Friday, September 16, 2011

A Jobs Crisis We Can Solve

By Sarah van Gelder

President Obama is proposing important steps toward doing what Americans have been asking for since the financial collapse of 2008—putting a focus on families and jobs.

To create real prosperity, though, Washington will have to deal with three main drivers of our economic malaise: massive inequality such that the super wealthy and big corporations are sitting on piles of cash while ordinary Americans’ can barely get by; enormous ongoing expenditures for wars; and assaults on our natural systems, including our climate, such that costs of everything from insurance to food is rising while our security is threatened.

Without families buying things, the economy can’t revive and create jobs. That’s why our solutions need to focus on ways to support small businesses, which create the bulk of the jobs and keep money flowing locally instead of flowing to distant corporate headquarters.

In Cleveland, a local foundation, inner-city residents, hospital and university collaborated to create locally rooted cooperatives that supply these and other institutions with solar energy, eco-friendly laundry services and locally grown vegetables. The workers from this rust-belt city are the owners, and they’re creating jobs that can’t be outsourced.

Despite the credit crunch afflicting businesses nationwide, there’s one place where credit continues to flow: North Dakota, which has the nation’s only state-owned bank. The Bank of North Dakota partners with community banks to get credit to the state’s farms and local businesses. The results are the lowest unemployment rate in the country and a state budget surplus, when most other states are facing fiscal crises.

When local businesses and family farms thrive, the benefits ripple out into the community. These local enterprises buy from other local business, driving demand that creates even more jobs. This sort of economic activity results in prosperity based on real goods and services, not speculative bubbles.

Many young people are focusing less on jobs than on DIY livelihoods made up partly of paid work and partly of doing more themselves -- growing food, making and fixing things, and starting micro-businesses. They’re finding creative ways to make do with less and to share and exchange with friends and neighbors.

The best of these diverse livelihoods tap into the rising demand for goods and services that are sustainable—grown or made close to home without toxins and without pollution, produced by workers who are fairly compensated, and made by companies with a long-term commitment to the well-being of the human and ecological community.

But how about President Obama and the U.S. Congress? What can we expect from our federal government?

In a country still the wealthiest in the world, we should insist that our government invest in education, restore failing infrastructure and lead the transition to a clean-energy economy. Single-payer health care could provide security to would-be entrepreneurs while ending excessive premiums and out-of-pocket medical costs that are creating a major drag on the economy. Trade policies should be re-crafted to reverse offshoring of jobs. We could share jobs more broadly, so there is enough work and free time to go around. And we should preserve intact a safety net that keeps millions of seniors, children, disabled and unemployed from complete destitution.

With a fair tax policy—like the tax rate for the wealthy in effect during the Eisenhower years—we could pay for these investments. And we could save money by diverting our tax dollars from corporate subsidies and the world’s largest military budget to investments in our future.

These are policies that large majorities of Americans support. Groups like the recently formed movement to Rebuild the Dream are mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people to counter the lopsided clout of large corporations and the very wealthy and get these sort of family-friendly policies enacted.

We don’t have to be satisfied with unemployment and a stagnant economy. By rebuilding our local economies, changing policies that only benefit the super-rich and investing in a transition to an environmentally friendly society, the United States can still achieve real prosperity.
Sarah van Gelder is executive editor and co-founder of YES! Magazine. Her article on jobs and livelihoods appears in the Fall 2011 issue of YES!
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 9/11

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The So-Called Personhood Amendment

By Rims Barber

The law of unintended consequences should temper our resolve when tinkering with laws impacting people’s lives. The consequences of adopting Initiative 26 -- the proposed Personhood Amendment to the Mississippi Constitution -- are far-reaching and potentially devastating to women’s health.

In the 33 years since the first in vitro baby was born, hundreds of Mississippi couples were able to have the baby of their dreams through in vitro fertilization (IVF). Since more than one egg is harvested and fertilized to achieve a successful IVF pregnancy, making all the embryos “people” under Mississippi law will make it difficult if not impossible to continue offering IVF treatment in our state.

