Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Founders Be Damned: Exxon Mobil Plans To Worship Crude Another 30 Years!

Despite pleas from the families of two of its founders, Exxon Mobil’s stockholders voted in Dallas yesterday by a 60% majority to retain as chairman and CEO a wealthy executive who actually believes the world can survive another 30 years with crude as king.

Descendants of John D. Rockefeller, 19th-century founder of Exxon Mobil predecessor Standard Oil Corp., sought to strip Rex Tillerson of the chairmanship role, because they think he has focused too much on short-term gains from soaring oil prices, when the company’s long-term viability depends on moving more quickly to sustainable alternatives.

The Rockefeller family members were supported by several influential proxy advisory firms, treasurers of California, Connecticut and Maryland, several British pension funds and other institutional investors.

Speaking for them before the meeting, William Thompson Jr., who as city comptroller oversees New York City’s retirement system assets, said “Exxon Mobil has long evinced a culture of defiance and indifferent to many important concerns of long-term shareholders.”

But the proposal got only 39.5% of the vote, down slightly from the 40% it got last year. This is the seventh year in a row the proposal has failed.

Tillerson also faced opposition from
descendants of Robert Lee Blaffer, co-founder of Humble Oil, another Exxon Mobil predecessor. In an op-ed piece in last Sunday’s Houston Chronicle, his granddaughter Jane Dale Owen called on the shareholders to “Top off Exxon Mobil’s greed.” Owen wrote:

My family members and I are shareholders in Exxon Mobil, and many of us are very concerned about the devastating effect the largest privately held oil company in the world is having on the health of people living near our refineries and chemical plants, and on the planet.

In the Political Economy Research Institute's recent "Toxic 100" report released in April, Exxon Mobil ranks 10th among the worst corporate toxic polluters in the United States. This is unacceptable considering the company's huge profits.

My grandfather would also be dismayed by Exxon Mobil's long-standing denial of the industry's contribution to global warming and lack of efforts to diversify and move toward more sustainable energy solutions.

Other family members and I believe greed, arrogance and short-term thinking have led Exxon Mobil to jeopardize the company's reputation and put the planet, human health and our investments at risk.

We join with the Exxon Enough! coalition in calling on Exxon Mobil management to:

• Undertake health surveys of all the people living in communities where the company has facilities, on the Texas Gulf Coast and elsewhere, and to provide for relocation and on-going health care for people living near its facilities.

• Accept the necessity of a windfall war profits tax.

• Invest in alternative energy sources and alternative transportation systems as a way of reducing global warming.

My family and I are saying to Exxon: Enough of your pollution that harms the health of the people living near your refineries and plants; enough of your war-profiteering; enough of your excess profits while we pay outrageous prices for gas; enough of your denial that burning petroleum products fuels global warming; and enough of your lack of foresight, accountability and fiscal responsibility.

The founders’ families recognize that the greed of Exxon Mobil’s shareholders imperils not only the future of the company but the viability of the planet. But the shareholders still turn a deaf ear.

Of course they also decline to listen to New York Times columnist
Thomas Friedman, who warns almost weekly that our lack of a national energy policy will destroy the United States’ economy and political power before it destroys the globe.

The same day that the Exxon Mobil shareholders voted for more of the same, Friedman was applauding that with gas at $4 a gallon, oil was at last at a price that might make energy alternatives more economically desirable. He ridiculed those who would act as enablers of higher American oil consumption:

Cynical ideas, like the McCain-Clinton summertime gas-tax holiday, would only make the problem worse, and reckless initiatives like the Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep offer to subsidize gasoline for three years for people who buy its gas guzzlers are the moral equivalent of tobacco companies offering discounted cigarettes to teenagers.

I can’t say it better than my friend Tim Shriver, the chairman of Special Olympics, did in a Memorial Day essay in The Washington Post: “So Dodge wants to sell you a car you don’t really want to buy, that is not fuel-efficient, will further damage our environment, and will further subsidize oil states, some of which are on the other side of the wars we’re currently fighting. ... The planet be damned, the troops be forgotten, the economy be ignored: buy a Dodge.”

