Friday, December 24, 2010

Epic Speak Your Mind Win

Every now and then we're reminded what's really important this holiday season, and how a simple act of making something a great many of us take for granted into a helpful reality can change a person's world forever.

Victor Pauca will have plenty of presents to unwrap on Christmas, but the 5-year-old Winston-Salem boy has already received the best gift he'll get this year: the ability to communicate.

Victor has a rare genetic disorder that delays development of a number of skills, including speech. To help him and others with disabilities, his father, Paul, and some of his students at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem have created an application for the iPhone and iPad that turns their touch screens into communications tools.

The VerbalVictor app allows parents and caregivers to take pictures and record phrases to go with them. These become "buttons" on the screen that Victor touches when he wants to communicate. A picture of the backyard, for example, can be accompanied by a recording of a sentence like "I want to go outside and play." When Victor touches it, his parents or teachers know what he wants to do.

"The user records the voice, so it's something the child's familiar with. It's not robotic," Paul Pauca said.

The app, which should be for sale for $10 in Apple Inc.'s iTunes store by early next week, is one of dozens of new software products designed to make life easier for people with a range of disabilities.

Yes, Victor, there's an app for that indeed.  Best part?

"It opens up his mind to us, because he can show us what he's thinking," said Victor's mother, Theresa.

Not to mention the tons of other people all over the world software like this can help.

This one's for you, Pop.  Figured you'd like it.  You and Mom have a good Christmas, as do the rest of you, whatever holiday you celebrate (or don't!)

Oh, and EPIC WIN for the Pauca family.

It's Getting Hot In Here

One of the big, big showdowns coming in 2011 is the EPA versus the House GOP.  The Environmental Protection Agency says if Congress won't take action on greenhouse gases, then the EPA will.  yesterday it announced plans to deal with power plant carbon emissions, and immediately both House Republicans and energy companies are saying "over our dead bodies."

The EPA announcement, which came as part of a settlement of two 2008 lawsuits, will propose new standards for power plants in July 2011 and for refineries in December 2011, followed by final standards in May 2012 and November 2012, respectively.

During a telephone briefing for reporters, Gina McCarthy, the EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation, said she could not spell out how significantly the new rules will reduce the nation's contribution to global warming.

"You will see measurable reductions," she said. "It's way too early in the game right now to talk about what the standards will look like."

Power plants account for 35 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions while oil refineries account for 3 percent; combined with an earlier EPA rule targeting cars and light trucks, the agency is poised to regulate sectors accounting for more than 55 percent of the nation's total greenhouse gas emissions.

According to an analysis by the World Resources Institute, the new rules could deliver about one-third of the carbon cuts the United States has pledged to make by 2020. "By focusing on the largest polluters, EPA can take a big bite out of U.S. emissions," said WRI senior fellow Franz Litz.

The EPA's McCarthy said the agency would require that existing and new utilities and refineries use only "what technologies are available." It would not set an overall limit on greenhouse gases such as one that was included in the cap-and-trade bill passed by the House in 2009 but that died in the Senate.

"This is not about a cap-and-trade program," she said. "It is not in any way trying to get into the area where Congress will be establishing law at some point in the future, we hope."

But Charles T. Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, said in an interview that the proposal was unrealistic and that his industry will urge lawmakers to block the EPA's move.

"There is no best available technology. The only thing you can do is cut production," Drevna said. "I see bipartisan concern as to where EPA and the administration are attempting to take climate regulation - how they're going to get there and what it's going to do to the economy."

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who is in line to chair the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee next year, seemed to agree. "The fact is there are serious questions about EPA's decision to move forward with these job-killing regulations that will usurp power from states - violating the principles of federalism that are the backbone of the Clean Air Act," his spokesman Kurt Bardella said in an e-mailed statement.

The move from the Republicans is to simply refuse to appropriate any operating funds the EPA or to get rid of the agency completely rather than to see carbon emissions reduced.  Surely the GOP will make one of the two methods part of its government shutdown hostage plan should the agency go through with the process.

