Friday, February 27

Howard Dean Talks Health on Hardball

Why isn't Howard Dean the next Secretary of Health and Human Services?

Agritourism: Another Vision for Iowa

According to Purdue University research, nature-/agricultural-based tourism is the fastest growing sector of the U.S. tourism industry, averaging a 30 percent increase since 1997. From farmhouse bed-and-breakfast operations to winery tours, specialized product sales and Halloween attractions, farmers are taking a chance on tourism and it is paying off.

According to the Iowa State Extension, "agritourism is a growing segment of the rural economy in many areas of Iowa." Iowa agritourism includes farm-based bed and breakfasts, Christmas tree farms, markets, fruit and vegetable u-picks, hiking for a fee, hunting/fishing for a fee, mazes for a fee, wineries and more. An issue is as this type of tourism increases, will more farms go organic in part for the safety of their visitors and for the growing demand for organic, locally-grown products?

Ethical Shopper provides some clues:

The growing interest in organic foods, local farms, and farmers’ markets has led a growing number of people to these functioning farms. "It’s grown because more farmers are finding out it’s an important avenue to bring in revenue and stay on the farm" said Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. " Secondarily, it’s increasing because we’ve moved to an experience economy. People want to have a farm experience.”

As I reported in an earlier blog, small farms are growing rapidly in Iowa and agritourism may be a way for the small, family farm to stay a small, family farm.

Iowa State is sponsoring a conference on the subject on March 7th called "Visit Iowa Farms - Becoming a Destination!" the 2009 Visit Iowa Farms Conference at Honey Creek Resort at Lake Rathbun, Iowa.

Blog for Iowa has more archived from last year's event.

Thursday, February 26

This is What Democracy Looks Like-- Messy

Like about 10% of the voters who usually turnout at our local school board elections, I persevered the heat and length of this week's ICCSD board meeting to make my points about the school board's "proposed strategic facilities improvement plan" from Superintendent Lane Plugge for FAIR!, the group for which I am the Chairperson.

In so doing, I heard the concerns of parents of Rossevelt school which were largely desiring that the school receive needed repairs and improvements sooner than later. I also heard larger concerns being raised from parents at other older Iowa city schools that their schools not be under the threat of a wrecking ball.

Most importantly I heard that residents are very keen on weighing in on any district-wide plan to decide what to do about current and future school facilities and more importantly what to do to improve educational opportunity. The We Love Our Neighborhood Schools folks and others want great schools.

I also heard that the school board is working with reduced resources and that has to be factored in whatever decisions are made where growth in the district is concerned. The Catch 22 is that labor costs are the single greatest cost to schools and that the more schools there are, more labor costs follow.

Their frustration comes from the fact that the SILO money is good for buildings, but it does nothing to change the funding formula that will leave the district in a shortfall situation about the same time any new or improved school would be build. Said differently, a new school could be built without the staff to manage and teach in it.

Clearly there are some difficult days ahead as decision makers and the public try to sort through the issues that will solve school overcrowding in one part of town, upset a neighborhood's equilibrium elsewhere, and deal with changing demographics throughout the district.

Pentagon Changes Tune About War Dead Coverage

At his first prime-time news conference, President Obama said his administration would review the Pentagon policy that banned the media from taking pictures of the flag-draped coffins of U.S. troops returning from the battlefield with Defense Department officials. Apparently that review was concluded and according to CNN:

The Pentagon will lift its longtime ban on media coverage of the flag-draped coffins of war victims arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, according to a senior U.S. defense official with direct knowledge of the decision.

The coverage must be approved by the victims' families, however. Advocates of opening the base to coverage say the unmarked coffins make it impossible to identify specific remains.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is to announce the change at a news conference at 2 p.m. ET, the senior official said. He ordered a review after President Obama asked for more information on the long-standing policy.

Though the Defense Department won't confirm it, it is widely accepted that the ban began after the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, which deposed dictator Manuel Noriega.

While this is a step in improving transparency to reporting the full scope of the carnage of war to the public, it is long overdo.

Tuesday, February 24

More Farms, Less Farmland According to Ag Census

The latest National Agricultural Census Service census shows small-scale farming operations are making a comeback. The number of farms nationwide has increased 4 percent from 2.1 million farms to 2.2 million as farms have become more diverse in ownership and in offerings. At the same time however, U.S. acres used for farmland in 2007 totaled 922 million acres. This is down 16 million acres from 2002 (a 2% drop).

The NASS census shows that Iowa farms continue to expand as an agricultural state with 2,201 new farms started between 2002 to 2007. However, the total amount of acreage for farming in Iowa has declined by just under 982,000 acres, a 3% drop, since 2002.