Friedman concluded:

We need to make a structural shift in our energy economy. Ultimately, we need to move our entire fleet to plug-in electric cars. The only way to get from here to there is to start now with a price signal that will force the change.

Words Exxon Mobil’s founders’ families have taken to heart. How great a catastrophe will it take to convince its shareholder profiteers?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Despite Improvements, New Orleans Canal Still Leaks; West Bank Lags Behind

With hurricane season just days away, MSNBC has posted two articles that highlight disturbing vulnerabilities in New Orleans' hurricane protection systems.

In one
the Associated Press reports:

Despite more than $22 million in repairs, a levee that broke with catastrophic effect during Hurricane Katrina is leaking again because of the mushy ground on which New Orleans was built, raising serious questions about the reliability of the city's flood defenses.

Outside engineering experts who have studied the project told The Associated Press that the type of seepage spotted at the 17th Street Canal in the Lakeview neighborhood afflicts other New Orleans levees, too, and could cause some of them to collapse during a storm.

The Army Corps of Engineers has spent about $4 billion so far of the $14 billion set aside by Congress to repair and upgrade the metropolitan area's hundreds of miles of levees by 2011. Some outside experts said the leak could mean that billions more will be needed and that some of the work already completed may need to be redone.

"It is all based on a 30-year-old defunct model of thinking, and it means that when they wake up to this one — really — our cost is going to increase significantly," said Bob Bea, a civil engineer at the University of California at Berkeley.

The 17th Street Canal floodwall collapsed on the day Katrina surged over New Orleans in August 2005, and the failure severely damaged Lakeview. It was one of the biggest of about 50 levee breaches that contributed to the deaths of about 1,300 people.

Fixing the 17th Street Canal has been one of the most expensive and laborious repair jobs since the storm and has served as something of a test case for scientists and engineers, who plan to apply the lessons learned there to the city's other levees.

Among other things, they repaired the wall by driving interlocking sheets of steel 60 feet into the ground, compared with about 17 feet before the storm. The sheet metal is supposed to prevent canal water from seeping under the levee through the wet, toothpaste-like soil that lies beneath the city, which was built on reclaimed swamp and filled-in marsh.

Over the past few months, however, the corps found evidence that canal water is seeping through the joints in the sheet metal and then rising to the surface on the other side of the levee, forming puddles and other wet spots.

Engineers said the boggy ground is a more serious problem than the corps realizes. Bea said there is a roughly 40 percent chance of the 17th Street Canal levee collapsing if water rises higher than 6 feet above sea level. During Katrina, the water reached 7 feet in the canal.

John Schmertmann, a retired University of Florida professor and a consultant on foundations, agreed with Bea that the corps "may still be embedding some of these not-properly-considered factors, so the new walls may not do what the corps expects."

Reducing such seepage might require the driving of sheet metal far deeper into the ground than is done now, or some other solution, said Bea, who was part of a team of experts sent by the National Science Foundation to do an independent study of the levee failures during Katrina.

In another MSNBC post, Reuters reports:

Post-Katrina New Orleans remains two separate communities as another hurricane season begins on June 1.

On the city's East Bank, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is raising levees and installing steel-reinforced gates on three drainage canals to block a surge in Lake Pontchartrain from pushing into the canals, as occurred in 2005.

Lt. Col. Murray Starkel, the Corp's deputy commander in New Orleans, said the reinforced gates will protect the canals against a surge during a Katrina-like storm that might occur once every 100 years.

That once-in-100-year-event has become the Corps' minimum standard for New Orleans' flood protection.

"I think the inner portion of the city of New Orleans is better protected than it has been in many, many years," said Jerry Sneed of Louisiana's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. "Is it at the 100-year storm level? Not yet, but it will be in the near future."

