Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: African Lion

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

Left Hand, Meet Right Hand

A couple of days ago, the NY Times published an article that caused all sorts of raised heart rates and blood pressures among the younger members of the lefty cause.

ZOMG! The CIA is paying a drug dealer in Afghanistan for help and he just happens to be the brother of the current Afghan President!

Here's the lede from the article:

Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade, gets regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has for much of the past eight years, according to current and former American officials.

The agency pays Mr. Karzai for a variety of services, including helping to recruit an Afghan paramilitary force that operates at the C.I.A.’s direction in and around the southern city of Kandahar, Mr. Karzai’s home.

Oh, please.

This has been going on for at least the five decades I've been following the news. And it's not just the CIA protecting and serving American interests. If past history (especially in Latin America) is any measure, members of the CIA have made a tidy profit from the drug trade, and don't think the rest of the world hasn't noticed. A brief trip to Watching America made that clear. This article showed just how pervasive the CIA is with respect to drug distribution. It's from Germany's Junge Welt.

Here's what that article had to say:

“There’s no significant drug trafficking anywhere in the world in which the CIA isn’t involved.” This truism has again been confirmed by a report in the New York Times. While in the past it was limited to hanky-panky with drug lords in Latin America or Southeast Asia, this time the agency, according to the New York Times article, is actually part of an organized crime operation in the Hindu Kush war zone. Active and former U.S. intelligence personnel claim that Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, is a known key player in the Afghan drug world but has nonetheless been on the CIA payroll for the past eight years. It is therefore absurd that U.S. politicians and the American media are condemning President Karzai for not prosecuting his brother. ...

The CIA helped President Karzai’s brother by ridding him of two bothersome competitors: Matiullah Qati, Police Chief of Kandahar province, was “accidentally” shot to death by a CIA special operations unit, and Karzai also inherited drug baron Hajji Bashir Noorzai’s business after Noorzai, with Ahmed’s help, fell into an American trap, was arrested, later convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The New York Times reached either the pinnacle of naïveté or was playing administration apologist by saying, “CIA practices in Afghanistan suggest that the United States isn’t doing everything in its power to eradicate the lucrative narcotics trade in Afghanistan.”

Of course the US isn't doing "everything in its power" to stop the illicit drug trade in Afghanistan. That would cut off some serious bucks to people that apparently even the Obama administration fears angering or there would have been some immediate action, something I haven't seen in this administration or any other administration in the past 30 years. What is especially noxious about this connection between the CIA and the drug trade is that it is going on while American and allied troops are fighting a war in the middle of it. I think an argument can be made that the CIA is making it harder for those US soldiers to do their jobs so they can come home.

President Obama is currently facing a decision on increasing troop levels in Afghanistan. He still labors under the delusion that this war, the "good one" can be won. If he really wants to win, then he ought to be considering a few options besides sending more soldiers into Afghanistan.

It's clear that the Taliban are using the opium trade to finance their war. Opium is not just the source for "illegal" drugs, it is also a source for a legitimate medical anodyne. We could invite the United Nations or some other respected international organization to step in and to negotiate with Afghan opium farmers for their crops for that drug. Giving the Taliban some competition for the crops would allow the Afghan farmers to continue growing what they seem bent on growing without worrying about recrimination which comes in the form of bombs from both sides of the war.

With a reasonable expectation of income, Afghan farmers and citizens might get the message that being conquered is not the intent of the rest of the world. I think that might make a difference.

That would cut out not only the Taliban, but also such "organizations" as the CIA from the loop, and that just might give the US a way to rein in an agency which has members who've turned rogue, and who've been allowed to do so under the cover of protecting America. Come on, folks, all those agents have done is protect their bank accounts and their power. They could care less about the nation or the world.

That suggests the second move President Obama could make, although perhaps not on Prime Time television. He could make it clear that the easy flow of money to the CIA and its operatives was over. A super investigator general would be appointed to oversee the CIA when it comes to these kinds of operations and expenditures and that investigator would be given prosecutorial powers. That might get a little attention.

All of which is to say that the US doesn't need to send more troops. It needs to send more intelligence, real intelligence, the kind that sees the whole picture, not just the cropped corner of the photograph that has dollar signs attached to it.

And the US needs to put the choke chain on such organizations as the CIA and yank it. Hard.

Labels: , ,

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging

The Three Stooges

I don't often read Los Angeles Times media critic James Rainey's columns. They're usually not as well-written as they should be, and they don't really focus on the issues I'm most interested in. Today, however, he did a better job. He acknowledges, mostly by implication, that the big three of cable news networks (Fox News Network, MSNBC, and CNN) usually are more about opinion than actual hard news.

The column focuses primarily on Fox News, home of another big three: O'Reilly, Beck, and Hannity. However, his interest is not on those gentlemen, but on the shows that are supposed to be "newscasts."

The debate over the meaning of Fox News has become so routine, and so routinely partisan, that one hesitates to join the fray again. But when the debate reaches a presidential level, it seems worth reminding everyone, again, how much the boundaries between news and opinion have blurred and how sanguine most people have become about it all. ...

