Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sunday Poetry: A New Rebirth...Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I Am Waiting

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
Of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the second coming
And I am waiting
For a religious revival
To sweep thru the state of Arizona
And I am waiting
For the grapes of wrath to stored
And I am waiting
For them to prove
That God is really American
And I am waiting
To see God on television
Piped into church altars
If they can find
The right channel
To tune it in on
And I am waiting
for the last supper to be served again
and a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth
without taxes
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
and I am waiting
for a way to be devised
to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody
and I am waiting
for linnets and planets to fall like rain
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers
to lie down together again
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the great divide to be crossed
and I anxiously waiting
For the secret of eternal life to be discovered
By an obscure practitioner
and I am waiting
for the storms of life
to be over
and I am waiting to set sail for happiness
and I am waiting
for a reconstructed Mayflower
to reach America
with its picture story and TV rights
sold in advance to the natives
and I am waiting
for the lost music to sound again
in the Lost Continent
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the day
that maketh all things clear
and I am waiting for retribution
for what America did to Tom Sawyer
and I am waiting
for the American Boy
to take off Beauty's clothes
and get on top of her
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
and I am waiting for Aphrodite
to grow live arms
at a final disarmament conference
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting
to get some intimations
of immortality
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeting lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other at last
and embrace
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder

Lawrence Ferlinghetti


Ringing Out the Old

It's been a tumultuous year on so many levels. Ruth has already started celebrating the coming of the New Year, primarily because of what happened in November of the old year, and with good reason. The overwhelming victory of Democrats in that election means that we can hope for some real oversight over the White House for the next two years. The 110th Congress will still have its hands full, given what has happened in the last six years.

Just in terms of 2006, however, there was an enormous amount of damage done, a great deal of it unreported by the American press. Foreign Policy has a listing of ten stories that were pretty much ignored or under-reported.

You saw the stories that dominated the headlines in 2006: the war in Iraq, North Korea’s nuclear tests, and the U.S. midterm elections. But what about the news that remained under the radar? From the Bush administration’s post-Katrina power grab to a growing arms race in Latin America to the new hackable passports, FP delivers the Top Ten Stories You Missed in 2006.

All ten stories are important ones, so it's pretty hard to explain why they didn't receive much coverage. OK, maybe not so hard. Still, all ten stories are worth exploring, so I would urge you to trot over to Foreign Policy for a look-see. The one that grabbed me the most was listed as number 3 on the list:

When U.S. President George W. Bush signed the $532 billion federal defense spending bill in October, there were the usual budgetary turf battles on Capitol Hill. But largely overlooked was a revision of a nearly 200-year-old law to restrict the president’s power during major crises. In December, Congressional Quarterly examined the changes, saying that the new law “takes the cuffs off” federal restraint during emergencies. Rather than limiting the circumstances under which a president may deploy troops to “any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy,” the 2006 revision expands them to include “natural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or incident.” In other words, it’s now easier for the federal government to send in troops without a governor’s invitation. [Emphasis added]

The ostensible reason/excuse for this revision of the long standing posse comitatus law was to streamline federal response to natural catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina. If that were in fact true, however, why bury it in a defense spending bill? No, this provision is just one more facet of the imperial presidency promulgated by the current administration. Fortunately at least one Democrat in the 109th Congress noticed it.

Critics have called the changes an opening for martial law. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, one of the few to raise the issue in congress, says that “Using the military for law enforcement goes against one of the founding tenets of our democracy.” Is martial law more likely than before? Perhaps not. But the fact that the revisions were slipped into a defense bill without a national debate gives ammunition to those who argue the administration is still trampling on civil liberties five years after 9/11. [Emphasis added]

Like I said earlier: the 110th Congress has its work cut out for it. Our job, as citizens, is to make sure that it does its job.

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I Love It

Happy New Year

The most significant event: Democrats control the Congress.


First Lady Betty Ford

The press has concentrated on a few phrases in reporting on and eulogizing Gerald Ford, whose death this past week marked a new period of mourning. He was "the right man at the right time," the one who ended "the long national nightmare" of the Nixon disgrace. In the long run, however, I think it was Betty Ford, the First Lady, who left a more lasting impact on the country. For that reason, I was happy to see an article in today's NY Times paying tribute to Mrs. Ford.

Her candor about her battle with breast cancer, which led to unprecedented awareness among American women about detecting the disease, and her later commitment to alcohol and substance abuse treatment, stemming from her own abuse history, set the stage for widespread acknowledgment and advocacy that is commonplace today.

Her role was defined in part less than two months into Mr. Ford’s presidency, when she discovered that she had breast cancer and then discussed her mastectomy openly in hopes of giving other women the tools to detect the disease early and treat it courageously. According to a 1987 article in The Journal of the National Archives, Mrs. Ford received 55,800 cards, or “92 cubic feet of material,” in response to her openness.

The next year, Mrs. Ford took it upon herself to champion the Equal Rights Amendment. She personally phoned legislators, held a slide show in the White House for staff members and gave speeches across the country about women’s rights.

She talked about her support of abortion rights and mulled the idea that her children might have smoked marijuana.

Perhaps most infamously, she told Morley Safer in a “60 Minutes” interview that she would provide “counsel” to her daughter, Susan, then 18, if Susan were involved in a sexual relationship, or, in Mr. Safer’s words, “having an affair.”
[Emphasis added]

This was in the mid '70s, over thirty years ago, and these topics were simply not discussed in polite company, much less by the wife of a president. My mother told me that she is convinced that Mrs. Ford saved thousands of women's lives by her courageous open discussion of her own breast cancer. Women suddenly started doing breast exams and pestering their doctors for further information.

Her later candor about her drug and alcohol addiction and her work with the Betty Ford Clinic for rehabilitation from those diseases also saved lives and gave hope not only to those suffering from the addiction, but also to their families.

Her support for the ERA and for abortion rights, coming as it did from a woman with genuine GOP bona fides, stunned many conservatives, but in doing so also paved the way for women to have more of a say in their own lives.

Betty Ford is back in the spotlight, a place she eschewed after leaving the White House, and it is for the saddest of reasons. Yet, she is showing the same grace and the same firmness that she did thirty years ago. In her own way, Mrs. Ford is a national treasure, one that we are fortunate to honor even if it is during the time of her own personal grief.

It also gives us a chance to thank her for her extraordinary service.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Bonus Critter Blogging: The Giraffe

A Mother Giraffe’s Baby-Kiss!

This is your mother’s kiss, my child!
Don’t you worry: things will be fine;
Just eat and sleep and play awhile.

You’ve had your birth on lovely earth;
You’ll take your time to grow up tall;
Soon you’ll become a long-necked beast!

Wait till your legs get strength to stand;
Wait till your bones can make you walk;
Wait till your mouth reaches tree-leaves!

And when you’re tall as your mother,
And children look at you in awe,
You will feel truly, very great!

This is your mother’s kiss of love;
This is your mother’s kiss of pride;
For when you match her neck and stride,
You must bend low too, from above!

Dr John Celes

Just One More Death

I awoke this morning to the news that Saddam Hussein's execution had indeed been carried out last night. The man who was responsible for thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of his own citizens' deaths had been "brought to justice." Even discounting the excessive propaganda issued by the White House, it was clear that Saddam was not a very nice man. Whether he deserved the ultimate penalty for his heinous actions is another debate. Suffice it to say that I am opposed to the death penalty under any circumstances, but that stance is not really relevant right now. What is relevant is that his is just one more death amongst the hundreds of thousands of deaths since the US invaded that country, and, like all of those other deaths, it really won't make a difference.

An article in today's NY Times suggests just how meaningless Saddam's death is, given the current situation in Iraq and in Washington.

The capture of Saddam Hussein three years ago was a jubilant moment for the White House, hailed by President Bush in a televised address from the Cabinet Room. The execution of Mr. Hussein, though, seemed hardly to inspire the same sentiment.

After Mr. Hussein was arrested Dec. 13, 2003, he gradually faded from view, save for his courtroom outbursts and writings from prison. The growing chaos and violence in Iraq has steadily overshadowed the torturous rule of Mr. Hussein, who for more than two decades held a unique place in the politics and psyche of the United States, a symbol of the manifestation of evil in the Middle East.

