Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Question O'The Day: WTF Were They Thinking?

We face the 21st century version of The Guns of Ausgust when the world changed forever. Will the good and decent folk of the USA fall under the spell of the song of the loon being sung by the Teabaggers? Elizabeth Drew asks a reasonable question during this debt-ceiling crisis. The answer to that question is blowin' in the wind. If this is (fair & balanced) mass psychosis, so be it.

[x NYRB]
What Were They Thinking?
By Elizabeth Drew

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Someday people will look back and wonder, What were they thinking? Why, in the midst of a stalled recovery, with the economy fragile and job creation slowing to a trickle, did the nation’s leaders decide that the thing to do—in order to raise the debt limit, normally a routine matter—was to spend less money, making job creation all the more difficult? Many experts on the economy believe that the President has it backward: that focusing on growth and jobs is more urgent in the near term than cutting the deficit, even if such expenditures require borrowing. But that would go against Obama’s new self-portrait as a fiscally responsible centrist.

Lawrence Summers, Obama’s recently resigned chief economic adviser, said on "The Charlie Rose Show" in July that he found it “dispiriting” that “all of the energy is on the projected deficits... when the problem right now is that the economy is in danger of stagnating from lack of demand.” The Republicans had made it clear for months that they would use the need to raise the debt ceiling as an instrument for extracting concessions from the Democratic President in the form of more cuts in federal programs. And the President assented to their premise, but only if there should also be some additional revenues. Were they all insane? That’s not a far-fetched question.

The President argued that it’s critical to make cuts that will “get our fiscal house in order,” so that the American people and the politicians would accept the idea of new programs leading to growth and more jobs. But there are numerous indications that the public is ready for such programs now, and serious analysts see no reason why he should not also be taking such steps now, even if this increases the deficit in the short run. But that would be at odds with Obama’s current self-portrayal. People who are looking for work, or worried about their unemployment insurance, or getting their kids to college, may not be impressed with the argument that they must be patient while the President adjusts his fiscal image in time for the 2012 election.

Since the President wanted to cut spending but also increase taxes and the Republicans insisted on cuts with no new taxes, they were for months too far apart to find much agreement on a budget plan to be attached to the debt ceiling increase—which had to be enacted by August 2 to avoid a default. No one could quite believe that this would happen, because it was so unthinkable; it was assumed that the two parties would reach agreement. Each side actually expected the other to be more flexible. The Republicans assumed that the President would be pliable; the Democrats didn’t expect the Republicans to be so inflexible about raising taxes.

It didn’t turn out that way. The Republicans were actually divided—the older guard against the Tea Party. But this old guard was by nature further to the right than the former old guards, and the Tea Party drove it further right still. The Republicans adopted their partly ideological, partly fearful, position that none of the reductions in projected deficits could come from increased tax revenues. The President agreed that tax rates would not be raised—though they are at their lowest level in sixty years, since the presidency of Harry Truman. The administration and other Democrats had thought that it would be easier to remove some tax breaks from the tax code.

The Republicans, with Alice in Wonderland logic, termed any elimination of a tax break a tax increase. Moreover, the breaks included in the tax code were there because they had been sponsored by an important member of Congress, or supported by a powerful lobby on behalf of one interest or another. After the President, in a press conference in late June, inveighed against tax breaks for corporate jets, the industry quickly insisted that such a change would cost jobs.

The very basis of the negotiations was odd. A vote to raise the debt limit simply validates spending decisions that had already been approved by Congress, and it is usually automatic. It does nothing to curb spending. But there is nothing usual about the current Congress. The recent negotiations over raising the debt limit could have been seen as having an absurd, antic quality, if they hadn’t been so risky to most people living in this country and so unfair in their potential impact on the various income groups, with consequences, too, for the global economy. The negotiations were ridiculously contorted—when one side refused to discuss a major topic, such as taxes, were they actually negotiations at all? Similarly, Democrats balked at serious cuts in entitlement programs. So there was a standoff.

As August 2 approached, the possible effects of default should have become familiar to anyone paying the slightest attention. The particulars had been recited, and published, over and over again by the President and some officials in the hope of scaring the members of Congress or their constituents. They spoke of not enough money being available after interest on the debt was paid. There might not be enough for popular programs such as Social Security or Medicare or veterans’ benefits—of which just about everybody was either a beneficiary, or knew or was related to someone who was. As the possibility of default grew near, the President wasn’t above warning that he couldn’t guarantee that Social Security checks would go out. There were predictions of rising interest rates and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner spoke of a second recession.

These warnings did result in a shift of opinion in mid-July in favor of lifting the debt ceiling. Standing against them were the countless number of people who didn’t believe anything the federal government said, and their know-nothingism was reinforced by opportunistic political figures. The self-appointed head of the congressional Tea Party and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann made denial a major part of her campaign: “Don’t let them scare you by telling you that the country’s going to fall apart.”

Thus the year 2011 had come to be dominated by the Politics of Calamity. There was a pattern. In the spring, with the threat of a government shutdown for the rest of the fiscal year, the Republicans, with the Tea Party representatives in the lead, had set the terms of the debate over a continuing resolution. They backed the President—who in his eagerness to establish his credentials as fiscally responsible hadn’t engaged them in a fight—into a corner. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner engaged in frantic negotiations at the White House. What these two men had agreed on wasn’t known for days, as aides scrambled to figure out what they had decided. Finally a continuing resolution was passed.

Months later, with the threat of a government default if the debt ceiling was not raised by August 2, the Republicans once again seized the agenda and demanded that there be a ten-year budget with major spending cuts. The President had yet to put forward a serious long-term budget of his own. The regular legislative process was then superseded by policy being made, in a room out of sight of the press and the public, by negotiators facing the threat of the United States government going into default. It takes the threat of something awful happening to drive the politicians—fearful of the effect on their careers—to bring deliberations to a close.

The hitch was that Republicans chose to use the statutory increase in the debt limit—by about $2.2 trillion on top of a $14.2 trillion debt—as a lever to exact more cuts in spending, from funds that had already been authorized or even spent. In a speech on May 9 before the Economic Club in New York, John Boehner advanced the novel theory that every dollar by which the debt ceiling was increased had to be offset by cutting a dollar in spending.

The Tea Party’s strength was larger than its numbers—about eighty in the House and as few as four in the Senate—because the entire House Republican freshman class and some more senior members were sympathetic to its views, and because the ghost of Bob Bennett now haunts many Republicans. Bennett (still alive), a solid conservative three-term senator from Utah, was, astonishingly, rejected for reelection last year by the Utah Republican caucus for having been insufficiently pure in his conservatism. (His vote in 2006 against a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning was seen as heresy.)

If Bob Bennett could be dumped, no one was safe. Boehner himself was facing a possible primary challenge. Some Tea Party members dug in on the debt ceiling because they, too, feared attacks or challenges, principally from people who would accuse them of not forcing sufficient cuts or of failing to keep their pledge not to raise the debt limit.

The Republicans embraced a philosophy of no new taxes or revenues that had little relation to reality—except for the fact that their long-standing goal has been to shrink the size of the federal government. This began with the major tax cut passed early in George W. Bush’s presidency, which purposely put serious pressure on domestic programs and which some saw at the time as folly—folly with grim implications for the future.* That tax cut, renewed in December with Obama’s assent (he didn’t have the votes to stop it, and he got some stimulus money in exchange), began the Republicans’ march from the $137 billion surplus Bill Clinton had bequeathed the country to the deficit of $1.2 trillion when Bush left office. It accounts for more than one quarter of the current deficit.

Obama’s proposal to end the Bush tax cuts for those making over $250,000 was of course not expected to go anywhere, especially in the House. That left tax expenditures—or “loopholes” permitting tax deductions. But when, on June 23, the Democrats offered their list of revenue-raising possibilities in the bipartisan talks presided over by Vice President Joe Biden, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor dramatically walked out. The bipartisan group had already agreed to over $1 trillion in spending cuts, but this was contingent on increasing revenues as well. Cantor’s abrupt exit was generally interpreted as an act intended to keep his fingerprints off any revenue increases. He would leave that to Boehner, whose position Cantor is understood to covet.

Moreover, Boehner was known to have met privately with the President just before the walk-out; if there were to be anything that could remotely be called a tax increase, a revenue increase, what have you—let Boehner do it. Meanwhile, Cantor would keep his much closer ties with the Tea Party intact. If Boehner stumbled, he’d be ready to take his place.

The politics of the debt ceiling were particularly tricky: Boehner—and the President—knew that perhaps all of the Tea Party members were, “on principle,” unlikely both to vote to raise the debt ceiling and to vote for any measure that had even a suggestion of an increase in revenues. The Speaker would therefore need a large number of Democrats to get a vote through the House. Boehner hadn’t realized at first that he’d have so many Republican defectors—fifty-four—who voted against the continuing resolution he’d negotiated with Obama in early April, on the ground that it didn’t cut spending enough, though Boehner had, in effect, taken Obama to the cleaners. This established in both Democrats’ and Republicans’ minds the thought that Obama was a weak negotiator—a “pushover.” He was more widely seen among Democrats and other close observers as having a strategy of starting near where he thinks the Republicans are—at the fifty-yard line—and then moving closer to their position.