The other side of the river is a different story.

About $285 million in improvements on West Bank levees and floodwalls won't be completed for another year.

That system will only meet standards set more than two decades ago, said Gerald Spohrer, executive director of the West Jefferson Levee District. Reaching 100-year storm protection will take at least three more years, he said.

The West Bank, much of which lies south of downtown New Orleans, is at greater risk than the rest of the city because it is more exposed to the Gulf. It came through Katrina relatively unscathed only because the storm jogged eastward just before landfall.

"The West Bank is still vulnerable," Sneed said. "Our biggest fear is that people who live on the West Bank of New Orleans and didn't get flooded think that they are home free in the event of a storm."

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Republican California Supreme Court Declares Gay Marriage Ban Unconstitutional

CNN reports that California’s Supreme Court has voted 4-3 to overturn a ban on gay marriage approved by voters in a 2000 referendum dubbed the Defense of Marriage Act. CNN said the ruling was a surprise, because the court has a reputation for being conservative and six of its seven judges are Republican appointees.

Subsequent to the 2000 vote the state legislature passed two laws which aimed to make it easier for gays to wed, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed both. CNN quotes him as saying he will uphold the court’s decision and will not support a proposed constitutional amendment pending before the California Secretary of State which would overturn the court’s ruling. Excerpts from CNN's report follow:

The California Supreme Court struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage Thursday, saying sexual orientation, like race or gender, "does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights."

In a 4-3 120-page ruling issue, the justices wrote that "responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual's sexual orientation."

"We therefore conclude that in view of the substance and significance of the fundamental constitutional right to form a family relationship, the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples," Chief Justice Ronald George wrote for the majority.

The ruling takes affect in 30 days.

Several gay and lesbian couples, along with the city of San Francisco and gay rights groups, filed a lawsuit saying they were victims of unlawful discrimination. A lower court ruled San Francisco acted unlawfully in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said he is "profoundly grateful" for the decision and for the court's "eloquence" in its delivery.

"After four long years, we're very, very gratified," he said.

Shannon Minter, attorney for one of the plaintiffs in the case, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, called the ruling "a moment of pure happiness and joy for so many families in California."

"California sets the tone, and this will have a huge effect across the nation to bringing wider acceptance for gay and lesbian couples," he said.

Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, issued a statement saying, "Today's ruling affirms that committed couples, gay and straight, should not be denied the duties, obligations and protections of marriage. ... This decision is a vital affirmation to countless California couples -- straight and gay -- who want to make and have made a lifelong commitment to take care of and be responsible for each other."

A constitutional amendment initiative specifying that marriage is only between a man and a woman is awaiting verification by the secretary of state's office after its sponsors said they had gathered enough signatures to place it on the statewide ballot. The parties cannot appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Herrera said, as federal courts do not have jurisdiction over the state laws. "This is the final say," he said.

In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Marvin Baxter wrote that although he agrees with some of the majority's conclusions, the court was overstepping its bounds in striking down the ban. Instead, he wrote, the issue should be left to the voters.

In 2004, San Francisco officials allowed gay couples in the city to wed, prompting a flood of applicants crowding the city hall clerk's office. The first couple to wed then was 80-year-old Phyllis Lyon and 83-year-old Dorothy Martin, lovers for 50 years.

"We have a right just like anyone else to get married to the person we want to get married to," Lyon said at the time.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom called the ruling a victory not just for the city "but for literally millions of people. ... What the court did is simply affirm their lives."

CNN's Ted Rowlands reported that "huge cheers" went up in San Francisco when the ruling was announced.

"There can be no doubt that extending the designation of marriage to same-sex couples, rather than denying it to all couples, is the equal protection remedy that is most consistent with our state's general legislative policy and preference," the ruling said.

