Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Push Back From A Different Source

The current regime's demand for personal data involves not only US citizens, but also Europeans who wish to travel to the US on business or pleasure. Some Europeans have decided that is ludicrous, and the EU's highest court agrees. From the NY Times:

The European Union's highest court ruled Tuesday that the Union had overstepped its authority by agreeing to give the United States personal details about airline passengers on flights to America in an effort to fight terrorism.

The decision will force the two sides to renegotiate the deal at a time of heightened concerns about possible infringements of civil liberties by the Bush administration in its campaign against terrorism, and the extent to which European governments have cooperated.

...the European Parliament challenged the agreement in court on two points: The parliament was not consulted when the accord was reached, under intense pressure from the Bush administration, and it objected to the extent of personal data to be turned over — including names, addresses, phone numbers, itineraries and payment information, including credit card numbers.
[Emphasis added]

Watch Lists, as burdensome as they are, have been justified by the US regime on the basis of information that certain names are used by certain individuals under surveillance by intelligence agencies. On the other hand, the wholesale gathering of information on all Europeans flying to the US, including the credit card number used for payment to airlines for tickets, smacks of the broad governmental spying on Americans via the NSA tapping of citizens' phone calls and the turn-over of call-lists by the phone companies. In both cases, the US has offered no indication that such intrusions into the privacy of individuals have accomplished anything beyond the gathering of the information itself. In other words, there has been no justification, at least any that hasn't been conveniently classified by the Emperor.

Just as worrisome as the gathering of the information is the fact that the government doesn't exactly have a pristine history of protecting the information once it is gathered, as the recent news about the loss of millions of veteran's records attests. The Europeans have every right to be worried and are fully justified in pushing back against the program.

Apparently the Europeans aren't as 'terra-fied' as we in the US are.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Look What Playing Nice Got Us

Democrats essentially sat quietly by and allowed the confirmation of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. He replaced Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who was frequently the swing vote on important issues. It appears that Justice Alito will also play that role, but I think his vote in case pretty much lets us know which direction he will be swinging.

The Supreme Court scaled back protections for government workers who blow the whistle on official misconduct Tuesday, a 5-4 decision in which new Justice Samuel Alito cast the deciding vote.

In a victory for the Bush administration, justices said the 20 million public employees do not have free-speech protections for what they say as part of their jobs.

Critics predicted the impact of the case involving a Los Angeles County prosecutor would be sweeping, from silencing police officers who fear retribution for reporting department corruption, to subduing federal employees who want to reveal problems with government hurricane preparedness or terrorist-related security.

Exposing government misconduct is important, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. "We reject, however, the notion that the First Amendment shields from discipline the expressions employees make pursuant to their professional duties," Kennedy said.

...Kennedy said if the superiors thought the memo was inflammatory, they had the authority to punish him.

"Official communications have official consequences, creating a need for substantive consistency and clarity. Supervisors must ensure that their employees' official communications are accurate, demonstrate sound judgment, and promote the employer's mission," Kennedy wrote.

...Justice David H. Souter's lengthy dissent sounded like it might have been the majority opinion if moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was still on the court.

"Private and public interests in addressing official wrongdoing and threats to health and safety can outweigh the government's stake in the efficient implementation of policy," he wrote.

Souter was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Stephen Breyer also supported Ceballos but on different grounds.
[Emphasis added]

So, now whistleblowers can kiss job security good-bye. All a supervisor has to do is establish that an employee, by revealing wrongdoing or misconduct, is hampering the efficiency of the avowed policy, even if that policy is wrongful.

I have a hunch our worst fears about the two new justices are going to be borne out.

[Note: the full text of the opinion in Garcetti v Ceballos can be found here]

Back To Basics

The California Primary is next Tuesday. There is a hot Democratic race for Governor, the usual multiple ballot initiatives, and a special election in San Diego to replace Duke Cunningham for that district's House seat. In November, the entire country will go to the polls for the off-year elections, and it promises to be contentious. Voting is one of the key elements in a democracy. Even if less than half the eligible voters actually go to the polls, the right to vote is crucial.

A NY Times editorial comments on the chilling efforts by some to make the exercise of that right so onerous as to negate it.

In a country that spends so much time extolling the glories of democracy, it's amazing how many elected officials go out of their way to discourage voting. States are adopting rules that make it hard, and financially perilous, for nonpartisan groups to register new voters. They have adopted new rules for maintaining voter rolls that are likely to throw off many eligible voters, and they are imposing unnecessarily tough ID requirements.

Congress is considering a terrible voter ID requirement as part of the immigration reform bill. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, introduced an amendment to require all voters to present a federally mandated photo ID. Even people who have been voting for years would need to get a new ID to vote in 2008. Millions of people without drivers' licenses, including many elderly people and city residents, might fail to do so, and be ineligible to vote. The amendment has been blocked so far, but voting-rights advocates worry that it could reappear.

These three techniques — discouraging registration drives, purging eligible voters and imposing unreasonable ID requirements — keep showing up. Colorado recently imposed criminal penalties on volunteers who slip up in registration drives. Georgia, one of several states to adopt harsh new voter ID laws, had its law struck down by a federal court.

Protecting the integrity of voting is important, but many of these rules seem motivated by a partisan desire to suppress the vote, and particular kinds of voters, rather than to make sure that those who are entitled to vote — and only those who are entitled — do so. The right to vote is fundamental, and Congress and state legislatures should not pass laws that put an unnecessary burden on it. If they do, courts should strike them down.
[Emphasis added]

"[A] partisan desire to suppress the vote"? That sounds mighty unAmerican to me.

Monday, May 29, 2006

What Some In Iraq Are Suggesting...

...makes too much sense for this regime.

At last tally, the bombings in Iraq today, Memorial Day, leave at least 33 dead, including two men who worked for the American media. At the same time, more word is surfacing on the US military action in Haditha which suggests that US Marines gunned down civilians, many women and children, apparently in revenge for the death of a Marine by a road side bomb. Yet the Emperor and his minions continue to call for us to stay the course, continue to tout the election of a new Iraqi government, continue to claim that success is just around the corner.

But what about the Iraqis? More of them have been slain in this misbegotten venture, and it is, after all, their country. What do they want? An editorial written by Fatih Abdulsalam in Iraq's Azzaman is pretty clear about what would be a good start:

There is no shame in talking to the Iraqi resistance, and if the U.S. were doing so, it would be nothing to hide. But the reality is that the U.S. thinks it embarrassing to talk directly to resistance groups, so it therefore relies on third parties. Much has leaked out in regard to these indirect talks, but no one can state firmly whether or not such talks have actually occurred. There are rumors of letters having been exchanged, but upon closer inspection, it can be surmised that nothing of the sort has taken place, while all evidence does suggest that military operations have continued unabated.

...Some might say that talking directly to terrorists and Saddamists would undermine American authority and expose the truth that no face-saving formula remains to deal with the resistance. But what kind of face-saving could they be talking about? Almost everyone involved with the Iraqi turmoil has already lost face.

...But experience over the past three years shows that the United States has failed to rectify Iraq's political situation, and the government that it protects is too weak to govern and withstand resistance attacks.

The Iraqi government is losing to the resistance, and Washington cannot win this fight. Is it not logical, then, for the U.S. to take the initiative? I understand how complex the situation has become. But at the same time, it is my conviction dialogue is the only remaining option left to save this country.
[Emphasis added]

The current regime objects vociferously whenever anyone compares Iraq to Viet Nam, and for good reason. The same delusionary thinking then is being repeated now, and with the same results. This regime should be trying to discover ways to save the faces of those in Iraq, American or Iraqi, instead of saving face for those sitting comfortably behind desks in Washington, D.C.

The time for direct talks with the insurgents (notice how they are no longer labeled terrorists even by our press) has come. We should not have to face another Memorial Day with news like we've received today, and every day for months.

It's Not Over Yet

As a resident of Southern California, I generally think of the illegal immigration issue in terms of location. The three states bordering Mexico (California, Arizona, Texas) seem to have the most direct contact with immigrants from Latin America for obvious reasons: the immigrants have to pass through these states. However, I've been shortsighted because many immigrants (legal and illegal) move on to other parts of the country, like Minnesota, for example. The Minneapolis Star Tribune has an interesting editorial today on the issue because the issue affects that state.

Following a multipart series on the issue published in the paper, the editorial draws on some of the conclusions:

Who knew that an obscure town in southern Mexico has built a sister-city relationship, invisible and mostly illegal, with Minneapolis? Or that remittance payments from migrant workers have become an important channel of foreign aid, enabling poor Mexican villages to build hospitals and buy fire trucks? Or that roughly one-third of undocumented migrants have no desire to become U.S. citizens, but merely want to return home as soon as they've accumulated a stake of capital?

