December 31, 2007

The Farmer's Market Paradigm

Bill McKibben sees Farmers’ Markets as the wave of the future. In his new book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, he lays out a vision of a world that is at once radically different and comfortingly familiar. He sees local communities as the antidote to modern industrial society. Not that everything about our society is bad, but we have gone about as far down the road to growth as we are going to get.

He points out that when you are struggling just to get by, more is better. People who don’t have these things will work hard to get enough food, clean water, and education. However, when you already have enough to get along comfortably, more stuff doesn’t really do much for you. On the other hand, as we have accumulated bigger houses and private cars and televisions, we have lost contact with the people around us. We are rich in things but poor in community. In fact, America is the center of what McKibben calls hyper-individualism. The American Dream is to make it by your own efforts. Our mythology is awash in rags to riches stories of people who have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. On the other hand, unlike other industrialized countries, many of us, with insurance or not, struggle to get decent healthcare, just to take one example.

Its not that he is against individualism, its just that he thinks that the ways that economists measure progress miss the point. GNP keeps going up but not everything that goes into that measurement is good for us and not everything that is good for us is measured.

When neighbors get together for a harvest feast from their community garden, it doesn’t contribute much to the GNP because they are not spending money. It may contribute a lot to their quality of life, though, as they enjoy the benefits of friendship and good health from working in the garden and eating healthy food together.

GNP doesn’t distinguish between useful growth and growth in pollution and wastefulness. A cancer patient contributes a lot to the economy as expensive medical treatments eat away their savings and the cancer eats away their life. We don’t have a commonly accepted measure for health and happiness, although some people are working on it.

People need both enough wealth to be comfortable and enough community to be happy. If the balance tips too much one way or the other we feel the effects of the imbalance. Not to romanticize poverty, those who are both poor and alone are the worst off. Nor is this book about America alone. He travels to China, India and Europe to see how these scenarios play out there.

At the same time, the Cult of More is leading us down the road to ecological disaster, oil will run out and global warming is a reality that will force us into new paths whether we like it or not. If the undeveloped world were to follow our lead, and they are doing exactly that, with China leading the way, the collapse will come all the sooner.

This is where Farmers’ Markets come in. We can’t afford to continue to waste precious fossil fuels trucking our food thousands of miles. Luckily, we don’t need too. Local food supplies have fed humanity throughout most of our history. We can do it again. The local food movement is centered in Farmer’s Markets everywhere. People are discovering that not only can they support their local economy and get delicious healthy food but they are finding the process ever so much more enjoyable. People are ten times as likely to talk to their neighbors at a Farmers’ Market than at the supermarket. And the money they spend will stay in the area to contribute to the local economy.

People are coming to realize that there are more important things than getting the lowest price. The best price may be the one that supports the local economy. Furthermore, modern small scale organic farming turns out to be more productive per acre than agri-business. Agri-business achieves its economies of scale by getting rid of the farmers, making money for distant owners in the process. If you are serious about feeding hungry people, teach them to farm their own land. Or make community gardens. Wherever we are, we can find land, and even small plots can grow food that can help make us more independent in our own communities and can strengthen the human connections that make our communities strong at the same time.

In my own community, on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, The Farmers’ Market has teamed up with the local Food Co-op, the Land Trust and the State University Extension to encourage local organic farming. The university teaches classes on farming and entrepreneurship. The land trust protects farmland with conservation easements. And the farmers’ market and the co-op provide a market for the produce. The co-op prominently labels local products and highlights the farmers who grow the food.

Of course there is more to life than food. Deep Economy also talks about renewable power, community radio and lots more. Get on down to your local independent bookstore for a copy. Or do like I did and get it from the library. And when you are done, pass it on.

December 22, 2007

Democrats – Use your Power

Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership say that impeachment is “off the table”. They say that it would distract them from passing all this great new legislation. Despite almost a year in the majority, they have not gotten much done. They blame Bush for vetoes and Republican Senators for filibustering. Guess what? The Republicans are still in charge of the agenda.

Everybody talks about this mysterious 60 votes needed to pass anything in the Senate “for procedural reasons”. What they mean is that the Democrats allow the Republicans to obstruct any bill they want without a fight. The significance of the 60 votes is that they need that many to force an end to debate.

The filibuster is a proud Senate tradition that allows a determined minority to continue debating an issue endlessly to prevent it from coming to a vote. Jimmy Stewart played a Senator in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” who uses a filibuster to break the power of the political bosses. But he paid a price for it. In order to keep his filibuster going, he had to keep talking day and night. It was tough work.

Democrats don’t explain why they didn’t use the filibuster when they were in the minority and they don’t explain why they give in so easily to filibusters now. After all, they could force the Republicans to actually debate around the clock until they give up in exhaustion. Even if they do win some, this strategy would put Republicans on the defensive and show them up for the obstructionists they are. That doesn’t go over well at the polls. At the very least it would make them pay a price for their behavior. The Republicans didn’t hesitate when the balance of power tipped the other way.

