Thursday, November 25, 2010

Global warming: We can't handle the truth anymore | The Economist

Debbie Downer says:

One of the little observed pieces of the human puzzle is that people don't really want to know things at all -- they prefer believing. Belief is easier and more emotionally satisfying than knowledge -- in the same way candy is more emotionally satisfying than broccoli: especially if you manage to keep your mental age under 4... which, we do.

Global warming: We can't handle the truth anymore | The Economist


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Leafing well enough alone.

Hi everyone,

So the city of West Bend spends between $60,000-80,000 a year picking up leaves -- that don't need to be picked up. My new math tells me that we could afford another kindergarten teacher, plus decent benefits, for that -- oh, and improve the quality of every lawn in town.

Are lawns more important than common sense here in Pleasant Valley Sunday land?

We'll see.

Saturday's column

Leaving nature – and leaves – to its own devices
Why rake when you can mulch and save the city some green?

A few years ago, during an early autumn when the trees in my yard and my neighbor’s 5,000-foot-tall silver maple dropped all their leaves at once, I had one of those moments Arsenio Hall used to call “things that make you go hmm?”

It might have been the mountain of leaves I’d raked onto a gigantic blue tarp that made me stop and reconsider the wisdom of what I was doing, but I suddenly wondered why we rake leaves in the first place and why we expect the city to pick them up.

I mean, trees take nutrition out of the soil and put it into the leaves. Leaves fall, decompose and return their nutrients to the soil. It’s a simple idea and practical. Ah, but humans always have a better idea: We create complex systems and specialized energy hungry industrial technologies to interrupt this perfectly natural cycle and throw those nutrients away as pesky or inconvenient or, more tellingly, “waste.”

This may summarize what’s wrong with human beings.

We used to burn leaves. Anyone my age can remember the wonderful smell of burning leaves in the autumn. Every once in a while, maybe out in the country, you’ll drive through a plume of smoke from a pile of burning leaves and the perfume of it transports you back to an earlier time. Piles of leaves carry a lot of childhood nostalgia. Of course, burning the leaves doesn’t make any more sense than raking them to the curb and hauling them away. In both cases you’re throwing away nutrients your lawn would love.


On the other hand, even though it’s clear that millions of Americans burning leaves every fall is not good for air quality, I’ve come around to the belief that if we must risk global warming, then sacrificing human civilization for the smell of burning leaves would be worth it. Diesel oil, no. Burning leaves, yes.

It’s become such an annual ritual that we no longer question whether it’s a good idea, but remember grass clippings? The city doesn’t pick those up anymore because in 1993, it became illegal to dump grass clippings and leaves into landfills. The city stopped picking up grass clippings. Why does it still pick up the leaves? Hmm?

I don’t know either, but I followed the trail of last year’s leaf collection and turned up some interesting factoids:

In 2009 the city of West Bend collected about 3,041,000 pounds of leaves using 1,687 manhours and West Bend’s two giant vacuum cleaner trucks. (They’re called Vac/Alls. When I called up Public Works to check these numbers, I asked whether I could borrow one to clean out my basement but they politely said no.)

West Bend also uses two crews of six people and a couple of those smaller leafbroom pusher-trucks.

Picking up the leaves cost the city $61,000 last year.

Brush collection, which the city of Fond du Lac eliminated this year, cost the city of West Bend $70,338 in 2009.

One more: The DNR has data indicating that the costs of handling yard waste increased “nearly 50 percent from 2000 to 2005.”

I was happy to discover that the leaves aren’t wasted. The city has a list of local farmers who use the leaves as mulch on their fields and as bedding for their livestock – at no cost to the farmers.

But why should the farmers have all the fun? Most of us who live in the city are farmers, too – lawn farmers. And we share the need for a healthier crop.

The year I had my “Hmm?” moment, as I stood wondering before the mighty mountain of leaves, I looked next door and caught my neighbor mowing right over his leaves, mulching them into his lawn. He waved and smiled and said, “You know, mowing is easier.”

He’s smart. It turns out that mulching your leaves into your lawn is the city of West Bend’s preferred approach to dealing with autumn. It leaves the nutrients in your lawn and it saves tax dollars.

But there’s a secret lesson in civics hidden under this pile of leaves, and it’s a reminder about how good neighbors happen. Even when the leaves aren’t from your own trees, you still take responsibility for them. You can do the math from there.


Republicans waging class warfare... Axis of Depression -

Class warfare always works from the top down because the people on top are the ones with the power. What better way to keep the money flowing up?

