Grab Your Growler: Four Things We Don’t want to Know about Recycling

In 1984 the local garbage hauler launched curbside pick-up of recyclables in our town. We were issued a small blue box for glass, big blue bin for co-mingled recyclables, gray bin for yard waste, green bin for garbage. It’s a good feeling to get everything all sorted out.

How are we doing? Official statistics look good. In 1992, 9 million pounds of material was “repurposed.” This past year, 62 million pounds. Yeah!

Wait. What does “repurposed” mean?

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Saint Lucia and her gouged out eyes. Sometimes I’d rather not see, either. Photo: wikicommons

1. Glass: The machines which sort glass are expensive. Our town doesn’t have one.  Best case: glass is crushed and used as drainage material or for roads. Usually it goes to the dump.

2. Plastic:  Most is sent to China for recycling. Last year China announced a new Green Fence policy, and stopped taking all but the cleanest, tidiest bales of plastic, and only certain types.  If it there is a number 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 on the bottom of a container, China won’t take it, so it’s probably getting dumped in a landfill.

3. Cardboard: Has to be clean.  Greasy pizza boxes with cheese stuck on them? To the dump.

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Not to diss the pie chart, or the efforts, but what this shows is a lot of stuff not recovered. Source: The Portland Mercury, “Oregon Knows Its Garbage”

4. Block styrofoam.  This has never been picked up curbside, but for awhile there were places willing to take it. Not now. Everybody’s storage spaces are full of the stuff.

Luckily, several local breweries offer a waste-free option to drown our sorrows with while we contemplate next moves.

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Beer jug, refillable at local breweries.

How goes the recycling efforts in your town?  Time to lose ourselves in the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch?

Veterans Need a New Day

Ninety five years ago, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, Germany signed a treaty with the Allies to mark the end of World War I. There were over 37 million casualties.

The Armistice marked hardly more than a pause for breath. Soon after, Japan invaded China, Germany invaded Poland, France and the United Kingdom. Italy teamed up with Germany, conflict spread to Africa and the Soviet Union and Pearl Harbor, and on it went. We’re masters of self-inflicted misery, more like fire ants than the rational beings we’d like to think ourselves. Put up your dukes.

November 11th: remember the War to End All Wars and try to keep a straight face.

Veterans deserve a day of their own. If we don’t want to clutter the calendar with more federal holidays, there’s a good candidate coming up. The ode to pilgrims is getting stale.

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Let’s save the moments of silence for the day when we’re feasting with our families. Let’s leave flowers on the graves when it’s darker and colder, use Thanksgiving to thank the soldiers who served and continue to serve, and November 11 to remember the folly of fooling ourselves that wars end war.

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Democracy at work: Score One for the Seed Farmers

Canola ban clears Legislature

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I’m flag waving today because round 1 in the Willamette Valley canola battle went to the specialty seed farmers, a group that consists largely of smaller-scale operations.  Grass roots politics work!

Canola is an all right crop — just don’t bring it here. Businesses from all over the world order Willamette valley seeds, many varieties of which are organic. Canola was banned in a 3.6 million acre portion of the valley because it cross-breeds with other plants in the same genus (mustard, cabbage, kohlrabi, turnips, broccoli, brussel sprouts and kale and more),  and is susceptible to, and spreads, disease and pests.  Also, 95% of it is genetically modified, although this wasn’t part of the official fight against it.  The other problems were enough.

I wrote earlier (Rapeseed, Gas vs. Grass) about an underhanded attempt by the Oregon Farm Bureau (good friends of Dow Chemical, Syngenta and Monsanto) and the Department of Agriculture to pass an under-the-wire “temporary exception” to the ban on canola.  Temporary, of course, would haven meant an opportunity for canola to spread and become permanent.

Thanks to farmers who showed up for hearings, organizations like the Friends of Family Farmers who spread the word, and volunteers who wrote to legislators and attended rallies, the Oregon State Legislature just banned canola in the valley until 2019, and allocated money to study the effects of canola on other crops.

A sweet victory for Oregon seed farmers, and for those of us who fear we can’t make a difference. We can.

Material Support — Not For the Likes of Me

The other day friends and I were having lunch, when we got into a lively and heated discussion about state budgets, public pension funding and unions. Afterwards, we hugged and one friend said, “I’m glad we live in a country where we can talk about what we believe and nobody will throw us in jail!”