Finding a solution to reducing the deficit that was agreeable to Boehner, to Cantor, to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and to the President was no small task. The men, who had rudely and unwisely excluded Pelosi, now the minority leader, from their deliberations, could no longer avoid dealing with her. They’d considered Pelosi a bit of a pain, insistent as she was on standing up for liberal principles.

Boehner and Cantor, and also Boehner and McConnell, have had their political differences and conflicting political exigencies. Boehner of course wants to retain Republican control of the House—it’s not inconceivable that the Democrats could pick up the necessary twenty-four seats to recover it. Therefore, Boehner didn’t want his flock to have to cast a controversial vote anytime close to the election. On the other hand, with twenty-three Democratic senators up for reelection, McConnell has had his eye on a Republican takeover of the Senate. His party would need to pick up only four seats. Therefore, he was looking for a way to force a controversial vote closer to the election.

In early July, when Obama suddenly injected Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid into the deficit and debt negotiations, many, perhaps most, Democrats were dismayed. They believed that the President was offering up the poor and the needy as a negotiating gambit. (His position was that if the Republicans would give on taxes, he’d give on entitlements.) A bewildered Pelosi said after that meeting, “He calls this a Grand Bargain?” And she came down firmly against any changes in those programs that would hurt beneficiaries.

Moreover, the Democrats had their own political reasons for opposing reductions in Medicare benefits. They had had great success in campaigning against Paul Ryan’s bizarre proposal, adopted by the House (despite even Boehner’s expressed misgivings), that would turn Medicare into a voucher system. According to Ryan’s plan the government would give future eligible Medicare recipients $6,000 and let them shop for private insurance. (Good luck.)

Having made Ryan’s proposal the centerpiece of the campaign, the Democrats had recently won a special election in a New York district that had been held by the Republicans since the 1950s. The Democrats believed they were onto a good thing.

The question arises, aside from Obama’s chronically allowing the Republicans to define the agenda and even the terminology (the pejorative word “Obamacare” is now even used by news broadcasters), why did he so definitively place himself on the side of the deficit reducers at a time when growth and job creation were by far the country’s most urgent needs?

It all goes back to the “shellacking” Obama took in the 2010 elections. The President’s political advisers studied the numbers and concluded that the voters wanted the government to spend less. This was an arguable interpretation. Nevertheless, the political advisers believed that elections are decided by middle-of-the-road independent voters, and this group became the target for determining the policies of the next two years.

That explains a lot about the course the President has been taking this year. The political team’s reading of these voters was that to them, a dollar spent by government to create a job is a dollar wasted. The only thing that carries weight with such swing voters, they decided—in another arguable proposition—is cutting spending. Moreover, like Democrats—and very unlike Republicans—these voters do not consider “compromise” a dirty word.

The President proposed at least two modest plans for stimulus spending, someone familiar with all these deliberations told me, “but he’s not as Keynesian as before.” This person said, “If the political advisers had told him in 2009 that the median voter didn’t like the stimulus, he’d have told them to get lost.” By 2011, in his State of the Union address in January he moved from jobs creation (such as the stimulus program) toward longer-term investment.

The speech Obama gave on April 13 marked his conversion to fiscal centrism; to being the fiscally responsible Democrat. In that speech he stated that he wanted to reduce the debt by $4 trillion—thus aligning himself with the Republicans—but also asked for revenues to partly offset that reduction. It was all about reelection politics, designed to appeal to this same group of independents. “And that’s why,” I was told by the person familiar with the White House deliberations, “he went bigger in the deficit reduction talks; bringing in Social Security is consistent with that slice of the electorate they’re trying to reach.” This person said, “There’s a bit of bass-ackwardness to this; the deficit spending you’d want to focus on right now is the jobs issue.”

This all fits with another development in the Obama White House. According to another close observer, David Plouffe, the manager of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, who officially joined the White House staff in January 2011, has taken over. “Everything is about the reelect,” this observer says—”where the President goes, what he does.”

Plouffe’s advice to the President defines not just Obama’s policies but also his behavior. Plouffe tells the President, according to this observer, that the target group wants him to seem the most reasonable man in the room. Plouffe is the conceptualizer, and Bill Daley, the chief of staff who shares Plouffe’s political outlook, makes things happen; Gene Sperling, the director of economic policy, and Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, are smart men but they come out of politics rather than academia or deep experience in their respective fields. Once Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, departs later this summer, all of the President’s original economic advisers will be gone. Partly this is because the President’s emphasis on budget cutting didn’t leave them very much to do. One White House émigré told me, “It’s not a place that welcomes ideas.”

Because of the extent to which the President had allowed the Republicans to set the terms of the debate, the attitude of numerous congressional Democrats toward him became increasingly sour, even disrespectful. After Obama introduced popular entitlement programs into the budget fight, a Democratic senator described the attitude of a number of his colleagues as:

Resigned disgust at the White House: there they go again. “Mr. Halfway” keeps getting maneuvered around as Republicans move the goalposts on him.

According to a report in The Hill newspaper in late June, the tough-minded, experienced, and blunt Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California told Obama in a White House meeting that he’d asked several Republicans about their meeting with him the day before, and, “To a person, they said the President’s going to cave.” Then the congressman said to the President of the United States, “And if you’re going to cave, tell us right now.” The President was reported to have been displeased, and responded, “I’m the President of the United States; my words carry weight.”

Much discussion went on about whether the result of the negotiations would be a “big” deal, reducing the debt by $4 trillion, with $1 trillion coming from revenues and some sort of savings from entitlement programs, as the President and Boehner had privately discussed—although Boehner’s dream of a bipartisan deal was dashed by Cantor on behalf of numerous other House Republicans—or a “small” deal, cutting the debt by about $2 trillion. It was easy to lose sight of the fact that the President was using a lot of his time and energy (he looked very tired) on the wrong subject. And that was even before the arduous, almost daily meetings with the two parties’ leaders.

With the negotiations stalled and time running out, McConnell, worried that the President had manuevered his party into a position where if there were a default the Republicans would be blamed, introduced his own proposal to break the impasse. The very shrewd McConnell warned his Senate colleagues that if they did not take this way out of the impasse, the party’s “brand would be badly damaged.” McConnell’s proposal handed over to the President the authority to raise the debt ceiling, which his own party had been trying so hard to exploit and never dreamed it would surrender to the President.

Under McConnell’s plan, the President would raise the debt ceiling three times for a total of $2.4 trillion before the November election. Each time, Congress would vote on a resolution of disapproval. The proposals Obama could offer would consist of spending cuts only, in keeping with the Republicans’ position that there would be no savings from the tax code. Thus McConnell had maneuvered the Democrats into having to cast three votes on the debt limit. He said that a major goal of his plan was to “reassure the markets that default is not an option.”

McConnell persuaded Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate leader, to cosponsor his proposal, incorporating Reid’s idea of setting up a bipartisan commission of members of the House and Senate who would draw up new budget proposals that would then go to both houses and be considered under a special procedure that would allow no filibuster and no amendments.

The new proposal also contained $1.5 trillion in budget cuts that had been agreed to by a bipartisan group of Senators presided over by Vice President Biden. These were the only cuts that the two parties could agree on, guaranteeing that the cuts would be much more painful for the Democrats.

With two weeks remaining before the day of default, McConnell and Reid were negotiating the fine points of their proposal, and Boehner had made a quiet overture for Nancy Pelosi’s support. (Pelosi had told people that she would demand future protection for Medicare and Social Security.) Some House Republicans expressed opposition to the Senate leadership’s plan. At the same time some conservative members were urging that Congress allow a default, saying that they didn’t believe the results would be as dire as the administration was warning. And then, suddenly, on July 19 the so-called Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators led by Democrat Kent Conrad, rode into town with a plan about the size of the one Obama and Boehner had been considering.

The plan envisaged cutting $3.7 trillion from the debt, but the details were vague, and it seemed very unlikely that such a complex plan—offered in the form of a four-page outline—with legislation involving several committees, could be drafted and passed by the Senate and the House within two weeks. The group had been holding back its plan at the White House’s request, but became impatient and fearful that Obama would cave again. The President said he liked the new plan though he had to know there was plenty in it for others to object to. It called for, to begin with, both tax revenues and deep cuts in entitlement programs. Substantial tension was growing in Washington, but to some extent it seemed a phony tension. McConnell and Boehner had vowed there would be no default. Now it was up to them and others to work out what to do instead.

The Republicans displayed a recklessness that should have disqualified them from being taken seriously. Any deal that was reached would contain substantial cuts in the coming fiscal year—too soon, as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and the head of the Congressional Budget Office Doug Elmendorf have recently warned.

The antitax dogma of the Republican Party is strongly rooted in mythology. The theory that tax cuts create jobs has been discredited by the results of George Bush’s tax policies. The Republicans cling to the myth that “small business” owners are the “job creators,” and so they oppose proposals to eliminate the Bush rate cuts for even those earning over $250,000. But relatively few small business owners earn $250,000—in fact, fewer than 3 percent of the 20 million people who file business income on their personal tax forms (the 1040s) earn that much.

