Archive for March, 2009

How About Some Synchronicity?

By Steve Klinger

The city’s red light cameras will end spring training next week and open the regular season on citations, pinching motorists where it hurts – in the pocketbook – beginning March 31. Mayor Ken Miyagishima fielded questions on the cameras and other topics at the monthly Progressive Voter Alliance meeting tonight and sought to assure attendees the city is motivated solely by safety concerns, not the potential income from the citations.

After a split with the state, the mayor said, the city’s share must be used for traffic safety and overtime for police to investigate violations. It wasn’t clear if he meant to investigate the video footage or something else, but either way it misses the point if city officials have bought into Redflex Traffic Systems’ sales pitch to the extent they really think this system is going to significantly improve traffic safety in Las Cruces.

There are certainly too many selfish and reckless drivers here, spoiled by years of lax enforcement, who can’t be bothered to stop on red, or even go on green for that matter. But the bigger problem is that the great majority of traffic signals are not synchronized, resulting in bottlenecks because of poor street design and worse engineering.

Especially traveling east and west on Picacho, most of Amador and Lohman, Missouri and University, the heavier traffic is the more likely that ill-timed signals will impede and frustrate drivers. It happens at north-south intersections too: a left-turn arrow that lets about three cars through before the next motorist is stuck for another cycle. Or an arrow that won’t trigger if you get to the intersection a nanosecond after the red-light cycle has begun.
And if you’re not turning, it’s go a block, catch a light, go another block, catch another light.

Waiting behind 50 cars to turn left onto Lohman, or Spruce from North Telshor in the afternoon – anytime in the afternoon – builds the kind of frustration that leads to aggressive behavior. This is not to condone that behavior; it’s just a fact of life.

Red-light cameras may nab offenders, but it’s like putting a tourniquet on a wound gushing blood; you’ve only postponed dealing with the fundamental problem.

Other cities the size of Las Cruces seem to be able to synchronize traffic signals. It may be expensive, but it’s not rocket science. Let’s hope some of the Redflex-generated money can be used to build traffic safety from the ground up: reconfiguring the system so motorists can make the next light at 35 mph instead of 50.

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The Argument Richardson Didn’t Make

By Steve Klinger

“Why do we kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong?”
–Holly Near

Governor Bill Richardson signed the legislation repealing the death penalty in New Mexico today. After years of trying, supporters of the death penalty repeal are pinching themselves, trying to fathom the change they are witnessing. For once they don’t have to say, Oh well, we’re getting closer and we’ll be back next year. Amazingly, the Quixotic quest has struck paydirt.

Meanwhile, opponents are saying, Ho hum, New Mexico has only executed two murderers in the last 50 years, so what’s the big deal? One Sound-Off caller said, “Who cares if New Mexico abolishes the death penalty….at least Texas does it right.”

Describing himself as a lifelong believer in the death penalty for extreme cases, Richardson said it was the most difficult decision he’s made in his political career to sign the law repealing it. This is the man who went after Wen Ho Lee, perhaps gave Bill Clinton an alibi for Monica Lewinsky and sparred with the likes of Saddam Hussein and Kim jong-il. What convinced him, he said, was the imperfection of the criminal justice system:

“I do not have confidence in the criminal justice system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crime,” Richardson said. “If the State is going to undertake this awesome responsibility, the system to impose this ultimate penalty must be perfect and can never be wrong.”

If that was Richardson’s rationale, the decision should have been a slam-dunk. Convicted murderers have been exonerated with increasing frequency (130 in 26 states since the early 1970s) as activists have succeeded in unearthing the truth and pressuring the courts and the media to acknowledge that innocent men have died through willful or negligent law enforcement and judicial process. The emergence and improvement of DNA testing has provided exonerating evidence prosecutors can’t refute. For New Mexico as for 14 other states, the number of exonerations finally reached critical mass. Not only that, trying a capital case and keeping inmates on death row through the appeals process is kind of expensive.

To his credit, Richardson said it bothers him that “minorities are overrepresented in the death row population.” But he didn’t elaborate on the racial, economic and geographic discrimination that accompany death sentences. The preponderance of minority convicts on death row speaks volumes about the “imperfection” of the system and the prejudices endemic to it.

