Monthly Archives: December 2014

Bernie bullies the tycoons

Oh noes, the tender hearts of Wall Street have been bruised beyond healing. And the man responsible for this crime against humanity?

Bernie Sanders, of course.

Oil trading data that exposed the extensive positions speculators held in the run-up to record high prices in 2008 were intentionally leaked by a U.S. senator, sparking broader concern about industry confidentiality as Congress moves on Wall Street reform.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a staunch critic of oil speculators, leaked the information to a major newspaper in a move that has unsettled both regulators and Wall Street alike.

For those with short memories, the 2008 oil price spike immediately preceded the mortgage meltdown and near-implosion of the economy. In retrospect, the oil business may have gotten lost in the shuffle. But it was huge at the time; there were predictions that oil prices would shoot through the roof, sending many Vermonters scurrying to pre-buy their heating oil. At what turned out to be the very peak of the market.

The primary cause of that spike was not demand or global instability or exploration failures; it was the severe warping of the market at the hands of speculators. The notable non-Socialist Matt Cota of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association put it this way in 2008:

The problem is that the trading of oil has been deregulated. And large financial players are dominating the market. A recent Washington Post article showed that 81 percent of future oil contracts are controlled by non-physical players — people who don’t own trucks, people who just trade paper.

…It’s provided volatility to a market that, frankly, is so vulnerable to volatility. We’re talking about a product that people need to get to work and to heat their homes. And for this to be used as a financial tool, so Wall Street traders can make billions, is shameful.

Shameful indeed. And now comes Bernie Sanders, revealing the extent of speculative perfidy:

“The [Commodity Futures Trading Commission] has kept this information hidden from the American public for nearly three years,” he said. “This is an outrage. The American people have a right to know exactly who caused gas prices to skyrocket in 2008.”

… The leaked data contains long and short positions held by oil traders in 2008, the same year that oil prices spiked to $147 a barrel. Critics at the time accused oil speculators of driving up prices, leading lawmakers to later insert a provision into the Dodd-Frank Wall Street overhaul law compelling the CFTC to place stricter limits on how many commodity contracts any one trader can control.

Sanders was perfectly within his rights to release the data. According to Reuters, the CFTC is legally barred from such releases, but it is bound to give information to members of Congress upon request. They are not constrained from releasing the information.

But regulators and Wall Street sharpies are worried that making the data public makes them look really bad might have “a chilling effect on derivatives trading,” according to John Damgard, the head of the Futures Industry Association.

Heavens to Betsy, I certainly hope so. Our economy would be a lot healthier and more stable if there was a lot less dicking around with futures and derivatives, and more focus on productive activity that makes stuff, creates jobs, and generates honest profits.

(Great line from Lewis Black: There should be a law that says if you have a company, and you can’t describe what it does in one simple sentence, it’s illegal.)

Sorry, Mr. Damgard. I ran a thorough self-diagnostic, and I found no trace of sympathy. Take your hurt fee-fees and go swim with the other sharks.

Phil Scott unsubtly launches Campaign 2016

So, whatcha gonna do to celebrate The New Biennium on January 7?

Well, if you’re Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, you’re going to do what no Lite-Guv has ever done and what he specifically has never come close to doing: you’re promoting your own policy agenda.

On the legislature’s Opening Day, when all eyes are on Montpelier, Scott is hosting a pitch session for, in the words of VTDigger’s Anne Galloway,

…business people of all stripes to pitch ideas about how to rejuvenate Vermont’s economy. Each person gets 5 minutes to tell lawmakers what they could do to help businesses thrive in Vermont.

The pitch session, billed as “Priority #1 on Day One,” will be from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Montpelier and will be followed by a reception.

“A reception” at which, I’m sure, donations will be cheerfully accepted.

But beyond that, Scott is spotlighting his own prescription for what ails Vermont, and making an absolutely unapologetic pitch of his own — for the support of the state’s business community. He is positioning himself as the business community’s advocate in Montpelier.

Has he ever done anything like this before? Nope.

Is there any doubt that his decisive victory over Dean Corren and the scent of gubernatorial blood in the water has awakened Mr. Nice Guy’s inner predator? Nope.

And while “business people of all stripes” are invited (bring your checkbooks!), look at the list of business groups already lined up for five-minute pitches:

Vermont Chamber of Commerce

Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce

Vermont Technology Alliance

Vermont Retail and Grocers’ Association

Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility

Associated Industries of Vermont

Vermont Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives

FreshTracks Capital

Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund

Associated General Contractors

Vermont Ski Areas Association

Vermont Association of Realtors

That list includes a few good guys — VBSR, Sustainable Jobs Fund, Fresh Tracks — plus all the usual business-community power brokers. Gee, I wonder what they’ll say.

