January 31st, 2011

Franken To Bring The Funny Vermontward

by Philip Baruth

Green Mountain Daily (whose moles control a de facto majority of all Democratic party committees and sub-committees, and against whom resistance is futile) is reporting that Al Franken will be headlining this year’s Curtis Dinner in March. A brilliant choice, and an impressive get, for which we can thank Vermont’s senior Senator, who also roped Franken in for an event at the 2008 Democratic Convention. Not to mention Dead drummer Mickey Hart.

Had a few moments with Franken at that event out in Denver, and he was a prince of a guy. A little cautious, given that he was on the campaign trail for the first time, but still very funny, very sharp.

Now, though, he can say what he pleases. Which should be choice.

January 26th, 2011

Maybe Skynet Won’t Become Self-Aware And Terminate Us After All: Sen. Ginny Lyons Takes on Corporate Personhood

by Philip Baruth

Back in the day, circa 2003, you could always count on a stark contrast between the Bush Administration and what VDB thought of as the Shadow Administration: the various personalities and approaches reaching the nation from the great state of Vermont. So for every Dick or Donald they brought to the fight, we had a Patrick or Howard who rose to the challenge. Heady days, those.

We offered a competing vision, a winter home for common sense and civil rights. But with Democrats now more or less in charge in DC, pushing policies that too often seem like weak echoes of Bush at his worst, those contrasts have blurred.

Smudged might be a better word.

But not entirely: when it comes to the issue of corporate personhood, Vermont is anchoring the push-back to the conservative Roberts Supreme Court.

Last year’s Citizens United decision not only opened the flood gates for corporate money in American politics. More to the point it conferred full “free speech” rights on corporations, said speech to issue in the form of anonymous corporate donations to parties and PACS.

The most disturbing element of the logic was this, though: if corporations are people, are citizens with inalienable rights, and if money is de facto speech, then any citizen corporation that does not pour money into the process is, by definition, a bad citizen.

It was active encouragement for the buying of American elections. And not just by American corporations.

Enter State Senator Ginny Lyons. Lyons knew that appeals through the courts would be stopped at the net by Roberts’s 5-4 majority. So she’s begun the long hard work of encouraging a Constitutional amendment, banning corporate personhood.

Not that Ginny thought of it first. National Democrats have been sounding off about the need for a Constitutional Amendment for months now. But she’s now made Vermont the first state to put its money where its mouth is, and her resolution should come up very soon for a vote in the Vermont Senate, where it looks to pass with room to spare.

VDB likes. A lot.

And we’ll bring you more coverage as that resolution moves through the process. Because it’s more necessary now than it was last year: Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma has introduced a bill that would kill the public financing system for American Presidential elections, and he’s timed it for the one-year anniversary of Citzens United.

Game on.

January 26th, 2011

Got Milk Intel Part II: Follow-Up On The Puzzling Dean Foods Settlement Mystery

by Philip Baruth

If you read the Dean Foods post last week, you know that we posed a tantalizing riddle: Why would those who brought suit against Dean for anti-competitive practices in 2009 decide to settle now for what amounts to a pretty-please promise never to sin again? Why wouldn’t those plaintiffs hold out for (lots) more money and a more effectual remedy to the monopoly at issue? Thus far long-time reader Nat Kinney has offered the most plausible theory, based on the freshest intel.

Nat points us to a recent article in Daily Finance, ominously slugged, “10 American Companies That Will Disappear in 2011.” The sub-thesis? That Dean is heading toward disintegration, a frantic spinning-off of its myriad divisions, driven by huge debt and other recessionary pressures.

In this theory, the Washington-based lawyers who brought the class-action suit (including some Vermont farmers) are maybe crazy like foxes, getting a decent chunk of change before the spin-off dries up liquidity, or drives down stock prices.

Which makes more sense than anything else VDB has been able to work out. And so we re-issue our challenge to you out there with dairy connections or serious Google expertise. What can you tell us about the Dean Foods settlement, and why it seems to suck so very much, as settlements go, and so seemingly on purpose?