Finally, the antitax position of many conservatives would seem to be illogical, since they also hate deficits: but their real aim is to reduce or eliminate federal programs. They call efforts to redistribute wealth “socialism,” but have no problem redistributing from the poor and middle class to the wealthy through taxes, as set forth in Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which the House approved on April 15. Under the Ryan plan, the taxes of the richest one percent of Americans would be cut in half, while taxes would be raised on most of the middle class. People earning over $1 million would be taxed at a lower effective rate than the middle class.

Consistent with the philosophy of Ryan’s idol Ayn Rand, this scheme would by 2050 eliminate virtually all federal programs other than defense and Social Security, much of which would be privatized, while his voucher program would replace Medicare. The Ryan plan was so radical that even Republican candidates have been distancing themselves from it though the party higher-ups had declared it a “litmus test” for Republicans seeking office.

Still, liberal-leaning budget analysts agree that the budget is on an “unsustainable” path, with debt constantly rising as a share of the Gross Domestic Product. As of now, the debt is close to 70 percent of GDP. James Horney of the highly respected Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that that’s a workable percentage, but that steps should be taken to stabilize it by the end of this decade. That would require, Horney says, a substantial amount of deficit reduction—no easy task—including increases in revenues.

This does not mean, Horney adds, that we need to balance the budget to reach that goal. If there are needs to be met by borrowing—especially now, to boost economic growth and employment—we should borrow. The borrowing today should go to extend unemployment benefits (scheduled to expire in December), create infrastructure programs that will provide jobs (for which there are a number of ideas floating around), as well as provide more fiscal relief to the states. (In the recent dismal unemployment figures, public employees were particularly hard hit—partly because they were a target of Republican governors.)

But even more significant is the question of how our leaders, in particular the President, ended up with such misguided policies—emphasizing budget- cutting over growth. The Republicans exploited the need to avoid an economic collapse that could result from not raising the debt limit by demanding that programs that Congress had agreed to should now be unagreed to.

The President began the year with the unfortunate slogan “Win the Future”—which emphatically meant growth and investment. He ended up in Republican territory, at least rhetorically accepting the highly flawed conception equating the federal government with a household: he and Goolsbee repeated the sampler-stitched maxim “We must live within our means,” ignoring that at times the government simply must borrow in order to meet the people’s needs, as is the case now, with high unemployment. It’s no time for austerity. Instead, the government is borrowing in order to give tax cuts to the wealthy and pay for at least two wars.

A final deal became exigent for the major players: naturally, Obama didn’t want to preside over a calamity; and just as urgently, the Republican leaders didn’t want to be pinned with the blame for bringing about the calamity—which poll after poll suggested they would be. Thus it was assumed that a deal would be reached not because the Republicans had a sudden surge of responsibility but because they feared the political consequences of not appearing to be responsible.

Anyway, they had lured the President so far onto their territory that any deal would represent a substantial victory for them—the President’s rhetoric notwithstanding. It was all about theater and politics. But Obama—and the country—would still have to live with the consequences of the policy.

Both the President and the House Republicans, the major parties to the negotiations, are running longer-term political risks. The Tea Party, which has dominated the entire eighty-five-member freshman class, or one third of the Republican House caucus, has pulled the House Republican Party so far to the right that it risks coming across to the public as too obdurate, as putting its own ideology and own partisan interests ahead of the nation’s needs. (And given the possible effects of a default by the United States, perhaps other nations as well.) The “old boys”—the “establishment” Republicans, represented by Boehner—were willing to compromise, while Cantor, as majority leader, had to pay attention to the rambunctious Tea Party group. Each was useful to the other.

In the end, the President had made the Republicans look bad, but what did he get for it? He ended up agreeing to new restrictions that will hamstring his policies for as long as he serves in office. His own actions will have led to new laws that forbid him to borrow money for any government policy—unless, at some time, he goes out and campaigns hard for raising taxes in any form. His actions so far shed light on how likely that is.

This country’s economy is beset with a number of new difficulties, among them that recovery from the last recession remains more elusive than was generally expected, while the US is confronting a variety of international economic instabilities, especially the large debts and possible default of several countries in the eurozone, bringing on unpopular austerity measures. Recent experience with what should have been a simple matter of raising the debt ceiling, normally done with no difficulty, is reason for deep unease about our political system’s ability to deal with such challenges. Ω

[Elizabeth Drew has been one of the country's most knowledgeable and keen-eyed observers of the American political scene in the 40 years that she has written from the nation's capital.

She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley College, where she majored in political science. Early in her career she wrote for Congressional Quarterly and then for Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times magazine, and other publications. She had a weekly television interviews program in the early 1970s before beginning a 20-year association with The New Yorker as a Washington correspondent. She was a panelist for the first presidential debate of the 1976 campaign and she was moderator of the Democratic candidates debate in the 1984 election.

She is a prolific author as well. She has written ten books, most recently, Whatever It Takes: The Real Struggle for Political Power in America (1997). Drew was the 9th Annual John S. Knight Lecturer at the Stanford University School of Journalism.]

Copyright © 2011 2011 New York Review of Books, Inc.

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Art Imitates Life: A Northern Nightmare

The world has gone mad. If this is (fair & balanced) horror, so be it.

[x MoJo]
Anders Breivik, Stieg Larsson, And The Men With The Nazi Tattoos
By James Ridgeway

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Stieg Larsson is the best-known novelist of the past decade, his Millennium Trilogy read by tens of millions of people worldwide. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two successors are beloved for their thrilling plots and compelling title character. But Larsson also embedded in his novels the abiding cause of his life: his crusade against the far-right movements that he saw as the scourge of Scandinavia and a threat to modern European society. Yet this part of his message never quite got through. Instead, the world stood in shock this weekend as Norway fell victim to precisely the kind of extremist violence Larsson had warned about.

The trilogy that has been met with such an enthusiastic but curiously apolitical response was written by a consummately political man: Raised by a grandfather who had been imprisoned during World War II for his anti-Nazi views, Larsson was in his youth a member of the Communist Workers Party and editor, for a time, of the Swedish Trotskyist journal Fjarde Internationalen. He later became the Scandinavian correspondent of Searchlight, the British anti-fascist and anti-racist magazine, and in 1995, amid an uptick in neo-Nazi violence in Sweden, he founded its Swedish equivalent, Expo—the model for the Millennium magazine featured in his trilogy. In the US, both Expo and Searchlight have maintained ties with another group that tracks the far right, the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. As an expert on the neo-Nazi movements, Larsson was once invited to lecture on the subject at Scotland Yard.

As Expo grew, the neo-Nazis in Sweden targeted it, threatening Larsson (who died in 2004) and his partner of 30 years, Eva Gabrielsson. According to Gabrielsson's book, "There Are Things I Want You to Know" About Stieg Larsson and Me, both of them were placed on hit lists and were in enough danger to barricade their apartment doors and arrange for special police protection. "Stieg would receive bullets in the mail, and once someone was waiting for him outside the entrance of the TT building [where he worked]. Warned in time, Stieg slipped out a back door," Gabrielsson writes.

"Our answering machine was set permanently on 'record' to keep evidence of the threats we received," she continues, "and they were always in the same vein: 'Piece of shit, you Jew-fucker... Traitor, we'll tear you apart…and we know where you live.'" At the sign of the slightest provocation on their apartment block, police cars would descend on the street. The danger was undeniably real: Two journalists who once worked for Expo and were later employed by Aftonbladet, one of Sweden's largest newspapers, wrote an exposé of the neo-Nazi black-metal music operations. One of them was seriously injured when his car was bombed. A labor union leader who revealed neo-Nazi names was shot dead.

These events, and what Larsson felt was the government's failure to protect citizens, made their way into Larsson's fiction, says Gabrielsson, for example via the murders of Dag Svensson and Mia Bergman in The Girl Who Played With Fire: "In fact, everything of this nature described in The Millennium Trilogy has happened at one time or another to a Swedish citizen, journalist, politician, public prosecutor, unionist, or policeman. Nothing was made up."

Up until recently, Sweden has had Scandinavia's most well defined neo-fascist movement, with the Norwegian movement comparatively small and scattered. However, far-right splinter factions are in touch with one another across Europe and even with their counterparts in the United States. Larsson and Devin Burghart, of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, were coauthors of a 2001 Searchlight article that laid out ties between the National Alliance, an American neo-Nazi group, and the "black metal" scene in Norway. At the time the Alliance was led by the since-deceased William Pierce, the leading guru of the American racist far right and the author of the The Turner Diaries, which has been called the bible of domestic terrorism. Pierce had set up a cultural conduit for the neo-Nazi movement by taking over Resistance Records, a white-power record company in the United States, along with a Norwegian company called Cymophane.

In the wake of this weekend's attacks in Oslo, it was Expo that once again was at the forefront, exposing what is so far suspect Anders Behring Breivik's most direct link to the contemporary neo-Nazi scene in Scandinavia. In his manifesto and on the website where he regularly posted, Breivik portrays himself as a conservative Christian and heir to the Knights Templar crusaders. At the same time, Breivik's ideology was reportedly influenced by the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, racist Norwegian Defence League and its inspiration, the English Defense League. He also appears sympathetic to the established racist line of the British National Party and National Front. And he has been a member of the anti-immigration Progress Party, the second-largest political party in Norway.