Overall in the U.S., The number of farms reporting sales of $1,000 or less was up significantly, to 688,833 in 2007 from 570,919 in 2002, according to the count released earlier this month which may reflect the growing demand for locally produced foods. Nearly 300,000 new farms have begun operation since the last census in 2002. New farms, which make up 13% of all farms tend to be smaller, with the average size being 201 acres or less than half the size of older farms. The produce sold tends to be half the value of older farms as only 1/3 of new farm producers farm as their primary vocation. In Iowa farms with sales of less than $2,500 have grown from 23,436 in 2002 to 26,730 in 2007, an increase of 12%.

Also growing nationally are the number of farms with annual sales of $500,000 or more which now number 46,000. In Iowa, there mega-farms almost doubled between 2002-2007 with an increase of 4,714 farms (or 10% of all growth).

Falling are family and small farms with sales between $9,999 and $499,999. In Iowa, there were 63,195 farms in 2002, in 2007 there were 47,563, a decline of 25%.

The struggle between the expanding urban areas of Iowa, corporate farmers, and family operations will continue into the future as locally-grown agriculture concerns and national economic agendas faceoff in the marketplace, especially as the need for green energy is flagged as a driver for aiding the ailing economy.

Thank God for the Commie, Homo-Loving, Son's of Guns

When actor Sean Penn accepted his Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco city supervisor, he proclaimed to the audience "You commie, homo-loving sons of guns." This evoked laughter from the audience as anti-gay protesters rallied outside the Kodak Theater. He then said: "For those who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight, I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that way of support. We've got to have equal rights for everyone."

More stirring than Penn's words were the words of the film's screenwriter Dustin Lance Black who reflected:

When I was thirteen years old, my beautiful mother and my father moved me from a conservative Mormon home in San Antonio, Texas, to California, and I heard the story of Harvey Milk. And it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life. It gave me the hope to… one day I could live my life openly as who I am and then maybe, even, I could even fall in love and one day get married.

I wanna, I wanna thank my mom, who has always loved me for who I am, even when there was pressure not to. But most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us thirty years ago, I think he'd want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches, by the government, or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that, no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you, and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally, across this great nation of ours.

In a country where civil rights are sacrosanct, how sad is it that two people, regardless of sexual-orientation, who choose a life together are not afforded the same rights by federal and state law. Fortunately justice speaks in a voice more eloquent than ignorance and, in Black's words "very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally, across this great nation of ours" and we all will be the better for it.

Monday, February 23

Things Are Looking Bad or Are They?

In my counseling training program years ago, I learned that what people believe is more important, from a therapeutic perspective, than what they know factually. This is to say that what a person thinks is more important than what is true. So that brings me to today's CNN poll that says that almost 75% of Americans are somewhat or very scared about the way things are going in the U.S.

I would argue that this kind of national malaise is a case of self-fulfilling prophecy--kind of like Chicken Little saying "the sky is falling" and lo, the sky falls, and falls, and falls some more. What this might say is we don't have any confidence in ourselves and our ability to solve our own economic problems or maybe it is deeper than that--we want other people to fix things for us and don't have any confidence they can.

Either way, this thinking leads us to where it is darkest before it goes completely black.

So what to do? Acknowledge that we are in a hole and stop digging deeper:

1) We need to unplug ourselves from those folks who insist on telling us how to think and think for ourselves (I'm not telling you how to think--just offering a suggestion). Investors rely too much on advice from others rather than their own judgment. Maybe if folks ignored some of the "expert" adivse they are getting, the economy would actually turn around faster.

2) We need to invest in our country. Crazy notion, but buying savings bonds might actually be the sanest way to make sure your life savings don't compleely evaporate because other folks are panicking.

3) Support your community, taking a sort of "think global, act local" approach. It may be healthier to support those people around you who are struggling just the same as you are. We might not be able to take care of the whole world, but we sure can take care of our blocks, neighborhoods, and schools.

4) Learn from our own history, unlike the Great Depression, we don't have a Dust Bowl to contend with, so our green economy that feeds us and supplies us resources to deal with other problems is in good shape.

5) A good question to ask yourself when you are worried about things is "How is my life different today than it was yesterday?" If you find yourself saying, it is no worse than the day before, perhaps your angst is not called for.

6) Lastly, if you think things are bad, really bad, challenge yourself to identify 10 things that are going okay. For instance, when I was laid off last summer, I took great comfort in the fact I had a house, a great partner, the best dogs in the world, good friends, a guitar, a car that ran, feet that work if the car didn't, and so on.

