Sunday, July 30, 2006

Please, please reduce collateral damage

Israel may be waging a war of self defense, but their military capabilities are significantly more powerful and should therefore be used with more restraint if they wish to retain any kind of international support. Attacks that flood the Mediterranean with fuel oil and attacks that kill 37 children indicate to me that Israel has gone beyond the point of reason and calculated retribution, because these consequences could have been avoided had they been more thoughtfully planned. The carelessness can be compared to our administration's stupidity in thinking that the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms for ousting Saddam; Israel thinks it can continue claiming self-defense as its aggression mounts. But the rest of the world sees things differently, and Israel risks losing its paucity of international support.

Such myopia often betrays an ulterior motive, and I cannot support such complete coldheartedness and lack of any compassion. Again, firepower is so lopsided in this war that Israel has crossed the line with attacks such as this.

Update: Billmon says it better than I could.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Why corporate earnings have gone up, but wages haven't

If you feel the pocketbook-pinch while your company is having record quarters, this may provide some explanation.

Boiling a frog

Are we slowly headed towards an energy crisis as bad as the oil embargo of the '70s? This post on CalculatedRisk has an interesting chart that should give you pause. It graphs oil as a percent of GDP which should abstract out some inflationary effects, and the chart seems to follow the same trend as this one from Wikipedia, but with a smoothing function that hides small-scale changes (such as our recent spikes of >$80/barrel).

The chart shows very similar shifts from 1973-1974 as we see in 2004-2005, although the history is obviously different. From Wikipedia:

A few months later, the crisis eased. The embargo was lifted in March 1974 after negotiations at the Washington Oil Summit, but the effects of the energy crisis lingered on throughout the 1970s. The price of energy continued increasing in the following year, amid the weakening competitive position of the dollar in world markets; and no single factor did more to produce the soaring price inflation of the 1970s in the United States. [emphasis mine]
Prices spiked again in 1980 when political uncertainty rocked the region:
OPEC-member states in the developing world withheld the prospect of nationalization of the companies' holdings in their countries. Most notably, the Saudis acquired operating control of Aramco, fully nationalizing it in 1980 under the leadership of Ahmed Zaki Yamani. As other OPEC nations followed suit, the cartel's income soared.
Nationalizing an entire industry is not something that sits well with US investors (or politicians). But are we starting to see a pattern? What is coming if history repeats itself does not bode well for the US, and we're exacerbating the few strained relationships we still have by our actions in the Middle East and South America. Unfortunately this time it seems we won't notice the pain until it's too late thanks to willful blindness such as this.

Wal-Mart leaves Germany

Wal-Mart has decided to give up on making a profit in Germany, which doesn't surprise me based on personal experience. When Mrs. Hippie and I lived in Munich, the only place I could think of that would carry flour tortillas was Wal-Mart. (This was before I began my personal boycott of the chain, not just for its environmental impact and abuse of our tax system, but also for its products of inferior quality.) The store was quite unusual looking, in that it defied German standards but couldn't live up to its American standards either; it was a two-story store, an still took much more ground space than most German retailers.

The parts of Germany I explored prided themselves in open-air markets and specialty shops that focus on a small range of high-quality products. Grocery stores were compact, and while I was actually able to find things like Dr. Pepper in the one I went to, it still had a very small footprint on the community. To me there's something unnatural about being able to buy a bicycle, a lawnmower and fresh fruit in the same store, and this concept is even more unappealing to many Europeans.

But Wal-Mart's failure also has to do with its philosophy of squeezing its labor force just as much as it pressures suppliers. I suspect this is ultimately what caused them to have to leave Germany, a nation with a stronger social system than ours. You can see Wal-Mart's refusal to bend to wage pressure in the US too - unlike Home Depot, Best Buy, or even Target, Wal-Mart doesn't have any stores in Manhattan.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Austin housing market

CNNMoney.com has a new article on their recurring topic of trying to dissect housing market valuations across the company, but the lack of details sent me on a search for their sources. Specifically I seemed to recall that they declared Austin undervalued last year, which I was able to verify. In 2005 two different sources claimed that Austin was undervalued by ~5%:

The second source linked has a wealth of other information worth reading which I will return to. Specifically on housing their projection for 2005 seemed abnormal given past years of slower growth. Since 2002 home prices have been fairly flat, growing at a rate of 2% or less, and I personally saw no indication in 2005 that this should change suddenly. Based on today's report from CNNMoney we can observe that in fact that 2005 was still a slow-growth year, which is a good thing since we won't experience as many of the locally deleterious effects of the bursting national housing bubble.