Expo revealed that since 2009 Breivik has also been part of the forum Nordisk (Nordic), whose 22,000 members, according to Expo (in a translation provided by Searchlight), range "from high-ranking members of the Sweden Democrats, a nationalist party with seats in the Swedish parliament, to leading members of the Nazi movement and to unhinged psychopaths. What unites the whole lot is a hatred of immigration and immigrants." A favorite topic was The Turner Diaries.

Despite the tireless work of Larsson and his successors at Expo, Norway seem to have put relatively little stock in the threat of homegrown extremists. In its annual threat assessment, published at the beginning of the year, the Norwegian security service reportedly said that "far-right and far-left extremist communities will not pose a serious threat to Norwegian society in 2011."

Writing in the Guardian, Matthew Goodwin, an expert on British fascist movements, argues that "until now, European democracies and their security services had focused almost exclusively on the threat from al-Qaida-inspired terrorism. Rightwing extremist groups and their more violent affiliates were dismissed as disorganised, fragmented and irrelevant movement." The Norway attacks, he says, might "prove to be a watershed moment in terms of how we approach far-right followers, groups and their ideology." If so, European governments will at last be heeding Stieg Larsson's warning. Ω

[In 1965, James Ridgeway helped launch the modern muckraking era by revealing that General Motors had hired private eyes to spy on an obscure consumer advocate named Ralph Nader. He has written 16 books, including The 5 Unanswered Questions About 9/11, and he codirected "Blood in the Face," a film about the far right. Ridgeway is Senior Washington Correspondent for Mother Jones.]

Copyright © 2011 Mother Jones and the Foundation for National Progress

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Go Eyeball To Eyeball With The Dumbos & Teabaggers, Mr. President... & Don't Blink!

Jon Stewart calls the current debt ceiling crisis "Armadebtdon 2011." Like The Trickster, the favorite card game for the POTUS 44 is poker. If this is (fair & balanced) presidential rope-a-dope, so be it.

[x John Young Blog]
GOP's Goin'-Nuclear Gambit
By John Young

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What we're seeing is this: a cross between "The Missiles of October" and "Dr. Strangelove" — a standoff of nuclear proportions.

A nation stands on the brink of — stock-market armageddon? A credit-rating mushroom cloud?
By air, the missiles of a warring party — the tea party — are observed registering red on the map, anti-tax drones beep-beep-beeping their way toward the mainland. By sea, unidentified crafts creep toward cataclysm. The Pentagon asks reconnaissance: political destroyers or rhetorical shrimp boats?

The president seeks to rally the nation with a prime-time address. A menacing House Speaker John Boehner follows, pulling out a golf shoe, hammers it on the lecturn, and implies that unless the White House and Senate capitulate to Republican demands, in so many words: "We will bury you."

Our president hopes for a "Missiles of October" ending, with everyone unscathed as the red menace backs down. The Republicans seem intent on a "Strangelove" ending, when one cowboy (Eric Cantor? Michelle Bachmann?) rides a nuclear bomb to oblivion, setting off a doomsday chain of detonations.

Regardless, today innocents stand alert, scanning the horizon.

As President Obama said Monday night, the voters asked for a divided government, not paralyzed government. Fiscal jihadists in the House are dedicated to the latter, with belts of explosives hugging their hips.

Anti-debt? Funny, they have been just dedicated for three decades to driving up the national debt. And why? They knew that one day (today?) it would have to be resolved by strangling government. Deficit by design, courtesy of Reagan, Bush, Bush.

Back in the 1980s these Republicans had the chutzpah to propose a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Yeah, and pigs would wear lobster bibs. These people were absolutely oblivious to debt and deficits. What they wanted was lower and more regressive tax rates. The rest of the fiscal mix could go stew.

House Republicans again are going to the well with such an amendment, a truly miserable idea that would be like having today's argument every hour instead of every budget cycle.

Governments have to borrow, and governments have to address the unexpected. The worn cliché comparing a government budget to a family's is past inane. A family cannot declare war. A government cannot declare bankruptcy.

What would happen under a balanced budget amendment would be that Congress would declare fiscal emergencies as often as it raises the flag, or as it raised the debt ceiling (18 times) under Reagan and (seven times) under G.W. Bush.

Americans should be sick of the comedic shtick of fiscal "conservatives" who, among other things, financed two wars off the books. King's X: Those billions and billions didn't count toward the federal deficit cited by the Bush White House. They were "continuing allocations" — emergency funds.

Total costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan allocated by Congress so far: $1.26 trillion (see

Watch these fiscal lotharios — that means you, Mr. Speaker — assail Obama for spending willy nilly. The difference: While trying to wind down the nation's crippling military obligations, Obama focused spending on needs here. Yes: Transportation projects here. Alternative energy here. Rescuing automakers here. Creating a million jobs here. Averting a second Great Depression here. It was interesting to hear Boehner say that the Obama stimulus plan amounted to squat. We have to assume through simple arithmetic that the GOP-Bush approach to economic stimulus produced even less.

Obama is absolutely right that a balanced deficit reduction is what the nation needs. But here's the matter of balance that matters most, the reason why he should call the Republicans' bluff, as Kennedy did with the Soviets in those tense days in the fall of 1962.

The tea party Republicans are comporting themselves as if they are the only legitimate voice of the people, as if the other chamber is illegitimate, and so is the president. Contrary to its protests (and like the Soviets), the tea party is a one-party instrument that isn't interested in power sharing or anything approaching consensus. It knows the answers, and isn't taking any questions.

Beep, beep, beep. We watch the screen. Mr. President, don't be the one to blink. Ω

[After 25 years as opinion editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald, John Young made a change in careers and climates when he and his family moved to Fort Collins, CO, where Young teaches writing at the college level while continuing to write columns for a national audience. Young received a B.A. in journalism from Colorado State University.]

Copyright © 2011 John Young

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Change The Terms Of The Debate, Hee-Haws — Or, Pay The Fiddler!

Thomas Jefferson (D-VA) said, in his 1801 inaugural address that, "We are all Republicans — we are all Federalists," and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) proclaimed this week that, "It is clear we must enter an era of austerity, to reduce the deficit through shared sacrifice." In that statement, Pelosi proclaimed that (choke) we are all fiscal conservatives now. Yuck. If this is a (fair & balanced) time of civic cowardice, so be it.

[x Salon]
The Painful Price Of Deficit Hysteria
By Julian Zelizer

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Regardless of the outcome of the debt ceiling debate, conservatives have already scored a major victory over liberalism. Even if President Obama emerges from the struggle in stronger political shape than the GOP, the fiscalization of American politics — meaning the focus of debate on deficits and debt — constitutes a powerful blow to liberal Democrats who once hoped that President Obama's election would herald a new era for their cause.

Liberals were wrong. Conservatives, who have a mediocre field of presidential candidates and who don't control the Senate, have been able to stand their ground.

Perhaps one of their most lasting accomplishments since the midterm elections has been their ability to shift national debate toward the problem of deficit reduction. While there has been disagreement among politicians and economists about whether this is the correct time to deal with this issue given the laggard state of the economy, conservatives have won the battle. Even Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] said this week, "It is clear we must enter an era of austerity, to reduce the deficit through shared sacrifice."

We are all fiscal conservatives now, at least on paper.

None of this should come as a surprise. Focusing on deficit reduction has been a long-standing strategy for proponents of conservatism ever since modern liberalism took hold in the 20th century. Whenever liberals make progress on their policy agenda, conservatives' best bet has been to talk about the budget. While it is difficult to directly oppose many government programs, since the public tends to support specific services, it is easy to raise fears about overall costs. Those are just numbers, not programs. Moreover, budget-balancing has long been symbolically important to many Americans. As the political scientist James [D.] Savage has shown, a balanced budget represents to many citizens the perception that the government maintains control over its operations.

In the mid-1930s, conservative Democrats and Republicans began using FDR's record of deficit spending as one of the key arguments in their attacks on him. Lewis Douglas, the Arizonan who had served as budget director for one year before leaving the administration in frustration, warned that, "There was a time not so long ago when even a million dollars seemed a rather stupendous figure. But now the word 'billion' is bandied about freely." In 1937, listening to the warnings of Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau, who shared Douglas' concerns, FDR agreed to start balancing the budget by cutting spending. The result was the "Roosevelt Recession" that undercut the administration's standing and triggered another round of economic turmoil. Roosevelt eventually changed his tune, defending deficit spending as a stimulant to the economy (and, during World War II, as essential).

The conservative coalition in Congress, which consisted of Southern Democrats and Republicans, again used deficit reduction as a weapon to bludgeon liberals in the 1960s. After President Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic leadership in Congress dramatically expanded the scope of government through the Great Society, conservatives responded by warning of the budgetary costs of these efforts. Senator John Williams [R-DE] declared in January 1966, the same month that Johnson told Congress the nation could afford Guns and Butter, that if the current trends continued, "we will be confronted overnight with a drastic proposal to raise the taxes or we will have a tremendous increase in the deficit and the resulting wild inflation."

