Archive for October, 2010

Les Leopold: Will the Democrats Take the Fall for Wall Street?

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

Please, dear fingers, don’t let me type a blog that knocks the Democrats — at least not now, with so much at stake. We can flail away after next Tuesday. This is the time to type the obvious: No matter how bad the Democrats are, the Republicans are worse, far worse. If the GOP gains control of either chamber they’ll gridlock every liberal proposal, slice away at social spending, cater to corporate elites and gut our modest attempt at health insurance reform. Think of the many decent Democrats who are in danger. Think of all those wing-nut Tea Partiers who might win office. Think of what’s really good for the country.

There, I’ve done my duty. I should stop here…but I can’t.

I’ve just got to ask this question: Why is the Democratic Party losing support from the people who are usually its most ardent supporters–everyday working people who are deeply anxious about their economic well-being? Blaming Citizens United, the Koch brothers and Fox News doesn’t disguise our dirty little secret: The Democratic Party has ceased to be the Party of Jobs.

In truth, we’ve seen it coming for years. The political and financial elites are enthralled with each other. They see in each other’s eyes the same fascination with our power-driven world. They can’t help but respect each other’s ability for landing on top. (Gordon Gekko is always back.) But in 2008, this romance between Wall Street and Washington had an air of desperation: Wall Street needed an enormous infusion of cash and trillions in asset guarantees to avoid total collapse. If AIG went down after Lehman Brothers it was goodbye Goldman Sachs–and JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley and Bank of America. And goodbye to the thousands of hedge funds that moved their money through those institutions. The best and the brightest of finance would be no more.

As for Washington, Obama and the Democratic leadership felt a different kind of desperation. If Wall Street imploded, the real economy would slide into the Great Depression II. They had to strike a deal and fast.

Or so they believed. Those who weren’t so enamored with the Wall Street titans thought no deal was necessary. The government could nationalize the banking system, give investors a hair cut, clean out the toxic assets and then resell the “good” banks to private investors. And at the same time institute a badly needed financial overhaul. That was the time to shrink the Wall Street monster, end “too big to fail” banks, and close down the casino games that had brought the system down. And to pay for the mess Wall Street had created, place steep windfall profits taxes on future profits and bonuses and discourage them from making such a mess again. With Wall Street’s big boys on their knees all this was achievable, and more.

But no. The Democrats refused to press their advantage– even though their failure to act alienated not just liberal bloggers, but their core working class constituents. What accounts for this colossal failure?

1. The economic rescue program didn’t rescue regular Americans. Obama’s advisory team, whose ties to Wall Street were obvious, came up with a straightforward plan: a) bail out the banking system; b) bolster investor confidence; and c) prime the pump with a sizable stimulus program. Regardless what the spin doctors are now saying, this plan was designed not just to prevent the Great Depression II. It also was sold as a way to dramatically reduce unemployment to below 8 percent just in time for the mid-term elections. (So much for that!)

The plan certainly worked for Wall Street, reassuring investors that the system was functioning again. The stock market is up and Wall Street is again making record profits and bonuses. Tragically, though, it didn’t work for the more than 30 million Americans who now are without jobs or forced into part-time work – a post Depression record.

Obama had supposedly hired the best economists in the world. Why did they so misread the unemployment situation? Paul Krugman argues that the stimulus package the Obama crew concocted was too small and relied too much on tax cuts that were intended to prime the pump with consumption, but didn’t (since Americans banked most of that money instead of spending it). So why didn’t Summers, Geithner and Bernanke see this coming? After all, they had access to the very best econometric models. Shouldn’t they have noticed that a $770 billion stimulus package would not make up for a multi-trillion dollar economic crater?

2. Our political leaders won’t admit that Wall Street siphons wealth from the real economy. For decades, leaders of both parties have been downing the free-market Kool Aid, getting high on the idea that Wall Street’s financial games create real value for the real economy. They enabled Wall Street to deploy fantasy finance instruments to gain a larger and larger share of our economy – financial industry profits constituted almost 40 percent of all U.S. profits just before the crash. The politicians seemed unconcerned that most of this financial wealth came from bubbles.