Now, what could have been a triumphal bookend to the American invasion of Iraq has instead been dampened by the grim reality of conditions on the ground there. Mr. Hussein’s hanging means that the ousted leader has been held accountable for his misdeeds, fulfilling the American war aim most cited by the White House after Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction proved nonexistent.

Even this White House realized that Saddam's death was (to use a term Mr. Bush used in terms of the war itself) just a comma. The civil war waging in Baghdad and the rest of the country causes on average a hundred Iraqi deaths a day. As of 7:00AM PST this morning, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, 2,997 American troops have been killed, and at this point, that figure may now have reached 3,000. Neither set of figures takes into account the thousands maimed both physically and mentally since the war started.

And things aren't getting any better in Iraq. In fact, they appear to be getting worse. The addition of 20,000 or 30,000 or 40,000 more US troops isn't going to change that. If anything, all the "surge" will accomplish is provide more targets for snipers, IEDs, and mortar shells. We have already lost, a fact that the current president either does not or will not accept.

It's time to pull out, long past time. That our leaving may increase the fighting amongst the Iraqis is hard to imagine, but if it does, at least the Iraqi security forces, such as they are, would be fighting for their own country instead of for the illegal occupation forces and their demented leader.

Two-thirds of the American public made their desire to end our involvement in Iraq quite clear this past November. Now, the 110th Congress needs to ratify those feelings when the next war funding bill (rumored to be near the $100 billion mark) comes before it. It should authorize enough to bring our troops home as safely and as expeditiously as possible, and not one red cent more.

We've had enough death. More than enough.


Got Ice?

From a paper on the threat of global warming, written by an environmentalist some years back, I found this literally numbing description of the prospect;

A big enough rise of global temperatures would eventually melt the world's glaciers, and indeed a retreat of mountain glaciers since the 19th century was apparent in some regions. That would release enough water to raise the sea level a bit. Worse, beginning in the 1960s, several glacier experts warned that part of the Antarctic ice sheet seemed unstable. If the huge mass slid into the ocean, the rise of sea level would wreak great harm, perhaps within the next century or two. While that seemed unlikely (although not impossible), by the 1980s scientists realized that global warming would probably raise sea level enough to damage populous coastal regions.

There is some truth that is stranger than fiction, and more threatening than scientific predictions. One of them occurred yesterday.

A giant ice shelf has snapped free from an island south of the North Pole, scientists said Thursday, citing climate change as a "major" reason for the event. The Ayles Ice Shelf — all 41 square miles of it — broke clear 16 months ago from the coast of Ellesmere Island, about 500 miles south of the North Pole in the Canadian Arctic.
Derek Mueller, a polar researcher with Vincent's team, said the ice shelves get weaker and weaker as temperatures rise. He visited Ellesmere Island in 2002 and noticed that another ice shelf had cracked in half.

"We're losing our ice shelves and this a feature of the landscape that is in danger of disappearing altogether from Canada," Mueller said.

What are the polar bears going to do now? It seems that our wasting the planet's resources has brought about the grim prospect that we may have wiped many more species off the earth. Time to get out the rotary mower and turn down the thermostat. No, well past time.

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Imagine, Fiscal Responsibility

Just for bemusement, ask yourself, if you didn’t have a budget, you’d be pretty reckless, wouldn’t you. If you ran a family without a budget, hopefully a budget that paid for everything that family needed, you’d be completely irrational. Now look at your country. What would it be without a budget? Irrational? Right. Just like the 109th Congress, that out of what appears to be total irresponsibility continued its newfound tradition of extending spending authority without actually putting together a national budget.

In its last hours of GOP control, Congress passed a raft of bills big and small, most significantly a sweeping bill reviving expired tax breaks, extending trade benefits for developing countries and protecting doctors from a big cut in Medicare payments.
The Senate cleared the bill for President Bush's signature early Saturday by a 79-9 vote. Final adjournment followed after the House and Senate cleared away a bevy of other legislation, including bills reauthorizing health research programs at the National Institutes of Health and an overhaul of fisheries management.

Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, gaveled the House to a close for the last time about 3:15 a.m.; the Senate limped to a close about 4:40 a.m.

But Republicans dumped an unfinished budget on the Democrats about to take power, with the Senate barely meeting a midnight deadline to pass a stopgap spending bill putting the government on autopilot until February 15.

The failure to pass budget bills for domestic agencies, said Rep. David Obey, D-Wisconsin, amounted to "a blatant admission of abject failure by the most useless Congress in modern times
*********************************************** remained unfinished on nine of 11 spending bills, requiring the stopgap funding bill to put 13 Cabinet departments on autopilot through February 15 frozen at or slightly below current levels.."

It will take the Democratic Congress quite a while to put the GOP’s scrambled Humpty Dumpty back together again. This isn’t going to be a matter of distress to the same clowns who took weeks to hold hearings about a Constitutional amendment against gay marriage. It’s only the responsible and public spirited sort that give a fig about leaving the federal government to shuffle along without its supervision or fiscally sound legislation. Fortunately one of them is taking over the helm of the House Finance Committee – Barney Frank. As he wrote in Business Week in February;

". . .Inequality is not a bad thing in a free market economy; indeed, it’s essential if we’re to benefit from the incentives and efficiencies that make the market so effective a producer of wealth. But left entirely to its own devices, the free market will produce more inequality than is necessary for efficiency or a healthy society.

That’s especially true in an economy marked by globalization, the increased use of information technology, and the rapid flow of capital across borders. Alan Greenspan said as much when he told Congress’ Joint Economic Committee in 2004 that nearly all the benefits of recent productivity growth were going to corporate profits, resulting in “a marked fall” in employees’ share of the gains.

Nothing in the past two years has alleviated that problem. Real wages for the average worker have eroded, and health and pension benefits have faded. Meanwhile, corporate profits and pay for the top 2% of the population have soared.

I have high hopes for the 110th Congress. Despite the rocky start they’ve had foisted on them, they look like they’re up to the job of protecting the public from the depradations we’ve suffered for the past six years.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Friday Cat Blogging

Snow Leopard Cubs

A Start: Health Care Costs

Medical emergencies and the attendant costs have been one of the leading reasons for people being forced into bankruptcy. And one of the reasons for that is that the uninsured and underinsured have had to pay disproportionately more for the care than those fortunate enough to have adequate health insurance. Health care providers have had to deal with insurance companies limiting what they can charge, so they make up the difference on the backs of those without insurance. That's what "for profit" organizations do.

This year, the California legislature passed a bill (which was signed by the governor)which attempts to correct that inequity, and the bill takes effect January 1. From today's Sacramento Bee:

A California law that takes effect Monday would prohibit hospitals from overbilling low- to middle-income patients who are uninsured or have limited insurance.

Under Assembly Bill 774, hospital charges for those patients can be no more than the highest rates charged by Medicare, workers compensation or other government programs in which the hospital participates.

The legislation covers people with a household income no more than 350 percent of the poverty level, or $58,100 annually for a family of three, and prohibits harsh collection practices such as garnishing wages and putting liens on property.

Patients will have 150 days to provide paperwork showing they are eligible. Uninsured patients who fail to meet that requirement can be turned over to collections.

...Proponents say people with no or limited health insurance can seek care without fear of financial ruin. Medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy.

"This is the biggest direct help that uninsured people have gotten in the last five or 10 years," said Anthony Wright, director of Health Access, which advocates for health consumers.

"In principle, this ensures that most uninsured people do not get charged more than everybody else for exactly the same purpose."
[Emphasis added]

Consumer advocates have been fighting for such a bill for several years, only to be beaten back by the hospital lobby. Last year the lobby backed down a little because various class action lawsuits threatened to accomplish by judicial fiat what the proposed legislation wanted to do. This is not to say that the for profit agencies caved, far from it, but at least even this compromise bill will provide some relief.

Although further reform is needed when it comes to health care and health insurance costs, now that he has been safely re-elected, Governor Schwartzenegger might not be so compliant. At least we have a start, however.


The Overlook Board

Apparently there is a board whose job is to provide oversight of the NSA illegal domestic spying program. Who knew? Certainly not me, but at least the NY Times has been keeping tabs.