However I wanted to dissect something else: housing as a source of rental income. Going back to the Local Market Monitor analysis from 2005, the report identifies low demand in the overbuilt apartment and multi-family markets, with a slowing of in-migration tracking the cyclical business demand for new employees, especially in the tech sector. Page two shows the unusual age distribution of the city compared to the national average, and the more mobile age range of 20-34 will migrate elsewhere to find jobs.

Renting is the most attractive option for those living in Austin who do have jobs but are uncertain about job security, a flat housing market and increasing interest rates. Excess apartment capacity may appeal to many renters via reduced prices, however market strategy leads me to believe that the inimitable qualities of having a yard and privacy would make rental houses operate in their own competitive market, for the same reason that price is a secondary factor in considering purchasing an Apple product vs. a Dell product. Many condos on the other hand may not have this luxury. And apartment occupancy rates will begin to stabilize (with prices subsequently increasing) as high interest rates and market volatility push new population growth towards renting instead of owning. Even with price as a secondary factor in demand for rental homes, they will benefit from apartment demand pressure.

Lastly, the Local Market Monitor national analysis from early 2006 shows Austin as having an extremely large increase in housing permits, at 62%. This may be in reaction to the projected 5% market undervaluation from 2005 that didn't pan out, which in turn means that if these permits were used then we will have a glut of unsold houses later in 2006. The Austin area has seen the largest new home growth in the suburbs and exurbs, so there is a higher risk of price depreciation in those areas. This in turn poses a risk to overall home prices in the Austin area, but it may not impact rent pricing for rental houses. The appeal of suburb/exurb residences usually comes from the lowered house/land/tax costs to the owner, and clearly not from location.

So in summary, I believe that houses with good accessibility to Austin businesses and recreation will be attractive as rental property. Home owners who are considering moving should regard the lack of past price appreciation, the potential for price depreciation in 2006/2007, and the attractiveness of rental houses as reasons to keep their house if they can afford the risk of occasional rental vacancy.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Texas beats California in wind energy production

This blows my mind. Perhaps Texas can be known for something other than big oil, and a green energy initiative could attract companies that might otherwise think Texas is too anchored to entrenched telecommunications, defense and fossil-fuel energy industries that actively resist burgeoning, iconoclastic industries.

While I have many reservations about gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell that I will post in the near future, I laud his aim of making Texas a well-educated, clean and progressive atmosphere that attracts next-generation industries.

Priceless

This video by Sarah McLachlan is sensitive and compelling. These kinds of things always force a lot of introspection for me, ultimately digging down to the meaning of life. But I even get stuck on some of the surface questions. Do I help others now when I have less to give, or donate later when my investments have helped grow a more sizable contribution? Do I donate to countries that suffer from religious extremism, hoping to help break the self-propagating spiral of poverty and hopelessness that begets more attention to the afterlife than the current one, or do I donate to places that are less judgmental with more potential for civilized growth? Do I donate in an area where I'm more likely to directly benefit, such as local schools and extracurricular mentoring programs, or is that too selfish to be noble?

Until I figure these things out, I wind up donating something else that I value: my time. If you can't donate money, volunteer to help at a local food bank, Habitat for Humanity, or any locally accessible charity.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Followup to ABA recommendation of Congress suit against Bush

Amazing, lawmakers are actually following through on the ABA recommendation to give Congress the power to sue the president, as I discussed earlier. Arlen Specter, a powerful but frequently obedient Republican lawmaker is surprisingly working on legislation "which will...authorize the Congress to undertake judicial review of those signing statements with the view to having the president's acts declared unconstitutional" (Associated Press via MyWay.com).

Austin realtors scrutinized by FTC for monopolistic practices

From CNNMoney.com:

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said Thursday that the Austin Board of Realtors agreed to end a policy the FTC claims violates anti-trust laws and harms consumers by inflating costs.
No surprise there. This will also help home prices from being overinflated in Austin since a 6% commission/skim combined with a high property turnover rate will invariably cause prices to rise rapidly, since people try to pay their realtor by increasing listing prices. Again, from the article:
The cost of selling a house has risen far faster than inflation.
The ruling is certainly good news.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Why not draft articles of impeachment?

The American Bar Association is considering measures to suggest to Congress to restore some of the separation of powers that has been trampled by the Bush administration. In particular this article discusses their efforts to give Congress the right to sue the President to either override or require more explanation of his ridiculous signing statements, such as was attached to the passed anti-torture legislation that gave Bush the appearance of wishing to disregard the legislation.

