Archive

Posts Tagged ‘europe’

Nancy Skinner: COP 15: Cities, States, Grassroots Transform Nopenhagen to Hopenhagen

December 29th, 2009 admin No comments

I traveled to Copenhagen, where nations of the world met to tackle the single greatest challenge of our time. It is the 15th time world leaders have convened as the ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP), parties referring to each of the 192 nations that, under the auspices of the United Nations, agreed to work together to address climate change.

This is the 11th international negotiation I’ve attended. For the first time every major emitting country – including the United States, China, India and Australia – came to the table with commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. I’m frustrated it has taken 15 COPs to get to this point, while Pacific Island nations lose habitable land due to sea level rise and atmospheric concentration of CO2 now exceeds 350 parts per million, but it is still a huge breakthrough.

Press reports will be more pessimistic, focusing on how COP 15 ended without legally binding emission reduction goals. True and a legitimate side of the story, but it’s a story that doesn’t capture the tremendous movement already underway.

This is a movement begun at the grassroots level: by states, cities, provinces, non profit groups, and businesses, a movement that is gaining momentum, taking substantive action, and beginning to show some impressive results.

Mayors from New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Johannesburg and 100 other major cities –all of which have adopted ambitious emissions reduction targets– also gathered in Copenhagen. What the cities have accomplished makes the national government commitments seem paltry in comparison.

My attendance is with a delegation of over 40 officials from states and Canadian provinces. Each of us represent governments that are also implementing climate action plans. We have come to COP15 to make it clear that subnational governments are not sitting idle.

ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability is an organizer of the city delegation. I speak to Harvey Ruvin, an official from Miami Dade County. He informs me that ICLEI recently documented climate protection commitments from over three thousand local governments from around the world.

At a state leader event organized by the Center for Climate Strategies I learn that 32 US states have adopted or are actively developing climate action plans. Tom Peterson, President of the Center, presents data on 23 climate policy actions underway in these states. Fully implemented the state actions would reduce US emissions by between 16% (low estimate) to 25% (aggressive implementation) below 1990 levels, reductions that surpass the targets proposed in the current bills being debated by Congress.

From my point of view the accomplishments by the grassroots NGOs and our subnational governments will help turn the post mortem on COP 15 from Nopenhagen to Hopenhagen. I am particularly proud that California is one that is truly leading the way.

On Tuesday I sat in the COP 15 conference center as our governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, delivered a speech highlighting California’s leadership.

Right now we are implementing Assembly Bill 32, authored by my good friend Fran Pavley, which requires a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2020.

We have also passed the world’s first Low Carbon Fuel Standard and tailpipe emissions standards, which the Obama Administration has now adopted.

Governor Schwarzenegger describes partnerships California is forming with other states, provinces and cities in America, Canada, China, Mexico and Europe. And how California is working with the U.N. to assist developing nations, especially in Africa.

California’s leadership is not just great environmentally. It is giving our state a tremendous competitive edge in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

A report released earlier this month shows that over the last decade, green jobs in California surged 36 percent; more than triple the rate of our total job growth. And these are good-paying jobs in energy efficiency, clean technology and renewable fuels.

Before leaving I toured a cluster of green business start-ups in my home city, Berkeley. Seeo Inc, developing a new generation of batteries for electric vehicles, is typical of the companies I’m meeting. For the last three years Seeo has hired additional employees and experienced an increase in venture capitol investment.

California has never been so well poised to be at the competitive edge of the low carbon economy. I am proud that California is leading the way toward a cleaner and more prosperous future for our children and grandchildren. Even in these difficult times, we will continue to push ahead, because we know our innovative green policies are the key to accelerating our economic recovery.

CA State Assemblymember Nancy Skinner chairs the Assembly Natural Resources Committee overseing implementation of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, AB 32. Ms. Skinner is a founder of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability and former US Director of The Climate Group. View her blog from Copenhagen at nancyskinner.blogspot.com/2009_12_01_archive.html

More on Copenhagen 2009


Germs, Viruses, and Secrets: How The Obama Administration is Addressing Biological Threats

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

When most of us think of “Cold War history”, we think of the Soviet Union and the United States building up massive nuclear arsenals, staring each other down over missiles in Cuba, or former Eastern and Western Europe. We think of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev, and Reagan.

But what most people don’t remember, or may not even know, is that the United States once had a biological weapons program, and that the former Soviet Union did too. I like to think of this as the “forgotten” legacy of the Cold War arms race. Just because the Cold War is over, doesn’t mean that the weapons programs’ legacy is nothing we need to worry about anymore.

So, let’s look at a little bit of history before we talk about the legacy of these weapons programs, and how they affect the world today.

History: Renouncing Biological Weapons… or not.

In November 1969, President Richard Nixon made the following announcement:

Biological weapons have massive, unpredictable and potentially uncontrollable consequences. They may produce global epidemics and impair the health of future generations. I have therefore decided that:

  • The United States shall renounce the use of lethal biological agents and weapons, and all other methods of biological warfare.
  • The United States will confine its biological research to defensive measures such as immunization and safety measures.
  • The Department of Defense has been asked to make recommendations as to the disposal of existing stocks of bacteriological weapons.

Nixon followed up his announcement with an executive order in 1972, formally terminating the United States’ biological weapons program. The United States, as well as the former Soviet Union both signed the “Biological Weapons Convention“, which formally went into effect in March 1975.

But there was one very big problem with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which has not yet been corrected:

The greatest weakness of the Convention has been its lack of mechanisms to verify the compliance of the States Parties. Unlike the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and the CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention], the BWC does not contain verification mechanism. As a result, there is less confidence that all members are in compliance, eroding the overall trust in the effectiveness of the BWC regime.

There are several examples of this “erosion of trust”; the most obvious one is the former Soviet Union’s absolutely massive biological weapons program, which continued beyond the end of the Cold War, into the 1990s. You can read more about it in David E. Hoffman’s recent book, The Dead Hand; he also described it in an interview I did with him several weeks ago.

The Evolving BWC

Since the BWC went into effect, there has been an ongoing effort to strengthen it, as well as to assess how best to address biological security threats through the convention framework. There have been review conferences every five years starting in 1980; you can read about the details of each conference here.

One critical result of these meetings was the establishment of an Ad Hoc Group that, in part, “focused the efforts of States Parties on some difficult issues, in particular the absence of a legally-binding verification mechanism.” In 2001, the chairman of the Ad Hoc Group issued a lengthy document [pdf] that proposed some critical changes:

  • the establishment of an Organization for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons (OPBW), with relevant bodies to monitor the implementation of the Convention and the Protocol
  • mandatory declarations of all relevant facilities and activities, including those in the area of biodefense
  • inspections that would take place at random, in order to make clarifications, and following allegations of noncompliance

However, to make a long story short, in July 2001, the Bush administration completely rejected these ideas, and subsequent talks collapsed that Fall in Geneva.

Then, of course, we all know what else happened in the Fall of 2001. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States became acutely aware of the concept of biological terrorism, when seven letters laced with anthrax spores were mailed to multiple locations, including the US Senate offices of former Senator Tom Daschle. Ten people died, and millions of dollars were spent on clean-up efforts.

By 2002, “Homeland Security” concerns and US biological defense efforts had become intertwined with their opposition to the protocol proposed by the Ad Hoc Group. The history is obviously complex, and there are no easy answers.

The Obama Administration and the BWC

At this point, it should be obvious why arms control experts have been interested to see how the Obama administration would address the ongoing issues, and they got their answer several weeks ago, when the Obama administration announced its “National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats” [pdf].

In order to better understand the significance and the details of the new national strategy, I had a lengthy chat with Dr. Jonathan Tucker, who is a Senior Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He is an expert in biological and chemical weapons, as well as the author of several books, including War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaeda, and Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox.

I asked Dr. Tucker what the difference was between the Bush administration’s approach, and the Obama administration’s new strategy. He said:

Because Bush administration officials didn’t think it was possible to prevent a bioterrorist attack with any degree of likelihood, they focused on mitigating the consequences of an attack by beefing up domestic biodefense capabilities. In contrast, the Obama people view prevention as a major priority and plan to devote a lot of resources to it. That’s an important departure.

A second difference is that the Obama approach involves a much greater emphasis on multilateral engagement.