And then the bubbles burst. After the crash, we all see the enormous hole Wall Street’s reckless gambling created in the real economy. We all see how the bankers made billions off fantasy financial instruments that had little or no value. It should be clear to all that Wall Street’s most profitable products – subprime mortgage securities and derivatives based upon them — had sucked value out of the real economy. (Please see The Looting of America for the details of this sad story.) So it should have been obvious that rescuing Wall Street would not resuscitate the real economy.

But American political leaders just didn’t–or wouldn’t–get it. They stuck to the myth that if we could just get Wall Street back to business as usual, the recovery would soon trickle down to the rest of us. Geithner, Summers and Bernanke were convinced that their trillion-dollar bailouts would jolt the economy back to life. For them, the health of the new American economy is inextricably entwined with the health of the financial sector. They believe that the financial industry will assume the role manufacturing once played in our economy, generating good jobs and real wealth. What they seem incapable of believing, or even considering, is that maybe, just maybe, much of the financial sector produces no value at all.

3. Washington fell into the “investor confidence” trap. Once you decide that building investor confidence is the centerpiece of your economic strategy, you’ve given Wall Street the keys to the castle. The administration hoped that reassured investors would pump up the stock market, restoring some of the vast sums middle-income Americans had lost in their pensions, 401ks, and mutual funds. But middle-class Americans are not the main beneficiaries of the “investor confidence” strategy. Mainly you’re catering to the most powerful investors– the super-rich who use hedge funds and proprietary trading desks to extract super-returns, often at the expense of small investors. Even worse, to win and maintain the “confidence” of these big boys, you’ve got to be a deficit hawk. They want you to reduce social spending and pare down those pesky “entitlements.” God forbid you should raise taxes on the super-rich! And if these policies translate into sky-high unemployment for years to come (which they do), so be it.

4. Tragically, the Democrats forgot how to be the Party of Jobs. During the decades following the New Deal, the Democratic Party largely stuck to its unwritten compact with working people by pressing for full employment. But that started to change in the 1970s, when America’s financial industry began outpacing our once almighty industrial sector. Party leaders, in particular, fell in love with money and easy Wall Street wealth. They bought into the idea that tax cuts for the super-rich would bring prosperity to all. They joined the deregulation crusade designed to unleash “financial innovation.” The party’s leading lights got rich themselves. They drifted from Congress to industry lobbying firms and Wall Street banks and hedge funds, trailing cash in their wake. Money was everywhere if you were connected. It was only human to want a piece of the action–especially when you saw those Wall Street 30-somethings making tens of millions simply by moving other people’s money around. It was smart, and not unusual, to be an esteemed Democratic financier. And, the rationalizing came easy: If we help the rich guys generate more wealth, they’ll create new jobs, won’t they?

If the quest for full employment was still in the Democrats’ genetic code, we would have seen the signs by now. Clearly many Democratic leaders have already turned into financial mutants. They no longer twitch with a sense of urgency about jobs. Instead, they vibrate over deficits. They’re not calling for a massive jobs program paid for by taxes on Wall Street billionaires. In fact, they’re not proposing anything that working people really can get excited about.

Instead of helping the unemployed, a lot of Democrats are joining Republicans in blaming them. Troubled that the Wall Street bailout and stimulus hasn’t shortened unemployment lines, Tim Geithner actually trotted out this old theory: Unemployment is high because workers don’t have “the skills to adequately compete in the 21st century.” How convenient! The only trouble is that there’s no evidence that high unemployment stems from low educational levels. Working people aren’t too stupid to find jobs. The jobs aren’t there. And the reason they aren’t there is because Geithner and his pals on Wall Street eliminated them.

