Archive for May, 2014

Pay to dump

Part of the solution to greenhouse gas emissions is really very simple: charge a waste disposal fee for dumping of fossil fuel exhaust into the atmosphere. It was not all that many years ago–the 1970s to be exact–when people and businesses were allowed to use the nation’s waterways as free sewers. The Clean Water Act put an end to that and mandated that those wishing to dispose of liquid waste pay to have it treated safely. Obviously it is not feasible to collect gaseous waste in the analogue of sewers, but it is possible to put a price tag on the effects of that waste on the environment. Collecting those costs through a tax on fuel with the revenues dedicated to research on renewable energy would go a long ways toward putting the US in the forefront of dealing with climate change instead of being the world’s leading bad actor.

The spy who wasn’t

NSA defector, Edward Snowden, has taken to the airwaves to assure us that he was not, in fact, a low-level computer analyst working for a defense contractor but a Real Under Cover Spy. Hearing his outburst of hubris took me back to the security briefings I sat through when I, too, held the same level of security clearance he did. One thing we were warned to watch for in our co-workers was an exaggerated sense of importance because such people were prone to leak classified information to aggrandize themselves. But that aside, was Snowden really a spy?

The short answer is: not really. Spies in the classic George Smiley mold are few and far between—and those of the James Bond sort exist only in fiction. The vast majority of US intelligence—more than 90% depending upon who you ask—comes from SIGINT, Signals Intelligence, what NSA does. And the vast majority of SIGINT is collected by rather open means: satellites, aircraft, ground stations, ships, and submarines. I say that these are open means because, although the details are classified, the existence of those collection systems is well known, especially by those targeted by them. And it is no secret that there are covert collection sites as well in places such as embassies, consulates, and other installations. The people who service those sites often operate under cover, i.e. they pose as employees of other government agencies or of front companies. As often as not, this is so that the host country can plausibly deny knowing what is going on. What has been made public of Snowden’s work history strongly suggests that he was among those. In other words, he was a low-level computer analyst who happened to be working undercover. His efforts to burnish his importance does not change the fact that he is a traitor who did serious—in some cases irreparable—damage to the country he was supposed to be serving. And the media outlets granting him a soapbox from which to make his exaggerated claims are doing the public a disservice.

The race that isn’t

Today’s New York Times contains a piece by Nate Cohn about how Hispanics increasingly identify themselves a white. Leaving aside the very real question of whether race even exists as anything but a collection of superficial physical attributes, this article makes little sense. Technically, Hispanics are people from the Iberian peninsula and their American descendants, although Portuguese speakers are usually excluded. “Latino,” which the Times used interchangeably with “Hispanic,” generally refers to Spanish-speak people from Latin America, although exactly what constitutes Latin America is not entirely clear, either. However one defines those two terms, they are not races. The US Bureau of the Census recognizes five races: White, Black or African American, Native American or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. In theory, members of each of these races share some genetic commonality. Hispanics and/or Latinos share nothing but a language. In fact, many people who are said to be Hispanic are actually of Italian, German, or native American extraction. Many others are the descendants of African slaves. And nearly all, like rest of us in the Western Hemisphere, have richly mixed heritage. To lump them together because they share a language is preposterous. How many Italian Americans would be comfortable with being called Anglos? As a French Canadian I am emphatically not Anglo even through my primary language is English. It is an indication of our national preoccupation with race that we have, in effect, created an entirely one new based on nothing but language. Perhaps it is time to end altogether the practice of identifying people as being of any race besides the human race.

Civility

I have made clear that I will not allow this blog to become a cesspool of vitriol. I have deleted two comments containing insults directed at me and at an another commenter. I welcome debate and differing points of view, but if you can not be civil, go spew your garbage somewhere else.