But until then, Nat wears the milk crown, such as it is.

January 24th, 2011

Free Press Troll Pwns VDB With Logic, Caps

by Philip Baruth

Elections have consequences, as Dick Cheney liked to say. So happy consequences: Deb Markowitz at the Agency of Natural Resources has announced that she will reverse an 11th-hour ruling by the Douglas administration allowing ATV use on state land, to connect private trails. Yes.

Markowitz points out that the ruling should come as no surprise, in that both she and Peter Shumlim promised on the campaign trail to reverse the rule. Which sounds about right to VDB. Of course, not everyone’s day was brightened by the news. ShadyLane08, commenting at the Free Press website, produced this shrewd analogy:

It’s not every day we run into an ideological opponent like this, one whose lancing wit and incontrovertible logic and disarming use of all capital letters leaves VDB beaten and cowed. Well challenged, ShadyLane08.

You have eaten our Liberal lunch this day, and although public lands will continue to be off-limits to ATV riders and the casual destruction they cause, we will always know that we were bested when it counted.

January 21st, 2011

Something’s Rotten In The State of Vermont: Dean Foods, Monopoly, And A Settlement That Stinks To High Heaven

by Philip Baruth

As you know, VDB takes a dim view of Entergy’s corporate practices. Swearing that your nuclear power plant has no underground piping, when in fact you’re sitting on a vast leaking maze of such piping, will tend to sap consumer confidence. But Louisiana-based Entergy is not the only conglomerate engaged in dicey dealings here in Vermont. Far from it. Let’s talk Dean Foods, out of Dallas.

Dean Foods (”Created by Nature. Delivered by Dean”) is far and away one of the largest food and beverage companies in the nation, specializing in dairy and soy substitutes. They count Land O’ Lakes and Garelick and Silk among their top shelf brands.

And as will happen when corporations reach a certain size and heft, the corporation has lately been a lightening rod for accusations of anti-trust and anti-competitive practices. Last year, to take just one example, the Feds filed an anti-trust suit against Dean for allegedly buying up a smaller producer in Wisconsin, as a means to fix prices.

But our concerns are closer to home.

In 2009, a year before the Federal suit in Wisconsin, a group of farmers filed a suit against Dean, Dairy Farmers of America, and its marketing wing, Dairy Marketing Services. Their claim? That between them, Dean and DFS/DMS had coordinated to produce a drop in dairy prices, injuring a wide swath of Northeast dairy interests.

And now, lo and behold, Dean has settled with the plaintiffs. The problem? The settlement doesn’t pass the smell test.

Dean has agreed to pay $30 million into a fund to settle the class-action claims, which sounds substantial until you subtract $10 million for lawyer’s fees, substantial amounts to advertise and actively administer the settlement, “incentives” to various unspecified parties who keep the settlement chugging down the tracks, etc.

And then of course you divide the remainder of that once-seemingly-substantial settlement by 13,000 settlees. And deduct taxes. What’s left per farmer might buy a trip to the County Fair, if you didn’t stop at Mr. Sausage (which can up the tab considerably).

So the settlement is a particularly bad settlement, even judged against bad settlements. But it gets worse when you look into the details.

The settlement is also designed at least partially to remedy the anti-competitive practices at issue. So in addition to agreeing never to engage in the alleged practices again (which, of course, Dean settles without ever to admitting to practicing) Dean is required to purchase a substantial portion of their Northeast milk from different vendors. As the Free Press puts it, “The settlement also would require Dean to buy up to 60 million pounds of milk per month from sources other than DFA and DMS for a period of 30 months.”

Except that Dean is not so required. Not by a long shot.

No, according to the settlement language, Dean is required only to offer to buy 60 million pounds of milk per month from these other sources, and only at a price judged fair and reasonable solely by Dean Foods itself. If those selling that milk balk at a lowball offer, Dean is under no further obligation.