What a sorry mess. American working people (and especially the hard-strapped unemployed) need a political party that will fight for decent, sustainable jobs. Right now we need 22 million new jobs to get close to full employment (5 percent or below). That’s the equivalent of creating 650 Apple Corporations all at once. There is absolutely no way that the private sector can work this miracle on its own — no matter what the conservative charlatans proclaim. It will take massive public job creation paid for by steeply higher taxes on Wall Street billionaires – or it won’t happen at all.

The party of Roosevelt knew how to fight this fight (as do some stand-up Democrats in the House and the Senate-think Russ Feingold). FDR didn’t worry about offending the super-rich or building “investor confidence.” He was too busy responding to real pressure from the left and from below – including Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth” program, Upton Sinclair’s “End Poverty in California” campaign, and the new CIO labor movement, which was mobilizing workers all over the country. That pressure forced the Democratic Party to push through everything from tough financial regulations and steep progressive taxes to Social Security, wage and hour laws, and the right to organize. And without question, that’s how we built the largest middle-class in history.

You have to feel for the tens of thousands of party faithful who at this very minute are staffing the phone banks and knocking on doors. There was a time when they could count on enthusiastic rank and file support for their Party of Jobs. Now they have to resort to a different message we hope will save us from catastrophe: Vote for the Party of Not-as-Bad-as-the-Disatrous-Republicans.

Les Leopold is the author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It

Las Vegas Tribune interviews Matthew Stein

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

Columnist and talk show host Sandy Zimmerman interviewed author Matthew Stein about emergency preparedness and his book, When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency, for the Las Vegas Tribune recently. Take a look!

“Are You Ready for Emergencies?”
By Sandy Zimmerman

What would we do without all of our technology which makes us so comfortable and safe? Matthew Stein, a mechanical engineer and building contractor, is dedicated to helping people become aware of how to survive emergency situations when technology fails. With oil prices rising, global warming, and all of the natural disasters, he feels “Technology will keep on failing,” and suggests, “Start by identifying the tools that are dependent on technology and re-learn the skills of our ancestors to become a survivor personality”. Perhaps he is referring to becoming a modern day Robinson Crusoe.

“Use your intuition!” Matthew explained, “If you are lost in the woods and do not know how to return to camp, the Pit of the Stomach exercise will help you get in touch with your intuition. Should you return by the ridge or the river? Take a few deep breadths while focusing your mind on the pit of your stomach. Do not think in your head. Keep breathing deeply until you feel relaxed in order to clear your mind. Be sure you feel relaxed and calm, then picture, in your mind, going downstream. See if you feel tightening up or relaxed.

Next imagine going along the ridge. When you feel relaxed with your visualization, then that is the way to go.” This advice seems good in any situation. When you stop to clear your mind and weigh the possibilities, the comparison becomes clearer. How did they do things in the days of the pioneers? If the telephone lines are down, how do you reach your family? Matthew recommends to have a meeting place if your family are at work, at home or at school. Matthew appears on television, lectures groups, and has written a book, “When Technology Fails”. He feels, “Preparedness is like car insurance, people hope they do not have an accident, but just in case you can use it”.

Read the full original article at the Las Vegas Tribune.

Mat Stein is the author of When Technology Fails, available now.

Mother Earth News recommends The Winter Harvest Handbook

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

George DeVault over at Mother Earth News wrote this fabulous review of Eliot Coleman’s The Winter Harvest Handbook for the publication’s October/November issue.

“In my opinion”, DeVault writes, “The Winter Harvest Handbook is absolutely the best of the three books Coleman has written. It belongs in every homestead library.” What an endorsement! Read on.

The Winter Harvest Handbook
Learn successful winter gardening techniques that can be applied almost anywhere in the United States.
By George DeVault

Gardening in winter is possible anywhere using deep organic techniques and unheated greenhouses, according to gardening expert Eliot Coleman. His latest book, The Winter Harvest Handbook, is packed with practical — and profitable — advice on growing organic vegetables in winter.

Though Coleman has been gardening year round in coastal Maine (Zone 5) for 15 years, he doesn’t claim to have all the answers. But The Winter Harvest Handbook does contain three guiding principles that have helped him gross $80,000 per acre annually and will assure you success as well, no matter where you live:

1. Plant Cold-Hardy Vegetables. Crops such as spinach and lettuce, Coleman says, “actually thrive and are sweeter, tenderer and more flavorful” in cold weather.

