The Pup Tent that's a Poop Tent, Rethinking Taxation -- Corporate Scofflaws and the Chan Plan, Darth before Dishonor: Star Wars and the American Empire, Chevron Claims a New Identity, Local Activists Clobber Unocal, Enviros Sue Bush over Global Warming,..
May 26, 2005

The $329 PETT outdoor outhouse: A little touch of suburbia in the Great Outdoors.
The Pup Tent that's a Poop Tent
Ah, wilderness! The crisp scent of pine needles! The roar of raging rapids! The desperate cries of "What? I thought YOU brought the toilet paper!" Fret not, two-ply-challenged nature-lovers, in a development that would surely cause the shade of John Muir to blanch with incredulity, another "civilizing influence" is about to soften the wilderness experience -- the PETT Portable Environmental Toilet No longer will wandering hikers in need of bodily relief have to look for a convenient bush.

With the $329 briefcase-sized PETT package lashed to your backpack, you'll have everything you need: toilet paper, sanitizing hand napkins, and15 double-layered, puncture-resistant, EPA-rated, Made-in-the-USA biodegradable waste bags filled "with bioactive nontoxic powder that gels waste."

Each zip-lockable waste bag is good for up to six off-trail deposits and the rugged unfolding plastic toilet is rated for bearing bottoms that weigh up to 600 pounds (Hey, this is Supersize-Me America, right?) But wait, there's more! Since Joe Hiker might look a bit silly sitting on a white plastic potty in the midst of a redwood glen, this off-road commode comes with its own Portable Utility Pop-up (PUP) tent -- a private plastic outhouse for the outdoors.

And, if you want to linger inside, the tent features several bug-proof window screens for light and a built-in magazine rack. (One promotional photo shows a copy of Outside magazine waiting in the loo.) Of course, if you REALLY need to go, spending time trying to erect your Insta-Privy may be a luxury you can't afford. And no, The-Edge has no idea how you recycle those indestructible bags of jellified waste once you return to suburbia. [GS/Common Ground magazine]

Rethinking Taxation --
Corporate Scofflaws and the Chan Plan

In the afterglow of April 15th, it may be timely to consider adopting the Willy Sutton approach to tax-collection. As the wily bank-robber once observed: if you want to prosper in your chosen career, you have to go "where the money is."

In 2004, with California foundering in red ink, Governor Schwarzenegger squared his already rectilinear jaw and proclaimed: "Everyone has got to come out and help!" The Governor then proposed a $15-billion bank loan to buy some fiscal breathing room.

This "Debt before Dishonor" approach didn't appeal to State Assembly Majority Leader Wilma Chan (D-Oakland). She had a better idea.

Picking up Arnold's cry, "Everyone has to help," Chan and her Democratic colleagues fashioned "a fair and modest way to raise revenues" -- a bill to tax the wealthiest two percent of the state's residents. Under California's progressive tax rate, someone with a taxable income of $80,000 pays a 6.8% tax rate. Under the Chan Plan, Californians with more than $130,000 in taxable income would pay a 10 percent tax while folks with more than $520,000 taxable bucks would pay 11 percent.

Chan projected that this modest tax-the-very-rich scheme would generate "approximately $3 billion a year and would be in effect for five years," offsetting the State's $15-billion budget shortfall without incurring the whopping costs of bank-loan interest.

Critics snorted that no Republican governor would consent to such a plan, but Chan had a ready response: "The state has adopted this very solution before. During the fiscal crisis of the early 1990s, Governor Pete Wilson signed legislation to enact this same proposal." And Republican Governor Ronald Reagan signed not one but two top-bracket tax increases.

Unfortunately, the Chan Plan never got traction, as an epidemic of cold-feet swept through the Senate. But all is not lost. If we're not ready to tax the rich, maybe it's time to get tough on corporations.

In 2001, the California Budget Project discovered that 52 percent of the 519,000 corporations doing business in California (including 46 big-name, billion-dollar firms) paid only the token $800 franchise tax. Some paid no taxes at all while others received million-dollar refunds from the state.

Would you like know the names of these corporate tax-dodgers? Sorry, you're out of luck. By law, state officials are prohibited from revealing which corporations are tax-avoiders. But the resourceful sleuths at the California Budget Project managed to compile a short-list of these tax scofflaws. Among the more familiar names: Walt Disney, Fluor, Health Net, Hewlett-Packard, and Cypress Semiconductor. And then there's Computer Sciences, which made $1.29 million in profits in 2001, paid no taxes, and received a $31 million rebate check from Sacramento.

California isn't alone. A 2003 study by Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) found that between 2001 and 2003, 232 of America's largest corporations routinely under-reported their earnings to avoid paying state taxes. In 71 percent of the cases CTJ studied, these mega-corps managed to avoid state taxes entirely "despite telling their shareholders they made $86 billion in pre-tax US profits." The top California state-tax avoiders fingered by CTJ included Toys 'R' Us, AT&T, Boeing, Eli Lilly, Merrill Lynch and ITT Industries.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimated that, had these companies paid the average 6.8% corporate state tax, America's towns and cities would have had an additional $67 billion to lavish on fire-fighters, police, teachers and hospitals over the three-year period. Instead, in state after state, corporate taxes have steadily declined over the past 30 years.

Everybody who reads the business section knows that US banks and oil companies are having banner years. But where are the stories on how much of their record profits these corporations contribute to the upkeep of the Golden State? In tough financial times, there is no excuse for protecting the identities of corporate tax-scofflaws. There should be public disclosure on which corporations are paying their fair share and which ones are shirking their public duty. It's time for a full, public accounting.

A shorter version of this essay appeared in the May 13, 2005 edition of the Berkeley Daily Planet.