It's no coincidence that Legislative Auditor James Nobles, in an important contribution to Minnesotans' understanding of immigration, reached much the same conclusion in a report issued Thursday. Immigrants, he concluded, probably do threaten the wages of some American workers, especially those with low skills, but on balance they represent a net gain to the Minnesota economy. Migrant families, documented and undocumented, do place strains on local schools and hospitals, but over the long run they probably pay more in taxes than they consume in public services.

The issue is now in conference to try to reconcile the differences in the House Bill (which would build a wall, make felons out of the illegals and any who aid them, and would deport all twelve million or so) and the Senate Bill (which would build a wall, but which would set up an extremely complicated and formidable path to citizenship for the twelve million already here, most of whom will probably not qualify). Neither bill at this point seems to have any connection to the reality of the situation, and especially to the causes of the flow of migrant workers to this country:

In an integrated global economy, is it any wonder that ambitious people in poor countries would try to find their fortunes in richer societies, even if it means risking their lives, leaving their families -- and breaking the law? The challenge of immigration reform is not to seal off the flow, but to make sure that people can answer those economic imperatives in a fashion that is safe, fair and legal.

Until Congress recognizes this basic economic reality, and the economic reality that the nation's economy depends to a great extent on these migrant workers, no Immigration Reform bill of any merit will emerge. At this point, it doesn't look like this Congress is capable of the job.

This is just one more reason why the November elections are so very important.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Sunday Poetry

Well, another dreary week is over. I am reasonably certain that the news tomorrow will be no better than it was today, George Bush will still be Emperor in Chief, and his minions will still be in place, rifling through our drawers and our wallets. People will still be dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. The press will still be considering the sex lives of potential candidates and harumphing at former candidates. And on top of it all, tomorrow will be Memorial Day, a holiday that honors those who have died in war, many of them needlessly.

Still, giving up at this point is not an option, so here's one poet's take:

The Eclipse

I stood out in the open cold
To see the essence of the eclipse
Which was its perfect darkness.

I stood in the cold on the porch
And could not think of anything so perfect
As mans hope of light in the face of darkness.

Richard Eberhart

The Separation of Powers: Another Angle

After more than five years, folks are finally beginning to talk about how the current regime has thoroughly trashed the US Constitution. We progressives have been screaming about the wholesale slaughter of the Bill of Rights, and over the past week, even House Speaker Dennis Hastert has proclaimed outrage at the FBI's search of a sitting Representative's House office (scroll down one). Hastert complained about the breach of the separation of powers, with the Executive Branch trespassing on the Legislative Branch. Now a retired Supreme Court Justice has weighed in on the assault on the Judicial Branch on the part of the Legislative Branch. From yesterday's Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Most Americans revere this country's democracy, but few can tell you what makes it work. The answer, of course, lies in the U.S. Constitution -- whose authors crafted an ingenious blueprint to fulfill the promise of government by the people. The architecture they designed -- a governance system of three equal branches, each with special power to sustain American liberty -- is even now admired around the world.

Yet this three-pillared edifice seems to be developing a few cracks of late -- moving some observers to worry about its stability. One noteworthy worrier is former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who this week expressed her fears to a University of Minnesota audience.

O'Connor has no concerns about the integrity of the system itself, but about the posse of saboteurs who appear eager to destabilize it. Where do these ruffians come from? Mostly from lawmaking bodies -- both state and federal -- whose members feel strangely free to respond to judicial rulings they don't like with bullying banter and outright threats.

What's wrong with all this? Only everything. Democracy, after all, can't survive in the face of brazen disregard for its principles. One such principle is the balance of powers -- the constitutional requirement that each branch of government maintain its autonomy. If right-wing lawmakers succeed in packing the judicial branch with like-minded cronies and terrorize judges whose rulings they don't like, they'll have tipped the power balance dangerously.

Of course, those "right-wing lawmakers" have taken their lead from the Emperor who has made their job ever so much easier by nominating only those whose political and judicial philosophies match those of the regime, which is to say more than slightly to the right of Attila the Hun*.

It's the end of May. November is less than six months away. To quote a radical leftist who has reappeared in political discourse: "Had enough?"

I certainly hope so.


* Out of a sense of blog integritude, I have grudgingly used a less than apt figure for the metaphor.

Separation Of Powers Tiff

I've had a great deal of difficulty determining just what was really going on in the fight over the FBI raid of a Congressional office. Technically speaking, the FBI search was probably legal, done as it was with a search warrant (what a pleasant surprise!). Whether it was constitutionally proper is another matter insofar as it breached the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branch. Still, House Speaker Dennis Hastert's loud outrage at the search was somewhat puzzling.

The House office searched was that of Congressman William Jefferson, a Democrat from Louisiana. Was this just a cynical attempt to keep the news of a Democrat being investigated for corruption on the front page, thereby taking some of the heat off the Republicans? Was the House Speaker using the incident as a means of providing a show of force in the upcoming conference committee on immigration? Was it a way of distancing Republican House members from an unpopular president going into the November elections? Or was it a way to stop those kinds of searches because other members of the Republican caucus, including the Speaker, had something to hide?

Carl Hulse had an analysis piece in today's NY Times which suggests that Mr. Hastert's motives were actually a push-back at an administration which has been dissing Congress for quite a while.

Lawmakers and senior officials say Mr. Hastert's determined challenge to the Justice Department's court-authorized search of a Congressional office arose as much from frustration at missteps and slights by high-level administration officials as it did from outrage over what he saw as a gross violation of Congressional turf.

He and other Republicans were already upset at the Treasury Department for what they saw as the botched handling of the Dubai ports deal. And they held John D. Negroponte, the national intelligence director, responsible for what they considered the humiliating dismissal of Porter J. Goss, the popular former House member who was forced out as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

...Mr. Hastert got some unexpected help from an ABC News report — denied by the Justice Department — that he was part of the continuing inquiry into the activities of the former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges this year. While lawmakers might have been miffed at Mr. Hastert, they were up in arms over what they saw as a not-so-subtle attack on their leader and Mr. Bush's chief ally in Congress.

While Mr. Hulse makes a fairly strong case that the FBI search was just the last straw for Speaker Hastert, his article simply raises more questions, especially with respect to the implied threat issued by Justice by the leaking of information that the Speaker himself was among those under investigation in the Abramoff scandal. What is so ironic in this dust-up is that Dennis Hastert has been a faithful waterboy for the current regime. That he would find himself in the position of fighting the Emperor on behalf of a Democrat is delicious for those of a certain taste.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Bonus Critter Blogging: Pandamonium 4

All right, who let the tribble into the kitchen last night?

Us vs. Them

One of the things Americans are famous for is our unbridled arrogance. Yes, we should be proud of this nation. Well, we at least should be proud of this nation's ideals. That does not mean, however, that we should be ignorant of the vast interconnectedness of the modern world. No longer can a single nation, no matter how militarily powerful, act alone without repercussions. We depend on other nations to meet our energy needs. We depend on other nations to buy our debt. We depend on other nations to buy our agricultural products and to sell us their goods.

I suppose a good argument can be made that the rise of the multinational corporation and its takeover of governmental functions could be made right here, but I'm going to save that for another post on another day. Suffice it to say, the US and this regime in particular must recognize that it cannot continue to go off half-cocked whenever it chooses for whatever reason it chooses.

The Emperor and his minions refuse to acknowledge this imperative, as evidenced by its continued sabre-rattling in the general direction of Iran. As they did in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, they are currently using the United Nations to provide cover for the next military incursion. Only Great Britain stands with the US, albeit weakly, on its proposed stiff set of demands that Iran give up any claim to any kind of nuclear development. The other three members of Security Council, France, Russia, and China, continue to stand firm against the US plan, and they urge a solution that includes direct negotiation with Iran. And that serves the real politik of the current regime just fine. "Old Europe" and "Communists" can be dismissed from the dialogue and American citizens will just nod knowingly. Then the Emperor in Chief can send in the bombers.

That is not what the United Nations was and should be intended for. A rather pithy column written by Oliver Miles in the UK Guardian considers this whole issue.

The crisis over a nuclear Iran is precisely the sort of thing that the security council of the United Nations exists for - as the UN charter puts it, "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war". ...

Insofar as our policies are different, Russian and French policies seem to me, both on Iran and on other Middle East issues such as Iraq and Palestine, to be rather better balanced than American policy, which our present government is inclined to shadow. China has in the past successfully lain low on most of these questions, but is increasingly having to show its hand because of its rapidly growing involvement as an importer of Middle Eastern oil.