While the opposition to LBJ had many sources, including a racial backlash and mounting anger over Vietnam, the deficit was paramount. Johnson certainly understood that this was a huge political problem, especially after the conservative coalition expanded in size in the '66 midterm elections, and in 1967 he grudgingly proposed a tax increase to lower the deficit and dampen inflation. The conservative coalition forced the administration to accept much steeper spending cuts than they were comfortable with in exchange for passing the tax surcharge. The battle over the deficit, which culminated in a surcharge and spending cuts in 1968, ended Johnson's efforts to build new social programs and helped usher in a period of conservatism.

And the conservative attacks on deficits never ended. Ronald Reagan used this issue in his rise to power, as did congressional Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections. The first piece of legislation proposed in the Newt Gingrich-led GOP's "Contract With America" was the Fiscal Responsibility Act — "a balanced budget/tax limitation amendment and a legislative line-item veto to restore fiscal responsibility to an out-of-control Congress, requiring them to live under the same budget constraints as families and business." And, of course, in the Obama era, Republicans have used warnings about deficits to curtail the president's legislative ambition.

The irony is that Republicans actually have a terrible record when it comes to balancing the budget. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush left the nation's fiscal house out of order, and the one Republican who took deficit reduction seriously, George H.W. Bush, paid a steep price for accepting tax increases as part of a budget package in 1990; Gingrich and the right never forgave him. Meanwhile, there have been many Democrats, including President Clinton, who have taken aggressive steps to curb the deficit.

What conservatives have been good at, though, is using deficits as a tool for their own political purposes. When the debate turns to this issue, they tend to be the beneficiaries — and liberalism tends to be the loser.

The reasons for this are numerous. For one, Democrats are generally on stronger political ground when the debate is focused on needs and services &3151; not numbers. Polls have shown that when Americans are asked about specific programs they tend to support them. However, when they're asked about government at an abstract level, they frequently say they prefer markets. For the right, talking about deficits keeps public attention away from specific policies, where their views may not be popular. This is also why Republicans like to speak in broad terms about achieving budgetary target, rather than targeting specific programs and services.

Obsession with deficit reduction also tends to be uneven. This has helped conservatives to shield expensive programs and policies that they like from budgetary scrutiny — military spending, tax loopholes and tax increases. Reagan, who loved to condemn Democratic spending, vastly increased deficits by expanding the Defense budget. Whenever he was asked what he would do if it came down to a choice between defense and deficits, Reagan would say: "I always said national security would come first, and the people applauded every time."

The focus on deficits also prevents existing programs from being updated. Eliminating federal programs is always politically difficult, but it's not as hard to slowly starve them to death. This has been one of the subtlest ways in which programs have been eroded. By putting the deficit front and center, there is less support for increasing funding for anything, and the game in Washington changes to protecting the status quo. As a result, federal programs such as the minimum wage have languished because they are not updated in value even as the cost of living continues to rise.

And then there's the fact that deficit debates help conservatives crowd out support for policies that stimulate economic growth. Many liberal economists are adamant that now is the wrong time to be pursuing deficit reduction, given the negative consequences spending cuts could have on the economy. But when presidents (like Obama now) turn their full attention toward deficit reduction, they usually put away tools that they have at their disposal to help citizens through hard economic times.

If liberals don't change the terms of debate, they won't be able to make much progress in coming years. Obama might win reelection and Democrats might retain control of the Senate in 2012, but that alone won't create more room for liberal values in the national debate. Even after the '12 election, deficits will still loom large and Democrats will be under pressure to play the role of Republican-lite. Ω

[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs in both Princeton's Department of History and Woodrow Wilson School. Zelizer received his B.A. at Brandeis University and Ph.D. at The Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security—From World War II to the War on Terrorism (2010) and editor of The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment (2010].]

Copyright © 2011 The Salon Media Group, Inc.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

♪ It Never Rains, It Never Snows, The Doggone Wind Just Blows And Blows ♫

Just this AM, Kate Galbraith reported that the USDA was pulling the plug on a 35-year-old wind-energy research center in the Texas Panhandle. Within this report, there is mention of Earl H. Gilmore (PhD, chemistry, University of California at Berkeley) who chaired the Physical Science Department at the Collegium Excellens in the 1970s. This blogger was honored to call Dr. Gilmore a colleague. If this is a (fair & balanced) latter-day version of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," so be it.

[x TM]
A Mighty Wind
By Kate Galbraith and Asher Price

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One cool Lubbock afternoon in 1979, Father Joe James made a kite. He nailed together a small wooden cross, glued paper across it, and on the long tail of twine tied streamers every five feet. Then he walked out of St. John Neumann Catholic Church, the energy-saving, below-ground house of worship he had designed, climbed up a modest slope, and launched the contraption above the church’s school and football field. Staring up at the fluttering streamers, he could gauge which way the wind was blowing and where it blew hardest.

This sort of project was not uncommon for James, a perpetual tinkerer convinced that simplicity was next to godliness. For a long time he had dreamed about creating wind-generated electricity to power his church in this perpetually windy corner of the state. Over the next few years, he bought five wind turbines from Jay Carter and Jay Carter Jr., a Wichita Falls–area father and son team of mechanical engineers. The turbines were taller than anything else around, and James planted four of them, each sixty feet tall, beside the football field’s end zones. The turbines were wired directly into the church and the church school, and in the evenings, when the lights were out and the air-conditioning was turned off, excess power could be fed to the city’s electric grid. The last turbine went in next to the church; it was called Big Bird, because it stood eighty feet tall. Anyone driving around Lubbock in the early eighties could see Big Bird from a mile off—and probably wondered what in God’s name it was.

James wasn’t the first Texan to try to harness the wind. Since the mid- to late 1800’s, rural Texans had been ordering windmills out of catalogs, and it was these iconic, creaky contraptions—first wooden and then steel—that sped the settlement of the Great Plains by pumping water up from the aquifers, enabling ranchers to keep cattle and the railroads to make steam. By the early twentieth century, companies were selling “wind chargers,” which farmers could erect if they wanted electricity in their homes—and they did, because kerosene was inconvenient and couldn’t power the radio. But rural electrification in the late thirties and forties killed the wind chargers; once the utilities extended wires into the countryside, farmers could get plenty of electricity whether it was windy or not.

James saw things differently. Why should he pay for electricity when it could be harnessed from the skies? His quixotic experiment ran for nearly a decade, supplying much of the energy needed to run his church and Sunday school. But in the late eighties, he became ensnared in a theological controversy after his parishioners reported receiving messages from the Virgin Mary. Floods of visitors arrived, claims of miracles proliferated, and a dubious Lubbock bishop eased James out. Several years later, the teetering turbines were winched down for the final time. “The priest who followed me couldn’t give a flip about them,” James says. “He said he couldn’t get anyone to repair them or cobble them together. If you want to do something badly enough, you will. If you don’t want to, the way is filled with excuses.”

Three decades after he first planted them in the ground, James’s turbines are long gone, and the way the church operates—keeping the lights on in the middle of the day—“just kills my soul,” he says. “They’re paying through the nose for utilities now. They have no vision at all.” Now all that remains of the turbines are five 8-foot-deep cement anchors, sunk like gravestones around the grounds of the church.

But something far bigger—the real miracle, perhaps—has sprung up in the intervening years. Today, Texas leads the nation in wind energy production, with more turbines than all but five countries. Sweetwater, a town of 11,000 people outside Abilene, has become the new Spindletop: Drive past it on the interstate and up rises a forest of giant wind turbines, more than three times the height of Big Bird. These modern, European-style whirligigs may lack the romance of the oil gusher, but they actually work pretty well. James’s five machines didn’t produce enough electricity to fully power a few buildings; each of today’s turbines provides enough electricity for several hundred homes. Nearly 8 percent of the power on Texas’s electric grid now comes from the wind (reaching as high as 26 percent at moments during winter nights, when the wind is strongest and electricity use is lowest). That’s an enormous number, dwarfing the national average of 2 percent.

A wind power cottage industry has sprung up in Texas. Houston, eager for all things energy-related, has become something of a wind power capital, thanks to developers like EDP Renewables, Pattern Energy, and Iberdrola Renewables, as well as BP and Shell. A couple of turbine blade repair companies have opened offices in the Texas hinterlands, and universities have gotten into the game too: Texas Tech now has a center dedicated to wind science and engineering, including a wind tunnel with a tornado vortex simulator, and Texas State Technical College, in Sweetwater, has a degree program in wind energy technology. Texas still doesn’t have much manufacturing—a sore point for the industry, which blames state officials’ unwillingness to dole out incentives—though Vestas, a giant Danish turbine maker, opened a research and development office in Houston a few years ago.

This success is no accident. There’s a hell of a lot of wind in Texas, especially in the Panhandle. Joe James knew it—as a boy, he rode out the end of the Dust Bowl in Dalhart—and so does everyone in West Texas who has tied sheets to his wrists, gotten on a bicycle, and “sailed” across the empty land. There’s also little fussing about giant wind towers marring the views here, because derricks and pump jacks have scarred the landscape for generations. And Texans aren’t much for regulations. “In Texas, you can put anything you want on your own private land, and nobody can say a thing about it,” says Randy Sowell, a wind industry veteran who grew up in Lubbock.