The wondrously named Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board held its first public hearing the other day on the National Security Agency’s illegal eavesdropping program. If you expected it to discover any truths about the secret program, you can forget it. The board spent its time explaining why it was more important to work from within the administration than to challenge it. Thus wags the tail of a watchdog with neither bark nor bite. [Emphasis added]

The whole point of the board was, as its name suggests, to oversee the various post-9/11 security organizations to make certain that privacy and First Amendment rights were not sacrificed at the altar of "national security." Well, ideally that was the point, but the current administration is obviously having none of that. The make-up and structure of the board ensures that.

The board was created two years ago by the White House and the Republican Congress as a pale substitute for the independent monitor recommended by the Sept. 11 commission. Its members (four Republicans and one lone Democrat) serve at the pleasure of the administration. It has a paltry budget and no subpoena power, and any requests for documents can be vetoed by the attorney general. [Emphasis added]

In other words, it is an Orwellian newspeak program, a mere sham. Not even the most minimal oversight can be accomplished under such a charter.

Add this to the list of issues the 110th Congress must address.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006


Older Americans are getting yet another surprise this December: the premiums for Medicare are going up for many of them, dramatically so. From today's Washington Post:

When new income-based premiums for Medicare's Part B program go into effect next month, some seniors will get an unwelcome surprise: Their monthly costs will be going up considerably more than expected because of the government's method of counting their income.

In addition to income from investments, pensions and wages, seniors will find that big but unusual windfalls -- from house sales, for instance, or from taking cash from an individual retirement account -- will also be included in government calculations.

As a result, an advocacy group for seniors says, tens of thousands of people will be counted as wealthy even though their continuing yearly income is modest. Some will be paying as much as $800 more a year for Part B coverage because they are deemed to be "higher income beneficiaries." This will be on top of the $93.50 a month standard premium that all recipients will pay.

"We are concerned that our members are just now finding out that the government is suddenly increasing seniors' Part B premiums without adequate warning," Shannon Benton, executive director of the Senior Citizens League, said in a statement.
[Emphasis added]

That wealthier social security recipients have to pay more for Medicare may not strike most of us as terribly unfair, but because of the way the law has been drafted, those who dipped into their IRA accounts in 2005 got hit twice: they paid taxes on those funds and now they're paying again, this time in increased premiums. Chances are that those same folks were not aware of the consequences when they made their decision.

And why weren't they aware? Probably for this reason:

Means testing was included in the bill by a Republican-dominated Senate-House conference committee, although neither body had included the provision in its bill.

In other words, that part of the bill had not gone through the usual legislative process: committee hearings, floor debates, a house vote. It was simply sneaked into the bill during the final phase of the process.

Hopefully the new Democratic leadership will stop this method of legislating. We all will benefit from a more transparent legislative process.


Here's Your Mission; Save the Earth, Pls

Melting ... that's the way polar bears now see their world. The news is grim, and a Newshour report on PBS last night cited the findings that in about 40 years the summer ice may be gone from the Alaskan coast.

From this administration we have the findings being treated as a nuisance, that the cretins will treat with a bit of seriousness since everyone's calling them names, but that they, in power, will not deal with as if this were a big deal;

The proposal calls for polar bears to be listed as "threatened" because the species is not considered at immediate risk of becoming extinct, which would be categorized as "endangered."

Kempthorne says Alaskan natives and others who hunt the bears can continue to harvest the animals. And coastal and offshore oil and gas exploration can continue. "Oil and gas development is not a factor," he says, "period."

The proposal to add the bears to the list came after a two-year fight.

"It's frustrating to wait, but at the same time, it is still a significant step forward," says Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, who filed suit to seek polar bear protection.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the incoming head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, says the polar bear's plight reflects the planet's health. "This news serves as a wake-up call to the U.S. Congress and the administration that we must quickly begin to address global warming through legislative action," she says.

From the Endangered Species Act, the injunction comes to the government to avoid authorizing activities that might further destroy the environment for threatened species, but the administration will not slow or stop exploration for oil, gas and minerals, or the 'development' of those resources.

There is a hopeful beginning in Maryland from the other end of the spectrum, where frightening levels of pollution from automobile exhausts are provably increasing the risk of residents' developing cancer.

The cancer risk from breathing polluted air in Maryland's largest jurisdictions far exceeds the federal government standard, environmental advocates said yesterday, urging lawmakers to join 11 other states in restricting tailpipe emissions when the General Assembly convenes next month.

A report released by Environment Maryland found the highest level of cancer-causing air toxins in the city of Baltimore, followed by Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The group based its study on data released this year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Brad Heavner, state director of the research center, an offshoot of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, called the level of air pollutants "just staggering."

The threat to our air is from our own hands - and the solutions are available to us. In Maryland a coalition is working to raise the standards of auto emissions, and require car manufacturers to use the technology available to make cleaner cars, cleaner air. In trying to make the air safe for us humans, we are taking one step toward saving the planet, a late one and a small one.

In Austin TX, there will be a workshop for religious groups - including Buddhist and Wiccan, to name a few - to work for social justice and environmental improvement, on January 13.

Texas Impact invites you to a networking and training event focused on advocacy for social justice on January 13, 2007. The purpose of this event is to provide information, skills, and networking opportunities for congregations wishing to start or strengthen social justice groups. The timing also coincides with the beginning of the legislative session.

We are excited to have the Reverend Emilee Whitehurst, Executive Director of Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, as our keynote speaker.

Several area leaders in social justice will lead workshops addressing topics such as:

How to start or enhance a social justice group in your congregation
How to use Internet resources in social justice work
How to do effective legislative advocacy
How to deal with apathy on the one hand and controversy on the other
Theological basis for social justice advocacy in various faith traditions

Bee Moorhead, Executive Director of Texas Impact, will give an update on social justice and environmental issues facing Texas in the 2007 legislative session.

I guess it's time to put the money where the mouth is. Of course, I had the great privilege of working on the original Endangered Species Act[and worked for an environmentally committed progressive candidate in the 2006 election] - I suppose I could sit here at home on my laurels and tell the rest of you Get Out There and save our earth. I'll cheer for you. But I just may have to do more. I do, indeed, urge you if you have the chance, this is an event that looks really worthwhile, and productive. There will be others. Let's get cracking, the ice is already there.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

My Dog Ate The Report

Conservatives have long maintained that government programs are wasteful and inefficient and the public would be better served if such programs were run by the private sector. That's one of the rationales for outsourcing many government functions, including the Medicare Prescription Plan (Part D). Today we learn in an article in the NY Times that the private sector may be doing an even poorer job than the government in administering the prescription plan.

Some prescription drug plans did not inform Medicare beneficiaries of impending changes in their costs and benefits, as they were required to do, Bush administration officials and Congressional aides said Tuesday.

This could be a serious omission in a program where beneficiaries need accurate information to choose among dozens of competing private plans.

Administration officials have told Congress that they may give these beneficiaries a six-week extension of the open-enrollment period, which ends Sunday. Beneficiaries could use the extra time to compare the options that will be available to them in 2007.

For those Medicare recipients regularly taking prescription medications, the notice of changes is necessary if their medicine has suddenly been dropped by the plan they are currently enrolled in. The problem is, without those notices, those recipients may be locked into a plan for a year that provides them absolutely no benefit. The deadline for choosing a new plan is this coming Sunday.

And the excuses offered for the failure to provide the necessary notices?

Peter L. Ashkenaz, a spokesman for UnitedHealth, said that perhaps 200,000 of its beneficiaries had not received the required notices by the Oct. 31 deadline. Even though people have until Dec. 31 to sign up for a plan, the Bush administration urged them to do so by Dec. 8, to avoid problems at the pharmacy.

Mr. Ashkenaz cited two reasons for the delay. UnitedHealth held back some notices because they included erroneous information that had to be corrected, he said. In addition, he said, a company printing the notices “had a fire that delayed production.”

Oh, please.

The administration needs to announce immediately a six-week extension of the open-enrollment period, and Congress needs to revisit the program and revise it drastically. Among the changes necessary includes negotiated drug prices, the closing of the donut hole, and, now, stiff fines for those insurers who fail to comply with reporting requirements.

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Good Works Very Scarce

Blogging is one way of fighting the evil that has just been ousted from the congress, two other branches of government to go. Thanks, all of you.