The Bush administration has also written in response to powerful cases before the Supreme Court, such as the recent Hamdan decision, in which the Bush administration claims that the Court's decision has no influence on any other controversial programs, including the illegal NSA wiretapping activities. This demonstrates a lack of good faith towards the other branches of our government, and they are beginning to fight back. Even if the Republicans maintain control of one or both houses of Congress this fall, I imagine that some of the more renegade (maverick?) Congress members will begin to show some courage, if only as a prop for their '08 presidential campaigns.

My question for these members and the ABA is why are they seeking a difficult legislative and judicial route for challenging the Executive when they could simply begin drafting articles of impeachment? There is no shortage of material there for taking down this administration, and the coup could be swift and just. But that would require a Congress that believes in America and what our country really stands for, not just those wishing to line their pockets with contracts, donations and pork-barrel projects. I have very little faith.

Update: John Conyers, one of the few Representatives with principles, has been right on target with a number of issues ranging from censure, impeachment and the NSA wiretapping scandal. He has recently filed a lawsuit against Bush for illegally signing into law a bill which had not yet passed both chambers of Congress. This isn't an earth-shaker, but it will help give a feel for how much traction Congress has in asserting its authority as a co-equal branch of the government.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Excellent batch of news today

  • The judge hearing an EFF case challenging the legality of AT&T's involvement in the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal has refused to dismiss the lawsuit as requested by the Bush administration on the grounds of state secrets, a hitherto recently rarely used - and now abused - strong-arm tactic along the same lines as signing statements and assertions of inherent presidential "constitutional authority". The lawsuit specifically targets AT&T as being complicit in the proclaimed lawbreaking, and the administration was hoping to intervene to dismiss the case.

    The Supreme Court's Hamdan decision likely had a major impact on this court's willingness to challenge the powerful Bush administration and those who genuflect to it. I can write more to summarize Hamdan from the variety of sources I've read if my reader(s) are interested.
  • The majority of Americans do not want us to get involved in the current turmoil in the Middle East, and feel that Bush has not handled the situation well. American sentiment is really our only chance to prevent Bush from starting another illegal war, or from engaging a legal but horribly botched and incompetent war (since they seem incapable of competent execution on things like Iraq, Katrina, No Child Left Behind, Social Security, balancing our budget, Medicare/Medicaid, etcetera).

Massive Tubes - by DJ Ted Stevens

I didn't feel like posting about the idiotic remarks by a man too ignorant for his powerful position in Congress, but this video really helps summarize in a fun an catchy way how stupid Ted Stevens is. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Wow, I didn't think about this...

I've definitely considered the possibility that Iran and/or Syria were involved in helping ignite recent tensions. They both support Hezbollah, and they're both apt to do short-sighted things that seem completely irrational. However this post by emptywheel at The Next Hurrah is quite fascinating in that it posits the intentional and calculated decision Iran made to get involved assumed that war with the US was inevitable. So much for our tough-talking cowboy diplomacy. Imagine what would happen if North Korea decided it was destined to be attacked?

"The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose." - James A. Baldwin.

Big Government

Whether it's the Schiavo mess, restrictions to personal reproductive choices, or our state of borrow-and-spend budgeting, many people who are small-government types are starting to distrust the neocon-tainted GOP. I think that the argument over gay marriage is similarly entangled with our government's inability to keep its eyes out of our bedrooms and its hands out of our pockets. And stories like these make it clear why we cannot accept restrictions to gay marriage simply because domestic partner options are sufficient.

But in a broader scope, we cannot accept restrictions to gay marriage because our government was designed to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority, especially when greater freedoms are sought. (I wonder, how closely does this mirror arguments presented by the NRA?)

It seems like we're in a bizarro world, however. In cases like reproductive rights the majority has been subjugated by the tyranny of a temporarily more powerful minority; so it's no wonder why Connecticut is rebelling against Joe Lieberman. Let's hope to see more of the same call to arms.

Hello!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Why I love Dennis Kucinich

I'm an idealist, and the closest I come to pragmatism is cynicism. I have yet to resign myself to "this is just the way things work." Which is why I will not support Hillary in '08 (or ever, possibly), and why I'm leery of Obama Barack's recent pandering. It's also why I said back in '04 that I would prefer another four years of Bush than the possibility of eight years of Lieberman. On the flip side my idealism is why I supported Ralph Nader in '00 and Kucinich in '04 (and later Kerry). Kucinich is a genuinely good person, and tries to do genuine things for the public good. He does not come across as a politician, the way Kerry seemed to, and his legislative efforts often involve things such as this:

Dennis Kucinich (Democrat, Ohio) and Wayne Gilchrest (Republican, Maryland are circulating a letter in the House of Representatives that calls on Michael Levitt, the US health secretary, to require H5N1 sequences and other publicly funded research data "to be promptly deposited in a publicly accessible database, such as GenBank".