Axis of Depression -

No doubt some of Mr. Bernanke’s critics are motivated by sincere intellectual conviction, but the core reason for the attack on the Fed is self-interest, pure and simple. China and Germany want America to stay uncompetitive; Republicans want the economy to stay weak as long as there’s a Democrat in the White House.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Hedge Fund Republic? -

A Hedge Fund Republic? -

In contrast, a study commissioned by the Labor Department during the Bush administration makes clear the job-creation power of unemployment benefits because that money is immediately spent. The study suggested that the current recession would have been 18 percent worse without unemployment insurance and that this spending preserved 1.6 million jobs in each quarter

Saturday, November 13, 2010

West Bend needs a Pastafarian Charter School.

Hi everyone,

There's a local fundamentalist here trying to sell the idea of a non-sectarian charter school to the local district. It turns out that one of the school board members is a member of the church. Waring Fincke, our local rainbow-suspenders- wearing liberal-gadfly, wrote a wonderful letter asking for their non-sectarian approach to teaching sex education, their anti-harassment policy position on LGBTQ, and whether evolution would appear in their curriculum. So far, no real response. They've clung to the "it's about a choice in values for the parents" argument without really saying why those values should be subsidized by the tax payer.

I thought, there's only one appropriate response to this. We need a Pastafarian solution.

Saturday's column.

Public schools are unfairly blamed

Let’s include Pastafarians in debate on charter school

His Holiness, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, made His first public appearance in a May 2005 open letter to the Kansas state school board. He flew in to save Kansans from their own self-seriousness as public officials, under pressure from fundamentalist groups, considered whether to include Intelligent Design in their science curriculum. His Noodliness serves as a reminder that, in these times, when politics has become a dangerous joke, only comedy can tell the truth.

The letter was written by a devout Pastafarian, as members of the church call themselves, and reminded the board that there were many different versions of Intelligent Design. He urged the board to include Pastafarianism's, equally scientific, view of Intelligent Design which holds that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Pastafarianism doesn’t stop there. It provides an equally scientific account of global warming, insightfully noting the empirically demonstrable relationship between a decrease in the overall number of pirates during the past 100 years and a simultaneous increase in global temperature. The letter demanded equal time with the non-spaghetti based fundamentalist Christian version of I.D. and, in order to offset global warming, encouraged people to talk like pirates. (For all the revealing details, see

Now, even though the Church of the FSM isn’t a real church – like the First Baptist Church or Scientology, say – I believe Pastafarianism holds an answer to questions about whether West Bend should go forward with a values-based charter school.

Typically, charter schools have been sold to the public on the basis of a marketing campaign emphasizing the quality of their performance. These campaigns have depended more on glowing press reports and for-profit industry based advertising schemes rather than on actual data.

Diane Ravitch, one of the original proponents of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind, explained her change of heart in the Wall Street Journal back on March 10, 2010 – after she’d carefully uncovered the chasm between the inflated promises and the reality of charter school performance. It turns out, for instance, that when charter schools are measured against public schools, only 17 percent of charter schools did better, 46 percent were roughly the same, and 37 percent were worse.

Pastor Dunford’s charter school promotion rides a wave of resentment directed against public schools, but this resentment turns out to be an empty paper sack.

Consider this: Even though Gallup’s annual poll on education shows Americans to be “overwhelmingly dissatisfied” with the quality of America’s schools, “77 percent of public school parents award their own child’s public school a grade of A or B, the highest level of approval since the question was first asked in 1985.”

Another even more urgent fact: The anti-public-school lobbyists and marketing firms have stoked this dissatisfaction by blaming teachers and, especially, teachers unions. To believe that teachers are at fault for our declining international educational standing requires one to ignore a couple of well-known studies from the National Bureau of Economic Research going back to 1998. The data clearly shows that the quality of teachers accounts for only 7.5 to 10 percent of any increase in student test scores and for only about 10 to 20 percent in performance outcomes. Shockingly, the major factor determining student success in school is poverty. After that, parental participation.

So arguing for charter schools on the basis of improved performance is iffy at best. But if performance isn’t an issue and financing doesn’t have any advantages, why would anyone want to drain funding from our already overstretched public school budgets in order to create a charter school? Well, how about the values argument?

Back to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. What if a local pastor from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster wanted to create a “values-based” charter school to teach the core values of Pastafarianism: clean living, eating carbohydrates and talking like a pirate?

Imagine if we discovered that a number of the school board members promoting a FSM Charter School were Pastafarians themselves and had hidden this fact from public view? Would we have reason to suspect they had conducted their noodley business behind the backs of the public they are sworn to represent?