In the mean time, let's try to have some faith in our fellow humankind, not give in to gloom and doom, and conserve our energies to fight the really important fights that are likely to lie ahead. Who knows, maybe the one-hit wonders Timbuk 3 were actually right.

Friday, February 20

Locally-Grown Growers Growing

According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette:

The number of small Iowa farms selling directly to consumers increased to 2,987 in the 2007 count, up from 2,455 in the last Census of Agriculture in 2002.

Farms harvesting vegetables for sale climbed 17.2 percent over the five-year period, to 881.

The number of farms with fruit trees, nuts and berries increased 78 percent to 735. They generated $7.4 million in sales, up from $4.5 million in 2002.

But the biggest gain in local produce was in grape production. The number of growers increased more than twofold, from 133 to 335. Grape acreage increased more than fourfold to 797 acres.

“The census illustrates the increased interest statewide in locally grown produce,” Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said in a prepared statement. He praised specialty crops, saying they help farmers diversify their production while diversifying the state economy. Northey said growth in the state’s wine industry helped boost Iowa’s agricultural tourism, which grew more than threefold to $12.7 million.

Nursery, greenhouse, floral and sod operations also grew at a strong pace, with sales climbing from $77.6 million to $93.8 million. The amount of growing space protected from the elements in hothouses or greenhouses grew to 7.3 million square feet from just more than 5 million square feet.

The number of farms growing greenhouse vegetables and fresh-cut herbs more than doubled, to 106, reaching over $7.5 million in sales. Ninety Iowa greenhouses grew tomatoes, generating almost $1.7 million in sales.

Roosevelt Parents Fighting for IMBY

We all have heard about NIMBY-ism, the "Not in my back yard" attitude that prevails when neighborhoods are threatened by change, but the latest "draft" action by the Iowa City Community School District pertaining to area school facilities has some parents in Iowa City fighting for their neighborhood. The plan calls for the closing of the current Roosevelt school and building a larger one in the Crossing neighborhood which would cause parents in the Roosevelt area to bus their children and remove a central meeting place for the community. Lori Enloe and other parents in the Roosevelt school area are fighting to keep their neighborhood school in their backyard. For them it is an effort to improve the school rather than replace it elsewhere.

The School District sees this as a strategic move to lessen the overcrowding in some west side elementary schools and as a way to support student learning as "research shows without doubt that concentrated poverty and ethnicity make it more difficult to reduce and eliminate achievement gaps. These factors will play an important role in determining district facility decisions."

Weighing in on their behalf are parents in other older neighborhoods who fear their schools could suffer a similar fate and the city's mayor who has grave concerns about the sustainability of neighborhoods if neighborhood schools go the way of the dodo. In a memo to fellow city council members, Bailey says "This would have a
devastating effect on these neighborhoods and the City goals to encourage reinvestment in residential properties in the Central District and to achieve a healthy balance of rental and owner-occupied housing in the district older neighborhoods."

Additionally, groups like the Sierra Club, FAIR! and others are studying the issues of the strategic facilities plan from an environmental and economic justice standpoint. One particular point of controversy is whether the research cited by the school district is accurate. For instance lower achievement is tied by research to quality of school facilities, quality of instruction, and student support systems. Causality based on race or SES is often cited because it is easy to correlate, more so than qualitative measures.

The Iowa City Community School Board meets next Tuesday (2/24) at 7 pm at the district office on Dubuque St. It is likely that a large number of people will want to speak during the public discussion period. The School District is also planning public meetings on March 2 at 7 pm at West High School and March 7 at Northwest Junior High at 10 am.

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Thursday, February 19

An Evening of Hot Air That's Cool

From Andrew Snow at Iowa Global Warming Campaign:

Attend An Iowa Activist Evening next Monday night, Feb. 23rd. A group of informed members from a number of organizations will be gathering to discuss topics including the Marshalltown coal plant, federal energy legislation and passenger rail service from Chicago to Des Moines. Then we will be taking action to make sure our leaders know we want clean, renewable energy, better transportation options and policies that reduce harmful global warming pollution. Finally, there will be a screening of the film Fighting Goliath, a short film about the fight over coal power in Texas. Food and film snacks will be provided.

Seating is limited, so in order to reserve your spot we are asking you RSVP either by responding to this email or calling our offices at: (515) 244-3113. We hope you can come.

There is also another opportunity for you to get involved. Right now, the state legislature is beginning debate on energy efficiency measures - the easiest way to reduce greenhouse gases while saving money and creating jobs. They need to hear your voice!

Why Does Eric Holder Hate Us?