I spend part of virtually every day with Fox. Yes, there are stretches of straight reporting apparently bereft of ideology. And then there are all-too-frequent instances of what the military might call "mission creep," opinion journalism bleeding into what are ostensibly news programs.

So Fox news anchors and reporters hype "tea parties" that rail against the Obama administration. Reporters flog liberals who support healthcare reform while tossing softballs to conservatives who are sure government is growing out of control. The nightly "Fox All Stars," capping a news program, employs a quirky math that finds two rock-ribbed conservatives plus one neutral party equal one balanced panel. ...

Fox employs some other neat devices for infusing its newscasts with the view from the right. How about zippy headlines, like the one this spring that asserted: "House Dems vote to protect pedophiles, but not veterans."

Outrageous! And outrageously misleading. That claim referred to hate crimes legislation designed to protect gays and others, a proposal which at least one Republican lawmaker falsely claimed could protect pedophiles, even though federal law already made it clear such statutes covered only consenting adults.
[Emphasis added]

Mr. Rainey could make the same complaints (and does, briefly) about the other television news sources, whether on cable or network television. "Meet the Press" and the other Sunday morning talking-heads roundups rarely provide a balanced line-up of guests (whether on the basis of ideology or gender) and rarely challenge the distortions presented by those guests.

What is especially sad about all of this is that most Americans get their news from television, as the print media is discovering. If the news was presented as news, real information with as little bias and b.s. as possible, Americans just might be better informed and able to make better decisions. Unfortunately, the days of Walter Cronkite have apparently passed, something which Mr. Rainey clearly laments:

I'm still burdened with the antique notion that news people have more power and influence when they can bring unique information to the table. But as I noted in an earlier column, opinion making is on the rise.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Said The Spider To The Fly

Sometimes paranoia is justified. Sometimes there really are people spying on your every move, and sometimes those spies are from your own government. That's the message I got from this NY Times article, based on an FBI manual ordered released under a Freedom of Information Act suit filed by, among others, Somali American groups.

The F.B.I.’s interpretation of those rules was recently made public when it released, in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit, its “Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide.” The disclosure of the manual has opened the widest window yet onto how agents have been given greater power in the post-Sept. 11 era.

One section lays out a low threshold to start investigating a person or group as a potential security threat. Another allows agents to use ethnicity or religion as a factor — as long as it is not the only one — when selecting subjects for scrutiny.

...Valerie Caproni, the F.B.I.’s general counsel, said the bureau has adequate safeguards to protect civil liberties as it looks for people who could pose a threat.
[Emphasis added]

Yeah, right. And I have some prime real estate in the Florida Everglades I can see you at just the right price.

“Those who say the F.B.I. should not collect information on a person or group unless there is a specific reason to suspect that the target is up to no good seriously miss the mark,” Ms. Caproni said. “The F.B.I. has been told that we need to determine who poses a threat to the national security — not simply to investigate persons who have come onto our radar screen.”

The manual authorizes agents to open an “assessment” to “proactively” seek information about whether people or organizations are involved in national security threats.

Agents may begin such assessments against a target without a particular factual justification. The basis for such an inquiry “cannot be arbitrary or groundless speculation,” the manual says, but the standard is “difficult to define.”
[Emphasis added]

"There is no standard. We don't need no stinking standard. Just go get them."

Assessments permit agents to use potentially intrusive techniques, like sending confidential informants to infiltrate organizations and following and photographing targets in public. ...

If agents turn up something specific to suggest wrongdoing, they can begin a “preliminary” or “full” investigation and use additional techniques, like wiretapping. But even if agents find nothing, the personal information they collect during assessments can be retained in F.B.I. databases, the manual says.
[Emphasis added]

Because you never know when that information will come in handy. After all, "these people" must have done something wrong, and we'll find it sooner or later. But don't you worry about a thing: the FBI, the Justice Department, in fact the entire government has your well-being uppermost in mind, well, if you're a white Christian whose American lineage goes back seven generations.

[Ms. Caproni] also said that the F.B.I. takes seriously its duty to protect freedom while preventing terrorist attacks. “I don’t like to think of us as a spy agency because that makes me really nervous,” she said. “We don’t want to live in an environment where people in the United States think the government is spying on them. That’s an oppressive environment to live in and we don’t want to live that way.”

J. Edgar Hoover would be so proud.

Me? Eh, not so much.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Top Cop Gets It

William Bratton, Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, has had a successful tenure. His community policing theories have been put into practice, dramatically lessening the tensions between his officers and the public they have sworn to serve and to protect. His insistence on meticulous record keeping on a day-to-day basis has allowed the department to immediately spot crime sprees so that additional police can be assigned to the infested area. More often than not, the presence of the men and women of his department now inspires relief, rather than dread in neighborhoods of the city troubled by gangsters and drug dealers. That's a remarkable achievement for a police force that has too often been the subject of Justice Department investigations.

Chief Bratton is about to move on, and, quite frankly, I'm sorry he's leaving.

Before taking his leave, he took the time to pen an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times in which he gives his perspective on the use of local police departments as an extension of Immigration and Customs Enforcement by the Department of Homeland Security. Here's the heart of his argument:

Keeping America's neighborhoods safe requires our police forces to have the trust and help of everyone in our communities. My nearly 40 years in law enforcement, and my experience as police commissioner in Boston and New York City and as chief in Los Angeles, have taught me this.

