Monday, March 31, 2008

Back In The News

Last Monday, I posted on the incredible drop in media coverage of the Iraq War. This past weekend, the Public Editor of the Sacramento Bee also noted the drop of stories on the war and actually provided a story count (including both front page and interior pages) on the war coverage at his newspaper.

Well, the war is back in the news and there has been plenty of coverage this past week because Moqtada al Sadr sent his Mahdi Army out into the streets of Basra, ending a truce that has been in effect for many months. He's recalled his troops, at least for the present, and offered a new truce, but with conditions. While one can't be sure at present whether he did so to avoid having to face the US military (the Iraqi army was sent to take back the city) or because he accomplished what he had set out to do, which was to let the current Iraqi government know he was still a force to be reckoned with.

Either/or, the American public was once again reminded what a complicated mess this illegal and misbegotten war is. And that means, as this NY Times article points out, the candidates for president are once again talking about the war.

The fierce fighting — and the threat that it could undo a long-term truce that has greatly helped to reduce the level of violence in Iraq — thrust the war back into the headlines and the public consciousness just as it had been receding behind a tide of economic concerns. And it raised anew a host of politically charged questions about whether the current strategy is succeeding, how capable the Iraqis are of defending themselves and what the potential impact would be of any American troop withdrawals.

Mr. McCain, of Arizona, said he was encouraged that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government had sent its troops to reclaim Basra from the Shiite militias. “I think it’s a sign of the strength of his government,” Mr. McCain said Friday at a stop in Las Vegas. “I think it’s going to be a tough fight. We know that these militias are well entrenched there. I hope they will succeed and succeed quickly.”

The Democrats, who are calling for phased troop withdrawals, are beginning to point to the fighting in Basra as evidence that the American troop buildup has failed to provide stability and political reconciliation — particularly if the fighting leads one militia, the Mahdi Army, to pull out of its cease-fire; that could lead to a new spate of sectarian violence across the country. Some are saying the fighting strengthens their case for troop withdrawals.

The irony, of course, is that Sen. McCain had just returned from his trip to Iraq when the fighting broke out. Given the reported drubbing the Iraqi army took and the defections by that army, Sen. McCain's comments appear totally out of touch with reality.

The two Democratic candidates have responded intelligently by noting that even after the surge the Iraqi government and its institutions still can't do the job, and probably won't try too hard as long as the US back-up (especially our fighter planes) is available. And both are getting the word out that the current administration policy, which Sen. McCain wants to continue, is to keep the troop levels high both because the plan is working and the government is making great strides and because if we don't, the the country will fall into civil war because the government isn't making great strides.

As a result of the new coverage, the American public is once again reminded that we are at war, that Americans and Iraqis are dying and being maimed, and that the end is nowhere in sight. As Armando Acuna, the Public Editor of the SacBee put it in his article, which was obviously written before the full impact of the Basra story was known, this is what the job of the press is.

There is a notion that once the presidential election is in full swing in the fall, Iraq will once again rise as news topic No. 1.

Let's hope so. As it is now, unless you are a family member or close friend of someone serving in Iraq, the deaths of 4,000 Americans, the wounding of 30,000 others and the deaths of at least 81,000 Iraqi civilians aren't having much of an impact.

There's enough shame in that for everyone to share.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sunday Poetry: B. H. Fairchild


"Gesang ist Dasein"

A small thing done well, the steel bit paring
the cut end of the collar, lifting delicate
blue spirals of iron slowly out of lamplight

into darkness until they broke and fell
into a pool of oil and water below.
A small thing done well, my father said

so often that I tired of hearing it and lost
myself in the shop's north end, an underworld
of welders who wore black masks and stared

through smoked glass where all was midnight
except the purest spark, the blue-white arc
of the clamp and rod. Hammers made dull tunes

hacking slag, and acetylene flames cast shadows
of men against the tin roof like great birds
trapped in diminishing circles of light.

Each day was like another. I stood beside him
and watched the lathe spin on, coils of iron
climbing into dusk, the file's drone, the rasp,

and finally the honing cloth with its small song
of things done well that I would carry into sleep
and dreams of men with wings of fire and steel.

B H Fairchild

Reports Of The Democratic Party's Death

Oh, please.

For the first time in decades we actually have a real battle for the nomination, and the airwaves, internet, and print media are filled with the rhetoric of concern trolls about the certain demise of the Democratic Party.

Look, it's a battle, and while I've not been thrilled with some of the crap being lobbed by both candidates and their teams, at least the campaigns have generated some interest in one of the most important and, sadly, most neglected elements in a democracy: elections. Democrats have been turning out for the primaries and caucuses in numbers we haven't seen in years.

The past 7 years have been devastating for all of us. A cat fight for the nomination isn't going to change that if whoever gets nominated starts actually fighting the real opposition, John McCain, who I guarantee you will continue in the Bush tradition.

But the media is most definitely not going to help us out. Here's a very partial list of the articles that have come out in the past couple of days:

The latest Maureen Dowd heatherish op-ed piece in which she pontificates on Sen. Obama instead of Sen. Clinton. Sorta kinda.

Mario Cuomo's (egad, he's still alive? who knew?) op-ed piece on saving the party by putting both candidates on the ticket, determining the order presumably by flipping a coin, so as "to avoid a Democratic disaster."

An article in the Los Angeles Times on the heat emanating from the Texas district conventions. Here's a taste of this sure-fire Pulitzer prize winner:

Democrat-on-Democrat clashes over delegates have been playing out in Iowa, Colorado, Florida and other states -- the latest indication that the feel-good nomination race of the era has veered into a political ditch.

Frankly, and this is very difficult for me to admit, I agree with most of this Washington Post editorial. The long campaign can be a tremendously good thing insofar as it offers both candidates a chance to showcase their strengths and the strengths of their visions for the nation.

I know, the nastiness, if it continues, might very well turn voters off. There's this insane meme rushing around that each of the candidates' supporters have promised to vote for McCain if their candidate loses. I think that highly unlikely. I do admit it might be more likely that the punishment will take the form of some disgruntled whiny ass titty babies (pace, 4legsgood) simply staying home on election day. But that need not be the case, especially if the candidates themselves point out what that could mean.

One of the most intelligent, even brilliant analyses I've read on the subject comes from a post Trifecta put up at New Pairodimes. He lists what the ages of the current Supreme Court justices will be at the end of the eight years the next president will serve. It's pretty illuminating.

He concludes with the following:

For those Obama or Clinton supporters who suggest that they will vote for McCain to teach everybody a lesson, you can kindly go kiss my white ass.

This is ignoring the fact that since 1980, Republicans have been nominating judges for 20 of the last 28 years. getting McCain elected would make it 28 of 36 which is even better!

Well said, Tri.

Me, I'm optimistic. I'm old, but I'm also old enough to have lived through 1972.


Uber Alles

Some things I did not know, but probably should have known:

Individual branches of the military are not allowed by law to lobby Congress.

Each individual branch of the military has an advertising budget.

The Pentagon is trying to downsize the Air Force.

I learned about these things from this story in today's Los Angeles Times. Apparently the Air Force (which has no recruitment problems and continues to meet its recruitment quota with ease) has a new ad campaign out which has raised hackles in Congress and at the Pentagon.

Troubling images flash across the screen, showing black-clad terrorists, tsunami-flooded villages and the Chinese army.

"Only the United States Air Force has the speed, power and vision to defend our nation for the century ahead," the announcer intones as an F-22 fighter jet flies over a snowy mountaintop. "U.S. Air Force, above all."

There is nothing unusual about seeing military recruiting ads right now. But in Congress and the Pentagon, many believe that the new Air Force ads are less about recruiting and more about lobbying for extra money.

Some lawmakers perceive the ads as an Air Force effort to acquire newer equipment. And, in rare criticism from others in the military, some Pentagon officials believe that the ads are meant to buck Bush administration spending priorities and to push the Air Force's agenda. "It doesn't look like a recruiting ad," said a senior Pentagon official. "The Air Force does appear to be pushing the envelope."

The ads are part of a $25-million campaign called "Above All," for television, radio, the Internet and newspapers. Unlike traditional recruiting campaigns, the ads do not highlight what the military offers individuals who join. Instead, they stress how the Air Force protects the nation.
[Emphasis added]

Some in Congress are unhappy with the ad campaign, and none of them fall into the category of wild-eyed DFHs anxious to destroy the military: Rep John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) all have expressed their concerns that the Air Force is doing some outright lobbying, which is illegal.