A third difference is that rather than focusing narrowly on the deliberate use of biological agents as weapons, the Obama strategy covers the full range of biological threats, from natural outbreaks of infectious disease (such as H1N1 influenza and SARS), to accidental releases from high-containment laboratories working with dangerous pathogens, to deliberate use by states or terrorist groups.

The specifics of what’s new and different with the Obama strategy are interesting. Tucker told me that:

One new development is that under the mantle of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Obama administration plans to assist poor countries to meet their obligations in the revised International Health Regulations (IHR), which were adopted in 2005 by the World Health Organization (WHO). These rules require all WHO member states to detect and rapidly contain outbreaks of infectious disease on their territories—whether natural or deliberate in origin—that could potentially cross national borders and affect other countries.

The Obama administration’s plan to help developing countries implement their IHR obligations under the auspices of the BWC is a significant departure.
Until recently, the WHO was wary of getting involved with security issues, particularly those involving biological weapons. The organization created a small unit in Geneva responsible for preparedness and response to bioterrorism, from a strictly public health perspective, but didn’t want to be politically tainted by getting involved with the BWC. That attitude now appears to have changed, and it’s a real paradigm shift. Conversely, the BWC process used to focus narrowly on security concerns but is now addressing the full spectrum of biological threats, from natural to accidental to deliberate. The new U.S. strategy document clearly reflects this holistic approach, which is a positive development.

However, there are some critical weaknesses. These, of course, have to do with verification and compliance. Tucker explained:

The main weakness of the Obama strategy is in dealing with BWC compliance concerns. Undersecretary Tauscher’s speech called for building confidence in compliance through greater transparency, but she mentioned only a few token transparency measures that the U.S. is prepared to take, such as inviting an international official to tour the National Interagency Biodefense Campus at Fort Detrick and posting U.S. confidence-building measure declarations on the Internet. Those steps are extremely modest. In fact, much more needs to be done to increase the transparency of the U.S. biodefense program, which has expanded dramatically since 2001 with a cumulative expenditure of roughly $50 billion. In view of growing international suspicions about the U.S. biodefense program, the Obama administration should take more meaningful steps to increase transparency than simply invite one foreign official to tour Fort Detrick.

So efforts toward transparency need to be stronger. Again, the critical weakness has to do with the lack of ability to verify non-compliance. We (or any other nation) can have all the suspicions we want, but there’s no way for us to prove anything. Just to stress his point, Tucker told me more:

A weakness of the Obama administration strategy is that it doesn’t include new measures for addressing the fundamental weakness at the heart of the BWC—the inability to detect and deter non-compliance. Although the U.S. has made public allegations that several BWC members (including China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia) are violating the treaty, at present there are no effective mechanisms for clarifying such allegations and compelling states to comply.

I can’t begin to emphasize how important it is that the BWC is, in some ways, a far more complex issue than discussing nuclear treaties and compliance. Those are relatively clear-cut; since the BWC does not address verification and compliance, it’s not so easy to draw lines in the sand. In particular, Dr. Tucker and I discussed the dual-use nature of biotechnology. He gave a startling example, from personal experience:

Biotechnology is dual-use. Nearly every item of equipment one needs to produce biological weapons has some legitimate, non-weapons-related application. Although a few specialized procedures for weaponizing biological agents are not dual-use, all of the items of production equipment — fermenters, concentrators, spray-driers, and so forth – have legitimate uses in research and industry.

In 1995, as a member of a UN bioweapons inspection team in Iraq, I visited an industrial microbiology plant outside Baghdad called Al Hakam, which was ostensibly producing single-cell protein in yeast as an animal-feed supplement. Just by looking at the facility, there was no way of knowing that it was a bioweapons plant: the fermentation tanks were exactly what you would expect for the declared use. But UN inspectors later determined on the basis of other evidence that before the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqis had produced large quantities of anthrax spores at Al Hakam for military use. As a result, the plant was razed to the ground in the summer of 1996.

To manufacture a military significant stockpile of chemical weapons, in the hundreds of metric tons, you would need one or more large chemical plants. Producing highly toxic and corrosive chemicals also requires certain types of equipment that are not commonly used in the commercial chemical industry, such as corrosion-resistant reactors and pipes made of a high-nickel steel alloy called Hastelloy, special air-handling systems, and so forth. In contrast, all of the production equipment in a bioweapons plant would be dual-use, although you might want to install specialized air-handling equipment to reduce the risk of accidental releases of deadly infectious agents into the surrounding environment.

Even here, however, Iraq cut corners on safety in order to avoid detection. For example, the Al Hakam factory had no air filters or specialized ventilation systems designed to create negative pressure and prevent dangerous pathogens from escaping. Because the Iraqi regime wanted to minimize the signatures of illicit bioweapons production, they were willing to sacrifice some of their workers and put nearby communities at risk in order to conceal the true nature of the facility. Thus, if countries seeking biological weapons are sufficiently ruthless in the way they go about it, it’s very difficult for outsiders to determine what is going on.

Finally, we discussed a parallel — and very related — concern. Our own biodefense program has the potential to cross some lines. I’ve written about this before, which is why I was curious about Dr. Tucker’s point of view. He said:

The dramatic expansion of the U.S. biodefense research complex over the past decade has raised a number of concerns. The 2001 anthrax letter attacks greatly heightened the nation’s preoccupation with biological threats and caused the Bush administration to make a huge investment in biodefense research, with an emphasis on biological threat assessment and the development of medical countermeasures. This effort soon acquired a life of its own, and states and localities began competing to get one of the expensive new biodefense labs. Yet there was no net assessment of how much high- and maximum-containment research space the nation really needs to deal with the spectrum of biological threats.

In recent years, biodefense has been one of the few areas of science to enjoy a sustained increase in U.S. government funding. As a result, the field has drawn a lot of microbiologists and other scientists away from research on infectious diseases of public health concern, such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, to work on those that are chiefly of biodefense concern, such as anthrax, plague, and brucellosis—infections that don’t kill many people naturally. Thus, one consequence of the biodefense boom has been a distortion of research priorities.

Another concern is that because of the thousands of scientists that have been drawn into biodefense research by the availability of generous funding, there’s a risk that a few of them may be “bad apples.” Indeed, after a seven-year investigation of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, the FBI now believes that the perpetrator was an insider – a government microbiologist working at Fort Detrick, the Army’s premier biodefense lab. So it turns out that “the enemy is us.”

It’s a great irony is that the anthrax letter attacks apparently came from within the U.S. government biodefense complex, because in response to that incident the Bush administration tripled the size of the complex. Today, some 14,000 people are authorized to work with pathogens and toxins of bioterrorism concern, known as “select agents.” By greatly increasing the number of people who know how to work with dangerous pathogens in order to develop defenses against them, we’ve increased the statistical risk that some of these individuals—for personal or ideological reasons—may decide to use their specialized know-how for harmful purposes. Thus, the biodefense boom has arguably increased the risk of an attack.

Beyond that, the sheer size and scope of the U.S. biodefense program has aroused suspicion on the part of other countries. There’s now a National Interagency Biodefense Campus at Fort Detrick that includes three maximum-containment labs: the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the Integrated Research Facility run by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) under the Department of Homeland Security. Because NBACC does classified research, even some people I know at USAMRIID have no idea what goes on there. If U.S. Army scientists have questions about the secrecy surrounding NBACC, then the Russians and the Chinese must assume that the lab is involved in offensive research. I personally believe that those suspicions are unfounded, but they could still cause other countries to start hedging their bets, and soon we could find ourselves in the middle of a biological arms race.

The point is that in our efforts to defend against an attack, we may have increased the probability of one, plus the lack of transparency with biodefense research doesn’t exactly increase the “trust” factor with other countries.

Biological weapons, biological terrorism, and biological defense are all tied together as part of the incredibly complex national security picture that has been etched by the events of the past decade. It’s good to know that the Obama administration has a broader, more multilateral, inclusive approach to addressing biological threats, but the biggest problem remains, and I’ll paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s favorite quote:

Without verification, there cannot be trust.

There’s a lot of work to do in the future.


Crossing the Aisle

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

Arguably the biggest political story of holiday week, outside of the Senate passage of health care reform, was the decision by freshman Democratic Congressman Parker Griffith to jump to the Republican Party.

There are several reasons why a candidate would cross the aisle, as has been evidenced by the recent history of party switches, both in the Congress and at the state level.