2. Implement Succession Planting. Coleman begins planting winter garden crops on Aug. 1, the start of what he calls the “second spring.”

3. Protect Your Plants. Grow under some kind of cover, be it a low tunnel, row covers or a hoop house.

Read the full article at Mother Earth News.

Eliot Coleman’s The Winter Harvest Handbook is available now.

Woody Tasch on E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

The following article appeared on Slow Food’s website on October 24th. 

Revisiting Small is Beautiful
Italy -24 Oct 10

The publication by Slow Food Editore of a new translation of Ernst F. Schumacher’s 1973 classic text, Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, was celebrated today, at a conference at the Salone del Gusto. Loretta Napoleoni, author of the preface to the new Italian version of the book (Piccolo è bello) and Maonomics, and Woody Tasch, founder of the Slow Money movement and author of Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered, were on hand to discuss Schumacher’s theories and their powerful relevance to the current global financial crisis.

During the workshop, Tasch offered a personal response to the book, describing how it inspired his creation of Slow Money. “We are on a collision course with a finite biosphere,” he said. “The impact humans are having on the world continues to go up exponentially. Our impact has raced ahead of our ability to understand it. I believe that we are heading towards a collision and that climate change is the first sign of the feedback loop starting.”

“Unlimited growth in a finite biosphere is impossible,” said Tasch. He talked about the huge impression the first images of earth from space made in the 1960s, and how environmentalists tried to explain that “there is no such place as away. When you throw anything away, it stays here.”

“To the modern investor,” he continued, “there is no such place as here. When you invest, you think about markets, risk return ratios and other abstract concepts. You don’t think about where you live.” Slow Money is a non-profit network in the United States, inspired by Slow Food and Schumacher, he explained, bringing together investors and donors who want to put money into a sustainable food system. “What would the world be like if everyone invested 50% of their financial assets within 50 miles of where they live? Instead you give your money to people you don’t know, who do things you don’t understand with it, just so you have money when you retire. Is it better to work at something you don’t like just to have money when you retire, or to do things that make sense and put money into things that make you happy?”

“What we’re doing with local investment is putting our hands in the soil of the local economy, and getting our hands dirty. It’s more work, but it’s way more satisfying.”

Napoleoni agreed in the importance of local investment. “We need to slow down the speed of money through a new philosophy of supporting local economies and maintaining contact with the environment. The most sustainable type of investment is the most localized. ‘Casino capitalism’ is not sustainable, you might lose everything in a day. Instead we need local banks and agencies.” She called for a shortening of the chain between our money and our investments.

A series of questions from the audience provoked further debate among the panelists about the relevance of Schumacher’s theories today. A question about efficiency prompted Tasch to quote Schumacher: “The most striking about modern industry is that it requires so much and accomplishes so little.” He continued: “We are clever but not very smart. We can develop miraculously effective technology, but it creates more systemic risk. We have to put our money to work in ways that do less harm. I think organic agriculture is the best way to do less harm.”

Napoleoni called for a reduction of consumption, citing innovations being used by young people, like carpooling and couch-surfing, facilitated by online communities. “If every Chinese person consumed like the Americans do, the world production of oil would last for one month,” she said. She was hopeful for the future: “This new generation will grow up and teach their children to consume less, and there will be a contraction of the economy.”

Tasch reconfirmed the importance of consuming less, and said that people often associated it with sacrifice. “There is a tendency to think that increased consumption will increase well-being, whereas actually living with less leads to a higher quality of life. We shouldn’t be afraid that it will make us less happy.”

This article appeared originally on the website of Slow Food.

Woody Tasch is author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered.