A dramatic example was the decision of "us two" to go to war in Iraq without waiting for another security council resolution, although both the British and American permanent representatives had expressly stated that we did not regard the earlier Resolution 1441 as a trigger for war ("no automaticity" in the jargon). Going to war, apart from being illegal, did great damage to the authority that the security council could bring to bear in future crises such as the one we now face over Iran.

The wrong way forward is for America, no doubt with our support, to grab the headlines as though it had some claim to be top nation. Inevitably whatever line is taken by America - the "Great Satan" as Iran impudently calls it - will produce a hostile reaction in Iran. The right way, which would help to restore UN authority as well as perhaps offering a way out of the present crisis, would be to find a joint position, which the security council powers could expound together.
[Emphasis added]

That would in fact be "the right way," but I fear that it is a way that the Emperor (who besides believing that he has a direct pipeline to God thinks of himself as Clint Eastwood in the "Dirty Harry" movies) has no patience for. The results this time could be even more disasterous than the fall-out from the Iraq invasion. Iran could shut down the production and shipment of Middle East oil, causing a world-wide scramble for other sources, such as Venezuela and Mexico, sources which the US has been cheerfully dissing of late.

I see a catastrophe up ahead, and I don't see any way to avoid it.

Rabid Badger Attacks Senate

Wisconsin's Congressman James Sensenbrenner has made it clear that the House has no intention of deferring to the Senate when it comes to the Immigration Bill, now in conference. From today's NY Times:

The leading House negotiator on immigration denounced on Friday the bipartisan legislation that passed the Senate this week, saying House Republicans would never support a bill that gives illegal immigrants a chance at American citizenship.

..."The president is not where the American people are at," Mr. Sensenbrenner said at a news conference. "The Senate is not where the American people are at."

"Amnesty is wrong because it rewards someone for illegal behavior," he said. "And I reject the spin that the senators have been putting on their proposal. It is amnesty."
[Emphasis added]

Mr. Sensenbrenner's claim to knowing the true wishes of the people of the nation rings hollow in the face of the numbers published by multiple polling organizations across the political spectrum. Those numbers indicate that the American public generally approve of a program that would allow immigrants currently here to remain, and to remain without the stain of a criminal charge for doing so. Mr. Sensenbrenner relies only on the number of phone calls from those whipped into a frenzy by a couple of anti-immigrant groups who appeal to the worst in the human soul.

The irony is that Mr. Sensenbrenner is splitting his own party on the issue, and he is doing so only months before the off-year elections. What a gift.


Friday, May 26, 2006

Friday Dog Blogging

Another morning I don't have the heart to make the bed.

Mining Disaster Tipping Point?

The latest mining disaster, this time in Kentucky, caused the deaths of five more miners. Once again, the mine in question was run by a company with a rap sheet, but it was still operating. Congress has finally decided to do something about the issue, according to an editorial in today's NY Times.

Another mine disaster is finally spurring Congress to pass long overdue repairs to the nation's threadbare safety laws. Mandates for such obvious necessities as extra oxygen supplies for trapped miners languished after an initial burst of concern over the disaster in January that killed 12 miners in Sago, W.Va. But the explosion last weekend in Kentucky that killed five miners has been followed by quick Senate approval of a bill ordering extra oxygen, more responsive rescue teams, and stronger underground barriers to seal off danger zones from workers.

The Republican leaders in the House, lagging behind the Senate, hurried to catch up. But the sad truth is that safety equipment and rescue procedures have been scandalously neglected for years under company-friendly regulations that have been laxly enforced by government agencies stocked with political appointees who have come from the coal industry.
[Emphasis added]

During the last six months there have also been mine accidents in Canada and Australia. Both incidents ended well, as miners in those countries had access to safe rooms and oxygen. Those men walked away. Thirty or so miners in this country did not fare so well. The Times article was correct in its assessment of the US problem. The voluntary compliance program (i.e., "the insane asylum was run by the inmates") hasn't worked so well, and the crony-packed MSHA hasn't seemed to care. The Senate, perhaps because it is an election year, has finally decided to do something about it.

Unfortunately, the House doesn't seem quite as concerned with saving lives. It is considering a different kind of bill:

The Senate bill only begins to repair the problem. But it is preferable to pro-industry proposals in the House to require drug testing for miners — as if the victims, not government and industry, were to blame for miners' highest death rate in 20 years.


Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Striking Lemon Yellow Pants Suit

Not much aggravates me more than press coverage of a woman elected official, business leader, scientist, etc., which makes it a point to comment on what the woman was wearing at any given moment. It is especially infuriating when a political columnist who has been around long enough to know better does it, as David Broder did in his Washington Post column.

For the better part of an hour, the senator from New York held forth in a disquisition on energy policy that was as overwhelming in its detail as it was ambitious in its reach.

But the buzz in the room was not about her speech -- or her striking appearance in a lemon-yellow pantsuit -- but about the lengthy analysis of the state of her marriage to Bill Clinton that was on the front page of that morning's New York Times.

If Senator Clinton's speech was "as overwhelming in its detail as it was ambitious in its reach," why didn't Mr. Broder spend some time in his column reporting what the speech contained? That isn't as newsworthy as her marriage to the former President?

At least Mr. Broder got one part of it right: the speech was a dandy and is deserving of a close examination. Fortunately, Hecate posted the full text of the speech on her blog.

Hecate, a lawyer who knows a thing or two about energy problems in this country, has done us all a big favor. Go over and read the text.

Do. It. Now.

Left Behind

What immigration reform is today, welfare reform was to 1995 and 1996: the big hot-button issue. Both sides of the political spectrum felt compelled to "fix" what ideologues to the right believed was the worst scandal in America and rushed to do so. Now, ten years after the welfare reform, states are beginning to realize that some Americans who had been on the welfare rolls for years were there for a reason. This editorial appeared a few days ago in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In 1999, three years into the nation's landmark experiment with welfare to work, Ramsey County authorities noticed that about one-quarter of their welfare recipients were simply not making headway in the job market, despite a stern message from the state and months of coaching from job counselors.

They walked across the hall to the county's mental health unit and asked if a couple of psychologists could interview some of these struggling adults. What the experts found was startling: A mix of mental illness and low IQ so incapacitating that some of the clients couldn't cook a meal for their children, write a grocery list or remember to change their clothes at night.

Ramsey County's findings weren't unique. Since Congress overhauled welfare in 1996, several studies have found that perhaps one-fourth of adults on cash assistance have crippling cognitive problems, physical disabilities or a combination of the two.

... In December Congress reauthorized the 1996 welfare law, setting the stage for phase two of welfare reform, and the federal government is in the process of writing tough new work targets that Washington will impose on states and individual welfare recipients.

The premise behind work targets is appealing: Just tell welfare recipients to go get a job. That was the thrust of the 1996 law, and for most welfare adults, it worked reasonably well. The number of families on cash assistance has fallen from 4 million to less than 2 million, the sharpest decline on record, and some 2 million poor, single mothers have found jobs.

But simple mandates didn't work -- and won't work -- for the sort of clients that Ramsey County discovered. If you don't have the mental capacity to read a bus schedule or remember your own address, you need more than a few mornings in job-search class.

This month dozens of Minnesota welfare officials, together with five members of the state's congressional delegation, sent letters to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, urging it to give states the flexibility to serve this heterogeneous caseload.

"What troubles me is that welfare reform got started because society was worried about long-term welfare recipients. But now that we've identified who they are, we haven't designed a welfare system that meets their needs," [ LaDonna Pavetti, a respected poverty scholar ] says.
[Emphasis added]

The editorial described a class of people who were left behind and hidden by the rhetoric of "welfare queens" and "intergenerational welfare recipients." Many of these people can, with an enormous amount of training and effort, be placed in sheltered workshop environments, but there will be some who cannot. What about them? Do we simply write them off?

The governor of Minnesota and other governors are urging the federal government to take this group into consideration when writing the new rules for the program. Hopefully some flexibility will be given to the states on the issue so that none of these Americans are left without assistance.

Unintended consequences are often the result of ill-considered actions. As I implied earlier, immigration reform and welfare reform have something in common.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

It Is To Laugh

After more than five years of letting the Emperor run the Congress as well as the White House, members of Congress are suddenly concerned about a breach in the separation of powers. The reason? The Justice Department authorized a full search of a sitting congressman's office on Capitol Hill. From an AP report printed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

The FBI's weekend search of the House office of a Louisiana Democrat under investigation for bribery may have overstepped constitutional boundaries, House leaders said as the congressman under investigation pledged to stay in office.