That’s probably true for us, white, flag-waving, not very political women with Protestant-sounding names.

What if your views don’t line up with the State Department’s?

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Sami Al-Airan. U of Florida professor and American citizen arrested in 2003, accused of material support of terrorists. He spent 28 months in solitary confinement, before he was tried before a grand jury, which acquitted him on the serious charges, and deadlocked on the minor charges. Al-Arian is still under house arrest and in legal limbo. Ironically, he campaigned for G.W. Bush in 2000 because of Bush’s opposition to the use of secret evidence. Image source.

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Jess Sundin. Anti-war activist and advocate for workers and civil rights in Columbia, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Her home was one of 9 in Minnesota and Chicago targeted in simultaneous raids in 2010. FBI agents searched her house in front of her 6 year old daughter, carted away “truckloads” of personal belongings. Sundin and the others subject to the raids refused to testify before a grand jury.  Image source

In 2010, in the case of Holder v. Humanitarian Law, the Supreme Court for the first time, ruled that free speech in the form of any kind of advocacy for a black-listed group, is a crime; that is, it is against the law to provide “material support” to any group that the State Department designates a terrorist organization. Material support includes humanitarian aid, advice, “services,” “political advocacy,” and “coordination.”  Suspected violators are subject to raids on their homes, “special administrative measures” which is a nice way of saying solitary confinement for indefinite periods of time without trial, time in a “super-max” prison or a notorious “communications management unit,” facilities designed to isolate  violent criminals.

Don’t worry if you’re a judge, T.V. commentator, wealthy businessman, former mayor of New York, former governor of New Jersey or former White House advisor. The rule doesn’t to apply to you.

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Rudy Guiliani, just to the left Maryam Rajavi, the woman in yellow. And look! John Bolton, 3rd to her right. This was taken at a rally to support the Iranian Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a group the State Department designates a terrorist organization. Politicians, judges, scholars and TV commentators have accepted speaking fees from the group. Indictments and early morning raids forthcoming? Don’t bet on it. Image source.

If, however, you are an ordinary person who supports workers in Columbia, if you’re a Muslim, or if you send money to a Palestinian aid group, or speak out against wars in the Middle East, or publicly oppose NSA surveillance of your phone calls and e-mails, beware.

Here’s the story of former NSA computer program designer William Binney, when he  raised his head a little too far in protest of NSA surveillance.  

Oh Oregon, My Oregon! Marijuana moves north

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The Oregon Pioneer (on top of the State Capital building). My kind of guy.

Oregon voters! Where were you?  Gone the pioneer spirit?  Gone the 1970′s sheen from being the first to charge a deposit on bottles and cans? Washington State beat us to the punch and legalized marijuana.

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Image source: reason.com

We take the lead on this kind of thing.  Remember?

  • First to institute gas taxes to pay for roads,
  • First to declare all beaches in the state open to the public,
  • First to require land use planning by cities.
  • We pioneered the Oregon Health Plan to cover uninsured people,
  • We were the first to legalize physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill,
  • First to make elections vote-by-mail,
  • First to make cold medicines (aka methamphetamine ingredients) prescription drugs.

Marijuana? Pah. We’ve always been out front in the battle to empty jails of tokers. We were first to decriminalize it, and second (after California) to legalize medical marijuana. Despite handwringing and predictions of doom, the world did not end. We’re royalty when it comes to states that pass scary, don’t-you-dare legislation. Or at least we were …

How could we let Washington (and Colorado!) take away the scepter?

This calls for a little motivation.  Hmmm.  I know! Brush off the Oregon State Song, to remind us what kind of stock we’re made of:

Oregon, My Oregon

Land of the Empire Builders, Land of the Golden West;
Conquered and held by free men, Fairest and the best.
On-ward and upward ever, Forward and on, and on;
Hail to thee, Land of the Heroes, My Oregon.

Land of the rose and sunshine, Land of the summer’s breeze;
Laden with health and vigor, Fresh from the western seas.
Blest by the blood of martyrs, Land of the setting sun;
Hail to thee, Land of Promise, My Oregon.