"Accordingly, in light of the conclusions we reach concerning the constitutional questions brought to us for resolution, we determine that the language of Section 300 limiting the designation of marriage to a 'union between a man and a woman' is unconstitutional, and that the remaining statutory language must be understood as making the designation of marriage available to both opposite-sex and same-sex couples."

Newsom compared the ruling to the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Virginia case overturning that state's ban on interracial marriage.

"This is about civil marriage. This is about fundamental rights," he said.

Episcopal Bishop Robinson Will Travel to the Lambeth Conference, Wecome or Not

In an interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show, openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson says he will not be disuaded from voicing that God calls everyone to his table, even if it means still facing death threats for doing so.

Robinson laments that the Archbishop of Canterbury has not invited him to the Anglican Communion's upcoming Lambeth Conference. But he confirms he will sit outside it to talk with anyone who's interested in speaking with someone who's unashamedly gay and unashamedly Christian.

Bishop Robinson says that one reason that he will enter a civil union with his male partner is that he wants to afford them and their grown daughters the full protections that the law allows, especially if anyone who wishes him dead should prevail.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Hillary Pilloried--Rightfully--for Tauting Support from "White Americans"

It took a few hours, but Hillary Clinton is now getting widespread criticism for her interview with USA Today on Wednesday crowing about how well she is doing among "white Americans."

Evidently the phrase was not Clinton's originally. At least she attributed it to an Associated Press article. If so, the Associated Press used bad wording for an even worse idea. For Clinton to make the words her own was a disservice to the country, not to mention her party and her campaign.

CNN posted the story on its website about noon yesterday. It attracted numerous comments there, most of them critical of Clinton; but it was hard to find any reaction in other media outlets.

Today that's changed. Almost 24 hours later, the story on CNN's site has almost 1,200 comments, still predominantly critical. But more significantly, MSNBC this morning posted a piece entitled
"Clinton: Playing the Race Card?" It includes lengthy quotations criticizing Clinton's remarks from the New York Post, the New York Daily News, and conservative Republican Peggy Noonan.

Noonan's take is particularly scathing: "If John McCain said, ‘I got the white vote, baby!’ his candidacy would be over. And rising in highest indignation against him would be the old Democratic Party. To play the race card as Mrs. Clinton has, to highlight and encourage a sense that we are crudely divided as a nation, to make your argument a brute and cynical ‘the black guy can't win but the white girl can’ is -- well, so vulgar, so cynical, so cold, that once again a Clinton is making us turn off the television in case the children walk by.”

Noonan added: “‘She has unleashed the gates of hell,’ a longtime party leader told me. ‘She's saying, “He's not one of us.”’

This should be the last straw for any supporters Hillary had left. She needs to leave the stage before her desperation becomes any more pitiful.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Stealth Provision Denies Tax Rebates to Millions of Retirees

Millions of retirees will not get a tax rebate under the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008.

The Economic Stimulus Payment Calculator at says they will. But fine print hidden in fact sheets and Frequently Asked Questions still being updated tells another story:

If your income is entirely from a state, federal or private pension or annuity, it doesn’t qualify for a rebate under the stimulus law.

Yes, it’s unfair, especially since such pensions and annuities are pretty much taxed in full (except for the small portion that comes from employee contributions that were taxed already).

And maybe the unfairness explains why the government has barely communicated this exclusion—and is not doing so consistently, even today.

But Congress worded the law so that the rebates go only to people who are working or receiving Social Security, Veterans or Railroad Retirement benefits. Those who receive other pensions and annuities get nothing.

I find this distressing on several levels: as a 27-year IRS employee, much of it in management; as a federal retiree whose present income consists entirely of annuities; and as an Enrolled Agent (now authorized to practice before IRS) who has found the Service’s communication of this exclusion woefully deficient.

How did this happen?