Corruption pays

What do Republicans do when one of their rising stars becomes an embarrassment? Why, promote him, of course. Bijoy Datta learned his craft at the knee of Broome County state senator Thomas Libous who became a millionaire on his $79,000 a year salary. He went on to run the campaign of current Broome county executive, Debbie Preston, and to become chair of the Broome County Republican party. Ms. Preston rewarded him by making him Deputy County Executive.  While holding that office, Mr. Datta continued to work as a political “consultant,” handsomely, and probably illegally, paid by the campaigns of his boss and other Republican worthies. The true nature of his job with the county was made clear when he, again probably illegally, demanded that county employees donate their time to fund-raise for the County Executive at risk of losing their jobs. One would think that this would be enough to have him summarily drummed out of the GOP. But, no. Today he announced that he is leaving his Broome County position to become Deputy Campaign Manager for Republican gubernatorial candidate, Rob Astorino. New York is, it must be admitted, famous for its political corruption. Mr. Datta’s rise shows that a new generation of corrupt politicians is being groomedand that corruption pays.

The stench on Hawley Street

Did “Li’l Debbie” Preston move the County landfill to Hawley Street? No, that is the stench of corruption wafting from the Broome County executive suite. And once again the smelliest player there is Bijoy Datta. Not content with his $83,577salary—twice the median household income in the county—Mr. Datta has been running a “consulting” business; in this case “consulting” pretty much means “selling political influence.” And to whom is he selling these wares? Surprise, surprise: to Li’l Debbie’s campaign and that of Sheriff David Harder, himself not paragon of virtue when it comes to campaign contributions. Not satisfied to corrupt Broome County, Mr. Datta also sold his “services” to the campaign of Kirk Martin for Tioga County district attorney. After two years of carrying on this business in violation of Broome County laws, Mr. Datta has finally written his boss a memo formally requesting permission to continue to moonlight. Ms. Preston should do the right thing and demand that Mr. Datta do the job we taxpayers are paying him to do. And she should put him on notice that his next ethical lapse will be his last on the County payroll.

Not ready for prime time: arts edition

Some years ago, an article in the Washington Post posited the existence of a Surf-and-Turf line running roughly along the Mason-Dixon line. North of this line restaurant menus were likely to feature surf-and-turf and to eschew arugula. Binghamton is a good 200 miles behind that line and, while local restaurants have much improved in the dozen of so years since I moved here, the surf-and-turf culture is alive and well. Case in point: the opening reception of the Annual Members’ Show of Fine Arts Society of the Southern Tier (FASST). (Full disclosure: my wife is a member of FASST and one of her entries in that show won a prize.)

Over the years I have been to many receptions at art galleries, the National Press Club, NASA, the State Department, embassies, corporate events, and on Capitol Hill. Without exception they are characterized by people milling about sipping wine and nibbling hors d’œuvres which may or may not be passed about by liveried servers. Chairs are generally few and far between. Such events are not to be confused with wedding receptions which usually involve a sit-down dinner.

Well, confuse FASST did. Upon entering the room where the putative reception was held—not a simple matter since the doors were locked—we were confronted with rows of tables set up as for a lecture with chairs along one side. Said tables were covered with green paper cloths and set with green plastic cutlery. A buffet of sorts offered over-dressed salad, boiled potatoes—ok it is pretty much impossible to screw those up, mixed vegetables boiled to death, sliced ham-like product, and the requisite rubber chicken in over-sweet sauce. And the wine was…well, it wasn’t. The caterer, if one can call him that, was in the corner shouting to his cell phone the speaker of which was shouting back. The cheap paper plates did not detract from the classiness of the presentation. In other words, it was the epitome of a way-beyond-the-surf-and-turf-line wedding reception.

But wait, there’s more! There is the handing out of awards. I have been to nearly as many awards programs as receptions and they also follow an invariable script. Awards are presented in reverse order: honorable mentions first, then third place, etc. until the moment all are anxiously awaiting: Best in Show. FASST had other ideas. First up: best in show. You can guess the rest. And then everyone trooped upstairs to the show itself where the winning artists were expected to attach the ribbons to their works themselves. Oh, and the room where the art is displayed was set up for a meeting, making it impossible to actually see the art from more than a foot away. All in all, the whole thing was downright embarrassing.

Now I do not expect a small city in upstate NY to be as cosmopolitan as a world capital, but I would think that someone organizing an opening reception and awards ceremony would have some basic understanding of how they are done. I wonder whether the person responsible for this fiasco has actually ever been out of Broome County. Binghamton prides itself—justly—on its growing arts community. Century-old FASST, however, is simply not ready for prime time.