Even if they received no financial benefit from moving tax dollars away from the public schools and into the coffers of a Pastafarian prep school, wouldn’t someone raise an eyebrow and wonder whether there wasn’t a hidden agenda here, different from “offering parents a choice”? Maybe their real agenda isn’t delivering good public education at all – since the data suggest that public education, certainly in West Bend, is already doing a great job – but rather teaching students to carbo-load and talk like pirates.

Wouldn’t the public have a right to know? Arrrrrr?


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Fall back.

Hi everyone,

Shellacking is right and about time, too. Maybe this will wake up those members of the electorate who've been lulled to sleep by visions of corporate sugarplums -- of course, that is why they call it the American Dream. It only works when you're sleeping.

Frankly, the only thing about this election that unsettled me was watching the narcotic effects of all that negative, US Chamber funded advertising. I can think of any number of reasons a conservative might have voted against Feingold, for instance, but I never heard one of those reasons uttered by any conservative -- instead what we heard were the fear soaked memes of the kind of business marketing that will sacrifice democracy for profits.

But then, there's nothing really surprising about that either.

St. Crispin's Day will be back.

Saturday's column.

Time to fall back
Election holds promise of tight wages and wild spending history

Daylight savings time ended this week on Tuesday when Wisconsin voters, encouraged by a massive corporate sponsored campaign of public service announcements, turned their clocks back a full six years to 2004. Not content with perhaps the most thoroughgoing financial reform in legislative history, an overhauled health care system designed to keep Medicare solvent and extend care to millions of previously uncovered families, or a tax break for 95 percent of the population, Americans voted for change.

After springing forward, it was time to fall back. Local elections in the coming year will determine whether to change Wisconsin’s state motto from “Forward” to “Backwards.”

People love thinking about change, but nobody actually likes to do it. Rather than face further anxiety about the future, Americans dependably marched backwards toward the brighter and more compelling marketing plan and back to political and economic policies they could believe in.

What does Conservative change look like? It’s familiar to every American. It’s the kind of Reaganomics-driven change that limited the average salary increase among middle class workers to less than 1 percent between 1980 and 2008, while simultaneously cutting taxes and government regulations in a way that launched the income of the wealthiest 5 percent into the orbit.

Tuesday’s choice for the comfortably nonthreatening 1 percent improvement stands in stark contrast to the, apparently frightening, 30 years of Dark Ages between 1950 and 1980, when the average worker’s salary rose 74.6 percent. Voters, encouraged by the right wing, cheerfully rejected the latter in favor of the former. It was a satisfying endorsement of the kind of oligarchic change in which autoworkers take huge pay cuts while Wall Street corner office boys receive bonuses at record levels.

Voters acted just in time too, for had this uncontrolled pattern of income growth for regular Americans continued through 2008, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of Americans would have been 68 percent higher than it is today: a disturbing $406 a week for the typical family.

Clearly, Americans weren’t comfortable with that kind of prosperity and, by trusting Republican administrations in the 1980s and 2000s ducked any anxiety all of that extra income might have caused. Fortunately, much of that anxiety-producing income ended up in the pockets of the top 1 percent where it was spent on new nautically themed cocktail napkins for yachting parties and, of course, job creation. The fact that recent windfalls to corporate coffers haven’t been used for job creation only indicates that yachting parties are a more pressing matter – that’s all.

Voters also fired off a firm “No way man” to the crazed liberal tax and spend ideology, a worldview that pays for the services we elect representatives to provide and maintain by using taxation. Under this lunatic upside-down world, every time the government spends money on something – space shuttles, interstate highways, protecting our food supply – they insist on raising the money to pay for it.

Imagine the inefficiency of having to pay for what you want. By contrast, voters on Tuesday opted for the simpler and less painful Republican approach: spending money on services we need but refusing to charge us for any of it. The trick is to not pay for any of it now, but to instead cut taxes and channel all of that expense into future debt.

As this column has pointed out before, Republicans can take pride in never having to pay for anything. Democrats, on the other hand, can be safely saddled with the elitist albatross of having never once increased national debt as a percentage of GDP, not since FDR. Just like those friends of yours who don’t owe anything on their credit cards. The credit card industry calls people like that “deadbeats.” Conservatives call people like that “liberals.”

Best of all Scott Walker, the governor-Elect, immediately declared that “Wisconsin is now open for business.” It is. Now that we, finally, have the best government money can buy, everyone can expect the same level of government concern every fast-food employee knows they’ll receive from their assistant manager whenever they need a night off to study – or have a life.

And that, at least, is the kind of change we’re all familiar with.

Most importantly, resetting our political and economic policies to standard conservative time on Tuesday really cleaned the Democratic Party’s clock. Everyone can use a good clock cleaning now and then, especially when they’ve earned it.

Oh but remember: We get one hour back this weekend. That’ll be a start.