In other words, the fox agrees to raid the henhouse only to the extent that the fox deems right and fair.

Which leaves VDB with one simmering question: why in God’s name would any team of Washington-based lawyers sign on to such a settlement? Granted, a quick settlement is $10 million for the firm off the top. But they might have made twice that amount without too much trouble, conceivably, and secured a much tighter set of controls on Dean’s purchasing practices in the bargain.

So why didn’t they? And why didn’t the plaintiffs they represented scream to high heaven?

Some of the affected parties in the suit are beginning to make noise now, including DFA/DMS, but the question remains: why would the original injured parties and their counsel agree to what amounts to a slap on the wrist and a pretty-please promise not to sin again?

We intend to follow this story as it plays out, which is where you come in. Send us any information about this strangely mild settlement that you run across, and if you have any contacts in dairy circles who know their milk, loop us in.

Which is to say: Got milk intel?

January 19th, 2011

BREAKING NEWS: A Big Teary Goodbye to You, Yes You, Joseph Isadore Lieberman, You Rascally Son of A Liquor Store Owner

by Philip Baruth

All the sources close to Big Joe agree: he “will not seek” a fifth term as the senior politically-hermaphroditic Senator from Connecticut. Was Lieberman essentially forced out by an ugly and nearly unprecedented antipathy on the part of voters? Perish the thought. Other than being despised by Democrats and of no further use to Connecticut Republicans and Independents, and losing his eponymous party to anti-Lieberman forces, there wasn’t any real problem with re-election apparently. Not so you’d notice.

Notes Marshall Wittmann, longtime staffer: “He believes that if he were to run for re-election it’d be a tough fight. He’s confident he could’ve won that fight. He’s had tough fights before. But he wants to have a new chapter in his life.”

VDB expects this sort of pap from Wittmann, who has made a long, well-paid career of toadying for Lieberman. But we should also all prepare ourselves for the Deluge now: the flood of tributes in the mainstream press to Big Joe’s mavericky qualities, his moxy, his chutzpah, his moderate centrist sweetness and light.

For example, the NY Times teases its Lieberman retrospective with this little nugget: “Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut built a career following a moderate line that often angered the liberal wing of the Democratic party.”

At the risk of seeming both angry and liberal-wingish, we should point out that there is a good deal more wrong than right in this relatively short declarative sentence.

First, Lieberman did not follow any line, ever. To state that he did so is to demean lines in general.

Lines directly imply some consistency of trajectory. No, Big Joe wanted to be Vice President (which is to say President), and he, like John McCain, saw a zig-zag path to that objective, one that lay outside party, outside logic, and outside the bounds of integrity. And if the zig-zag wasn’t working at the moment, you could trust Lieberman to chuck it in favor of random dots.

Second, Joe was a moderate only in the Sean Hannity worldview. In truth, Joe Lieberman was an extreme hawk, saber-rattling and trash-talking to the detriment of US interests globally.

As regards the healthcare debate, which the Times would like to see as proof of Lieberman’s ability to split the difference between the major parties, again they ignore what was in actuality a remarkably extreme stance: extreme in that Lieberman, like Ben Nelson, openly flakked for insurance companies and made no secret of it. And no secret, by the way, that he was scotching the public option partially to serve Democrats who supported Ned Lamont in 2006.

Third, and last, it was not Big Joe’s purported moderation that angered the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. VDB has no problem whatsoever with genuine moderates. Take Dick Lugar. Supported START II. Recently called for a ban on assault weapons. Lugar is a moderate in the sense that his tendencies lead him toward the sensible. He’s susceptible to logic. We love us some Lugar.

No, it wasn’t Lieberman’s so-called moderation that angered VDB. It was his open mendacity. Joe Lieberman lied, with a bald face and out of both sides of the mouth on that face, as a matter of policy, in order to achieve his larger ends.