When embryos are created and frozen as a part of reproductive fertility treatments, these embryos will be legally persons if this initiative passes, and consequently will have all the rights due persons. The problems resulting from this change would be many.

If embryos are people, is the freezing of embryos considered child abuse? If so, what is the role of the Department of Human Services?

Will these embryos be given names (non-birth certificates)?

If one of these embryos “dies” in some part of the in vitro fertilization process, what kind of investigation will be conducted? Could the technician be tried for manslaughter? Are the county coroners equipped to do this task? What kind of death certificate will be issued?

Are the Chancery Courts ready to apply Termination of Parental Rights laws to these embryos? Adoption laws? Home visits as required by adoption law?

Does this Amendment apply only to embryos conceived in the state of Mississippi, or to any embryo entering the state (having been conceived elsewhere)? If they are transported to another state do they lose their personhood? Citizenship?

What are the property rights of these embryos? Inheritance rights? Under state law, there are many places where “person” is referenced.

If more than five unrelated embryos/persons are housed in a single building, will it have to be licensed as a child residential care home?

In Pearl, there is an ordinance limiting occupancy to two persons in a bedroom. If a pregnant woman is two people, can she be in the same bed as her husband?

Moreover, IVF is not the only medical treatment that could be prevented by passage of the Personhood Amendment. Effective treatment of tubal pregnancies, severe preeclampsia, and molar gestation could be prevented. New stem cell treatments for patients with Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and cancers like leukemia and choriocarcinoma would also be at risk.

If a physician is faced with the choice saving a woman’s life or refusing to harm an embryo/person, could he or she be sued for malpractice no matter what choice was made?

Do Mississippians really want more lawyers interfering in a family’s personal medical decisions?

I have long been convinced that anyone involved in politics should have a good sense of humor. This issue clearly requires one. Let’s not be so focused on our feelings about abortion that we do something ridiculous when voting in November.

Barber is director of the Mississippi Human Services Agenda.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the Mississippi Forum 9/11

**This op-ed ran in the Jackson Clarion Ledger. You can read the response to it here.**

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Keystone XL Pipeline: A Bad Idea

By Billy Parish

Families across the middle swath of our country -- from North Dakota to Louisiana -- have a disturbing question to ask themselves: “Do we want a leaky pipeline pumping 800,000 barrels of oil a day running through our community?”

The proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would transport tar sands -- a mixture of sand, clay, water and a dense tar-like form of petroleum, from the Boreal forests of Alberta to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico region -- is a 1,700-mile time bomb that either will be activated or defused in the coming days.

The pipeline would travel directly across the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest underground aquifer in North America, which provides drinking water and irrigation for much of the Plains region. The thick raw “bitumen” tar sands are mixed with a volatile natural gas, making a highly corrosive, acidic and unstable combination -- not something you’d want flowing in enormous quantities anywhere near where you sit down for dinner with your family.

The fact that the predecessor pipeline and its pumping stations have leaked a dozen times this past year should be enough to make anyone question the intelligence of this scheme. Can farmers, families, cities and ecosystems really afford an on-land spill similar to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

But this is a problem that should worry us all. The threat to immediate public health is compounded by the threat the tar sands pose to our planet’s atmosphere. Bizarre weather patterns are playing out the climate change crisis -- Irene, record floods and droughts around the world, freak tornados and wildfires. The atmosphere is changing, and the accelerating use of fossil fuels is a major driver.

The tar sands represent the second-largest pool of carbon on the planet, second only to the oil remaining under the desert of Saudi Arabia. If we actually go through with clear-cutting enormous tracts of Boreal forests, processing the thick tar with steam and water, mixing it with natural gas and transporting, refining and burning it, it would take the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere from nearly 400 parts per million to 600 parts per million, something leading scientists have been sounding the alarm about for years.

As James Hansen, NASA’s top climatologist, put it, if we have any chance of getting back to a stable climate, “unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground.” In other words, “If the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over.”

The project developers want us to believe we need these tar sands -- that there is no alternative. They want us to forget that the solar industry employs more Americans than U.S. steel production, and that entrepreneurs nationwide, like myself and my team at Solar Mosaic, are finding creative ways to help communities prosper through clean energy.