The problem for Griffith is that there are several characteristics of his decision to jump sides that don’t fit well with past precedents, and there are unique dynamics to this particular election cycle that might make his decision an ultimately unsuccessful one.

Let’s go through some of the reasons for party switches, weigh them against the facts of the Griffith defection, and see how this nouveau Republican stacks up.

1. IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ‘EM, JOIN ‘EM

This particular maxim of party switches has two very distinct components.

The first component is the simple act of moving from the minority party to the majority party. Over the years, a number of Congressmen have made party switches in order to join the newly ascendant majority party. Many of the “Class of 1994″ party switches were predicated on this motivation.

Griffith, of course, is swimming against the tide here. His move is from the majority party to the minority party. Of the sixteen Congressional party switches of the last two decades, only four of them (25%) have gone from the party in power into the minority.

Griffith is the fourth member of Congress to do so–and it is worth noting that the previous three were all out of the Congress within one term of their party switch. Interestingly, all three lost in different ways: Tommy Robinson of Arkansas lost when he tried to move up to Governor, Bill Grant of Florida lost in his first re-election bid in his new party, and Michael Forbes of New York failed to survive his first primary election as a Democrat.

There is a second way “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” fits as a maxim: if your congressional district is no longer hospitable to your party identification, then necessity might dictate that you follow the flow. It is telling, of course, that of the sixteen party switches in the last two decades, full three-quarters of them were Southern Democrats who elected to continue their political careers as Republicans.

Here, in a normal political environment, the Griffith defection might make sense. After all, his district, the Alabama 5th, is ancestrally Democratic, but steadily growing Republican at the federal level. John McCain easily carried the district in 2008 (61-36), and it has literally been decades since a Democrat carried the 5th. Therefore, it is plausible that Griffith saw that he barely beat Wayne Parker in 2008 (which, although not necessarily in Alabama, was a year with a big Democratic tailwind nationwide), and that he could not see a political future as a Democrat in such hostile territory.

If that is the case, Griffith should have realized that this is not a normal political environment. Within hours of his announcement, the two Republicans already exploring 2010 candidacies confirmed that they were staying in, and were less than charitable in their assessment of the newest Republican in the Alabama 5th. Even more unsparing was GOP gubernatorial frontrunner and state treasurer Kay Ivey, who lampooned the party switch as “solely a ploy to cling to his seat in 2010″ and argued further that “political expediency is an insult to every grassroots activist who commits untold hours in devotion to getting candidates elected.”

The Republican/teabagger schism could not come at a worse time for Griffith, as any party switch is going to be met, not with a path of rose petals and a coronation, but an immediate denunciation of the apostate for insufficient conservatism. If oddsmakers laid odds on such things, one would have to imagine that the most likely outcome of Parker Griffith’s political career may well be “defeated in Republican primary.” It is a somewhat painful (for Democrats) irony that the only thing that may allow Griffith to stay alive in the GOP primary is the vast war chest he accumulated while still a Democrat.

2. “I DIDN’T LEAVE THE PARTY, THE PARTY LEFT ME”

Invariably, this is the reason often cited for party switches. It, of course, was the reason that Parker Griffith gave on Tuesday when he said that he would “no longer align myself with a party that continues to pursue legislation that is bad for our country.”

This is the most oft-cited rationale for crossing the aisle, if only because it gives the veneer of being the most intellectually honest reason for doing so. It is rarely, however, the reason why party switches occur.

And in the case of Parker Griffith, it is almost certainly not the reason for his decision to join the Republican Party.

Griffith is not a long-serving legislator who, over the course of decades, watched his national party slide out beneath his feet. To put it simply, Parker Griffith is no Ralph Hall, the octagenarian who finally switched to the Republican Party in 2004 after voting largely in concert with the national Republican Party for years.

Griffith was elected, of course, just last year. While one could argue that the national Democratic Party has changed since Ralph Hall’s election in 1980, it is a little tougher to make the case that the national Democratic Party has changed a lot since last November.

It becomes even tougher, of course, when a little digging reveals that you were advocating health care for all as recently as 2006, and that you were dropping four-figure political contributions to Howard Dean back during the 2004 presidential campaign cycle….

3. PURE, SWEET SPITE

This is less common, but it has been a motivator for party switches in the past. The most relevant one, it can be argued, is Arlen Specter. Opinions will, of course, vary, but I think an argument can be made that Specter’s defection in the Spring of 2009 was one part self-preservation (Pat Toomey was going to clean his clock in the GOP primary) and one part spite (he was tired of being primaried).

The most obvious example of spite as a motivator was the curious case of a rather forgettable California Congressman named Matthew “Marty” Martinez. By the spring of 2000, Martinez, a Democrat, had served nine terms in the U.S. House. A moderate Democrat in a liberal district, he was thumped in the Democratic primary in 2000 by then-state legislator (and current Secretary of Labor) Hilda Solis, who defeated the longtime incumbent by a 62-29 margin. Martinez decided not to exit the stage quietly, announcing a switch to the Republican Party, and drastically changing his voting habits. He even briefly sought a way to get on the ballot as the Republican nominee (the GOP ballot line was vacant), before finally leaving the stage.

Is Griffith being motivated by spite? There is a plausible theory there, one raised by the Plum Line’s Greg Sargent:

It appears [from the Politico report on Griffith's switch] one reason he switched is that he was upset that the President took away his missile defense pork:

“The Obama administration’s decision to scrap plans to build a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe further frustrated Griffith, according to GOP sources, because his district contains the base for Boeing’s ground-based missile defense research.”

No question, Griffith had plenty of other reasons to switch — he voted with Republicans most of the time, and even said he wouldn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. But it’s pretty amusing that a hissy fit over pork was part of the rationale.

In the final analysis, there were probably a number of factors which led Parker Griffith to cross the aisle: an uphill district, a tantrum over getting his share of the federal largesse, trying to put his finger to the wind over 2010 politics.

The bottom line, however, is given the current political environment, it is hard to see a clear path to success for the newest member of the GOP. He is going to have to survive what will be a deeply contentious Republican primary, and then he is likely to face legitimate Democratic opposition. This will not be an easy move for Congressman Griffith, and if the past is prologue, it is a move that may ultimately prove unsuccessful.


Categories: Politics Tags: , , , , , , ,

Randall Amster: Schlock Doctrine: Where, and by Whom, was Your Christmas Made?

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

Nothing against our friends and neighbors in the Far East, but it seems as if just about everything that came down the chimney for Christmas this year bore a “made in China” label on its underbelly. Even the items that appear to be iconically American in their logos and characters have been shipped here from across the planet. This is the stark reality of globalization.

Children’s toys in particular present a unique ethical conundrum. On the one hand, we want our kids to have stimulating new things to play with and expand their repertoires of dexterity and cognizance. On the other hand, we cannot escape the fact that another kid on the other side of the planet might be toiling in a factory somewhere to make the stuff that potentially enhances our kids’ lives. This is especially the case when nearly every toy — even supposedly “green” ones — seemingly comes from the Middle Kingdom.

Sweatshop labor of course is no secret, but it remains something of an abstraction through the insulation of our lives in the West. That fell apart around here this year, when I noticed that some of the boxes in which our purchases arrived had actual names of people next to the “Made by” category inscribed on them. They also listed factory numbers and product designations in many cases as well, such as “Item #2572 of 32525.” If it’s indeed the case (as Vegan Peace observes) that “the average North American toy maker earns $11 an hour [while] in China, toy workers earn an average of 30 cents an hour,” then someone is obviously making a pretty penny on this system just in the rate of labor exchange alone.

These realities have been thoroughly understood for some time now, as evidenced by this 2005 article in which the complexities of the problem are well documented:

“The International Labor Organization (ILO) has estimated that of the 250 million children between the ages of five and fourteen work in developing countries, 61 percent are in Asia. Although we live in an extremely modern age, there is, in fact, child slave labor present in China . Some of these children work in sweatshops. A sweatshop is a workplace where workers are subjected to extreme exploitation, including the lack of a living wages or benefits, poor and dangerous working conditions, and harsh and unnecessary discipline, such as verbal and physical abuse. Sweatshop workers are paid less than their daily expenses, thus they are never able to save any money to invest in their futures. They are trapped in a never-ending cycle.”