By now, even though some outsiders may still be surprised by the sight of giant wind blades swooshing gently above oil and gas country, many Texans are aware that their state has become the unlikely capital of U.S. wind power. But few of them know the tale of how we got to this point. It’s a saga populated with dreamers, schemers, hard workers, fast talkers, and talented hobbyists, almost all of whom found themselves defeated at one point or another by their own ambitions. If Texas wind power is a success story, it’s a success story built upon failure after failure after failure. And the sum of those heroic failures has turned out to be something transformative: an industry that may change the way people look at green power—and at Texas.

Jay Carter Jr. and his father talk about wind machines the way some men talk about women; it’s all about curves and shapeliness. “The more flexible the material,” says Jay Jr., “the lighter the turbine, the more attractive it is.” In the long story of Texas wind, the Carters play a critical role. Father James was not the only pioneer to end up at their doorstep. The modern era of Texas wind began in their vast, metal-roofed warehouse, on a prairie on the edge of Burkburnett. It’s appropriate that the cradle of a new energy economy was this small hamlet north of Wichita Falls, whose nickname, “Boomtown, USA!” derives from its heyday during the oil stampede a century ago.

Everyone who took part in the pioneer days of the wind movement was an engineer at heart. But the Carters were the high priests of the slide rule. Jay Sr. grew up in Burkburnett the son of an oil executive. A Texas Tech graduate, he made his name engineering lightweight composite materials that played a critical role in the country’s early rocket program. Jay Jr., too, was a wunderkind and a Tech alum. He walked away from his college football career—he had been recruited to play cornerback—to spend more time in the lab. When he was still an undergrad, Jay Jr. built his own gyrocopter, using some of his dad’s fiberglass material. Bell Helicopter quickly hired him after he graduated, in 1968. At 22, he was the youngest employee in the research and development division, which was charged with building the XV-15 tilt-rotor, an aircraft that combines aspects of a helicopter and an airplane. He was capable far beyond his years, and perhaps because he had already gone almost completely bald, his colleagues figured he had transferred from another company after years of experience.

Like most young mechanical geniuses, Jay Jr. was restless. Within a couple of years he ditched the Bell job to move to Burkburnett and rejoin his father, on a mission to build a steam-powered car. They stripped out and reengineered a 1968 canary-yellow Volks­wagen squareback and in 1974, after half a dozen years of soldering and pipe fitting, showed off their invention at an Ann Arbor, Michigan, demonstration, outperforming efforts by the Detroit car manufacturers. In a cover story for Popular Science, a reporter wrote that Jay Jr. “feels that much of his success comes from shaking off ancient, hoary thinking about steam engines.” Determined to keep pushing the envelope, he turned to building a steam-powered New York City taxicab. When the model the Carters built failed to catch on, they decided to apply their knowledge of copter blades to the engineering of wind turbines.

The 1973 oil crisis had sent electricity prices soaring, and Jay Jr. had the notion that wind was “an oil well that never runs dry.” He and his father were determined to modernize turbines but keep them slimmed down: Their turbines would be smaller and lighter, easier to manufacture and ship than those of their competitors around the country, and more efficient too. They thought it would take them a year to pull it off; it took three. The prairie around their warehouse turned into a graveyard of dreams. Turbines toppled and exploded in flames; wind blades came spinning off. In one incident, a hydraulic brake wasn’t powerful enough to bring a turbine to a stop in a high wind. “It kept running and burned up the brake,” says Jay Jr. “Normally that wouldn’t be so bad, but hydraulic fluid was leaking, and it sprayed hot oil onto the brake disc, which, of course, was red-hot. It ignited the oil and slung it all around. The blades caught on fire. That whole machine literally burned up in the air.”

In 1978 the turbines finally performed as the Carters’ equations forecast they would, and Carter Wind Systems soon received its first purchase order, for the princely sum of $10,000, from an institute at West Texas State run by a tall, rangy physics professor named Vaughn Nelson. (Father Joe James put in his order not long after that.)

In the little town of Canyon, about 230 miles west of Burkburnett, Nelson had been turning himself into the brains behind Texas wind. A Kansas native who, by his own admission, had racked up one of high school basketball’s “worst coaching records in history,” Nelson had begun studying wind speeds in the early seventies with another Panhandle academic, Earl Gilmore. Working on wind gave Nelson a break from standing in a classroom talking about vectors and momentum.

When energy prices rose in the wake of the oil embargo, Nelson and Gilmore suddenly found themselves the go-to experts and were tapped to write the state’s first-ever report on wind potential. “All things considered,” they wrote in 1974, “the region of greatest wind energy potential in the United States is located mainly in the Panhandle of Texas.” If the state made a giant investment—something Nelson and Gilmore acknowledged was essentially impossible—Texas could provide “about 8 percent of the nation’s anticipated electrical power in 1980.”

Nelson, Gilmore, and another man, Robert Barieau, who had previously worked for the Helium Research Center, in Amarillo, were intent on transforming tiny Canyon into a hub of wind research. They got a boost in 1977, after a Panhandle lawmaker wrangled a line item into the state budget to start the Alternative Energy Institute at West Texas State (now West Texas A&M). The institute crunched wind data and tested prototype turbines, but the latter proved difficult on a hectic university campus, where the administration feared those swiftly turning blades were a little too close to civilization for comfort. After one turbine (not manufactured by the Carters) spun out of control and collapsed, forcing the police to shut down a nearby highway, the test site was moved.

While Nelson and his crew got busy with their experiments and Father James prepared to run his church on wind power, the Carters were working with another customer, Michael Osborne, a Pampa native who had read about the Carters and given them a call. Osborne had grown up in the fifties amid dust storms nearly as fierce as the ones that had sent Woody Guthrie racing for shelter when he lived in Pampa twenty years earlier. “I was walking home from school—I was probably in the third grade—and I looked on the horizon, to the north, and saw this line, this brown line, and I knew that I had to get home in a hurry because a great dust storm was coming,” Osborne recalls. “And I ran like crazy and made it just in time before the sixty-mile-per-hour wind and the dust came. It was just like a blizzard, but it was dust.” Osborne spent his adulthood getting away from Pampa, first to engineering school at the University of Texas, then to a gig as the adman for Austin’s legendary Armadillo World Headquarters in the early seventies, where his agency produced radio spots and posters and tried to persuade fans not to race actual armadillos.

But Osborne eventually tired of the advertising business, not to mention the darker side of the music business. “You know, I’d probably already seen at least one drug death by then, maybe two,” he says. So after reading books by the futurist Buckminster Fuller and having an epiphany while watching a comet streak feebly across the West Texas sky, he decided to reach for his roots and do his part to save the planet. “My philosophy formed very early that we would have to move away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable fuels,” he says.

So in 1981, 32-year-old Osborne drove back to Pampa and planted five turbines he’d bought from the “pretty boys” (as he calls them) at Carter Wind Systems on land belonging to his cousin, a county judge. There were two other turbines on adjoining property that belonged to a Coca-Cola distributor; Osborne had created, he told the Dallas Morning News, “the second-largest wind farm in the known universe” (the first was in New Hampshire). Osborne even had the installation videotaped and included comments from Jay Carter Jr. and Joe James, who would turn on his turbines a few months later. “I’d just as soon start making money,” a young Osborne says to the camera as men work on the turbines atop the waving grass. “I’m really sick and tired of spending it.” Osborne was trying to figure out if wind could pay for itself, and he got a little help. The oil price spikes of the seventies had brought a wave of federal incentives for alternative energy; after Osborne invested about $80,000, he received a $20,000 tax credit from the IRS.

The early eighties were, relatively speaking, times of plenty for wind farmers. The Car­ters gained some small fame after they won a Montana contest, in which, Jay Jr. said, their machines survived 100-mile-per-hour winds. They did some one-off deals with farmers and ranchers in Texas, but they really got going in California, where once and future governor Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown decided that turbines were a smart alternative to nuclear plants. In 1982 the Carters’ first California wind turbine was sold directly to the state, which erected it between San Francisco and the state capital, Sacramento. “That was a well-traveled political highway,” Jay Jr. says. Other turbines went to the famed early wind farms at San Gorgonio and Tehachapi, in Southern California.

By the mid-eighties, California could boast that it generated some 90 percent of the world’s wind power. Production at the Car­ters’ 25,000-square-foot Burkburnett warehouse reached a peak in 1983, when more than one hundred people strove to build a turbine a day, sold as far afield as Hawaii and the arctic circle. But elsewhere—in most of Texas and the nation—interest in wind began to peter out as oil prices swiftly declined. Lines at the pump evaporated, and for one glorious spring day in 1986, an Exxon station near Austin gave away gas for free. Wind simply couldn’t compete with rock-bottom fossil fuel prices, especially after the Reagan administration slashed incentives for renewable energy. Even the Carters’ assembly line shut down in 1988. Three years later Jay Jr. began another turbine company but shut it down in 1994 after a legal battle with foreign partners over company ownership. By then the relationship between father and son had grown strained—over a matter of engineering. Jay Sr. had wanted to further simplify the design, and Jay Jr. refused. “He had his own idea about how the wind turbine ought to be built, and I didn’t agree with him,” Jay Jr. says. “We just couldn’t afford his research and development.”