Also, there are strong signs that the “centrist” forces for growth and affordability are aligning themselves. First, although Phil Scott is the headliner, the event’s sponsor is Vision to Action Vermont, the pro-business advocacy group led by outgoing Rep. Paul Ralston (D-Middlebury) and continuing Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe).

(Whaddya think? Scott/Scheuermann 2016, anyone?)

The latter chimes in herself in the Comments section below Galloway’s story:

This is just the beginning, we hope, of a legislative session that will have, as its primary focus, the health of our state’s economy. …Frankly, we want all to become engaged and will provide many other opportunities to do so.

Ah. A series of dog-and-pony shows designed to highlight an alternative to the Democrats’ agenda. That’s smart politics. Much better than the formulaic naysaying of past years.

Aside from V2AVT’s sponsorship, there’s also the latest manifesto from ex-Wall Street panjandrum (and co-founder of Campaign for Vermont) Bruce Lisman, echoing the affordability call from Scott and V2AVT. In Lisman’s own self-congratulatory way.

Affordability is a renewed slogan that has recently found its way into the vocabulary of Gov. Shumlin and some members of the Legislature.

Finally, the Democrats are awakening to the wisdom of Bruce Lisman!

Uncle Brucie’s version of the affordability crisis focuses almost entirely on the perceived failings of state government. There’s some truth to that, but national factors play a much bigger role. Stuff like our putrid economic recovery, decades of stagnant purchasing power among the middle and working classes, the rapid accumulation of wealth in the top one percent.

But this post isn’t about the convenient blind spots of Bruce Lisman. It’s about the fact that the forces of “centrist” Republicanism are loudly singing the same tune: Affordability, defined primarily in terms of boosting business. Not defined in terms of using government to counteract the economic forces beating down average Vermonters and help them work their way through an economy that’s rigged against them.

One other thing: all this activity is taking place without mention of, or participation by, Scott Milne. He is, after all, still running for governor, and he technically has the support of Republican lawmakers. But as usual, when it comes to planning their agenda, Milne has no seat at the VTGOP table. He is nothing more than a convenient stick to beat the Democrats with, and he will be discarded as soon as he stops being a useful tool.

Our Proud Heritage of Shit-Dumping

If you happened to be hanging around Fort Cassin Point on Christmas Eve, perhaps you noticed an unusual smell. Perhaps not; but I sure hope you didn’t drink the water.

The State of Vermont legally permitted the City of Vergennes to dump 467,000 gallons of sewage and stormwater into Otter Creek and Lake Champlain on Christmas Eve. Ho ho ho.

That lovely tidbit from the Facebook page of our friends at Lake Champlain International. In case you have trouble visualizing 467,000 gallons of sewage and stormwater, LCI helpfully points out that it’s equivalent to “about 65 tractor-trailer milk tankers.”

Welcome to Vermont, kiddies!

Welcome to Vermont, kiddies!

Mmmm, good. I hope the critters at the Fort Cassin/Otter Creek Wildlife Management Area didn’t mind the state’s creative “Wildlife Management Through Sewage” technique. Or perhaps they’ve gotten used to shipments of Vergennes’ untreated crap, since state regulation of sewage and stormwater discharges is downright laughable — especially for a state with such a strong, and often unwarranted, reputation for environmental purity.

The comments on LCI’s post are often endearingly innocent: “How could this happen?” “How is this allowed?” Stuff like that.

Well, not only is it allowed, but it’s standard operating procedure in our Clean, Green state.

James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International, …says sewage spills and overflows from Vermont’s wastewater treatment systems are common occurrences.

But the public is only notified when they’re exceptionally large, as was the case in April 2005, when a Burlington sewer line ruptured, spewing millions of gallons of raw sewage in the Winooski River for days before it was repaired.

That, from a July 2013 piece by Seven Days’ Ken Picard, outlining the appalling sketchiness of state policy on releases of stormwater and sewage. By law, he writes, the state is required to post online any illegal discharge that “may pose a threat to human health or the environment” within 24 hours of learning about it — but it may take days or even weeks for the state to learn of a discharge from a municipal wastewater treatment operator.

