Friday, March 6, 2009

We All Live, More Or Less, In Illinois

The antics of now thankfully former Governor Rod Blagojevich—and the jailing of his predecessor and two other former Illinois governors for corruption—resulted in the perception that Illinois is the most corrupt state.

As an FBI agent commented when the infamous tapes of Blagojevich were presented: “If it is not the most corrupt state in the United States, Illinois is certainly one hell of a competitor.”

Following that, the New York Times devoted nearly a full page to listings of comparative corruption among states.

One chart was based on local, state and federal officials convicted of federal corruption charges between 1996 and 2007. Florida topped the list followed by New York and Texas. As for my neighboring state of Connecticut—sometimes called Corrupticut after the jailing for corruption of former Governor John Rowland—it was smack in the middle, 26.

Then there was a chart based on convicted public officials per one million constituents. This was described as “perhaps a better measure”—crookedness based on one-person, one vote.

Well, North Dakota topped that list, with Alaska second—you betcha.

Then there was a chart based on the views of journalists who cover state governments. In their minds, Rhode Island, which also not long ago had a governor jailed for corruption, was Number One. Louisiana, Two. New York was pretty well down on that list—16, even below Connecticut, 12.

Back to Illinois, Chicago and that long-corrupt county in which the windy city sits, Cook County. There was a kind of contest as last year ended, on the website on Cook County’s Most Corrupt Activities of 2008.

Among the top were, of course, Blagojevich’s attempted sale of now President Obama’s Senate seat.

Also on the list was the enactment of a hefty sales tax increase—giving Cook County the highest sales tax in the country: 10.25%. Ouch.

Yeah, we pay for corruption in many ways.

Which takes us to Wall Street’s now fallen financial lions, the failed bank tycoons, the other corporate crooks in the tradition of Enron, etc.

Corrupt politicians. Corrupt financial titans.

It’s like comparing typhoid and malaria.

Both must be eradicated.

If there’s to be a civilized society there needs to be integrity and honesty.

At this point, we all live, more or less, in Illinois.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cold War Atomic Craziness

On Long Island, where I live, a bill was recently passed by the Suffolk County Legislature providing for prisoner labor to sort metal which has piled up at the former BOMARC base in Westhampton.

The legislature’s presiding officer said that Suffolk County could make millions of dollars by selling the metal as scrap.

The base was transferred to the county after its closing and has been used as a firing range for police, an impoundment yard for vehicles and for storage of old equipment and county records. .

To get some background on the BOMARC base, I went to Google, putting in the words BOMARC and Suffolk. Among the first websites listed was that of the New York State Military Museum which related: “BOMARC, the missile site in Westhampton was operated by the 6th Air Defense Missile Squadron of the USAF Air Defense Command. It was operational with the first version of the BOMARC missile, the BOMARC A, from 1959 through 1964. The base has 56 missile shelters. Each missile was armed with a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead.”

What was that? “Each missile was armed with a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead.” The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima had the TNT equivalent of 13 kilotons.

There were further details on other websites. They told of how the mission of the BOMARC base in Westhampton—and BOMARC bases set up all over the nation—was to blast Soviet bombers from the sky. Why use nuclear-tipped missiles? That way a direct hit need not be made. Once a BOMARC missile came close to the Soviet bombers, the atomic weapon on its tip would be detonated and destroy not one but part of a formation of bombers.

A November 21, 1958 front-page article in the New York Times (downloadable from the New York Times’ online archive) was headlined: “Riverhead Missile Base to Get Bomarcs With Nuclear Warheads by ’60.” It began: “The Suffolk Bomarc Base, ninety miles east of New York City, will be equipped with anti-aircraft missiles carrying nuclear warheads. The missiles, which have a range up to 250 miles, will be launchable from the site near Riverhead, L.I.” There would be 56 Bomarc missiles “at the ready.” The article spoke of there being, a day earlier, a “press conference by Army and civilian engineers” and “Air Force and Boeing Airplane Company specialists” at which these “experts confirmed that the Bomarc base would soon be fully operational atomically.” The story further noted: “No special provisions have been made for atomic hazards; they are not needed, the engineers said.”

Curiosity led me to information on the Nike bases I knew were set up on Long Island around the same time. BOMARC was an Air Force project and its acronym combined the names of its developers: BO for Boeing and MARC for Michigan Aerospace Research Center. Nike was an Army missile program and named for the mythical Greek goddess of victory.

There are numerous websites about the Nike bases established on Long Island and elsewhere in the U.S. and how the Nike Hercules model was nuclear-tipped—with bases on Long Island armed with nuclear-tipped Nikes including those in Rocky Point, Amityville, Lido Beach, Oyster Bay and Lloyd Harbor. While a main reason for the BOMARC base in Westhampton was to intercept Soviet bombers headed to New York City, the Nike bases were primarily set up to defend facilities on Long Island considered strategic, among them, according to the New York State Military Museum website, Brookhaven National Laboratory and military industrial facilities including the then Grumman Corp. and Republic Aviation factories.