Because of their belief in better alternatives to our energy needs, 1,200 people have been arrested these past few weeks while peacefully protesting in front of the White House. These are people of every generation -- religious leaders, union workers and business people. Actors Danny Glover and Darryl Hannah joined what has become the largest environmental civil disobedience in a generation.

The two individuals with exclusive power to stop construction of the pipeline are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Because the pipeline would cross the border, the secretary of state and, ultimately, the president must sign a certificate of “national interest” for the development to begin.

If jobs are the president’s big concern, let’s not set the planet on fire for what the State Department estimates would be only 5,000-6,000 jobs. With even a modest carbon fee, the president could raise enough money to support an Apollo-style program to rebuild America’s lagging infrastructure and really catalyze transition to a clean-energy economy.

Your phone call this week will actually make a difference. Even if we can’t protest in front of the White House, we can step up and speak out.

Our water, our health, our environment and the natural beauty of a 1,700-mile swath of America need you.
Parish is president of Solar Mosaic, a solar energy marketplace, and author of the forthcoming book, “Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money and Community in a Changing World.”
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 9/11

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Veto of Billboard Bill Should Stand

By John Regenbogen

In the final hours of the regular legislative session this past spring, the Missouri General Assembly added highly controversial, pro-billboard language to an otherwise uncontroversial transportation bill. The bill passed on the last day of session but fortunately was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon because the bill substantially weakens the ability of local communities to restrict billboards.

The governor’s veto is not the last word, however, as the General Assembly begins a veto session September 14 and leaders appear intent to try to override the veto by garnering votes of two-thirds of the legislature. Ironically, while all indications are that the General Assembly appears poised to finally act on a matter of basic fairness and return control of the St. Louis police department from the state to the city, it may seek to take away the right of local citizens – through their locally elected officials -- to regulate billboards according to community standards.

As the governor wrote in his veto letter, it is important for Missouri’s cities and towns to be allowed to preserve their community character in a manner that reflects local standards. A growing number of communities across Missouri feel they have accumulated enough billboards and have enacted either explicit prohibitions on new billboards or restrictive spacing and location requirements that ensure billboard blight doesn’t get out of control. From our state’s largest city, Kansas City, to rapidly growing suburbs like O’Fallon and Chesterfield, to small towns like New Haven and Defiance that depend heavily upon tourism, dozens of Missouri communities have enacted prohibitions or restrictive ordinances to protect against excessive billboard blight. But because the new language added to the transportation bill would take away this authority of local communities, the governor had no choice but to veto the bill. In fact, the bill’s extremely industry-friendly “customary use” requirement would make Missouri’s billboard law among the weakest in the nation with respect to powers of local control.

The billboard industry argues that there aren’t enough billboards in our state, which is absurd. Many Missourians feel strongly that the state has too much billboard blight and that a reduction of clutter over time will improve our communities and increase tourism. In fact, just shy of 50 percent of Missouri’s voters supported a ballot initiative in 2000 that would have prohibited new billboards anywhere in Missouri. If more Missouri communities follow the Texas model where over 300 communities have prohibited new billboards, (the fierce Texas pride in their beauty is perhaps best represented by the well-known anti-litter slogan, “Don’t Mess With Texas”) the sky won’t fall and local communities will continue to thrive, if not improve.

But the veto isn’t about the number of billboards in the state, whether we have too many or too few. Rather, it is about keeping state law intact in order to allow local governments to continue making the decisions with respect to billboards in their communities. The Missouri billboard industry may not like this law, but we must retain the common-sense notion that local communities are best able to make these local decisions. Not all communities want to take a tough stance on billboards, of course, but polling has shown that the vast majority of citizens support the strong right of local control on this issue without interference from Jefferson City.

Billboards may have a place in Missouri. But that place should not be every place. At the very least, Missouri’s local governments must retain the right to determine what is appropriate in their communities. Gov. Nixon’s veto must be upheld and the General Assembly should end its effort to put the interests of a powerful industry ahead of local communities.
Regenbogen is executive director of Scenic Missouri.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Missouri Forum. 9/11