And while the state is required to post the information online, just try to find it. I tried, and got thoroughly lost in a morass of bureaucratic jargon.

Now, if there’s a torrential downpour, just about any system will be overloaded. But many of Vermont’s municipal systems are outdated. We haven’t faced the issue because, well, we can’t afford to.

This is part of our decades of noncompliance with the Clean Water Act regarding Lake Champlain, and one reason why the EPA has had to step in and force Vermont to clean up its act.

It’s sad, if not surprising. Too often, Vermont fails to live up to its own self-image. We react with horror when new things seem to pose a threat, like ridgeline wind and the Vermont Gas pipeline. We’re much more passive about the bad things we’ve always done, like inadequate water treatment, unregulated junkyards, and the discharge of particulate matter from thousands of residential woodstoves. (The latter is largely responsible for our highest-in-the-nation rate of adult asthma. Not West Virginia or Texas; good old Vermont.)

 

My first six months (give or take)

This here blog has been around since June 12, 2014. It’s been a lot of fun, and rewarding to know that quite a lot of people follow it. Nowhere near Kardashian territory, but pretty good for a special-interest blog about Vermont politics.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog, and I’m sharing it for anyone who might be interested. If not, well, click on.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 49,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 18 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Honest government, if not honest elections

Now comes a brief spurt of outrage from the Kingdom, in the form of a belatedly-organized “group” (mainly one guy, William Round, with some money and a grudge) agitating for the election of Scott Milne as governor by the state legislature.

Newly-minted Seven Days political reporter Terri Hallenbeck says Round told her that “the group started over coffee among friends and includes more than 50 Vermonters he described as ordinary residents.”

Only one of the 50 shows up on the group’s FCC filing, and that would be Mr. Round. His filing asserts that VfHG has no officers, executive committee, or board of directors, so I have to assume that its organization and funding begin and end with William Round.

The lion’s share of the $30,000 ad buy is on WCAX. The ads will run from Dec. 30 through Jan. 7, the day before the legislature will hold its usually ceremonial election. Ad buys are targeted on WCAX and CBS news programming.

The ad says nothing about the close outcome of the November election; it simply recycles Republican complaints about Gov. Shumlin — high taxes, overspending, “broken promises,” etc.

VfHG’s emergence does give Milne the opportunity to deny the validity of the November vote:

“It points out to the people that we’ve got a constitution that essentially says we’ve had no election for governor. That happens on January 8,” Milne said.

Ah, so the votes cast by nearly 200,000 Vermonters? They don’t count. Sorry. We failed to cast them with sufficient clarity of purpose.

Well, it’s just more of Milne’s self-interested pseudo-logic, nothing new there.

As for Mr. Round and his willingness to spend $30,000 in a doomed effort to re-litigate the election? I fully support his Constitutional right to waste his money.

Finally, I suppose it would be churlish of me to reproduce the evidence of ungrammatical haste in filling out an official form? Yes, it probably would.

William Round FCC form

 

Closing time

Shoutout to my favorite one-hit wonder of all time…

So gather up your jackets, move it to the exits

I hope you have found a friend.

Closing time

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end

And here we are, on The Last Day of Vermont Yankee. Or, as @GovPeterShumlin put it:

Yeah, well, as if.

Problem: today is not “the end of years of controversy.” It is, in the questionably immortal words of Semisonic, “some other beginning’s end.”

What ends today is the productive phase of Vermont Yankee’s history. What begins is the long slow wait for decommissioning. The chances of an accident will diminish, but we’ll still have a whole lot of hyper-toxic stuff SAFSTOR’d on the banks of the Connecticut River.

Look at it this way. The “lifespan” of Vermont Yankee was 42 years. The “deathspan,” if I may coin a word, will be AT LEAST 30 years. That’s the optimistic forecast for decommissioning. And that’s heavily dependent on the always-reliable, ha ha, stock market: Entergy’s decommissioning fund sits at $665 million, a little more than half the estimated cost of decom. Entergy says it won’t start decom until the fund grows to cover the entire (estimated) $1.24 billion price tag.

But hey, the markets always go up, right?

The way Entergy puts it, they’re doing us a big fat favor by planning the decom for the 2040s. By federal standards, they don’t have to do it until 2075.

Sixty years away.

In that scenario, the “deathspan” of the plant will have been 50% longer than the lifespan.

That’s the problem with nuclear energy. I’m not necessarily against nukes; if managed correctly, they do provide reliable carbon-free power. But there’s that long, lingering afterlife — and corporate America has never shown much dedication to long-term responsibilities.

Nor has public America, for that matter; we have yet to devise a long-term storage plan for all that nuclear waste.

Anyway, I suppose @GovPeterShumlin is only doing what a governor has to do: putting the best face on a decidedly mixed reality.

But I’d be very surprised if this was, in fact, “the end of controversy.”

And in the words of Semisonic, wherever they are today:

I know who I want to take me home,

and it ain’t Entergy.

BREAKING — Bernie Sanders Announces A Timetable For An Announzzzzzzzz…..

One of the things that makes me long for a parliamentary democracy is the blessed briefness of election seasons. Call an election, a couple months later you’re done.

America, on the other hand, suffers a severe case of Campaign Bloat, especially in the Presidential sweepstakes. I may be a politics nerdboy, but I couldn’t be more bored by the early maneuverings of would-be candidates and their dutiful swings through Iowa, New Hampshire, and other self-appointed bellwethers of national opinion.

The Collegiate Bernie. (From his own website.)

The Collegiate Bernie. (From his own website.)

Even the endless travels of our own Bernie Sanders bore me. I don’t care where he’s eating rubber chicken and giving the same speech he’s been giving throughout his career. I feel no desire to keep up with Seven Days’ attempt at journalistically justifiable clickbait, “Bernie Beat.”

And I don’t care about the latest Hot News (came out during my Xmas vacay), as reported by Dave “The Hat” Gram:

SANDERS: I’LL DECIDE ON PRESIDENTIAL RUN BY MARCH

“I don’t want to do it unless I can do it well,” he told The Associated Press. “I don’t want to do it unless we can win this thing.”

Yuh-huh. Well, if that’s the deciding factor, I think the decision is all but made. Especially when…

Sanders said he is weighing whether to run as an independent, as he has done in Vermont, or as a Democrat.

Oh yeah, running as an independent. That’ll work.

Now look, I appreciate Bernie’s dedication to his role as a progressive firebrand. I like the fact that he talks about issues in a way that connects with working Americans, unlike many of us who are too darn academic and literary for our own good. But he will never be a serious candidate for president.

He can be a useful part of a presidential campaign, focusing on issues and themes that “mainstream” Democrats often avoid. Roughly speaking, he’s the Ron Paul of the left: a true believer who attracts attention through the raw power of ideas boldly expressed.

As such, I’d welcome his candidacy, if only as a foil for Hillary Clinton. Which is about all he could reasonably hope to be.

Now, Elizabeth Warren, she’d have a chance. But in her absence, sure, Bernie, take a rip. Just don’t expect me to pay attention to your three-month-long Final Decision Tour. And don’t expect me to believe your insistence that you’d only be in it if you can win.

Another conveniently incomplete explanation from Art Woolf

Just in time for Christmas, Vermont’s Loudest Economist has left a flaming bag of conventional-wisdom poo on our doorsteps. (At least he didn’t try to come down the chimney.)

He’s scribbled out a column entitled “Explaining Demise of Single-Payer.” Which, of course, does virtually nothing to explain the demise of single-payer. I mean, this is Art Woolf we’re talking about here.

The good professor spends most of his time on a shallow meander down Memory Lane, explaining that despite the efforts of the last three Vermont Governors, our percentage of uninsured Vermonters has remained basically the same.

Of course, Woolf’s entire argument falls apart right there, because his beloved statistics end at 2013 — before the Affordable Care Act had gotten off the launchpad. So he’s telling us that Shumlin has failed to reduce the uninsured population, even though Shumlin’s reforms hadn’t begun to work.

Sheesh.

Woolf goes on to the only useful part of his “analysis.” In recent years there have been efforts to expand Medicaid eligibility, and they have worked. However, there’s been a corresponding decline in coverage through employers, so it all washes out.

Us liberals would blame this on a worldwide, concerted effort to drive down wages and benefits — the race to the bottom, as revealed in the stagnation of buying power for all but the very top earners, the persistent crappening of benefits such as employer-provided health insurance (and the steady cost-shifting to employees by way of worker contributions, high deductibles and copays) and the virtual disappearance of defined-benefit pension plans.

Woolf, good capitalist lackey that he is, blames the loss of employer health insurance on the expansion of Medicaid.

What apparently has happened during the past 15 to 20 years is that some employers who formerly provide insurance to their workers no longer provide that benefit. Most likely, it’s because their employees can get a better coverage plan at no or low cost from the state.