Blame goes first to Congress for passing a law that excluded so many retirees. Except for Social Security, Veterans and Railroad Retirement benefits, the
Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 defined “qualifying income” for the tax rebates as “earned income,” as described in Internal Revenue Code Section 32. Like most people—and apparently most members of Congress—I did not rush to the code to see what Section 32 says. In fact, it covers procedures for the Earned Income Credit.

Section 32(c)(2)(A) defines earned income as wages, salaries, tips, and other employee compensation or net earnings from self-employment. In case there was any doubt as to whether this includes retirement income, Section 32(c)(2)(B)ii adds: “no amount received as a pension or annuity shall be taken into account.”

As careless and mindless as Congress in enacting the wording of the act, President Bush signed it into law, leaving it to IRS to implement in the middle of the annual 1040 filing season.

To say that IRS never communicated the retiree exclusion at all would be inaccurate. But IRS should be faulted for not communicating it sooner, more effectively and above all more conspicuously.

It is true that
an IRS fact sheet in February of 2008 included one sentence about the retiree exclusion. But I missed it, and I suspect most readers did, because it was tucked away after several other exclusions that had nothing to do with retirement:

“Dividends, interest and capital gains income is not included when determining qualifying income. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) does not count as qualifying income for the stimulus payment. Also not included in qualifying income are non-veterans or non-Social Security pension income (such as those from Individual Retirement Accounts).”

The section would have communicated the act’s true intent better if the paragraph had been entitled “Earned Income Test” and preceded by a sentence that said only earned income would qualify. But it didn’t.

On March 26th IRS experts conducted a national phone forum on the rebates for taxpayer representatives. It struck me that someone on the conference call alluded to retirement income being excluded, but it was an aside during discussion of another topic, and I thought it was referencing the separate treatment of Social Security and other government-benefit income. IRS missed another opportunity to emphasize a rebate exclusion impacting millions of taxpayers.

Only more recently has IRS begun to address the retiree exclusion directly—and even now is not handling the topic consistently.

Originally, the FAQs at did not mention pension and annuity income. Finally in April, the FAQs were updated to say that pensions and annuities from private employers were not qualifying income for a rebate.

It was not until yesterday that the
Economic Stimulus FAQs were updated again to include state and federal retirees:

Q. Are pension and annuity amounts provided by state, federal or private sector employers considered qualifying income in determining eligibility for the economic stimulus payment?

No, these payments are not included in the legal definition of qualifying income. [Updated 5/7/08]

Yet even now, as observed at the outset, the Economic Stimulus Payment Calculator does not exclude such retirement income. A state, federal or private retiree who dutifully completes all of the boxes is told they are getting a rebate. Clearly the calculator needs to be updated with the same last-minute changes as the FAQs.

The way two branches of the federal government have handled the retiree exclusion is embarrassing. Of course, it is also inequitable.

There is no valid reason retirees who pay thousands of dollars annually on their retirement income should not receive the same rebate as wage-earners. It was a slap in their faces to deny them the rebate.

And on top of the financial unfairness, it was a special act of ingratitude to millions of state and federal retirees who served the public decade after decade with under-funded resources, technology and wages.

Congress should reverse this inequity promptly. If not, the excluded retirees should file a class-action lawsuit on the grounds that Congress is not giving all taxpayers equal protection of the law.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

U.S. and European Fundamentalists Do Not Know the Bible as Well as "Critics"

The National Catholic Reporter says a sociological survey done in the United States and Europe shows that, surprisingly, those who hold that the Bible should be taken literally do not rank highest in reading the Bible accurately.

The poll was commissioned by the international Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops, who plan to address the theme "The Word of God" at a meeting in October. NCR writes:

"Sponsored by the Catholic Biblical Federation and carried out by GFK Eurisko, Italy’s leading market research organization, the survey polled people in the United States, the United Kingdom, Holland, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Poland and Russia.

"Plans call for four other countries shortly to be added to the mix, all in the global South: Argentina, South Africa, the Philippines, and Australia."