Disney products specifically have been singled out in the past for their imbrication in this oppressive system. Wal-Mart, which the United Food and Commercial Workers Union notes is “the largest importer of Chinese goods,” has repeatedly asserted its innocence in such matters, yet speculation continues. Even some Sesame Street products, which discerning parents will often embrace due to the items’ perceived educational qualities and general familiarity, have been implicated in recent years. The full ramifications of this global trade in exploitative toys have not been lost on analysts and activists, including this introduction to a 2008 report from the National Labor Committee:

“In China , the busy toy season is already in full swing as thousands of factories work around the clock churning out millions of holiday toys, which will start arriving in the United States and Europe by September. Like last year and the years before, the American people will spend over $21 billion on 3.6 billion toys this holiday season. At least 85 percent of these toys are made in China by three million mostly young women workers toiling long hours in 8000 factories. And these are only the factories that have export licensees, leaving aside the many smaller subcontract toy plants.”

There are certainly many alternatives for purchasing products with greater ethical standards (the website Vegan Peace, among other sources, provides links to a number of them). But let’s face it — parents are busy, disposable incomes are tight, children need stimulation, time is money, and this is America . In other words, even with the best of intentions, it’s a great challenge to be purists in our parenting. Furthermore, most folks out there don’t give these is sue s a second thought at all, leaving the few making more deliberate choices merely a small drop in a high-volume bucket. Finally, there really isn’t a foolproof, diplomatic way to fully screen out gifts from well-meaning others.

And then, inevitably, the stuff will soon break. I estimate about a one-month shelf life for any new toy given to a child under five. Some items retain functionality with missing buttons and lost pieces, whereas many others wind up in landfills — or, in a feat of wonderful irony, recycled and shipped back to China to be turned into more short-term consumer goods. Thus, in many cases, the things we buy are almost literally garbage.

The most apropos description of this cycle of inherent decrepitude is perhaps the Yiddish word schlock, meaning something “cheap, shoddy, or inferior.” While I would love to claim sole authorship of the ironic phrasing in the title of this piece, it has actually appeared previously in a few places, including in an amusingly caustic critique of Naomi Klein’s persuasive book The Shock Doctrine in which she argues that capitalism foments and (of course) capitalizes upon crises, thus cleverly making a buck both coming (i.e., problem) and going (i.e., solution). Referring to Klein as “the Ann Coulter of Canada — a demagogic sycophant who has parlayed her political shtick into a lucrative business,” this sophomoric article with its sarcastic mien actually almost got it right in the end:

“We Americans and our evil multinationals, it seems, champion a brand of heartless free-market piracy, which robs the good people of the developing world of the fruits of their labor, and forces them to toil in hot, miserable working conditions, just to make our garments and sneakers. Our big multinationals assimilate or obliterate anything in their path towards global domination.”

The author of this 2008 missive likely didn’t intend to validate Klein’s logic. But to critique a thesis one must be able to articulate it cogently, hence arguing for its utility as a point of critical reference. In a similar sense, the lesson of this holiday season may well be that the ethical implications of our choices are so woven into the fabric of ordinary commerce that we almost can’t help but be pulled into orbit around a set of values that most would deem both schlocky and shocking at the same time. And so, in explicating the aesthetic of schlock and its uncritical acceptance among many consumers, perhaps we have uncovered something uniquely “made in America ” after all.

More on Green Living


Categories: World Tags: , , , , , , ,

Arterial tandem: coronary drill gets cleared for use, MEMS sensor distinguishes between kinds of plaque

December 26th, 2009 admin No comments

We know discussing things involving “arteries” and “coronary plaque” generally don’t do much for one’s appetite, but being the holidays and all, we honestly can’t think of a more fitting way to remind you not to pig out this evening. Up first is a MEMS-based sensor designed by downright enlightened researchers at the University of Southern California, which is used to “distinguish between stable and unstable atherosclerotic plaques in coronary arteries.” The idea here is to more easily determine whether a patient needs immediate surgery or simple lifestyle changes in order to remedy artery issues, though the process is still awaiting clinical approval before it can be used en masse. In related news, Pathway Medical has just received European clearance to sell its Jetstream G2 NXT coronary drill overseas (or “peripheral atherectomy catheter,” as it were), which does exactly what you’d expect it to: clear clogged blood vessels in the treatment of PAD. If you’re not already grossed out, feel free to tap the links below for more information on head past the break for a couple of video demonstrations. Mmm, honey ham!

Continue reading Arterial tandem: coronary drill gets cleared for use, MEMS sensor distinguishes between kinds of plaque

Arterial tandem: coronary drill gets cleared for use, MEMS sensor distinguishes between kinds of plaque originally appeared on Engadget on Sat, 26 Dec 2009 15:42:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

Permalink MedGadget 1, 2  |  sourceUSC, PR Inside  | Email this | Comments

Categories: Electronics, Technology Tags: , ,

Arterial tandem: coronary drill gets cleared for use, MEMS sensor distinguishes between kinds of plaque

December 26th, 2009 admin No comments

We know discussing things involving “arteries” and “coronary plaque” generally don’t do much for one’s appetite, but being the holidays and all, we honestly can’t think of a more fitting way to remind you not to pig out this evening. Up first is a MEMS-based sensor designed by downright enlightened researchers at the University of Southern California, which is used to “distinguish between stable and unstable atherosclerotic plaques in coronary arteries.” The idea here is to more easily determine whether a patient needs immediate surgery or simple lifestyle changes in order to remedy artery issues, though the process is still awaiting clinical approval before it can be used en masse. In related news, Pathway Medical has just received European clearance to sell its Jetstream G2 NXT coronary drill overseas (or “peripheral atherectomy catheter,” as it were), which does exactly what you’d expect it to: clear clogged blood vessels in the treatment of PAD. If you’re not already grossed out, feel free to tap the links below for more information on head past the break for a couple of video demonstrations. Mmm, honey ham!

Continue reading Arterial tandem: coronary drill gets cleared for use, MEMS sensor distinguishes between kinds of plaque

Arterial tandem: coronary drill gets cleared for use, MEMS sensor distinguishes between kinds of plaque originally appeared on Engadget on Sat, 26 Dec 2009 15:42:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

Permalink MedGadget 1, 2  |  sourceUSC, PR Inside  | Email this | Comments

Categories: Electronics, Technology Tags: , ,

John Brown: "Avatar" and Public Diplomacy

December 26th, 2009 admin No comments

Well, by now we all know the plot of Hollywood blockbuster director James Cameron’s Avatar, his latest film, but here’s a good summary:

When his brother is killed in battle, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully decides to take his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge’s intentions of driving off the native humanoid “Na’vi” in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix
his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch, while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na’vi people with the use of an “avatar” identity. While Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri, the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand – and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora. Written by The Massie
Twins

The simplistic plot of Avatar is straight out of in-fashion politically correct cowboys vs. Indians movies — and the dialogue, if it can be called that, is pedestrian. But its images of Pandora — as so many critics have pointed out — are striking, almost artistic. Visually, Cameron is fascinated by the tension between machines and nature, ironically using ground-breaking computer technology to design an imaginary Garden of Eden.

Yes, like most movies, Avatar is images, not narrative or speech. But let’s not dismiss some of the “lessons” of this movie, condemned by some as leftist, pantheistic, anti-American propaganda. True, subtlety (except in a visual sense) is not one of the strong points of Avatar.

But watching it last Saturday morning at the Uptown Theater (thank God I had a senior citizen discount, given the price of movie tickets these days) near where I live in Washington (the imperial capital was then immobilized by snow, and I had nothing better to do), I reflected — as a former Foreign Service officer (FSO) involved in public diplomacy (PD) for over twenty years, mostly in Eastern Europe during and immediately after the Cold War — about paraplegic Marine Jake Sully’s ventures into Pandora.

To follow Cameron’s comic-book plot, Sully, is, one could say, a Public Diplomacy Foreign Service officer (some in the military would say psy-ops officer). To provide Intel, Sully’s avatar — his public presence in another society — is meant to spy, ever so “invisibly,” on an Enemy. Problem is, he falls in love with the Enemy; he goes native. He becomes, therefore, useless as Intel. He rebels against the Intel world — Colonel Quaritch — and Quaritch can’t wait to eliminate him.

Sure, during the Cold War there supposedly was a “firewall” between covert CIA/military intelligence and the USIA (United States Information Agency) “overt” activities like academic exchanges and artistic presentations (much research, however, needs to be done about this sensitive topic of a so-called “firewall”).