If that didn’t rouse the blood, here’s an inspiring rendition:

 

Never mind the part about ‘land of sunshine.’  We don’t need sunshine to be brave anyway.  Just put on the galoshes and macintosh, and head down to the jail the next time a batch of violent criminals is let loose because the county has run out of money.

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Mugshot of Christopher Weaver who robbed a bank 55 minutes after being released from jail. No way he had time to smoke pot first. Image source: HLN

You can’t make something illegal that grows like a weed.  Well OK, we did make it illegal, and KEPT it illegal (ahem), but it’s still the biggest industry in the state. You call that success? Get the smokers back to their bongs and out from behind bars so there is room for rapists, robbers and murderers.

I’m not saying marijuana is benign.  It’s not.  It’s a drug, like alcohol and nicotine are drugs.  I’m not saying I’m a marijuana fan, either (tried it in college.  YELCH!), but the state has better things to do than chase after potheads and people with cancer, and we Oregonians have a reputation to uphold.

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Kind of pretty. Might make a nice ground cover.

My Country Tis of Thee

Talking of patriotism, what humbug it is; it is a word which always commemorates a robbery. There isn’t a foot of land in the world which doesn’t represent the ousting and re-ousting of a long line of successive owners.
     – Mark Twain

Who’s your favorite patriot?

It’s great to love your country (I do), but Patriotism, man, what a loaded word. Remember the flap about whether or not then-candidate Barack Obama lacked patriotic spirit because he didn’t have a flag pin on his lapel?  Forevermore, we Americans will see flag pins on Presidents’ and Presidential candidates’ lapels!

Rah rah!   Remember when true patriots only bought cars made in America?  Kind of a shock when it came out that many parts under the hoods of our beloved American cars came from China.  Remember Freedom Fries, when those naughty French refused to support the Iraq War in 2003?  Representative Walter Ney led the charge to rename French Fries and French Toast, Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast, on the menus in the Congressional cafeterias.  In 2006, the names were quietly changed back, and Walter Ney pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making false statements in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.  Some patriot.

So, here’s my nomination for True Patriot.  Son of a German immigrant brew-meister who was ridiculed by his peers during World War I because of his heritage. To prove his love of country, he joined the Boy Scouts and became a top salesman of Liberty Bonds.  When former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt came to town to award medals to the top ten bond sellers — oops — there were only nine medals, and none for the son of the German immigrant, who was hustled off the stage.  He suffered from a fear of public speaking for the rest of his life.

His father was a member of the Park Board in his hometown of Springfield MA, and while tagging along at the local zoo, he started a lifelong love of doodling animals, usually in an exaggerated fashion.  He went on to squeak through Dartmouth and drop out of Oxford, to write ads for a pesticide company, all the while hoping to make a living drawing zany creatures.  In 1937 while on a ship to Europe, he made up a limerick to go with the sound of the engines, that eventually became his first children’s book, To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street. It was rejected 27 times by publishers who said they only wanted stories with morals, but finally picked up by a publisher, and the rest is history.  He continued to write imaginatively and heroically, for the rest of his life.  Oh The Places You’ll Go is one of the top gifts to graduates, and his protest against pollution, The Lorax, both raises hackles and inspires budding environmentalists to this day.  We miss you Dr. Suess.

Patriotism isn’t wearing a symbol or singing a song at a baseball game.  It’s working to give back to your country as much as it has given you, and in the end, helping the country give back to the world as much as it’s given us.

Who would you nominate for the honorable title of Patriot?

Written for the great GBE 2: Blog OnWEEK #76 (10-28-12 to 11-3-12): Patriotism.  Join us!  

The Thin Thread: William Binney and the NSA

In July, 2007, F.B.I. agents banged on William Binney’s door, pushed his son out of the way and demanded to know who leaked confidential information about U.S. surveillance programs to the New York Times.  Mr. Binney was just stepping out of the shower.

“They went right upstairs to the bathroom and held guns on me and my wife, right between the eyes.” William Binney from “The Secret Sharer,” The New Yorker, 5/23/11

Mr. Binney was allowed to put his clothes on and they all went onto his back porch for a chat.

Here he is, the culprit. Photo NYT/Laura Poitras

What was that all about?

Government spying.

Think your phone calls are private?  Your electronic billing?