Trying to speak to the country's needs, trying to stand strong and be a positive force for change has been far from easy historically, and it has been well nigh impossible for the past six years. As some one who also entered into discussions with the voters, pushing for the enlightened vote this country enjoyed, I want everyone to realize it isn't over. We won, but that doesn't mean we can stop keeping the demagoguery of the right wing in the minds of the public.

Faced with a group of power brokers who will stoop to any lie, will pervert the Department of Justice into defending the truth from the public, who do not quail from spending lives and our future for the next decade at least - the burden of keeping up the heat on the demagogues is pretty heavy. While I write as forcefully here as I can for a return to values and justice, I really want also to encourage the rational voice to be louder, stronger, more demanding.

While I watched enviously a replay of a February event where several journalists addressed a group in Boston on the subject of the Catholic church in a changing government, I want to acknowledge the role of the panelists, and thank them too. They included Tim Russert, James Carville, E.J. Dionne, arrayed against some wingers.

E.J. Dionne, made a resounding point about the vacuousness of opposing abortion while resisting giving families the means to support and care for their children. Panelist Peggy Noonan tried to counter with a 'basic rightness' argument in opposition to abortion, but only diverted without answering the argument.

It's always been my contention that if you want babies to be brought into the world there is no better means than providing living wages. [And I have always encouraged anyone who wants to prevent abortions to offer a good home to children whose families can't afford them. Of course, these children may not be the blue-eyed blondes on the billboards throughout the south.]

I happen not to think that the right wing has any true respect for life. If they did, they would give the rights and means to our less fortunate citizens with increasing rapacity. I'm glad to see that this is a point other voices are making.

It is also the experience of anyone who grew up in the 60's/70's that abortion is always available to the wealthy, it's only the poor being penalized for sexual carelessness, by outlawing abortion.

The same E.J. Dionne wrote recently a very encouraging analysis of the voice of the U.S. as expressed on November 7, 2006. It was about real issues that concern real respect for life, respect that the right wing doesn't have, and tries to avoid acknowledging.

It wasn't all that long ago that Democrats and liberals were said to be out of touch with "the real America," which was defined as encompassing the states that voted for President Bush in 2004, including the entire South. Democrats seemed to accept this definition of reality, and they struggled -- often looking ridiculous in the process -- to become fluent in NASCAR talk and to discuss religion with the inflections of a white Southern evangelicalism foreign to so many of them.

Now the conventional wisdom sees Republicans in danger of becoming merely a Southern regional party. Isn't it amazing how quickly the supposedly "real America" was transformed into a besieged conservative enclave out of touch with the rest of the country? Now religious moderates and liberals are speaking in their own tongues, and the free-thinking, down-to-earth citizens in the Rocky Mountain states are, in large numbers, fed up with right-wing ideology.

Only a few months ago, it was widely thought that accusing opponents of wanting to "cut and run" in Iraq would be enough to cast political enemies into an unpatriotic netherworld of wimps and "defeatocrats."

Now the burden of proof is on those who claim that fighting in Iraq was a good idea and that the situation can be turned around. The Iraq Study Group's grim description of what's going on is the accepted definition of reality. Polls show majorities embracing the report not, I suspect, because most Americans are conversant with its every detail but because they see its take as closer to the truth than the president's accounts over the past three years, and because it appears to point toward disengagement.
[emphasis added]

While I would prefer the writer just said 'the president lies, people die, and the public doesn't accept that any longer', I am encouraged by this expression of the growing rejection of the cretin in chief.

It's especially nice to see the use of religion by dishonest people to cover the ugliness of their social injustice revealed for what it is.

For a thorough, if lengthy, discourse on the origins of the separation of church and state, treated this well after the election in 2004;

Such secularists fell into "Chicken Littlehood," as Reform Judaism's Leonard Fein put it in his confession. Frightened out of their wits by Bush, they overlooked the unique aspect of America's separation of church & state. Its in the Constitution.

Article VI: 3 "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and the several States, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

A successful candidate affirms support for these clauses & laws allowed under them. You can't call yourself a secularist & vote for someone known to be an opponent of Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation between Church and State." Serious secularists must take the issue directly to the people, exposing each & every politician who would break it down.

There is much more history that follows that excerpt, worth your while if you have the time.

The veil of religiosity used by the GOP base has been thoroughly torn, and lies in big tatters. It's time to tell the right wing that wrapping themselves in altar cloths has gone the way of flagwrapping, it's hypocrisy of the worst kind. Demagoguery is the object of this religious posture, and it has disserved this nation extremely badly. We have a lot of recovering to do. I am glad of the public rejection that bloggers, press figures, leaders, public figures are showing to the disorder of the right. Keep up the good work.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Why Centrists Infuriate Me

I should never read Jonathan Chait, but I keep forgetting that. Oh, I'm sure he's a very nice man, and he does write well. Almost invariably, however, he misses the point in even the most cogent sounding column. His Christmas Eve column in the Los Angeles Times provides an excellent example of this.

FOR A LONG TIME now, President Bush's critics — and even many of his erstwhile admirers — have been wondering why he let the neoconservatives fool him on Iraq. "All [the neoconservatives] care about is ideology," complained MSNBC's Chris Matthews a few months ago. "The president bought it hook, line and sinker."

There's a lot of truth to that. Neoconservatives had been gung-ho for years on the idea of invading Iraq, establishing a democracy and watching the transformative power of liberty work its magic. It is indeed curious how and why Bush let the neocons sucker him.

But fewer people seemed to have noticed that the reverse is also true: Bush suckered the neocons.

OK, so far so good.

Chait then launches into the two mistakes the Neocons made when dealing with Bush. The first was going along with the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. The assumption was that once those cuts were imposed, Bush would find a way to increase the defense budget so that the military would be built up to a satisfactory level for the upcoming exercise in hegemony-building. Of course, with the tax cuts, there was no way to increase the Pentagon's budget, no way to increase troop levels and supplies, which meant that the incursion was going to be impossible to pull off.

Chait then shows how this led to the second mistake. The Neocons, even in the face of an inadequate force, still went along with the White House plans to invade Iraq. And it is at this point that Chait falls flat on his face. Here's his concluding paragraph:

But if [the Neoconservatives] had only withdrawn their support earlier, before the big tax cut and before Bush invaded with too small of an army to win, the United States would be in much better shape today — and so would the neocons.

Excuse me while I bang my head on the desk.

The war was not just a bad idea, it was, quite simply, morally wrong. Iraq, however much a pain in the US butt, was no threat to this country. The White House knew that, as did the Neoconservatives. The neocons in the administration went along with the doctored intelligence knowing it was false because their vision of an Imperial America required an American military presence in the Middle East, and this war was the easiest and quickest way to accomplish their vision.

Both the President's plan and the Neoconservative plan were deeply flawed. Both should have been and still should be rejected.

And you, Mr. Chait, should get a clue.

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Immigration: Back On the Agenda

As the 110th Congress begins gearing up, one of the 'left-overs' from the 109th looms large: immigration reform. Work has already begun on bills for both houses and the Democrats have made it clear that the meanspiritedness of the bills from the last Congress will not reappear. From today's NY Times:

Counting on the support of the new Democratic majority in Congress, Democratic lawmakers and their Republican allies are working on measures that could place millions of illegal immigrants on a more direct path to citizenship than would a bill that the Senate passed in the spring.

The lawmakers are considering abandoning a requirement in the Senate bill that would compel several million illegal immigrants to leave the United States before becoming eligible to apply for citizenship.

The lawmakers are also considering denying financing for 700 miles of fencing along the border with Mexico, a law championed by Republicans that passed with significant Democratic support.

Getting a bill through this year, before the 2008 presidential primary season kicks off, is imperative if the solutions are to be truly bipartisan, and they will have to be bipartisan if a bill is to be passed and signed. It won't be easy. Republicans will have to contend with the Tancredo-Sensebrenner wing of their party which will fight anything that looks like "amnesty" tooth and nail. Democrats will have to contend with the AFL-CIO which is vigorously opposed to a guest worker program. Yet any bill which does not consider both hot-bed issues will not be worth the effort.

One thing I suspect both sides agree on: that damned wall idea has got to go. It's expensive, won't work, and is an insult to our neighbors to the south. Defunding that monstrosity has to be at the top of the list. That done, Congress can get on to the trickier parts of the necessary legislation.