In my own career (1981-2003) as a USIA “press and cultural officer” overseas I was never asked to provide “Intel” to the embassy or headquarters (I was, however, expected — but not forced, unless I wanted not to be promoted — to write reports about whom I met: was that, in fact, “providing ‘Intel’” that the USG food-chain handed over to “other agencies”? No doubt, in a sense, it was: I’m not that naive).

I always could not help wondering if what I was doing — meeting people in other societies who made a difference, talking with them about the United States, and trying to understand them and they understand us — was not (bottom line) a way of secretive powers-that-be in Washington to use a PD officer (in today’s lingo, an “Avatar”) and — far more important — his/her “local contacts” in the hopes of obtaining “Intel.”

Such a conscience-troubling suspicion on my part never reached the point of my becoming a Sully (”going native”), because (ironically) the best and the brightest in East European societies where I had the privilege to serve were looking to the U.S. for information — if not inspiration — about what a free society was, or aspired to be. I would go so far as to say that they didn’t mind being “Intel” material, as they wanted to be heard by what they thought were “heavyweights” in Washington.

In the communist-dominated heart of Europe during the Cold War, the Quaritches were Soviets and Soviet collaborators (up to a point); we American diplomats in the field, or so we told ourselves, were the “good guys” allied with the “natives” and thus had no need to change our identity — but I always doubted about how “good” we in fact were.

I still do, even more than ever, after the US atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More on Iraq


Categories: World Tags: , , , , , , ,

John Brown: "Avatar" and Public Diplomacy

December 26th, 2009 admin No comments

Well, by now we all know the plot of Hollywood blockbuster director James Cameron’s Avatar, his latest film, but here’s a good summary:

When his brother is killed in battle, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully decides to take his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge’s intentions of driving off the native humanoid “Na’vi” in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix
his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch, while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na’vi people with the use of an “avatar” identity. While Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri, the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand – and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora. Written by The Massie
Twins

The simplistic plot of Avatar is straight out of in-fashion politically correct cowboys vs. Indians movies — and the dialogue, if it can be called that, is pedestrian. But its images of Pandora — as so many critics have pointed out — are striking, almost artistic. Visually, Cameron is fascinated by the tension between machines and nature, ironically using ground-breaking computer technology to design an imaginary Garden of Eden.

Yes, like most movies, Avatar is images, not narrative or speech. But let’s not dismiss some of the “lessons” of this movie, condemned by some as leftist, pantheistic, anti-American propaganda. True, subtlety (except in a visual sense) is not one of the strong points of Avatar.

But watching it last Saturday morning at the Uptown Theater (thank God I had a senior citizen discount, given the price of movie tickets these days) near where I live in Washington (the imperial capital was then immobilized by snow, and I had nothing better to do), I reflected — as a former Foreign Service officer (FSO) involved in public diplomacy (PD) for over twenty years, mostly in Eastern Europe during and immediately after the Cold War — about paraplegic Marine Jake Sully’s ventures into Pandora.

To follow Cameron’s comic-book plot, Sully, is, one could say, a Public Diplomacy Foreign Service officer (some in the military would say psy-ops officer). To provide Intel, Sully’s avatar — his public presence in another society — is meant to spy, ever so “invisibly,” on an Enemy. Problem is, he falls in love with the Enemy; he goes native. He becomes, therefore, useless as Intel. He rebels against the Intel world — Colonel Quaritch — and Quaritch can’t wait to eliminate him.

Sure, during the Cold War there supposedly was a “firewall” between covert CIA/military intelligence and the USIA (United States Information Agency) “overt” activities like academic exchanges and artistic presentations (much research, however, needs to be done about this sensitive topic of a so-called “firewall”).

In my own career (1981-2003) as a USIA “press and cultural officer” overseas I was never asked to provide “Intel” to the embassy or headquarters (I was, however, expected — but not forced, unless I wanted not to be promoted — to write reports about whom I met: was that, in fact, “providing ‘Intel’” that the USG food-chain handed over to “other agencies”? No doubt, in a sense, it was: I’m not that naive).

I always could not help wondering if what I was doing — meeting people in other societies who made a difference, talking with them about the United States, and trying to understand them and they understand us — was not (bottom line) a way of secretive powers-that-be in Washington to use a PD officer (in today’s lingo, an “Avatar”) and — far more important — his/her “local contacts” in the hopes of obtaining “Intel.”

Such a conscience-troubling suspicion on my part never reached the point of my becoming a Sully (”going native”), because (ironically) the best and the brightest in East European societies where I had the privilege to serve were looking to the U.S. for information — if not inspiration — about what a free society was, or aspired to be. I would go so far as to say that they didn’t mind being “Intel” material, as they wanted to be heard by what they thought were “heavyweights” in Washington.

In the communist-dominated heart of Europe during the Cold War, the Quaritches were Soviets and Soviet collaborators (up to a point); we American diplomats in the field, or so we told ourselves, were the “good guys” allied with the “natives” and thus had no need to change our identity — but I always doubted about how “good” we in fact were.

I still do, even more than ever, after the US atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More on Iraq


Categories: World Tags: , , , , , , ,

Apple’s ‘iSlate’ and other rumors that have given its stock a holiday boost

December 26th, 2009 admin No comments

The Apple tablet rumors are at a fever pitch, yet again. Depending on what you’ve read, it’s all but confirmed that the company’s got a January 26th event scheduled at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco, CA. All this, of course, with nary a word or comment from Cupertino HQ, and without the context that this trend has come and gone ad nauseam, both with the tablet and before with the years of lead-up to the iPhone. Here’s the latest bit: MacRumors has dug up information about a Delaware-based company, Slate Computing, LLC, that was founded in November 2006 and owns the trademark “iSlate,” the signatory of said trademark being Apple’s Senior Trademark Specialist Regina Porter. Given that Apple owns “iSlate” trademark in Europe and that the it’s allegedly pulled similar stunts with a “fake” company and the iPhone trademark, sure, we could buy into this being just a dummy corporation… but does it really confirm an impending tablet that’ll be called the “iSlate?” Not at all. We wouldn’t be surprised if Apple has done this for numerous other trademarks, either to give itself more options or to prevent others from trying to manufacture products under those names. (Slate Computing, LLC also happens to own the “Magic Slate” trademark, just so you know.) Also bought up in 2006? The domain iSlate.com, which again according to MacRumors was apparently and briefly shown to be owned by Apple at some point during 2007. Food for thought, but trust us, you don’t want to confuse hearsay for concrete fact.

Which brings us to December 24th, where we see a statistically significant uptick in Apple’s stock value. Seeing as the fiscals were released back in late October along with the last refresh of hardware (Mac Pro specs notwithstanding), it seems everyone decided to spend their holiday bonuses on some Apple shares. Now, we’re not claiming to be professionals here by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems a lot of the activity here can be attributed to the recent flux of rumors. Jason Schwarz of The Street has an interesting take on it, which if you’ve got 15 minutes to kill should be worth your time to browse through.

Apple’s ‘iSlate’ and other rumors that have given its stock a holiday boost originally appeared on Engadget on Sat, 26 Dec 2009 13:36:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

Permalink Gadgets Weblog  |  sourceStock: AAPL, MacRumors  | Email this | Comments

Categories: Electronics, Technology Tags: , , , , ,

Chris Weigant: My 2009 "McLaughlin Awards" [Part 1]

December 26th, 2009 admin No comments

Welcome once again to our year-end wrapup and awards ceremony. Honesty dictates that I immediately genuflect to The McLaughlin Group, from whom I have stolen all these award categories. We will begin this week with Part 1 of these annual awards, and then next Friday on New Year’s Day, we will present Part 2, with reduced volume levels (for those who are nursing hangovers… ahem).

Before we begin, though, we have to insert a free plug, for another year-end awards column with a slightly different theme — awards for idiocy in the mainstream media (a subject near and dear to my own heart, I confess). Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting has their “2009 P.U.-Litzer Awards” up, and I heartily encourage everyone to read it as well, because it is excellent and well worth your time.