A lot of other pieces are going to be on the table when the Republicans play the shutdown card in March (and yes, I fully expect House Republicans will shut down the government in March unless they get 100% of what they want, no word on whether or not that will include Obama's immediate resignation.)  But count on this being a big part of the whole mess next spring.

Another Big Effin' Deal

Vice President Joe Biden believes that national gay marriage is something of an "inevitability".

Vice President Joseph Biden said in a television interview Friday that “there’s an inevitability for a national consensus on gay marriage.”

The vice president, who backs civil unions but not same-sex marriage, weighed in on the issue two days after President Obama acknowledged his position was “evolving.”

“I think the country's evolving,” Biden said in the interview with ABC News. His comments were not the first time he has suggested the country would eventually accept and support gay marriage. Asked in a 2007 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” if gay marriage was inevitable, Biden replied that “it probably is.”

He's right.  Of course the real issue is how long that will take, but it's refreshing to hear that both the President and Vice President believe that DOMA needs to go.

Unfortunately doing something about DOMA from a legislative standpoint is not going to happen while Republicans are in control of anything.  Executive and judicial options still remain, however, particularly the judicial one as California's Prop 8 case winds through the courts on the way to SCOTUS.

Personally I'm convinced there's a fair chunk of conservative Republicans who desperately want a Roe v. Wade style SCOTUS decision permitting same-sex marriage in America to rail against -- and fundraise against -- for the next 30 plus years.  Look how effective and lucrative opposing Roe has been for the wingers over the years.  Hell, I think they'd be secretly delighted.

Turn On The Lights, Watch The Roaches Scatter, Part 53

Republicans are doing their dead level best to punish American's homeowners for Foreclosuregate  There can't possibly be any way the banks could be wrong about who to foreclose on to these guys, and as a number of states now are completely controlled by Republicans, look for those GOP-controlled states to do what Virginia did over the last two years.

Since the meltdown in the housing market began more than three years ago, Maryland and the District have changed their foreclosure laws to give borrowers greater protection. Virginia has moved in the opposite direction.

Last year, the state legislature overwhelmingly passed a law making it easier for lenders to defend themselves when accused of giving homeowners too little warning of impending foreclosures.

The process moves so quickly in Virginia - one of the fastest states in the nation - that homeowners can receive less than two weeks' notice that their house is about to be sold on the courthouse steps.

That confronts homeowners with an almost impossible deadline. To get a court to stop the sale in that narrow window, they must gather evidence, file a lawsuit and potentially post a bond with the court that could total thousands of dollars. Instead of trying to find a lawyer and prepare a suit, many borrowers run out the clock trying to deal with their lender.

At a time when lenders have been cutting corners and using phony documents to seize huge numbers of houses, the hurdles can be insurmountable, according to lawyers, consumer advocates and borrowers who have tried to save their homes.

"There's no question that people are losing their homes when they should not be," said James W. "Jay" Speer, executive director of the Virginia Poverty Law Center, which is part of a legal-aid network.

In many states, homeowners facing foreclosure automatically get a day in court, a chance to tell a judge why they should keep their homes. The judicial process provides at least a modest check on error and abuse.

But in Virginia and 28 other states, as well as the District, according to the RealtyTrac foreclosure information service, borrowers have no such luck. They face "nonjudicial" foreclosure processes, meaning lenders can foreclose without going through the courts. 

Wham, bam, out on your ass.   Remember, the entire MERS system of computerized foreclosure documentation must be considered suspect here.  The burden of proving the banks are owed must fall on the banks.  But in states like Virginia, the burden falls on the homeowner to prove why they shouldn't be thrown out, even with the increasing instances of banks not having anywhere near the required legal paperwork...and in some cases the paperwork they do have is robo-signer fraud.

For many states, there's no judicial recourse.  And Virginia Republicans went out of their way to create legislation specifically to allow banks to foreclose faster, despite the very real concerns about the accuracy of MERS.

