Dignity

What the financial crisis still rocking the world has taken from many middle and lower income people is not only their livelihoods, savings, or pensions, but their dignity. The Greek sovereign debt crisis has many causes, not the least of which are the structural weaknesses inherent in the European Union being an economic union but not a political union. The role of financial speculators such as Goldman Sachs has not been discussed in much depth in the mainstream corporate media, but its influences are without a doubt being felt along with the austerity imposed by the banking giants in Europe futilely, it would appear, trying to hold the EU together. If recent reports are correct, that will be increasingly difficult as the countries that make up that bloc retrench and weather the crisis that has yet to subside for a great many of the world’s people.

For one pensioner in Athens, the austerity imposed upon Greece by foreign creditors proved the last straw. Dimitris Christoulas , a retired 77 years old pharmacist took his own life in Syntagma Square in the center of Athens leaving the following note describing his actions:

In translation:

The collaborationist Tsolakoglou government has annihilated my ability  for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone (without any state sponsoring) paid for 35 years.

Since my advanced age does not allow me a way of a dynamic reaction (although if a fellow Greek was to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be the second after him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.

I believe that young people with no future, will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945 (Piazza Loreto in Milan).

Dimitris’s death sparked riots in the streets of Athens as frustrated Greeks suffering under the heavy weight of austerity measures fought with police whom they accuse of being the enforcers of a fascist regime. The reference to “the collaborationist Tsolakoglou government” refers to the pro-Axis government of Georgios Tsolakoglou during the German occupation of Greece in 1941 – 1942. Chants following Dimitris Christoulas’s funeral included: “Fascists! Sons of Bitches! Here come the hangings!” When crowds descended on Syntagma Square an aggressive policeman opposing the mourners was badly beaten.

“I won’t pay.”

Renee Maltezou in ekathimerini.com writes:

Stunned Greeks asked if a flawed recipe of austerity cuts to save the country was pushing its citizens to the brink – and family and friends said that is exactly what Christoulas had hoped to accomplish.

“My father’s handwritten note leaves no room for misinterpretation. His whole life was spent as a leftist fighter, a selfless visionary,» his only daughter, Emy Christoula, 43, said in a statement.

“This final act was a conscious political act, entirely consistent with what he believed and did in his life.”

She recalled as a child attending a 1975 concert by Greek leftist composer Mikis Theodorakis, where she and her father sang together. For some dreamers, «committing suicide is not an escape but a cry of awakening», she said.

Friends and acquaintances describe Christoulas as a quiet and gentle man, but also a passionate leftist deeply shaken by the pain that the crisis had inflicted on his fellow citizens.

To many who knew him, «Makis» was a hero – a martyr who had jolted Greeks into asking whether spending and salary cuts prescribed by the foreign lenders in exchange for financial aid as Greece lurched towards bankruptcy had gone too far.

“The way he did it made the difference. It was a political act,» said 91-year old Thymios, a fellow-member of Christoulas’s neighbourhood association, who would not give his last name.

“Maybe the right thing would be to keep fighting but his act was symbolic: He went into the politicians’ ‘nest’ – parliament – and humiliated them.”

As foreign elites demand austerity in return for loans, and a compliant government bends to the wishes of those elites and enlists the security forces to enforce compliance from the public, a pensioner robbed of his pension commits a final act meant to preserve his dignity. The last book he read was Greece’s Pompeii, a comparison of Pompeii’s decadent, corrupt social system with modern Greece. Yet another stark example of the instability of inequality.

The Spill from Hell

Credible reports are surfacing of plans to reverse the flow of the 50+ year old pipeline that carries crude oil from Portland to Montreal to accommodate getting to market Alberta Tar Sands oil, or “Dilbit,” the heated, high-pressure slurry of bitumen (tar) and the chemical diluents used to liquify the tar. Permits are being sought in Canada to implement reverse flows of parts of the pipeline system connecting Alberta processors to the eastern pipeline system. This is not your conventional crude by nearly any measure you can use to describe crude oil. The methods of extraction, the processing, the dilution, the means of transportation, its characteristics when spilled, the costs of clean up… none of it follows the game plan of extracting, processing, or cleaning up spills of conventional crude. The following article appeared in a British Columbia online journal, The Tyee, on March 5, 2012 and describes the aftermath of a major spill of 843,000 gals of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in July of 2010. Typical costs of crude cleanup per liter run about $18.95. This clean up has so far cost tens times that amount, is months past the predicted schedule of clean up,  and is nowhere near finished.

I’ll let the author, Mitchell Anderson, give you the details of what a major spill of dilbit looks and smells like, but the parallels to concerns with shipping tar sands oil out of Vancouver, B.C. to shipping dilbit out of Portland Harbor should not be ignored.