And, for comparison, it simply wouldn’t be Friday around here if I didn’t throw in a few plugs for my own columns, so if you’d like to peruse my McLaughlin Awards from years past, here are the previous three years’ worth:

[2008, Part 1] [2008, Part 2]
[2007, Part 1] [2007, Part 2]
[2006, Part 1] [2006, Part 2]

But enough of that — let’s get right to the awards themselves!

 

Trophy
   Biggest Winner of 2009

 

I have a history of taking these first two categories literally (Michael Phelps won this award last year, for instance). And there were two political wins last year which stood out, for separate reasons, so we’re going to hand out two Biggest Winner awards as a result.

The first, for “Biggest Deferred Win” goes to none other than Senator Al Franken, who had to wait until the end of June to be officially declared the winner in the Minnesota Senate race over Norm Coleman. Waiting eight months to be seated, on a razor-thin 314-vote margin, Al Franken certainly deserves some sort of award for his patience. Maybe I should call it the “Hardest-Fought Win” award, but whatever you call it, Senator Franken deserves a salute for becoming the 60th vote Democrats desperately needed in the Senate.

Over in the House, the “Most Impressive Winner” this year was none other than Representative Bill Owens, from the New York Twenty-Third Congressional District. Owens won a House seat that, when last held by a non-Republican, was a Whig — in the 1850s. This stunning upset was made possible by the “Tea Party” movement within the Republican Party, which so savaged Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava that she actually dropped out days before the election — and then endorsed the Democrat in the race. [Hundreds of television "journalists" immediately breathed a collective sigh of relief that they wouldn't have to learn how to pronounce "Scozzafava" correctly, as an indirect result.] Hopefully, we can all look forward to many more of these sorts of intra-party dogfights in 2010, but for his jaw-dropping upset, Bill Owens deserves to be named Biggest Winner this year.

 

Trophy
   Biggest Loser of 2009

My first inclination for Biggest Loser was “Progressives,” for obvious reasons. But then I thought about it, and Progressives may not be progressing as fast or as far as they thought they were going to under President Obama, but they certainly didn’t “lose” as much as they would have under President McCain. This is small consolation indeed, but “losing” isn’t just the absence of winning.

But, on a very closely-related and somewhat-overlapping theme, I’d have to award the Biggest Loser to the people pushing strongly for some version of the public option, Medicare-for-all, or single-payer healthcare reform.

Proponents of fundamental and bedrock change in America’s health delivery system lost. Big time. Although there is a small chance (measured as the length of time a roughly-packed spheroid of frozen dihydro-monoxide would survive in Hades) of some shred of one of these plans surviving in the House/Senate conference on the healthcare reform bill, I’m not exactly holding my breath.

So, to the millions and millions of people who wanted to actually reform our healthcare system, and are having to swallow the bitter pill of being thrown under a bus instead, we award the Biggest Loser of 2009, with sorrow.

 

Trophy
   Best Politician

This one is going to be a bit controversial, so allow me to explain up front. “Politician” can be either a neutral term or one loaded with negative connotations. But the best practitioner of politics this year was (surprise!) President Barack Obama.

Which pegs our definition somewhat towards the negative end of the scale. Obama was, to many, overcautious this year in flexing his political muscle, in using the mandate the voters gave him, and in spending political capital in general. All of which was true, to one extent or another.

But staying out of the sausage-making fray in Washington did exactly what President Obama intended — allowed him to swoop in at the end, and claim credit for the legislative victory. He did this most noticeably on the stimulus package and on healthcare reform. In both cases, he was never tarred with the brush of “defeat” on any particular facet of the legislation, and emerged at the end with virtually the exact same line: “I got 90 percent of what I wanted.”

Although this has frustrated a great many of his supporters no end, it (again) did exactly what Obama intended. So, tarnished as the term may be, Obama has to be seen as the Best Politician of the year for playing this political game on his own terms. I’m not exactly happy about it myself, but I have to give credit where credit is due.

 

Trophy
   Worst Politician

There are two names which pop instantly to mind in this category, but one of them is no longer in office, so we’re not sure he qualifies.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney showed the absolute worst traits a politician can — sour grapes — at pretty much every opportunity he could during 2009. You’d think he was gone for good (or, more accurately, for worse)… but then there he’d be, popping up on the television screen yet again, with his opinion of why Obama was sending this country straight to Hell, on the Handbasket Express. The fact that he was so bitterly wrong didn’t seem to deter the teevee shows from allowing him on whenever he felt the urge, even though he was so utterly irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

But, again, he’s out of office, and I simply don’t feel like giving the man an award for anything, personally, so we’ll skip over him quickly.

Now, there were plenty of examples of corporate-owned “Democrats” in Congress (most noticeably in the Senate) this year, for whom you could make a strong case of being the Worst Politician. But again, I take this category more literally.

Unquestionably the Worst Politician of the year was the titular leader of the Republican Party, Michael Steele. Steele was an embarrassment to his own party, pretty much every time he opened his mouth, and he provided his opponents with so many gleefully idiotic quips that it is impossible to accurately count them all. He was, for Lefties, the gift that just kept right on giving, over and over again. So, for embarrassing his own party while creating joy and delight for his opponents — while delivering absolutely no tangible political benefit whatsoever, either way — Steele is hereby awarded the Worst Politician.

 

Trophy
   Most Defining Political Moment

Because it is fresh in the mind, it’s tempting to say that the death of the public option in the healthcare reform debate was the Most Defining Political Moment of 2009.

But it really doesn’t qualify, because it didn’t define the debate so much as it did end it.

No, the truly Most Defining Political Moment this year was when Barack Obama named his economic team, and got them confirmed. This absolutely defined the first year of his presidency. Obama was stating loud and clear by his choices that he was going to be Wall Street’s best friend, and that nobody should expect any radical populism from him whatsoever.

This shaded the debate on so many things during the year that, by definition, it was indeed the Most Defining Political Moment.

 

Trophy
   Turncoat Of The Year

In an absolute upset, for the first time ever this award is not going to Senator Joe Lieberman, of the “Liebermans for Lieberman” party. Ol’ Joe has walked away with this award every year we’ve handed it out; but this year — even with a spectacular finish killing off every progressive notion of healthcare reform — Joe just didn’t measure up. Because he’s already turned his coat. He would really only be eligible this year if he had become the most liberal member of the Senate, which (as we are all aware) did not happen (see: previous statement on snowballs in Hell).

Towards the end of the year, we had a minor contender in the House, who changed parties from Democrat to Republican, but in the grand scheme of things this was fairly non-eventful, although it does deserve a mention here. Also worth pointing out was Olympia Snowe, who certainly didn’t make any friends in her own party by occasionally crossing the aisle to vote with Democrats. And John McCain, who has pivoted to the extreme right of his party so hard he is denouncing things he used to support (quite recently, in fact), in a naked attempt to get re-elected (see: comment on fratricidal Tea Party primary challengers).

But, although it has receded into memory for the most part, the true Turncoat Of The Year — in the most positive sense of the term you can imagine — is Senator Arlen Specter. Specter’s switch from the Republican Party to the Democrats is what made most of the rest of the year possible. Before Al Franken was seated, Specter was the one who made it possible for a 60-vote majority by his party switch. I can’t exactly cite him for courage in doing so, because he also swapped parties in a naked attempt to hold onto his seat, from (once again) a Tea-Party-type of primary challenger. But Specter is now facing a serious Democratic primary challenger next year, so it may have all been in vain for him to do so. But whether he gets booted out or retained by Pennsylvania voters next year; for this year, he is fondly awarded the Turncoat Of The Year.

 

Trophy
   Most Boring

There are three candidates from the Democratic side for Most Boring. Actually, now that I think about it, pretty much “The entire Republican leadership team in both houses of Congress” should also qualify as well (Mitch McConnell? Seriously? That’s all you’ve got? Wow.), but we’ll stick to the Democrats for the actual award here.

Just on stylistic points alone, Joe Lieberman and Harry Reid deserve special mention here. [Yawn!] Man, you see either of this characters on television, and your head just involuntarily starts nodding off. I mean, watching Lieberman speak is about as exciting as watching paint dry, and listening to a Harry Reid press conference is about as packed with thrills as watching an icicle melt.

I have to slap myself across the face to even keep awake when writing about them, I have to admit.

But continuing this year’s upside-down nature of how I am interpreting these categories, I am awarding this as a positive award. Because Barack Obama was without question the Most Boring this year. And I do mean that in a good way. The “no drama Obama” campaign theme continued right on into the White House, and Obama was cool and collected throughout a very intense year. Raging scorn was heaped upon him from the Left and from the Right (and from the media, in bucketfuls), and he somehow managed to stay above it all.