...House Speaker Dennis Hastert said the Justice Department had never before crossed a line that separates Congress from the executive branch by searching a congressional office while investigating a member of Congress.

..."Nothing I have learned in the last 48 hours leads me to believe that there was any necessity to change the precedent established over those 219 years," Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said in a statement Monday.

The FBI's intrusion into the sacred halls of Congress apparently ruffled a few feathers. I find it odd that after all the intrusion into American civil liberties done under the aegis of the Patriot Act, Congress finds this raid surprising. Many Americans have been complaining about just the same thing and have received no response from Congress beyond the usual: "Nine-Eleven! Nine-Eleven!"

The more cynical among us suspect there is more to the incident:

...House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the raid raises questions about why the Justice Department raided the offices of a Democrat but not Republican lawmakers under investigation. "It certainly has been disparate treatment," he said.

Even if true, the Democrats in Congress have, with few exceptions, certainly not done much to stop the steamrollering of unconstitutional power grabs by the Emperor. Why weren't their complaints made earlier, and more loudly?

After all the American people have had to put up with, it is rather difficult for us to be terribly sympathetic to this Congress. One is tempted to repeat what we have been told in defense of the NSA spying on domestic calls and the recent revelation of the whole sale release of telephone records: "What have you got to hide? Innocent people have nothing to fear."

Instead, however, perhaps we can use this incident as a "teaching moment." Maybe Congress is finally ready to get it.


This might explain some of Speaker Hastert's angst as expressed above:

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, is under investigation by the FBI, which is seeking to determine his role in an ongoing public corruption probe into members of Congress, ABC News has learned from high level government sources.

Federal officials say the information implicating Hastert was developed from convicted lobbyists who are now cooperating with the government.

Please excuse my giggles.

(Thanks to Atrios for the information.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Finally...But Weakly

It took the Washington Post more than twenty-four hours to respond to the latest outrageous pronouncement from Attorney Generalissimo Alberto Gonzales, and then it did so only weakly. The editorial in today's edition seemed content to point to the regime's inappropriate reliance on a World War I vintage anti-espionage law without clearly setting forth the reasons why such reliance will in effect deprive the American public of one of the most important tools of democracy: the truth.

ATTORNEY General Alberto R. Gonzales, asked this weekend whether he believes he can prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, made a statement that should chill the bones of every American who values a vigorous press: "It depends on the circumstances." Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Mr. Gonzales explained, "There are some statutes on the book which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility. That's a policy judgment by the Congress in passing that kind of legislation. We have an obligation to enforce those laws." But presenting the administration's radical new strategy as mere deference to Congress is profoundly dishonest.

The administration is seeking to convert a moribund World War I-era espionage law into an American version of Britain's Official Secrets Act. Mr. Gonzales is correct that the law, which bans the transmission of national defense information to anyone not cleared to receive it, would -- if read literally -- make criminals out of journalists who publish such material. For that matter, it would also permit the jailing of whistle-blowers, academics who write about leaked information, members of Congress who disclose secrets and, theoretically, even readers of newspapers who discuss the stories. Precisely because of the law's unthinkable scope, the First Amendment has long been understood to limit its application. Government has gone after officials who promise to protect the nation's secrets and then fail to do so -- but generally not against citizens who receive those secrets.

Criminalizing such disclosures would be antithetical to the American tradition. Yet the administration has set about doing it without even asking Congress....And as the attorney general's comments make clear, it is considering prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs. It is a dangerous road.

Once again, one of the premier newspapers in the country fails to clearly enunciate the difference between espionage and whistle blowing, between leaking for political gain and revealing the illegal and unconstitutional behavior of the government. In the past two years we have seen plenty of examples of both sides of this coin, so you'd think the press would finally get it.

Still, as weak as these tentative first steps were, it at least is a beginning.

Monday, May 22, 2006

When the Bottom Line Is More Important Than Lives

The NY Times had one of the most horrifying articles I've read in a long time. It's a summary of a report prepared in connection with an independent study of what went wrong with the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Many, many people died because the Federal Government and the Army Corps of Engineers built those levees on the cheap.

Most of the major breaches in the New Orleans levee system during Hurricane Katrina were caused by flaws in design, construction and maintenance — and parts of the system could still be dangerous even after the current round of repairs by the Army Corps of Engineers, according to a long-awaited independent report to be published Monday.

"People didn't die because the storm was bigger than the system could handle, and people didn't die because the levees were overtopped," said Raymond B. Seed, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and the chief author of the report, in a weekend briefing for reporters here. "People died because mistakes were made," he said, "and because safety was exchanged for efficiency and reduced cost."

But the message, delivered in some 500 pages, is blistering: The design and construction of the New Orleans hurricane protection system, a project spanning more than 40 years that remains incomplete, was inadequate to protect hundreds of thousands of people in an urban setting.

Dozens of factors contributed to the disaster, the authors state, including political decisions that caused the corps to squeeze miles of floodwalls on too-narrow levees along the city's drainage canals, with sheet piles, the interlocking sheets of steel that anchor the levees, driven to a depth too shallow to block water or the shifting of the mucky New Orleans soil.

All of the factors, they concluded, add up to a culture of inattention that put safety lower on the scale than cost.

The Berkeley study finds fault across the complex web of public and private organizations that should have kept New Orleans safe, from Congress to local levee boards.

As badly as the current regime performed immediately before, during, and after the hurricane, and it most certainly did perform badly, the problems with the levees can be blamed on forty years of mismanagement and inappropriate priorities. The real horror may still lie ahead, as the article points out:

But, they warned, the parts of the system with sheet piles that were too short before the storm and which are built on weak soil are still very much at risk in a future storm.Under similar circumstances in another storm, Professor Seed said, "It may still be a very dangerous system."

How shameful is that? Especially since hurricane season is upon us.

Perhaps Congress might take a few minutes away from their awesome debates on flag burning, official languages, and gay marriage bans to consider a top-to- bottom examination of the Army Corps of Engineers and some serious emergency funding to try to stave off another horrific tragedy.

Doing Business With The Government

Being a government contractor turns out to be a pretty sweet deal. Northrup Grumman is a pretty good example of that, according to an editorial in today's Washington Post.

...Why, then, should Northrop Grumman be getting hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government to pay for cost overruns on Navy ships as a result of damages from Hurricane Katrina? Answer: It shouldn't.

The money for Northrop Grumman is contained in the bloated, $109 billion Senate version of an emergency spending measure to pay for costs of the war in Iraq and Katrina. The contractor says it needs the money -- the amount isn't specified in the legislation, but Northrop estimates between $140 million and $200 million -- to help it cover extra costs as a result of massive damages to its shipyards from Katrina. "Unprecedented events require unprecedented actions," Philip A. Teel, who heads the company's ship operations, said at a news conference this month.

Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican and, perhaps more to the point, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, argues that the federal government will end up paying either way: Higher ship prices would be passed on to the government -- an additional $300 million to $600 million, Northrop Grumman warns. "You can pay me now or pay me later," Mr. Cochran said during the Senate debate. "I guess that is the way to say it." If so, perhaps this episode reflects a bigger problem with the way the military pays defense contractors.
[Emphasis added]

Let's be clear about this: Northrop Grumman wants the extra money even though at least some of it is probably going to be covered by insurance. The company just wants the money now, and it wants to the government to pay it.

I'm sure lots of smaller businesses along the Gulf Coast would like the same deal. Unfortunately, most of them don't do business with the federal government, so they can't raise the specter of blackmail that Northrop-Grumman so brazenly did. "Pay me now or pay me later", indeed!

Corporate welfare: it's the new black.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Twenty-Four Years

Hecate, one of my favorite on-line people, suggested that it was important to nourish our souls, especially during these times. She recommended poetry.

She's right of course. Those of us liberal wonks who get caught up in outrage after outrage from the current evil empire risk getting burned out just when our active participation is needed most. Art can save us from that burn out, and it can give us the necessary perspective from which to act.

So, in honor of Hecate and to soothe my soul, I offer one of my favorite poems from Dylan Thomas.

Twenty-four years remind the tears of my eyes.
(Bury the dead for fear that they walk to the grave in labour.)
In the groin of the natural doorway I crouched like a tailor
Sewing a shroud for a journey
By the light of the meat-eating sun.
Dressed to die, the sensual strut begun,
With my red veins full of money,
In the final direction of the elementary town
I advance as long as forever is.


Who Could Have Foreseen?