US Attorney General Eric Holder took a bold step in a speech he made to the Justice Department for Black History Month. He said "this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards." Us cowards? Americans, cowards? How can he say that?

He continued on to say "Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation’s history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us."

Come on, I mean in 2009 who doesn't know someone who comes from a diverse background that they hang with? Why just the other day, I was talking to my black friend Jamal about race. I said, "Can you believe how racist some people are?" Jamal said, "Yes, that's why I'm glad we are so tight." We fistbumped and I got off the bus in my neighborhood while Jamal continued on to his.

But back to Holder's statement, "As a nation we have done a pretty good job in melding the races in the workplace. We work with one another, lunch together and, when the event is at the workplace during work hours or shortly thereafter, we socialize with one another fairly well, irrespective of race. And yet even this interaction operates within certain limitations. We know, by "American instinct" and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character. And outside the workplace the situation is even more bleak in that there is almost no significant interaction between us. On Saturdays and Sundays America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some fifty years ago."

What does he mean. When I went to see "The Reader" last Saturday, there were all kinds of people in the theater. There were older people and younger people, and men and women. In fact, I think I saw an African-American couple in the audience. In fact when I was at the restaurant after the movie, they were there too. I think it was the same couple.

And at church this Sunday, I was talking to a couple that were visiting the church about a discussion on race relations we are planning. Even though we are living in post-racial America, there are a few stragglers we are trying to reach. It was an inter-racial couple. They said they'd think about coming.

Anyway, and with respect, Eric Holder is way off the mark. Listen to this: "As a nation we should use Black History month as a means to deal with this continuing problem. By creating what will admittedly be, at first, artificial opportunities to engage one another we can hasten the day when the dream of individual, character based, acceptance can actually be realized. To respect one another we must have a basic understanding of one another. And so we should use events such as this to not only learn more about the facts of black history but also to learn more about each other. This will be, at first, a process that is both awkward and painful but the rewards are potentially great. The alternative is to allow to continue the polite, restrained mixing that now passes as meaningful interaction but that accomplishes little."

Can you imagine some old school "gangstas" and folks from suburbia sitting down and talking like that--yeah, that'd be just a little tense. But seriously, most of the black people I know are just like white people I know. They want good schools for their kids, a good job, a nice place to live. I don't think they are into the whole "race as definition of self" thing any more.

I think the new AG is a well-meaning guy, but, you know, I think we've all got a handle on things--especially since we elected Obama, right?

Lefties for Obama!

Okay, this is a cheap way to have people take a look at this video, but as a right-handed person growing up in a left-handed household, this resonates.

Tuesday, February 17

Nuclear Loses, Green Wins in Stimulus Final Package

According to 1 SKY:

Amidst tight votes in the Senate (61 supporters, including 3 swing Republicans), $50 billion in public loans for nuclear power was removed from the bill during conference between House and Senate versions. The conference strengthened the bill in other ways as well, producing an extensive lineup of unprecedented investments in clean energy and other green initiatives.

Total: $68 billion in direct green investments, plus another $20 billion in clean energy tax incentives -- enough to create over 1.5 million green-collar jobs.

Highlights include:

Over $16 billion for public transit, including $8 billion for inter-city high speed rail;

$9.5 billion for targeted low-income weatherization projects, and tens of billions for efficiency investments linked to other projects in the bill;

$11 billion for a smart grid;

$0 (as in nothing) for new nuclear power plants;

Full funding for the much-needed Green Jobs Act;

Expanded tax credits for wind, other renewables, and plug-in hybrids (Obama's goal is to have 1 million of these on the road by 2015);

"Decoupling": This measure ensures that utilities are encouraged to invest in energy efficiency in the same way that they are encouraged to invest in new power capacity. This will spur private efficiency investments, create new jobs, save consumers money, and lessen our reliance on dirty energy.

Analysis from friends at Greenpeace found that these pollution-cutting investments and policies will be equivalent to taking 13 million cars off the road if implemented properly.

Unfortunately, some funding went to coal research and new highway construction, but that pot of money was generally dwarfed by investment in efficiency, renewables, and public transportation. Most of the dirty energy handouts and loopholes were removed at the last minute.

Friday, February 13

Climate For Change

Below is a message from I'M Iowa's Ed and Lynn Fallon. Hat's off to them, Physician's for Social Responsibility (Micki McCue) and others for their leadership on this (this means you, Mike Carberry).

Dear Friends,

We heard a cardinal sing on February 1st, heralding the first sign of spring in our neighborhood. Five days later, daffodils pushed through the thawing soil about a mile from our home. The Des Moines River has been ice-free for a week, and the ice on the Raccoon River is on the verge of breaking.