There is a flood of fantastical material on the Internet, in books and magazines about Big Brother spying on us.  It’s hard to pick out what to be concerned about, and tempting to tune the whole thing out. What can an ordinary citizen do? Hope for the best and go back to updating Facebook?  Don’t tune out.  Ordinary citizens are about to get a peek behind the curtain, thanks in part to Mr. Binney and a few other brave whistle blowers.

William Binney worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) for 36 years, and was one of the best code breakers and mathematicians the NSA had.  He supervised 6000 employees who analyzed intelligence, and in the years just before 9/11 helped design a program to streamline data, making it easier to pick out communications between bad guys.  That was the idea anyway, to ferret out bad guys. In order to comply with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which prohibits spying on citizens, Binney’s program automatically encrypted data that originated in the U.S.  Unless a warrant was obtained, communications from from ordinary citizens, phone calls, e-mails, bills, etc., was protected.  Binney’s program was code-named ThinThread.

It cost about $3 million.

At first (pre-9/11), NSA worried that ThinThread, despite its protections, was too invasive of privacy. Agency officials were also concerned that it wouldn’t work on a large scale (although tests indicated it would); so, in 2002 the agency signed a $280 million agreement with defense contractors to develop another program to do the same thing.  The project was code-named Trailblazer.

In 2006 operation Trailblazer was declared a flop and abandoned. It cost $1.2 billion.

Meanwhile, 9/11 put the fear of God into the Bush Administration, who gave the NSA the go-ahead to spy on everyone, everywhere, including U.S. citizens, without a warrant.  They created an agency, called it (George Orwell would be proud) Total Information Awareness.

Binney is pretty sure the NSA revamped the ThinThread program, cut out the encryption that protected U.S. citizens, and then used the raw technology to mine data, domestic and foreign, like never before.   Private communications companies AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth got in on the act, too, and secretly opened the electronic records of U.S. citizens to the government.  Against the law, but this was an emergency, right?

Several people along the way tried to warn the Bush administration, the Supreme Court and the NSA that spying on people without a warrant is a violation of the privacy laws.

Alarmed, Binney quit his job.

The NSA barreled on, building one big “intercept center” after another as part of a monumental spying project dubbed “Stellar Wind.”  The largest of these facilities, the “Utah Data Center,” is still under construction in Bluffdale Utah.  When completed, the center will have a 10-to-the-24th yottabyte storage capacity.  (A yottabyte, reportedly named for the Star Wars character, means a unit of information equal to one quadrillion gigabytes, so we’re talking a quadrillion, quadrillion gigabytes.)  This center is scheduled for completion in Sept. 2013.

Confused? Here’s a timeline:

  • Shortly after 9/11: “Total Information Awareness” (TIA) project established by the Bush Administration
  • 2002 Binney and two others signed a private complaint with the Pentagon Inspector General alleging that the NSA was wasting money on Trailblazer
  • 2003 Congress voted to dismantle TIA because it violates privacy rules
  • 2004 Attorney General John Ashcroft ruled that the NSA’s spying on citizens without a warrant was illegal.  The Bush administration tried to get him to change his mind a couple of days later when he was in the hospital with pancreatitis, but to no avail. Bush reauthorized the program anyway.

    March, 2004, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales paid a late night visit to John Ashcroft’s hospital room

  • 2006, the New York Times published an article reporting that the government was illegally wiretapping citizens.  The Bush Adminstration was outraged about the leak, and initiated an investigation to find the source. The F.B.I. was brought in to help.

That’s how the F.B.I. ended up at Binney’s house, and the homes of the two others who signed the 2002 complaint. None of them had anything to do with the New York Times leak.

Binney remembers telling the agents that if they were looking for criminal conspiracy, they should go after President Bush and NSA chief Michael Hayden for illegally wiretapping U.S. citizens.  One of the agents said that kind of thing doesn’t happen in America, and Binney replied, “Oh really?”

  • 2008, Congress amended FISA to expand NSA’s authority to wiretap without warrants.

Many hoped that President Obama would put a stop to warrantless wiretapping, but he has gone after whistle blowers as aggressively as Bush did.

President Obama and his Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper

Still, the issue is winding its way through the system at its own patient pace.  At the end of this month, the Supreme Court will consider whether government has the authority to spy without a warrant on US citizens.  OK, technically, the Supreme Court is considering whether the parties who brought suit have the right to challenge the government’s spying, but  the real issue is the spying itself.  See Clapper v. Amnesty International U.S.A.