Osborne eventually broke about even, and he shut down his operation too. Lightning had blown what “looked like Star Wars bullet holes” in his control boxes, and he began to question the wisdom of patching them up. For a nominal fee he sold the turbines in 1985 to Vaughn Nelson’s wind shop in Canyon, which was eager to salvage their parts—­especially after researchers there accidentally destroyed two Carter turbines. One fell when a wire holding it in place went slack in strong winds and jumped off its pulley. Another collapsed after researchers detached the wires anchoring it to a truck and the ground at the same time, leaving the turbine unmoored and teetering, says Kenneth Starcher, a researcher who had been holding one of the wires. A colleague of his leaped out of the turbine’s path, dropping a brand-new Nikon camera. “My God, the thing just missed crushing him,” says Starcher. “It killed the camera. He was pissed about the camera.”

The camera wasn’t the only thing that got crushed. The early dream of the wind as a limitless, nonpolluting source of energy for Texans also seemed to have come to an end.

But Texas wind had another act in store.

After Anthony Lucas’s famous well at Spindletop struck oil, in 1901, the government of Texas couldn’t keep up with the drillers, scrupulous and unscrupulous, who had their way with the state’s most valuable resource. It was every man for himself. But free-for-alls like that are a thing of the past. The twenty-first-century energy industry is shaped by a mesh of state and federal incentives—taxes, tax breaks, pollution controls, and the like—and a big ruckus kicks up whenever someone wants to change them. During the most recent legislative session, natural gas drillers made a fuss when lawmakers considered reducing a key state tax break. (The full tax break remains in place.)

Michael Osborne, Vaughn Nelson, Joe James, and the Carters would never have gotten their experiments off the ground without the government’s help, and history repeated itself a decade or so later. By the early nineties Texas, the energy state, had become a net importer of energy. “We thought it a shame—and a motivator,” says Karl Rábago, then a Texas Public Utility commissioner. Prompted by this embarrassing state of affairs—and a prescient concern about climate change—Governor Ann Richards’s administration decided to push for renewable energy production. Richards created the Sustainable Energy Development Council (SEDC), which Rábago co-chaired, and Congress helped out by passing a national wind power tax credit.

But wind was so new and risky that somebody would have to promise to buy the power before a developer would invest millions in building a wind farm. Perhaps not surprisingly, that somebody turned out to work in Austin, which has always prided itself on its green ambitions. In the early nineties the Lower Colorado River Authority was run by Mark Rose, whose father, a brigadier general, had headed an energy conservation task force under Governor Dolph Briscoe during the seventies. Rose, a strong believer in alternative energy, connected with a buzzy California firm called Kenetech, then one of the largest wind power companies in the world. Kenetech was intent on finding markets outside California, and it had hired an Austin-based firm, Good Company Associates, to help develop sites in Texas. Good Company’s owner, Bob King, had grown up in Cocoa Beach, Florida, just fifteen miles from NASA’s space pad. He counted rocket scientists among his childhood neighbors and caught the engineering bug early; he was building solar-powered gadgets before he reached his teens. Years later he advocated for renewable energy in Texas as a staffer for agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower and a member, along with Rose, Rábago, and Osborne, of the SEDC.

In 1995 Kenetech, with help from King, put up Texas’s first big wind farm, on a treeless ridge in the Delaware Mountains of Culberson County, a place so remote that for the opening ceremony, three counties had to be scoured to find enough nice linen for tablecloths. When all 112 turbines went up, it was the country’s largest wind farm outside California, and it could provide 35 megawatts of energy—insignificant in the scheme of things but enough to power 10,000 or more homes. Rose paid roughly double what the LCRA usually paid for electricity and was glad to do it. “I literally said to my board, ‘These are spiritual megawatts. Don’t ask me to justify them,’ ” recalls Rose.

The Delaware Mountains site was the windiest anyone could find (save for the area around nearby Guadalupe Peak, which was off-limits because it was in a national park). “It was a great site,” says King. “I mean, if you got out of the car with the car facing the wrong direction, it’d rip the door off on a good day.” Not to mention the turbines themselves. A few months after the site opened, a monster winter storm blew through, with winds of up to 163 miles per hour. Two towers fell, and dozens more suffered damage. “One of the things we learned,” King recalls with a chuckle, “was you don’t necessarily want the windiest place.”

At the time, though, King was past caring. The wind farm got rebuilt, but Kenetech had filed for bankruptcy thanks to various problems, including a regulatory move that caused its California wind expansion plans to implode. It felt like Enron before Enron, but without the shenanigans. “The stock went to zero. I think I sold it before it got to fourteen cents, but I didn’t make much money,” King says.

That might have been yet another death knell for the Texas wind rush. But it was not lost on the windmen that the state government had helped Kenetech’s project get around several regulatory hurdles. Nor was it lost on Texas educators that this was a new source of income: A check for nearly $30,000 landed in the Permanent School Fund in 1996. It wasn’t oil money, but it was a start.

And so in the late nineties, a scattering of landmen and self-styled windcatters fanned out across the Texas mesas, looking for county officials who would grant them tax abatements and landowners who were willing to take a chance on a new kind of enterprise. Some landowners who felt they had been screwed by oil companies said yes; maybe wind would treat them better. Others were just glad to find someone offering money for land that had no oil. And a few wind farms, even bigger than what Kenetech had built, went up. One entrepreneur who led the way was a soft-spoken young man from Brenham named Walter Hornaday, who had used an inheritance from an uncle to found a company called Texas Wind Power in 1991 while he attended engineering graduate school at UT. At first the company dismantled broken-down turbines and used the parts to fix others. Hornaday got his start trying to take apart a machine on a lonely stretch of highway near Belmont. “I underestimated how difficult it was to work forty feet up in the air, hanging by a safety harness, in the wind,” he remembers now. “And I had a crane paid by the hour waiting while I got my act together.”

When the company, newly renamed Cielo (Spanish for “sky”), built its first big wind farm, about an hour south of Odessa, Hornaday made sure the European-made turbines he used could withstand lightning. And he made sure somebody carried a shotgun to kill the rattlesnakes that would slither into the foundation holes they dug. Hornaday worked to get in ahead of the other big wind developers who were sniffing around, such as Zond, a California wind company that Enron bought in 1997 and rebranded Enron Wind. (Five years later, the company’s wind assets were among the first pieces of Enron sold off after its collapse.)

But the policy push—which is what really sparked the wind rush—was just beginning. And it centered on an improbable figure: Governor George W. Bush, a man steeped in oil who’d spent a youthful summer roustabouting on a Louisiana offshore rig, turned himself into a landman in Midland, and then, in 1979, set up an oil and gas exploration business of his own. Bush had felt the harshness of the West Texas winds; Midland, after all, was called Windmill Town before oil was found there, because almost every home had one to draw water. He may also have felt the tug of national ambitions when, one day in 1996, he said some unexpected words to Public Utility Commission chairman Pat Wood as Wood headed out the door of the governor’s office. “Oh, Pat, by the way, we like wind,” Bush said. Wood was dumbfounded. “I said, ‘We what?’ ” he recounts. “Go get smart on wind,” Bush replied.

Bush soon had another reason for liking wind: One of his chief contributors, Sam Wyly, a wealthy Dallas investor who later helped pay for the Swift Boat ads attacking Senator John Kerry, was becoming a renewable advocate, with some skin in the game. Wyly’s improbable entry into the world of alternative energy was inspired by his daughter Christiana. One spring afternoon in 1992, the eleven-year-old was running around a football field at the elite Berkeley Hall School high above Los Angeles and cast an eye down at the brown haze that sat atop the city. She was suffocated with terror. “I had this feeling of powerlessness, of breathing in dirty air, and I could do nothing to stop it,” she says.

As it turned out, she could do something about it: talk to her daddy, who saw a business opportunity in his daughter’s fear. In 1997 Wyly bought a $30 million stake in Green Mountain Energy Resources, a subsidiary of a sleepy Vermont utility that hoped to break into deregulated electricity markets as a renewable energy competitor. Green Mountain’s own research suggested that a fifth of Americans were worried about pollution and would pay a small premium for an environmentally friendly electricity product: With U.S. households spending $100 billion annually on electricity, the market appeared lucrative. After shortening the name to Green Mountain Energy, Wyly, who along with his investment group was now the company’s principal owner, said, “We’re combining three elements that can’t fail: the Vermont environmental ethic, Texas capital, and old-fashioned American entrepreneurs’ frontier spirit.” In 2000, determined to make Green Mountain a bigger player, Wyly moved its headquarters to Austin.