On February 2nd, Punxsutawney Phil announced (through interpreters, of course) that America should expect six more weeks of winter. Here in Des Moines, after signs of an early spring and eight days with high temperatures ranging from 42 to 62 degrees, some have called into question our most famous groundhog’s credibility.

Face it: America needs a new groundhog. More to the point, we need new mechanisms for assessing and understanding what is happening to our climate and, as a result, our planet and our civilization.

To be clear, isolated warm-weather “events,” such as the ones we note above, cannot be cited as evidenc e of climate change. Conversely, neither does unseasonably cool weather dismiss climate change. We have to look at the big picture, the global picture. Despite what some skeptics say, the consensus is in. Global climate change is a reality. How we monitor it and, more important, how we respond to it, will determine the viability of our future.

Across the globe, a new generation of climate-change groundhogs is rising to the challenge. One website that’s been very helpful to us is Another is

In Iowa, two activities over the next week can help educate us about climate change. The first is this weekend in Iowa City, sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility. The second is Monday in Des Moines, where experts will summarize the work of the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council. See below for details.

We hope you can attend one or both of these events, and please spread the word. Thanks.

Ed & Lynn Fallon

February 13 & 14 – Power-lines to the Future

A conference organized by Physicians for Social Responsibility at the
International Center, Old Capitol Town Center Mall, Iowa City. PSR hopes to encourage Iowans, especially those involved in the health professions, to become more informed and actively engaged in confronting the gravest health challenges of our time. For more information, visit

February 16 – Iowa Climate Change Briefing and Discussion

Sponsored by about twenty organizations and agencies, this meeting will present the highlights of the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council’s recent report. It’s at the State Historical Building, 600 E. Locust, Des Moines, from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. Contact Senator Joe Bolkcom at or (319) 353-2681.

Thursday, February 12

You Say You Want an Evolution?

Happy Anniversary all you Survival-of-the-Fittest-lovers--Darwin would have been 200 today if he hadn't been done in by his evolutionary limitations or been smoted (depending on who you ask). In Iowa, proponents of Darwinism and Creationism continue to go after each other hammer and tong, and why not? What good is scientific fact about man's rise from the primordial ooze when God doing it in a day is so much more believable?

But because nothing is "certain" where the origins of man are concerned, states are passing "academic freedom" laws. Arguments over evolution are not took place at the local school board level, but Such laws elect to legislate support for teachers who discuss the scientific strengths and weaknesses of issues such as evolution ostensibly to protect freedom of speech of instructors and students, rather than get into the "he said/Thee said" that evolution and Intelligent Design proponents wrangle over. Such a bill passed in Louisiana last year.

Currently Iowa is in the company of Oklahoma, Alabama,and New Mexico as states that have this type of legislation in the mill. Will these bills pass? In the wake of the Louisiana result last year, similar bills were debated in Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and South Carolina. All failed.

This change in focus is of concern to those in the science and teaching professions: As Robert Gropp, director of public policy for the American Institute of Biological Sciences in Washington is quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, "Quite honestly, there aren't any strengths and weaknesses to evolution in the way they say. It's the hook they use to introduce nonscientific explanations. You have to give [evolution opponents] credit: They've gotten crafty about arguments they make. 'Academic freedom' sounds very all-American, but the problem is it sets aside the way science is done, the way we teach science."

I don't think that school teachers should be put in a position to have to provide instruction on a subject that is not in their expertise. A science teacher has the expertise to teach science. Similarly, I would expect that evolution wouldn't be taught by theologians.

In any case, Happy Birthday Charles Darwin and God bless you.

You've Got to Spend Money to Make Money?

The old adage "you've got to spend money to make money" is being put to the supreme test by the likely passage of a $790 billion stimulus/keep people afloat package that the House, Senate and Obama team are hammering out. Like anything done by committee, it has a little bit of everything in it for just about everyone, after all politics is the art of the possible.

The analogy I use is that our leaders are like an interstate truck driver who is wearing a blindfold; not knowing what is in front of him, the driver will steer straight ahead because turning the wheel either way is likely to have immediate dire consequences. Nonetheless, in the longer run, holding the wheel straight will cause him to miss his exit or drive off the road if the road curves. The only other option for him is to turn the wheel based on his instincts, the feel of the road, and other experiences and hope they guide him correctly. Given that we only know where we have been and don't really know where we are going, the best we can do is make the best of three possibly unpleasant options.