Body Count

Listening to the news I just heard announcers say that the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq now exceeds the body count from the bombing of the twin towers.

The death toll of US soldiers in Iraq has reached 2,975, surpassing the toll from the September 11 attacks that sparked the US "war on terror".

Three US soldiers have been killed around Baghdad, bringing the number of US fatalities in Iraq since the 2003 invasion to two more than the number killed in the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks

This is the count I get;

U.S. Deaths Confirmed By The DoD: 2957
Reported U.S. Deaths Pending DoD Confirmation: 18
Total 2975
DoD Confirmation List

In return for a terrible atrocity committed on this country, we have sent almost 3,000 American soldiers to their deaths. All the justifications this administration has given for doing that to them as individuals, to this country as a whole, to our ability to defend ourselves and to our standing in the world, and in history, all are proving to be purest fiction. Eminent Middle East authority Dr. Juan Cole took on the myths this morning in a long, detailed recount.

1. Myth number one is that the United States "can still win" in Iraq. Of course, the truth of this statement, frequently still made by William Kristol and other Neoconservatives, depends on what "winning" means. But if it means the establishment of a stable, pro-American, anti-Iranian government with an effective and even-handed army and police force in the near or even medium term, then the assertion is frankly ridiculous. The Iraqi "government" is barely functioning. The parliament was not able to meet in December because it could not attain a quorum. Many key Iraqi politicians live most of the time in London, and much of parliament is frequently abroad. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki does not control large swathes of the country, and could give few orders that had any chance of being obeyed. The US military cannot shore up this government, even with an extra division, because the government is divided against itself. Most of the major parties trying to craft legislation are also linked to militias on the streets who are killing one another. It is over with. Iraq is in for years of heavy political violence of a sort that no foreign military force can hope to stop.

There is much, much more in Dr. Cole's post, and I won't put it all up here. Of course, the major story of the day was the elimination of a police station that had been participating in its own war against rival militias in Basra. A Pentagon report last week had noted the existence of much violence instigated by militia members that had ensconced themselves in the police departments, waging war rather than keeping the peace with U.S. weapons and training.

There is only one reason that I see that we are still in Iraq, and that is the cretin-in-chief's total incapacity to recognize reality. This hardly bodes well for future actual threats that we may yet have to face with this lack of leadership. With all of you, I do hope that a new Congress with enlightened leadership can pull us back out of the swamp that we've been thrown into.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

A Film Critic Gets It

Film critic John Patterson of the UK Guardian made an accurate assessment of more than a film in a recent review. Behold:

Watching the box-office numbers coming in last week on the flop that was The Nativity Story, it occurred to me that the movie's failure might be a symptom of something happier. Alongside the November congressional elections that put George Bush's manhood in a lockbox for the next two years, the most encouraging development of the past year has been the American electorate's ferocious rejection of the primary tenets held by the fundamentalist godfathers of his administration. It's been a rotten year for Jesus Christ, American. Merry Christmas!

The craziest religious politicians were rudely kicked out of office, as a homosexual scandal engulfed a homophobic Republican Party, as gay-bashing religious hypocrites started tumbling from Colorado closets. Christian fundamentalist-backed ballot initiatives on reliable hot-button religious issues tanked, nationwide. South Dakota overturned a draconian abortion ban tailored by its far-right backers to provoke a test case before the US Supreme Court. Indiana voted not to outlaw stem-cell research, and Arizona voted down a gay marriage ban.
States don't come redder and more Bush-friendly than these, and yet they rejected the fundamentalist programme all down the line. So much for those Democrats who claimed, after the 2004 defeat, that the left now needed to kowtow to the vomity likes of Jerry Falwell and James Dobson.

Why, yes. Yes, I believe that catches it nicely.

Gloat. Gloat. Gloat.


Another Place, Another Celebration

If you were in Costa Rica, where my children's grandparents on their father's side were from, you would celebrate the 6th of January, the Fiesta de los Tres Rejes, the Feast of the Three Kings, as a day for giving of gifts. Of course, Christmas is also celebrated, it is the biggest day for mass, and just about everybody goes to mass on Christmas Eve.

Costa Rica was the first country in the world to constitutionally abolish its army.

In April 2003 the constitutional ban on presidential re-election was reversed, allowing Óscar Arias (Nobel Peace Prize, 1987) to run for President for a second term. In 2006 Óscar Arias was re-elected in tight elections, running on a platform of promoting free trade.

While I don't think the CAFTA agreement was a good idea, I respect and admire Oscar Arias who won the Nobel Peace Prize for throwing out our army under Oliver North that was illegally conducting raids on the Nicaraguan Sandanistas from bases located on Costa Rican soil.

Like most Americans, I was totally ignorant of these facts until I became a member of a family that included people from the country I'm sharing with you now. It's regrettable that we don't really learn about other countries, and I hope that these few little lessons will not be a bad thing for Christmas, please consider them a gift I like having been given, and which I pass on in the spirit of giving.

The picture is one of the rainforest, one of the country's more beautiful aspects. We all have heritages that we can be proud of, some plain English and some with more diversity.

I do hope your coming year will be rewarding as its promise is.


The Department of the Interior: One More Time

Today is Christmas, but it's beginning to look like the Department of the Interior has been busy dispensing gifts all year long. Most of the time the presents went to the big oil companies, but now we learn that the gift list includes all sorts of contractors as well. From today's Washington Post:

The Defense Department paid two procurement operations at the Department of the Interior to arrange for Pentagon purchases totaling $1.7 billion that resulted in excessive fees and tens of millions of dollars in waste, documents show.

Defense turned to Interior, which manages federal lands and resources, in an effort to speed up its contracting. Interior is one of several government agencies allowed to manage contracts for other agencies in exchange for a fee.

But the arrangement between Interior and Defense "routinely violated rules designed to protect U.S. Government interests," according to draft audit documents obtained by The Washington Post.

...The findings prompted the inspector general's office to demand that the Pentagon stop using Interior's contracting shops.

More than half of the contracts examined were awarded without competition or without checks to determine that the prices were reasonable, according to the audits by the inspectors general for Defense (DOD) and Interior (DOI). Ninety-two percent of the work reviewed was awarded without verifying that the contractors' cost estimates were accurate; 96 percent was inadequately monitored.
[Emphasis added]

And just what kind of contracts were awarded and to whom? This will curl your hair:

In one instance, Interior officials bought armor to reinforce Army vehicles from a software maker. In another, Interior bought furniture for Defense from a company that apparently had not previously been in the furniture business. One contract worth $100 million, to lease office space for a top-secret intelligence unit in Northern Virginia, was awarded without competition. Defense auditors said that deal cost taxpayers millions more than necessary, and they have referred the matter for possible criminal investigation.

Keep in mind that the Defense Department has its own procurement section and should have been doing this work itself. The excuse given was that this particular section is underfunded, and the Department figured it could save time and money by going to the Department of the Interior, which is an interesting wrinkle in the outsourcing game. I suppose an argument can be made that awarding contracts without a bidding process and without checking the numbers does in fact speed up the process, but in that process, money is lost, not saved.

While it's nice to see the Inspectors General and the Department of Justice get involved, all of this is after the fact. The money has already been paid out, and the system in place pretty much assures us that the scam will continue. It's time for Congress to get involved. Hearings which include a complete top-to-bottom review of the Department of the Interior should be on the agenda for 2007. It's time to root out the crooks, many of them appointees of the current administration.

That would be a nice Christmas present to the American public for 2007.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Sunday Poetry: Robert Frost

by Robert Frost

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust--
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Some More Year End Considerations

As 2006 winds down and more and more neocons are quickly distancing themselves from the White House and the disastrous and illegal Iraqi War, one name is notoriously missing from all the talking-head shows: Paul Wolfowitz. Like another architect of a failed war, Robert McNamara, Wolfowitz left the Pentagon for the World Bank where he sits safely ensconced, doling out dollars to save Africa. Somehow he has escaped the opprobrium of those who are just now examining what led up to this debacle, at least until today. From today's Los Angeles Times:

ACCOUNTABILITY is one of those ideals, like justice or the triumph of right over might, that are wonderful in principle but usually disappointing in practice.