As it is the Bush Administration is bragging about how they are still moving their agenda, while Democrats in Congress get the blame for doing nothing. The press is still buying his spin ( See this AP Story: 2007 is ending on a high note for the president.)
“…What began as a troubling year for Bush, facing a new, energetic Democratic Congress, ended in triumph for the president as frustrated Democrats nursed their losses. Democrats failed in their No. 1 objective to stop the war in Iraq and bowed to Bush and his veto threats on tax policies, energy legislation, children's health insurance and general spending.”
Triumph? You have got to be kidding. Bush is still in disgrace with the voters. Just look at the polls. But the AP is right up there peddling his line. Just take a look at the next paragraph in the same story to see their source for this so called triumph.
“After months of bitter fights, Bush said the year was ending on a high note.”
You have to watch out when the Administration, echoed by Republicans and right wing pundits, spins this hard. The press amplifies the spin so much that it can make you dizzy.

To hear them talk we are winning the (expletive deleted) war in Iraq. We are even starting to bring the troops home, they say. No matter that troop levels are going down a little for now because they were pushed up to a level that the military simply can’t sustain for long. The “surge” was always explained as a temporary increase. Well, its getting to be time for the levels to go back to where they were before the surge. Personally, I’ll be surprised if they get all the way back to the pre-surge level but in any case, nobody is talking about getting out. Don’t worry, we’ll be there for years.

The infamous Move-On “Petraeus Betray Us” ad may have been an easy target for the pro-war crowd but if anybody got past the headline, it did talk about how the Petraeus Report on the war seriously misrepresented the situation. It is this misrepresentation that the Republicans are depending on when they say how great things are in Iraq.

The Republican spin machine has been crowing that the polls show even less support for Congress than for the President. However, what they don’t tell us is that the reason people are mad at Congress is that Congress is not standing up to the President strongly enough. Democratic support has eroded among anti-war voters as it has become clear that Congress is not going to do anything to end the war. And if Congressional Democrats get low marks, Republicans poll even lower.

The Democrats are suffering politically because they are refusing to confront the issues that the voters care about most, the war and impeachment. People don’t just disapprove of the President’s policies, they are hopping mad. With a large majority against the war, Americans just don’t understand why nobody in power will do anything to end it. After all, that is the mandate the voters gave Democrats with their 2006 victory. And they are furious that the Constitution is being shredded in front of their eyes with Congress just sitting there, or even worse, collaborating.

Pelosi’s strategy of ignoring the elephant in the room isn’t working. The Republicans with their mini-filibusters and Bush with his veto have so demoralized the Democrats that they just give in on issue after issue with a whimper.

I truly fear for the Democrats in next year’s election. With Bush dragging down the Republicans it should be a slam dunk. But the Democrats seem to be on the verge of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Left wing voters may just stay home in disgust and the middle of the roaders may decide that at least the Republicans stand for something.

With that prospect, Speaker Pelosi, why not try standing up to Bush for a change? Impeachment hearings could go a long way towards mobilizing the country and putting the President on the defensive.

Give it a try.

December 07, 2007

Impeach ‘em Both!

It does no good to impeach Bush; that just leaves us with Dick Cheney as President (scary thought!). And it does no good to impeach Cheney; that still leaves Bush. Our only hope is to impeach them both together.

I recently participated in a Port Townsend TV show about impeachment. If you’re on cable in Port Townsend look for it on Channel 97. The show is called Future Tense, hosted by Pat Perreault. The beginning of this article is what I said on the show.

According to the Constitution Congress can impeach the “President, Vice President and other Civil officers” (including judges) for “Treason, Bribery and High Crimes and Misdemeanors”.

It is designed to be a mechanism for Congress to restrain the power of the President and remove them from office if they abuse that power. They wanted to distinguish our President from a king, who was not restrained by anything.

Impeachment is the equivalent of an indictment and requires a majority vote in the House of Representatives. Then the Senate holds a trial with conviction requiring a 2/3 majority.

Andrew Johnson was the first President to be impeached, in 1868. At that point he had less than a year left in his term. When Congress passed a law restraining his power, he defied it, and within 8 days was impeached by the House of Representatives. 2 ½ months later the trial was over, with the Senate 1 vote short of the 2/3 needed for conviction.

The only other President to actually be impeached was Bill Clinton, for the Monica Lewinski affair. He was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. Although he was impeached in the House, there were not nearly enough votes in the Senate to convict him. However the impeachment did weaken his presidency.

President Nixon wasn’t actually impeached because he resigned after the House Judiciary Committee sent Articles of Impeachment to the House floor. However his case is closest to the situation we have today.
He was charged with Obstruction of Justice, Abuse of Power and Contempt of Congress. Sound familiar?