Among the more striking findings, NCR cites:

• The United States has by far the highest level of its adult population that claims to have read at least one passage from the Bible in the last year (75%) and to have a Bible at home (93%), but it doesn’t score better than anyone else on tests of basic Biblical literacy. For example, large numbers of Americans, just like people in the other eight countries surveyed, mistakenly thought that Jesus had authored a book of the Bible, and couldn’t correctly distinguish between Paul and Moses in terms of which figure belongs to the Old Testament.

• Fundamentalists, or those who take a literal view of Scripture, do not know more about the Bible than anyone else. In fact, researchers said, it’s readers whose attitudes they described as “critical,” meaning that they see the Bible as the word of God but in need of interpretation, who are over-represented at the highest levels of Biblical literacy. In other words, fundamentalists actually score lower on basic Biblical awareness.

• In virtually every country surveyed, those who take a “critical” view of the Bible represent a larger share of the population than either “fundamentalists” or “reductionists,” meaning those who see the Bible simply as literature or a collection of myths and legends. In the United States, “fundamentalists” are 27 percent of the population, “critics” 51 percent, and “reductionists” 20 percent. Interestingly, both Poland and Russia have a similar share of “fundamentalists,” despite lacking the strong Evangelical Protestant tradition familiar in the U.S.

• There is no apparent correlation between reading the Bible and any particular political orientation. In other words, it’s not the case that the more someone reads the Bible, the more likely they are to be a political conservative or liberal.

• There no longer appear to be major differences in Biblical reading patterns and Biblical familiarity between countries with Catholic majorities and those with Protestant majorities, suggesting that, in the words of Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni, Italy, the president of the Catholic Biblical Federation, the Bible has become “the ecumenical book of all believers.”

Friday, May 02, 2008

Time to Nationalize Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell and BP?

Chevron, the second-largest U.S. oil company, has announced another quarter of record profits—and another quarter of declining production, just like ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil, as well as British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell, the British-Dutch conglomerate.

In a column published before Chevron’s announcement today, Houston Chronicle business analyst
Loren Steffy cautioned that the most serious problem facing national and world economies is not these record profits but that the decline in production by all of the investor-owned, non-nationalized oil companies is getting steadily worse.

Given the planet’s increasing demand for oil, the decline in the investor-owned companies’ contribution to the world’s supply is one of the chief factors raising the price of oil.

Which is one reason Steffy agrees with other analysts that the Clinton-McCain summer gas tax holiday is a very bad idea—because by lowering the price at the pump for the short term, it would only increase consumption and thus further exacerbate both the short supply of oil and its price.

Yet Steffy implies that a windfall profits tax would be a bad idea too, not only because it would not increase the investor-owned companies’ production, but also because it would deprive them of profits that should be diverted to exploration and production instead.

That concern would make sense if the investor-owned oil companies were in fact putting their profits to that use. But that isn’t their track record. All they have proved adept at doing is siphoning off the profits to enrich their investors and above all their corporate officers. That such action is suicidal to their longevity seems to have escaped them. Maybe some tough love would help.

Since windfall profits taxes have not convinced them before, how about something more drastic? Either the investor-owned oil companies document that, starting with the first quarter’s windfall, they are investing every dime of profit in exploration or production, or the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands will do it for them—by nationalizing any oil company that refuses to comply.

Absent such compliance, nationalization appears to be the only way to force the investors to stop enriching themselves at the expense of every oil consumer on the planet—which includes food producers and other businesses that have to increase their prices to cover spiraling oil-related costs.

If the three Western democracies were to take this draconian action, they might have to acknowledge that Hugo Chavez was right about something. If so, however, it will be because the investor-owned oil companies proved him right: they have shown over several years that the free market system is not an equitable way to deliver basic human necessities like energy. Rather, profit-making trumps delivery of resources necessary for life. People literally starve while the profiteers prosper.

Every person on earth has a right to those resources. A financial system which allows a few to subordinate that right to their greed is seriously in need of revision.