Establishing Internet as a Utility – This is Big!

internet-logos-1024x643Quito   In the midst of so much tragedy at the massacre of almost 50 LGBT men and women at a nightclub in Orlando and the horror and insensitivity of the Trump and Republican response, it was still possible to find a bright spot in the news: a federal court has backed policies establishing the internet as a utility.

It was not just any court either, it was the highly influential United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, one of the most prestigious in the country. By a 2-1 vote on the panel, the judges in an 184-page decision came down solidly with the people rather than the industry by holding that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rightly can regulate the internet and assure net neutrality, because in fact the internet is not a luxury good, subject to special pricing and plundering by cable companies, but a utility, necessary for all the people.

This doesn’t close the door. There will likely be an appeal of course to the Supreme Court, but it opens many doors that might include more expansive rulings by the FCC that the internet is not only a utility, as a vital communication and consumer tool, but a public good that should be regulated accordingly and done so aggressively.

At one level this is something we all knew. Applying for jobs, getting through school, applying for many public benefits for the poor, keeping up with friends, and even the news of the nation, is increasingly impossible without the internet. The federal government’s investment in recent years to extend access to the internet to more rural areas and to public schools and libraries was evidence of this, even while being a subsidy for private carriers.

Interestingly, there are signs that the recognition of the public utility nature of the internet may be trickling down. On the one hand the FCC is talking about loosening the restraints that private internet providers have managed to lobby through many state legislatures to block municipalities from establishing their own systems to insure that all their citizens have affordable, high speed access. On the other, I got a press release the other day that the Ouachita rural electric cooperative in southern Arkansas of all places had partnered with an outfit so that it could extend internet services to 9000 families lacking access in the footprint of the cooperative. That would be a nice idea to catch on fire with other cooperatives that are sitting on money and unclear what to do with it other than pay their directors.

So, sure, we all hate utility companies and there have been thousands of campaigns to try and get them to be more accountable, provide better service, and affordable or lifeline rates, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned to hate even more than the local telephone, gas, or electric company, it’s the profiteering cable companies. With this decision we can hope their time in the sun and at the trough is finally coming to an end, so that all the people can access and afford the internet, because it’s a utility operating as a public good and necessity as well.

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Jobs, Guaranteed Annual Income, and Robots

2015-06-25-1435268405-3625858-8506058779_426b197e66_bNew Orleans   The big whoops are scratching their heads on a weaker than expected jobs report recently. Has the economy begun to sputter after recent acceleration or have we reached something close to full employment? Remember full employment doesn’t mean everyone has a job, but means that we’re at something close to the bottom of the barrel in terms of workers available for hire. Such a situation is not necessarily a happy place still for workers, but something that satisfies business because there are still some available workers and economists are out of clues about how to go lower.

Keep in mind that these are any old jobs that pay a wage which is not to be confused with good jobs or even living wage jobs much less what was once called family-supporting jobs. Economists have also recently expressed concern that Americans are becoming less mobile and willing to relocate to search for work. Not much of a surprise really. The Midwest is still hemorrhaging people, but a lot of states, particularly in the West are staying put, because they are not sure there’s anything better out there or a place they can afford to live where there are rumors of more jobs. If you’re stuck working for McDonalds, why move across the country to do so? Oh, and housing prices are going up, partially because of a shortage of what? Yes, labor!

So, how are people going to make it? How about a threshold level of guaranteed annual income? Organizing as part of the welfare rights movement in the late 60’s, this was our key national demand. $5500 or fight! For a family of four anyway. We didn’t come close to winning that number, though President Nixon proposed a floor for all welfare recipients that was categorically a guaranteed annual income program though it was called the Family Assistance Plan or as we shouted Fight the FAP! Anyway, here’s how it would have worked:

For a family of four without any other income, the FAP would provide $1,600 (2013: $10,121). But a family that did have income from employment would get a declining amount of FAP dollars until family income reached $3,920 (2013: $24,798). A family of four that had been earning $12,652 in 2013 dollars would have had its income increased through the FAP to $18,725. Ultimately, the vast majority of benefits would have gone to the “working poor,” a significant departure from then-existing programs that denied welfare benefits to those who were employed.

Meanwhile under the first President Clinton, welfare recipients and the notion of minimum support for families disappeared so that recipients got zapped, not Fapped, and in some cases have been reduced by some states to a maximum eligibility of only one-year and hardly $200 per month. We’ve changed in Clinton’s words “welfare as we know it” from just mean-spirited to just plain vindictive.

The Swiss just hammered a GAI proposal in a referendum by a 77 to 23% margin. A Scandinavian country is involved in a promising pilot, so all is not lost, but these programs are universal, rather than based on need or work-status. Ironically, some of the impetus behind the current interest in GAI has to do with technological displacement now that economists and others are willing to concede that technology does not guarantee added jobs, but actually shrinks job availability. Estimates by some naysayer economists say, hey, no problem, this will take a couple of decades and tech transitions to robots and the like will only eliminate 9% of US-jobs.