Spill from Hell: Diluted Bitumen

Poisoned air. Sunken gunk. A clean-up nightmare. What we’re learning from the oil sands ‘DilBit’ dump into the Kalamazoo River.

By Mitchell Anderson, 5 March, 2012, TheTyee.ca

On a July morning in 2010 in rural Michigan, a 30-inch pipeline owned by Calgary-based Enbridge Energy Partners burst and disgorged an estimated 843,000 gallons of thick crude into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. This was no ordinary crude — it was the first ever major spill into water of diluted bitumen from the Alberta oil sands.

The cleanup challenges and health impacts around Kalamazoo were unlike anything the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had ever dealt with, and raise serious questions about the preparedness in British Columbia to respond to such a disaster on the B.C. coast — or the Vancouver harbour.

Each year, increasing numbers of tankers filled with diluted bitumen leave Vancouver loaded from the existing Kinder Morgan pipeline from northern Alberta to a terminus in Burnaby.

Tankers exiting Vancouver harbor must transit through the shallow Second Narrows channel during “high slack water” — a short tidal window of about 20 minutes that provides loaded tankers with less than two metres of under-keel clearance.

Citizens concerned about these shipments have been assured that extensive preparations have been made to respond to an accident, and that an array of skimmers and floating oil booms are on-hand to contain any spilled oil. But what if the “oil” in these tankers doesn’t float?

Unlike conventional crude, diluted bitumen or “dilbit” is a mixture of unrefined tar that is often heavier than water and “diluent.” This is usually a cocktail of volatile solvents like naphtha or natural gas condensate that allows the thick bitumen to be pumped through the pipeline.

A toxic cloud released

The local residents and EPA responders near Kalamazoo quickly learned that bitumen and diluent do not stay together once released into the environment.

Volatile portions of the diluent containing toxic fumes of benzene and toluene began off-gassing in the area, impacting the health of almost 60 per cent of the local population with symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches, coughing and fatigue. Clean-up crews were issued respirators to protect them from toxic fumes.

Local residents interviewed by the Tyee reported that even weeks after the Kalamazoo spill, they could still smell the fumes up to 50 kilometres away. The local health department went to door-to-door in the days after the spill to assess acute symptoms. They also instituted a voluntary evacuation within about one mile of the river to limit people’s exposure to benzene fumes — a known carcinogen.

Residents near the Kalamazoo River talk about how the spill affected them. Source: National Resource Defense Council.

Sunken tar sinks to bottom

As the lighter chemicals evaporated into the surrounding area, the bitumen portion began to sink to the bottom and become mixed with river sediments. Conventional clean-up equipment such as skimmers and oil booms proved useless in recovering the large amounts of submerged oil that now covers an area of river bottom estimated to be approximately 200 acres.

“This was the first time the EPA or anyone has done a submerged cleanup of this magnitude,” Ralph Dollhopf, the EPA Incident Commander for the Kalamazoo spill told the local media.

“I would never have expected… that we would have spent two or three times longer working on the submerged oil than surface oil. I don’t think anyone at the EPA anticipated that, I don’t think anyone at the state level anticipated that, I don’t think anyone in industry anticipated that.”

In the absence of any previous experience in dealing with spilled Alberta bitumen, the EPA had to “write the book” on figuring out how to recover large amounts of oil that doesn’t float.

Twenty months after the spill these expensive recovery efforts continue, and 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River impacted by the spill remain closed to swimming, boating, fishing or even wading for the foreseeable future. A recent video details the aftermath of the spill on local residents.

Clean-up 10 times what oil spills cost

Enbridge now estimates that clean up costs of the bitumen spill will cost more than $720 million. The company exceeded their insured clean-up coverage of $600 million last fall and the clean up is far from over. Compared to other spills of heavy oil, this Kalamazoo bitumen spill has been colossally expensive. A study of historic oil spills in the U.S. reported the average clean-up cost for heavy crude of $18.95 per litre. The Kalamazoo spill has so far cost over 10 times that much and counting.

Additional questions have been raised about the volume of oil discharged by the broken Enbridge pipeline. To date, the EPA reports recovering 1,146,803 gallons of oil — 35 per cent more than the volume Enbridge reported was spilled. The EPA declined to comment on this discrepancy or on the proportion of the spill that sank, citing disclosure concerns around an ongoing investigation. The EPA also declined to estimate the proportion of oil that has so far been recovered.

If a bitumen spill happens here

All of this raises troubling questions about the risks associated with a potential tanker spill near the Lower Mainland. Unlike rural Michigan, large numbers of people live or work close to Burrard Inlet or shorelines that might be impacted by a bitumen accident.