This is nowhere more true than in Washington, where one of the most powerful men in President Bush's inner circle, a man who helped conceive, plan and execute the Iraq war, has managed to escape scrutiny for steering his country into one of the greatest strategic catastrophes of his generation.

I am referring, although nobody else does, to Paul Wolfowitz. Remember Wolfowitz, best known to readers of this and other newspapers as the "chief architect of the Iraq war"? Before the war, he was hailed by many as one of the great foreign policy intellectuals of our time. He was a leading defense strategist, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia and the former dean of the School of Advanced Studies at Johns Hopkins University, a man whose views on democracy and the Middle East were taken seriously by both his admirers and his critics. In 2001, Wolfowitz, then 58, was named deputy secretary of Defense, serving as top aide to Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Yet today, as the policies he put in place come crashing down, Wolfowitz is nowhere to be found — at least not at the Pentagon. In fact, he left in 2005 to become president of the World Bank, where he has been busy trying to save Africa. ...

In Woodward's book, Wolfowitz is shown criticizing some aspects of Rumsfeld's conduct of the war. Yet some of the most fundamental misjudgments of Iraq appear to have been his as well. He testified to Congress, for instance, that U.S. troops were more likely to be treated as liberators than occupiers, and that Iraq's own wealth would likely suffice to pay for most of its reconstruction. He dismissed warnings that ethnic strife could erupt in a democratic or chaotic Iraq, saying that most of the violence in Iraq had always been by the Hussein regime against various ethnic groups. And his promotion of the now-discredited Ahmad Chalabi has never been explained.

In February 2003, on the eve of the invasion, before the House Budget Committee, he heaped scorn on "the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq," saying that the number was "wildly off the mark."

It is no accident that Mr. Wolfowitz has not joined the neocon chorus in disclaiming any responsibility for the Iraq War. After all, he has this cushy job in which he spends other people's money. Just like he spent other people's lives.

Heckuva job, Wolfie.

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S.M.U. is Kinda Perfect

As most posters have heard, the cretin in chief is conductging a search for where to locate his Library. The honor is pretty dubious, but for now the Dallas Morning News has narrowed it down to Southern Methodist University. This really offends some of my friends in Dallas, who want not to have the dishonor of being home to the Cretinous Library for aeons to come. I a way, I agree. But in view of the history of the Southern Methodist Church, I also like it a bit.

The Methodist Episcopal Church included black churches, and the African Episcopal Methodist Church is a large southern black congregation.

The Southern Methodist Church is a conservative Christian denomination with churches located in the southern part of the United States.

The church was formed in 1940 by conservative members of the former Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which in 1939 had reunited with the Methodist Episcopal Church to form the Methodist Church, nearly 100 years after a split in 1844 as result of divisions over slavery.

This is being very kind. I invite you to attend any church that is denominated Southern Methodist and find a black face. I was born a member of the Methodist church, and even I - who choose to be a Quaker - do not believe that the Southern Methodist Church is any other than The Other Church as opposed to Methodist Episcopalian. This is a white church.

It is fitting that the library of the most anti-generosity president in the history of this country should locate his library in an anti-black church institution.

Sorry, Tena.


It Was A Very Bad Year

2006 was not one of the most pleasant years in my life, and I won't be all that sad to see it end. Still, it could've been worse, as my late father was wont to say. At least I don't have to look at the past year as a total failure. George W. Bush, if he has any powers of introspection, has to be even happier that the year only has one more week. There's someone who had a very bad year. In case Mr. Bush has trouble seeing just how bad it was, Germany's Die Welt provides a good list.

REPUTATION: According to several public opinion polls, only between 31 and 42 percent of American citizens now have confidence in Bush.

COMPANIONS: Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of the Iraq War at the Pentagon, had to take his hat and leave. ...Even grumpy U.N.-Ambassador John Bolton threw in the towel. Bush spokesman Scott McClellen was likewise replaced along with much of the White House staff. Neoconservative spokesmen like Richard Pearle and William Kristol openly accuse Bush of mismanagement.

IRAQ: Even Bush doesn't bother to conceal Washington's embarrassment over the bloodshed and growing ethnic-religious tension in Iraq. At the end of the year, he hastily convened several committees to look for ways to prevent the, "entire region from plunging into chaos," as the Baker Commission wrote. This gloomy assessment is no longer challenged in Washington.

IRAN: The USA was unable to either prevent Teheran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions, or soften the Iranian President's shrill anti-Israel rhetoric. Bush now puts his hope in diplomatic solutions and the U.N. Security Council. And if all else fails, it's doubtful he even has a military card to play. Afghanistan and Iraq are already stretching the U.S. military to the limit, and the American public won't easily be persuaded to back another war. In Washington the feeling is spreading that the superpower is powerless.

FOREIGN POLICY: North Korea tested a nuclear bomb in spite of all of Washington's warnings. Pyongyang couldn't have shown more clearly how much of a "Paper Tiger" that the U.S. has become. In the Gaza Strip, the radical group Hamas came to power. In Lebanon, a war was waged for several weeks this summer and now the country is on the brink of civil war. Few now count on Washington's influence.

Now, if George W. Bush were just a citizen, I would be moved to try to console him. This is the season of good will, after all. But he isn't just a citizen, he's the President of the United States, and all of the bad things that befell him befell all of us, and we all will be paying for it for at least a generation. And all of those things that befell him (and us) were the direct results of all of his conscious decisions. He is reaping what he sowed.

With the new congress, I have some hope that next year will be better. I doubt that President Bush will see it that way. He's already indicated that there will be no real changes in the way he operates. And so for him, I see another very bad year.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Bonus Critter Blogging: Mongooses

(Yes, that is the correct plural form. You could look it up.)

Another Way to Endanger the Entire World

There they go again. North Korea has withdrawn from six-party talks and announced that proliferation would resume. Specifically, they are planning to increase their nuclear arsenal because they feel threatened by an American regime that has shown warmaking tendencies and rhetoric.

Chief delegates from the six nations held a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, but North Korea maintained its refusal to engage in discussions on the abandonment of its nuclear programs unless the United States first remove its financial sanctions.

Issues such as making progress toward North Korea's abandonment of current and future nuclear programs and creating working groups were shelved for the next round of discussions.

As former President Jimmy Carter pointed out in an October editorial in the New York Times, the present administration has been offensive to and produced reactions from North Korea without benefit to this country, but endangering the whole world.

ATLANTA....In 1994 the North Koreans expelled inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency and were threatening to process spent nuclear fuel into plutonium, giving them the ability to produce nuclear weapons.

With the risk of war on the Korean Peninsula, there was a consensus that the forces of South Korea and the United States could overwhelmingly defeat North Korea. But it was also known that North Korea could quickly launch more than 20,000 shells and missiles into nearby Seoul. The American commander in South Korea, Gen. Gary Luck, estimated that total casualties would far exceed those of the Korean War.

Responding to an invitation from President Kim Il-sung of North Korea, and with the approval of President Bill Clinton, I went to Pyongyang and negotiated an agreement under which North Korea would cease its nuclear program at Yongbyon and permit inspectors from the atomic agency to return to the site to assure that the spent fuel was not reprocessed. It was also agreed that direct talks would be held between the two Koreas.

The spent fuel (estimated to be adequate for a half-dozen bombs) continued to be monitored, and extensive bilateral discussions were held. The United States assured the North Koreans that there would be no military threat to them, that it would supply fuel oil to replace the lost nuclear power and that it would help build two modern atomic power plants, with their fuel rods and operation to be monitored by international inspectors. The summit talks resulted in South Korean President Kim Dae-jung earning the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his successful efforts to ease tensions on the peninsula.

But beginning in 2002, the United States branded North Korea as part of an axis of evil, threatened military action, ended the shipments of fuel oil and the construction of nuclear power plants and refused to consider further bilateral talks. In their discussions with me at this time, North Korean spokesmen seemed convinced that the American positions posed a serious danger to their country and to its political regime.

Responding in its ill-advised but predictable way, Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, expelled atomic energy agency inspectors, resumed processing fuel rods and began developing nuclear explosive devices.