The letter has now been sent, signed by 16 members of Congress: you can read it here.

A broader article from The Next Hurrah goes into more detail on recent happenings regarding H5N1 (avian flu). The folks from this site also helped start the non-partisan Flu Wiki.

Back to the original topic of idealism, my favorite for '08 is Russ Feingold. Unlike Kucinich however, he actually stands a chance.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Israel's actions...

I'm starting to think that Israel is attempting to use annealing to break through the tensions with Iran's nuclear program by intentionally luring them into battle. A return attack that disables Iran would then be "justified", and there would be less backlash from the US/UN than if Israel were to use an unprovoked preemptive attack.

I believe this based upon how eager Israel has been to destroy civilian targets in Lebanon as "retribution", well beyond what would be necessary to limit Hezbollah's fighting efficacy. Israel is also testing the limits of what they can get away with and still retain support from the US and key allies in the UN. Here are some key quotes from the recent Washington Post article:

The leader of Hezbollah, Hasan Nasrallah, subsequently threatened to engage in "open war" against Israel. ... the Israeli military was attempting to force the government "to deploy its army in south Lebanon, take responsibility for the kidnapped, return them" and fulfill a U.N. resolution calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah.
...
The president of Iran warned Israel that any assault on Syria would be perceived as an attack on the entire Islamic world, and would be met with a "crushing response," wire services reported.
...
Noha Ibrahim, 48, interrupted him. "They want to wipe out the resistance, and that's impossible,"
Israel isn't trying to wipe out the resistance, they know they can't but they've been able to "contain" the local resistance much better than they've contained Iran's nuclear capabilities. Instead Israel's recent stance is a gambit intended to give Israel justification for destroying the recent buildup of power that other areas in the Middle East have aggressively pursued. For comparison, read here for details on the 1981 attack of the Iraq Osirak reactor. Here's a notable quote that solidifies my theory regarding Iran, though I'd love to discuss in more detail with people who were cognizant when this actually happened.
At the time, the attack was widely criticized. Israel responded that its actions were self-defensive and thus justifiable under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Many critics, however, rejected the idea of "pre-emptive self-defense". France, in particular, was outraged over the loss of a French national as a result of the attack, and since the raid diplomatic ties between France and Israel have remained strained.
Update: An interesting viewpoint of why the situation is escalating.
Update: An editorial from the Israeli perspective helps broaden the picture so we see that both sides are being monstrous.
Update: An earlier article by Digby which I just now read takes these ideas further:
"...I would not find it suprising for the Bush administration hard liners to work in concert with the Israeli hard-liners to gin up a crisis that ends up "requiring" action against Iran. It is to the political advantage of both groups to do so. I certainly don't know that this has happened but from watching this administration operate for the past six years I do know that it could happen. And that's scary enough."

Collapse of a monoculture

Monocultures are extremely unhealthy environments, which some of you may be able to relate to in the workplace, your community, or even simply witnessing a government incapable of extending a hand to those in need as we saw in New Orleans. Currently there is a clear monoculture of control in the US:

  • the administration
  • cabinets/departments dominated by cronyism
  • a military General in charge of the civilian CIA
  • no-bid contracts to Halliburton and its off-shore tax-haven subsidiaries
  • a GOP-controlled Congress
  • an increasingly stacked Supreme Court
The list goes on, unfortunately. But many who once felt that consolidated control was necessary for effective and efficient execution are coming to the conclusion that this administration is not capable of defending our nation or solving our country's domestic problems. So statements like these by administrative shills, which have long been commonplace, are now being scrutinized by those who can no longer trust these as non-threatening sign of healthy unity amongst those in power.

Update: Case in point, from Reuters - "The Pentagon's top lawyer drew bipartisan fire on Tuesday," during Senate hearings on his confirmation to a federal appeals court, because of his support for overly aggressive interrogation tactics of suspected terrorists.