Lewis is particularly incensed over ads that have seemed to target the Washington area. Two full-page newspaper ads ran in the Washington Post, which has a very low circulation outside the capital region. That suggests the ads were "strictly designed to lobby Congress," [Lewis spokesman Jim] Specht said.

Defense Secretary Gates has assuaged some of that concern, but it's clear he wasn't all that thrilled by the campaign either. His job is to make sure that the President's budget (not the individual branch's) is passed. Part of that current budget reflects the intended downsizing of the Air Force. Apparently some of the Air Force generals have decided to try an end-around the Secretary.

And though the Air Force is supposed to shrink, top officials say, they have asked Congress for money to halt the cuts and restore its ranks. The Air Force’s budget proposal, released in February, says the objective of the advertising campaign is to increase the service's "brand awareness."

But here's what set off the bells in my head: Above All. That motto might be a little more graceful than "Army Strong," but it carries a whole lot of extra baggage. The German for that phrase is "Uber Alles." While the motto might fit right in with such other administration mottos as "Department of Homeland Security," it's just a little too blatant.

Further, given the propensity of the Air Force to engage in unlawful Christian evangelizing from the Air Force Academy to the field, "Above All" seems more than a little suspicious. The religious connotations, especially in this context, are just as blatant.

Next year the Air Force intends a $50 million advertising campaign. I can't wait for those productions.


Labels: ,

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Bonus Critter Blogging: Vampire Bat

(Photograph by Michael & Patricia Fogden/Corbis and published at National Geographic.)

Uninvited Guests

Imagine, if you will, being in the middle of some rather contentious negotiations in a family dispute over the division of chores and the ownership of the remote when the door bell rings. Oh, no! It's Aunt Em and Uncle Fred from Indianapolis who just happened to be in the neighborhood and just knew you wouldn't mind them dropping in unannounced.

Now imagine that on the world stage. Let me make it a little easier for you: this article in yesterday's Globe and Mail (Canada) describes such a visit to Pakistan by some US diplomats.

Keep in mind that Pakistan just held some rather contentious elections, elections in which every segment of the population essentially rejected Bush's BFF Pervez Musharraf. No single party won enough votes to control Parliament and the government, so the various parties have been working to put together a coalition government to challenge President Musharraf's power. They're still working on it when, "Ding Dong!" John Negroponte appears at the door. Needless to say, the new Pakistani government was not amused.

The visit to Pakistan of top U.S. officials this week was supposed to cement ties with the country's incoming government. Instead, it ended up roiling local sensitivities and inadvertently showing up key policy differences.

Deputy secretary of state John Negroponte arrived for consultations even before the new government had a chance to form itself, fuelling paranoia in the country about being ruled from Washington. There is no foreign minister or interior minister yet, and the Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was only sworn into office on Wednesday.

However, there was enough interaction for one thing to be obvious: The rules have changed. Mr. Negroponte and assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher received a cold reception from politicians, highlighting the difference between dealing with an elected government and the military regime of President Pervez Musharraf.
[Emphasis added]

One Pakistani newspaper referred to the visit as being an example of "indecent haste."

But wait, there's more. Mr. Negroponte managed to alienate the people even further:

Mr. Negroponte saved his real clanger until the last. Just before he boarded a flight to leave yesterday, he pre-empted the new government's policy toward militants by warning that some were too extreme to engage in talks. All parties in the coalition have advocated negotiations without making any such distinctions.

"Security measures obviously are necessary when one is talking about dealing with irreconcilable elements who want to destroy our very way of life. I don't see how you can talk with those kind of people," he told a press conference.

And that, my friends, was not just an unintentional gaffe. That was a not so thinly veiled threat. At present, the US forces in Afghanistan have been chasing those militants into Pakistani territory without bothering to get any kind of permission from Pakistan. Mr. Negroponte wanted to make it clear that the US fully intends to continue these mini-invasions, new government or not.

Stupidity and evil make for a deadly mix.

Labels: ,

Disconnected From Reality

When I'm being less cynical, I often wonder what color the sky is on George W. Bush's planet. The rest of the time I recognize what a lying little thug he is. Our international neighbors usually tend to the latter view, but this article in France's Le Figaro managed to hit both notes. [Note: the article was published March 19, 2008, before we hit the tragic 4,000 milestone and before the the Shi'ite militias exploded into action.]

In his speech, George W. Bush deemed it “understandable” that the debate continues on whether the war is ill-advised, but delivered a familiar argument: Americans must fight al-Qaeda in Iraq in order to not fight them in the United States, that to withdraw too quickly would sow the seeds of “chaos” and toughen “terrorists” and neighboring Iran. He argued, in particular, that the progress had been accomplished since last year, when violence was close to reaching “the level of genocide,” thanks to a new strategy and the deployment of 30,000 additional Americans. According to him, this change “did more than reverse the situation in Iraq. It opened the door to a major strategic victory.” ...

The war in Iraq has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 4,000 Americans. It has caused millions of people to relocate. It has cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars. It has reinforce Iranian influence, ruined the American administration’s credit, and has deeply divided Americans.
[Emphasis added]

Divided Americans? That's putting it rather mildly. The article included some poll data, although I suspect both polls of being rather conservative:

...Sixty-four percent of Americans believe that the war is not worth the trouble it is causing, according to a survey carried out by CBS. Another survey by NBC and the Wall Street Journal indicates that, for 53% of those surveyed, victory is no longer possible.

Yet the President and the Vice-President continue their little charade that beneath all that horse dung there really is a pony, and the pundits continue to write that in six months we'll see just how wildly successful the surge has been. A measure of that cognitive dissonance is that the three presidential candidates at this point are not talking about victory, but rather a sensible exit strategy. Even Sen. McCain is distancing himself from the White House to the extent that he is arguing only that troop withdrawals have to be done less precipitously than the two Democratic candidates have proposed, not that we are on the verge of victory and we need to push forward. (Of course, that is this week's John McCain. His opinion will no doubt change once the Vice-President has a little chat with him.)

I have no illusions that the President will do anything more than burnish his legacy for the next ten months, and for years thereafter. As a result, more Americans and many more Iraqis will die or be maimed. But, hey! We'll have a strategic victory.

298 days.

Labels: ,

He's Too Old

As someone who is on the other side of 60, I've been uncomfortable with the sarcastic jokes about John McCain's age. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a McCain sympathizer. I think he's the wrong man for the presidency, but not because he'll be 72 when sworn into office should he win. As Ellen Goodman pointed out in her column yesterday in the Boston Globe, there's been a lot of serious (and, I believe, healthy) discussion about race and gender during the presidential race, but McCain's age has been relegated to late night humor. And, as Ms. Goodman points out, a rather nasty ageist comment by a Fox News "journalist" certainly didn't help.

IT WAS probably not wise for the 64-year-old Brit Hume to describe the 71-year-old John McCain as having a "senior moment." A blip would have been better. Or a gaffe. Or even a dent in the candidate's "experience" armor.

But when the traveling senator confused Shi'ites and Sunnis, when he conflated Al Qaeda with all extremists, the "senior moment" phrase uttered by the Fox newsman got velcroed to the story of The Man Who Would Be the Oldest President in American History.

Mr. Hume's comment was all the more egregious when one considers that George W. Bush (now age 61) has been making those same mistakes for over six years, and nobody in the media has suggested the President has Alzheimer's. Tom "Nuke Mecca" Tancredo has likened Mexican immigrants to Al Qaeda-type terrorists, yet no one has called him senile.

And it's not like people over 70 have never led their nations. Ms. Goodman points to the most famous of the elder statesmen/women in recent history: Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, and Golda Meier. All three were as old or older than Sen. McCain when they held power. All three served their nations well.

Ultimately, however, it's not about age. It's about fitness for what has to be one of the most demanding jobs in the world. The question should not be "Is he too old?" It should be "Does he have any physical impairments which would preclude him from doing the job?" At this point, Ms. Goodman points to a very important issue.

But we have grown to expect a thorough health report on candidates. We knew about John Kerry's prostate cancer and Joe Biden's brain aneurysms. We know about McCain's war injuries and his melanoma, his cholesterol, and his allergies. We expect full assessments from every doctor except, well, neurologists. If airline pilots, some judges, and people in other occupations are subject to cognitive tests, why not presidential candidates?

Why not indeed? It's not about longevity, it's about competence. There have been and are very competent and very productive men and women over the age of 70. I know because I have butted heads with them in the courtroom and I've lost to them often enough to know that chronological age has nothing to do with it. At the same time, I've seen 70 year olds who, because of various debilitating conditions couldn't do the job. Age does enter into the equation but should not be the only (dis)qualifier.