This administration is not just careless in its obstinacy, it is dangerous. Choosing the time of the six-party talks to give India a place in the nuclear club without requiring that it submit to inspections of its military nuclear facilities was just another poke through the bars at the North Korean ego. Its result was what anyone rational would have expected and North Korea declared itself a member of the Nuclear Club, as I pointed out in my earlier post on this subject, 'The Club'.

If the result that this administration desires is the endangerment of the entire world, it has achieved its goal. Any other principle was not served, so only if the cretin in chief is entirely irrational can he be said to have thought he might serve a peaceful purpose.

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Of Lead Balloons

As soon as word "leaked" out that the Selective Service was going to run a test on how to get young people quickly into the military, rumors of an impending draft flew around the country. The rumors grew even faster once a Veterans Administration official suggested a draft might benefit the country, even after he made it clear that he was not advocating a draft at this time. After all, the President had just announced that he would approve an increase in troops for the Army and Marines, and he was considering an increase in troop levels in Baghdad to quell the chaos there. As a result, the Selective Service offices were deluged by calls from worried parents. From today's NY Times:

What prompted all this was a Hearst wire service article noting that the Selective Service was making plans for a “mock” draft exercise that would use computerized models to determine how, if necessary, the government would get some 100,000 young adults to report to their local draft boards.

The mock computer exercise, last carried out in 1998, is strictly routine, Selective Service officials said, and it will not actually be run until 2009 — if at all. The exercise has been scheduled several times in the last few years, only to be scuttled each time because of budget and staffing problems, and Mr. Flahavan said he would not be surprised if it was canceled this time around, too.

...Although senior military officers agree that the armed forces are stretched, they also agree that a return to the draft is not the best way to fill the ranks. Draftees, they say, are not as motivated as volunteers, and tend to leave as soon as possible, after spending much of their time in costly training. Re-enlistment rates are much higher among volunteers.
[Emphasis added]

OK, so the exercise being planned by Selective Service is merely "routine" and, unless some funding shows up, will probably not be run in 2009 anyway. But why did the issue come to the fore at this time? Coincidence?

Given the initial comments of that VA official, probably not. While this administration claims it doesn't pay attention to polls, it certainly has no objection to floating some informal polls of its own, and I think the whole draft idea was just one of those trial balloons. When the American public reacted so dramatically to both the Hearst article and the VA official's comments, the White House got the answer it needed: the American public was serious back in November. It doesn't want its children in Iraq any longer, and it's not real thrilled about them being pressed into military service.

Not that the White House intends to be bound by the opinion of the American citizenry, especially when it comes to Iraq: the President continues to make it clear that he is the decider. It now looks like his next decision will be in favor of increasing troop levels in Iraq, the Iraq Study Group recommendations be damned.

While an open discussion of universal service, military or community, for American youth would not be a bad thing, that discussion should not be held while the country is engaged in an illegal and unnecessary war. The last thing we need to do is to give this administration more young lives to "invest" in such folly.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Friday Cat Blogging

Canadian Lynx Kitten

Deep Insecurity

I had hoped that the election results from November would give the current administration pause when it came to its more egregious and arrogant behavior with respect to basic constitutional guarantees. Silly me! If anything, the public rebuke has done nothing more than stiffen the resolve of the Bush White House to flout those guarantees even more openly.

In the past week I posted on the attempt of the federal prosecutors to subvert the Grand Jury process to hide an embarrassing document (see Chillin' and The Good Guys). This week, the government took it upon itself to censor an op-ed piece written by two former government officials: Flynt Leverett, a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council; and Hillary Mann, a former Foreign Service officer who participated in the United States discussions with Iran from 2001 to 2003. What their article looked like after the redaction by the government is located here.

Their response to this violation of the First Amendment is in today's NY Times.

HERE is the redacted version of a draft Op-Ed article we wrote for The Times, as blacked out by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Publication Review Board after the White House intervened in the normal prepublication review process and demanded substantial deletions. Agency officials told us that they had concluded on their own that the original draft included no classified material, but that they had to bow to the White House.

Indeed, the deleted portions of the original draft reveal no classified material. These passages go into aspects of American-Iranian relations during the Bush administration’s first term that have been publicly discussed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; former Secretary of State Colin Powell; former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; a former State Department policy planning director, Richard Haass; and a former special envoy to Afghanistan, James Dobbins.

These aspects have been extensively reported in the news media, and one of us, Mr. Leverett, has written about them in The Times and other publications with the explicit permission of the review board.
[Emphasis added]

To prove that the materials to be discussed in their op-ed piece were in fact non-classified, the writers included a side bar to today's article which has an extensive list (with links) of articles published with the same material that was blacked out by the government censors in their article. Why is that material now suddenly too sensitive to be published now?

The answer to that question has several parts. First, the material had to do with Iran and the very quiet US discussions with that country in the past several years. Iran, part of the "Axis of Evil," appears to be next on the White House hit list. The government has just announced the deployment of several ships to the region as a means of showing Iran just how powerful we are. "Don't mess with us," is the clear message behind that not so subtle threat.

And that leads to the second part. The White House has made it clear that it has absolutely no intention of talking to Iran about their nuclear intentions and their growing influence over certain elements of the Shi'ite majority in Iraq. The recently released Iraq Study Group report, however, has recommended just that, and in the past week several members of Congress have actually gone to Damascus to speak with the Syrian President about Iraq and the Middle East. The White House wants none of that, so much so that it feels compelled to hide the evidence that it was at least considering such discussions in the past, evidence that has been openly discussed by such members of the administration as the current Secretary of State.

Fortunately for us, Leverett and Mann are not taking this lying down. Their response is both admirable and necessary, and the conclusion to the article sets out clearly what is at stake:

National security must be above politics. In a democracy, transparency in government has to be honored and protected. To classify information for reasons other than the safety and security of the United States and its interests is a violation of these principles.


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Feel a Draft?

The draft is looming over us as a possible method to fulfill the cretin in chief's dreams of increasing our countrys commitment to a lost cause. What would be the effect of re-instituting the draft is beginning to be considered. Today I was impressed by seeing a reflection of a former draftee who served in Vietnam, and share it with you here.

The reality of the moment , however, was that I didn't want to be there, didn't believe in the war being fought and despised the concept of conscription. And as it turned out, the Army didn't really want me either, or most other draftees for that matter. That was because as a group, with a questionable fight on our hands, we tended to be uncooperative, sometimes obstreperous (occasionally considered subversive), unmotivated and underpaid -- yet still expensive, since the military invested four to eight months, including advanced training, in readying us for a commitment of two years.

Of course plenty of draftees were brave, aggressive and dedicated, and many died for their country. Everyone in the military recognized and respected that fact. But as a whole, the system didn't work well, and on June 30, 1973, the last draftee of the modern era was sworn into service.

At the end, the writer suggests that women also ought to be registering for the draft. That might well bring even more revulsion out in the people whose children would be directly hurt by this unjustifiable war that we're waging.

Throughout, the assumption of the op-ed I quoted from is that the volunteer army serving now is willing to be in conflict. From everything I have read, the reserves were never really expecting to be in armed conflict, or if they were, only for brief skirmishes like the ones that responsible administrations had occasionally used to bring about order and even a return to justice outside our borders. The present extended irrational incursion into another country was not envisioned by anyone familiar with our country's history. When they enlisted, it was to be a truly RESERVE force, for a country that prided itself on bringing order, not destroying it. These forces did not volunteer to destroy an existing order for political gain by a weakminded cretin who never served, and thought he needed to assume a tough appearance by throwing away their lives.

I only know personally one former Iraqi soldier, and he had joined the Army after high school because it would be a training for something, and pay for his education afterwards. Like the rest of us, he never imagined the effects on him or his country of irresponsible military action by his leaders. He served two unwilling terms, returned fed up and sickened by the destruction without purpose, and the dishonesty of the happy talk.

The ex-soldier I knew is the son of a friend, and came home very aware that we were trying to bring values of our own to a society and culture where they didn't fit. He had stories that illustrated how illfitted Iraqis were for western values, but my interpretation of those tends to be that we are not the arbiters of any values but our own. My brother returned from consulting with the South Vietnamese government during that war, with the conclusion that the effective methods of Western government would not work when the operatives were South Vietnamese. He, too, thought that was a value judgment against the South Vietnamese, not the westerners who didn't fit in with their culture.