In December, F.I.S.A. is due for renewal, and the amendments allowing warrantless wiretapping will be reconsidered.

And Mr. Binney?  He’s retired and still living near the NSA headquarters, not far from Baltimore.  He suffers from diabetes and has lost a leg to the disease, but he decided last year to speak out publicly.  He says, the issue is “too serious not to talk about.”  On the use of his code to spy on citizens he says, “I should apologize to the American people. It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world.”

OK, I know the new 007 movie is due out this month, but hey, we’ve got our own national cloak and dagger going on, and it debuts at the Supreme court, just a week later.  Get out your popcorn.

Watch for Laura Poitras’ new film due out in 2013 which features Mr. Binney’s story.  Poitras recently received the MacArthur Genius award for her trilogy of films about American, post-9/11. 

Opal Creek

Anyone else turning off the radio and TV when presidential campaign ads or stories come on?  Seems like a waste, considering how much money is spent on campaigning these days, but the content is so empty and repetitive, it isn’t worth watching.

As awful as the process is, I’m having to remind myself that it works, and not always in favor of the people with the biggest checkbooks.   Here’s a template from the not too distant past when Republicans and Democrats, loggers and conservationists, righties and lefties teamed up.

Opal Creek Wilderness Area

The Opal Creek Valley includes 50 waterfalls and the largest contiguous portion of low elevation old growth left in Oregon, a remnant of the forests which once covered the western part of the state.

Starting in the 1840′s, the area was mined for gold, copper, zinc, lead and silver.

It was included in the first Wilderness bill in Congress in 1967, but didn’t make it into the final version.

In 1980, a 6’8″ Bunyan-esque* District Ranger of the Detroit Oregon region, Dave “Chainsaw” Alexander, vowed to “cut Opal Creek.” Soon after, the Forest Service laid boundary markers to clear cut the area, but the sale was halted in 1982, when (future Mayor of Salem) Mike Swaim brought a lawsuit against it.  Opal Creek was included in the 1984 Wilderness bill, then pulled at the last minute by Republican Senator Mark Hatfield.  A 1989 fight to make Opal Creek an Oregon state park spurred the production of an Audubon video, “Rage Over Trees.”

Industry opponents got advertisers to boycott the film, so Ted Turner showed it 6 times on his network, without commercials.

Local activists like  George Atiyeh (nephew of Republican Governor Victor Atiyeh), Michael Donnelly and Jerry Rust worked to keep the issue alive, and were joined by Republicans like Oregon Logger of the Year, Tom Hirons.  As public pressure grew, Mark Hatfield arranged for a group of conservationists to meet with industry representatives and a mediator from Willamette University.  The upshot was a Hatfield-sponsored bill designating Opal Creek a Wilderness area.  It passed in 1996.

Tens of thousands visit every year.  The Opal Creek Forest Center runs education programs, an outdoor school and backpacking trips for kids, and old logging camp cabins are available to the public for rent.

It is spectacular.

If you have stories about political successes, or just want to commiserate about the politics this season, I’d love to hear from you.  

Acknowledgements and resources: Eugene Register Guard Archives, *Michael Donnelly’s 1997 article “Opal Creek Preserved,” David Seideman’s book “Showdown at Opal Creek.”  Photos by me.

Bumper Crop: Jay Racist


Photo credit: mrmac04 from morguefile.com

This summer brought to light a hole in my enlightened, broad minded, magnanimous, social democrat’s mind:

I don’t like scrub jays.  They are noisy and aggressive, don’t belong here, dive bomb juncos and finches and take over other birds’ nests.  So I was told.  I think.  A long time ago (age 14 or so), I was a card-carrying member of the Society for Oregon Avian Research, and one of my fellow members dissed scrub jays as invaders from the south. I have repeated this as gospel ever since.

So, last year when a jay started eying the blueberry bushes, yapping when anyone or anything went near them and making off with berries in its beak, one by one as soon as they were ripe, I had no compunction about taking action.

I got a big net and covered all five of the bushes in the yard.

It was a pain.  The net stuck to itself and the bushes.  It was hard to pick berries because netting was in the way, and pulling it off ripped leaves and berries and twigs off too.