Labels: ,

Friday, March 28, 2008

Friday Cat Blogging

Humorous Pictures

(Because Ruth is in Philadelphia.)

We're Finally Getting To The Good Part

I was beginning to think that we were never going to get to the point in the presidential campaign at which the candidates were going to talk about their plans and proposals for the country in detail and at which the press was actually going to report on those plans and proposals in an intelligent way. I feared that the months of personal sniping and whining were going to extend into August, and the front pages of our newspapers were going to be filled with that sniping and whining. Well, we've finally reached the stage where the real campaign has started and the press is finally beginning to report on it. Oh, there are still stories about whether Sen. Obama should have left his church and whether Sen. Clinton's faulty memory about sniper fire was a deliberate bald-faced lie, but an article in today's Los Angeles Times actually dealt with the three candidates' economic proposals and compared them in a fairly rational way.

The deteriorating economy took center stage in the presidential election Thursday as Democrat Barack Obama called for tighter regulation of financial markets and rival Hillary Rodham Clinton proposed more retraining for displaced workers, creating a sharp contrast with Republican John McCain over how much the government should intervene.

The economy has been the No. 1 issue for voters for months, but the candidates have embraced the issue more slowly. This week, however, all three gave major addresses that added significant detail to their prescriptions for the ailing economy.

Obama called Thursday for an overhaul of the nation's regulatory system, immediate relief for homeowners caught in the sub-prime mortgage crisis and a $30-billion economic stimulus package. Clinton, who had proposed a $30-billion fund to help prevent foreclosures a week ago, offered a new proposal to spend $12.5 billion on job-training programs.

McCain emphasized Thursday that he thought any federal aid should be limited to "deserving American families" who were "in danger of not realizing the American dream."

I suspect that all three candidates have been speaking to the issues all along, albeit in not very comprehensive ways, but you'd never know it from the press coverage. And that's the problem. The campaigns have essentially been press-directed, rather than the coverage being driven by the campaigns.

While the constant presence of Sen. Lieberman (I-Connecticut) at Sen. McCain's side is interesting, it doesn't say much about what Mr. McCain believes is the best way to pull the country out of its economic nose-dive. And the coverage for the Dems is much worse. I don't find Rev. Wright's prophetic utterances all that offensive, and I don't see what they have to do with Sen. Obama's foreign policy views. Sen. Hillary Clinton is the candidate, not her charming, ex-President husband, and what she has to say about health care access is ultimately more important than what he has to say about Sen. McCain's friendship with his wife.

Even I am not so naive as to believe that the press has finally turned the corner, but at least this article does give me hope that a real campaign of ideas is possible. More coverage in this vein would be welcome, and one way to get that coverage is for the candidates to continue to speak to the issues in ways that show the American electorate (and the rest of the world) just what is at stake.

May it be so.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Thursday Birdblogging

Hello, time to look at ostriches!

We retain water from all the plants we eat and our eyes are protected from desert sand storms by our thick eyelashes. As well, we have a special transparent eyelid-like membrane that protects our eyes from the harsh environment while allowing us to see. I, like most ostriches, am very capable of protecting myself against predators in the desert because even though I can't fly, I can run up to seventy kilometers per hour.


What's Going On?

Either someone has slipped something into the coffee of many of the major media outlets' editorial boards, or I'm getting soft (and that is certainly possible after the past 7+ years). Earlier this morning it was the NY Times. This time it's the Los Angeles Times.

Soon the U.S. Supreme Court will rule -- affirmatively, we hope -- on whether foreigners imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, for all practical purposes a part of the United States, can challenge their confinement in American courts. On Tuesday, the justices confronted a question that is the mirror image of the Guantanamo issue: whether two U.S. citizens being held by the U.S. military in Iraq may seek their release by petitioning a court for a writ of habeas corpus.

Common sense suggests that the answer is yes. The federal habeas corpus statute says that the writ can be sought by a prisoner "in custody under or by color of the authority of the United States." That legal description fits Shawqi Omar and Mohammad Munaf, two naturalized U.S. citizens being held in Iraq by the U.S. military but also accused of violating Iraqi law. (Munaf was sentenced to death by an Iraqi court for kidnapping, but his conviction has been quashed.)

During oral arguments, Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Gregory G. Garre told the court that habeas doesn't apply because the two Americans are being held not by their adoptive country but by an international force carrying out a mandate of the United Nations Security Council. Citing a 1948 Supreme Court decision, Garre compared the two Americans to Japanese war criminals who were denied the right to habeas because they had been convicted by an international tribunal -- albeit one impaneled by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
[Emphasis added]

At least one Justice (David H. Souter) found that argument pretty bogus, as it certainly is. Even if we don't forget Poland, that "international force" is under the direct control of the US military, not the UN, and that pretty much satisfies the application of the statute.

The writer of the editorial comes to the most just conclusion:

In a landmark free-speech decision in 1931, the Supreme Court observed that "in passing upon constitutional questions, the court has regard to substance, and not to mere matters of form." In the same spirit, the justices should reject the legal fiction urged on them by the Bush administration and allow two Americans held by U.S. authorities to assert their innocence before being turned over to Iraqi justice. And if a judge finds fault with the charges against them, they shouldn't be turned over at all but returned to their families in America.

Now if only the detainees in Guantanamo Bay could be so lucky.

Labels: ,

A Bad Plan Reintroduced

The one thing we can always count on is that the Bush administration will respond to judicial slaps on the wrist by doing the same damned thing that merited the slaps in the first place in the hopes that the judiciary has a collective short memory. Today's NY Times published an editorial giving us a prime example of this behavior.

Leave it to the Bush administration to throw thousands of law-abiding American workers and companies off a cliff in perilous economic times.

That would be the effect of its decision to press ahead with a bad idea: to force businesses to fire employees whose names don’t match the Social Security database. The purge is part of a campaign — along with scattershot workplace raids and the partial border fence — to make a show of tackling the broken immigration system.

The plan rests on the assumption that people with Social Security glitches are illegal immigrants using fake identities. Companies that receive “no match” letters warning of database discrepancies are given 90 days to clear them up. After that, they must fire the affected workers or face stiff penalties.
[Emphasis added]

The problem with that assumption is that the Social Security records are rife with errors. Marriage, alternative spellings of the same last name (my family's last name can be spelled several different ways; some actually have vowels), and name changes don't always get through the Social Security Administrations bureaucracy successfully. When that was pointed out to a federal judge, he got it the first time around, but that didn't faze the Bush administration:

A federal judge blocked the plan last year, warning that it would create havoc in the economy and lead to serious due-process violations for victims of clerical errors. The Social Security Administration’s inspector general has estimated that about 17.8 million of the agency’s 435 million records contain errors that could lead to a “no match” letter. Seventy percent of those 17.8 million records belong to native-born Americans.

The Department of Homeland Security responded to the judge’s objections by resubmitting its proposal last week essentially unchanged.
... [Emphasis added]

The editorialist urges the country to make the same stink it did the last time around so that this rank foolishness is once again stopped in its tracks. The problem is, however, that such an action is no doubt exactly what the administration and its party wants: immigration as an election year issue.

As I pointed out last night, the early shots have been fired in California. It looks like the war will be national in scope.

299 days.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

And Here's Another Plan

Well, I think we know what one of the major issues in the November elections is going to be, at least in California. The mother of a state assemblyman (how's that for a surrogate?) let drop one of the early bombs, according to this article in the Sacramento Bee.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, responding to the mother of a Republican state legislator, said Wednesday it would be a "big mistake" to blame illegal immigrants for the state's looming $8 billion budget problem.

The Republican governor was in San Luis Obispo to pitch his budget proposal to local officials and business leaders when he was asked by Diane Blakeslee, mother of Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, how the state should handle fiscal burdens created by illegal immigrants.

"There is, you know, always a time like this where you start pointing the finger at various different elements of what creates the budget mess, and, you know, some may point the finger at illegal immigrants," Schwarzenegger said. "I can guarantee you, I have been now four years in office in Sacramento, I don't think that illegal immigration has created the mess that we are in."

The governor's comments came a day after Assembly Republicans announced a package of 20 bills they said would help California reduce the "negative impact" that illegal immigrants have on the state budget. Included are proposals to repeal a law enabling undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition and to demand more money from the federal government for housing illegal immigrants in state prisons.
[Emphasis added]

It was nice to see Gov. Schwarzenegger respond appropriately for a change, even if his answer might have been tempered by the fact that he himself is an immigrant. In a very real sense, his answer was also correct: the budget mess is a creature of a state government committed to not raising taxes and a Constitutional Amendment passed by the electorate who got sold a bill of goods. That proposition requires a two-thirds super majority in the legislature for any new or raised taxes.