One of the most disasterous (and dangerous) aspects of the current US regime's foreign policy is that no one ever thinks ahead. Nobody ever considers the possible consequences of any move, and no one ever checks with our allies (real or paid-for) to see what they think. Then, when things turn out badly, as they inevitably do, officials get all wide-eyed and proclaim, "Why, who could have imagined...?" Who could have imagined that the Iraqis would be less than thrilled with an invasion and occupation? Who could have foreseen that the failure to put pressure on Israel to engage in meaningful peace talks with the Palestinians would have resulted in an Hamas victory in Palestine? Who could have predicted that after years of bullying and neglect nations in South American would shift to the left and elect populist anti-American leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales who threaten and carry out such policies as nationalization of natural gas fields?

And now it is clear that the Emperor is setting us up for another excellent adventure, this time in Iran. Nobody, especially nations in that area, wants the current Iranian government to have nuclear bombs, but a military response to the crisis is not the answer to the problem. Even our friends in the Middle East know what the consequences of a US attack will be. Qatar's Al Sharq suggests a very likely scenario.

America's foolishness threatens to lead the region not only toward more disaster, but toward the disaster of all disasters.

We firmly believe that Iranian success in developing a nuclear bomb would represent a grave and imminent danger, equally to Arabs and Israel, as well as to American and global interests. While Israel believes itself the primary target of a potential Iranian bomb, the reality is that it will not be the only target, because in like manner, the Arab Gulf countries are also possible targets.

Iran is obsessed with dreams of restoring its previous empire, and American foolishness has facilitated for Teheran the two most important steps in this direction:

1) It has transformed Iraq, a country which had been a knife at the throat of the Iranian leadership's dreams, into an Iranian sphere of influence, and;

2) It has given impetus to Teheran's efforts to develop a nuclear bomb, which had been kept in check by Iraqi deterrence.

Washington appears to be considering two options, even the sweetest of which is extremely bitter. Either it will direct air and missile strikes at Iran's nuclear reactors in what resembles localized surgery, or it will sweep Iran away militarily and topple its Islamic government. Both of these options holds perils.

The first option would add momentum to ideological movements [read: Islamic anti-Government movements] in countries throughout the region, and Iran would triumph by acting as a champion of demands for equality and citizenship. This would also hasten an Iranian military response, which would target oil wells, refineries, and pipelines, especially in the Strait of Hormuz.

Washington's choice to launch air strikes would encourage Iran to take such actions, because air strikes would represent U.S. admission that it is incapable of invading and occupying Iran and overthrowing its government.
[Emphasis added]

And this is from a country with whom the US has such a cozy relationship that we have military bases there. Is anybody at State listening?

By launching an attack of any kind on Iran, the US will be giving Iran exactly what it wants: justification for a nuclear arsenal for defense purposes. It will also prove what radical groups in the Islamic world have been saying for years: the US is at war with Islam, and current Middle Eastern governments are allowing this.

And the current US regime still has visions of rose petals and candy. In this case, blowback and karma are the same damned thing.

Manufactured Crises

First it was Social Security: doomed to insolvency by the Baby Boomer retirements, this bed rock social safety net had to be overhauled into private accounts. The Emperor made it the central domestic issue of his first term. Fortunately, the American public and wise people in the Congress saw through the boondoggle and refused to throw slabs of money at Wall Street mavens. Yes, funding Social Security does need to be re-examined, but better ways to insure the continuity of the program exist than dismantling it.

Now it's immigration: we are being over-run by the illegals who come to this country only to suck up welfare monies and devastate our county emergency rooms. Tom "Nuke Mecca" Tancredo of Colorado promised over a year ago to make immigration reform the main issue of the 2006 and 2008 elections, and he has succeeded in putting the issue squarely in front of the American people and Congress. Tancredo and Rep. "Tex" Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin pushed a bill through the House of Representatives that 'solved' the immigration problem by funding a wall for the entire length of our southern border and by declaring all illegal immigrants and any people who assist them in any way to be felons.

A slightly more reasonable bill is being hammered out in the Senate, but the racist, xenophobic fear mongers continue to attack anything less than the House bill provisions. The NY Times published an editorial today which suggests some guidelines for the Senate bill.

A good immigration bill must honor the nation's values and be sensible enough to work. It must not violate the hopes of deserving people who want to work toward citizenship. It must not create a servant class of "guest workers" shackled to their employers and forbidden to aspire to permanent legal status. It must give newcomers equal treatment under the law and respect their rights of due process. It must impose rigorous enforcement of labor laws, so unscrupulous employers cannot exploit illegal workers. And it must clear the existing backlogs of millions seeking to enter the country legally, so that illegal immigrants do not win an unfair place in line.

The Senate is the only hope for real reform this year because the House has already chosen its plan. It wants to wall off Mexico, turn 11 million or so illegal immigrants into an Ohio-size nation of felons, and then pick them off through arrests, deportation and an atmosphere of focused hostility until they all go home, abandoning their families and jobs.

That spirit of wishful hunkering has infected the Senate, where Democrats and moderate Republicans have had to struggle against the obstinacy of those who join their counterparts in the House in seeing immigration entirely as a pest-control problem.

An immigration solution cannot be focused only on the border. We've tried that. Border enforcement has swelled in the last 20 years, with no visible effect. Mr. Bush's plan to send National Guard troops was seen on both sides, rightly, as a ploy to placate the xenophobes.

The value of illegal immigrants to many employers is their fearful willingness to work for low pay in bad conditions. People who are secure in their status will stand up against abuses, leading to better treatment for all. Workplace enforcement is one tactic. Employers who risk real punishment will be less likely to flout the rules. But guest worker programs without the citizenship option are also an invitation to worker abuse, and a shameful abdication of America's values.

Like the whole Social Security kerfuffle, immigration reform is coming out of a manufactured crisis. The problem with crises, real or imagined, is that responses to them are always ill-considered and overly dramatic (vide the Patriot Act). And in this situation, the responses usually spring directly from the worst parts of our national psyche, racism.

Progressives in the Senate should quit trying to 'placate' those who insist on draconian measures to ensure American purity. We don't need another bad law this year. If rational immigration policies can't be had this term, then give Mr. Tancredo what he wants: a campaign issue. I think the American people will surprise the gentleman from Colorado.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Bonus Critter Blogging: Pandamonium 3

Just love me.

Blog Watchers

Once the mainstream media discovered that blogging was becoming an exceedingly popular and noisy phenomenon, two things began to happen. One was the sudden emergence of blogs written by journalists and posted on their employers' web sites. The other was the development of columns devoted to reading and parsing the various "big-time" blogs of non-journalists. Most of the time, journo-blogs are nothing but columns that could and would have been printed if certain linguistic elements were cleaned up. And most of the time the blog reviews are nothing but not-too-subtle digs at amateurs who audaciously question the status quo of the culture and the media.

Most of the time, but not all of the time. Tim O'brien of the Minneapolis Star Tribune is a pleasantly surprising exception to the rule. His column "The Blog House" in today's STrib does a good job at surveying the conservative blog response to the Emperor's immigration speech and then ends the column with a section that could very well have been written by a blogger.

Last month, we took a look at the time of day that Michael Brodkorb of Minnesota Democrats Exposed was posting to his blog. For the month of March, the former research director for the Minnesota Republican Party -- who claims his blog "is not created, endorsed, sponsored, or authorized by any political party, candidate, or candidate's committee" -- posted 31 times on weekends, 47 times between 5 p.m. and 9 a.m., and 167 times between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Mondays through Friday, generally considered work hours. The tally for April was 71 posts during the workday, 35 after hours.

His employer -- Weber Johnson PA, a public relations firm that has represented the Minnesota Republican Party, Sen. Norm Coleman, Rep. John Kline and Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- apparently doesn't mind an employee spending a big chunk of his workday posting and launching attacks against candidates and political parties opposing former (and current?) clients of the firm. It's almost as if it were part of his job description.

Oh, my!

Nicely done, Mr. O'brien.

Same Old Same Old

You know things are messy when the Washington Post, a reliable administration water carrier, finds a Bush nominee's behavior unacceptable. Yet that seems to be the case in one of today's editorials which deals with General Michael Hayden and his nomination to head the CIA.