Banks are getting away with stealing people's homes.  And increasingly they are getting away with it.  Republicans in Virginia are just the beginning.  Merry Christmas, indeed.

Crude Awakening

Here's your Chart of the Day on gasoline prices Labor Day through the end of the year:

Gas prices traditionally fall 20 cents a gallon or so after Labor Day. This year, they are up 30 cents a gallon or more. We should be looking at gas prices around $2.50 a gallon right now, but instead we're at $3 plus and rising sharply as crude oil has crossed $91 a barrel heading up.

If this is the start of Yet Another Commodity Speculation Bubble, we'll be back in the same mess we were in 2007 when crude hit $147 a barrel, and gas prices topped $4 a gallon (I remember paying $4.25 a gallon in July 2007.)

The difference this time around is that now we have nearly 10% unemployment as opposed to the 5% we had in 2007, which means whatever recovery we do have will get smothered in oil and set on fire.

Yet another indication that the vaunted "just around the corner" recovery of 2011 is simply not going to materialize.

Stone Cold Obama

Greg Sargent catches the two interesting parts of today's otherwise boring and obligatory "President lost the midterms, must shake up White House" article in the WaPo this morning:

Despite all his time studying the Clinton administration, Mr. Obama told his aides that he had no intention of following the precise path of Mr. Clinton, who after the Democratic midterm election defeats of 1994 ordered a clearing of the decks inside the White House, installed competing teams of advisers and employed a centrist policy of triangulation. In fact, several advisers confirmed, the word "triangulation" has been banned by Mr. Obama because he does not believe it accurately describes his approach.

Well, it may not be what Obama will call it, but I doubt the Village will play ball. They'll call it triangulation all day.  Greg continues:

Triangulation just isn't Obama's style, and his scolding of liberals seems to be rooted in genuine frustration with them for disagreeing with him about what's politically possible, given today's realities. To whatever degree Obama is using his disagreement with the left for positioning purposes, it's more about temperament than ideology: He's casting himself as the voice of sanity trying to talk sense into uncompromising partisans on both sides. This just isn't Clintonian triangulation in any sense.

The problem is there's folks on the left who don't understand the words "politically possible".  Their response to this will probably fall along these lines:

The other point Greg caught was this:

The President, preparing to deal with a strengthened GOP, is studying how to maximize the powers of the executive branch. Keep an eye on that one.

Yeah. The problem with that is that Bush tried to do the same thing four years ago.  It hasn't been good for the country so far.  Both Republicans and Democrats are going to be hypocrites on that one.

The Business End Of Means To An End

If you thought sanctions against terrorists states like Iran actually applied to US business titans, allow me to disabuse you of the notion.

Despite sanctions and trade embargoes, over the past decade the United States government has allowed American companies to do billions of dollars in business with Iran and other countries blacklisted as state sponsors of terrorism, an examination by The New York Times has found.

At the behest of a host of companies — from Kraft Food and Pepsi to some of the nation’s largest banks — a little-known office of the Treasury Department has granted nearly 10,000 licenses for deals involving countries that have been cast into economic purgatory, beyond the reach of American business.

Most of the licenses were approved under a decade-old law mandating that agricultural and medical humanitarian aid be exempted from sanctions. But the law, pushed by the farm lobby and other industry groups, was written so broadly that allowable humanitarian aid has included cigarettes, Wrigley’s gum, Louisiana hot sauce, weight-loss remedies, body-building supplements and sports rehabilitation equipment sold to the institute that trains Iran’s Olympic athletes.

Hundreds of other licenses were approved because they passed a litmus test: They were deemed to serve American foreign policy goals. And many clearly do, among them deals to provide famine relief in North Korea or to improve Internet connections — and nurture democracy — in Iran. But the examination also found cases in which the foreign-policy benefits were considerably less clear. 

The article goes on to document a number of confusing deals through this massive humanitarian aid loophole, quite literally one large enough to sail a container ship full of goods through.   A few companies have come clean or backed out, but for the most part at the same time we were slapping sanctions on places like Iran, we were selling them cigs, internet, and soda...and still are.