Still, it would have been nice if he had pointed to the fact that the "illegals" pay sales and gasoline taxes, and many pay, via payroll deductions, into Social Security and State Unemployment/Disability accounts they will never be able to access. It also would have been nice if he had shot down some of the other myths about the "illegals". There certainly is enough out there to fill an entire set of speeches. But, to be fair, he might have been caught off guard by the question by the nice lady.

And that brings me back to the fact that the mother of a sitting assemblyman asked the question the day after the Republicans in the legislature introduced some 20 bills to hate on the brown people (well, c'mon: Al Qaeda, El Qaeda...same thing). I think that's telling, but certainly not surprising.

Tom "Nuke Mecca" Tancredo built an entire presidential campaign around promising to make immigration a major issue (if not the major issue) of the November elections. He's gone, but his issue lingers. Sen. McCain had to be treated for whiplash for the change in his position on the issue primarily as the result of Tancredo's vile rhetoric.

It was to be expected. What else can the GOP run on? The economy? The War? National security? A stronger and more vibrant military? The Ownership Society? Climate change? The environment? Gas prices?

The question now is whether the Democratic candidates are ready to retire their soiled diapers and to replace them with a solid campaign to show what is still possible in this country.

We'll see.

Labels: , ,

Now Here's A Plan

Health insurance means access to health care. That sounds like a pretty simplistic statement, but for most of us, that is the only way we can count on getting in to see a doctor or be admitted to a hospital without signing over our home and our first-born. Getting health insurance has become a difficult and increasingly expensive procedure, especially if one's employer doesn't offer to provide it, or offers minimal coverage for the employee only. That's why the issue of government provided insurance is so important right now.

Unfortunately, whenever the discussion turns to the government provision of health insurance, it is always couched in the misleading term of "socialized medicine," and then the discussion stops cold. Jacob S. Hacker, a professor of political science at Yale, described the process quite clearly in an op-ed piece in today's Sacramento Bee.

"Socialized medicine" is the bogeyman that just won't die. The epithet has been hurled at every national health plan since the New Deal -- even Medicare, which critics warned would strip Americans of their freedom.

And now it's back. Republicans from President Bush on down have invoked the specter of socialism in denouncing Democrats' attempts to expand publicly funded health insurance for children. Erstwhile GOP presidential contenders Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney lambasted the health plans of the leading Democratic candidates for mimicking "the socialist solution they have in Europe" (Giuliani) and trying to impose "a European-style socialized medicine plan" (Romney). The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, hasn't used the S-word yet, but after sewing up the nomination in early March, he criticized Democrats for intending "to return to the failed, big-government mandates of the '60s and '70s to address problems such as the lack of health-care insurance for some Americans." Never mind that nobody is proposing to turn doctors into public employees and hospitals into government institutions -- the literal meaning of socialized medicine. ...
[Emphasis added]

Once the issue is framed in terms of health care access, universal health care access, then the discussion can continue, and can even face down those who claim that government insurance plans have resulted in a lowering of quality in those nations which have taken that path. Prof. Hacker points to the various studies which show that American health care isn't always all that good relative to other countries. And then he zeroes in on why he believes we can, and should, do better by getting the government involved as it has in Medicare.

...The best American medical care is indeed extremely good, but much of our system falls short -- especially when you consider how costly it is, how heavy a burden it places on employers and families, and how many it excludes. And far from being a threat, getting the government more involved in health care would actually reduce costs, improve quality and bolster the U.S. economy -- which helps explain why public insurance is the secret weapon in both of the leading Democratic candidates' plans. If socialized medicine means doing what our public-insurance programs and other nations' health systems do to control costs, expand coverage and improve the quality of care, it's high time for a little socialization. ...

To see the advantages of public insurance, just look at the program that once prompted the fiercest charges of socialized medicine, Medicare. Since the introduction of cost controls in the 1980s, Medicare's expenditures have grown at a substantially slower rate than spending on private insurance, according to a recent analysis by the health-care experts Cristina Boccuti and Marilyn Moon. And despite Medicare's comparative frugality, the program's beneficiaries express greater happiness with their coverage than do privately insured patients in surveys of consumer satisfaction.

And then the good professor roles out his plan, one he's shared with both Democratic presidential candidates.

The Lewin Group, a well-respected health-care consulting firm, recently estimated the potential impact of a health plan I've developed with the support of the Economic Policy Institute. The proposal -- which resembles the plans of the leading Democrats, whom I've advised -- requires employers either to cover their workers or to contribute to the cost of their workers' coverage.

Workers whose employers make the contribution will be enrolled in a public plan modeled after Medicare. Like those covered by Medicare, they will have the option of purchasing regulated private insurance instead. According to the estimates, this proposal would cover all but a tiny sliver of the non-elderly population -- about half through the new federal system and half through employers. Yet it would actually reduce national health spending, cost the federal government an eminently reasonable $50 billion a year (about what the Medicare drug benefit costs) and save states and employers big money.

How is it possible to cover everyone without driving up costs? The one-word answer is "government" -- specifically, government's ability to lower service prices, streamline administration and get a better deal on drugs, thus reducing medical inflation over time. And these are only the direct savings. Reducing the burden of health care on employers will allow them to compete more effectively (and on a level playing field) with foreign producers. Just as important, making coverage affordable for everyone will allow people to change jobs or start their own businesses without the fear of catastrophic costs or the hassle, expense and inadequacy of individually purchased coverage.

Such a national discussion is long over-due, probably because of the way in which the subject has been framed. It's time for our leaders to throw out the ancient inflammatory language and speak instead of access...universal access.


The Health Insurance Racket

There's more news on the ugly practice of policy cancellations ("rescissions") here in California. For a general background on how the insurance companies avoid paying out on policies they've collected premiums on, see here and here.

According to this article in the Los Angeles Times, the state is investigating the practice and will hold a meeting today with insurers. Unfortunately, it will be a closed door meeting, which means that neither the press nor consumer advocates will be allowed in.

California's largest health insurers, facing possible fines and other penalties for the way they sometimes cancel policies after patients pile up medical bills, meet today with regulators to discuss ongoing state enforcement efforts.

The meeting was called by the Department of Managed Health Care, which oversees health maintenance organizations and other types of health plans, because it was nearing completion of investigations into the cancellation practices of Health Net Inc., Kaiser Permanente and Blue Shield of California, said spokeswoman Lynne Randolph.

The department plans to discuss the standards to which it is holding the insurers' practices, she said, as well as remedies for problems identified in the probes of policy cancellations, known as rescissions. ...

Randolph said the results of the remaining three investigations would be announced soon but that the process -- including today's meeting with the health plans -- was confidential until then to protect the insurers' due-process rights.

The closed meeting has alarmed consumer advocates because it comes as the insurance industry is pushing a plan that critics believe could make it easier for sick patients to lose coverage through no fault of their own. But the department said the industry's proposal was not on the agenda.
[Emphasis added]

It's nice that the Department of Managed Health Care is concerned with due process, but it would have been nicer if it were as concerned with the due process of the policy holders as well, especially since the insurance industry is busy coming up with a plan to keep the process of rescissions out of the court system which has already busted some chops over the issue.

Several insurance companies and America's Health Insurance Plans, a Washington-based trade group, are promoting versions of a plan to create an independent review process for rescissions in efforts to restore confidence in the affected individual insurance market.

Consumer advocates said the industry proposal actually would eliminate existing consumer protections. The proposal would require patients to submit to an insurer's internal grievance procedures and then to a third-party review before resorting to the public courts.

If the third-party reviewer found in favor of the insurer, the patient would have the burden of proving in court that the decision was wrong. The proposal, aimed at avoiding litigation, would not allow patients in such cases to pursue punitive damages.
[Emphasis added]

It's pretty clear why such a proposal is important to the health insurance industry: the courts have already found the rescission practice as implemented by the main insurers unfair and unlawful and worthy of punitive damages. The article gave an example of how it was used in one case.

In the first reported verdict in a rescission lawsuit in California, a judge awarded more than $9 million last month to Patsy Bates, a Gardena hair salon owner dropped by Health Net while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

The largest portion of Bates' award was punitive damages. Evidence showed that the company paid bonuses to an employee based in part on the number and value of rescissions she carried out.