AT THE SENATE intelligence committee hearing Thursday on Gen. Michael V. Hayden's nomination to head the CIA, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked the nominee a simple question: Is "waterboarding" an acceptable interrogation technique? Gen. Hayden responded: "Let me defer that to closed session, and I would be happy to discuss it in some detail." That was the wrong answer. The right one would have been simple: No. Last year Congress banned cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment of detainees; one of its explicit aims was to stop the CIA's use of waterboarding, which induces an excruciating sensation of drowning and is considered by most human rights organizations to constitute torture. So why couldn't Gen. Hayden say clearly that the technique is now off-limits? [Emphasis added]

Why General Hayden thinks his answer is not fit for public consumption is puzzling until one remembers just what kind of government we now have. The public no longer has any right to know just exactly what is going on in the White House or any administration office. It only upsets the common folk when they learn they are being spied upon without warrants by a Pentagon agency which was originally designed to capture foreign intelligence for use in military situations. That's why General Hayden's response was as it was, which was "Madame, let's not go there."

The editorialist goes on to reference the Emperor's "signing statement" that accompanied the Congressional bill banning torture. This law is one of many that Bush has indicated he will violate as he chooses.

It appears that the Washington Post has finally found something that won't pass the smell test.

It's about time.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Friday Cat Blogging

"Tom-Cattin' is hard's hard."

What Brazilians Think

Brazil, one of the South American countries that continues to align with the US on trade issues, is apparently none too thrilled with the immigration uproar in this country. An editorial in O Globo sums up what this whole mess looks like to the outside world, particularly Latin America.

It's no surprise that President George W. Bush has drifted off course on the question of immigration. That's what happens when officials look to solve complex problems by thinking of their own survival rather than the people's interests. Faced with a divided Congress, under the weight of public opinion that demands serious action, and cornered by gigantic demonstration by immigrants that feel threatened, Bush is in search of common ground. And in his effort to please everyone, he is making Democrats, religious voters and the Latin American electorate unhappy.

On one hand, he recommends tighter policing of the borders; on the other, he proposes a law that offers illegal foreigners - numbering around 12 million - the possibility of citizenship. And he reacts to critics by affirming that the two measures are complementary and not mutually exclusive: "The United States can at the same time be a society governed by law and a society of open arms."

Another solution is to grant a three-year stay to those that go the USA to perform jobs that the Americans don't want. These temporary workers would be prohibited from gaining citizenship and would have to return to their countries.

A plan already approved by the House of Representatives is for the construction of a high-tech fence on the southern border, and to make illegal immigration a crime. The Senate already agrees with the fence, but insists on giving immigrants the possibility of citizenship.

Not even the governors of the southern states agree with the presidential decision to send 6,000 National Guard soldiers to reinforce security on the Mexican border. Wouldn't they be put to better use in Iraq?

Across the country immigrants in a variety of situations resent these proposals, which they consider prejudicial, and millions have already taken to the streets in protest. Their leaders are used to summing up their arguments in two questions. Were those that piloted planes into the World Trade Center "illegals?" And whom did the Americans turn to for rebuilding?
[Emphasis added]

In one short editorial, the writer has clearly articulated the two dynamics at work in this country. The first is election year politics and the possibility of a hamstrung chief executive for the last two years of his reign. The second is the implied hypocrisy of the American political leadership which has used fear and racism in this issue as well as others, and now is reaping the harvest of such divisive politics.

So much for our moral leadership in the world, eh?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Fences and Good Neighbors

The United States Senate has pretty much decided that building a wall along our border with Mexico is a good idea. There is a lot about building such a wall that disturbs me, but the reason given to justify such an edifice cuts deeply into my soul. An article in yesterday's NY Times nicely sets forth that reason:

The Senate fence measure was embodied in an amendment offered by Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, who borrowed from the poet Robert Frost. "Good fences make good neighbors," he said. "Fences don't make bad neighbors."

Obviously Mr. Sessions has never bothered to read the poem his comment is meant to reference. If he had, he would have discovered that the poet held the exact opposite opinion about walls.The full text of the poem "Mending Wall" is available here. The pertinent section is the last part of the poem.

"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down!" I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

On the Other Side of the Fence

I can't help thinking that the Emperor's announcement on Monday that he would favor using the National Guard to patrol the Mexican border was nothing more than a slab of red meat thrown in the direction of those in Congress who don't want any immigration, legal or otherwise, coming from Latin America. Mr. Bush wants a Guest Worker program because big business has made it clear it needs the cheap labor, so an immigration bill has to pass. If placating the Tancredos and Sensenbrenners is neccessary for that, then the Emperor will satisfy them by militarizing the border.

Our neighbors to the south, however, are clearly not happy with that step, as noted in a recent article in the NY Times

Putting National Guard troops on the border, some political analysts said, was just the latest in a long series of moves by the Bush administration to underscore how dramatically different the United States and Mexico see illegal immigration.

The deployment, Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue said, sends a message that Mr. Bush has bowed to pressure from the most conservative leaders in the Republican Party to make border policy without regard for Mexico's interests.

It also sends a message, other political analysts said, that the United States views immigrants as a military threat.

"We are not stupid," Jorge Montaño, a former ambassador to the United States, said. "The United States did not send the National Guard to Iraq for logistical purposes. This is a de facto militarization of the border and an unprecedented insult in relations between the two countries."
[Emphasis added]

Once again the current regime has put its collective foot in it by not considering the repercussions of any particular move. For one thing, Mexico is in the midst of an election campaign. The candidate for President from Mr. Fox's party had a slight lead prior to the Bush announcement, but it was anticipated that the lead would grow. Mr. Fox is considered an ally of the Bush administration, and this move is viewed as a slap in the face of Mr. Fox as well as the entire nation of Mexico.

The opposition candidate, viewed as a populist, has just been handed a golden issue. In other words, our regime may very well be tilting the Mexican election toward a candidate who just might turn out to be another Evo Morales.

Hello? We import a lot of oil from Mexico. Is no one in the regime paying any attention?

I guess not.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

What a Difference an Even-Numbered Year Makes

Midnight, May 15 was the absolute and final cut-off date for signing up for Medicare Part D, the prescription drug programs for seniors. The Emperor and his minions in the Congress made it clear that there would be no extensions. Late entrants would just have to pay the penalty fees. It didn't matter that the program was complicated and confusing, nor that the introduction of the program was rife with errors and confusion. A deadline is a deadline. Or, as we see now, a deadline is sort of a deadline. From the NY Times:

A powerful bipartisan group of senators announced on Tuesday that they would push legislation to eliminate the financial penalty for people who sign up late for Medicare's prescription drug benefit.

...Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, chairman of the Finance Committee, and Senator Max Baucus of Montana, the senior Democrat on the panel, initiated the effort to waive the penalty, which amounts to a permanent increase of 7 percent on all future premiums — about $2.50 a month next year.

...Mr. Baucus said, "It's time to cut seniors a little slack." He asserted that the Bush administration had made the program "needlessly complicated" by allowing too many drug plans.

..."It's a policy decision for Congress," said Michael O. Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services. Without seeing final enrollment numbers, Mr. Leavitt said, "it's difficult for anyone to make a clear policy judgment."

Ah, but it's not quite so difficult in some years:

But Republicans running for re-election had no such difficulty. Senators Mike DeWine of Ohio, Jon Kyl of Arizona, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine were co-sponsors of the Senate bill. [Emphasis added]

How cynical is that?

The fact is that while the plan has had some successes, many of those "successes" will be short lived as seniors with medical conditions requiring extensive and expensive medications hit the uninsurable "doughnut hole" where there is no coverage. Many more seniors will find either that they chose the wrong plan, one which does not cover the medications they are currently taking or which will be prescribed after the plan was selected, or that the plan they chose has inexplicably decided to stop including a particular needed drug in the coverage.

The bill, primarily written by Pharma, is a lousy one for seniors, yet the Republican controlled Congress is not interested in re-visiting the bill itself, even if it is an election year. Senators and Representatives instead have preferred a symbolic but generally empty gesture.

They ought to be ashamed. And de-elected.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Do The Math

As I pointed out yesterday (scroll down to "Tautological..."), the current regime claims that the NSA domestic spying program based on call records from the telephone companies is legal because the current regime says it's legal. Even assuming such a claim is accurate, there still remains the question of whether the program is effective. An op-ed piece in today's NY Times suggests that the program as described is not when it comes to the Global War on Terror.

NEWS that AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth gave customer records to the National Security Agency has set off a heated debate over the intricacies of espionage law. But legal or not, this sort of spying program probably isn't worth infringing our civil liberties for — because it's very unlikely that the type of information one can glean from it will help us win the war on terrorism.

If the program is along the lines described by USA Today — with the security agency receiving complete lists of who called whom from each of the phone companies — the object is probably to collect data and draw a chart, with dots or "nodes" representing individuals and lines between nodes if one person has called another.

...But without additional data, its reach is limited: as any mathematician will admit, even when you know everyone in the graph is a terrorist, it doesn't directly portray information about the order or hierarchy of the cell. Social network researchers look instead for graph features like "centrality": they try to identify nodes that are connected to a lot of other nodes, like spokes around the hub of a bicycle wheel.