Hmmm. Right now there are roughly 150 million jobs so if this were today, that means losing 13.5 million jobs. Kaboom! That’s a lot of jobs to replace, and in 20 years if we have 180 million jobs, then that’s 16.2 million jobs down the drain. It’s not clear to me how conservatives are going to twist their minds and mouths to blame all of these workers for their lost jobs and lower pay at the hands of economic change?

Something is going to break. If Nixon knew it, we have to wonder why it’s not obvious to everyone already. Today might not be the time for winning the guaranteed annual income, but the numbers and the politics seem to say that the day is coming.

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Scientists Say Our Nuclear Power Plants May Be Fire Bombs Waiting to Explode

plant at Peach Bottom

plant at Peach Bottom

New Orleans  There’s a lot of talk about solar and other renewable energy sources, reduced electricity demand, and even some environmentalists saying that nuclear power might be the way to go to reduce the risk of climate change. You start to think to yourself, well, it’s been a long time since Three Mile Island, maybe I should take a look at this again and update my viewpoint. My stumbling block more recently was a visit in October of 2012 to Japan in the area devastated by the earthquake there in March 2011 and the continuing problems at the Fukushima plant. A more recent article in Science magazine on reports issued by scientists still unpacking the risks of a total meltdown at Fukushima and extended by other researchers to the ongoing latent dangers in US nuclear plants with the same characteristics, once again scared the stuffings out of me.

Pretty much the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in their report claim it was pure luck that saved Japan. Here’s why. Nuclear plants store spent fuel, which is highly radioactive obviously, in huge cooling ponds. In Japan, the earthquake and tsunami shut down the pumps that move coolant in the reactors and cool down the water in the spent fuel pools. Pumps go down, meltdown follows. But, as Science detailed, “the water was evaporating away because of the hot fuel,” meaning the risk of fire and conflagration was imminent, and only averted because, “Separating the well and the spent fuel pool is a gate through which fuel assemblies are transferred. The gate leaked, allowing water from the well to partly refill the pool.” That could have been the big one in Japan!

The study also points out that this potential problem should be a “wake-up call for the industry,” but if so they must be sending encrypted messages between each other, because this was the first warning I had seen. Unpublished modeling of a nuke plant in Peach Bottom, Pennsylvania in the southeast portion of that state not far from Washington and Philadelphia, indicated that a spent-fuel fire there would have “trillion-dollar consequences” according to a Princeton University nuclear security expert. Other Princeton researchers published a report saying that depending on when such a fire occurred at that plant and the prevailing winds during that season, the contamination could spread from Maine to North Carolina, and cause the evacuation of 43 million people. And, believe me on this, there are areas in Japan where people will never go home.

Should we worry about this? Well, yes, because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, often derided as an industry lapdog, concluded that these reports were essentially no “immediate” problem. The solution would be costly and involve a $4 billion conversion to concrete containers called “dry casks” which would reduce the chances of a spent fuel fire, and the NRC doesn’t want to saddle the nuclear energy gang with this price tag. But, “the benefits of expedited transfers to dry casks are five-fold greater than NRC has calculated, the academies found.”

What, me worry? Heck, yes!

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Oil Companies Rallying the Troops Against Activists on Fracking and Water Quality

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.12.06 AMNew Orleans   I was raised in the oil fields of the West, as my family moved from company towns in Wyoming and Colorado to old fields in Kentucky and finally to the motherlode in New Orleans near the huge Gulf of Mexico and False River strikes. My father punched their clock for 38 years beginning with the California Company and ending under the Chevron banner. I worked in other oil fields in Oklahoma and offshore in the Gulf during summers until finding my future as an organizer. My mother depends on the company for her care and at 92, she depends on me to open her mail, pay her bills, and make sure her time is safe and secure.

Recently, part of this package meant reading a breathless warning note from the local head of the retirees’ association saying,

At the recent CRA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, we heard about activism against our industry and what Chevron is doing in response. In the last few years, activists have made progress in their efforts to convince the public and policy makers that our industry is dangerous, villainous and needs to be shut down. This has resulted in some high-profile decisions like the blocking of the Keystone Pipeline, the blocking of offshore leasing in the Atlantic and a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing in New York State.

Whoa, Nellie! “Dangerous, villainous and needs to be shut down” must be euphemisms for closely regulated for the public good independent of the company’s self-interest. This was a call to action and an invitation to join the Chevron Advocacy Network or CAN so that Chevron employees and retirees, friends and neighbors, could get the “truth” from their horses’ mouths. In the presentation from Chevron they started listing 2200 actions by “activists” against their industry, broadly conceived. To beat the drums further they led with quotes against fracking by Bernie Sanders and Bill McKibben, offset by wet kisses from the current and former heads of the Energy Department, Interior, and even the EPA, saying that fracking was actually OK under some circumstances involving steel casing, distance from water sources and so on. And, true enough when they say fracking has been done for decades, because I remember fracking being done in old wells in the late 60’s in the Oklahoma fields during my season there. Of course there’s no mention of the impact fracking has had on Oklahoma over time like the consensus agreement now about the increase of earthquakes, but no matter, that wasn’t covered in the presentations.