Disaster on the Horizon reviewed in Digital Journal

Friday, October 29th, 2010

New book reveals BP’s risky business, alter ego, and global power
By Lynn Hermann

A new book is hitting the shelves and gives readers an inside look at misdeeds, lack of leadership skills, the government-BP merger, and the ego of greed, all combined as the perfect recipe that led to this year’s deepwater disaster.

Disaster on the Horizon, written by Bob Cavnar, takes readers behind the scenes, explaining in detail how easily an environmental calamity such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon incident could occur when all parties involved are focused on earnings forecasts, profits and oil revenues.

Human health and the environment – life as we know it – take a back row seat to the debacle. Admission, of course, comes with a high price.

The book reveals explosive details involving the disaster, including BP’s inability to assume responsibility, the Obama administration and BP’s real $20 billion deal disguised as a clean-up fund, the untold risks of the top kill procedure, and collusion between the government and BP to conceal severity of the disaster.

With first-hand experience in the oil industry, himself being the miraculous survivor of a gas well fire in 1981, Cavnar takes readers into what will be, for many, uncharted territory regarding industry standards, oversight, or lack thereof, BP’s global influence dating back to its Anglo-Persian Oil Company days, and a combination of reckless and thoughtless acts, all fueled by greed.

Disaster on the Horizon brings to light many under-publicized events leading up to, during, and after the tragedy. For instance, the fact that no company fire marshall was called in after the explosions; therefore, an early line of command was half-baked at best. Cavnar writes:

In the confusion of the night of the blowout, no one called a fire marshal in, and the vessels surrounding the rig started pouring tons of seawater on its decks with onboard water cannons. Daun Winslow, a Transocean executive who had been visiting the rig when the blowout occurred, was concerned about the Horizon’s stability and gave early instructions by radio to the firefighting vessels to put water only on the columns that supported the rig to keep them as cool as possible, and to avoid flooding the decks.

Cavnar then reveals one of the many bombshells in the book:

However, because there was no one on the scene who was really in charge, including the Coast Guard, that request was ignored. The private boats poured tons of water directly onto the decks, flooding the vessel and upsetting its stability. Over the next 36 hours, the rig listed farther and farther as the boats continued to flood it.

The rig sank on the afternoon of April 22, taking the riser connecting the rig to the well with it. Most of us have seen, at least in part, the ensuing result.

Writing about the recently lifted moratorium on off-shore drilling, Cavnar sheds some light on the oil industry’s self-professed unfair treatment the moratorium created for them and the results it would create:

For messaging, industry lobbyists and CEOs pulled out the usual weapon of choice: employment. Drilling contractors threatened to pull their floating rigs out of the Gulf, firing thousands. Service companies threatened the same. Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, even held a political rally (the unofficial kickoff, it seemed, for his 2012 presidential campaign) using worried oil field workers as props.

The real problem, however, really wasn’t about worried oil field workers joining the ranks of record-setting unemployed, numbers the likes of which this nation has never seen. Instead, Cavnar points out the hypocrisy of the oil industry’s double-speak over employment:

The problem of employment during the moratorium is certainly real; however, it is made worse by the very companies that are complaining about it. For example, drilling companies almost always flag their rigs in foreign countries, such as the Marshall Islands or Panama. The Marshall Islands lists 2,200 vessels under its registry; of those, 117 are MODUs (mobile offshore drilling units).

Cavnar easily connects the dots for the reader as he continues:

The reasons? There are many — including safety inspection requirements; the ability to contract for a facility inspector of choice; lax wage, employment, and staffing requirements; and avoidance of US taxes. If these rigs were flagged in the United States, these requirements would be more stringent — but most important, they would be required to have a crew made up of at least 75 percent Americans.

Then, final food for thought on the oil industry’s concern over unemployed Americans:

If the rig moved to foreign waters, the jobs would go with it. As it is now, the drilling company can fire the American crew, hire cheaper labor where they go, and then complain publicly about how the US government caused lost jobs.