Another argument Richardson made was the limited deterrent effect of capital punishment, though he said that reluctance to remove a level of protection from the law enforcement community made the decision extremely difficult for him.

But ultimately a civilized society must ask itself Holly Near’s question: If people killing people is wrong, how can the state justify killing the killers? Even if the crime was heinous. Even if we know they’re guilty. Who appointed any of us his brother’s executioner?

Ever the politician, Richardson didn’t advance that argument, and he probably isn’t moved by it. But it’s the fundamental reason why we should hail his announcement tonight and the stroke of his pen.

I’ll take the pragmatic arguments that helped reach the goal. Tonight I’m especially proud to be a New Mexican.

Are you listening, Texas?

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Welcome to the New American Dream

By Steve Klinger

Boy, are we in trouble now! How bad is the economy? So bad that the landfills are hurting. This could be fatal, and I think it’s time patriotic Americans did something about it, starting with going out and buying a big-screen TV and then tossing the box with all the Styrofoam into the trash.

The Washington Post raised the alarm in a story that notes some landfill trash levels are down as much as 30 percent since 2007. So how come that’s not big news as it is when auto sales or the Dow decline by similar margins? Landfill operators have to eat, just like the rest of us, and right now they are in a panic.

“The trash man is the first one to know about a recession because we see it first,”  said Richard S. Weber, manager of the Loudoun County, Va. Landfill. “Circuit City’s closing,” he told the Post, “so people aren’t going there and buying those big boxes of stuff and throwing away all that Sytrofoam and shrink-wrap…and whatever else the were replacing.”

It makes sense, and it’s really tragic, if you think about it. Weber said trash volume has dropped so much that the Loudoun landfill, instead of running out of space in 2012, will not be filled up until sometime in late 2013. “That’s huge,” he said, presumably with lament.

We all understand the vicious cycle: Homes are being foreclosed and jobs lost, which means less disposable income and therefore fewer things bought — even hamburgers and soft drinks. Who ultimately suffers? The landfill operator, of course, because people have less garbage to dispose of.

Worse yet, some people, though you would hardly notice it around Las Cruces, are actually recycling the garbage they do have.  As Ben Boxer, spokesman for Fairfax County’s solid waste management program charged, the economy is forcing people to follow the environmentalists’ mantra: Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! Repair! “A lot of these things that people throw away do have a valuable second life,” he said, “especially for those who, now more than ever, are going to be facing difficult times.”

Well, hardship is no excuse when the fate of landfills hangs in the balance. It’s time the tree-huggers backed off and let consumers return to their profligate ways, if only for the sake of the economy. Don’t they know the market for recyclables crashed back in November?

Next thing you know the electric utilities, the coal industry and the oil companies will be in trouble, thanks to Obama’s socialist stimulus package, which subsidizes renewable energy development, at the expense of the fossil fuel barons who made this country what it is today. Well, maybe that’s a bad way to look at it, but you get my point.

So go out and buy something with shrink-wrap, preferably something big. And don’t even think about recycling the cardboard or the plastic. And never mind Freecycle–bring that old couch to the dump. It’s your patriotic duty.

After all, you never know, innovative retraining programs one day very soon may enable sanitation workers to refashion your very large cardboard boxes into housing units for our growing homeless population to use under highway overpasses. The landfill workers stay on the payroll, the operators have a lucrative sideline and foreclosed homeowners get a little shelter from the elements. It’s a win-win situation. Welcome to the new American dream.

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Declare War on the Economy

By Steve Klinger

Barack Obama needs to declare war on the economy . He needs to declare credit default swaps the new Axis of Evil.

As Warren Buffett says, he’s the commander in chief, and when he makes something a priority, people listen and fall into line. Even political opponents.

As every 10-year-old American knows, nothing has more priority than war, except maybe the Jonas Brothers. But anyway, George W. Bush declared a war on terror and a couple of days later we had the Patriot Act. If Obama declared war on the economy even the Grand Obstructionist Party might come around and do something radical, like seating Al Franken. After all, disobeying commands in wartime amounts to treason, which probably wouldn’t help Republicans lower Nancy Pelosi’s approval ratings.

Just think, if we declare war on the economy then the big bank CEOs can be prosecuted as enemy combatants. We may be closing Guantanamo sometime soon, but nobody’s put the kibosh on extraordinary rendition. And as much as Americans condemn torture, I think there might be a lot of popular support for waterboarding John Thain, or maybe the AIG honchos who won’t tell us which banks they’ve been bailing out with federal funds.