There were three types of Nike nuclear tips: “low-yield” 3-kiloton; “medium yield” 20-kiloton; and “high yield” 30-kiloton

I put together an article for Long Island newspapers on the metal scavenging project at the ex-BOMARC base and referred to some of the history of nuclear-tipped missiles on Long Island. Editors inquired: how could this be? If these nuclear-tipped missiles were detonated over and around Long Island, wouldn’t there be impacts to people on the ground? Absolutely. We would have had warheads with vast explosive power—comparable to and greater than the Hiroshima atomic bomb—detonating all around us, spreading deadly radioactive fall-out.

With all the violence of recent years—and our concerns of violence ahead—we should give thanks that somehow we got through this Cold War atomic nightmare.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Killer Tobacco

It’s high time the U.S. government regulate tobacco for what it is—a dangerous drug.

There’s a bill that’s been in Congress that would empower the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the content and marketing of tobacco products.

The FDA would not be able to ban tobacco products outright under the bill, or to eliminate in them nicotine—that ingredient which hooks smokers, narcotic like.

But the FDA would be able to mandate a reduction in levels of nicotine and other harmful ingredients—cancer-causing ingredients—in cigarettes. And it would be able to restrict tobacco advertising.

The legislation has been strongly endorsed by the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free kids, and other organizations around the country.

In the Senate, Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, are the sponsors. In the House, Democrat Henry Waxman of California and Republican Tom Davis of Virginia are the sponsors, all of identical, bipartisan measures.

No surprise, the administration of George W. Bush was against the legislation.

President Barak Obama is for it.

The New York Times, in an editorial, has described the legislation as “the culmination of more than a decade of struggle to bring the renegade tobacco industry under regulatory control.”

The tobacco industry has been out of control for many decades.

Its liars-for-hire denied the connection between tobacco smoking and lung cancer. Its advertising in newspapers led to a press silence on the smoking-cancer link, broken only decades-ago by independent investigative reporter George Seldes. It plied politicians with money to fend off government action.

And the tobacco industry and its products kill.

In a recent report, the federal Centers for Disease Control determined that nationwide, tobacco use kills more than 443,000 persons a year. That’s nearly a half million people a year—dying because of smoking.

The number of non-smokers who die each year from exposure to second-hand smoke: 50,000.

The related health care costs: enormous, more than $100 billion annually.

Tobacco use is the leading cause of death in the United States that’s preventable.

But the huge problem has been the powerful tobacco industry—compromising government and the press, peddling its cancer-sticks with abandon, addicting millions of people and lying about the harm of its deadly products.

There’s been litigation against tobacco companies and huge financial judgments.

There needs to be far more action—and now.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Not Just Peanuts

It’s being charged that the Peanut Corporation of America knowingly sold peanuts tainted with salmonella in 2007 and 2008.

The Food and Drug Administration, which made the allegation, has, meanwhile, asked retailers and consumers to throw out every product made with peanuts processed by the corporation’s plant in Blakeley, Georgia. It has produced peanut butter, paste and granules used in products including cookies and ice cream.

FDA officials said four different strains of salmonella have been detected at the plant at which, in 14 inspections made in January, it found unsanitary conditions, including dead roaches and gaps where rodents could enter.

The situation has been linked to a salmonella outbreak in 43 states in which nine people have died, 500 have become ill.

Officials of the Peanut Corporation of America have a lot of answering to do and that might be in criminal court. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut has called on the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation.

But, meanwhile, what about the FDA—which is supposed to protect us from bad food?

Until its 14 inspections after the salmonella outbreak happened, the last time the FDA inspected the Blakeley plant was in 2001.

Representative John Dingell of Michigan has said the Peanut Corporation of America situation demonstrates that the FDA “can’t and doesn’t do its job, and American lives are at risk. We’re killing Americans.”

This is a very old story: about those who are supposed to protect us from tainted food and other poisons failing to do so, and that’s often because of a coziness with those they’re supposed to be regulating.

I wrote a book about this in which I told the tale of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, regarded as the father of the FDA. Indeed, there’s even a postage stamp in his honor. As chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he played a large part in getting the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 passed and the FDA created.

But in 1912, as a matter of conscience, Dr. Wiley resigned from the government and wrote a book, The History of a Crime Against the Food Law, about how the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act was not being properly enforced because of power of those it was supposed to police.

President Barak Obama has an opportunity to do something about a century of failure by U.S. regulatory agencies—especially the FDA. It’s a matter of life and death.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Solar Bonanza

It’s amazing—I’m seeing our electric meter going backwards.

We’ve just gotten solar panels installed on the roof of our house and they harvest all the electricity we need. And under the net metering program of our region’s utility, the Long Island Power Authority, that means LIPA is to send us a check for the excess electricity fed back into the grid. Also, we’ve put up panels on the roof that heat water. Even on cold days, as long as the sun is shining water comes down from those panels at 100 to 120 degrees.

You can do the same thing. And with federal and state tax credits and with LIPA, a big rebate, you can do it with an astonishing financial break.

You can now get 70 percent—yes, 70 percent—off the cost of a solar photovoltaic installation.

I’ve reported on solar power for decades—but it took doing a TV documentary this summer, “Renewable Energy Is More Than Ready,” for WVVH-TV, to see the reality of the feasibility of solar energy.

To see the program, go to YouTube:
WVVH-TV Renewable Energy is More Than Ready (Part 1)
WVVH-TV Renewable Energy is More than Ready (Part 2)

A main figure in the program is Gordian Raacke of Renewable Energy Long Island. We went to his home where solar photovotaic panels produce all the electricity he and his wife need. And solar thermal panels furnish hot water.

So we arranged to have photovoltaic and hot water panels installed on our roof. The work was done by Majestic Son and Sons of Patchogue, New York. If the Obama administration is looking for infrastructure projects that produce jobs and have a grand energy pay-off, solar energy is Number One.

A swarm of Majestic workers, including the company’s president, Dean Hapshe, and two of his sons, were all over our roof merrily installing panels.

For Hapshe, it’s far more than a business. He’s a pioneer in solar power installing solar systems for 29 years. He says of solar: “It’s limitless. And free.” And, with global warming, vital .

As noted, the final price is a bonanza. A 3,000-watt photovoltaic system (what the Raackes have) costs $27,000. But then reduce that by 70 percent. And you, too, can watch electric meter go backward.

Imagine if all over the United States, houses and businesses were equipped with solar panels. Energy independence—courtesy of the sun. Just great.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Military-Industrial-Scientific Complex

Twenty-eight years ago, Dwight Eisenhower gave what has often been described as the most memorable farewell address by any U.S. president since George Washington. He warned in the speech about the “military-industrial complex.”

But in the original draft, as historian Douglas Brinkley has noted in an article on the address in the September 2001 issue of American Heritage magazine, Eisenhower was to warn not only of a “military-industrial complex” but of a “military-industrial-scientific complex.” (

Brinkley writes that because of the plea of Eisenhower’s science advisor, James Killian, was the word “scientific” eliminated.

The “military-industrial-scientific complex” was the far more accurate description of the complex of vested interests manipulating the U.S. then—and now.

Eisenhower in the 1961 address declared: “In the council of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex.” And although allowing the removal of “scientific,” he then went on with other words on this issue. He said, “Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists and laboratories” and people must be “alert” that “public policy could…become the captive of a scientific technological elite.”

The system of U.S. national laboratories which grew out of the crash program of World War II to build atomic bombs, the Manhattan Project, was—and is—the base for much of the scientific establishment about which Eisenhower was concerned.

With the war over, the scientists, engineers and corporate contractors, notably General Electric and Westinghouse, at the facilities which sprung up during the war continued to build nuclear weapons, thousands of them. But atomic weapons don’t lend themselves to commercial spin-off. What else could be done, they asked, with nuclear technology to perpetuate the jobs and contracts which began with the Manhattan Project?

After the war’s end, the Manhattan Project was turned into the Atomic Energy Commission. Under it, and at the former Manhattan Project laboratories which the commission took over and at the new laboratories it built, the push was on for all sorts of other things atomic: nuclear power plants, food irradiation, nuclear-powered airplanes and spacecraft, atomic devices for excavation—anything to bring more activity and money to the vested interests established during the war.

As President, Barack Obama draws from the federal scientific establishment for appointments and it continues to shape U.S. policy, notably energy policy, Eisenhower’s warning needs to be sounded again.

And we need to reduce the awesome political power of the government’s scientific complex.

Making Our Tax System Progressive Again

Taxes have quite a history in the United States. At its start, the federal government was supported by taxes on whiskey, carriages, sugar, tobacco and snuff.

In 1817, Congress moved to have the government rely instead on tariffs on imported goods.

Then, in 1862, to pay to fight the Civil War, the nation’s first income tax law was passed. It was made the mainstay of our tax system in 1916 with the idea that it would be what’s called progressive. The more people make, the more they pay.

That worked fine until Ronald Reagan and what was called the Reagan Revolution, a revolution but one involving the richest in the U.S. Their tax rate was halved. More recently, there were more huge tax breaks given to the rich under the tenure of George W. Bush.

So increasingly, those in the middle and lower classes ended up carrying a greater and greater proportional tax load.

On a state level, this has what’s been happening, too.

In the last three decades, New York State, where I live, has also cut its tax rate for the richest by 50 percent—so now someone making $4 million a year pays the same as someone earning $40,000 a year in New York.

Over in Connecticut, the income tax situation is also disproportionally tougher on working families.

On this side of the Long Island Sound, folks have joined together to challenge the unfair tax structure—pressing their case recently in a special lobby day in Albany.

Of great concern, New York State seeking to deal with an anticipated $15 billion deficit by placing even more of a burden on working people.

And not just working people. In an especially nasty would-be rip-off, Governor David Paterson’s proposed state budget would have 90% of the money raised by a tuition hike imposed on State University students go to the state’s general fund instead of SUNY.

Paying the deficit off the backs of students. Disproportioinally taxing the middle and lower classes. This is not progressive.

Meanwhile, in Washington, President Obama is preparing a new federal budget—which includes ending the enormous tax breaks the rich have received. As he said in his speech to the nation last week, people earning less than $250,000 would see a tax break, those above an increase. The Obama administration would try to make our tax system progressive again.

It’s about time.