Case in point: telling Connecticut voters that he, Big Joe, could help elect a Democrat to the White House in 2008, in ways that Lamont could not. And of course, at that very moment, he and John McCain must have been deep into the planning stages for McCain’s own disastrous 2008 run, a run Leiberman would support with every flaccid fiber of his being, because he believed that John McCain was his last, best, doomed hope of success at the national level.

We should note that the Times article strikes a compassionate note, in the later grafs. It seems that Joe was hurt, way back in 2004, when Democrats summarily rejected his pro-War candidacy for President. Then, in 2006, when Connecticut voters rejected Joe at the primary level, he was further injured and embittered. And so, in the Times’s dewy view of the past, it’s the dirty hippies who brought down the pro-morality statesman Joseph Lieberman, who rendered him bitter and changeable and craven.

And that is a narrative we’ll probably have to live with, frankly, as there’s nothing the mainstream media loves more than its image of a noble centrism above and beyond the dirty realities of party politics. Joe, and his good friend John, learned this truth very early, and it served him well.

Would we have preferred to see Lieberman whipped soundly in a 2012 primary, in spite of one last attempt to slither up the pantleg of the Democratic electorate? Yes, of course. A thousand times yes.

But this feeling isn’t so bad either. Lieberman’s numbers were so abysmal that he, even he, Joseph Isadore Lieberman, knew better than to lunge again at the voters. Forget the Tea Party. Forget that Fox News leads the ratings by a country mile. Maybe we’re not getting stupider every day after all.

January 14th, 2011

In Which We Bid Farewell To This Soon To Be Fallen Hero, Michael Steele, Whose Bondage-Themed Term At The RNC Stole Our Hearts And Demanded Our Pity

by Philip Baruth

Who’d have thunk it? A national Republican Party, a Party with a wink and nod attitude toward casual racism, responds to the election of the first African-American President by selecting its own first African-American Chairman; then, driven mad by its own inner contradictions, this GOP proceeds to hobble its new Chairman by openly calling for a diversion of donations to funds newly created by white power brokers; finally, at the next opportunity, said Chairman is dismissed with complaints about his low fundraising totals.

Ah, Michael Steele. We hardly knew ye. Except, of course, we did. And your Party.

Not so different from the national GOP strategy on healthcare, actually. The sinuous drift of their narrative: somehow this spendthrift upstart (of dubious color and birth) snatched control of one-sixth of the US economy, and now we will defund him and Obamacare, until such time as its subsequent failure justifies his replacement.

For Steele, VDB has little sympathy. Live by the sword, die by the sword. He has traveled far by winking himself at his Party’s more embarrassing tendencies.

But we’re not without sympathy, still. Occasionally, in his bumbling, convoluted way, Steele managed to speak truth. Yes, he almost immediately retracted same, when called out by Talk Radio. But truth is truth, however limited in scope, and so we’ll miss Michael when he’s gone, and the merriment and bondage-themed news he dragged in his wake.

Hasta la vista, Michael.

January 12th, 2011

Mayor Bob Kiss Applauds Latest Drop In Burlington Credit Rating, Expresses Optimism That “Bottom Can’t Be Far Now”

by Philip Baruth

The Free Press is reporting that Moody’s has again downgraded Burlington’s credit rating, this time from A2 to A3. Of course the city’s overall rating isn’t the only financial blowback from the Burlington Telecom debacle: Burlington Electric’s rating is now lower than the city it powers, and the airport has been dropped over the last year to Ba1, junk status. All direct collateral damage.


Bob Kiss, left, and Jonathan Leopold, right

Not to mention the Burlington School District, which has had to contend with about a half a million dollars in lost revenue due to BT’s sharp reduction in payment in lieu of taxes. As a schoolboard member, that last stung most of all.

These once-embarrassing and now-frightening drops in credit rating have been methodical, as is Moody’s wont: down, down, down, one cold-blooded step at a time.

If pressed to assign an adjective to the trend here represented, VDB would suggest: “Alarming/Negative/Hair on Fire.”