David Ignatius also wrote an op-ed today, saying go to a very good soldier blog, and I did. I followed a few leads, wound up with this recount which I will leave you with. I will not comment further on soldiering.

I'm waving him off still. I don't want to do this. There is a huge sign in Arabic on the back of my vehicle that tells him deadly force is authorized, and not to come too close. He's already moved up beside me twice. He won't get another chance. I've tried to disable his vehicle by shooting at the grill, but somehow he's still moving. There is a .50 caliber machine gun aimed at his chest through his windshield. He sees my pointing it at him. I am also waving my hand at him to slow down, and using the blow horn to warn him off.

He's accelerating again, trying to get up beside me. I pull the trigger, putting a quick two round burst through his windshield. As it shatters, his truck instantly loses speed and moves erratically towards the right side of the street. I lean down to tell my driver we need to stop and check him out, and just as I do, my world incinerates.

I actually feel like I am in a video game for a moment. This can't be right. I feel myself flying through the air and land on the curb. I open my eyes. There's blood in them, so I wipe it away. I am barely able to get to my feet. The first four vehicles in my convoy are obscured by a large cloud of smoke. The next two are stopped, and smoking. My vehicle is upside down, leaning against a building. I begin to move towards it, but an RPG is fired at it, causing flames to form inside. I scream, and try to move my unsteady legs. I fall down and hit my head.

I hear many voices around me. Rough voices, most of them, but I hear a woman's voice as well. I feel hands grabbing me, pulling my weapon away, and I can't stop them. Where is my team? Are there any witnesses? Something strikes my head and I go black. I can't see or speak, but I feel hands lifting me up. It's like stage diving at a heavy metal concert, trusting the crowd to catch me and pass me back to the rear in safety. But right then I don't want to be limp, I want to run home.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

The 51st State

There is no question that the illegal US war in Iraq has threatened to destabilize the already fractious Middle East. There is also no question that one of the keys to lasting stability in the Middle East is a resolution of the Israel-Palestine issue. In both matters, the United States bears a substantial responsibility for the current status and for the badly needed improvement in the region. Ironically, for that improvement to happen, however, the players in the region have to be brought into the equation, and that will happen only when diplomacy rather than military muscle is used.

Unfortunately, the current administration doesn't do diplomacy, and, if this article from Ynet News is accurate, it doesn't appreciate other members of the world community using that tool.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is repeatedly calling on Israel to engage in peace talks. In recent days he added that he has no preconditions for entering such talks -Assad is not even demanding the return of the Golan Heights as a precondition.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave an extraordinary response to Assad's overture: Engaging in dialogue with Syria at this time would be "against the position of (US President) George Bush, Israel's greatest friend," who is not interested in a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. Thus, Israel is rejecting Syria's outstretched hand.
[Emphasis added]

I'm sure Mr. Olmert didn't have to use mental telepathy to divine President Bush's position on Syria. The White House has made it clear to the entire world that it has no intention of speaking to Syria on Iraq or any other subject. I'm sure the White House has also made it clear that it will not countenance Israel doing so as well, which is foolish for many reasons.

If nothing else, Mr. Bush could have used Israeli-Syrian talks to indirectly coax Syria into pressuring the Sunni insurgents to settle down without having to go back on his assertions that he will not negotiate with Syria.

More importantly for the region, however, one less knot in the tangled Middle East could have been untied. A peace treaty between Israel and Syria with the resolution of the Golan Heights issue might have enabled more fruitful talks on the whole panoply of Israel-Palestine questions. In other words, the peace process would have gotten back on track.

But, no, Bush continues to manipulate the rest of the world to achieve whatever it is he wants to achieve. As a result, a wonderful opening to get something positive done in the Middle East is being rejected.

Stupid. Dangerously so.

And shameful.

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Go Shopping

Did you go shopping to save the country yet? For those of us whose mouths are still hanging open because the cretin in chief still felt comfortable basing his policies for this country on urging the public to contribute to the morass, at least this is another guarantee of Democratic advances to come.

As mentioned before, I work with a financial firm, and yesterday I had a little conversation that brought me up short. And this a.m., I see some more spreading of the talking points I had used on me. So just in case you think that the business mentality may be realizing that lower family incomes, weaker dollar, and doubling energy/transporatation costs may be worrying to the financiers, hahahahaha.

Some manufacturing workers in the United States -- such as those who labored in huge factories making basic steel -- have suffered as they've seen their jobs leave America for low-wage countries. But for workers as a whole, the truth about globalization and inequality is the opposite of what the protectionists claim. There are three caveats to the steel worker's story and two larger perspectives on inequality.
A second caveat is that there are two ways to increase people's standard of living. One is to increase their wages. The other is to decrease prices so that they can buy more things with the same amount of money.

The ability to buy inexpensive, quality Chinese-made shoes and Japanese-made cars at lower prices disproportionately benefits lower income Americans. The Wall Street banker who pays $350 for Church's shoes benefits relatively little, but the janitor who buys shoes for $25 rather than $50 at Payless or Target or Wal-Mart benefits greatly.

Lower prices due to imports from China alone -- ignoring all other similar results of globalization -- probably raise the real incomes of lower income Americans by 5 to 10 percent. That's something no welfare program has ever accomplished.

Your clothes and shoes, coming from impoverished workers, are cheaper so you unwashed radicals are ignoring the facts. You might not be able to drive to work, heat your house, buy, cook and refrigerate your food, or send your kids to school, but look! that Made in China/Nicaragua/Haiti/Thailand label proves you're better off because the $60 sweater is $50. And don't think your financier reading the Wall Street Journal isn't convinced he/she is in possession of real facts that you choose to ignore because you're a librul and want to give their money away to the unworthy poor.

At bottom, anyway, some one else's poverty so I have cheap imports isn't working. If foreign workers don't get buying power, they don't buy the stuff we export. Next trip abroad, you'll find your dollar is already not going as far. While the people you're visiting are growing ever more resentful of their poverty, your prosperity.

According to Global Labor Strategies (GLS), major corporations including Wal-Mart, Google, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Nike, General Electric, and Intel are “acting through business organizations like the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai and the US-China Business Council,” to lobby against China’s Draft Labor Contract Law. This new law proposed by the Chinese government aims to secure minimal labor standards for workers, such as enforceable labor contracts, severance pay regulations and negotiating power over workplace procedures and policies. A GLS report entitled: “Behind the Great Wall of China: U.S. Corporations Opposing New Rights for Chinese Workers,” notes that while the law will not eliminate labor problems in China, it is an important step in improving a system where poverty wages, lack of health and safety protections, and the absence of any legal contracts are common for Chinese workers. Organizations representing US companies have threatened to withdraw business from China if such a law is passed.

Just now I am watching a report on the influx to America of foreign consumers, snapping up our goods for half price in view of the dollar's weakness. Now there's another bright spot. With the dollar falling in relation to the strong EU from those worker-friendly countries, the manufacturers here are pulling in more buyers from abroad. Maybe the State of the Union Address will have a message for the world - come here and go shopping to keep our companies earning obscene profits for the GOP voters. Maybe I will write and suggest it.

However, the weak dollar isn't good for the long term.

Until now foreigners have reinvested most dollars in the United States. In the year ending in September, they bought about $1 trillion worth of U.S. stocks and government and corporate bonds, says David Wyss of Standard & Poor's. Private investors -- not governments -- made 85 percent of those purchases, he says. But if the preference for dollar investments subsides, U.S. stock and bond markets could weaken. The dollar might drop sharply against other currencies. The U.S. economy could suffer from a loss of wealth and confidence; foreign economies could suffer from a loss of exports.

The conversation I had yesterday stalled when I pointed out that I didn't want protections for workers removed by sending jobs overseas to workers in bad conditions, so that I could have cheaper clothes. The banking consultant I was talking with hadn't contemplated that anyone might prefer good working conditions for others to a benefit for their own advantage.

I doubt that on Sunday night three ghosts will be visiting all the scrooges being harbored in the realms of financial advisors, showing them the harm they've done their world and themselves. But the liberal community needs to be aware that that insulated realm is making decisions based on principles of greed, and assuming they are shared greed.

Go shopping? Let's talk about a living wage. And let's talk about good working conditions. And, btw, take back that mink.

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