing. They tend to swallow their prey whole or in large chunks. So, mammals. Watch out for cold-blooded snakes and lizards. They’re out there, waiting to make their move.

THE POLITICS OF POLARIZATION: Here are McCain supporters outside a rally in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania last week. Many of them seem to think we’re on the verge of a socialist takeover of the US and Obama is a “Manchurian candidate” – a secret Arab terrorist sympathizer at best and possibly the anti-Christ. A Socialist takeover? Now, how could they have gotten that idea?

NAOMI WOLF CRIES COUP: While we’re on the subject of possible takeovers, consider this: On October 4, author Naomi Wolf announced that there has been a coup in the US. She was on Mind Over Matters, a KEXP 90.3 FM show in Seattle, discussing Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries, a new book about the possibility of fascism in this country and what to do about it. “A coup has taken place,” she said,” It’s happened.” Since then, her interview has become an Internet sensation.

The evidence? There’s a blueprint, she says, including expansion of the definition of terrorist, mass arrests, the arrest of journalists, and making it easier for the president to declare Marshall Law. Then she points to a C-Span clip of a speech by a California congressman who said the financial crisis was being used to intimidate lawmakers. Some members of Congress were apparently told that Marshall Law was a possibility if the bailout wasn’t passed. Wolf says it has happened. When? On Oct 1, when a brigade of the third infantry division was deployed in the US. Thus, we’re in a police state, where anyone can be called an enemy combatant, she says.

“On Oct 1, the coup in America took place,” Wolf said, “We have to think like Pakistanis.” Her advice is to immediately arrest the President and others involved, using the arguments made by Vincent Bugliosi to prosecute Bush, but doing it right now. She also suggests rejecting Homeland Security money at the local level, and setting up a fund for soldiers who refuse to take up arms against Americans. What about the election? You may ask. It’s “crazy”, she says, to believe that Bush will allow Obama to replace him.

So, there you go. I guess we can call off the last presidential debate. But in case we do have an election….

GAMBLING MAN: You’re supposed to include your gambling activity on Form 1040, line 21. You can deduct your losses, but only up to the amount of your winnings. In other words, you report winnings & claim losses. But John McCain's tax returns say nothing about gambling winnings or losses. The thing is: He’s a documented, avid craps player, known to play on impulse for 14 hours at a stretch.

He’s likely to have lost more than he won. But by not reporting his winnings, the percentage calculations built into the tax calculation are thrown off. If he gambled much, he probably underpaid his tax. But the real issue is that if people knew, for example, that he’d won $200,000 playing craps in Las Vegas, it might change people’s attitudes about how he’d be as president. Like, do we really want an obsessive gambler running the country?

According to writers Michael Scherer and Michael Weisskopf, he gave up the drinking bouts, but never kicked the yen for dice. He’s played on Mississippi riverboats, Indian land, in Caribbean craps pits and along the Las Vegas Strip. In 2005 he joined a group of journalists at a conference in Puerto Rico, offering betting strategies on request. John Weaver, McCain's former chief strategist, followed him to many a casino. “Craps opens up a window on a central thread constant in John's life,” he says. “Taking a chance, playing against the odds.”

Aides say he tends to play for a few thousand dollars at a time and avoids taking markers from the casinos, which he has helped regulate in Congress. “He never, ever plays on the house,” says Mark Salter, a McCain adviser. Several people familiar with his habit say it’s not financial. He just loves the thrill of winning and camaraderie at the table.

McCain's aides have urged him to pull back. In the heat of the GOP primary fight, on a visit to the Vegas Strip he announced that he was going to the casino floor. Aides stopped him, fearing a public relations disaster. McCain replied: ask the casino to take a table to a private room. That’s a high-roller privilege he’s used before. His aides refused again. “He obviously knows that this is on the borderline of what is acceptable," according to a Republican who has watched McCain play. “He just sort of revels in it.”

WOW MOMENT: This week it has to be when McCain pointed at Obama during the debate, in front of 50 million people, and said “that one.” It crystallized what people have been thinking – that the old man has had it. He sounded crotchety, angry, paternalistic. All of it. It will be played, I think, for years to come. A Presidential Death Match Hall of Shame Moment. At that moment, Americans began to realize something: the old maverick is going down.

But they’re still not sure they want a Black man in the White House. Bi-racial actually. But anyway, there could be a snag, nicknamed the Bradley effect (after Tom, a Black candidate for California governor). It means people may not tell the truth to pollsters, so Obama may not be as far ahead as he looks in the polls. It’s not a done deal yet. Race may yet play a role. The old man is down, but the bell hasn’t rung and what some folks will do when they actually go into the both – who knows?


