Saturday, January 30, 2016

Editorial: Cheer Low Oil Prices

People in the oil patch are singing the blues over falling prices for crude, as the price per barrel has dropped from $107.26 in June 2014 to $30.67 on Jan. 26. That put the brakes on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations, which use more expensive and environmentally hazardous drilling techniques to get to hard-to-reach oil and gas reserves. That’s tough for the oilfield workers and the communities that profited off them, but it’s good for the neighbors whose groundwater was put at risk or complained of earthquakes that seem to coincide with the drilling.

The drop in oil prices also is good for drivers, of course, as the average price for regular unleaded gasoline dropped from $3.68 per gallon in 2014 to $1.83 per gallon in late January, according to AAA, as crude oil supply continues to outpace demand. Gasoline prices dipped to $1.209 at a gas station near Houston.

Republicans are loathe to give President Obama any credit for the drop in gas prices, although they were willing to blame Obama in 2012, when the nationwide average price for regular gas hit $3.60 as he was running for re-election.

In truth, the president has marginal impact on oil and gas prices, but Obama’s policies allowed domestic production to nearly double over the last several years while the administration also pushed vehicles to become more fuel-efficient. That forced foreign oil producers to find new markets while the demand for fuel in Europe and developing countries is weak.

The glut in oil and gas has sent the oil industry into its worst tailspin since the 1990s, Clifford Krauss noted in the New York Times (Jan. 7). Forty American and Canadian oil companies have filed for bankruptcy protection in the last year or so, and industry reports have predicted more pain in 2016.

But Austin-based economist Angelos Angelou says lower gas prices are good for the economy — even in Texas. “Higher oil prices tend to benefit specific regions of Texas, as well as the US, and certain parts of the world. But lower prices put a lot more money into people’s pockets,” he told KUT radio in Austin.

Angelou estimates the lower prices give consumers $23 billion annually, just in Texas. Meanwhile, the slump has caused layoffs in the state’s energy sector costing $9 to $10 billion, Angelou says.

The state comptroller reported that in the 12-month period ending in November, Texas lost more than 30,000 jobs in the fossil fuel sector and an additional 36,000 jobs in manufacturing. But overall, the state gained179,000 jobs during that period, thanks in part to big increases in the health care and hospitality industries.

Angelou says the future of the Texas is “bright” for 2016 because many different industries make up the state’s economy.

“We are far more diversified than the media portrays,” Angelou says. “It’s not all about the oil and gas industry. We have ports. We have finance and technology. We have the medical centers in Houston and other places. So it’s not just the one single sector economy like Saudi Arabia, or Russia, for that matter.”

Even with the falling oil prices hurting oil and gas producers, the big integrated oil companies can make some of that up in the refining end of their operations.

Exxon Mobil reported third quarter earnings of $4.2 billion, down 47% from $8.1 billion profits for that quarter in 2014, while Chevron’s third quarter profits of $2.04 billion was a 64% drop. Exxon’s stock price in the past year dropped from a high of $93.45 to a low of $66.55 and rebounded to $77.15 on Jan. 26. Chevron dropped from a high of $112.93 to $69.58 and was $85.17 on Jan. 26, as the price of oil fluctuated between $29 and $32.

Both Exxon and Chevron executives credited “downstream” earnings from the refining end of their businesses as well as cost-cutting with maintaining profits.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is running out of financial assets because of the reduced revenue from lower oil prices. But the Saudis refuse to curb their production without action from others and Russia has been pumping at record levels.

We suspect that a major reason that Republicans are opposed to improving relations with Iran and relaxing sanctions on Iranian businesses is because American oil and gas producers don’t want to see Iran resume exporting oil, which would keep the downward pressure on oil prices. Iran hopes to export more than 500,000 barrels a day once the sanctions are fully lifted.

President Obama should restore diplomatic ties with Iran, welcome it back to the community of nations, and encourage more Iranian oil exports. At the same time, we must speed up the pace of turning to renewable fuels such as solar, wind and hydroelectric power to replace fossil fuels. When the day comes that the world can keep its lights on and run cars on renewable fuel and make gasoline obsolete, we can let the Mideast nations fight their own grudges and let Exxon and Chevron figure out a new way to keep their profits up.

Don’t Break the System Any Further

As we await the results of the Iowa caucuses, national political commentators once again are casting shade on Iowa and New Hampshire as the leadoff states that start trimming the field of presidential candidates.