In the days following the Kalamazoo spill, authorities advised local residents within approximately one mile of the river to remain indoors or leave the area to limit their exposure to toxic fumes. Obviously that would not be practical in the Lower Mainland, home to more than two million people.

What happens when bitumen mixed with distillate pours out of pipeline. Source: Friends of Earth.

Any plume of volatile distillate would also likely be carried by prevailing winds up the confined airshed of the Fraser Valley. A recent spill of crude oil at a Kinder Morgan storage tank near Abbotsford demonstrated the impact that toxic fumes can have on local residents in the area.

As the lighter portions of the spill begin to evaporate, the progressively heavier bitumen would likely begin to sink — rendering useless the conventional clean-up equipment designed to recover floating oil. Carried within the water column, accumulating on the ocean bottom or becoming entrained in marine sediments — a spill of Alberta bitumen might prove impossible to contain.

Contacted in 2011 by The Tyee, Dr. Carl E. Brown, research manager of Emergencies, Science and Technology Division at Environment Canada confirmed that “a concern with bitumen fuels is their density is quite high and chances are if those materials were spilled into the marine environment, those products might sink.”

A recent review of existing technologies to respond to a bitumen spill stated:

“If the spilled oil eventually assumes neutral buoyancy and becomes suspended between the water surface and the bottom, then it is unlikely that any response technologies can be successfully applied to significantly control the spill.”

Bitumen laden tankers slated to multiply

A potential accident involving diluted bitumen in Vancouver harbour is obviously not the only concern regarding tanker transits through B.C. waters. Last November, the Island Trust expressed concerns to Transport Canada about preparedness for bitumen spills associated with tankers that routinely pass through the Gulf Islands. As of yet, there has been no reply.

Whether they realize it or not, British Columbians may soon see more and larger tankers carrying bitumen travelling through B.C. waters. Kinder Morgan will announce this month whether they will proceed with a $3.8-billion plan to double existing pipeline capacity from Alberta to Burnaby. Port MetroVancouver supports expanding capacity to allow larger SuexMax tankers, with 1,000,000 barrel capacity, into Burrard Inlet.

There is also the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, which if approved would result in large numbers of tankers carrying both diluted bitumen and volatile distillate on the north coast.

What does that mean for public safety and the environment? Competent individuals and sophisticated equipment are on standby to respond to a conventional oil spill. Yet these preparations may prove to be a Maginot Line of defence should “unconventional crude” ever be spilled off the B.C. coast.

When Ignorance Sits In Power

I must admit the following brought tears to my eyes. This from Brad Delong:

Down the Insurance Rabbit Hole: Justice Antonin Scalia subsequently expressed skepticism about forcing the young to buy insurance: “When they think they have a substantial risk of incurring high medical bills, they’ll buy insurance, like the rest of us.”

May the justices please meet my sister-in-law. On Feb. 8, she was a healthy 32-year-old, who was seven and a half months pregnant with her first baby. On Feb. 9, she was a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down by a car accident that damaged her spine. Miraculously, the baby, born by emergency C-section, is healthy. Were the Obama health care reforms already in place, my brother and sister-in-law’s situation — insurance-wise and financially — would be far less dire. My brother’s small employer — he is the manager of a metal-fabrication shop — does not offer health insurance, which was too expensive for them to buy on their own. Fortunately, my sister-in-law had enrolled in the Access for Infants and Mothers program, California’s insurance plan for middle-income pregnant women. AIM coverage extends 60 days postpartum and paid for her stay in intensive care and early rehabilitation.

But when the 60 days is up next week, the family will fall through the welfare medicine rabbit hole….

[T]he baby fares best. He is insured through Healthy Families, California’s version of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the federal-state plan for lower-income children ineligible for Medicaid…. California is relatively generous, with eligibility extending up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level of $19,090 for a family of three; 27 states have lower limits. When the AIM coverage expires, my sister-in-law will be covered by Medi-Cal, California’s version of Medicaid, because she is disabled and has limited income. But because my brother works, they are subject to cost-sharing: they pay the first $1,100 of her health costs each month…. They must also meet the Medi-Cal asset test: beyond their house and one vehicle, they can hold $3,150 in total assets, a limit last adjusted in 1989. They cannot save for retirement (retirement plans are not exempt from the asset test in California, as they are in some states)…. These are the limitations under which 7.5 million Medi-Cal recipients live. Nationwide, more than 50 million people are covered by their states’ version of Medicaid. Some states are more lenient in their income and asset tests, others less so. Nowhere is life in these programs a picnic.

That said, Medicaid is an important safety net for the poor, and the Obama reform would expand the program to cover all Americans under 133 percent of the poverty level (currently one has to be both poor and categorically eligible — a child or a pregnant woman, for example). But for the middle class who are thrust into Medicaid by circumstance, the program’s strictures are truly life-altering….