Even as an industry insider – and to his credit – Cavnar presents to the reader a relatively level playing field in terms of failed politics and oil industry motives. The resulting hypocrisy may be uncomfortable for some readers. Disaster on the Horizon is one of the first books to come on scene about America’s greatest environmental disaster in its history. Cavnar explains to us with alarming clarity the fact that, unless we as a society change our ways – including lifestyles, critical oversight of the petroleum industry, and the political election process – history is doomed to repeat itself.

Read the original review at Digital Journal.

Bob Cavnar’s Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout, is available now.

James McCommons: Grand Canyon Railway Offers Glimpse of the Past

Friday, October 29th, 2010

The bustle in the RV park outside of Williams, Ariz., began at daybreak — kids skidding bikes inches from our tent, parents in pajamas flipping pancakes, and everyone slamming doors and packing gear for an early start to the canyon.We, too, were on a Great American road trip, touring the interior West, stopping at national parks and camping next to the interstates, where we fell asleep each night hearing the hum of the all-night trucks.

But this morning, my three sons and I were off the road and on the rails, catching a train to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, reaching this iconic landscape the way millions of Americans did before roads penetrated the desert and drive-through tourism became the norm at national parks. The Grand Canyon Railway runs 65 miles between Williams and Grand Canyon Village on the south rim. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (Santa Fe for short) abandoned passenger service on this branch line in 1968. In the 1980s, a wealthy Phoenix couple bought the right of way, rebuilt track and rehabbed the old depots. In 1989, the railway got under way with steam locomotives, but the current owner, Xanterra, which manages restaurants and hotels within several national parks, mainly uses diesel-electric locomotives to pull restored passenger cars.

Depot dates to 1908

It’s undeniably a tourist railway, with entertainment for families and vintage equipment for rail fans. When we arrived in Williams, the rail fans already were out in force, stalking the tracks with cameras, photographing the train and the historic depot built in 1908.

It was here that celebrities, presidents, potentates and average Americans debarked from the Santa Fe’s mainline to switch to the canyon train. They could stay at the Harvey House, a hotel operated by restaurant entrepreneur Fred Harvey. He opened eating houses all along the Santa Fe network in the 19th century, bringing fine cuisine to rail travelers accustomed to deplorable dining. The Harvey House now serves as the gift shop, and Xanterra has put up a new, retro-looking railroad hotel.

The day began with a Wild West show next to the depot. A shootout staged in a faux corral framed by plywood fronts of a Western town and bleachers for the tourists, it sounds hokey. But the cowboy actors thankfully did it tongue in cheek, including a mortally wounded hombre, who, before collapsing in the dust, sidestepped a pile of fresh horse dung. As we watched, the train idled nearby; outside each car, white-gloved attendants awaited their passengers.

We were in the cheap seats aboard a 1950s-era coach –one of 30 owned by the railway. The inside of the coach was all steel and leather of a sort of utilitarian, bulletproof construction. (Picture bench seats on a school bus.) For twice the price, you can upgrade to a coach with reclining seats, bigger windows and complimentary refreshments.

Coaches fun, noisy

For folks willing to a pay a premium, the train offered dome cars with upper-level bubbles that allow passengers to see in all directions and luxury observation-parlor cars with chairs and couches, a bar and an open-air platform on the rear of the train. Children younger than 15 are segregated to the coaches, however, and our car had an atmosphere akin to a noisy school trip with chaperoning adults. Generally, however, it was fun.

Leaving Williams, the train swayed and rolled to the north, crossing Interstate 40 and then the transcontinental mainline of the BNSF Railway, born in 1996 when the Santa Fe merged with the Burlington Northern.

Like other big Western railroads in the late 1800s, the Santa Fe promoted the establishment of national parks on its line. In 1901, it built the branch to the canyon and, four years later in partnership with the Fred Harvey Co., erected El Tovar Hotel on the south rim. Until then, visiting the canyon had been a rustic adventure, but the railroad made it stylish and comfortable, and the public loved the experience until the coming of roads and automobiles. Although the Grand Canyon Railway today carries 200,000 passengers annually, most tourists still reach the south rim from I-40 via Route 65.