To the media, in particular, he stated over and over again that he was simply not interested in the “24-hour news cycle” where everything is about “winning the day’s story,” and feeding into whatever idiotic storyline the media is going apoplectic over that particular week. Obama kept the “long view” and he saw the “big picture” and — with only one notable exception (see, below: beer summit) — completely kept out of the snarling dogfight of daily political ups-and-downs, and trivial issues blown up into gargantuan proportions by bored media types with nothing better to report on. Actually that’s not true — there was plenty of better stuff to report on, but most of it was above the intelligence level of the so-called “journalists,” leaving them to squabble over meaningless sandbox issues.

For being this cheerfully boring in the face of such strident idiocy, Obama wins Most Boring — in the nicest possible way.

 

Trophy
   Most Charismatic

We’re going to hand out two of these awards, one for the House and one for the Senate. Al Franken is trying as hard as he knows how to stifle his inherently and genetically (one assumes) hilarious nature, and thus appear as serious as is humanly possible in his new career as a politician. But every so often, he gets that wry smile on his face and just can’t resist saying something amusing. This is a man who knows humor, and has a lighting-fast and razor-sharp sense of irony. To expect him to completely hide this light under a barrel is to ask too much of the man, and — for these cracks of brightness which shine through occasionally — we have to award him Most Charismatic in the Senate. No doubt this will be a disappointment to Franken, since, as I said, he’s trying mightily not to let any of it show. But Al sometimes just has to be Al, and for that we are eternally grateful. Once he grows into his role as senator, and once he feels confident of his state electorate’s support, we fully expect to see this side of him grow and mature; but, for now, we’ll take what we can get.

Over on the House side is Representative Alan Grayson. Now, Grayson has occasionally overstepped the boundaries of good taste during the year, but he can be forgiven these rookie errors when you look at the totality of how energetically (and charismatically) he has injected himself into some very important debates, and (by doing so) made some very important points — in plain, everyday, easy-to-understand language — that nobody else on the Democratic side seems capable of making. Grayson has proved, this year, that he is a man to watch in the future of Democratic politics, and for his vigorous and entertaining ways of putting things, he has indeed earned Most Charismatic of the year.

So the “Als” sweep the category this year! Congratulations to both Franken and Grayson are in order.

 

Trophy
   Bummest Rap

This category was chock full of bum raps this year, I am sorry to say.

Not only a bum rap, but also one of the stupidest raps I’ve ever witnessed in politics were the early complaints that President Obama relied upon his TelePrompTer too much. What a crock — as if every other politician dating back to Ronald Reagan (and even earlier) hadn’t used the same exact device for pretty much all their public speeches. Sheesh. I mean, it’s like complaining about Obama “using some newfangled personal computing device that seems to function much as a typewriter does,” or, even, “using that science-fictional device which some are calling ‘the telephone,’ instead staying in touch via the time-honored and known-to-be-reliable telegraph system.”

Sorry, my eyes were rolling so much there that I had to take a deep breath, and then re-focus on the page in front of me. Ahem.

Obama likewise got two other bum raps which were simply laughable — that he was some sort of pacifist peacenik, and that he had said he would never sign a bill with earmarks. The first was downright laughable, because every speech Obama has ever made on war — back to and including his initial denouncement of the Iraq invasion — references the fact that there are indeed “just wars,” and that Obama himself isn’t against all wars… just stupid ones. The earmarks thing was astounding, too, because it was a campaign promise made by his opponent! That’s right — John McCain was the one who foreswore all earmarks. And yet the brain-dead media kept hammering Obama about it, as if he were the one who had made such a promise. Once again: SHEESH!!

Joe Biden deserves a mention here, since he has never lived up (down?) to the “loose cannon” bad rap the media types (and, admittedly, late-night comedians) have delighted in all year. Sure, he’s made a misstatement or two (as any human being would), but he’s said simply nothing like what we were all led to expect from “journalists” (see: previous brain-dead comment). Also notable for “beating the rap” (as it were) was former President Bill Clinton, who has been remarkably quiet during his wife’s first year as Secretary of State.

But there were two raps which stood out as being sheer moose poop during this past year, and to these we give the actual Bummest Rap award. The first of these was Dick Cheney’s comments on President Obama’s “dithering” on Afghanistan. Obama took three months to make up his mind to send the second of his surges into Afghanistan (the media, in another bum rap, didn’t even credit Obama for the first one). But this absolutely ignores the fact that George W. Bush took exactly the same period of time when deciding on his surge into Iraq. Making Cheney a complete moose’s ass for suggesting Obama was somehow shirking his duty, and making this Bummest Rap number one for 2009.

Bummest Rap number two was pretty much everything the Republicans said about Sonia Sotomayor. Man, they threw everything at her but the kitchen sink, in a desperate effort to paint her as something she simply was not. None of it had the slightest effect, other than in the inane nature of the questions in her Senate hearing — all of which she absolutely hit out of the park in her answers. But the caricature painted of her by her opponents was one bum rap indeed.

 

Trophy
   Fairest Rap

Two fair raps stand out for me. The first was a trivial one — the rap that those claiming that “a million people” showed up for the Tea Party at the U.S. Capitol were, to be polite, talking through their hats. The photos showed a crowd of around 50,000 to 70,000 people. Now, as I admitted at the time, that’s a pretty impressive crowd for a demonstration in Washington. But the Righties were simply not seriously credible when they attempted to inflate the crowd size beyond all reason, with their claim that a million people (or two million, or three million…) showed up. This got even more embarassing when Fox used photos of this rally to try and boost numbers for a later (and much smaller) rally by the same people. So the rap of wildly inaccurate crowd numbers was indeed a fair rap.

And, sadly, over on the Left, the rap that President Obama (and his chief henchman Rahm Emanuel) throws his supporters under the proverbial bus at pretty much every opportunity was indeed a fair rap. Emanuel comes out of the Clinton White House, with all the “triangulation” that implies. This thinking goes somewhat like: “we’ve already got the Left, we can afford to piss them off, we just need to peel off enough centrists to get things done.” And, sadly (as I said) this is indeed a fair rap not just for Emanuel, but also for his boss.

The examples of this are almost too numerous to recall. On gay issues, on medical marijuana, on single-payer, on the public option, on anti-war types, on pro-choice, on immigration, on Wall Street over Main Street populism, on national security issues — the list is indeed a long one of things that Obama has either disappointed on, or simply kicked the can down the road (a telling statement: I am positive I have missed a few in that list…).

So the rap that the Left should be vary wary of Obama’s support, because he has a tendency to throw them under the bus, on pretty much any of their key issues, is indeed a fair one. Actually, it’s getting pretty crowded under this bus, now that I think about it… sigh.

 

Trophy
   Best Comeback

The list of nominees for this one was fairly long — Sarah Palin (for her book tour), Joe Lieberman (for being the most important senator for a few weeks recently), to perhaps even (from the other side) David Vitter. A good case could be made for “healthcare reform,” since the entire effort was all but pronounced dead by the punditocracy (also known as the “inside the Beltway” set) around August. And yet, even with a heavily compromised bill, the effort marches on.

But my choice for Best Comeback is Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina. Sanford was caught in a sex scandal (see next week’s category: Worst Political Scandal, for more) and the betting money was he’d either immediately resign, or be impeached and removed from office by his fellow Republicans. But when it came time to act, the state legislature did no more than slap Sanford on the wrist, and it is now clear he’ll serve the remaining time in his term.

[Insert your own "don't cry for me, Argentina" joke here... ahem.]

But for such a downright “Clintonian” performance, Sanford deserves Best Comeback of the year, I have to admit.

 

Trophy
   Most Original Thinker

This one is easy, although his name will likely be unfamiliar to you. Atul Gawande wrote a brilliant article on healthcare reform in The New Yorker at the beginning of June, which examined the way a few areas of the country delivered health services. He looked at areas that did it right (and were under the national average in costs), and areas that did it wrong (that were far over the national average), while both delivering similar results.

This article quickly became “must reading” for anyone in the White House, and was probably the most-quoted piece of writing in the entire debate. It was referenced uncountable times by politicians, and did more to influence policy-makers’ opinions than perhaps anything else this year.