Here's what the bill offers:

For the People
• Most individuals and couples will get a $400 to $800 tax credit.
• The bill introduces the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a $2,500 credit for higher education expenses. It also increases the maximum Pell Grant by $281 in the 2009-10 academic year and by $400 in the 2010-11 academic year.
• First-time home buyers may qualify for a tax credit of up to $8,000. The bill doubles the size of an existing temporary home buyer credit to $15,000, allow all home buyers to claim it, and removes the requirement that the credit be paid back.
• People who receive Social Security will get a one-time payment of $250.
• For seniors who don't work, as well as disabled veterans and retired railroad workers, the bill provides a one-time $300 payment.
• The bill provides a $500 credit per worker and a $1,000 credit per dual-earner couple paid to people making $70,000 or less ($140,000 per dual-earner couple).
• The bill includes a one-year provision to protect middle- and upper-middle-income families from having to pay the Alternative Minimum Tax.
• Increases eligibility for the child tax credit by lowering the income threshold to $8,100.
• Jobless workers provided an additional 20 weeks in unemployment benefits, and 13 weeks on top of that if they live in one of the 30 high unemployment states. Weekly unemployment benefits will temporarily increase by $25 and the first $2,400 of benefits in 2009 would be exempt from federal income taxes.
• Food stamp payments would increase by 12%, so a family of four would see an additional $71 on top of the $588 per month they receive currently.
• $5 billion to weatherize modest-income homes.

For Business
• $7 billion for expanding high-speed Internet access.
• $11 billion for building a so-called smart grid power network.
• $20 billion for digitizing health records.
• $27 billion on highways.
• $8.4 billion on public transit.
• $5 billion to extend a provision allowing businesses buying equipment such as computers to speed up its depreciation through 2009.
• $2.5 billion to makes sales tax on paid on new car purchases tax deductible.
• About $50 billion for energy programs, focused chiefly on efficiency and renewable energy, including $6.4 billion to clean up nuclear-weapon production sites; and $13.9 billion to subsidize loans for renewable energy projects.

For Government Work Projects and State Budget Relief
• $2.3 billion to create a contingency fund through 2010 for the welfare program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides cash assistance to the needy.
• Incentive for states to provide unemployment insurance coverage for part-time workers and for workers who quit their jobs for compelling family reasons.
• $8 billion in aid to states to defray budget cuts.
• $4 billion in grants to state and local law enforcement to hire officers and purchase equipment.
• $2.8 billion for homeland security programs, including $1 billion for airport screening equipment.
• $4.5 billion to make federal buildings more energy efficient.
• $6.3 billion in state energy efficiency and clean energy grant.

(Sources: CNN, NY Times, AP, Reuters, Bloomberg News)

Wednesday, February 11

Stimulus Bill Is the Bomb

From the Peace Team:

We've heard President Obama on the TV alot talking about how he's promoting wind and solar power in the new stimulus bill. But in the Senate version of the bill, it's all a great, big, honking FRAUD, because the 50 billion in loan guarantees for "eligible technologies" there has been deceptively defined so that most of that money will instead go to finance nuclear and filthy coal power plants instead.

We know this because Republican Senator Bennett from Utah made sure that was the intent when he snuck this provision into the bill in the Appropriations Committee. Why it is still there after Bennett himself voted against the whole package is an outrage. But because the House bill lacks this garbage provision, we still have a chance to remove it in the reconciliation between the Senate and house versions.

And if that weren't bad enough, there is another billion for new nuclear weapons development. That's not the kind of infrastructure we were promised.

Because of the urgency of this action, please call your members of Congress toll-free at 800-828-0498 or 800-459-1887 to raise an immediate fuss about this. Then submit the action page below as well as a follow up.

No Nuclear/Coal Subsidies In Stimulus Bill:
What a cruel and dishonest trick on the American people if this is all allowed to pass, to foist the sludge spill disasters of the future on us, in the sheep's clothing of a green energy spirit, which is what we thought we were all voting for in the last election.

All they've talked about for years is how vulnerable nuclear power plants would be to a possible terrorist attack, and now they want to build many more?? And this is on top to the fact we have nowhere to put all the dangerous nuclear waste existing plants have already generated. This is not the change we were promised and it's time to make that abundantly clear with our phone calls and emails. Please make your toll-free calls and submit the action page above.

Tuesday, February 10

Obama Press Conference: Refreshing Differences

After the Bush years of obfuscation, a unusually somber President Obama should receive high marks for relative candor and a high degree of control in his first televised national press conference. Faced with a financial crisis with a second bailout and stimulus package up in the air, Obama made his case to the American public while deftly addressing questions put to him by the press.