Mr. T redirects his pity to those less fortunate

Mr. T is adjusting his image, according to an interview by the Associated Press, and is removing his signature gold chains after having spent time with Katrina victims. His quotes as usual are just amazing:

"I saw some, I call it 'sorry celebrities.' They'll go down there and hook up with the people to take a photo-op. I said, 'How disgusting.' If you're not going to go down there with a check and a hammer and a nail to help the people, don't go down there."
When questioned on his potentially contradictory image of a tough guy with a heart of, well, gold, Mr. T gives a classic response:
"Yes, I am qualified to beat people up. But I am pretty intelligent,"
He's great on late-night shows too, so watch if you ever get the chance. The interviewers don't know what to make of him and the result is always bewildering and hilarious. He walks circles around the host with his wit and even charm, and his personality dominates the set.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Time for some schadenfreude

This Radio DJ hangs up on Ann Coulter after she called in an hour and a half late for her spot and then proceeds to be a bitch about how important her time is.

Friday, July 07, 2006

NH phone jamming scandal

Recall when there were reports of phone jamming of the New Hampshire Democrats' efforts to get out the vote on election day? Turns out some significant Republicans were involved and several cases are already under way. I also recall that some Democrats had been charged with slashing tires of vans used in Republicans' similar efforts to get out the vote, which is despicable. But those Dems were never directed, encouraged or supported by the party leadership, much less the White House. Read more from the Next Hurrah regarding the recent implication of White House involvement in the phone jamming scandal.

This may seem minor to some but it is so consistent with the bullying and heavy-handed tactics used by the Administration that it really does start to lend credence to discussion of widespread voter fraud. No wonder why the GOP-controlled Congress killed efforts to renew the Voting Rights Act. As Bush's manipulative and malicious storylines continue unraveling (such as compassionate conservative, no child left behind, war as a last resort), expect attempts from GOP members to distance themselves. But the loyalty demanded by Bush is going to make it hard to erase images like these.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

McCain 2008?

I hope McCain runs for president in 2008, because even though I haven't supported him since he caved to Bush's smear tactics in 2000 I think that he can help pin an ugly identity on the GOP. Namely if they won't support him, and he's the only "maverick" willing to break ranks with neocons with such things as the anti-torture bill, then the supporters of "centrist" bullshit such as Bush's "uniter not a divider" election-year mantra will be exposed for the frauds they are.

Bush has been one of the most divisive presidents in recent years, and is an extremely stubborn man; this alone isn't a negative characteristic, but it is very contradictory with Bush's original platform (as was his declaration that our country shouldn't be involved in nation-building, period). McCain can't win because the conservatives see him as a maverick and the liberals see him as this - a weak panderer for attention.

I'm such an ass

I picked a fight with a blogger on the Austin Centrist today. I feel bad but I'm willing to play this game of chicken because I know I won't lose, so I called him on his bleating with this:

What kind of scale do you use at home such that, no matter how much you load down one side, the other side never has to budge to reach equilibrium? Defense-heavy Murtha is a much more significant asset towards getting this country off of its clearly wrong track than is Joe Lieberman. Joe's no friend of progress and we'll be stuck in this mess for a long time without a real backbone.

Name the sources of your belief, and I'll take you seriously and read each of them. I'll then post mine, which you'll read, and we'll have met in the center. Deal?
I feel cynically empowered :)

Jane Hamsher: the searing coals on the andiron at firedoglake.com

Steve Gilliard from the News Blog writes this great piece about a piece about Jane Hamsher. You're the 4th level I guess, but it's still relevant! Here's where I insert my witty and conveniently related personal story: Jane is the woman whose fiery attitude got me interested in blogging. This was a no holds barred beast of a woman, I say with utmost respect. I don't feel right using the word bitch, which admittedly flows from the tongue better, because I don't wish to present myself as being afraid of her. Instead I respect her immensely, and I feel more personally empowered because of her and my Dad.

My dad let me be cynical but not apathetic, however Jane has made me cynically optimistic. Which basically means I'm an evil smirking bastard laughing at the misfortune and undoing of other political establishments, but hey, that's who I am. The fact that I occasionally have anything positive to say is a clear indication, for those who know me, that I think things are going extremely well!

Enjoy the article, and take part in experiencing the firebrand from firedoglake, Jane Hamsher.

Nature vs. Nurture?

More scientific evidence is discovered on a regular basis to confirm that homosexuality isn't a fabricated product of one's environment, nor is it simply a "choice". While there's not really any hope for religious fundies who disregard science altogether, the conservatives who are afraid of homosexuality by way of ignorance can rest assured that being raised by a gay couple won't turn hapless foster children gay as if it were some kind of infectious disease. But don't get too excited about moving to Arkansas just yet, they still have some growing to do.