ECONOMIC ARMAGEDDON, WEEK FOUR: Markets around the world haven’t been responding well to the economic rescue plan passed by the US Congress. Last Monday, the Dow plunged by 500 points, making the overall loss 5000 points in the last year. Recession? Obviously. Depression? It’s now a clear possibility. Reportedly, the smart money – meaning big time investors – are buying low and waiting for a rebound. Most people don’t have the luxury. 750,000 have lost their jobs just this year.

On Wednesday, European central banks and the Federal Reserve in the US cut interest rates in hopes of freeing up credit. As Bloomberg News put it, “an unprecedented coordinated effort to ease the economic effects of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.” And it’s just the beginning. A few hours later the Federal Reserve gave AIG a new $37 billion loan. That’s $120 billion total, of which executives and "high earners" used more than $400,000 on resort lodging and spas. On Thursday the market plunged again, over 650 points, down to 1995 levels.

University of Massachusetts at Amherst economics professor David Kotz says the $700 billion bailout hasn’t stemmed – or even slowed – the financial crisis.”It is great for the bankers,” he says, “but it does nothing to solve the underlying set of problems behind the financial crisis. Huge and growing income inequality forced millions of families to take out inadvisable loans to keep afloat.

"Deregulation allowed financial institutions and their executives to get rich by creating new securities based on loans to low-income families that magically appeared safe to hold. It worked as long as the housing bubble kept inflating. Once it burst, the inevitable result was both a financial crisis, due to all those bad securities, and a severe recession from the end of families' ability to keep paying their bills by borrowing.”

Almost everyone agrees that government intervention is needed. Beyond what’s happened already, Kotz recommends: stopping foreclosures by rewriting the unfair mortgage terms for millions of struggling families, and taking over problem banks and restructuring them, so taxpayers gain when the economy and financial system recover. Longer term, he says – reduce income inequality, regulate the entire financial system, and prevent dangerous speculative investments. In short, make government work for the vast majority.

PRESIDENTIAL DEATH MATCH UPDATE: It was strange: A young, graceful and articulate guy, and his old, stiff and sometimes cranky grandpa. “You gonna listen to ‘that one,’ he ain’t never done anything. I’ve been there, my friends. I’ve done it. I want to do it again.” In last week’s debate, John McCain proved he was a fighter. But he was swinging widely. His big idea was to buy up mortgages, a $300 billion plan to supposedly bail out homeowners (actually their banks). The base was not impressed. And his tone was openly contemptuous, sometimes even of people in the audience.

Barack Obama was cautious, didn’t say much that was new – except one big thing – but did take control toward the end, rocking McCain with his attack on the old man’s temperament. Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran, and Next Stop, Baghdad. Boom! A defining moment. From then on, Obama took control of the room. Afterward, McCain and his obviously uncomfortable wife Cindy left the hall within five minutes. Obama and Michelle hung around for a half hour, shaking hands and talking with people milling around the room. They worked the room.

I’m beginning to get Inherit the Wind vibes.


Obama is now officially the frontrunner, and seems to be gradually discovering his voice. After the debate, he hammered it home in a widely covered speech. “I can take four more weeks of John McCain and Sarah Palin’s attacks, but we can’t afford four more years of McCain’s Bush policies.” It was part of a new, killer stump speech that incorporates the major campaign and economic developments of the last few weeks. Health care is a right, he says flatly. Despite other vague or centrist ideas, he has taken an explicitly progressive position. Health care is a right, not a responsibility, not a privilege, a right. This is fundamental to finally getting universal health care system, and could eventually lead to it becoming an entitlement.

What’s an entitlement? A guarantee of access to benefits because of rights. As a legal term, it carries no value judgment: it simply means a right granted. Like, in the US we say social security is an entitlement program. During the Clinton years, debate over welfare led to it being challenged as an entitlement. Imagine: health care as an entitlement – a guarantee of access to health care for everyone.

Now, there is another, more negative kind of entitlement. The idea that someone believes he or she deserves something, some reward or benefit. You know, like by divine right, or the way some wealthy or elite people think they are just entitled to privileges – or to run the country. This election challenges one kind of entitlement – the assumption of privilege – and promises another – the right to health care.

I could be wrong. But it looks like the election could actually be about something that matters.

To hear Greg Guma discuss the week’s news live, listen to "The Howie Rose Show," Fridays at Noon, EST on WOMM-LP. Streamed on The Radiator

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