For writing this article, Atul Gawande is the Most Original Thinker of the year. The article (like most New Yorker articles) is extremely long, but is definitely worth reading.

 

Trophy
   Most Stagnant Thinker

I have one group award here, and one special mention for an individual.

The group award: The Republican Party. The “Party of No.” The idea-less ideologues. No further explanation should be necessary, really.

And for individual cognitive stagnation, a special “Retro” Most Stagnant Thinker for Governor Rick Perry (and all the others), who opened the door to Texas (and other states) actually seceding from the Union — as if this was actually a valid political stance to take. Seriously, this throwback thinking from the 1860s goes beyond “stagnant,” to downright “antebellum.”

 

Trophy
   Best Photo Op

While Michelle Obama’s “Victory Garden” photo ops with Washington schoolchildren were endearing, and while Barack Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech was (in his own admission) nothing more than a glorified photo op; we tend to forget that 2009 also included last January.

And January 2009 saw two million people stand around for eight or nine hours in sub-zero temperatures just to watch the Inauguration of President Barack Obama.

No photo op in the successive eleven months even came close, I have to say.

 

Trophy
   Worst Photo Op

We’re adding this category to the McLaughlin canon, just because.

There were a few “worst photo op” candidates, sadly all from Obama, in one way or another. The most galling of these were the two (one in the spring, one quite recently) photo ops of “Obama talks tough to Wall Street bankers,” which produced exactly nothing in the way of tangible results.

And there was Obama bowing and being polite and overly-respectful (obsequious, even) to various world leaders. This is more symbolic than anything else, but I have to throw my lot in with the Obama-haters on this one (to my great chagrin and embarrassment). Because, I have to say, they’re right on this one. America was built on an idea. Part of this idea was that we’re all equal. This was a radical, radical idea for its time. And it meant that — unlike the nobility and royalty in Europe — no man would bow to our leader. He is not above us — he is one of us. Equal. The first among equals, to be sure, but still: just a citizen. So we neither bow nor curtsey to him. But the flip side is that he also bows to no foreign leader. We are most decidedly not subjects of anyone. All of us — individually and collectively — are just not “subjects.” Meaning we do not follow the protocol of royals. Like I said, both a minor issue, and a very major one. Such is the nature of diplomatic protocol. But Obama went too far in his efforts to reach out to the world, I have to conclude.

The third silly photo op was the whole “beer summit.” The less said about this episode the better, at this point.

But the real Worst Photo Op — which topped all of these in idiocy — was having Air Force One (actually, technically, it was not “Air Force One” at the time, since that designation is reserved for when the president is actually onboard the plane) buzz Manhattan in order to get a photo of it flying by the Statue Of Liberty. Guys, really, there’s this thing called “Photoshop,” y’know? And… um… 9/11?

Sigh. Nothing really came close to this visual screwup all year long. What were they thinking? Were they thinking? Apparently not.

 

Trophy
   Enough Already!

As usual, there’s a bunch of things which easily qualify for the “Enough Already!” award.

Here’s where we just start ranting without abandon.

Tiger Woods? Enough Already!

Balloon Boy’s parents? Enough Already!

Michael Jackson’s dead? Enough Already!

Gate-crashers at the White House? Enough Already!

Death panels? Enough Already!

Town hall screaming idiots? Enough Already!

Tea Parties? Enough Already!

Sarah Palin? Enough Already!

Obstructionist Corporatist Democrats? Enough Already!

But the actual award has to go to a parliamentary rule, and how it is being abused. Filibusters (and attendant Republican obstructionism)? Enough Already!

 

Trophy
   Worst Lie

My first inclination was to just give this to “everything the Tea Partiers and town hall idiots let fly from their pie-holes,” but then I thought a little more, and remembered this doozy:

Mark Sanford, explaining his absence from the state he was (and is) Executive Officer of (while he was really boinking his mistress down in South America) with the lamest lie of the entire year — that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail at the time. Further irony was heaped upon this, by the bare-naked fact that during the period he was maintaining this falsehood, there was a nationwide celebration of “Nude Hiking Day,” which must have included a few brave nudists hiking on that very same trail.

No other lie even came close, really, from Maine to Georgia (and in all other points of our great country, for that matter).

 

Trophy
   Capitalist Of The Year

This one’s fairly obvious, when you think about it.

President Obama did more to advance the interests of Wall Street, and by inference “capitalism in general” than anyone else this past year. From naming his economic team at the start of the year, to allowing them to have their way with his healthcare reform plan at the end of the year; Obama did what he was told to do by his advisors, and by Wall Street itself.

More in sorrow than in anger, we have to give Obama the Capitalist Of The Year award.

 

Trophy
   Honorable Mention

This is a lead-in category to the final one for this week, and is somewhat of a catchall for odds and ends not adequately covered by the other categories in the list.

In that spirit, I’d like to give Bill and Hillary Clinton an Honorable Mention here. The fear of bringing Hillary into Obama’s cabinet was that she had some baggage, and that this baggage was named “Bubba.” But Hillary has been more than competent in her job, and has done so without attempting once to steal the spotlight from her boss. And Bill must be on a very short leash indeed, because there simply have been no “Bimbo eruptions,” or other miscellaneous scandalous behavior (such as spotlight-stealing) from the Big Dog himself this year. For proving all the naysayers wrong, I give this extraordinary political couple the special mention they deserve.

And I have to say, it was a shame that Farrah Fawcett Majors died on the day that she did. Farrah was pretty much “Queen Sex Kitten Of The Universe” in the 1970s, with countless adolescent males discovering the joys of… um… a special type of self-love (that’s as far decency allows me to go)… whilst staring fixedly (and sweatedly) at this ubiquitous bathing suit poster (still, if I’m not mistaken, the best-selling poster of all time).

Farrah

Without the existence of this poster, for instance, Baywatch simply never would have occurred to anyone, later on. Farrah deserved better, on her grand exit from life’s stage, than being a footnote. Which is what she wound up as, since she unfortunately chose the same day to die as Michael Jackson. All the “Charlie’s Angel is now really an angel” prepared footage was woefully foreshortened and overshadowed by the final act in the circus known as the “King of Pop.” Which was sad, in a way, for Farrah. So we’re giving her an Honorable Mention, just for the smile she’s wearing in that iconic poster.

[Full disclosure: I'll have you know, I do not speak from experience, since as a young lad I personally lusted after Kate Jackson ("Sabrina," or the "brainy one"); but I saw that Farrah poster in more of my friends' bedrooms than I saw Led Zeppelin posters -- which, for the 1970s, is saying something indeed.]

 

Trophy
   Person Of The Year

While both Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid deserve a lot of credit they simply do not get from pixel-stained wretches (such as myself) for shepherding through a raft of small-bore (and large-bore, for that matter) legislation that does not receive media attention, nobody else in particular stood out this year as deserving of the “Person Of The Year” award.

Obama obviously had the chance to shine, and pick up this award as a matter of course. But, sadly, he didn’t. He fell short of the bar on any number of issues, and was simply not seen in Washington as driving the debate — rather (sadly) as a bystander to the debate who would occasionally yell something from the sidelines.

In all honesty, and with absolutely no tinge of suck-up-i-tude, I have to say that Arianna Huffington is right. The “Person Of The Year” this year was “The Lobbyist.” Here is her entire blog post on the subject:

This week, Time named Fed chair Ben Bernanke its Person of the Year. The magazine says its choice is “not an award,” but rather a recognition of the person who “most influenced the news during the past year — for good or for ill.” Based on that criterion, Time should, without a doubt, have picked Washington lobbyists — because no person or group was more influential in 2009. After an inspiring presidential campaign that promised to take on the special interests, the lobbyists flexed their muscles (and their wallets) and showed who really runs the show in DC. Lobbyists carried the day on health insurance reform, banking reform, financial reform, drug pricing, cramdown legislation, and credit card interest rates, to name just a few. And every time they won, the American people lost. It’s Time for a reshoot. The Lobbyists: The Real Persons of the Year.

Sad to say, I couldn’t agree with Arianna more this year.

Sigh.

 

As usual, for anything or anyone I’ve forgotten (or otherwise inadvertently omitted), please feel free to let me know your choices in the comments. Until next week’s “Part 2″ of these awards, I wish you a Happy Holiday!

 

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground

 

More on Afghanistan