For example:

Chip Reid: You have often said that bipartisanship is extraordinarily important, overall and in this stimulus package, but now, when we ask your advisers about the lack of bipartisanship so far -- zero votes in the House, three in the Senate -- they say, "Well, it's not the number of votes that matters; it's the number of jobs that will be created."

Is that a sign that you are moving away -- your White House is moving away from this emphasis on bipartisanship?

And what went wrong? Did you underestimate how hard it would be to change the way Washington works?

Obama: Well, I don't think -- I don't think I underestimated it. I don't think the -- the American people underestimated it. They understand that there have been a lot of bad habits built up here in Washington, and it's going to take time to break down some of those bad habits.

You know, when I made a series of overtures to the Republicans, going over to meet with both Republican caucuses, you know, putting three Republicans in my cabinet -- something that is unprecedented -- making sure that they were invited here to the White House to talk about the economic recovery plan, all those were not designed simply to get some short-term votes. They were designed to try to build up some trust over time.

And I think that, as I continue to make these overtures, over time, hopefully that will be reciprocated.

But understand the bottom line that I've got right now, which is what's happening to the people of Elkhart and what's happening across the country. I can't afford to see Congress play the usual political games. What we have to do right now is deliver for the American people.

So my bottom line when it comes to the recovery package is: Send me a bill that creates or saves 4 million jobs. Because everybody has to be possessed with a sense of urgency about putting people back to work, making sure that folks are staying in their homes, that they can send their kids to college.

That doesn't negate the continuing efforts that I'm going to make to listen and engage with my Republican colleagues. And hopefully the tone that I've taken, which has been consistently civil and respectful, will pay some dividends over the long term. There are going to be areas where we disagree, and there are going to be areas where we agree.

As I said, the one concern I've got on the stimulus package, in terms of the debate and listening to some of what's been said in Congress, is that there seems to be a set of folks who -- I don't doubt their sincerity -- who just believe that we should do nothing.

Now, if that's their opening position or their closing position in negotiations, then we're probably not going to make much progress, because I don't think that's economically sound and I don't think what -- that's what the American people expect, is for us to stand by and do nothing.

While not always answering questions head on, like in the case of whether he would reverse the policy about allowing the photographing of the draped coffins of soldiers returning to Dover AFB, he did say what criteria he would use to make his decision.

Perhaps one of his best and worst moments was in addressing the grand lady of the press, Helen Thomas, for the first time as President when he smiled and said "All right. Helen? This is my inaugural moment here. I'm really excited." Thomas, who was relegated to the bullpen during the Bush administration, didn't give him a pass in asking him "Mr. President, do you think that Pakistan and -- are maintaining the safe havens in Afghanistan for these so-called terrorists? And, also, do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?"

His response was somewhat evasive when it came to the second part of her question as he said " With respect to nuclear weapons, you know, I don't want to speculate. What I know is this: that if we see a nuclear arms race in a region as volatile as the Middle East, everybody will be in danger.

And one of my goals is to prevent nuclear proliferation generally. I think that it's important for the United States, in concert with Russia, to lead the way on this.

And, you know, I've mentioned this in conversations with the Russian president, Mr. [Dmitry] Medvedev, to let him know that it is important for us to restart the -- the conversations about how we can start reducing our nuclear arsenals in an effective way so that we then have the standing to go to other countries and start stitching back together the nonproliferation treaties that, frankly, have been weakened over the last several years. OK." Then he cut her off on her follow-up.

On the whole, the President did what he set out to do, to discuss the stimulus package and reassure Americans that he was working for them.

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Wednesday, February 4

Clean Water Infrastructure Is Good Infrastructure

Anyone who mucked about in the floodwaters of last spring should have no trouble grasping the sad state of affairs that our waterways in Iowa are in. Our representatives in Washington should be supportive of efforts from groups like the Iowa Environmental Council who are front and center on this issue. The IEC has the following to say with respect to the stimulus bill working its way through the US Senate.

The Iowa Environmental Council is encouraging U.S. lawmakers to increase clean water infrastructure funding in the economic stimulus plan, now under consideration in Congress. The House version of the stimulus package currently includes $8 billion and the Senate bill $4 billion for clean water infrastructure. The EPA estimated the cost of meeting our clean water infrastructure needs at $580 billion during the last assessment in 2004, according to a GAO report.

In Iowa alone, the Department of Natural Resources estimates water infrastructure needs to be over $618 million over the next two to three years.

According to Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, 87 of these projects, with a total cost of $306 million, could be underway in three to four months if the necessary funding were made available.

Sixty-six communities in Iowa do not have a public sewer system and 21 communities need help to upgrade their drinking water systems says Heathcote.