“What apparently has happened,” my ass. Woolf might be justified in making that evidence-free assumption, if not for all the other evidence that employers are squeezing their workers and transferring responsibility for their well-being to the government. (See: all the Walmart employees on some form of public assistance. I guess Woolf would blame that on welfare, not on a greedy corporation.)

The toxicity of Woolf’s presentation becomes clearer in th;e ensuing paragraph:

Their employers can therefore afford to pay their workers higher wages instead of providing health insurance benefits. This is one of the unintended consequences of government policies that are all-too-often overlooked by policymakers.

Well, sure, they CAN afford to pay higher wages. But they DON’T. And Woolf knows damn well that they don’t. He must be aware that working Americans’ wages have been stagnant for decades.

And he must be deliberately excluding that fact from his presentation so he can preserve his dubious conclusion: government largesse is to blame for private-sector miserliness. If not for Medicaid expansion, he is effectively saying, working Americans would still be getting health insurance from their employers.

Working Americans can only respond with a bitter laugh.

He also blames Medicaid for the rising cost of health care: because Medicaid offers low reimbursement rates to providers, they have to charge more to private insurance carriers. Which is true, but again, it leaves employers out of the equation.

Finally, in the last paragraph of Woolf’s column, we get to “Explaining the Demise of Single-Payer.” Sort of:

The state’s Medicaid expansion now provides a backstop for lower- and middle-income Vermonters who might lose their private health insurance. This means the third goal, the fear of becoming uninsured, might have lessened over time for many Vermonters.

Perhaps that’s one reason why there wasn’t greater support for single-payer in Vermont, and why there wasn’t more opposition to the governor’s recent announcement.

Oh, so we should blame the demise of single-payer on the patchwork success of Medicaid? Nothing else at play here, Art?

To be fair, Woolf doesn’t necessarily write the headlines, so maybe he’s not responsible for the vast overpromise of this one. But he is responsible for the incomplete, one-sided “logic” that resides beneath.

Art Woolf’s weekly words of wisdom usually come to us on Thursdays. This one was published on Wednesday. Perhaps tomorrow, on Christmas Day, Woolf will favor us with his reasoned defense of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how the government’s generous provision of prisons and workhouses helped drive down wages in Victorian England.

Every Coyne has two faces

So the Catholic Diocese of Burlington has a new bishop: Christopher Coyne, currently auxiliary bishop in Indianapolis. And let me welcome the Bish in my own inimitable way by pointing out a few of his qualifications for the job:

He knows how to lie with a straight face.

He knows how to subsume the interests of truth and justice to those of his institutional home.

He is willing to put a smiley face on some of the Church’s most abhorrent crimes in order to prop up its facade of morality.

You see, Coyne spent three tumultuous years as the media spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Those happened to be the years when the Archdiocese’s hidden history of cosseting pedophile priests came to light. And Coyne was right there on the front line, defending the purity of the Church and of his master, the disgraced Bernard Law, last seen scuttling into a Vatican spider hole.

On the other hand, he was appointed by Pope Francis, which is a mark in his favor. But it’s hard to overlook Coyne’s three years of defending the indefensible. Especially when he comes to a Diocese with its own sordid history of sex-abuse coverups and his predecessor Salvatore Matano’s all-out efforts to avoid being brought to account.

The new guy brings a lot of heavy baggage to the job. He’ll have to prove by his actions that he holds the best interests of “the least of these” above those of his ermine-wearing overlords.

They really oughta take away Mikey Pom-Poms’ smartphone on weekend nights

Hard times at the Burlington Free Press. Coming off a week in which Vermont’s Shrinkingest Newspaper failed to send a reporter to Gov. Shumlin’s epochal announcement on single-payer, posted a frankly embarrassing hit piece slamming the Shumlin administration for refusing to leak the subject of the presser in advance, failed to cover the release of a significant report on the Department for Children and Families, and “covered” Entergy’s new cost estimate for decommissioning Vermont Yankee by regurgitating a brief Associated Press newsbit, Executive Editor Michael Townsend has finally found something to brag about.

High school sports scores.

Okay now, I realize that local prep sports is an important service (and readership magnet) for newspapers. But “touchstone”? Yikes.

This is the kind of thing that drains all my sympathy for MIkey. I realize he’s in a tough spot, trying to keep his ship afloat with a skeleton crew and having to implement the oft-misguided diktats of Gannett Central. But when he pulls this kind of nonsense, he comes across as a gormless corporate cheerleader.