...A second problem with the spy agency's apparent methodology lies in the way terrorist groups operate and what scientists call the "strength of weak ties." As the military scientist Robert Spulak has described it to me, you might not see your college roommate for 10 years, but if he were to call you up and ask to stay in your apartment, you'd let him. This is the principle under which sleeper cells operate: there is no communication for years. Thus for the most dangerous threats, the links between nodes that the agency is looking for simply might not exist.
[Emphasis added]

So much for the efficacy of the program, at least if it is intended as a tool in the arsenal of terrorism prevention.

But what if even the NSA has figured this out and has had it figured it out all along? Why continue the program? There are probably a list of answers suggested by the article, but three come immediately to mind.

First, the collection of such data suggests that the regime is actually doing something to protect us. The program is evidence that there are people actively engaged in trying to root out the terrorists among us. Looking busy is at least something, according to this answer.

Second, the existence of such a program tests just how much the American public will put up with before turning the rascals out. In other words, the regime does it just to see if it can. This answer suggests the third.

Third, and perhaps most chilling, the program was never really intended to be about the Global War on Terrorism, but rather about building a huge data base on Americans that will strip away even the most minimal of privacy rights. The government will know everything there is to know about its citizens and will use that information to control them.

Hopefully this Congress will finally get the message and push back fast and hard against the Emperor and his minions. If it doesn't, the next one better.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Tautological Explanations

"Because we say it's legal, " is the usual response to questions about the current regime's malfeasance, no matter what the subject. Most recently the subject has been the governmental spying on Americans by demanding (and, for the most part, getting) a list of all the phone calls made by Americans, whether international or purely domestic. The NY Times has the story.

The adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, the assistant to the president for national security affairs, declined to confirm the details of a telephone surveillance program operated by the N.S.A. that was publicly disclosed on Thursday in an article in USA Today. But Mr. Hadley said that surveillance efforts had been "narrowly designed" and pointed out that the USA Today article had emphasized in its description of the program that it did not involve listening to individual calls.

..."There has been no meaningful Congressional oversight of these programs," said Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr. Specter has said he will hold hearings soon with representatives from the telephone companies that turned over millions of telephone records to the N.S.A.

He said he wanted to question the phone company executives before the committee because, unlike the Bush administration, "they cannot claim executive privilege" and refuse to answer questions.

Without more details about the program, Mr. Specter said, "we do not know whether it is constitutional or not."

Narrowly designed? When the data involves millions of phone records? When that data was obtained without an easily obtainable warrant showing probable cause that a crime was or was about to be committed? If the program was so narrow, why did all of the phone records of all Americans have to be obtained?

And if the Congress had been properly briefed, why is Republican Senator Specter admitting that he doesn't know enough details to determine whether the program is constitutional or not? Because the regime says it is hardly qualifies as an answer. Asking telephone companies why they gave up the material so readily will not provide that answer, but at least the subject will remain in front of Americans, many of whom remain unconvinced that this regime is ripping away all of our civil liberties.

I suppose that is at least a start.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Naming of Parts

The weather today was glorious: it was warm, and the sun poked through the marine layer earlier than I expected. It was enough to drive me outside to putter around the yard, cutting back a few bushes that threaten tree-dom, raking up some of the winter storm detritus that my gardner just never seems to get around to.

And then I came indoors and watched a little news, none of it particularly hopeful. It seems that war, the literal kind in Afghanistan and Iraq, soon perhaps Iran, as well as the metaphorical type in the GWOT and Patriot Act and the over-all dismantling of our Constitution, has come to define just about every waking moment, even on beautiful days such as today.

I was able to shrug off the sense of doom of by recalling a poem I first heard when I was in college more than forty years ago. It was written during World War II by Henry Reed.


To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.

The Wonders We Have Wrought

I found an extraordinary article posted on the on-line version of Iraq's Azzaman. It is dated May 11, 2006. I am posting it in its entirety because it points out just what we have done to another nation without any provocation.

The Iraqi Apocalypse'

By Salman al-Tikriti

We are advised to stop blaming the former ruler Saddam Hussein, whose deeds and insane crimes exceeded those perpetrated by all of the world's criminals and despots put together.

We are also advised not to use the former president as a rack upon which to hang all of the evil and wrongdoing taking place in our society today.

I am neither a Sunni nor a Shiite. I am not a supporter of any sect or denomination. I am merely a Muslim Iraqi. I love peace and ideologies that respect human beings.

Like many other Iraqis, because of the former ruler's oppression and terror, I had to leave the country.

We left for good and had no wish to return on the back of a tank or with the protection of the world's only superpower's military prowess.

There is no logic to getting rid of tyranny through cooperation with a foreigner who later turns into an invader.

I am not naive. The naive Iraqis are those who were misled into believing that foreign troops would end tyranny. Little did they know that these foreigners would occupy the country and wreak havoc, as is the case now.

Our former dictator had vowed that he would rather see Iraq burn down than surrender it to a foreign power. Some say the tyrant's prophecy didn't materialize, as the country still retained some of the means of survival before the invaders came.

But the dictator didn't mean he would burn the country himself. He said that the country would implode once foreign troops arrived, because their target was not merely to have him or his tyranny removed.

Our country is burning now, and the atrocities of the former leader, one way or another, are being replicated perhaps on a larger scale. Our tragedy seems to have no end.

People are being butchered every day and every hour. Gripped by fear and sorrow, many Iraqis have become walking shadows.

Amid such scenes of horror and death, there are people who now shamelessly have the stamina to contest one another for power, competing for the control of ministries.

What A Candidate Should Sound Like

Coleen Rowley, the now-retired FBI agent who testified before Congress about her memos (largely ignored) to her superiors before 9/11, is now a candidate for Congress in Minnesota. She penned an op-ed piece for the Minneapolis Star Tribune which shows the proper way for Democratic candidates to handle the security issue in the upcoming elections.

The notion that "9/11 changed everything" and that this new "war on terror" requires a radical departure from established criminal justice principles has been percolating for some time behind closed doors within the administration.

...Despite some egregious mistakes, official bungling, prosecutorial improprieties, and legal irregularities -- e.g., Moussaoui not being allowed to call all witnesses, namely certain Al-Qaida operatives held under U.S. control, to testify in his favor -- the case proved our regular adversarial-jury trial system works.

...The mistakes that occurred in the Moussaoui case, however, do not support the proposition that we cannot use our criminal courts and their procedural and constitutional rights to combat terrorism. Instead, the Moussaoui trial proves we can.

This is a huge issue, because if you fall into thinking that we cannot combat terrorism using our criminal justice system and all the rights and protections it affords, you open the door to all the extraconstitutional -- or more bluntly, illegal -- methods currently in vogue: the use of renditions, black sites and torture; lack of due process; and warrantless NSA monitoring on American soil. Enormous problems loom once we decide it's OK as a blanket measure to go around the constitutional rules and down this slippery slope.

...As one senator observed during the torture debate, "It's not about who they are. It's about who we are as Americans."

We are a nation of laws. We value transparency, accountability and, above all, justice. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, who presided over the Moussaoui trial, recently said, "Justice is not necessarily what the outcome is but how it was achieved."

Everything, despite what some contend, has not in fact changed since 9/11, and it would be tragic to compromise our ideals during these historic times.
[Emphasis added]

Just so, Ms. Rowley.

Thank you for spelling out exactly what the citizens of this country need to remember, and thank you for providing a model for Democratic candidates, both incumbent and challengers, to use when explaining just where this nation has gone wrong.

If you agree, mosey on over to Ms. Rowley's campaign web site and show your appreciation with a contribution.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Bonus Critter Blogging: Pandamonium 2

I don't want to sound picky, but shouldn't the playpen be a little larger?

Another Missed Opportunity...

...and missed intentionally.

Secretary of State Sponsored Terrorism Rice dismissed the recent letter from Iran President Ahmadinejad as being irrelevant and making no offers for negotiation. The fact that this rather odd missive (the full text of which is available here and which is certainly worth reading) is the first communication from the Irani government to the US government since President Carter's administration is significant, yet it was simply shrugged off as a "ploy" by the Iranians to fracture the UN Security Council on the issue of sanctions.

The fact that it may very well have been such a ploy doesn't change the importance of the of this direct communication. This long shut door opened slightly, and if the current regime had any sophistication at all, it would have used that narrow opening to defuse the current situation by responding in a more positive fashion. That would have put Mr. Ahmadinejad in the position of having to continue the dialogue, whether he wanted to or not. Instead, the bullies in the White House slammed the door shut, much to the discomfort of the rest of the world. Even the cautiously worded editorial in Germany's Frankfurter Rundshau points out one of the consequences of dismissing the Iranian letter so cavalierly.

And so the diplomacy to overcome what threatens to be a dangerous deadlock over a Security Council resolution against Iran begins. Up to now, the U.S. provided the mental direction for the discussions: if Washington's approach can be called a coherent strategy at all, it has as its goal to bring Teheran to its knees with sanctions. The Bush Administration argues that the heavier the pressure, the sooner Iran will give in and give up its contentious enrichment of uranium. Thus, the White House is pushing the Security Council to issue a strong resolution under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter and to, at least at some point in the future, apply sanctions against Iran.

...History teaches us that tough sanctions, rather than weakening regimes domestically, tend to strengthen them, as in the case of Fidel Castro. Iran is the forth largest oil exporter. As a neighbor of Iraq, it has tremendous influence on Baghdad's Shiite leadership and the current situation in that country. Above all, however, the nuclear program mobilizes Persian national pride across all of Iran's political groups. If tough-minded confrontation is applied here, it could quickly strengthen the wrong people. No one understands that better than Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad.

The Iranian President plays on that escalation of tension. Without the struggle over nuclear energy, domestic political issues would be the topic of discussion. This is why he executes such wild leaps on the other end of the tight-rope. One can read into his letter to George W. Bush anything one wants: it could be a cryptic offer for negotiation, a tactical deception, a demonstration of strength, or an alarming insight into the thinking of a man who sees himself as an instrument of prophecy.
[Emphasis added]

The US, by its actions are doing exactly what the Iranian rulers want: unifying the Iranian people under their current leadership. And, unfortunately, the Iranian leadership is doing exactly what this country's rulers want, an excuse to go to war yet again. What we are left with are two parties just itching for a fight, and there will be no winners in such a conflict (as there will be none in Iraq).

For those who actually believe that the US simply wants sanctions imposed, I would remind them just what Chapter VII of the UN Charter involves:

Essentially, a Chapter VII resolution would permit what the United States calls serious consequences, ie: sanctions and/or military action, if Iran fails to comply with Council demands. [Emphasis added]

We've been down this road before.

Another "Well, Duh!" Moment

The continuing high gasoline prices are beginning to take a toll on the 'average' American's budget, and the NY Times has an article which explores just what that toll involves.

The increase in gas prices comes at a time when many Americans of modest means are already finding themselves squeezed by increased insurance costs, wages that have not kept pace with inflation, and the rising pressure of adjustable rate mortgages. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 63 percent of respondents had cut back on their driving because of the gas price increase, and 56 percent had cut back on other household spending. Nearly half said they expected to change their summer vacation plans as a result.

For Ms. Lopez, driving to and from work used to cost $30 a week; now it costs $80. With an annual income of $32,000, that means nearly 13 percent of her income goes for gas, instead of about 5 percent, as in the past.

Many workers with long commutes are trying to come up with alternatives. Dean Mitchell, 37, who works with Ms. Cordovez at the Doubletree, got rid of his car, but he lives close enough to walk to work and otherwise takes the bus now. "I want to get an alternative-fuel car," he said. "I'm not interested in paying for gas anymore."

"I don't want to fund the Arabs," he added. "I want to spend my money on ethanol."
[Emphasis added]

The article lists the various ways these Americans are trying to offset the high gas expenditures: everything from cutting out trips to the movies to buying lesser cuts of meat are described. It seems to me that this is just the first round of adjustments that Americans are going to have to make, especially since no one believes that the price of a gallon of gasoline is ever going to decline to pre-2004 levels. Americans are going to have to cut much deeper than dispensing with the weekly manicure once the price of fuel starts having an impact on other consumer needs such as food and clothing.

Switching to public transportation instead of driving is an option, but it also has some drawbacks. Commute times for those with access to trains, subways, and busses will double and treble until the 40-hour work week becomes a 50- or even 60-hour work week. And those modes of transportation have to be available and accessible. Are local MTAs even capable of extending service and adding units to handle the increase? Will local and state governments have the funds to provide the extensions?

The disheartening thing about the article is the comment made by Mr. Mitchell, that he doesn't want to "fund the Arabs." It implies that somehow the current gas prices are their fault, not the fault of Americans who have had a long love-affair with the automobile, preferrably the huge gas guzzlers, and who have continued to elect public officials who haven't had the foresight or the spine to confront the issue via increased mileage standards and the funding of research into and the development of alternative energy sources.

Until the American public wakes up to the new reality and insists that something be done both in the short term and the long term, the nation will have to go through a lot of hurt.

It's time.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Friday Critter Blogging

"You flash that light thingie again and we're both gonna rip your freakin' face off!"

Oh, Them Whacked Out Obscenity Spewing Lefty Bloggers!

All we do is whinge and complain in terms unfit for even the basest of company. Our venom is primarily directed to those who would save America from the Islamofascist Jihadist Jesus-Hating Brown People, but it can be diverted at a moment's notice to smother with vile vituperation any pure soul who attempts to educate us in the proper decorum required for civil discourse.

At least that's the meme currently in vogue.

Then there's JurassicPork, a liberal political blog that ties theory to reality. Can JP be shrill? Oh, yes, and quite colorfully. But it is a blog with heart, as this post attests so brilliantly.

Let’s review a day in the life of 71 year-old Lee Sevilla and her little dog Sandy.

Every morning at seven, she wakes up and walks her dog. Then she goes to the bathroom to groom herself. If it’s a work day for the 71 year-old, she goes to work. If not, she’ll drive to Playa and take in a million dollar ocean view. Later, she’ll go to the local library and dabble on her laptop and make prints to order for $60 apiece. At night, she walks Sandy again before retiring for the night.

Sounds idyllic, no? If that fails to tug at your heart strings, then some context is called for. Now let’s play tug-o-war with those heart strings:

Substitute the expected bed with a driver-side bucket seat of a Dodge Neon. You heard me right. She’s been living in one car or another since the Clinton administration, eight years ago this Christmas Day, to be more exact, which was the day the son who’d been putting her up had committed suicide.

Go to JurassicPork and read the entire post. Read it all, including the update on what you can do about this. All JP wants is for a bunch of us to give up two half caf lattes a month and put the coins saved into a paypal account (assuming Ms. Sevilla will permit it) and/or to order some of her prints.

Do. It. Now.

And fuck the conventional wisdom about lefty bloggers.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Keeping Busy

After 9/11 and the serious shake-up in federal portfolios, the FBI lost a lot of turf, primarily in its anti-terrorism efforts. In some respects, that loss of turf enabled the Bureau to concentrate on other things it is peculiarly suited for. That's the good news. The bad news is what the FBI found, as noted in today's NY Times.

A post-9/11 effort by the F.B.I. to concentrate on public corruption now includes more than 2,000 investigations under way, highlighted by the Jack Abramoff lobbying inquiry, the racketeering and fraud conviction of former Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, and the multipronged corruption probes after the guilty plea by Randy Cunningham, a former Republican House member from San Diego, bureau officials said.

...The results suggest that wrongdoing by public officials at all levels of government is deeply rooted and widespread. Several of the highest profile cases in which the F.B.I. played an active role involve Republicans.
[Emphasis added]

Now, I had the sense that the most egregious corruption was found at the federal level and involved primarily Republicans. The Times article, however, made it a point to disabuse me of that misconception ("Fair and Balanced," don't you know). First of all, the FBI has found this kind of disgusting abuse of the public trust at all levels of government, including the local. Second, it turns out that at least some Democrats are just as capable of corruption as their colleagues across the aisle. Fine. Nail the backsides of all the miscreants that can be found, regardless of party affiliation.

The question now is what can we do to stop this kind corruption?

Well, to begin with, we could insist that Congress and its counterparts at the state and local level do some real ethics reform. The recent House bill isn't even a start. In fact, it is ethics reform without any ethics reform. Make the penalties certain and draconian. Until more than a couple of really obvious bribery cases are investigated and prosecuted, until the promise of hard jail time and the loss of all access to Congress is a promise rather than a vague threat with no real teeth, corruption is not going to be slowed much less rooted out.

Then we could revisit just how we elect our representatives. Candidates at the federal level have to raise millions of dollars to get elected and stay elected. It is no wonder that they make friends with the wealthiest and most dogged of contributors. Take away that incentive by public financing and the access of the Abramoffs of the world suddenly becomes a much more difficult passage.

In the mean time, keep the bloodhounds at the FBI baying and snapping.