And that kind of behavior needs to be examined in the sunlight, not behind closed doors. The department should be ashamed.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Not Much Chance of This Happening

I generally don't bother to read blogs written as part of the main stream media's on line sites. Generally, they aren't worth the effort. On occasion, however, I do make a foray into the NY Times editorial writers' blog, "The Board." Most of the time I discover that it was indeed not worth the effort, but today was at least a little more fruitful.

The topic of the latest entry is Alphonso Jackson, current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. I've posted on some of Mr. Jackson's questionable actions in the past, including the fact that the FBI was investigating him for rewarding developer friends as part of the post-Katrina clean-up. Today, "The Board" provided a nice summary of those actions, and some of the others he has engaged in since getting his swell appointment.

Alphonso Jackson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, shocked an audience of business leaders two years ago when he told of denying a government contract solely because the head of the bidding company spoke ill of President Bush. ...

Funny thing: now Mr. Jackson stands accused of just these sorts of shenanigans. Specifically, he is the subject of investigations by Congress into allegations that he rewarded developer friends and abused political enemies in doling out taxpayers’ funds. ...

Mr. Jackson is accused of channeling hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts to friends in the housing industry in the Virgin Islands and to others in the lucrative post-Katrina cleanup in New Orleans.

Senior HUD officials have complained that Mr. Jackson instructed them to take into account political ties when making contract awards. He denies it.

Mr. Jackson also denies Philadelphia housing officials’ charge that their city was punished after their housing commissioner refused demands to turn over $2 million worth of public land to a friend of Mr. Jackson, according to local newspapers.

Now, my first thought while reading this at 3:30 AM (PDT) was "Heh, old news." After another gallon of coffee throughout the day, I realized that this was actually a very timely reprise of some important news. Right now, one of the hottest stories has to do with the mortgage bubble bursting, people losing their homes, and developers backing off on housing projects because loans are getting harder to come by. This Jackson guy was head of Housing and Urban Development. This is when he's supposed to be working with his counterparts in other agencies to try to come up with some solutions (or, at the very least, some bandaids) for what will soon be some critical problems with respect to housing in general, and affordable housing in specific.

And he's doing what? Not much, apparently, which is understandable since he's facing investigations into some pretty serious charges. He's been hauled into congressional hearings and performed sufficiently abominably that Sen. Patty Murray (D- Washington) and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) have written to the President urging that he demand Mr. Jackson's resignation. I suspect that both senators have been greeted by the sound of crickets.

And that is just one example of why this period of time is so dangerous. President Bush, like his HUD Secretary, is otherwise engaged. It's the last nine months of his reign (FSM-willing) and he has a legacy to burnish, and that legacy is tied up in Iraq. Democrats have a flat-out nasty nomination campaign on their hands, so it doesn't appear that many of them are paying attention to the really serious problems that are emerging nationally both on the domestic and the foreign fronts.

And that is where the free press and the citizenry come in.

So, I have to admit that "The Board" was worth a visit today. Now, if they just keep it up, not only on "The Board," but also on the front page and on the editorial page.

Labels: , ,

They Can Always Go To The Emergency Room

Here's California's version of the trickle-down theory: cut social services and drive providers out of the market. That's what's happening with Medi-Cal, the safety net for the poor. In order to balance the budget without raising taxes, Governor Schwarzenegger has cut reimbursement rates to the point where doctors and clinics are now closing their doors to Medi-Cal patients. As a result, more of the poor are using emergency rooms, which are far more costly, as this story in yesterday's Los Angeles Times makes clear.

Reimbursement rates, doctors say, already are so low that a patient office visit nets only $24. Some clinics say the numbers simply don't work anymore. The result: Thousands of patients guaranteed healthcare under state law can't get in to a doctor's office, so they don't go or they sit for hours in an emergency room.

Experts warn that things may get much worse.

Chris Perrone, an analyst who tracks Medi-Cal issues for the California Healthcare Foundation, said Medi-Cal risks are becoming so unattractive to doctors that the program could soon "fall off the edge." ...

Funded jointly by the state and federal government, Medi-Cal is California's second-biggest expenditure after education. It is projected to cost $38 billion next year, with about $15 billion drawn from the state's general fund. The program serves 6.7 million poor, elderly and disabled people.

The projected savings from the cuts, say state officials: more than $500 million annually.

The Legislature's nonpartisan budget analyst, Elizabeth G. Hill, had advised against the cut because it could discourage so many doctors from taking Medi-Cal that patients would be forced into emergency rooms, where treatment is far more costly. The state will also lose hundreds of millions of dollars in matching federal funds.

Medi-Cal is an easy target because it is such a huge part of the state budget. Part of the problem could have been eased by passage of the universal healthcare proposed by the governor and championed by some Democratic leaders. Medi-Cal reimbursement rates would actually have been increased with money from some of the fees included in that plan. Unfortunately, the plan got dashed by Republicans and some Democrats because it either went too far or not far enough. This is the governor's response to that defeat.

So, because in many instances doctors actually lose money by taking Medi-Cal patients, more doctors are closing their doors to the poor. The result will be felt in the coming months and years.

"It's ludicrous that every time we have someone who needs to see an orthopedic surgeon for a broken arm, our only option is to send them to the emergency room where they have to sit for four hours," said Ramos, the Modesto-area physician. "It is a huge waste of money, it is a huge waste of resources, and it is not good patient care."


Labels: ,

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Hidden Casualties

We hit another milestone this weekend: the number of dead US soldiers in Iraq reached 4,000. That's horrible, but just as horrible is the number of US casualties, those who were badly injured fighting in that illegal and misbegotten war. While the number varies, depending on what the Pentagon feels like telling us on any given day, one number which gets bandied about is 30,000. That means 30,000 families now have to cope with an often brain-injured loved one, and without much help from the government.

There is a heartbreaking story in today's Boston Globe that details just what one wife is having to go through. It was staggering, especially since she pretty much is going it alone. I won't recite the facts of that particular story (although I do urge you to go read the article, because it's stunning), but I will recite some of the facts surrounding the help our wounded and their families get once they come home.

More than 30,000 troops have been wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the care they receive has been a subject of national scrutiny. But little attention has been paid to their families, many of whom now have to live with maimed or traumatized veterans. Injured veterans' families and advocates say the support that exists for such families is insufficient.

"It's still under the radar," said Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war veteran and director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a private advocacy organization. "This country is still getting its head around the scope of the difficulties facing veterans themselves."

Recognizing that family members of injured veterans need extra help, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs in December announced a $4.7 million package of services for the families of injured veterans that includes help with transportation, respite care, and emotional support. Congress this January expanded the Family and Medical Leave Act to stipulate that employers must allow caretakers to take off up to 26 weeks instead of 12 to care for severely injured service members.

But that is not enough, said Rieckhoff and other advocates. The injured veterans' relatives also need help navigating the bureaucracy of the benefits system; extra money to compensate for jobs they have given up in order to take care of their loved ones; counseling; help with child care and even with such basic things as doing the laundry and getting groceries.

$4.7 million: well, big whoop! That works out to about $155 per family. That's going to go along way with gasoline now costing $3.50 a gallon in many states and a 12 ounce tin of coffee costing just under $5. Yup, that'll pay the rent in a family trying to live on Social Security and a military disability pension because the other worker in the family has had to quit his or her job to take care of the injured warrior.

And I can just hear Vice President Cheney's response to this kind of news:


302 days.

Labels: ,

More About Those Damned Voting Machines

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen now doesn't look quite so stupid for decertifying most of the state's electronic voting machines late last year (see my post here). In fact, it appears she didn't go far enough, if this article in today's Sacramento Bee is any measure.

Improper maintenance of some of Sacramento County's voting machines – and the tint of the Feb. 5 ballots – were to blame for malfunctions that sidelined vote-counting scanners and delayed results of last month's presidential primary, according to the county's top election official. ...

Because of the malfunction, all ballots had to be counted in the election department's central command in south Sacramento – instead of some being processed as usual at the precincts.

The accuracy of last month's vote was not in question, county officials said.

During its investigation, the county said that the vendor that supplies and maintains the scanners, Elections Systems & Software, conducted improper recalibration and preventive maintenance on the machines in December.

In addition, the report said that ballots printed by Consolidated Printers were too dark to allow the ballot to be correctly read by the faulty scanners.

The county said both vendors cooperated during the administrative inquiry. ESS will recalibrate the county's scanners without charge in time for the June 3 election, election officials said.

This isn't Diebold, and these are scanning machines (the ones that count the votes when the 'ink-a-blot' ballot is passed through them), but the result could have been just as disastrous. Fortunately, Sacramento County had a back-up system and the votes were counted, it just took longer. Surely we can come up with a better process. Elections are just too important (especially the one coming up in November) for these kinds of glitches.

Labels: ,

War? What War?

Now here's a nifty headline: "The War Endures, but Where’s the Media?." Good question, and the article that accompanies the headline in today's NY Times suggests some rather disturbing answers.

Five years later, the United States remains at war in Iraq, but there are days when it would be hard to tell from a quick look at television news, newspapers and the Internet.

...Iraq coverage by major American news sources has plummeted, to about one-fifth of what it was last summer, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The drop in coverage parallels — and may be explained by — a decline in public interest. Surveys by the Pew Research Center show that more than 50 percent of Americans said they followed events in Iraq “very closely” in the months just before and after the war began, but that slid to an average of 40 percent in 2006, and has been running below 30 percent since last fall.

Experts offer many other explanations for the declining media focus, like the danger and expense in covering Iraq, and shrinking newsroom budgets. In the last year, a flagging economy and the most competitive presidential campaign in memory have diverted attention and resources.
[Emphasis added]

So, there you have it. We don't get much news on the war (wars, actually: remember Afghanistan?) because people aren't interested, it's too dangerous, it's too expensive, and people want to know more about Barack Obama's minister and Hillary Clinton's appointment book.

Some of these reasons aren't too compelling. People aren't interested in the war? I can think of at least 4,000 families who are very interested. Those grieving families aside, however, I think it more probable that the lack of interest isn't propelling the lessened coverage, but the other way around. The lessened coverage is keeping the war out of the public consciousness and is affecting the public debate of such issues as troop withdrawal and the cost of the wars on our economy.

With a more robust coverage of a war in which 150,000 American troops are committed it is entirely possible that the presidential candidates would be forced to talk about such matters as the war itself, the Middle East as a tinder box to which we have contributed mightily, and foreign policy itself in more concrete terms than they are currently.

But it's too dangerous: too many journalists have been killed. Well, yes, covering a war is dangerous. Those who covered World War II and the Viet Nam war will attest to that, but somehow we got the news on a daily (and nightly) basis, and not just from Pentagon hand-outs.

That leaves us with the final and most compelling reason: it's too expensive. Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, put it quite succinctly:

“Danger and the expense are gigantic factors,” Mr. Jones said. “The news media have to constantly revisit how much money and risk to expend.”

And that's what it boils down to: the corporate owner's bottom line. It costs too much money to cover the war. It's no accident that this article was placed in the NY Times Business Section.

That's what this country's vaunted press has been reduced to: a bottom line.

Labels: ,

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sunday Poetry: Hilda Doolittle


All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre as of olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.

All Greece reviles
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills.

Greece sees, unmoved,
God's daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funereal cypresses.

Hilda Doolittle

Lessons We Still Haven't Learned

We can't have universal health care access because it's too expensive. We can't adequately fund Medicare because there's just not enough money to do it. Ever wonder about that? Well, the rest of the world has, and some have even pointed to what one of the sources of our current economic woes just might be. From an op-ed piece in the March 22, 2008 Korea Herald (South Korea):

As the United States and the world mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, debates are raging about the consequences -- for Iraq, the Middle East, and America's standing in the world. But the Iraq war's domestic impact -- the Pentagon's ever mushrooming budget and its long-term influence on the U.S. economy -- may turn out to be its most lasting consequence.

The U.S. Defense Department's request for $515.4 billion in the 2009 fiscal year dwarfs every other military budget in the world. And this huge sum - a 5 percent increase over the 2008 military budget - is to be spent only on the U.S. military's normal operations, thus excluding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since he took office in 2001, President George W. Bush has increased America's regular military budget by 30 percent, again not taking into account the cost of the wars he launched. Last year, America's entire military and counterterrorism expenditures topped $600 billion. One can assume that next year's total spending on military affairs will be even bigger. Adjusted for inflation, U.S. military spending has reached its highest level since World War II.

It's not like we're in some kind of race. The next biggest military budget is that of the United Kingdom at $55 billion. Why the huge expansion these past seven years? The explanation we have been given is that we're engaged in the Global War On Terror. If you stop to think about it, however, that is hardly a rational reason, as Pascal Boniface (the author of the piece) points out. In fact, he maintains, there are far more productive ways to use our money and our efforts.

After all, the dangers that America faces today do not come from nation states, but from non-states actors against whom nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers are useless. It would be less expensive and more fruitful for America to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, return to a multilateral approach, and respect the moral principles that it recommends to others. Likewise, only by adopting such a strategy can the United States start to compress the Pentagon's inflated budget and begin to address its many domestic woes.

Like we used to suggest back in the '60s: maybe the Pentagon could hold a bake sale. That way we could use our treasure in a more fruitful manner.

Labels: ,

Rant On

Senator Clinton and Senator Obama: stop it.

No, really.

Cut out the crap.

Your attacks on each other (whether delivered by you or by your surrogates) are unseemly, annoying, and may wind up killing our chances in November. Most of us are sick of you both behaving like petulant five year olds. The "he started it, no she started it" bull is working on our last nerve.

Look, at this point, as far as I or anyone else can tell, there's isn't a dime-slot's bit of difference between you two. You want the nomination? Then show us why you should have it, but not by castigating your opponent. Instead, give us your plans. The issues are there (in spades), start confronting them with positive programs. You don't have to give all the details. Your Congress will want some say in that, but you could at least give us the broad outlines.

Contrary to popular belief, the American electorate is not stupid. Well, apparently 30% are, but I suspect a goodly portion of that 30% are not stupid, just greedy. Talk to the rest of us. Educate us.

And don't be afraid to take on the most difficult of issues. I think you will find that one of the reasons they are difficult is that most politicians (as distinguished from statesmen/women) are too cowardly to talk about them. You might have to reframe the issue (because the buggers in office have screwed that part up so completely), but use some creativity and do so. You don't even have to make things up: the facts are there.

Like immigration. Now, Senator McCain (who is your real opposition) had a fairly reasonable approach to immigration reform, but then he entered the race for president and did a quick 180. You don't have to do that. All you have to do is study up a little. A good place to start is an op-ed piece published in yesterday's Los Angeles Times. You'll find some facts that rarely (if ever) are mentioned.

For lack of a dialogue, wrongheaded facts fester in the public imagination, namely that immigration is accelerating, that prosperity is threatened and that assimilation is stalled. One fact that is a surprise to many people is that the annual flow of immigrants -- legal and illegal combined -- ended its surge in 2000 and has been in decline since. Projections by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Social Security Administration and the Pew Hispanic Center all concur: The rate of new immigrants per 1,000 current residents will stabilize or drop further over the next 20 years.

Meanwhile, a study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that immigrants often complement local labor and actually prop up real wages for most native-born Californians. Any wage-depressing effects on particular low-skilled populations, many economists contend, could be more effectively addressed through direct wage support than through restrictionist measures.

And how many know that the majority of Latino immigrants in California become homeowners after 20 years in this country, climbing from poverty and buying into the American dream? Indeed, our analysis of Los Angeles using the most recent American Community Survey from the Census Bureau indicates that long-term immigrants are more likely to own homes than U.S.-born residents; that the percentage who speak English "well" or "very well" rises dramatically with time in the country; and that immigrants' children are as fluent in English as native Californians.

There. Is that so hard?

What? You're afraid that Americans don't want to hear about anything short of felony convictions and high-tech fences? Guess again. For a huge part of this country, the immigrant population consists of the family next door, or the kids our kids play soccer with. And as for that other 30%: do you really think that any of them will ever really vote for you? You can put down that pipe now. Your campaigns will be more focused.

Look: here's a quarter for each of you. Go buy yourselves a freakin' clue. Your nation will be the better for it.

/rant off.

Labels: ,

Another Unsurprise

President George W. Bush has put fewer plants and animals on the Endangered List in seven years than his father did in one year. His Interior Department found all sorts of canny ways to manage this negative accomplishment according to this article in today's Washington Post.

Controversies have occasionally flared over Interior Department officials who regularly overruled rank-and-file agency scientists' recommendations to list new species, but internal documents also suggest that pervasive bureaucratic obstacles were erected to limit the number of species protected under one of the nation's best-known environmental laws.

The documents show that personnel were barred from using information in agency files that might support new listings, and that senior officials repeatedly dismissed the views of scientific advisers as President Bush's appointees either rejected putting imperiled plants and animals on the list or sought to remove this federal protection.

Officials also changed the way species are evaluated under the 35-year-old law -- by considering only where they live now, as opposed to where they used to exist -- and put decisions on other species in limbo by blocking citizen petitions that create legal deadlines.

The excuse offered by the Interior Department? They've been too busy defending lawsuits against the department for failing to list new species. How's that for an Alice In Wonderland explanation.

The result has been the loss of several species, and the article listed a couple of them. Of course, there's no way to get an accurate count, nor to determine what those losses will lead to as the ecology is altered by those losses. But the argricorps and land developers are happy: they haven't had to deal with those pesky environmental issues under Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

The irony of one delisting will, of course, be lost on the administration which doesn't do nuance: that of the American Bald Eagle in Arizona's Sonoran Desert, even though there are only 50 breeding pairs instead of the desire goal of 500.

Heckuva job, Dirk.

303 days.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bonus Critter Blogging: Kodiak Bear

(Photograph by George F. Mobley and published at National Geographic.)


One of the earliest clues that our country was in for a really rocky ride under the Bush administration came shortly after 9/11 when then Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was asked about the trouble Bill Maher was in for some comments he made about the bravery of the criminals who drove planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Here is what Mr. Fleischer said on 9/26/01:

...they're reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.

The threat was clear. It was time to dispense with the Bill of Rights. We needed to fall in line.

I was reminded of that statement yesterday when I was perusing the articles over at Watching America. The US is still making threats, thinly veiled though they may be.

This time the memory was evoked by another case of the State Department inserting itself into Middle Eastern affairs. Needless to say, those countries were not pleased by the threat implicit in a State Department statement, if this editorial in the United Arab Emirates' Gulf News is any indication.

The US, in a threatening tone, has called on Arab states to think carefully when it comes to attending or boycotting the upcoming Arab League summit, which is to be held in Syria at the end of this month. Controversy has been surrounding the summit due to the presidential crisis in Lebanon. ...

But the issue at hand is not whether Arab leaders should or should not attend the summit. It is a sovereign right of the leadership of each nation to decide on that. The US is in no way party to the dealings of the Arab League. In fact, the position that has been taken by the American administration on the matter and the warning it has issued complicates the situation further. The countries that were perhaps hesitant in reaching a final decision would by now have recognised the intimidation, and the countries that had decided not to attend the summit would be seen as bowing to American pressure. If the US is incapable of finding peaceful means to resolving problems, it should just stay away from dictating orders and issuing threats.
[Emphasis added]

Seven years later, and this administration is still engaging in diplomacy-by-threat, and it is no more successful now than it was at the start. Oh, we may have bombed two countries into smithereens, killed hundreds of thousands of innocents and lost nearly 4,000 American soldiers and Marines in the process, but we have accomplished nothing. The Global War On Terror, a sham from the beginning, has succeeded only in making us the object of the deepest scorn and has made our security even less, well, secure.

Heckuva job, Condi!

304 days

Labels: ,

Surrender Monkeys!!!!1!!

Apparently the recent French elections have jolted President Nicolas Sarkozy out of his honeymoon. He delivered a speech yesterday in which he issued quite a challenge to the rest of the world's nuclear powers and in which he also announced a reduction in French nuclear warheads, according to an AP report:

President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would cut France's nuclear arsenal to fewer than 300 warheads, seeking to balance defense of the nation - he mentioned the threat from Iran - against budgetary and changed strategic considerations.

In his first major speech as president on the French deterrent, Sarkozy also urged the United States and China to fully commit to a treaty banning tests of nuclear weapons. ...

Sarkozy's decision to reveal the rough size of France's arsenal - the Defense Ministry said the exact number of warheads is still secret - appeared aimed at prodding other nuclear powers to be equally transparent.

While the drop in the number of warheads isn't dramatic (according to the article, The Federation of American Scientists puts the current number of French nuclear warheads at 348, with the US holding 3,575 and Russia 3,239), it is still a reduction. Further, President Sarkozy wants more than just a token reduction from the other powers, and that is as significant a challenge as his call for transparency:

Sarkozy used his announcement of French weapons cuts to drive home calls for other nations to also dismantle nuclear test sites and for negotiations on treaties to ban short- and intermediate-range ground-to-ground missiles and to ban the manufacturing of fissile material for nuclear weapons. He also pressured to China and the United States to ratify a nuclear test ban treaty they signed in 1996. France ratified it a decade ago.

[French defense expert Francois] Heisbourg said ratification by China and the United States would "put pressure on countries that have been building things that look like test sites, like the North Koreans or, indeed, the Iranians." ...

He also said a global treaty banning intermediate-range missiles could put severe pressure on India, Iran, Pakistan and North Korea - which all have either tested nuclear weapons or are thought to have programs to develop them - to join the ban or "pay a political price."

Will the US meet the challenge? Well, certainly not this administration. Last March it awarded a contract for the development of new-and-improved nuclear warheads (see my post here for the details). And President Bush has made it clear that he has no intention of abiding by treaties already ratified by the US, much less of ratifying the 1996 treaty.

Still, President Sarkozy (who made it clear he also is worried about a nuclear Iran) has at least opened the door a bit, for which the rest of the world should be grateful. Hopefully the next US administration will walk through that door.


Friday, March 21, 2008

But At Least He Won't Raise Taxes

Back in the '90's, when welfare reform was a hot priority, one of the problems in getting welfare mothers into the workforce was that they were, of course, mothers. Childcare was so expensive that those women couldn't afford to go to work at entry level jobs and pay to have their children taken care of properly. In response to that, California began subsidizing child care. Grandparents, neighbors, siblings received a stipend from the state for watching the kids while mom worked. Unfortunately, the pay was lousy and the hours worked were long.

Last year, and again this year, a bill was drafted and passed by the state legislature allowing for collective bargaining for the child care providers. Last year, and again this year, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. From today's Sacramento Bee:

Legislation to grant collective bargaining rights to grandmas, aunts and other subsidized child-care providers was vetoed Thursday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Senate Bill 867 targeted a pivotal service for low-income parents, with about 90,000 providers assisting 700,000 families at a public cost of more than $3 billion.

Schwarzenegger's veto message cited the state's massive budget deficit, which despite recent trims is pegged at $8 billion.

"Given California's significant budget challenge, I cannot consider bills that would add significant fiscal pressures to the state's structural budget deficit," he wrote.
[Emphasis added]

The Governator doesn't believe that this section of the workforce has the right to join a union, even though state employees have long held that right. Yes, the stipend would no doubt be more expensive, but then welfare was expensive, much more expensive than paying a decent wage for decent child care. And it's not like it's a free ride for these families. The working mothers are paying state income and sales taxes.

The stipend was intended to give the care givers an incentive, but the poor wages and long hours turned out not to be much of an incentive, as the bill's sponsors pointed out:

Supporters of SB 867 said it would bolster a vital program that suffers from extreme turnover – an estimated 30 percent to 40 percent annually – because providers typically work more than 60 hours per week for annual salaries of less than $16,000. [Emphasis added]

That's like, what? Less than $6 an hour? That's not even minimum wage.

Like his counterpart in Washington, Gov. Schwarzenegger insists on balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and vulnerable. Far better that than expecting the wealthy to share in the burden.

What a travesty.

Labels: ,

Friday Catblogging

This is Jocabel, she lives on the hood of my car. She's a love, but my neighbors tell me she will not come to them. I took a lot of time getting her to visit with me. Lying on the porch singing 'I'll Never Hurt You I'll Never Try', was part of that.


The Supreme Court Talks About Race

And they got it right. Well, at least seven of the justices did. From a NY Times article:

The Supreme Court, ruling that a Louisiana prosecutor had used improper tactics to pick an all-white jury for a black defendant’s murder trial, on Wednesday overturned the conviction of a man who has been on death row for 12 years.

The vote was 7 to 2, with Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissenting. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the opinion. It was the second time since he joined the court more than two years ago that Justice Alito voted for the defendant in a criminal case in which the court was divided.

Although the opinion hewed closely to the facts of the case, the decision was nonetheless a significant elaboration of the court’s ruling 22 years ago in Batson v. Kentucky. That case opened the door for individual defendants to challenge jury selection on the ground of racial discrimination.

As the article points out, the decision did not break any new ground and it did hew closely to the rather shocking facts of the case, but it did make clear that the court meant what it said in the Batson case when it came to challenging jurors solely on the basis of race.

What I found significant is that Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion, showing not only an appreciation for precedent but also the sense to reject what was clearly an unacceptable prosecutorial strategy. That such racist strategies are still in play in this country only underlines the points that Sen. Barack Obama delivered in his speech on race a couple of days ago.

Both the decision and Sen. Obama's speech give me a little hope. It is Spring, after all, a time for renewal and regeneration.

More like this, please.

Labels: ,

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Thursday Birdblogging

This wonderful hummingbird was brought to my attention by plantsman, who sent me to a wonderful site full of pictures of hummers. for those of you who don't visit the site yourself, they say All of our hummingbird shoots have been located at the Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, about forty miles south of Tucson in southern Arizona. You should go see more great pictures like this, however. And below, and exquisite shot of celebration;

Indian schoolchildren in Ahmadabad rub colour on each other to celebrate Holi, the Festival of Colours or Spring Festival, ahead of the official celebrations on Saturday.


Our 'Real' Economy

Business reports have been referring to the 'real' economy in attempts to lessen the worries we have about the lack of value of our financial sector's investments. It seems like a strange reference, but this morning I read a good use of it, in talking about the kinds of programs the government needs to establish to raise income prospects for the American worker, or consumer, who is the basis for any sound economy.

At The Sideshow this morning, Avedon has comments that reflect on the unreality of our financial sector's conception of money. "When the Fed 'comes up with' money, it literally creates it out of thin air."

Housing prices rose to heights that were artificial in our recent bubble, divorced from actual value, in the buying binge that led to rollovers and investing rather than real housing. The loss of homes is also loss of equity, or savings. It is also in some measure a loss of jobs, in the real estate market, furnishing and construction among others.

After the depression reduced our economy to rubble in the 1920's, CCC camps were brought into play, teaching skills and bringing building projects to the unemployed, producing income to help individuals and the economy as a whole. It worked then, and there is no reason it couldn't work now.

Manhattan's culture of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous collapse has been on display in recent days as it has not since 1929. Now, as then, an edifice of shaky credit is toppling. Now, as then, what we took to be prosperity turns out to have been a bubble.

The key lesson Americans need to learn from today's troubles is how to distinguish faux prosperity from the genuine article. Over the past hundred years, we've experienced both. In the three decades after World War II we had the real thing. Led by our manufacturing sector, productivity increased at a rapid clip and median family incomes rose at a virtually identical rate. The value of the American work product grew significantly and that value was shared with American workers.

But we've had other periods of apparent prosperity that were based not on broad increases in personal income but on the inflation of assets. So it was with stocks in the late 1920s, a time when most Americans lacked substantial purchasing power. So it was with the dot-com bubble of the late '90s. And so it was with the rising value of American homes in recent years.

In the broadest sense, the American economy over the past three decades has been powered by ever more ingenious extensions of credit to a people whose incomes were going nowhere, unless they were in the wealthiest 10 percent of the population. There were some limits, as a result of New Deal regulations, on how old-line banks could extend credit, but investment banks and other institutions not legally obliged to keep a certain amount of cash in reserve operated under no such constraints. The risk was that one day, burdened by debt and static incomes, American homeowners would have trouble making their payments and the house of cards would come tumbling down. But what were the odds of that?

Pretty good, it turns out. And out of this debacle emerge two paramount lessons for our highest-ranking policymakers: Regulate the American financial sector, which is now turning to the government for a bailout. And commit the government to doing all in its power to generate broad-based prosperity, through laws enabling workers to bargain collectively, through a massive public commitment to projects "greening" the economy, through provision of universal health coverage and affordable college educations.
(Emphasis added.)

The discussion at Eschaton has suggested this kind of improvement in our economy more than once, and it's good to see that responsible pundits are bringing it up. Our business sector has gotten so removed from reality that they have neglected the basic need for a consumer class that they can sell to. Under a new administration with actual thinking and planning brought back into government, the betterment of our working class can be brought into play for the good of all the sectors.

Our economic prospects show little promise without the creation of income.

OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] chief economist Jorgen Elmeskov said the Bank of England should be cautious, given the solid growth and worries over inflation.

The research group said the US economy is, "essentially moving sideways, if not contracting outright."

The OECD, which represents the 30 most advanced industrial countries, now expects the US economy to grow just 0.1% in the first 3 months of this year, down from its original 0.3% forecast.

In the second three months, it reduced its forecast to zero growth, down from 0.4%.

Our financial sector ignored the simple fact that it needs wealth in order to use that wealth, and playing with money is not creation of 'real' wealth.

Today's job report shows the increase in unemployment of 22,000 since last week, at 378,000. Those are people who will not be able to support our economy. They, and we, need government devoted to making the jobless plight of workers into a prospect of jobs, and income.

Labels: , ,

In Which I Eat Crow

Please pass the mustard.

From the day that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told us that impeachment was "off the table" I have been ragging on her backside and on the 110th Congress, and, I submit, for good reason. We're still funding that illegal and misbegotten war in Iraq; President Bush has successfully vetoed several important bills, including those on stem cell research and health insurance for children; and there is still no guarantee that a reasonable check on the administration's domestic spying will be rammed down the White House gullet.

However, (she said, swallowing hard), Speaker Pelosi managed to push through an extremely important ethics reform bill, one that even her own party was hardly thrilled with. In an op-ed piece published yesterday in The Sacramento Bee, Washington Post writer Marie Cocco points out just how hard Speaker Pelosi had to work to get the new, independent and bipartisan ethics panel through the House.

Elections do matter. Some people who win office really do keep campaign promises. And legislation the public wants - but which the politicians, by and large, don't - actually can be enacted, even if the kicking and screaming can practically be heard coming from behind those infamously closed doors.

This is what the House of Representatives has proved by at last creating an outside panel to hear complaints of ethical wrongdoing by its members. ...

Word of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's successful struggle - and it was a struggle - to push through a new rule requiring the outside panel of ethical arbiters was buried under a torrent of campaign news and the bitter exchange of accusation over the House's refusal to go along with giving blanket immunity to telecommunications companies who were involved in the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program. Nonetheless, its significance is political and substantive.

Political, because ethics reform was a central Democratic campaign pledge in the 2006 elections; the rallying cry against the Republican "culture of corruption" helped the party win control of the chamber. Once in power, however, Pelosi's call for an outside ethics panel faced heated opposition from Republicans and from many Democrats who are comfortable, indeed, with the back-scratching ethical compromises that have long been part of Capitol Hill culture.

But vociferous demands from the new members who won their seats on ethics platforms - and must defend them in November - were coupled with Pelosi's sheer will: "You're going to do this, whether you like it or not," she told members behind closed doors, according to a staffer. The result of months of massaging the proposal was a 229-182 vote last week to establish the outside panel. Most Republicans - 159 - voted against the plan; 23 Democrats joined them in opposition.

The days of flashing cash on the floor of the House are over. So are the days when an ethics panel member can be removed by his own party for daring to investigate a house power (as was the case when the Tom DeLay scandal was finally coming to light). Democrats running in 2006 promised an end to that kind of corruption, and Nancy Pelosi delivered.

For that we all should be grateful. Thank you, Speaker Pelosi: you did well.

Now, Madame Speaker, how about flexing some of that muscle on the other issues which matter so much to this nation at this critical juncture? We can't wait for another 8 months.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Very Serious And Very Consistent

As we celebrate the Fifth Anniversary of Dear Leader's Invasion of Iraq, I found it most helpful to read the inspirational and erudite column of two scholars, Christopher Cerf and Victor S. Navasky, in today's Los Angeles Times. I urge you all to click on over to get the full impact of the results of their studies, and to give you some encouragement, I am herewith providing a few snippets from that weighty column.

We can state without fear of contradiction that never before in the history of institute surveys has there been such a dramatic consensus among experts -- those who, by virtue of official status, academic standing, formal title, mastery of jargon and/or number of publications, are presumed to know what they are talking about.

They all seemed to agree that:

* The link between Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks was (to quote New York Times columnist William Safire) an "undisputed fact."

* Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. ("Only a fool, or possibly a Frenchman, would think otherwise": Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.)

* The cost of war would be cheap at the price. ("We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction": then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.)

* The U.N.'s chief weapons inspector was unreliable. (Hans Blix "couldn't find the stretch marks on Rosie O'Donnell": Laura Ingraham, syndicated radio host.)

* Torture is justifiable. ("Reasonable people will disagree about when torture is justified": John C. Yoo, then-deputy assistant attorney general.)

* Abu Ghraib was not all that bad. (Abu Ghraib "is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation": Rush Limbaugh.)

* The U.S. won the war within weeks. ("The only people who think this wasn't a victory are Upper West Side liberals and a few people here in Washington": Charles Krauthammer, syndicated columnist.)

Yes, these very serious people all agree: Iraq was a good thing.

Labels: ,