When I first started carrying an impeachment petition on my college campus, nobody thought that there was a chance that Nixon would be impeached, let alone convicted. But the further the process went, the more information came out about what he had done, and the more he resisted Congress, the more public opinion, and more importantly, Congressional opinion turned against him. He finally resigned after Senate Republicans told him that he was sure to be impeached and convicted.

The charges against Nixon included making false statements to investigators, withholding evidence, abuse of power, using federal agencies, to harass and spy on anti-war activists and others on his “enemies list”. (This surveillance led to the passage of the FISA law that Bush violated with his warrantless wiretapping program.)

Nixon was charged with Contempt of Congress for refusing to provide information requested during the impeachment hearings and refusing to comply with Congressional subpoenas.

He also corrupted the political process with a forerunner of Karl Rove’s tactics in what came to be known as “dirty tricks”. Among other things, he instituted a smear campaign against Edmund Muskie, who he thought would be the strongest Democratic Candidate for President in 1972, and ended up knocking him out of the race.

Additional charges related to the “secret war” in Cambodia were discussed in the Judiciary Committee but did not end up being included in the Articles of Impeachment.

And that brings us to George W Bush and Dick Cheney.

The Kucinich impeachment resolution in the House Judiciary Committee only applies to Cheney. As I explained above, that just won’t work. Cheney doesn’t really have power based on being Vice President. The duties of the VP are almost non-existent…breaking the occasional tie vote in the Senate and waiting for the President to die, or get impeached, in which case he becomes President. No, his crimes are in devising policies that break the law and violate the Constitution. He could go right on doing that from behind the scenes even if he did get impeached. Nothing would change.

However, there is nothing to stop the Judiciary Committee from adding Bush to the Impeachment Articles once their hearings show how both of them worked together. They head up the conspiracy that has been systematically shredding the Constitution. Bush has the power of the Presidency and Cheney has been the leader in defining their policies from the war in Iraq to secret surveillance to torturing prisoners to torturing the language to avoid calling it torture. They are an effective team, I’ll give you that.

The Kucinich resolution accuses them of lying about the reasons to go to war in Iraq and the reasons they want to go to war in Iran but that only scratches the surface. Both Nixon and Clinton were accused of lying to cover up their misdeeds in their Articles of Impeachment. Bush and Cheney’s lies, on the other hand, are responsible for a war that has killed and injured thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. They have also endangered our own security and done serious damage to the US military. Of course, Congress went along, when they should have known better, but that does not lessen the guilt of the President and VP.

The war itself is a violation on international laws against wars of aggression, targeting of civilians, torture and the mistreatment of prisoners.

They also violated specific US laws against domestic surveillance and against torture. As I mentioned above, the FISA law was passed to prevent exactly the kind of warrantless wiretapping that Bush ordered. He violated that law and used secrecy as a cover to prevent Congress and the American people from finding out about it. US law also prohibits torture. Bush and Cheney ordered prisoners to be tortured and then denied that that’s what they were doing. As if saying that it wasn’t torture made it any less tortuous.

They violated the Constitution in more ways than I can count. By calling prisoners “enemy combatants” and hiding them in secret prisons on US military bases outside of the US and in third countries, they pretend that they are not regular prisoners and not prisoners of war. They seek to dehumanize them and deny them any rights at all. The Constitution does not make these distinctions. It does not guarantee rights contingent on the whim of the President. It does guarantee Due Process of Law, Habeas Corpus and prohibits Cruel and Unusual Punishment, Period.

They assert powers for the President that don’t exist in the Constitution, or are granted to other branches of government. Signing statements openly declare that portions of laws will not be obeyed. Remember, that is what got Andrew Johnson impeached. Nixon was accused of Contempt of Congress. Bush and Cheney are certainly guilty of that. You would think that Congress would be upset about this, and about their refusal to provide information to Congress. Harriet Miers and other in the administration ignored Congressional subpoenas regarding the US Attorney firings. The Justice Department then declared that they would not enforce Contempt of Congress actions.

Of course, there is the corruption involved in giving huge no bid contracts to their cronies at Halliburton, Bechtel, oil companies and other close associates of the President and Vice President. Worse, there has been little oversight of these contracts. Billions of dollars have been misspent or have simply disappeared. Billions more went missing when they shipped planeloads of cash to Iraq and handed out bundles without any apparent accounting of where it went. How much of that went to buy weapons to use against American troops? Of course the weapons they are buying with that money could be those American weapons given to the Iraqi government that have also disappeared.

Failure to impeach can have serious consequences. Bush and Cheney are establishing all sorts of precedents for giving the President expanded power. If this power grab is left unchallenged, then future Presidents, Democratic and Republican, will be all too happy to hold on to that power. If Congress won’t challenge it now, there is no chance that they ever will.

This is how we lose our freedom, not with a bang but a whimper.