Their best hope is the survival of the Obama reform. Perhaps my brother can get a job that offers health insurance for the family, but without the reform’s protections, like the prohibition on denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, removal of annual and lifetime insurance caps, and reinsurance for large claims, there is no guarantee that they could obtain insurance. More likely, they would buy insurance on a health exchange. Here in Massachusetts, where such an exchange is in place, they could have purchased a plan with an affordable premium (at their income level, the monthly premiums range from $39 to $91 per adult). And these money and insurance issues would not have added to the other stresses in their profoundly changed lives.

Instead, their financial future is shattered…. One incident in particular struck me to the core. A woman from a small community nearby had something for us. A cancer survivor, she had decided to “give back” by placing donation cans in stores around town. She had finished her drive and consolidated the money. The small coffee can she handed over to me and my sister-in-law had a slit in the lid and was decorated with pink felt and ribbons, now a little smudged from handling. Inside were several hundred dollars in small bills. We burst into tears. This is social policy in the richest nation in the history of the world.

An Unnecessary Evil

When members of the 99%, Doug Bowen and Kathy Chaiklin, were granted an audience with Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins earlier this year, the pair sat with Senator Collins to discuss campaign financing and the donations she has received from wealthy out-of-state interests. The following exchange was recalled from memory after the meeting:

Doug – Senator [Margaret Chase] Smith stood up to Senator Joe McCarthy when he nearly paralyzed government by accusing officials of being communists. At a great risk to her career she exposed him as a liar, when other members of congress were afraid to. Now, we believe the greatest threat to democracy is unlimited special interest money from corporations and lobbyists and unions that members of Congress rely on to win elections, they are influenced by it. You know that 1% of Americans contribute 99% of all the money members raise to win elections.

Senator – I don’t believe Congress is influenced by campaign contributions. I don’t think large contributions are a problem. Now, the Super PAC money might be a problem, its so huge, the ten million the Adelsons gave to Gingrich’s campaign…..though I don’t think that would influence Newt… Casinos?

Doug – Americans were very concerned about the influence of big money on Congress long before Citizens United. Americans have given Congress like 10% approval ratings for years, 80% think “government is controlled by a few big interests looking out for themselves.” These are polls. What people actually think about Congress is what’s really important, we can’t trust it. What’s a regular person supposed to think when he sees a corporation give huge amounts of money to a Senator, how can he believe there isn’t going to be something in return, I don’t mean passing cash, but like favors returned over time –

Senator – No its not like that. I am not influenced. At all. Most in Congress are not. (vigorous shaking of head).

I’ve often wondered how a person in Senator Collins position could make this type of statement, a statement so clearly out of sync with prevailing public sentiments, and still feel as if the statement was an honest one. What rationalization would have to take place to allow the Senator a clear conscience with regard to the funds ALL Congresspeople must collect in our present broken and unfair campaign finance system to compete in elections? The following episode from a recent This American Life broadcast might supply an answer.

The episode is called Take the Money and Run for Office. In it both senators and congress members describe the process they must use to collect needed campaign donations to stay competitive. The twist, though, for those that have in mind narrow-interest corporate lobbyists dangling campaign funds in front of hapless or easily influenced Congress members is in the fact that Congress members and their campaign staff are often the ones soliciting campaign funds, and an audience with a Senator or Congress person is more easily attained when the lubricant of campaign donations is present or at least promised. (Money is certainly not the only avenue to catch the ear of a senator or congress member, but it certainly helps.) A lobbyist’s office hasn’t returned funding raising phone calls from a Senator’s or Congress member’s office? Why should that senator or member make time in their busy schedules to hear what that particular lobbying firm has to say?

If Senator Collins’ office initiates the fund raising call, and couples face-time with her to the success or failure of her outreach efforts does her influence over those she seeks funds from preclude or overshadow their influence over her decisions? Is this the rationalization that threads a twisted path through the thicket of influence buying and influence peddling that to the public seems obvious, pernicious, very suspect?

Bundlers for candidates are given more easy access to successful candidates because through their fund raising efforts they become players, often seeking appointments to the many political appointment positions that successful candidates make upon winning office. You pay to play, or you watch from the sidelines. For the vast majority of people watching from the sidelines it is difficult to tell who is trying to buy influence and who is peddling influence. Take the Money and Run for Office captures some of how this system works and why it needs to be changed.


Economic Inequality and Political Representation (pdf), Larry M. Bartels, Department of Politics and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, August 2005.

(MP3 audio file of Take the Money and Run for Office will be available after 7pm, April 1, 2012.)

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