Wildlife aplenty

For a few miles, the train paralleled the road, and I looked over to a string of RVs, cars and minivans topped with luggage carriers headed north, but then the tracks veered into the emptiness of the Colorado Plateau. Out in the dry grasslands and scrub brush, we spied prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, turkey vultures and hawks. Blue-black mountain ranges serrated the horizon. Puffy clouds passed overhead, and their shadows crept across the high desert.

Due to curves and grades that reach 3 percent (steep for a train), it doesn’t exceed 40 mph. A one-way trip takes two hours and 45 minutes, but then speed isn’t the point; it’s about scenery and entertainment. Folk singers –including a Navajo man who sang in his native language –passed through the train, telling jokes and making up songs for the kids.

Our attendant functioned as both historical docent and consultant. She passed out water, teased the kids and as we neared Grand Canyon Village, went around to each passenger and offered advice on walking paths and shuttle buses.

After pulling into the log- and wood-framed Grand Canyon depot, we had just four hours to gawk at the canyon, take too many pictures, buy postcards, eat a lunch and get a peek at El Tovar. Xanterra, which absorbed the Fred Harvey Co. in the 1960s, also owns the hotel. Many passengers combine the train trip with an overnight stay at El Tovar. And though it’s a bit pricey and some rooms are small, no one ever complains about the view. The front porch sits just 100 feet from the rim.

Hombres are back

We stayed off the shuttle buses, stuck to the walking paths and still made it as far as the Yavapai Observation Station, one of the best panoramas on the south rim. After all the hiking, though, and time in the sun, my kids were ready for the air conditioning of the train. The ride back was quieter with some of the passengers — especially young children — dozing in their seats. About 20 miles out from Williams, the train slowed, and we looked out to see that morning’s gang of Wild West hombres all lined up on horses with kerchiefs pulled up to their noses –train-robber style.

Two spurred their horses to a gallop and chased the train. The bandits came through the coaches with guns pulled, asking kids for their allowance money and joking with the adults. The sheriff chased them off and then came back to reassure passengers, “Folks, I have good news,” he said, pausing for the punch line. “I just saved a lot of money on my car insurance.”

Read the full article at
The Oregonian.

James McCommons is the author of Waiting On A Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service – A Year Spent Riding Across America

Diane Wilson and Nobody Particular featured in new Zinn Education Project teaching guide

Friday, October 29th, 2010

The Zinn Education Project (which promotes the use of Howard Zinn’s best-selling book, A People’s History of the United States, in classrooms across the country) has a new teacher’s guide available that includes two Chelsea Green authors.

The guide – a companion piece to a film about Daniel Ellsberg called “The Most Dangerous Man in America” – is available for free download online. Featured in the document are Molly Bang’s graphic novel Nobody Particular: One Woman’s Fight to Save the Bays (which tells the story of shrimper-turned-environmental-activist Diane Wilson in striking illustrations), as a recommended resource for teachers, and also Diane Wilson (author of An Unreasonable Woman and Holy Roller) herself. It sounds like a great resource for anyone involved in education, especially those focused on teaching the history of the Vietnam War to middle and high school students.  Be sure to check it out!

More from the Zinn Education Project’s announcement:

The Zinn Education Project is pleased to release a 94-page teaching guide on the film The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers . The teaching guide offers eight lessons on the Vietnam War, Daniel Ellsberg, whistleblowing, the Pentagon Papers and more — for U.S. history, government, and language arts classrooms. The Most Dangerous Man in America Teaching Guide  offers a “people’s history” approach to learning about the U.S. war in Vietnam and engages students in thinking deeply about their own responsibility as truth-tellers and peacemakers. The guide uses a variety of teaching strategies, including role play, critical reading, discussion, mock trial, small group imaginative writing, and personal narrative. Developed by the Zinn Education Project in collaboration with The Most Dangerous Man in America filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, the teaching guide is available for free download at the Zinn Education Project (Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change) website.

Les Leopold interviewed on The Rick Smith Show

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Les Leopold, author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It , was interviewed last Thursday on The Rick Smith radio show out of Harrisburg, PA.