This was all about fracking and water quality where I assume the company finds themselves most vulnerable, but they understand Congress enough that they know they have a potential army of former employees, current employees, and retirees ready to be activated in a straight up “us against them” fight. Same day I got an email from the Nobel Prize winning Inside Climate News leading with an article about the “clean air” fight decades ago being a warm up for the current campaigns around climate change and these other nuisances being raised by activists. They had a Smoke and Fumes Committee within the industry for a smoke-and-mirrors campaign.

Reading all of the news from Chevron and its call to action for the Chevron Advocacy Network, I felt like the proverbial fly on the wall, buzzing around someplace I didn’t belong. They’re hoping to sign up 20% of the retirees in their 70 chapters around the US and Canada. My mother asks me regularly if there’s anything she “needs to worry about,” and I tell her “nothing whatsoever,” and I think I’ll include Chevron’s hysterics about fracking and water in her “don’t bother” list, but for the rest of us, seeing oil companies continue to unabashedly mobilize against us certainly says they haven’t learned any lessons yet. While their goal might be 20% in CAN, perhaps ours should be getting that number of activists’ actions up a couple of thousand more.

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First Victory in Paris!

DSC1195-700x450New Orleans    Part of what sustains organizers is the almost irrational belief that each new group, may be the best community organization ever; each new action may be the most powerful action ever; each new victory could open the way to unimaginable victories; each new member could be a leader of a lifetime; and each new organizer could build the future.

The first meeting of our ACORN’s Parisian affiliate occurred recently, launching the Alliance Citoyenne d’Aubervilliers or the Citizens’ Alliance of d’Aubervilliers, a diverse lower income, working community on the outskirts of Paris. Good crowd and a large, exciting committee of leaders were elected. The first action was immediately set with another coming.

The report from the first action was exhilarating. The members who were tenants in a large complex had been required to pay a 20 euro fee at the car park as part of their monthly payments. But for two years there was no security there and the gate to the parking lot was broken, essentially meaning that the members were paying for nothing.

The action was feisty, and the outcome was total victory.

The housing managers agreed to refund 240 euros to each of the tenants, and of course immediately repair the car park and get security there.

These small victories are what starts the peoples’ avalanche rolling towards enough power to move everything out of the organization’s way. In d’Aubervilliers this will be the making of an instant legend, and the word will spread among tenants and others throughout Paris like wildfire.

This is why they join. This is why we do the work!

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Thank You White People for Electing Obama in 2012!

 President Obama at a campaign event in Concord, N.H., shortly before the 2012 election. He performed better among white Northern voters than is generally assumed. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Obama at a campaign event in Concord, N.H., shortly before the 2012 election. He performed better among white Northern voters than is generally assumed. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

New Orleans   In the age of big data, one of the clear lessons, is that we need to be very, very careful about what we think we know, at least until we have asked all the right questions rather than just swallowing the headlines whole without examining the bottom lines. What am I talking about, you might ask? Well, how in the heck with all of the megadomes out there in the political world can we have undercounted white people? White people of all people! What were they? Were they translucent or something, like white walkers, and the quants and bean counters looked right past them because they looked like themselves in the mirror or what?

The New York Times statisticians dropped the bombshell on us that Trump wasn’t looking quite as bad while running a racist campaign, because there are more white people out there in the electorate than any of these folks had been reporting for years. Not only that but the all-important narrative about the Obama victory in 2012 was, well, how can we say this, wrong! Turns out Obama was rocking the white vote better than previously understood.

Here’s the new story, and maybe the true story,

“…new data from the census, voter registration files, polls and the finalized results tells a subtly different story of the 2012 election with potential consequences for the 2016 election. The data implies that Mr. Obama was not as weak among white voters as typically believed. He fared better than his predecessors among white voters outside the South. Demographic shifts weren’t so important: He would have been re-elected even with an electorate as old and white as it was in 2004. Latino voters did not put Mr. Obama over the top, as many argued in the days after Mr. Obama’s re-election. He would have won even if he had done as poorly among Latino voters as John Kerry.”

Of course Latino-based organizations and all of us who support them and work with them had a stake in the story that it was Hispanic votes that propelled Obama to victory in 2012, so spin or substance be damned, someone did a very good job on this for the last four years, and it mattered, true or not. What leverage would we have had talking about doing a big, fat thank you to all of the old, white people stepping up for Obama? Not that we won immigration reform, and not that the story won’t change in the future as demographic trends continue to move towards more, not less, diversity and dilute the white vote, but it wasn’t there in 2012, and it might not be in 2016.

Why did we get the news so late? What’s up, is this the same as Andrew Jackson, Jean Lafitte, and the gang fighting and winning the Battle of New Orleans after peace had already been signed in Paris? Hasn’t communication changed? Well, it seems that most of this incomplete narrative was based on exit polls, and the other data is stronger and better, but it’s not available the night of the election and the day after. We’re so committed to speed and “premature certainty,” that we would rather believe we know it all immediately and go from there, than wait until all of the information is sliced and diced.

What’s the lesson we need to take away for today? Talk to every white person you know! Tell them thanks for 2012, but we need them to do it again in 2016 as well, because if they couldn’t handle Romney then, they sure as heck don’t want to live through four years with King Trump trying to rule the country.

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