The not-a-tax tax

Republicans routinely exploit the public’s disdain for paying taxes by labeling as such things that are not such. A prime example is the “carbon tax.” Half a century ago, businesses and individuals routinely discarded their liquid waste by dumping it into waterways at no direct cost to themselves. When the resulting pollution became bad enough Congress and state legislatures passed laws prohibiting the practice and establishing disposal systems available for a fee. It is not possible, in most cases, to collect gaseous waste products and direct them to disposal facilities, but it is possible to collect a fee that reflects the cost to society of having those wastes dumped into the atmosphere. Calling this fee a tax is a tactic being used by fossil fuel industry to convince gullible people to let them continue to destroy our air in the name of profit. It is time to change the rhetoric and stop calling a legitimate user’s fee a tax. Maybe then our lawmakers can be convinced to do the right thing and internalize the costs of fossil fuel use.

Fracking follies

The Joint Landowners’ Coalition of New York (JLCNY) has sunk to a new low.  Not satisfied with slandering anyone who opposes them with the most vile accusations or forcing the state to spend millions of taxpayer dollars defending against frivolous lawsuits bankrolled by out-of-state interests, this organization of  people seeking to have New York State opened to fracking so that they can cash in on the hillbilly lottery, whatever the cost to the environment and local community,  is now planning to infiltrate the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPRIG). NYPIRG’s Ithaca office has put out a call for workers to join their summer campaign against fracking (see their solicitation at:   http://ithaca.craigslist.org/npo/4427242546.html). Victor Furman, spokesman for JLCNY posted the following on a local TV station web site (http://www.wicz.com/news2005/viewarticle.asp?a=33070): 

“I already have 2 friends who will get extra spending cash this summer while getting paid to infiltrate and promote drilling by accepting a paycheck from Isaac Goons organization to tell the truth about drilling…Need extra cash this summer… want to get paid by mis informers to tell the truth…The anti drilling camp is able to pay you because they are a very rich {one per center} grass roots organization. Take a page from their book and mislead them on your job application. Go door to door this summer and instead of scarring little old ladies with lies just tell your employer you did while actually telling them the truth. Truth is not bankrolled by the Park Foundation but truth can deceptively cash in on the anti drill camps fears by responding to this add http://ithaca.craigslist.org/npo/4427242546.html ….isn’t it time those who can afford to pay for a lie to be billed for their deception through deception?”

Ignoring Mr. Furman’s trademark misspellings, bad grammar, and inappropriate usage, it is clear that this is a call for people to engage in unethical and quite possibly illegal behavior. Whatever the arguments for and against fracking, this sort of thing is completely unacceptable. I urge those reading this blog to publicize this as widely as possible. If the pro-fracking forces are willing to engage in activities like this, what does it say about the ethics and integrity of the industry that is bankrolling them? I have contacted NYPRIG alerting them to this infiltration campaign. I urge you, my readers, to do likewise. You can send them a message through their website: http://www.nypirg.org/about/contact_us/

Eating the cubs, Binghamton-style

It is said that when a male lion takes over the pride of another male lion, he kills the older males cubs ensuring that his own genes are carried forward. Evidently something similar happens in the Binghamton mayor’s office. When newly-elected Republican Rich David took office he set about undoing as many as possible of the good things done by his predecessor—symbolically eating Matt Ryan’s cubs, as it were. To start with he fired from city advisory boards prominent local business owners suspected of Democratic leanings. Then he put on the market a small city park much hated by Republicans because the former mayor allowed Occupy Binghamton to occupy it. And now Mayor David has declared the Big Splash Sustainability Fair unwelcome at Recreation Park where it has been held every Memorial Day weekend since 2011. The rationale given by His Honor for the last minute summary cancellation of the fair’s permit is that it will conflict with families wishing to use the park on its opening weekend. The real reason is political and brutish. The fair began as an anti-fracking event endorsed by then-mayor Ryan. David is repaying the largess of the gas companies and pro-fracking activists—none of them actual residents of the City of Binghamton—who bankrolled his candidacy. The cost to the city is not trivial. The fair attracts thousands to listen to top local and regional bands and to view the wares of dozens of exhibitors. Rich David has been mayor for only four months but already he is establishing himself as a partisan bully. We can only hope that one of the cubs he sets out to devour will one day turn the tables on him.