Building on his recent Huffington Post blog, “How to Earn $900,000 an Hour While Unemployment Soars”, Les explains that most people aren’t even aware of the staggering wealth discrepancies in this country or the fact that the top 10 American hedge fund managers earned an average of $1.87 billion each in 2009. Yes, that’s each. He points out that an all-out class war is right around the corner, and which side you’re on has already been decided for you.

Listen to the interview here to learn more.

Les Leopold’s The Looting of America is available now.

Listen: Joan Dye Gussow and Marion Nestle on Heritage Radio’s The Main Course show

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Two key figures in the sustainable food movement came together in a terrific radio interview for Heritage Radio Network’s “The Main Course” program on  October 24th. Hosts Patrick Martins and Katy Keiffer spoke with author and activist Marion Nestle and our own Joan Dye Gussow, whose new book is Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Live, and Vegetables.

You can hear the interview in its entirety here.

“Together, Nestle and Dye Gussow constitute an amazing meeting of the minds when it comes to championing all things sustainable, and affecting change in broken food and distribution systems, failed academic institutions, and obsolete ideas. The gang discussed food politics at large, the sticky situation of labeling food, and how to make the public see that public health is attached to domestic food policy…” (from the Main Course website)

Joan Dye Gussow is the author of This Organic Life and Growing, Older, both available now.

Jamie Court: Insurers Quietly Advertise for Villines

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

A television advertisement praises Republican candidate for insurance commissioner Mike Villines as a man who “will stop insurance companies from canceling policies for people who get sick.” There’s only one catch: The ad is paid for by insurance companies, even though the televised disclosure states it is, “Paid for by Jobspac, a bipartisan coalition of California employers.”

In fact, $3.8 million from insurance companies paid for the advertisement, including $150,000 from Anthem Blue Cross, the poster child for canceling sick patients when they are sickest.

Only the savvy student of the California secretary of state’s website will ever know insurance companies are trying to elect the commissioner who will regulate them. The campaign contributions are hidden from public view by the largest dirty money laundry machine in American history, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is now targeting electoral races all across America with big corporate cash and similar tactics.

The insurance companies’ pro-Villines effort offers the clearest view of the danger to the public posed by the chamber’s deception. What’s at stake if California insurance companies are allowed to handpick their candidate for insurance commissioner?

California’s insurance commissioner has the right to approve or deny tens of billions of dollars in rate hikes. He is judge and jury for the industry.

Allstate has donated $1.15 million to elect Villines and defeat Democratic candidate Dave Jones. In recent years, the insurance commissioner has forced Allstate to lower auto and homeowner rates by a half-billion dollars.

Car insurance chief George Joseph, chairman of Mercury Insurance, has contributed $1 million. His company is being prosecuted by the insurance commissioner and faces a possible hearing related to a proposed insurance rate increase. After Mercury lost its campaign to enact the anti-consumer measure Proposition 17 in June, the Los Angeles Times reported that Mercury said it “might carry on the fight for regulation revisions they expect to bring more business their way.”

Villines has said he had nothing to do with the insurance companies’ independent effort to influence voters, nor has he spoken out against it. It’s hard to imagine insurance companies betting so much on a candidate who will crack down on their rates and practices.

Dave Jones, by contrast, wrote legislation to regulate health insurance company premiums while an Assembly member, angering goliaths such as Anthem Blue Cross.

Since landmark auto insurance reform Proposition 103 was enacted in 1988, creating an elected insurance commissioner’s office, drivers have saved $62 billion on their auto insurance bills, according to a 2008 report by the Consumer Federation of America. The reason is insurance company campaign cash has not had a hand in electing an insurance commissioner in a decade. The only insurance commissioner to take industry money, Chuck Quackenbush, resigned in disgrace.

Voters have a strong record of not believing insurance company advertising when they see it. The problem this time is they just may not know.

Read the original article at The San Francisco Chronicle.

Jamie Court is the author of The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell, available now.

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