Given the state of the economy right now, I can see why the Obama administration would want to look the other way on some of the licenses they supplied for exemptions for exports.  Those do equal jobs back here in the states.  But this exemption law has been in place since 2000, and that's a whole lot of moral ambiguity to push during and including the entire Bush administration's duration and the good years we had.  Apparently they didn't mention any of this.

Yet another place where we play both sides of the game.  Funny how that works.

Method To The Madness

Brian Beutler takes a crack at explaining why Republicans gave in on so much during the lame duck session.

One X-factor in the Dems' run of lame duck wins was the GOP. They didn't exactly make it easy for Dems to do stuff...but they could've made it harder. Much harder. They ceded back hours of time; they handed Dems the food-safety bill after Dems basically botched it; they wrote this high-dudgeon letter vowing to block all Dem initiatives until taxes and spending were resolved, but then basically didn't.

I think there were a few reasons for this. Part of it was that they knew Dems had more time on their hands than most people realized, and were willing to eat into it. Another was that, with the election over, there was little value added to blocking everything, particularly for moderate Republicans.

But Republicans must at some level have understood that some of these things weren't going away. DADT would've stayed on the agenda. 9/11 responders would have stayed on the agenda. DREAM will stay on the agenda. And I'm guessing they made the simple calculation that it would be easier and wiser to give Dems these victories now, rather than fight it out with them publicly next after the GOP takes over the House with a caucus that's divided over these things.

Now the issues are off the table, and that creates more space for them to set the agenda.

It's an interesting theory, but one that has more than a few holes in it.   Lisa Murkowski is a big part of the reason why things went so badly for the GOP.  Nobody could have expected her to basically vote for everything Obama wanted to see pass.  She was an extra vote that nullified Mark Kirk's automatic no, and then Mark Kirk turned around with the President a couple of times.

The real issue was that retiring Republican senators -- and those forced out by Tea Party primaries like Robert Bennett -- told the Republican caucus to go to hell in one final spate of pique.  It wasn't "Republicans were trying to get issues off the table", it was the last of the moderate Senate Republicans telling the Tea Party to go intercourse themselves with a rusty chainsaw.

What goes around, comes around.  That's what happened.  Obama used these departing senators to get things done.

Oh, and Republicans wanted to just go home already.  So yeah, they folded.  They figure they have a much larger and nastier hand to play come January, and they're right.  Besides, the Village was beginning to actually call the Republicans out on stopping Obama's agenda just to spite him, especially on the START treaty (and eventually the 9/11 first responders legislation too.)  Those were lose-lose battles for the GOP and DADT repeal was going that direction too.

They did cut their losses, but Republicans broke ranks for the first real time with nothing to lose anymore.  Obama won the lame duck big time.

All the more reason to expect Republicans will overplay their hand to exact their pounds of flesh come January.

Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief

The wealth gap in 2009 between the top 1% and the average American household rose to record levels thanks to the housing bubble exploding in the face of America's shrinking middle class.

The richest 1% of U.S. households had a net worth 225 times greater than that of the average American household in 2009, according to analysis conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. That's up from the previous record of 190 times greater, which was set in 2004.

The widening gap came even as wealthy households' average net worth tumbled 27% -- to about $14 million -- between 2007 to 2009. That's the first time that they suffered a decline since the three-year period of 1992 to 1995. 

Meanwhile, the average family's net worth plunged 41% -- to just $62,200 -- from 2007 to 2009, according to EPI's calculations.

"The typical person lost more because a bigger percentage of their wealth in 2007 had been the value of their home," said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with EPI.

The rich took a significant wealth hit during the financial crisis absolutely, but the average American household lost 40% of its value in the same time period.  And now in 2010 the wealthiest Americans have recovered nicely while the typical American family went nowhere.  I'd bet any economist that the 225 time multiplier went up in 2010, the only question in my mind is by how much.

And in 2011 remember that home prices will continue to decline for many Americans, making this problem even worse.

We've got a long way to go just to get back to the inequality of 2004.


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