Worse, even though I staked the net down, the jay figured out how to get underneath it.  About once a week, he’d get in there and flap around, feathers, leaves and berries flying.  Trying to help him out made things worse, so I would just go away and hope for the best.

One afternoon, I found him on the patio, wings flattened and eyes closed.  Familiar with that sense of dread upon discovering a dead animal you know you will have to remove?

Only the jay wasn’t dead.  As soon as I made a move, the eyes opened.  He popped up and flew away, a blueberry still in his beak.  Score one for the jay.

This year as berry season approached, the jay again took up his post.  I hauled out the net and considered it, and then had an imaginary conversation with the jay that went something like this (my part spoken aloud):

Me:  “Get away from my berries.”

Bird:  “Your berries?”

Me:  “Yeah, my berries.  I planted them, fertilized them, watered them.”

Bird:  “Whoa.  YOU planted them?”

Me:  “OK, someone planted them for me.”

Bird:  “And advised you which kinds of plants to buy, and picked them up wholesale for you and set up the irrigation system, so you don’t actually have to do any watering yourself.  And you know darn good and well blueberries don’t like fertilizer.”

Me: “….”

Bird:  “And since you worked so hard to produce these berries, you aren’t willing to share even one with a poor, hardworking bird.  For shame.”

I threw in the towel and left the net bundled in the garage.  Let the stupid bird have the berries.

My reward?  This year there is a bumper crop.  The bushes are falling over with berries, so many we can hardly pick them all.  The jay comes in of course, carefully avoids me, snatches a berry and zips back into the trees.  Watching this balletic move, my better half pointed out that for a jay one berry is as big as an apple.  How many can he eat, anyway?  Not very many, it turns out.

And that stuff I’ve been telling people about scrub jays all these years?  Bogus.  True, scrub jays are moving north and their numbers rising, but does that mean they don’t belong here?  I moved here from somewhere else and the population of my species is increasing, too.  Take over other birds’ nests?  Nyet.  They make their own, in a joint effort with a partner.  It takes ten days.  They are smart.  Their body to brain mass ratio rivals that of chimpanzees, and they are the only non-primate known to plan for the future. They watch other birds bury acorns and then dig the acorns up and steal them.    It’s true that they  are aggressive defenders of their territory, but so are hummingbirds and dogs.  So … what was it I didn’t like about jays?

It is tempting to expand this little object lesson to the political arena, to make acid comments about, say,  Mitt Romney’s poster self made man Brian Maloney of Middlesex Truck and Coach who told the press “The government didn’t help — at all” him start his business, well, except for a startup bond and a $560,000 federal contract to overhaul ten buses — but I won’t.  I’m the one who spread untruths about jays and tried to take credit for work I didn’t do.  It was me who stuck up nets as a quick fix to keep out unwanted aliens.  Mr. Maloney could probably drive one of his trucks through my blind spots, but no need to get nasty.  Hey, I got my blueberries, the jay got his, and the dang net is getting deep-sixed.  Here’s to hard work and resourcefulness, small businesses and small birds, acknowledging the help we get and sharing the bounty.  Meanwhile, I wonder if my jay isn’t a little more resourceful than I give him credit for?  Truckload of Blueberries Ripped Off


Photo credit: earl53 from morguefile.com

Cups and Balls: The Right Reverend LIBOR

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THIS IS A JOKE. Get it? (photo and joke credit John Gapper)

I suspect there are a lot of other people like me who aren’t keyed into banking scandals. 2008 left us shaking our heads and shrugging our shoulders like babushkas in Stalin’s Russia.  Corruption! What can you do?  The economic sector blew up.  People are out of work, can’t pay their mortgages, pension funds are imploding.  We scrabble through.  Ho hum.  Life goes on.

But oh no.  Life just keeps nudging.  We aren’t in Stalin’s Russia.  We are in the democratic west, and we must fight corruption.  But it’s too hard to understand!  Are you reading what I’m reading about Barclays bank and the LIBOR scandal?  Not Barclays! Not the heroic bank that bought Lehman Brothers in 2008 and saved the world from being sucked into a black hole?

LIBOR?  What’s LIBOR???

London Interbank Offered Rate.  It’s what 18 big banks charge each other to make loans to each other.  Very official.  Closely governed.  It’s the incantation uttered every day to stir markets gone stale.  It’s the twitching hand on Mammon’s robe: the fabric swirls and shivers right down to us. Right.  Holy stuff.