"These needs combined with the fact that we could have shovels in the ground as soon as funding becomes available make them perfect candidates for funding under the nation's economic stimulus package," said Heathcote.

In letters to Iowa Representative Boswell and Senators Harkin and Grassley, Heathcote outlined Iowa projects that could proceed immediately with available funding:

- 25 communities with sewage treatment plant projects, with estimated needed loan amounts of $165 million;

- 41 small unsewered communities, with estimated total cost of $72 million.

- 21 communities with need for upgrades to their drinking water systems, with an estimated total cost of $69 million.

Heathcote says, in addition to the new water projects outlined above, Iowa communities also need help to address ongoing efforts to separate outdated combined sewer systems and to repair or replace aging sanitary sewer system pipes. Until this work is completed, Iowa communities must continue to deal with the public health threat from frequent failure of sanitary sewer systems that result in discharges of untreated sewage into Iowa rivers.

"While we are addressing our ailing economy, why not make a real investment in clean water?" said Heathcote.

Two kinds of Energy Vampires

Well, you knew it had to happen. The Senate part of the stimulus bill is outfitted with $50 billion dollars by the vampires in the coal industry so that it can create coal liquification plants which are actually more energy inefficient and much larger contributors to global climate change than petroleum refiners. Andrew Hug over at Environment Iowa needs everyone to act to let our Senators Grassley and Harkin to know that we don't want it.

Then, on the homefront, we all have our (silver) crosses to bear with our own energy consumption. Take a gander at this short video from Good magazine , it is eye-opening.

Tuesday, February 3

America, the Beautifully Confused Place

"America the Beautiful" has gotten a lot of airplay in the last couple of weeks with a dazzling Aretha Franklin singing it at President Obama's Inaugural and Faith Hill belting it out for the crowd at the Super Bowl the other day. It has been suggested that it should replace "The Star Spangled Banner" as our national anthem and is sometimes called the unofficial national anthem. And just like our country, there is a lot going on behind the scenes.

I learned the poem "America the Beautiful" (which was converted into our "second" national anthem by common folks borrowing a popular tune that preceded it by 13 years called "Materna" by Samuel A. Ward) was written in 1895 by Katharine Lee Bates, an English instructor at Wellesley College who was moved by a trip she took to Colorado's Pike's Peak by way of the Columbian Exposition (aka "The World's Fair" in Chicago). The poem originally appeared in the newspaper the Congregationalist to commemorate Independence Day and became popularized by being sung to as many as 74 different folk tunes including "Auld Lang Syne."

Bates herself told a newspaper reporter that the song's success— "so accidental and so simple"—was due to the people, not to herself. As for the poem, "I have come to see that I was its scribe," she said firmly, "rather than its author."

There are many incongruities in American life, and this poem and its writer represent a couple of them. First, the words to "America the Beautiful."

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for halcyon skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till souls wax fair as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!

O beautiful for pilgrims feet,
Whose stem impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till paths be wrought through
wilds of thought
By pilgrim foot and knee!

O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife
When once and twice,
for man's avail
Men lavished precious life!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!

For me a couple lines jump out

"Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!" and

"Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!"

As the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, she was no doubt influenced by the teachings against "ill-gotten gain," though she would probably be called a Secular Humanist herself. These words suggest that it was her hope that the American way would be less about commerce and more about all Americans sharing of the natural wealth. The "alabaster city" is a reference to the buildings of the Chicago World's Fair's White City (the majority of which are gone today). Beyond this, her words were decrying the fascination with industrial developments and crass commercialization that were going on. This song, which is revered by so many for its patriotic undertones is a pretty radical call for reform.

This isn't so surprising when you take into account the causes that Bates supported. She was involved in a few social reform activities, working for labor reform and planning the College Settlements Association with Vida Scudder. Bates was an active member of numerous and wide ranging humanitarian, academic, and political organizations, including the American Association for Labor Legislation, the Antivivisection Society, the League of Nations and the American Poetry Society.

Katharine Lee Bates lived for twenty-five years with Katharine Coman in a committed partnership that has sometimes been described as a "romantic friendship." Bates wrote, after Coman died, "So much of me died with Katharine Coman that I'm sometimes not quite sure whether I'm alive or not." As Rev. Barbara Hamilton-Holway at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Santa Barbara pointed out, "Bates who wrote America the Beautiful, loved a woman, was denied full rights as a citizen, and still saw beauty and hope to praise in this country. Bates died at home in Wellesley at the age of seventy nine years after the US Constitution afforded women the right to vote. In Massachusetts, a dormitory at Wellesley College, a public school, and a street bear her name. There is also a life-size bronze statue of her on the grounds of the Falmouth Public Library.

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