For a larger bumper-sized version, click HERE.
Darth Before Dishonor?
After "Revenge of the Sith" won the Festival Award at the Cannes Film Festival, Star Wars creator George Lucas warned that the US, was on the path to becoming a brutal Empire. Under the leadership of George W. Bush, Lucas said, America was demonstrating, once again, "how democracy turns itself into a dictatorship."

Some were offended by Lucas' remarks. As one American complained to the BBC's online comment line: "US Empire? Where would that be? France? Germany? Italy? Japan? South Korea? Vietnam? Kuwait? No, people in those countries are free to disagree with Uncle Sam, despite the one-time presence of the US military. Just like people in the US."

This prompted another writer to respond with a quote from former British MP Tony Benn: "The United States has 745 bases in 120 countries." Benn's point is driven home by Evan Augustine Peterson, III, the Executive Director of the American Center for International Law who writes:

"Unbeknownst to most Americans, the Department of Defense currently lists 725 official US military bases outside of the country, and another 969 inside the 50 states (not to mention numerous secret bases)."

And, like Darth Vader and the manipulative Chancellor Palpatine, George Bush and Dick Cheney have plans to build even more bases to create what Peterson describes as a "far-flung empire of 1,700 bases upon which the sun never sets!"

Chevron Claims a New Identity
It seems that Chevron has undergone a corporate self-reincarnation.
"There are a lot of words for what we do," Chevron's full-page ads proclaim. (Veterans of South Africa's anti-Apartheid struggle may be surprised to discover that one of these words is "Amandla," a word that refers to the power of community solidarity, not to the energy potential of a gallon of commercial fuel.)

"Our new look reflects what we've become," Chevron's publicity department explains: "a company dedicated to... harnessing our planet's most important resource: human energy." There's no arguing that "Harnessing human energy" isn’t a resonant corporate mantra. After all, harnessing human energy is what it took to raise the pyramids, mine the gold of the New World, harvest the wealth of the Caribbean's sugar plantations and turn sweat into gold in the cotton fields of Dixie.

On the other hand, it was the crime of "harnessing human energy" that recently proved a public relations disaster for another California oil giant. Several years ago, Burmese villagers sued UNOCAL for conspiring with Rangoon's military junta to force entire villages into slave labor to build the Yandana oil pipeline. (Accused of complicity in slavery, murder, and rape, UNOCAL recently elected to settle out of court. See "Local Rights Activists Clobber Unocal," Flotsam & Jetsam, The-Edge, Aug. 22, 2003.)

"There's only one word for who we are," Chevron's ads conclude. Some students of Big Oil's global history might be tempted to conclude that the word is: "Exploiters."

Local Rights Activists Clobber Unocal
"Great news -- we've taken down Unocal!" That was how Earth Rights International announced the end of an eight-year battle between the California-based oil giant and a coalition of environmental and social justice groups. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of numerous Burmese villagers forced to work as virtual slaves on the construction of the Yadana gas pipeline -- a joint project of Unocal and the military junta of the Republic of Myanmar (aka Burma). Business Week hailed the settlement as a "milestone for human rights" and the London Financial Times called it "the most significant [judgment] reached under the Alien Tort Claims Act."

"Milestones like this don't come along very often," ERI's Katie Redford observed. So, to honor the occasion, ERI hosted a party for the Bay Area groups that helped win this remarkable victory. The guest list included Rainforest Action Network, Earth Island Institute and Greenpeace. The celebration at SF's Bambuddha Lounge concluded with a rousing group toast to: "The End of Unocal." For more info, see:

Enviros Sue Bush over Global Warming
"Why doesn't someone sue George W. Bush for global warning?" As implausible as that premise sounds, someone actually has done just that. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FOE) and SF's Bluewater Network (newly merged with FOE) have linked legal arms with the cities of Oakland, Santa Monica, Arcata and Boulder, Colorado in an attempt to hold the Bush administration's Good Oil Boys accountable for pumping the atmosphere full of global-warming pollution.

The co-plaintiffs in this historic challenge include a coral reef biologist, a group of IBM retirees, and a Vermont sugar maple producer who's seen his syrup supplies sapped by climate change. The suit was filed in the SF US District Court on April 29 by the law firm of Shems Dunkiel Kassel & Saunders PLLC. Randy Hayes, Oakland's Director of Sustainability, hopes the lawsuit will "force the government to start taking responsibility for funding the dirty energy projects that cause global warming." Whether or not the suit succeeds, the emergence of this unprecedented eco-municipal coalition clearly foreshadows the emergence of a new political power bloc. For more info, see: [GS/Common Ground magazine]

The Man Behind Laura Bush's Comic Debut
I've grown a bit tired of the newscasters gushing about how funny Laura Bush was and how she "stole the show" at the White House Correspondents dinner. She got one of her biggest laughs when she revealed that her husband, whom she addressed as sardonically as "Mr. Excitement," was usually fast asleep at 9PM, leaving her to watch "Desperate Housewives" all alone.

This article from the International Herald Tribune identified the real talent hiding behind the Bush as veteran GOP joke-writer Landon Parvin (who also penned quips for Ronald Reagan and now scribbles jibes for Gov. Arnold Schwarzennerger). The IHT also quoted a family friend who confessed that Laura has never actually seen "Desperate Housewives." -- "the first lady... heard about the characters and plot from her twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, who are fans, and was planning to watch the entire first season on a DVD she has at home."

Well this wasn't the first time a Bush has been caught lying to the media.

And, as it wasn't even a case of Laura Bush deciding to distinguish herself on her own. As the IHT pointed out: "In Bush's case, her routine was her husband's idea."

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