That’s where the credit default swaps come in: James Howard Kunstler writes that along with prosecuting Wall Street swindlers we need to put a halt to trading credit default swaps, which act as complex security instruments approximating insurance for bad mortgage investments. Without that recourse, the zombie banks would have to put a dollar figure on their toxic assets, Kunstler reasons, and the charade of financial solvency would come to a screeching halt right in front of Obama’s rose-colored glasses.

There’s even more upside: Declare war on the economy and offer a bounty for every bank executive and the depression would be over faster than Rush Limbaugh can shake his jowls.

Sorry, I forgot. It’s only a recession. My bad.

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By Steve Klinger

Now I am really confused. So AIG, the world’s largest insurance company, which has become the poster child of government bailout beneficiaries, can’t be allowed to fail because it’s “too big.”  It is involved in international finance and commerce on such a scale that its collapse would be catastrophic, with global implications, we are told. So now the feds are pouring another $30 billion in, on top of $85 billion in September ($173 billion in credit lines altogether), after AIG posted the all-time highest quarterly loss ever for a U.S. corporation – over $61 billion, which, to put it in perspective, is 50 percent more than Exxon Mobil earns in a good quarter. It’s even more than Bernie Madoff swindled investors out of, and that took him at least 10 years. But I digress.

There’s just one nagging question I have: where is the money going? If AIG is losing a fortune, largely because it insured the mortgage instruments that became nearly worthless when the subprime bubble burst and all the absurd, ridiculously leveraged, new-fangled securities and derivatives and credit-default swaps followed suit, it would make sense that the money AIG lost went to the big banks which held the securities to cover their losses. So why are those banks imploding if their investments were insured and if the government is bailing out AIG so AIG can pay them? And if the feds are bailing out the banks for their losses, why do they have to rescue AIG?

According to the Wall Street Journal, “The beneficiaries of the government’s bailout of American International Group Inc. include at least two dozen U.S. and foreign financial institutions that have been paid roughly $50 billion since the Federal Reserve first extended aid to the insurance giant.” Among those companies are Goldman Sachs, Germany’s Deutsche Bank AG, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley.

But in truth we don’t know who the hell is getting all of AIG’s money. As WSJ reports: “The names of all of AIG’s derivative counterparties and the money they have received from taxpayers still isn’t known.” And one reason it isn’t known is that no one will tell us. This week legislators demanded that the Federal Reserve reveal the names of companies that have received money from AIG, but in a Federal Banking Committee hearing in Washington on Thursday, WSJ reports,  Fed Vice Chairman Donald Kohn declined to name AIG’s trading partners, saying that to do so would make companies wary of doing business with AIG. Because corporations, which have more rights than humans, are entitled to get bailed out with taxpayer monies while remaining anonymous? Because otherwise they’d take their businesss to Ethiopia, or maybe the moon?

The Journal has a very sanguine explanation of the process that laid AIG low, and I’m sure it sits well with its everyday readers:

Banks and other financial companies were trading partners of AIG’s financial-products unit, which operated more like a Wall Street trading firm than a conservative insurer. This AIG unit sold credit-default swaps, which acted like insurance on complex securities backed by mortgages. When the securities plunged in value last year, AIG was forced to post billions of dollars in collateral to counterparties to back up its promises to insure them against losses.

But my nagging question remains.

I always thought shell games were for hucksters on carnival midways. Silly me. Now our tax dollars can go to Wall Street directly through TARP, or if everybody gets bored with that, we can just pay AIG and they’ll take care of the banks. It’s a good thing it’s really complicated and more than a little convoluted because then the government can claim that only Wall Street types with MBAs and years of incestuous financial relationships with other bloodsucking, Ponzi-scheming sociopaths can understand the marvelously obfuscated interrelatedness of it all — and therefore only these same Wall Street types now sanctified with cabinet positions (think Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner) can get us out of the mess they got us into.

I’m sure I’m totally misunderstanding the intricacies of capitalist high finance and in my imagery of the reaming of the rabble am probably confusing TARP with TERP.  Maybe what I need — what we all need — is an MBA so I can be wielding the scalpel instead of bellying up to the business end.

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