What has LIBOR to do with us?  Companies everywhere use LIBOR to help price returns to investors.  Banks use LIBOR to set interest rates on adjustable mortgages, student loans, car loans.  Still too abstract?  How about this?  In the State of Ohio, 60% of the prime adjustable rate mortgages and 100% of the subprime mortgage rates are tied to LIBOR.  About $10,000,000,000,000 (ten trillion if you’re not into counting zeroes) in loans are based on LIBOR. It underpins the world economy.

So we hope and trust that the LIBOR rates are tied to real money, real value, real markets, but dang it!  The top three bankers at Barclay’s just resigned in disgrace because apparently LIBOR was manipulated.  How could this happen?  On paper it sounds like a good, corruption-proof system.  Here’s how it works:

Every morning the bankers report what they are paying in interest to the British Bankers Association.   To weed out cheaters, I mean anomalies, the rates at the highest and lowest end are tossed out.  A number somewhere in the middle is determined as the day’s rate, and every day at 11:00 a.m., it is announced to the world. Ta Da.  Trillions of dollars in loans are adjusted accordingly.  The rate moves frequently, up a little, down a little.  Very market-like.  Self-correcting and all that.

Ooops.  Turns out, back in mid to late 2000′s, it wasn’t always the market that was tweaking interest rates.  It was sometimes also bank traders, who were trying to look a little better than they actually were. They also scratched each others’ backs, within banks and between banks to help keep LIBOR rates friendly to themselves.  They called and emailed each other, saying things like, hey dude, if the rate is just a hinchy bit lower tomorrow, my boss will be really happy, and I might just get that $2 million holiday bonus. Think I’m pulling your leg?  Here are some e-mail transcripts:  “Done .. for you big boy.”  “Dude I owe you big time.  Come over one day after work and I’m opening a bottle of Bollinger.” 

Thank you Chrisroubus.com

Yep, looks like the interest rate that is central to everyday functioning of the economy was rigged.

Where were the regulators!?!  Aren’t they supposed to be watching out for us?  They were on the case.  It’s taken this long to line things up.  You don’t just go out on flimsy rumors and accuse the most powerful and richest people in the world of fraud.  Now the case is finally laid however, and heads are rolling.  Boy are they.  Rumored to be next in the firing line:  Royal Bank of Scotland, Citigroup, HSBC, JP Morgan Chase, Lloyds, Bank of Tokyo.

Think it won’t make any difference to ordinary people?  Maybe not.  Things are pretty bad already.  But consider this.  If banks aren’t functioning properly, not lending, not borrowing, not juicing up the economy, or if investors aren’t investing because they don’t trust the banks, things will slow down even more.  That could be bad news for Obama, who many on the R side of the fence already blame for the slowdown.  Think Romney’s immune?  One of his biggest fundraisers, known in the business as a “bundler”, is Bob Diamond (not Jamie Dimon, the recently disgraced head of JP Morgan Chase), the just-resigned CEO of Barclay’s Bank.  Mr. Diamond has considerately resigned from Romney’s campaign.

Defenders of the bankers are already saying, hey interest rates go down a little, they go up a little, over time it evens out.  You can’t prove that anyone was hurt.  For instance, Barclay’s is accused of pressuring the banks to lower LIBOR, so that it looked like Barclay’s was healthy, able to borrow cheaply, not desperate for cash.  This meant that interest rates everywhere dropped, so mortgages and student loans and all the rest were lower.  Good, right?

No.  Barclay’s wasn’t healthy and shouldn’t have been pretending it was.  That’s how investors get burned.  Plus, LIBOR rates were still much higher at the time than what Barclay’s and the other big banks were paying to the U.S. Treasury for loans from US.  Got that?  We were loaning them U.S. money at like 1%, so that they could loan us money for houses and cars and stuff at 16%.  Do I have that straight?  Actually, I’m not sure.  It took the US Justice Department, the CFTC and FSA five years to unravel it.  For me, it’s a little like trying to keep my eye on the pebble under the cup.

Cups and Balls

The irony, however, is not hard to get.  Barclay’s Bank monkeyed with LIBOR to make itself look trustworthy.  Feeling trusting yet?  Hang on.  We might be in for another wild ride.