So Wyly sought Bush’s ear with two priorities: deregulating the electricity market, which would break the hold of the major utilities, and making Texas energy greener, by combating the haze from automobiles and power plants that lingered over Dallas and Houston. Deregulating electricity meant lining up a kind of Rubik’s Cube of interests, from investor-owned utilities and organized labor to environmental groups and large businesses that were the chief electricity consumers. In 1999 Wood, Bush’s right-hand man on utilities, teamed up with two lawmakers, Steve Wolens, a Democratic state representative from Dallas, and David Sibley, a Republican state senator from Waco. Through late-night sessions that Wood remembers as “like crashing for the final exam with your study group for three months,” he, Wolens, and Sibley crafted a bill that boldly deregulated Texas’s electricity markets and required some cleanup of the old coal plants that had been bothering environmentalists. It also contained a “renewable portfolio standard,” which required that electricity providers collectively install 2,000 megawatts of additional renewable energy capacity by 2009. (Renewable energy was understood to be wind because wind was cheaper than solar power or geothermal power, especially when a federal tax credit for wind production was factored in, and Texas was essentially maxed out on hydropower.) “There were a lot of moving parts and a lot of whiny people,” says Sibley. But when it came to the wind piece, a minuscule price for the utilities to pay for freer access to potential markets, there was not much whining.

The 2,000-megawatt goal, far from being random, would feed perfectly into good old Texas boosterism. At the time, fewer than 2,000 megawatts of wind were installed across the United States. “We wanted to be able to say that this would double the amount of wind generation in the country,” says Jim Marston, of the Environmental Defense Fund, who was closely involved in the negotiations.

And so, on June 18, 1999, six days after declaring he was a candidate for president, Governor Bush signed Senate Bill 7 into law, propelling the Texas wind industry past California and every other state in the country. Factories in Europe suddenly found themselves cranking out wind turbines and shipping them to West Texas as fast as they could. Country roads are now cracked and worn from the treads of big trucks hauling enormous steel towers and blades to their new homes. Federal production incentives are still in place, and the state is helping to build transmission lines. But mandates are no longer necessary, since Texas has blown right past them and now has more than 10,000 megawatts of wind—five times the ten-year goal set in 1999.

Texas’s top-dog status in wind is relished by politicians from the current governor on down, who whoop about the state as a trendsetter for the national “green” movement even while agitating for fewer regulations on fossil fuel drilling. “Texas is for us now sort of an inspiration, weird as that may seem,” says V. John White, a leading California renewables advocate, a tinge of envy in his voice.

The old-timers, when they fly to speak at wind industry conferences where they once scrapped for money, shake their heads and marvel at how everything has changed. Plenty of them remain in the game. Vaughn Nelson retired last year from the Alternative Energy Institute, but the AEI is still crunching numbers and testing turbines in Canyon and another site, in Bushland. (It recently had to move its Canyon facility once more after creating trouble yet again. “We put up a turbine that was a real crappy turbine,” says AEI assistant director Kenneth Starcher—the same fellow who watched a collapsing turbine destroy his friend’s Nikon a few decades ago—“and it slung some aluminum sheet metal into the university president’s front yard.”) Walter Hornaday continues to build ever-larger wind farms, including several in the Panhandle; one Texas project he worked on recently was so ambitious that it caught the eye of New York senator Chuck Schumer, who denounced the planned use of federal stimulus money to buy Chinese turbines. Michael Osborne works on renewable energy for Austin Energy, Bob King still heads Good Company Associates, and Pat Wood is involved in energy development. The LCRA’s Mark Rose promotes smart-grid initiatives from the helm of a Bastrop-based electric co-op called Bluebonnet. Sam Wyly made a mint with Green Mountain Energy—which critics said was not as green as it purported to be—before it was purchased by NRG Energy (which also owns Houston-based electricity giant Reliant Energy) for $350 million in September 2010. Bush, widely vilified by the environmental movement during his presidency, keynoted the American Wind Energy conference in Dallas last year, drawing standing ovations.

As for the old Carter warehouse in Burkburnett, it looks like a sepulchre. A couple of flaky wind blades lie out back of the building. Inside, a fifty-foot-long blade mold is covered in dust; supported by a network of crosshatched legs, it could be mistaken in half-darkness for a dinosaur spine. Jay Carter and Jay Carter Jr. still have their differences, but a new company, Carter Wind Energy, is now led by Jay Jr.’s chubby-faced 37-year-old son, Matt Carter, who swept the blade shop floors in junior high and spent college summers on turbine maintenance crews. The company, he says, is on the verge of signing a deal with a Fortune 500 business interested in licensing its technology for a 160-turbine field to be spread over eight thousand acres, with a capacity of 80 megawatts. (The assembly line, though, will not be dusted off and oiled; the new turbines will likely be built out of state, perhaps overseas.) “We just believed in the idea of wind,” says Matt, a Texas Tech engineering graduate like his father. The family business, he adds, “came down to perseverance.”

Yet for all its success, the swift growth of Texas wind has exposed the industry’s limitations. It’s clear that no matter how many turbines go up in West Texas, they won’t oust coal, nuclear, or natural gas, at least not in our lifetimes. True, wind energy requires no water, an increasingly precious resource. Its fuel is free, and today’s turbines will last far longer than their Joe James–era predecessors. But unlike fossil fuel plants, which can operate around the clock, wind can be counted on only intermittently, and there is still no cost-effective method for storing large amounts of electricity. When the electric grid needs power the most—in the late-summer afternoons when air-conditioners are on full blast—the West Texas breezes often come to a near standstill.

And putting up turbines is getting harder. Many people who live near them are digging in over noise, obstruction of views, and the vast amount of land required by the farms (far more than needed to run an equivalent coal plant). The military has complained that wind machines interfere with radar. Birders fear that the spinning blades slaughter too many creatures—one of several reasons that it’s hard to put turbines in the Gulf of Mexico, as state officials like land commissioner Jerry Patterson have long dreamed about.

Complaints about the turbines are nothing, however, compared with those about transmission wires. Because wind tends to be strongest in remote places—that’s one reason no one lives atop West Texas mesas, after all—hundreds of miles of high-voltage lines, strung across giant towers, are required to carry the power to the big cities that need it, and people don’t want those wires in their backyard. So many turbines have gone up in West Texas, and so few wires have been strung, that some of the machines must be shut down during the windiest times.

The state has embarked on a $5 billion project to build thousands of miles of transmission lines—something it can easily do because Texas, unlike any other state in the Lower 48, has its own electric grid. However, these plans sparked a big battle, as landowners in the Hill Country and other scenic spots are upset about the prospect of massive power lines crossing their property, which can ultimately be seized by eminent domain unless the landowners agree to the utilities’ terms. The battle, though, is pretty much over; the routes are now essentially set, and landowners along their path are settling in for a lifetime of staring at high-voltage lines.

And then there’s economics. The fall in natural gas prices over the past few years has hurt the wind industry. The classic case in point is the oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens. In 2008 Pickens journeyed to Pampa—the very same town where Michael Osborne had erected Texas’s first wind farm—to propose building 2,700 turbines in the flatlands, generating enough electricity, Pickens said, to power 1.3 million homes. A few hundred people showed up at the M.K. Brown Memorial Civic Auditorium to hear Pickens’s pitch.

“How many of you have heard me say Pampa will be the wind capital of the world?” asked Pickens. “You like that, don’t you?”

One attendee asked Pickens about the noise that turbines make.

“I’ve been a quail hunter since I was twelve, so my hearing isn’t worth a hoot,” Pickens told her. “If you’re getting royalties from it, it might have a real pleasant sound.”

But three years later, the turbines have made no sound at all, and Pickens has gone back to promoting the business that made him a billionaire—fossil fuels. Recent discoveries and technological advances have made natural gas plentiful, and the bulging supply has driven down prices, making it harder for wind to compete. Pickens hasn’t erected a single turbine in Texas. His leases on the Panhandle land expired in 2009 and 2010.

Pickens may be the highest-profile failure in the history of Texas wind farming, but others are still forging ahead, or at least dreaming up grand plans. In June the Austin-based ­Baryonyx Corporation proposed erecting two hundred wind turbines off the Texas Gulf Coast between Corpus Christi and Brownsville. If the project ever gets built—so far, Texas offshore wind farms have been long on ambition and short on execution—it could produce enough electricity to power 750,000 homes.

Overall, the business has slowed down from the big boom days several years ago. But another boom seems likely, especially as turbine prices drop and the high-voltage transmission lines paid for by Texas ratepayers reach the blustery Panhandle, where Michael Osborne and Vaughn Nelson got their start but which has, ironically, been one of the least-developed areas for wind farming due to its remoteness. “Powered by Texas wind” is now a calling card for many businesses in the state, and locales as distant as California may want a piece of Panhandle power. The dreamers of today see far more big turbines on the High Plains and across West Texas—perhaps coupled with the next frontier, solar panels, which can produce energy in the daytime when the winds die down.

“What we’re doing right now will look just like, you know, hay in the barn for the horses,” says Osborne. “It will be kind of quaint.” Ω

[Kate Galbraith reported on clean energy for The New York Times from 2008 to 2009, serving as the lead writer for the Times' Green blog. Currently, Galbraith is an environmental reporter for The Texas Tribune. A Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University from 2007 to 2008, she has an undergraduate degree in English from Harvard and a master's degree from the London School of Economics.

Asher Price is the environmental reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, where he has worked since 2004. Price was one of ten recipients of a Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in economics and business journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for the 2011-2012 academic year. He earned a B.A. in English at Yale University in 2011 and received an M.Sc. in comparative social policy in 2003 from Oxford University.]

Copyright © 2011 Emmis Publishing LP dba Texas Monthly

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2011 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves