Tuesday, September 30, 2008

No Misunderstimatin'

Several disastrous interviews and Saturday Night Live skits later, the Republicans are beginning to wonder if Sen. McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was such a good idea after all. While their "base" (conservative religionists) have been "energized," apparently the rest of the country isn't quite so sure that Ms. Palin should be the Vice President, only a heartbeat away from the presidency. The "rah-rah" boys are being crowded out by the "whatever was he thinking?!?" cadre, at least according to Adam Nagourney's column in today's NY Times

A month after Gov. Sarah Palin joined Senator John McCain’s ticket to a burst of excitement and anticipation among Republicans, she heads into a critical debate facing challenges from conservatives about her credentials, signs that her popularity is slipping and evidence that Republicans are worried about how much help she will be for Mr. McCain in November. ...

“I think she has pretty thoroughly — and probably irretrievably — proven that she is not up to the job of being president of the United States,” David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush who is now a conservative columnist, said in an interview. “If she doesn’t perform well, then people see it.

“And this is a moment of real high anxiety, a little bit like 9/11, when people look to Washington for comfort and leadership and want to know that people in charge know what they are doing.”

And it's not just David Frum who's worried, some of the other conservative pundits have questioned the selection, especially after the very short lived 'Palin Bounce."

Polling suggests that the number of Americans who think she is not fit to be president has increased since her introduction to the country last month. A number of conservative columnists and thinkers have publicly turned against her, or criticized Mr. McCain for choosing her, including George Will, David Brooks and Kathleen Parker, who wrote a column entitled “She’s Out of Her League” for the National Review Online.

So much for Sen. McCain's complaints that the "liberal" media is responsible for the hard times Gov. Palin seems to have fallen into. I mean, George Will, David Brooks, and Kathleen Parker?

All of that said, however, Gov. Palin shouldn't merely be written off as just one of those gag gifts that keep on giving. The lady isn't entirely stupid, and apparently she knows enough about campaigning to get herself elected governor and to help John McCain raise a lot of cash at fund-raisers. All she needs (besides her co-religionists) is some sympathy votes, garnered by being seen as a victim of the meanies on the left, and the Democrats just might very well have a problem. I hope Joe Biden keeps that in mind on Thursday night.

And, as Adam Nagourney has pointed out in his column, the bar is set so low for her right now in terms of Thursday's vice presidential debate, that if she doesn't embarrass herself and the campaign too badly by committing some unbelievable gaffe (like forgetting that Spain is a NATO ally and its president is a man named Zapatero), she may very well be considered to have redeemed herself.

I still am planning on having a big bucket of popcorn for that debate.

(Note: I overslept this morning. I apologize for the lateness of the post. Hopefully Ruth is so busy with Habitat For Humanity in Chile that won't have noticed.)


Monday, September 29, 2008

Thus Saith The Preacher

On Friday, I posted on the planned attack on the separation of church and state by 33 members of the Religious Reich. Pastors promised to guide their flock into voting for a particular candidate in the presidential election in sermons to be delivered on September 28. According to this Washington Post, the pastors kept their promise. Those sermons contained no surprises:

Defying a federal law that prohibits U.S. clergy from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit, an evangelical Christian minister told his congregation Sunday that voting for Sen. Barack Obama would be evidence of "severe moral schizophrenia." ...

Johnson and 32 other pastors across the country set out Sunday to break the rules, hoping to generate a legal battle that will prompt federal courts to throw out a 54-year-old ban on political endorsements by tax-exempt houses of worship.

The ministers contend they have a constitutional right to advise their worshipers how to vote. As Johnson put it during a break between sermons, "The point that the IRS says you can't do it, I'm saying you're wrong." ...

"We want people when you prick them, they bleed the word of God," Johnson said.

Johnson said ministers have a responsibility to guide their flocks in worldly matters, including politics, calling the dichotomy between the secular and the sacred a myth: "The issue is not 'Are we legislating morality?' This issue is 'Whose morality are we legislating?' "
[Emphasis added]

Look, Pastor Johnson, your analysis of the issue is a bit specious, especially in light of the US Constitution. I don't want you legislating my morality. What you fail to understand is that your ancestors came to this country to get out from under the very system you would now impose on the rest of us: a governmentally sanctioned religion which mandated what was sacred and how it could be worshipped. Why are you throwing away your own history? Do you really think the government will accept your brand of conservative Christianity without modification, modification which might very well strike at the heart of your theology? Ever hear of a guy named Oliver Cromwell?

No one cares if you leave the pulpit and lead a rally in town for John McCain, least of all the IRS. You just can't do it from the pulpit. Is that really so hard to understand?

At least some religious leaders understand the reasoning behind the separation of church and state, and for that I am grateful:

In an open letter Saturday, a United Church of Christ minister, the Rev. Eric Williams, warned that many members of the clergy are "exchanging their historic religious authority for a fleeting promise of political power," to the detriment of their churches.

"The role of the church -- of congregation, synagogue, temple and mosque -- and of its religious leaders is to stand apart from government, to prophetically speak truth to power," Williams wrote, "and to encourage a national dialogue that transcends the divisiveness of electoral politics and preserves for every citizen our 'first liberty.' "
[Emphasis added]

Thank you, Rev. Williams.

We don't need a Christian Taliban to legislate how we live. Not here, not now, not ever.


Say, What?

I had one of those discomfiting experiences yesterday wherein I read something that made me very uncomfortable, but couldn't quite put my finger on just why. The something was this op-ed piece by Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. My first response was that Prof. Gitlin was indulging in some academic hyperbolic over-kill.

This election campaign is about more than its issues, slogans, proposals, strategies, tactics, attacks or counterattacks. Like most presidential elections, it represents a collision of myths. Every four years, various versions of America wrestle with one another, and through this combat, the nation inspects itself, turns itself over and over, striving to choose not only how it wants to be led but what it wants to affirm, how it wants to be known -- really, what it wants to be. ...

The true campaign is the deep campaign, the subsurface campaign, which concerns not just what the candidates say but who they are and what they represent -- what they symbolize. ...

The candidates become, in a sense, walking archetypes. ...
[Emphasis added]

Oh, please. It's a freakin' election, something that happens every four years. If Prof. Gitlin is right (and, I admit, it's possible he is), it's damned disappointing because it means Americans are still looking for a daddy. I had hoped that eight years of the Unitary Executive would have cured us of wanting anything other than a chief executive subject to the oversight of the board of directors (Congress and the federal judiciary) rather than a savior who believed himself ordained of God.

That said, I was still not satisfied with the tension in my gut. It took nearly a day for me to pin it down. After re-reading the essay for the fourth time, I think I finally got what was providing the agida.

Sen. John McCain is relatively familiar. He is the leathery man of the West, of exactly the sort who has entranced the Republican Party for almost half a century now. It is the role that Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush played before him.

McCain himself invokes Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Rider who, despite his New York origins, ranched in South Dakota and hunted throughout the West. Those who admire McCain tend to believe that it was men of this sort -- rugged individualists, plain-spoken, straight-talking, self-sufficient men at home in nature (not in our effete cities) -- who settled the West on their own. ...

Obama is the quintessential outsider -- a "sojourner," the New York Times' David Brooks has called him. He hails from exotic Hawaii, alien Indonesia, elegant Harvard and down-and-dirty Chicago, all at the same time. To his devotees, he is part city-slicker, part man of the world; to his enemies, precisely this combination makes him suspect. Like the Lone Ranger, he rides into town to serve a community in need, but in a surprising twist, this Lone Ranger is closer to the color of Tonto.

Mythically, therefore, Obama is elusive, Protean, a shape-shifter who, when not beloved, arouses suspicion. Perhaps he is that object of envy and derision, a "celebrity," as the McCain campaign suggested, but he's also an egghead. He's the professor -- but one who can sink the shot from beyond the three-point circle. He too has a sidekick, but, if you judge by their resumes, it is as if Robin has chosen Batman. ...

So that's the clash. McCain, the known quantity, the maverick turned lawman, fiery when called on to fight, an icon of the old known American story of standing tall, holding firm, protecting God's country against the stealthy foe. Obama is the new kid on the block, the immigrant's child, the recruit, fervent but still preternaturally calm, embodying some complicated future that we haven't yet mapped, let alone experienced. He is impure -- the walking, talking melting pot in person. In his person, the next America is still taking shape.
[Emphasis added]

With the bolding, I think you get the picture it took me entirely too long to figure out. Even a respected academic can't get past the racial thing, which would be ok if he were just describing what he saw as the key to the election, except that he can't even get past the stereotypes that comes with the racism implied in the descriptive language he has chosen: "closer to the color of Tonto," "sink the shot from behind the three point circle," "impure," "melting pot in person".

I guess the fact that I am appalled by this is a measure of the naivete I like to think I'd finally left behind. I really thought that in the 21st Century America was ready to measure individuals by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin. If Prof. Gitlin is right, however, I was wrong, dreadfully and sadly wrong.

What is even worse, however, is that such as Prof. Gitlin are not helping to move us forward. I hope his students have better luck.

Labels: ,

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday Poetry: ee cummings

as freedom is a breakfastfood

as freedom is a breakfastfood
or truth can live with right and wrong
or molehills are from mountains made
-long enough and just so long
will being pay the rent of seem
and genius please the talentgang
and water most encourage flame

as hatracks into peachtrees grow
or hopes dance best on bald men's hair
and every finger is a toe
and any courage is a fear
-long enough and just so long
will the impure think all things pure
and hornets wail by children stung

or as the seeing are the blind
and robins never welcome spring
nor flatfolk prove their world is round
nor dingsters die at break of dong
and common's rare and millstones float
-long enough and just so long
tomorrow will not be too late

worms are the words but joy's the voice
down shall go which and up come who
breasts will be breasts and thighs will be thighs
deeds cannot dream what dreams can do
-time is a tree (this life one leaf)
but love is the sky and i am for you
just so long and long enough

ee cummings

Brain Freeze

I've long been embarrassed by the willful innocence pose held by a huge segment of the US population. Yes, we're a relatively young nation, but that's no excuse for the naivete we display in world and worldly matters. Lately, I've something new to be red-faced about, something that has been creeping into the national psyche (if there is such a thing), but I've been hard pressed to come up with just the right term for it. I was coming around to designating the source of the discomfort as intentional ignorance, but an interesting essay by Jeffrey D. Sachs (professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University) and published in the Jordan Times suggests a more proper name: anti-intellectualism. I think he's on to something.

In recent years, the United States has been more a source of global instability than a source of global problem-solving. Examples include the war in Iraq, launched by the US on false premises, obstructionism on efforts to curb climate change, meagre development assistance, and the violation of international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. While many factors contributed to America’s destabilising actions, a powerful one is anti-intellectualism, exemplified recently by Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s surging popularity.

By anti-intellectualism, I mean especially an aggressively anti-scientific perspective, backed by disdain for those who adhere to science and evidence.
[Emphasis added]

Such a stance has turned out to have rather dire consequences. Prof. Sachs points to several areas where anti-intellectualism has had a potentially murderous effect, including global warming, a subject obviously near to his heart:

The Nobel Prize-winning global scientific process called the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has set the gold standard for scientific rigor in analysing the threats of human-induced climate change. We need scientifically literate politicians adept at evidence-based critical thinking to translate these findings and recommendations into policy and international agreements.

In the US, however, the attitudes of President Bush, leading Republicans, and now Sarah Palin, have been the opposite of scientific. The White House did all it could for eight years to hide the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are contributing to climate change. It tried to prevent government scientists from speaking honestly to the public. The Wall Street Journal has similarly peddled anti-science and pseudo-science to oppose policies to fight human-induced climate change.

The war in Iraq provides yet another example for Prof. Sachs, although I think my "intentional ignorance" might be a better term than mere anti-intellectualism. Either way, however, Prof. Sachs really nail the convictions behind the active expression:

These anti-scientific approaches affected not only climate policy, but also foreign policy.

The US went to war in Iraq on the basis of Bush’s gut instincts and religious convictions, not rigorous evidence. Likewise, Palin has called the Iraq war “a task from God”. ...

The problem is an aggressive fundamentalism that denies modern science, and an aggressive anti-intellectualism that views experts and scientists as the enemy. It is those views that could end up getting us all killed. After all, that kind of extremism can even lead to war, based on perverted views that a particular war is God’s will rather than a failure of politics and cooperation.

The irony is that such a stance works only if its holder believes that God actually might have made some mistakes when it came to creation. Instead of viewing the marvelous design of the brain as a way for humans to appreciate the intricacies and grandeur of the universe, the fundamentalists see it as the source for sinful pride and subsequent error. Instead of being grateful for the unique design of sexual organs which make physical intimacy enjoyable, thereby ensuring the continuation of the species, the fundamentalists see the act of sex as disgusting and perverted and insist on insane limitations, even to the point (in some cultures) of encouraging mutilation.

The theological inconsistencies aside, however, the stance is profoundly dangerous, especially at this time when the fate of the entire creation, of which we are supposed to be stewards, hangs in the balance. I wish God would just slap some sense into those people, but I suspect God expects the rest of us to bring those people around.

Labels: ,

A Flaw In the Ointment

Sen. McCain is a maverick. He told us so. So mavericky is he that he disdains lobbyists and what they have done to Congress. Except when they are lobbying him, that is.

McCain's campaign has already condemned this article in the NY Times as a hatchet job, and it's not hard to understand why. Mr. Maverick, Mr. I Hate Lobbyists, Mr. Purity in Government seems to have a weak spot, and it is that weak spot that the NY Times details.

Senator John McCain was on a roll. In a room reserved for high-stakes gamblers at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, he tossed $100 chips around a hot craps table. When the marathon session ended around 2:30 a.m., the Arizona senator and his entourage emerged with thousands of dollars in winnings.

A lifelong gambler, Mr. McCain takes risks, both on and off the craps table. He was throwing dice that night not long after his failed 2000 presidential bid, in which he was skewered by the Republican Party’s evangelical base, opponents of gambling. Mr. McCain was betting at a casino he oversaw as a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and he was doing so with the lobbyist who represents that casino, according to three associates of Mr. McCain. ...

As factions of the ferociously competitive gambling industry have vied for an edge, they have found it advantageous to cultivate a relationship with Mr. McCain or hire someone who has one, according to an examination based on more than 70 interviews and thousands of pages of documents.

Mr. McCain portrays himself as a Washington maverick unswayed by special interests, referring recently to lobbyists as “birds of prey.” Yet in his current campaign, more than 40 fund-raisers and top advisers have lobbied or worked for an array of gambling interests — including tribal and Las Vegas casinos, lottery companies and online poker purveyors.

The NY Times article goes into great detail about McCain's connections to the gambling industry, both tribal and non-tribal, and that alone makes the long article worth the read. What is of especial note, however, is that once again the connections are made viable through the efforts of the very lobbyists he descries as "birds of prey."

Nice job, NY Times. More like this, please.

Labels: ,

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bonus Critter Blogging: Cockroach

(Photograph by Darlyne A. Murawski and published at National Geographic.)

Preach It, Sister!

This past week I've had endless conversations with friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even a few people I'd never met before, all on the proposed bail-out of the robber barons of Wall Street. The tenor of the conversations was always the same: if I screw up at work, I get fired. If those guys screw up they get multi-billion dollar severance packages and I'm expected to bail their companies out. What's the deal?

What indeed. Some of the people I've had those conversations with are my age, nearing or at retirement age. We've all seen what has happened to the funds we've saved assiduously over the years. One friend and her husband did everything they were told they had to. They fully funded their IRAs each year, they vacationed in the Poconos rather than Europe, they raised and educated their children. They were hardworking, they were thrifty, they saved and invested prudently. They figured when they retired they'd be able to loosen up and enjoy life a little. Right now, it looks like they're going to be screwed, and there isn't enough time to recover those investments gone south because of the current debacle.

Now they wonder why they bothered, especially in light of the knowledge that all that they did and all that they sacrificed enriched a few greedy bastards who will continue to be enriched by this bailout.


Ellen Goodman, in this op-ed piece really nailed it when comes to analysing what went wrong, and why.

For decades now the mantra of personal responsibility has kept a lock on our imaginations. And our political dialogue.

In the 1990s, we ended welfare for better and for worse with something called the Personal Responsibility Act. More recently, conservatives resisted the morning-after pill on the grounds that it would foster irresponsible behavior. When Hollywood puts sex and violence on television and Madison Avenue sells junk food, we expect parents to - guess what - exercise their responsibility. ...

Over time, the same rhetoric justified a huge shift in economic risks of the average citizen. In the name of the ownership society, many pensions became 401(k)s while health insurance costs moved from employer to employee. All of these risks were covered like a bad bet by the idea that people could take better care of themselves.

The ownership society turned into the everyone-on-your-own society. Three years ago, Congress passed a law making it harder for people to declare bankruptcy. Just six months ago, Henry Paulson, the treasury secretary who now wants to be czar, insisted the government actions to prevent mortgage foreclosures would "do more harm than they would do good." ...

Personal responsibility? The titans coming to Congress with cups in their hands and the economy in the balance were not too embarrassed to fight against caps on their salaries. What exactly do we have here? Socialism for the rich?

Exactly right.

At this point, after a week of the be-afraid, be-very-afraid barrage coming from the White House, the Congress, and (of course) Wall Street, my inclination is to issue pitchforks and hot tar to everyone in the country and urge them to descend on Washington, DC and New York City. If we have to go down, let it be that we all go down. Don't give those bastards one penny towards their next yacht. Let them fail, let them fail totally, and let them lose everything.

Then at least we'll all be in the same boat.

Then maybe we can recover, and recover sensibly. At least we'll all be starting from the same place.

Labels: ,

PNAC: Major Fail

OK, so it's the weekend, which means I've gone over to Watching America. This week, because of the "financial crisis", the US presidential campaign has to share the world stage with the US bailout, which only makes sense. After all, the Wall Street robber barons worked with multinational corporations, so the entire world is wrapped up in our economic mess, just as it is in foreign policy mess.

Germany's Die Zeit has an article entitled "Socialism, George
W. Bush Style." That ought to grab anybody's attention, not to mention twist the knickers of a whole lot of conservative Americans. The thesis is clear, and not really news for people who have been following the trajectory of American politics since the end of the Cold War.

Under the motto “for a new American Century,” Bush and the neo-conservatives embarked on a policy of unilateral American supremacy. The results can now truly be seen:

America has lost its moral credibility because of Guantanamo and its use of torture; thanks to the Iraq war, Iran has become the foremost power in the Middle East; America’s military has been over-taxed because of this phony, unnecessary war; Bush inherited a budget surplus from Clinton and has transformed it into a gigantic mountain of debt; China is now America’s largest creditor; the dollar is in serious danger of losing its role as the world’s dominant reserve currency; the American financial system is in serious danger of collapsing. This crisis threatens to destroy the entire global financial system and the best solution the Republican administration in Washington can come up with is “nationalization”!

Now, I would quibble that the nationalization is a sign of socialism. I think it's more akin to the fascism of the second and third decade of the 20th Century. I also think a lot of the crisis has been manufactured to further that goal. The semantics aside, however, I also can understand the angst of the rest of the world as it has been swept up in the debacle of the neocon wet dream. For at least the last twenty-plus years (vide the Contract With/Against America), the goal of the far right of our political scene has been to undermine any kind of rational regulation of national and, by the nature of globalization, world economies. As a result "paper" became more important than production, as this article pointed out:

...an underground economy in the banking and financial system was created that successfully bypassed the existing controls and legal limitations placed upon it. Markets took on a life of their own and, not for the first time in the history of capitalism, unbridled greed ultimately proved a recipe for self-destruction.

"Unbridled greed," aided and abetted by a misguided sense of exceptionalism.

There's a recipe for disaster.

And we not only let it happen, by our silence we abetted it.

Labels: , ,

War Number Three

What is it called when one country's military invades another country and that other country's military fights back? The term "war" usually comes to mind. Using that line of thinking, Andrew J. Bacevich (professor of history and international relations at Boston University) makes the case that the US has initiated a third war, this time against Pakistan, in his op-ed piece in today's Los Angeles Times.

Prof. Bacevich describes the foolhardy rush by the Bush administration to embrace former President Musharraf as an ally in the Global War On Terror. Musharraf, who took power in a military coup, was only too happy with the new arrangement, especially since it involved billions of dollars of shiny new military equipment as part of the deal. Unfortunately, that military equipment wasn't used to weed out the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces nested in Pakistani's tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan. Instead, the Pakistani military was more interested in stockpiling the weaponry for the next battle with its traditional enemy, India. And then Musharraf (who didn't have enough of a grip on his own country) was toppled by an election. The Bush administration's response was entirely too predictable.

As measured by return on investment, Musharraf turned out to be a lousy bet. By the spring of this year, with Musharraf's days obviously numbered, the Bush administration abandoned its friend and ally. In doing so, it found itself without a policy as far as Pakistan was concerned.

To fill the void, Bush turned to the Pentagon. Nearly seven years into the Afghan war and five years into the Iraq war, Pakistan has become the next problem that the president intends to solve through the application of armed force. Without congressional authorization and almost entirely shielded from public view, a new war has begun.

Rather than a partner, Pakistan is becoming an area of operations. Even as Washington denounces Russia for violating Georgian sovereignty, U.S. violations of Pakistani sovereignty have become routine. The most commonly employed tactic relies on missile-firing drones to patrol Pakistani airspace and attack suspected Al Qaeda or Taliban militants. Yet there is also evidence of a growing willingness to put boots on the ground. On Sept. 3, in a widely reported incident, U.S. special operations troops raided a village in South Waziristan, leaving a dozen or more Pakistanis dead.
[Emphasis added]

Initially, such US incursions into Pakistan were claimed to be with the approval of the Pakistani government, but apparently that process became too onerous for the Pentagon, so a new executive order issued from the White House giving the US military the ok to just do what was necessary, the new and very fragile Pakistani government be damned.

And the results of this new war have also been pretty predictable. Pakistani soldiers have fired on US forces edging too close to the Pakistan border. The Pakistani military has claimed that it shot down one of the missile-bearing drones sent into the tribal regions. Sounds like war to me.

So, the next President will have three wars to contend with in January, not just two.

Heckuva job, George.

Labels: , ,

Friday, September 26, 2008

Friday Cat Blogging:

Pandering Unto Caesar

O, brave Sir Robin!

Just in time to rally the flagging troops, a group of Christian clergy have selected this Sunday to indulge in a little civil disobedience, according to this NY Times article.

Defying a federal tax law they consider unjust, 33 ministers across the country will take to their pulpits this Sunday and publicly endorse a candidate for president. ...

The protest, called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, was organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, a consortium of Christian lawyers that fights for conservative religious and social causes. ...

Organizers said they wanted a range of clergy of various faiths and political persuasions to join the protest, but acknowledged that the participants might be “weighted” toward the conservative end of the spectrum and more likely to support the Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, than the Democrat, Senator Barack Obama.
[Emphasis added]

Now, it is highly unlikely that the pastors involved will simply tell their flocks to vote for Sen. McCain or risk damnation. Instead, they will poll a representative sample of angels dancing on that pin over there and conclude that the numbers support him:

"I’m going to evaluate each candidate’s positions in light of Scripture and make a recommendation to my congregation as to which candidate aligns more so."

Sadly, the scriptures involved will not include Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, or prophetic utterances against the oppression of the poor and vulnerable, but I'm certain their concordances will provide them with plenty of ammunition.

What's the deal? Well, there's an election coming up, but that's just part of it. A segment of the Christian community, what I like to refer to as the Religious Reich, is unhappy with the concept of the separation of church and state mandated by the US Constitution and really unhappy with a 1954 law which restricts endorsements from the pulpit:

The protest is challenging an amendment to the tax code passed by Congress in 1954 saying that charitable organizations known as 501(c)(3)’s, which accept tax-deductible contributions, cannot intervene in political campaigns. The legislation was intended to prevent nonprofit organizations from funneling money and resources to political candidates.

The clergy, as educated by such as the Alliance Defense Fund, believe that the law restricts their constitutional right to Free Speech. Now, that's a rather specious argument if you think about it. I don't recall that statute keeping Jerry Falwell from speaking out in favor or against any particular candidate, or any other religious leader, for that matter. The IRS just doesn't want the endorsements coming from the pulpit located in the church situated on land that doesn't pay any taxes to use that tax-free space to assist a particular candidate with resources given with the understanding that they are tax deductible.

The whole exercise is intended to provoke a law suit challenging the constitutionality of that statute, and while I trust the statute will be upheld in the federal lower courts, I'm a little concerned that the current activist Supreme Court will be at least a little sympathetic to the concerns of the poor oppressed preachers.

I suppose having all that dry powder is somewhat of a trade-off, but I really would have preferred a country not run by the Religious Reich.


Our Ms. Brooks: ZOMG!!!1!! She said Keating 5!!!1!!

It was really satisfying to see a columnist daring to say "Keating 5" out loud (or, in this case, in print), and Rosa Brooks did just that here. Most pundits outside the blogoverse have been assiduously avoiding bringing up that nasty bit of business from the 1980s, but that history is especially pertinent right now. Let's start with Ms. Brooks brief historical summary.

Once upon a time, a politician took campaign contributions and favors from a friendly constituent who happened to run a savings and loan association. The contributions were generous: They came to about $200,000 in today's dollars, and on top of that there were several free vacations for the politician and his family, along with private jet trips and other perks. The politician voted repeatedly against congressional efforts to tighten regulation of S&Ls, and in 1987, when he learned that his constituent's S&L was the target of a federal investigation, he met with regulators in an effort to get them to back off.

That politician was John McCain, and his generous friend was Charles Keating, head of Lincoln Savings & Loan. While he was courting McCain and other senators and urging them to oppose tougher regulation of S&Ls, Keating was also investing his depositors' federally insured savings in risky ventures. When those lost money, Keating tried to hide the losses from regulators by inducing his customers to switch from insured accounts to uninsured (and worthless) bonds issued by Lincoln's near-bankrupt parent company. In 1989, it went belly up -- and more than 20,000 Lincoln customers saw their savings vanish. ...

...the savings and loan crisis mushroomed. Eventually, the government spent about $125 billion in taxpayer dollars to bail out hundreds of failed S&Ls that, like Keating's, fell victim to a combination of private-sector greed and the "poor judgment" of politicians like McCain.

So the young senator was rebuked by his peers and got to continue in his day job as US Senator from Arizona. Hey, 20,000 is a relatively small number, right?

That was then. So what did the senator learn from this experience? Well, not a whole helluva lot.

But, despite his political near-death experience as a member of the Keating Five, McCain continued to champion deregulation, voting in 2000, for instance, against federal regulation of the kind of financial derivatives at the heart of today's crisis.

Shades of the Keating Five scandal don't end there. This week, for instance, news broke that until August, the lobbying firm owned by McCain campaign manager Rick Davis was paid $15,000 a month by Freddie Mac, one of the mortgage giants implicated in the current crisis (now taken over by the government and under investigation by the FBI). Apparently, Freddie Mac's plan was to gain influence with McCain's campaign in hopes that he would help shield it from pesky government regulations. And until very recently, Freddie Mac executives probably figured money paid to Davis' firm was money well spent. "I'm always in favor of less regulation," McCain told the Wall Street Journal in March.
[Emphasis added]

And here we are in the waning days of September, and this time more than a million people are facing foreclosure, and millions more are watching their retirement nest eggs shoved rudely out of the nest. No wonder Sen. McCain suggested cancelling tonight's debate. I mean, it could get downright embarrassing under those klieg lights, eh?

A dishonest man, a moron, and a coward: that's what the GOP is offering as their presidential candidate.

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thursday Bird Blogging

(Photograph by Bates Littlehales abd published at National Geographic.)

Mallard ducks are pretty ubiquitous in North America, even in urban areas. When the light rail train I take into work each day crosses the Los Angeles River (which is lined with concrete, ugly stuff), I usually see at least one grouping of ducks paddling, or, at this time of the year when the river is low, walking around in the water looking for edibles. This year I watched a mother teach her ducklings to swim and to search for food in that murky water. Since they're all still there as of this morning, they must find something to keep them sustained. I guess they have learned to adapt to the silliness of humans.

Mounting Atrocities

The overwhelming accumulation of atrocities that has been coming out of the occupied White House has been a little much lately, (especially after a spider bite that made my wrist swell). Today this little touch from the shameful institution the war criminals have created to keep from having to defend themselves in court was a little much, so I am just throwing it out for you here.

Contending that the government had suppressed evidence that could help a young man facing life in prison, a prosecutor has quit the war crimes tribunals here, several military defense lawyers said Wednesday.

Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld quit the case -- and the Office of Military Commissions -- after growing increasingly concerned about the lack of due process afforded to Mohammed Jawad and his legal team, according to Michael J. Berrigan, deputy chief defense counsel for the commissions.

Vandeveld, an Army reservist, said in a four-page declaration filed with the court that "potentially exculpatory evidence has not been provided" to the defense.

Jawad, now about 23, was arrested in 2002 near Kabul. He is charged with attempting to commit murder in violation of the law of war for allegedly throwing a grenade into a jeep transporting troops, injuring two soldiers and an interpreter. His trial is set for December.

His Pentagon-appointed defense attorney, Air Force Maj. David Frakt, also said that the prosecutor had quit in recent days over significant concerns about the case.

"He was uncomfortable being a prosecutor under the conditions, and [his superiors] told him to do his job," Berrigan said, adding that Vandeveld then took his concerns to higher authorities but was rebuffed.

Both defense lawyers said Vandeveld had spelled out his allegations in the sealed affidavit. Vandeveld said in his declaration that prosecutors knew Jawad may have been drugged before the attack and that the Afghan Interior Ministry said two other men had confessed to the same crime.

The incidents show over and over that these are criminal operatives, constantly covering up their crimes.

Labels: , , ,

On Hold

Unfortunately, much of the nation's business is being put on hold while Congress deals with the administration's plan for bailing out the Wall Street robber barons. Fortunately, the Congress is being far less hasty in its dealing with this (gasp!)crisis (gasp again!) than it has in the past with the AUMF and Patriot Act. However, since it is possible that this really might be a crisis, although there is now beginning to be some doubt as to whether that is actually the case, Congress is spending a great deal of time dealing with this single issue. That means that in the week before its recess, other bills are hanging fire.

One such bill would mandate that private insurance companies provide comparable benefits for mental health treatment that they do for physical health treatment. The state of the law right now is that federal law allows insurers to set higher co-payments or stricter limits on mental health benefits than they do for medical or surgical coverage. This new bill would change that, based on the state of the science dealing with mental health issues.

From yesterday's Washington Post:

Congress approved legislation yesterday that would require private insurers to provide the same level of benefits for mental illness as they do for physical maladies, a change lauded by advocates as a great shift in the nation's understanding of mental health. ...

The measure has received strong bipartisan support in the House and Senate and has the backing of business, insurance companies, health advocates, the medical community and the White House. But its passage into law was not ensured last night.

The remaining obstacle appeared to be ironing out differences in how to pay the cost to the federal government -- estimated at $3.4 billion over 10 years, in the form of forgone tax revenue. Lawmakers also needed to resolve whether the final bill should be a standalone measure or part of a larger package of legislation.

The House approved the language in a standalone bill, while the Senate wrapped it into a $150 billion package of popular tax cuts, including a one-year patch for the alternative minimum tax, and extensions of expiring tax provisions including tuition credits and state and local sales tax deductions (for states that do not have an income tax), as well as research and development tax credits.

It is unclear whether a joint agreement can be reached in the few days remaining before Congress recesses.

All of the parties want the bill. The hold-up is how it is presented in final form. Getting the bill through conference will be difficult especially right now since the entire world is focussing on the great economic solution.

Ideally, the Senate would back off and allow the House standalone bill to prevail. The White House has indicated it will sign the bill, which will save those fortunate enough to have employer provided group health insurance thousands of dollars. It will also allow for those in government funded plans to receive the same kind of treatment. I know what my insurance policy says about mental health treatment for such issues as substance abuse problems. I also know what it will cover for non-substance abuse mental health problems and it isn't nearly enough to cover the real cost of treatment, which the Washington Post noted:

Typical annual limits include 30 visits to a doctor or 30 days of hospital care for treatment of a mental disorder. Under the legislation passed yesterday, those limits would no longer be allowed if the insurer had no limits on treatment for medical conditions such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

It's time we caught up on the scientific knowledge on mental illness so that we can throw out the old wives' tales about it. This bill is a good start. When you're calling your congressional representatives about that foul Wall Street bailout, remind them that they also have other pressing business to attend to, including this bill.

Labels: ,

What Took So Long?

Two weeks ago, Phoenix Woman warned us about the latest GOP move to disenfranchise Americans (via Avedon): purge them from the voting rolls because their homes were foreclosed upon. Today, the NY Times finally caught up.

More than a million people have lost their homes through foreclosure in the last two years, and many of them are still registered to vote at the address of the home they lost. Now election officials and voting rights groups are struggling to prevent thousands of them from losing their vote when they go to the polls in November.

Many of these voters will be disqualified at the polls because, in the tumult of their foreclosure, they neglected to tell their election board of their new address. Some could be forced to vote with a provisional ballot or challenged by partisan poll watchers, a particular concern among Democrats who fear that poor voters will be singled out. That could add confusion and stretch out lines that are already expected to be long because of unprecedented turnout.

Federal election officials say they are concerned that voters are not being properly informed of how to update their addresses.

Many of the nation’s highest foreclosure rates are also in crucial swing states like Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Ohio. Because many homeowners in foreclosure are black or poor, and are considered probable Democratic voters in many areas, the issue has begun to have political ramifications. Political parties have long challenged voters with expired registrations, but the possible use of foreclosure lists to remove people from the rolls — though entirely legal — has become a new partisan flashpoint.

Last week, Senator Barack Obama’s campaign filed a lawsuit in federal court, seeking to prohibit the Michigan Republican Party from using foreclosure lists to single out and challenge voters. The state Republican Party has denied having any such plans.

Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, sent a letter last week along with a dozen other Democratic senators to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey asking him to ensure that voters facing foreclosure are not harassed or intimidated at polling places.

As the article makes clear, probably the last thing on the minds who have been forced out of their homes by foreclosure is changing their voter registration information, and that's why the two week delay in getting this story out to the public is so damaging. We're coming up on voter registration deadlines for the November elections in many states. If in fact it is legal to remove people in foreclosure from registration lists (and if it is, shame on us), then people need to be warned about it and should be educated on how to register. Expecting beleaguered registrars and voting officials to handle the problem on election day is folly, the kind of folly which will result in the disenfranchisement of up to a million people whose only crime is that they were foolish enough to believe fast-talking loan officers. The two week delay in getting the information out to the public is unconscionable, and the NY Times should be both embarrassed and ashamed.

And as to the Republican Party operatives who have no problems in kicking people while they're down just to steal another election, may they suffer the same eternal fate as their heroes on Wall Street.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What A Shame

For the past nine months, George W. Bush has been burnishing what he likes to call his "legacy." Even as a lame duck he assumed he would be able to complete an ambitious agenda, but intervening events, primarily economic in nature, have stalled his efforts. This rude awakening is detailed in today's NY Times:

Mr. Bush began 2008 with ambitious goals: making his tax cuts permanent; renewing his signature education bill, No Child Left Behind; securing an Arab-Israeli peace deal; thwarting the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran; negotiating an international pact on global warming; free trade initiatives; legislation on energy and domestic wiretapping, and securing funding for troops in Iraq.

With the exception of the wiretapping legislation and troop funding, all were stalled or dead even before the economy took its drastic turn. The White House long ago gave up hope on extending Mr. Bush’s tax cuts, and Mr. Bush’s secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, conceded as early as March that prospects for renewing the education bill were all but dead.

While the devastation wreaked by the greed and hubris of the Wall Street robber barons is a serious blow to the country, one that no one can find much good in, it at least has slowed Mr. Bush's final push for glory, something I admit I am taking perverse joy in. It's not that I don't want an Arab-Israeli peace deal, or don't want the curtailment of further expansion of nuclear weaponry, especially by such countries as Iran and North Korea, or a decent national energy plan, it's that I don't want BushCo's version of solutions for any of them.

Sometimes reality intervenes at the right moment. This just might be one of those times.


Bringing Us Together

How ironic. The Bush administration has managed to unite Americans about something: how much its emergency bailout plan stinks. Paulson and Bernanke found themselves facing hostile questions from both sides of the aisle. Here's a brief survey from the Sacramento Bee of the California delegation's response to giving Paulson $700 billion without any strings attached.

While the Bush administration is pushing for quick approval of an historic $700 bailout to calm Wall Street, skeptical Republicans and Democrats from California are pushing back, saying Congress must take its time in scrutinizing such a mammoth proposal. ...

Appearing before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson urged Congress to move quickly and "avoid slowing it down with other provisions that are unrelated or don't have broad support." But so far, Democrats are holding firm in their demands, and many Republicans are urging a more methodical approach, as well.

"This is a financially challenging time for America," said Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. "It's not a time for Washington politics, but instead a time for leadership to protect America's working families and their hard-earned retirement and college savings."

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said the financial crisis "is clear recognition that the party is over for the Bush administration's anything-goes, failed economic policies that have damaged our economy." She said Congress will pass a bill "in a bipartisan manner that will protect the taxpayers' interests" but that the legislation must rein in executive pay, include independent oversight and offer protections for homeowners facing foreclosure. ...

[Sen. Dianne] Feinstein called Paulson's plan "a nonstarter" because it would give him too much authority.

"To ask Congress to pass a $700 billion bill, and hand this to one person with no oversight, I think is not at all prudent," she said. "The Congress should not do that."

She said Dodd's bill "is much better" because it would create an oversight body, mandate regular reports to Congress and limit executive salaries. ...

"We must get to the root of the housing crisis and work to keep people in their homes through refinancing," [Sen. Barbara Boxer] said. "If we don't, housing prices will continue to freefall and we will still be in a mess. In California, we have more foreclosures than any other state --- in August, more than 101,000 Californians received foreclosure notices and more than 33,000 lost their homes." ...

[Republican Rep. John] Doolittle, of Roseville, joined 30 other House Republicans who sent a letter to Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, asking them to stop using federal funds to save private firms.

Now such bipartisan criticism certainly doesn't mean that a really bipartisan bill will be crafted in response, but it does mean that the country and its representatives have had about enough of the boy-who-would-be-emperor's ham-handed approach to governance and give away programs for the rich. It would have been nice if this sudden development of spine when it came to challenging the administration had occurred about six years ago, but at least it finally happened. It's no accident that the development needed a presidential election to engender it, but I guess $700 billion in one lump sum opened a few eyes.

118 days

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Totally Unscientific Survey

OK, for those of you who don't have the time to read an extremely long post but who would like to know what the editorial boards of the nation's newspapers are saying about the proposed bailout of the robber barons, here's a quick list of links: the NY Times; the Washington Post; the Los Angeles Times; the Boston Globe; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

There's nothing magical about this list. It represents the top three newspapers I read every morning, plus the other three I read at least a couple of times a week because I'm interested (for one reason or another) in that area of the country. What I believe all six show, however, is that most of the editorial boards in major metropolitan areas have been embarrassed by their failure to cover just what has been happening in this country the past ten years. Here's what they said.

the NY Times:

Nearly everyone agrees that the there will have to be another very big bailout. The financial system, gorged on its own excesses, cannot stabilize without intervention. The $700 billion would be used to buy up the bad assets that are presumably clogging the system.

To protect the American taxpayer, Congress must ensure that the bailout comes with clear ground rules and vigilant oversight. In an appalling, though familiar fashion, the ground rules proposed by the Bush administration are wholly unacceptable — as are its tactics. ...

The only way to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest is for Mr. Paulson to welcome full and transparent legislative and judicial review.

A counterproposal now being developed by the Democrats would require firms that sell their troubled assets to the Treasury to give the government stock — an idea that has populist appeal but also needs to be vetted carefully. It also would try to help homeowners, who are left out of the administration’s plan entirely, allowing them to have their mortgages modified under bankruptcy court protection. That step that should have been taken long ago to avert the foreclosures and house price declines that are at the root of the crisis.

the Washington Post:

Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. clearly believes that the way to get the maximum number of financial institutions to unload as much distressed paper as possible, as quickly as possible, is to keep it simple: announce that the U.S. Treasury is open for business and let the fire sale begin. That is essentially what he advocated when he asked Congress for the power to purchase troubled mortgage-backed assets from financial institutions at whatever price he and hired experts saw fit, with only minimal congressional supervision and complete immunity from lawsuits.

The problem, of course, is that this raises the risk that the government will get fleeced by the debt-sellers, raising the ultimate cost to taxpayers. It was also politically unrealistic, in that members of Congress were quite properly concerned that financial institutions accept limits on executive compensation in return for their federal lifeline. There was no provision in Mr. Paulson's proposal for taxpayers to enjoy any of the profits that financial institutions may enjoy once they have been restored to health. A new proposal by Senate Democrats seeks to correct this by requiring would-be asset-dumpers to give the government equity if Uncle Sam winds up having to sell the paper at a loss. Of course, at the margin, the proposal could deter some firms from ridding themselves of the bad loans in the first place. And that would slow the process. Democrats are also insisting on various forms of mortgage relief for the homeowners who are about to find themselves in debt to Uncle Sam. Mortgage relief might help stabilize home prices, but since the government would now own so many mortgages, taxpayers (most of whose mortgages are not in trouble) would have to foot the bill once again.

the Los Angeles Times:

The bailout that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has proposed for the U.S. financial system could cost as much as $700 billion, or about $2,300 for every American man, woman and child. Taxpayers rightly expect to receive something tangible in return for such an investment, and there are at least four things policymakers can and should deliver.

Paulson's proposal would let the Treasury Department buy mortgage-related assets from financial firms with few constraints on how the power would be used. For an administration accustomed to overreaching, such a request for unfettered authority is neither surprising nor welcome; the Bush White House is in no position to ask for that kind of trust. Congress should make the Treasury's bailout efforts subject to the same oversight -- by Congress and the courts -- as its nonemergency actions, while also requiring that banks compete for aid and that taxpayers be protected against wasteful spending on overpriced assets.

...lawmakers should make it easier for lenders to help borrowers who can afford to stay in their homes until the housing market rebounds. The Treasury should lead the way by agreeing to write down loan values and reduce mortgage interest rates, and by taking other steps to keep the mortgages it acquires out of default wherever practical. Doing so wouldn't just help homeowners, it would lower the bailout's ultimate cost to taxpayers. ...

Wary of the political backlash, some congressional Democrats want to leaven the aid for Wall Street with money for infrastructure projects, more tax rebates and low-interest loans for automakers. The political appeal of such proposals isn't matched by any broad economic benefits, however. A simpler and more sensible approach is to extend unemployment benefits, which would stimulate consumer spending and boost the economy.

Finally, more needs to be done to protect against another subprime mortgage fiasco. The Federal Reserve Board took an important step in July when it updated its “truth in lending” rules to guard against some types of predatory lending.

the Boston Globe:

Not so fast. While Congress shouldn't drag its feet in formulating a systematic response to the financial crisis, neither should members abdicate their responsibility to protect taxpayers' interests. Maybe, just maybe, companies that allocated their money recklessly shouldn't be rewarded by simply having the government take soured investments off their hands.

A central question is what, if anything, financial institutions will have to give up in return for help from Washington. Mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and insurer AIG got an infusion of capital from the federal government, but had to submit to government control. Lawmakers need to consider making similar demands of companies that take part in a broader buyout.

the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Congress can demand protections for taxpayers and can demand that any entity holding the bad debt be short-lived and that the government do its best to make the taxpayer whole. It should insist that top management doesn't benefit directly from the bailout.

Congress should insist on assistance for average people, too - think an extension of unemployment benefits, additional food stamp assistance, perhaps even a second stimulus payment.

After that, Congress needs to get back to the hard business of reforming the regulatory system that was supposed to oversee financial institutions. And here's a hint on that one: You can't catch up to a Jaguar when you're driving an Edsel.

the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

U.S. taxpayers are angry about the fraternity party excess on Wall Street that helped create the bailout frenzy we’re in today, and executive compensation that rewards position over performance has become a national symbol of lost priorities. The nation’s four largest investment banks — including Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers — paid out a total of almost $30 billion in bonuses in 2007.

That’s why Democrats in Congress are justified in pushing for sensible restrictions on compensation paid to executives whose firms will be taking advantage of the proposed $700 billion bailout of the U.S. financial system by dumping their bad debt on the taxpayers.

Hmmm...I see a trend. I just hope that Congress has time to do some critical reading to see the same trend.

Better late than never, eh?

Labels: ,

Reconsidering Retirement

As this article in today's NY Times points out, people in their forties can't be thrilled with the volatility of the market and the troubled financial world, but at least they have the time to wait for a recovery. People in the sixties and seventies don't have that luxury.

Older Americans with investments are among the hardest hit by the turmoil in the financial markets and have the least opportunity to recover.

As companies have switched from fixed pensions to 401(k) accounts, retirees risk losing big chunks of their wealth and income in a single day’s trading, as many have in the last month....

Today’s retirees have less money in savings, longer life expectancies and greater exposure to market risk than any retirees since World War II. Even before the last week of turmoil, 39 percent of retirees said they expected to outlive their savings, up from 29 percent in 2007, according to a survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, an industry-sponsored group in Washington.

“This really highlights the new world of retirement,” said Richard Johnson, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington. “It’s a much riskier world for retirees, because people don’t have defined-benefit plans. They have pots of money and they have to worry about making it last.”

And things are even worse for those who have to rely solely on Social Security because some of the other factors in the economic meltdown, including dramatically higher energy and food costs, means they have to stretch those few dollars even further. Even if they own their homes, many have taken part in the refinancing boom of the last ten years just to make ends meet so that their equity has declined dramatically just as the housing sector bubble has burst. Until local assessments catch up with the lower valuations, many can't pay the property taxes and face foreclosure for a different reason than those who purchased homes they now can't afford.

And for those of us on the cusp, not yet retired but nearing that day, "that day" has been pushed further into the future:

Surveys by AARP, the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies and the Employee Benefit Research Institute have found that more workers nearing retirement age are putting off their plans to retire, curtailing contributions to their 401(k) accounts and borrowing from the accounts to pay for living expenses, including credit card and mortgage debt.

Getting old has never been easy in this culture, but now it's become much harder. Hopefully any deal that Congress makes with the robber barons keeps that in mind.

Labels: ,

Monday, September 22, 2008


That's the number for the House switchboard. You can also send emails. Mine read "Please do not give any more of my hard earned money to the crooks in the White House. Thank you."

Please call the members of Congress who represent you. Tell them NO. What has been so pathetically mismanaged will not be managed better if the war criminals in office get more money. That is all.

Labels: , , ,

Meanwhile, Back In Congress

The financial crisis the US is facing and the bailout proposed by the current administration have taken up everyone's attention the past several days, and rightfully so. While I don't think the situation is quite as dire as Messrs. Bush, Bernanke and Paulson would have us believe, it is serious and Congress should move quickly (rather than hastily) towards a reasonable response to the crisis.

Congress has other issues facing it, however, and many of them are are not being reported on. One of those issues is a retooling of the 1973 War Powers Act now being considered. That law was passed in response to the Viet Nam war, which was waged without Congressional approval. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed by Congress did not authorize the military action taken by the executive branch, but presidents involved used the ambiguities of that resolution to prosecute the war. By 1973, the American public had had enough of that war, and the 1973 Act was a direct response. It made clear that approval for war-making had to come from the Congress, which is what the US Constitution mandated.

Two members of the Congress that passed that 1973 War Powers Act (Paul Findley, R-Ill., and Don Fraser, D-Minn.) have an op-ed piece in today's Los Angeles Times about the updating of the 1973 act and they are outraged at one proposal which has issued.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is conducting hearings on proposals to amend the War Powers Act of 1973. One proposal, House Joint Resolution 53, would wisely tighten restrictions on executive war-making by the president. Another, proposed by a 12-member commission led by two former secretaries of State -- Republican James Baker and Democrat Warren Christopher -- but not yet introduced as a bill, would dangerously expand the authority of the president to order acts of war without authorization by Congress. Baker and Christopher are scheduled to testify before Congress on Wednesday about their proposal. ...

...the Baker-Christopher panel urges scrapping the War Powers Act of 1973 in favor of a so-called War Powers Consultation Act of 2009, which would increase the war powers of the president far beyond the limits allowed by our Constitution. This commission is asking Congress to approve legislation that would enable the president to start a war -- or in any way use military force -- without even a report to Congress, much less consultation. The proposed legislation has loopholes big enough to allow major military operations by the president alone.

Among these loopholes we find that "limited acts of reprisal against terrorists or states that sponsor terrorism" are exempt from reference to Congress. But who identifies "terrorists"? Who defines "terrorism"? Who determines which are "states that sponsor terrorism"? Who defines "limited"? The president alone. Congress is consigned to the role of an uninformed, unconsulted bystander.

Under this exception, the president could, without even a nod to Congress, ignore historic rights of national sovereignty and commit acts of war against any country that he determines is a haven of suspected terrorists. He could, for example, declare Iran a state that sponsors terrorism and carpet-bomb its nuclear facilities. The language is sufficiently ambiguous to enable a willful president to start a major war without constitutional authority, exactly as occurred in Vietnam.

Another expansion of presidential war powers proposed by Baker and Christopher would allow "acts to prevent criminal activity abroad." But who defines "criminal activity"? Who decides what "acts to prevent" such activity should be used? Again, the president alone decides.

Still another loophole is the exclusion of "covert activities" from approval by Congress. With recent revelations of CIA bombings in Pakistan and the scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo fresh in mind, it must be obvious that the country needs more oversight, not less.

It's time for Congress to step up to their constitutional responsibilities and to quit passing them over to the executive branch. If the past eight years has taught us anything it is that giving the president unlimited power has been disastrous, from the current Wall Street debacle, to the one in Baghdad and Guantanamo Bay, from the unwarranted domestic spying to the scrapping of regulatory oversight of polluters.

Yes, a president has to be able to respond expeditiously to attacks, but he or she must consult with and gain the approval of Congress before taking the country to war. The US Constitution requires it. The 1973 Act has worked for 35 years. It may need updating, but it doesn't need trashing.

Labels: ,

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sunday Poetry: T.S. Eliot

From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

T. S. Eliot

Al Qaeda's Birthday

Rami Khouri reminds us that this month is the twentieth anniversary of the founding of Al Qaeda in his column in the Jordan Times. It's initial founding came with the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, but it has certainly outlived that historical period. Mr. Khouri looks at the reasons why Al Qaeda is still around and in many respects still thriving.

The several phenomena that Al Qaeda represents - defensive jihad, militant self-assertion, a puritanical interpretation of religious doctrine, cosmic theological battle and political struggle to purify tainted Islamic societies - appeal to a wide variety of individuals who gravitate to its call in the same manner that zealots join any other such movements of true believers.

Coming to grips with the phenomena it represents - especially the continuing threat of terrorism - requires grasping the combination of social, economic and political conditions in local societies from which Al Qaeda recruits emanate - mainly in the Arab world, South Asia and immigrant quarters of urban Europe. ...

Over the past two decades, Al Qaeda seems to have evolved in line with trends impacting the wider world of Islamist movements, including local crackdowns in many countries, and the American-led “global war on terror” that has been defined heavily, but not exclusively, by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These pressures to disrupt Al Qaeda have been offset by a continuation of the stressful conditions at local and national levels in many Arab-Asian societies that nourish these Salafist jihadi movements in the first place. So a more useful question than “What is Al Qaeda’s condition today?” concerns the wider trends in Arab-Asian societies that bolster Islamist radicalism by spurring five related forces:

1. The slow political fragmentation and fraying at the edges of once centralised nation-states like Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Lebanon, Sudan, Afghanistan and Algeria, creating vacuums of authority that Islamists and others quickly fill.

2. The continued sharp disparities in local delivery of basic social services, job opportunities and security throughout much of the Arab-Asian region, creating urgent needs that Islamists are very good at meeting.

3. The impact of major nationalist issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Anglo-American-led war on Iraq.

4. Police brutality and political oppression at the local level in many Arab-Asian countries (the birthplace of Al Qaeda was both Afghanistan and the prisons of Egypt).

5. Occasional external and mostly Western stimuli to those who see themselves fighting a defensive jihad to protect both the honour and the physical existence of the threatened Islamic umma, such as the Danish cartoons, Pope Benedict’s speech in August 2006, virulently anti-Islamic movies and books, and a tendency by leading politicians (such as John McCain and Sarah Palin today) to repeatedly speak of an undefined “Islamic radicalism” as a great threat to Western civilisation that must be fought for decades, if not lifetimes.

Karl Rove's sneering statement of liberals' response to terrorism aside, it's clear that the Bush administration's response to Al Qaeda has been a total disaster. BushCo's Global War on Terror has failed not only to stamp out the Al Qaeda movement, it has aided in the recruitment efforts and expansion of the group. As many have pointed out, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay have done more for Al Qaeda than any call to martyrdom and all that implies.

What does Mr. Khouri suggest?

Any militant movement that endures for 20 years and spurs dozens of smaller clones is not only a consequence of its own organisational prowess. It reflects the persistence of enabling conditions that breed militants and militancy.

If we don’t want to go through this again 20 years from now, we would do well to grasp and change the wider degrading conditions that feed recruits into terror movements, including Arab jails, socio-economic disparity and abuse of power, Israeli occupations, Anglo-American wars and Western Islamophobia.
[Emphasis added]

It's a daunting task, and an expensive one, but it certainly has to be less expensive in money and lives than the road chosen by the Bush administration.

121 days

Labels: ,

The Big Guys, $700 Billion ...

The Little Guys, Nothing.

Yep, that's right. Those who lost everything in the mortgage scam will get nothing from Paulson's proposal to bail out the hot shot financial geniuses who caused the meltdown but an increased tax burden and an even shakier economy. Joan Vennochi made that clear in her column published today in the Boston Globe.

Some aspects of the Wall Street crisis are tough to understand. But one economic principle is pretty clear.

When a really big company goes bust, the little guy pays with his home or job. But those CEOs and money managers who boldly march their corporate empires into bankruptcy just get paid millions and millions of dollars more.

From Washington, inconsistency is the policy order of the day. ...

But no one wants to help taxpayers who are losing homes and jobs. In the grand scheme of American capitalism, they are overreaching specks, too stupid, presumptuous, and inconsequential to spare. ...

The country's conservative moralists shake their finger at low-income home buyers who dared to make a grab for a humble piece of the American dream. When the dream turns nightmarish, the foreclosed-upon are held personally accountable for their bad debt.

But there's no personal accountability for those who actually understood the fine print behind those shaky loans, because they wrote it. No one tells them to hand back their bonuses. If they are eventually forced out, they walk out with huge paychecks.

Exactly so.

I don't know which is more stunning: that Washington really believes that rewarding those who caused this financial crisis will guarantee that it will never happen again, or that Washington believes that the rest of the country is too stupid to notice or to care.

The proposal from Treasury Secretary Paulson, as it stands, stinks, and the Democrats in Congress had better do more than hold their noses and pass it without some huge changes. Earlier today, I suggested one provision that has to be struck in its entirety, the one which gives the Treasury Secretary absolute power over the bail-out with no congressional or judicial review.

Here are a few more suggestions, some of which have been offered by people like Bernie Sanders and Barney Frank, and by people like you and me.

Add provisions that strip the executives of these financial giants of all bonuses awarded in 2008 and of any golden parachute they were counting on should they be forced out.

Add rules and regulations on this seamy part of the market so that robbing the rest of us gets more difficult.

Add a provision that gives bankruptcy judges the power to alter the terms of the mortgages that drove the home owner into that court.

That would be a good start. If this bail-out is so essential, and I admit it may very well be, lets not just give the money away. Let's make those assholes earn it.

Labels: ,


I am thinking it is time to go visit right wing sites and tell then You got us into this,now please just don't vote.

For those who don't know, I am telling you now. I worked from my high school years on, and when I worked my salary was deducted from. The social security and unemployment deductions did not come into my pocket, although I had earned them. When I lost jobs and when I got social security recently, that was money I had worked for and earned.

The right wing wants you to think that this is charity. They are liars. I will pay taxes on my social security payments, although I already paid taxes on them.

I bought my house without your help. Now I am being taxed for mortgages that are irresponsible that were given by right wingers I voted against.

The right wingers who said that regulations were bad for business have been disproved. completely.

This is totally wrong. I am being made to pay for mistakes that the right wingers made, that were obviously wrong, and that I fought against.

I am begging you to vote for Obama, even though he isn't your color and though he says rational things you fought against. And if you can't get to that degree of rational behavior, just don't vote.

Labels: , ,

Election? Why Bother

Yesterday the administration sent Congress an emergency proposal to bail out Wall Street. The President spoke briefly about the mammoth disaster about to happen and just why he believes the government needs to pour $700 billion in order to save those financial institutions about to go under because of the mortgage debacle. Henry Paulson, Treasury Secretary, spent the day in conference with dozens of congress critters urging them to act quickly to enact the proposed bill because the crisis was so severe that our very way of life was threatened.

The proposal, which the NY Times has published in its entirety here, is dramatically simple. Written in comparatively straightforward English (unlike most legislation), it runs to only three pages. The President, Treasury Secretary, and Fed-head, Ben Bernanke all urged the Congress to act swiftly because time was of the essence.

This Los Angeles Times article is typical of the coverage being given to the financial crisis, and it focuses on some of the more important provisions contained in that three-page document prepared for Congress.

A draft of the plan was delivered to Congress early today, and lawmakers will spend the weekend poring over it. As written, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson and his successor would be handed expansive authority, beyond the reach of U.S. courts, to attempt to rescue staggering financial markets. ...

At the White House, President Bush acknowledged the immensity of the plan, which would give the Treasury secretary enormous control and bypass many of the traditional checks and balances of government.

"This is a big package, because it was a big problem," Bush said in the Oval Office as he met today with the president of Colombia. "I will tell our citizens and continue to remind them that the risk of doing nothing far outweighs the risk of the package, and that, over time, we're going to get a lot of the money back."
[Emphasis added]

It sounds a great deal like the rush to pass the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) and The Patriot Act, doesn't it? Well, that's only because this same kind of pressure is being applied in the same way. That alone should raise suspicions in Congress. And some of those people and their advisers are suspicious.

"It's got to be done right away, but they won't make any concessions in order to get it to happen," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who sits on the House Financial Services Committee.

"They are playing Russian roulette in the hopes that if the economy gets shot, the Democrats get blamed," Sherman said. ...

Robert E. Litan, a Treasury official with the Clinton administration who is now a senior analyst with the Brookings Institution, said the new plan seemed to invite banks and securities firms to dump their very worst assets on the government with no clear way for Washington to get rid of them.

"What they're going to get is the financial equivalent of radioactive waste," he warned.

Several in Congress have already started complaining that the massive bail-out does plenty for Wall Street and absolutely nothing for Main Street, and, since it's the people of Main Street who are putting up the money, those Congress Critters are uneasy about the proposal as it stands. They want to include relief for the actual victims in the whole mortgage scams, those who have or about to lose their homes.

But here's the part of the proposal that has me aghast:

Sec. 8. Review.

Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.
[Emphasis added]

That's right. What Secretary Paulson (and his successor) want is absolute and unfettered authority to do whatever they want with what will probably end up to be over $1 trillion. No Congressional oversight, no judicial review. Their actions will carry a conclusive presumption of appropriateness.

How's that for striking at the heart of Constitutional government?

No wonder the administration is in such a rush. Hopefully Congress will notice at least this provision in the short proposal and strike it immediately. If it doesn't, then we might as well cancel the November elections. It won't matter who the President is, he won't be the chief executive. The Treasury Secretary will.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Bonus Critter Blogging: Cheetah

(Photograph by Chris Johns and published at National Geographic.)

Gott Mit Uns

That the rest of the world has an amazing fascination with our election is clear, if Watching America is any indication. One of the most intriguing articles from that international site is from Norway's Aftenposten and is titled "God as Denial of Responsibility."

In the article, the author examines what for him is the peculiar role of religion in American politics, especially over the last decade. He begins with George W. Bush.

When God is on your team, the world can be dangerously simple. ...

For the past eight years, secularised Europe has been watching with increasing astonishment a president who for the most part is guided by religion; who has had a very difficult relationship with the English language; who has systematically prioritised loyalty over competence, and who seems to be without any intellectual curiosity.

From there he moves on to the GOP's vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin:

Take Sarah Palin. The Alaskan governor with great skills at carving up big game, McCain's snapping hound with lipstick. With her American conservatism she has torn away its last shred of political civilization (read what she said about foreign policy at the convention). We are risking having a woman who sees God's hands in all she does just a heartbeat away from the oval office. A unholy mixture of ignorance and vulgarity. We know this “Gott mit uns” - mentality all to well from European history. Save us from the Alaskan version! [Emphasis added]

The article's author is smart enough to realize that much of the religiosity displayed by the GOP is just that, rather than true piety. The religion card plays well, especially since it serves to provide a handy and cynical facade to cover what actually lies behind it.

...The dangerous psychological impact of toying with religion are all too rarely pointed out, especially the encouragement of fanaticism and denial of accountability biblical quotations can lead to. It is easy to be confident when you can use simple rationalization because God is on your side. To say that you will do “what Jesus did” can be a simple excuse to avoid studying the issues at hand. ... [Emphasis added]

This kind of analysis has indeed been sorely missing in the US discourse, especially during the election season, because most Americans are somewhat loathe to criticize another's religion (unless, of course, that religion is Islam). This is dangerously unfortunate for the very reasons the article points out. No amount of lipstick can cover the results of such religiosity, as we have discovered the past eight years.

God help us if we have to go through another four years of this.

Labels: , ,

What Avedon Said

For those of you who missed it, I'm posting The Sideshow yesterday about bad times. A.K.A. Republican maladministration. and there's a one-pager to go with it.

I understand why people don't think much about this - we're always being told that the Republicans are "fiscally responsible" and good for business and so on, and we're also encouraged to think that our own experience is isolated and that out there in the rest of the world things really are better under the Republicans. Sure, it was easier for you to find a job in the '60s or the '90s, but the corporate media is always there to tell you that things are really fine with the Republicans in charge. Totting up the numbers takes a lot of research and time, and it's only recently that it's become relatively easy to do all that research on the internet instead of spending hours, days, even weeks, sniffing dust in libraries. Even so, it's still dry, time-consuming work.

But we repeat it for a while in our small numbers, and sooner or later more and more people are looking at the numbers and remembering that, by the gods, things really are better under Democrats!

The Republicans always have a lot of "responsible"-sounding reasons why they are better for the economy, but honestly, they are lies. The Republicans don't want to help "families", they don't want to help you avoid moral hazard, they don't want you to do your best and try to achieve, they don't care whether their policies hurt you.

Their end game isn't to make you a harder-working and better person, it's to avoid having to show you any respect. They don't respect you and they don't want to have to pretend they do. They want you to show them deference and they know you won't do that if you feel like a free person in a free society who doesn't have to take crap from some petty tyrant who thinks you should feel honored to kiss his ring. Republicans are pissed off because it's so hard to get good help these days - help that knows they are just the help, that knows their place, that uses the servants' entrance and calls them "sir" and doesn't question them. A strong middle-class - that is, a secure workforce - gets bolshy and tells abusive employers to bugger off, and the ruling class doesn't like that.

Which is why Alan Greenspan, secure himself in the knowledge that Ronald Reagan et al. had already severely weakened the middle-class to the point where they could actually say this stuff out loud, publicly stated that he regarded it as his job to increase economic insecurity. Your economic insecurity.

Liberal economic policies do what Republicans claim they want to do for you - to make your own money and efforts work for you. For example, having the government coordinate a program that uses some percentage of our earnings to give us an unemployment insurance program is more efficient, more stable, and far, far less expensive, than forcing us to look independently for commercial unemployment insurance. It also has knock-on effects that benefit you - even if you, personally, never need to collect on that insurance, and know that means someone who was unsuccessful will probably get the best use of the taxes you paid for that insurance, that makes your own success more likely. It helps to stabilize the economy as a whole, it spreads the wealth through the community bloodstream and keeps it flowing in a more healthy fashion.

Programs like Social Security and Medicare don't just help old people, they also help their children, whose own futures don't get sucked away by having to take care of aging parents (both physically and economically) - parents who might otherwise have to live with you if you don't want the misery (or at least shame) of having them sleep on grates. Parents who might become a burden on your marriage, on your finances (forget sending the kids to college), and an impediment to all of your hopes to give your kids a better life.

In other words, these "wasteful" liberal programs make it more likely that you will be successful and can pursue life, liberty, and happiness a little more hopefully - and they save you money. You would never be able to afford these things if you had to spend that same money yourself on the commercial market.

And you wouldn't save it anyway, because employers aren't going to suddenly start giving you more money. Your take-home pay (after payroll taxes) is $50,000 a year? Fine - now that there are no more payroll taxes, you can live on that - we can pay you $50,000 a year and you now have the "freedom" to figure out how to spend it. Oh, you refuse? Well, I'm sure we can hire newer, younger staff who will find a way....

And what the oligarchs never want you to think about is that heavily taxing the rich - especially things like estate taxes - also make the economy richer, improve your opportunities, increase the likelihood of innovation, and all that other good stuff that America is supposed to be especially good at. Because without estate taxes, wealthy families can keep accumulating wealth for their unproductive offspring and keep that money out of the economy, making them stronger and you proportionately weaker, until the vast majority of people are little more than serfs and slaves working for a tiny number of Malefactors of Great Wealth. Money is like blood in the economy's body, and if it doesn't circulate - if it all accumulates at the top - the body withers while the head becomes stuffed up and bloated, and neither part functions very well.

Now, I'm not saying Democrats have been blameless in allowing the Tories to take over - hell, some of them are Tories themselves. But the Republicans have always been "the party of business" - by which they mean big, bloated business, and not family-farm-and-local-shop business. And the more successful they've been, the more completely they control anything that could get in the way of big, bloated business taking away what you've worked hard for, including your family farm and local shop.

As a person whose memory has always been spotty in the best of times, I'm surprised that I remember watching these patterns so much better than most people do. But I'm hoping you'll all remember it, now that others are talking about it, and repeat it, and spread the knowledge, before they finish closing all the libraries and taking the internet away from us and deleting that knowledge once and for all.

Get out there and make the phone calls, knock on doors, get the country back on track if you can.

Labels: ,

Great Galloping Hoover!

No, not Herbert, J. Edgar.

While we have one eye on the November elections and the other on the nation's financial meltdown, it's pretty easy to overlook some of the other news developing out there. And that's dangerous, especially given the current administration. Sure, BushCo will soon be over, but its friends and backers will still be around, and history has shown that such characters will surface just as soon as the time is right.

An editorial in today's Los Angeles Times warns us about one plan in the works. The FBI has decided it needs to loosen the already loose restrictions on its domestic spying.

Citing a post-9/11 change in its mission, the FBI is planning to relax guidelines for the surveillance of groups and individuals who might -- and the key word is "might" -- harbor terrorists or spies. Because the actual wording hasn't been released, it's difficult to make a definitive judgment about whether the new guidelines for initial investigative "assessments" would revive the bad old days when the FBI engaged in massive and unjustified spying on Americans. But explanations from Bush administration officials are unsettling.

... the FBI wants more leeway to send agents or informants to public places and conduct "pretext interviews" -- FBI jargon for conversations in which an investigator asks questions without identifying himself as an agent. This first-stage surveillance doesn't require reasonable suspicion that those under surveillance are terrorists; it could take place on the basis of speculation or rumor.
[Emphasis added]

Security letters and warrantless wire taps aren't enough. Now we get have to have agents drop by the local pub to sniff out any unAmerican chatter. Well, probably not just any local pub, or even just a pub. One assumes that the gathering is one of those suspicious kinds, filled with long-haired hippie types, Quakers, or (gasp!) Middle Easterners.

The LA Times editorial points out one of the intended effects of this new and improved "investigation tool":

... under the rules proposed by the FBI, agents and informants could insinuate themselves into mosques and political organizations whose only "suspicious" behavior is to criticize U.S. policy toward Iraq or support the Palestinian cause. That treads dangerously close to violating free speech and religion rights guaranteed under the 1st Amendment.

Well, yeah, along with free assembly and privacy rights. The new rules hit out at a whole bunch of civil liberties, but, after all, the Bill of Rights is so 9/10.

We really have become a Third World Nation.