Iowa has 3.1 million people, and while its ethnic breakdown — 92.1% white,; 5.6% Latino, 3.4% black and 2.2% Asian — doesn’t reflect the rest of the country, Iowa is a swing state with a relatively well-educated populace (91% high school graduates vs. 86% nationally). New Hampshire is even less representative, with 1.3 million people, 94% white, 3.3% Latino, 2.5% Asian and 1.5% black —and 91.8% high school graduates.

An underfunded candidate can run in Iowa and New Hampshire and conceivably can reach most if not all of the counties in both states without having a billionaire backer and/or a super PAC. If he or she connects with voters in one or both states, that candidate deserves to be taken seriously by the news media, which otherwise only treat candidates seriously if they have billionaires backing their multi-million-dollar ad buys.

Iowa legitimized Barack Obama in 2008 when he won the caucuses with 37.6% of the vote, showing a black man could attract white voters, while Hillary Clinton finished third behind John Edwards. Before that, many black voters supported Clinton, believing that Obama couldn’t possibly win. After Iowa, black Americans reassessed Obama, who finished second in New Hampshire to Clinton but blew her out in South Carolina, 55.4% to 26.5%.

On the Republican side, in 2008 Republicans preferred Mike Huckabee, while eventual nominee John McCain finished fourth but went on to win New Hampshire. In 2012 Rick Santorum eked out a narrow win in Iowa by 34 votes over eventual nominee Mitt Romney, who went on to win New Hampshire with 39.3% while Santorum finished fifth with 9.4% and was swept under.

This year, Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator who still speaks with his distinctive Brooklyn accent, has earned credibility as a presidential candidate by spending time in Iowa and drawing large crowds there with his populist rhetoric.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump has shown that rural Iowans will support a wealthy blowhard New York real estate developer, though evangelical Christians might be able to pull off a victory for Goldman Sachs-financed blowhard Ted Cruz. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, however, has not campaigned much in Iowa and the caucus results probably will show that his appeal is confined to the East Coast and New York TV studios. Christie might do better in New Hampshire, but South Carolina should spell the end of his national ambitions.

Without Iowa and New Hampshire, campaigns would be run almost entirely in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles, and you’d only hear from those candidates who are anointed by the billionaire donors and executives at the news channels, who have had little use for Sanders or other progressive populists, much less discussion of sensitive political issues that the business elites are trying to sneak through, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and telecom companies’ attempts to reverse net neutrality.

And remember, Iowans watch those early TV attack ads so the rest of us don’t have to. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2016

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Selections from the February 15, 2016 issue

COVER/Dave Johnson
Government run like business poisoned Flint

Cheer low oil prices; Don’t break system further 


Real State of the Union

RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen
Stop the TPP

Lead may be in tap water near you;
Doubts grow about Cruz citizenship;
Trump ranks as biggest liar;
Latino vote growing;
Dems hope for Senate majority;
Gun thugs menace moms;
Teachout runs for Congress;
DC appeals court denies stay on EPA Clean Power Plan;
What will make US go renewable?
William F. Buckley was no fan of Trump, either ...

The momser and the mensch

The Democratic choice: change or continuity

Is Cruz an anti-Semite as well as a hypocrite?

California and Keynes

Ofelia Valdez is a woman of great courage

Bernie Sanders and social democracy

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas
Uncle Sam as modern-day gargoyle

Let’s hear it for New York values

‘Action bias’ does little to help public schools

The savior

Shining a light on dark money

The billionaires’ utopia

The year of Donald Trump

and more ...

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Many similarities between Donald Trump & Ronald Reagan, with but one difference: Trump’s smile is turned upside down

By Marc Jampole

Like many people who don’t inhabit the alternative universe known as 21st century American conservatism, I have been cogitating a lot about why Donald Trump has sustained his popularity among those who affiliate with the Republican Party. After poring over a list of his stands on and approaches to the issues, his background, his attitudes towards politics, his demeanor, speaking style and other pertinent aspects of his candidacy, the answer hit me with the strength of an epiphany.

Donald Trump is popular because he is just like Ronald Reagan in all significant ways, except for one: Reagan spoke with a smile of hope, whereas Trump prefers a frown of angry fear.

Let’s take a look at the many ways Trump resembles Reagan. Trump is still active, but I’ll make my comparisons in the past tense for ease of reading:

Both served as omniscient hosts for television shows. Before TV, both had mediocre careers, Reagan as a B movie actor and Trump as a real estate developer who sent properties into bankruptcy multiple times, lost billions of his investors’ dollars, and achieved a net worth about half of what it would have been if he had passively invested the hundreds of millions he inherited from his father into stocks.

Both started as progressives, but then moved far right before beginning their political career. Both campaigned as anti-establishment, anti-government outsiders, cultivating dissatisfied and resentful voters who were convinced someone or something had taken away their birthright, a group comprising to a large degree whites without a college education who voted the Democratic Party line before 1980.

Both were divorced, non-observant secularists with what some might label amoral pasts who nevertheless found lots of support among very religious Christians.

The economic platform of both depended on lowering taxes and removing government regulations to transfer wealth and income from the middle and lower classes up the socio-economic ladder to the rich and super-rich.

Both supported building up our armed forces and advocated a robust use of the military to resolve foreign conflicts and prosecute foreign policy. Both articulated foreign policy stands with bluster.

Both painted a vision of America based on a mythical past and declared confidently that he would return the country to those halcyon days.

Both demonized innocent groups and turned perceived enemies into one-sided all-evil comic book villains.  Both appealed to our worst natures in matters involving race and charity for the poor. One minor difference here that reflects our loss of civility in the public sector—Reagan would always talk in polite, a well-understood code, such as “welfare queens,” whereas Trump mixes code with vulgar explicitness.

Neither was a master, or even an apprentice, of the everyday details of developing and pursuing policies, preferring to talk about and consider only the larger picture.

Although one cultivated a westerner’s demeanor and the other thought he epitomized the Big Apple, both were old-fashioned, town-and-country, meat-and-potatoes, American songbook types who reflected a pre-rock-and-roll mentality and zeitgeist, one in which women play an inherently inferior role. Neither gave a hint of enjoying intellectual pursuits. Both artificially processed their hair to appear younger.

Both tended to make their points using anecdotes instead of facts. Both proved to be quite able to fabricate realistic-sounding lies to support their views. Neither ever backed down from a lie once told, and often doubled-down by insisting on the veracity of his false statements. Consider the similarities between Reagan’s denials on the Iran-Contra scandal and Trump insisting that thousands in New Jersey cheered on rooftops as the Twin Towers toppled on 9/11.

The one salient difference between The Gipper and The Donald is that Reagan delivered his messages with a smile that told us that he was confident about the future. Reagan spoke optimistically about the glorious, limitless utopia in store for the country upon his election, which contrasted with four years of Jimmy Carter’s sour wailing about how bad things were. Now it’s Trump who is bemoaning the present, but instead of whining as the cartoonish media image of Carter did, Trump bellows aggressively, shows his teeth and brandishes his bloodlust, much as Segismundo in Calderรณn’s classic drama “Life is a Dream.” Interestingly enough, every Republican candidate is painting a similarly dire picture of the U.S. economy and society in alarmist terms that makes it seem as if we are on the verge of a complete collapse and invasion.

Facial expression aside, though, Trump is heir to the Reagan mantle. But times have changed. Conditions have worsened for most Americans, thanks in whole to the policies that Reagan advocated.

Trump’s bellicose sky-is-falling approach matches our anxious zeitgeist. Trump feeds off the panic felt by several groups: by evangelicals as they see the country accept gay marriage and a woman’s right to an abortion; by blue collar whites as they see manufacturing jobs continue to disappear and the ones that still exist generate less purchasing power than before; by nativists and racists who fear immigrants and minorities are taking over the country and that the government is giving away their hard earned dollars to support those they believe to be inferior; by gun owners fearful of a coming wave of gun control ordinances as Americans grow tired of gun deaths and injuries. Overriding all these anxieties is the fear felt by most Americans of another terror attack, which has caused some to become xenophobic and anti-Islam.

Thus, when Donald Trump speaks to his supporters, who years ago formed the core of Ronald Reagan’s constituency, all The Donald does is turn the Reagan smile upside down and makes it a frown.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

I.O.C. will eventually regret decision not to require transgendered athletes to undergo reassignment surgery

By Marc Jampole

There are very few situations in public life in which the differences between males and females matter. In fact, I can only think of four:
1.      Only women can bear children.
2.      Men are faster and stronger than women, so we segregate the two sexes at the very highest levels of athletic competition. This segregation is not necessary for intellectual pursuits.
3.      Our society has developed a group modesty about the naked human body, especially when it is engaged in elimination functions. One way we enforce our body mores is to have separate bathrooms, locker rooms and shower rooms for each sex.
4.      Certain organizations and individuals establish scholarships or other financial aid for people of one sex, usually but not always female. These scholarships often compensate for the decades of discrimination women faced that led to an underrepresentation in certain professions, such as the natural sciences and engineering.

The first distinction between men and women I noted above does not affect a discussion of the rights of the transgendered, but the other three are at the nexus of the problem of assigning and defining sexual identity in a way that includes the transgendered and does not discriminate against them.

The avant-garde of political correctness is now parsing sexual identification into a number of categories: cis (someone who identifies with the sex “assigned” to them at birth by virtue of their visible genitalia) and trans, male and female, and, if we include sexuality, straight, gay, bi and the other varieties of love. Thus, someone can be a cis straight male, a bi trans female or any number of other combinations.

(FYI, I find it highly problematic to use “assigned” to describe the process of identifying the sex of a child at birth. What the real world does when a child is born is not the aggressive action of assignment, but the more passive act of acknowledging the sex of a child at birth as defined by its genitalia. What else do we have to go on at that point?)

This segmentation probably comes in handy on dating websites and has a sociological value, as well. On the other hand, sexual identification and orientation should matter not a whit when it comes to decisions related to hiring, firing, promotion, university admission, club admissions, government, healthcare and employment benefits, housing, business, shopping and congregating in public places.

But we can’t have a separate bathroom or separate professional basketball leagues for each of these types of sexuality. The question remains then, how do we define female and male in those few, limited situations when it matters? Let’s keep in mind that
best-guess estimates put transgendered people at two-tenths of one percent of the population (700,000 out of 322.3 million). According to one source, about one-third of all transgendered people have undergone surgery to obtain the genitals of the sex with which they identify, which means that defining who is a man or woman for the purposes of athletics, scholarship or bathroom use affects only about one out of every 691 people. That number will decline as acceptance of the transgendered grows in society and more select surgery.

In a sparsely covered announcement, the International Olympics Committee (I.O.C.) has said that moving forward it would allow transgender athletes who have not had surgery to compete in the Olympics. People identified at birth as female who now consider themselves male get a free pass, whereas those identified as male at birth who consider themselves female will have to pass a test showing that their testosterone level is below a certain point.

I think it’s a bad decision for several reasons: First of all, past scandals involving performance drugs, including East Germany’s women’s track team in the 1970s, suggests that the probability of abuse is high. Beyond that, for transgendered people who have not had surgery, we have to take them at their word that they are truly transgendered and not trying to game the system. There is also the issue of fairness—it’s unfair to set a higher bar for one transgendered sex than for the other.

Lawsuits or the loud outcry when the public sees someone who looks male competing in women’s track will quickly make the I.O.C. regret its decisions.

The I.O.C. should have required that transgendered athletes complete the process of transformation through having surgery. In fact, for those small numbers of instances when we must distinguish between male and female, the assignment of sex should always follow the genitalia.
Meanwhile, we should eliminate as many of the areas as possible in which we need to make sexual distinctions. There are quick and not-so-quick fixes for the challenge of bathrooms and preferential scholarships that involve eliminating the need for the distinction. We could easily switch to unisex bathrooms in which every stall is a separate room. I like the idea, but be forewarned that three things will happen: 1) Men will complain of long lines; 2) More sexual and drug behavior will occur in public bathrooms; 3) Most people will feel a greater sense of privacy and dignity not having to urinate three inches next to a stranger or see a stranger’s leg and shoe while unreeling toilet paper. Special scholarships and programs for women will disappear about a decade after workplace and other discrimination against women ends.  On the other hand, I see no way around the sexual wall that exists at the highest level of professional sports.

I know what I’m saying is going to anger and offend many transgendered people, possibly including two of my first cousins. I am so proud of both of them. They made a decision to come out of the closet that was particularly gutsy in light of the rigidly macho family we come from. I am delighted that they are happier people now, and it pisses me off when I hear someone make a derogatory comment about them or other transgendered people. I support their choice, and the choice made by all 700,000 transgendered Americans, those who undergo surgery and those who don’t. 

But in the public world, corruption and other forms of darkness always fill ambiguity, and there is no way we can remove the ambiguity that exists to the outside world in someone who proclaims he or she is transgendered and has not had surgery. I do not believe we unfairly discriminate against transgendered individuals to insist that they must have the genitalia associated with the sex of the team for which they want to play or the bathroom they want to use. It’s the only fair way to resolve the inherent ambiguity in the situation, e.g., someone with a penis who proclaims he’s a woman wants to play for the women’s team.  Remember that the situation is ambiguous only because they chose to make it so by not having surgery—which, by the way, should be covered under all healthcare insurance—to confirm what they know in their hearts to be true.