But not Bob Kiss. No. The punch line of the Free Press article is this sweet bit from Kiss: “I feel the trend in Moody’s comments are positive in recognizing the strengths of the city.”

Wow.

Now, look, VDB understands spin and the political needs that underlie it. But denial of reality is, generally speaking, counter-productive. Which is to say that spin only works to the extent that the spinner’s mind can be perceived, itself, to be working.

Intervention time for Burlington Progressives. And that’s no joke.

January 11th, 2011

Lieberman Begins Coy Flirtation With Party He Will Dump If He Somehow, Against All That Is Good And Right, Wins Re-Election

by Philip Baruth

Don’t want to get you all worked up for nothing, but there’s a pretty damn exciting possibility out there suddenly: Joe Lieberman, the dynamic and straight-talking Independent (formerly of the Connecticut for Lieberman Party before it lost its ballot line) is hinting that he just may consider a run for re-election to his Senate seat in 2012 . . . wait for it . . . as a Democrat!

Sure, he’s being coy, as one might expect of a dynamic straight-talker, merely hinting that powerful Dems in DC are courting. And also hinting, very subtly, that he might well be “open to supporting” President Obama’s re-election at the very same time! Oh rapture!

Still, let’s be realistic: Obama’s going to have to work that vein pretty darn hard to turn it into Lieberman gold come 2012. An endorsement from Big Joe is never assured.

But once you’ve got that blessing going for you, put it like this: you don’t sweat the Romneys and the Huckabees. So, you know, cautious finger-crossing on our part here at VDB.

Now if only Harry Reid can avoid antagonizing Lieberman, and keep a flow of favors and dainty treats headed his way, we could well see him as a full-time member of our national Democratic caucus again, not to mention Chair of Homeland Security. Maybe even (let’s not jinx things) an out-of-the-box VP pick if Biden gets put on the Amtrak back to Delaware.

Ok, VDB has to go and lay down now for a little, out of joy.

January 9th, 2011

Right On Schedule: Out of Control Gun Worship And Second-Amendment Threats Take The Far Right Wing Over The Edge

by Philip Baruth

By now you’ve heard the news: Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot point blank, in the head, at a “Congress On Your Corner” event in Tucson. Whether she will live or die, no one knows yet. What we do know is that all of this is occurring more or less on schedule, early in the third year of a Democratic Presidency.

Go back to the first term of the Clinton Presidency, and you’ll see it all there too: a bitterly disappointed Right wing, led by its loudest talk radio mouths, drastically stepped up its violent rhetoric, its ominous references to the Second Amendment, and its practical advice on how to confront the Liberals who were taking away America.

And then, on April 17th, 1995, Timothy McVeigh put it all into practice.

In other words, give the Patriot movement or the Tea Party (or whatever you want to call the atavistic, gun-worshipping fringe of the Republican Party) about two years or so to soak in the violent imagery of their idols, and you can expect this sort of thing, like clockwork.

And of course, now we should expect a raft of articles and op-eds saying as much, followed, as night follows day, by an even stronger counter-wave of articles and op-eds denying any connection between guns and violence, anti-government calls to arms and actual use of same.

But just take a listen to this snippet from the 2009 debate between the then-hapless candidates for the Chair of the RNC. Each eager to outdo the other, in public display of gun fetishism, the scene was repeated at the more recent RNC Chair debate held a few weeks back. There the exchange was won by a high-haired woman from the West who claimed not just rifles, but assault weapons.


What makes this all the more wearying, and worrisome, is that suddenly I’m spending my days at the State House, where security is lax at best. Everyone mentions it, everyone then ties it to the Wonder that is Vermont, and we all go about our business.

But the fact is that one of the trucks in the lot has a bumper sticker very much like that pictured above, and every time I see it walking by, I wonder about it. And it never makes my breakfast, if I’ve had time for it on the way out of Burlington, sit any easier.

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