Yet every day our effectiveness is diminished because immigrants living and working in our communities are afraid to have any contact with the police. A person reporting a crime should never fear being deported, but such fears are real and palpable for many of our immigrant neighbors.

This fear is not unfounded. Earlier this month, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that 11 more locations across the United States have agreed to participate in a controversial law enforcement program known as 287(g). The program gives local law enforcement agencies the powers of federal immigration agents by entering into agreements with Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Although many local agencies have declined to participate in 287(g), 67 state and local law enforcement agencies are working with ICE, acting as immigration agents.

Some in Los Angeles have asked why the LAPD doesn't participate. My officers can't prevent or solve crimes if victims or witnesses are unwilling to talk to us because of the fear of being deported. That basic fact led to the implementation almost 30 years ago of the LAPD's policy on immigrants, which has come to be known as Special Order 40. The order prohibits LAPD officers from initiating contact with someone solely to determine whether they are in the country legally. The philosophy that underlies that policy is simple: Criminals are the biggest benefactors when immigrants fear the police. We can't solve crimes that aren't reported because the victims are afraid to come forward to the police.
[Emphasis added]

That L.A.'s Chief of Police can see what has long been obvious (or should have been) should come as no surprise. What is remarkable (although it shouldn't be) is that the head of a department facing draconian budget cuts because of the disastrous financial state of the city and the state would rather not take the easy money from the feds to do their work, preferring instead to adhere to a policy that has proven to be effective in local police work. The city of Los Angeles has been the better for his decision in this regard as well as for his other efforts.

Like I said: I'm sorry he's leaving.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What To Do? What To Do?

The Republican Party leaders find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to recover from the electoral thrashing they took in 2006 and 2008 in which they lost first the Congress and then the White House. The American public finally lost patience with the far right base which was running things and which managed to run the country right into the ground. It took four years, but the GOP finally decided to change its strategy and to opt for more moderate Republicans so that they could win an election or two.

That of course drove the party's basest base into open rebellion, as the off-year election for a House seat from New York is showing. The district in question has long been considered "safe" for Republicans, but President Obama carried the district by a slim margin (52%). Local party officials tapped a moderate Republican. Sarah Palin and Dick Armey, along with Glenn Beck swooped in and endorsed the Conservative Party candidate instead. Now the national party is watching anxiously to see how it will play out.

From the Los Angeles Times:

In fact, Johnson and many other conservatives want to use a Nov. 3 special election to teach the GOP a lesson about sticking to conservative values -- even though that lesson could mean the party loses a House seat it has held for decades. The conservatives are backing a third-party candidate, splitting the Republican vote and giving the Democrat a lead in some recent opinion polls.

"Both parties seem to be more for big government," said Johnson, a probation clerk in Fulton, N.Y. "The Republicans need to learn that the people they are running [for office] do not represent the views of the people." ...

The fight on the right has also made this district the epicenter of a national debate about the future of the Republican Party -- leaving party leaders to ask whether they are better off emphasizing the GOP's small-government and socially conservative values, or trying to broaden their appeal to reach independent and moderate voters. ...

The party establishment has tended to choose middle-of-the-road candidates, like moderate Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida. But conservatives have responded by raising money and building up the candidacy of conservative Marco Rubio, former speaker of the Florida House. ...

...Gingrich and many other Republican leaders say that if the party is to win nationally and in swing districts like this one, it cannot move too far to the right.

Support for Hoffman, they argue, is a recipe for electing the Democrat, lawyer Bill Owens. That may allow Republicans to maintain their ideological purity, they say, but it will not win the elections needed to oust Democrats from power.

"We have to decide which business we are in," Gingrich said on his website after conservatives derided his endorsement of Scozzafava. "If we are in the business of feeling good about ourselves while our country gets crushed, then I probably made the wrong decision."

Now, I can, to a certain extent, sympathize with the ultra conservatives. After all, the Democratic Party has been playing the liberal wing of the party in the same way for at least 20 years, offering "electable" candidates and shunning the lefties who have the temerity to run against the chosen. What the far right has to learn, however, is that there are ways to get around the suits in Washington, something the left is finally beginning to get.

First of all, supporting the alternative candidate usually means defeat. It's pretty damned difficult to match the money poured into the coffers of the official candidate by the national party and by lobbyists eager to buy yet another rube.

Second of all, what the candidates promise during the campaign is forgotten when the newly-elected hit Washington (or the state capital, or the mayor's office). I guess it's some kind of cosmic political rule or something.

Third of all, and perhaps most importantly, elections don't end the process, they just start it, at least in a real democracy. The public option was more than off the table in the Senate; it was frickin' out the door of the Senate chambers and down three blocks from the Capitol, hidden in some sewer until thousands of citizens began exerting a little pressure of their own. They signed petitions, they faxed letters of outrage to their representatives' offices and they called, and called, and called.

But, hey. Keep your ideology. As often as I kvetch about Obama, and Feinstein, and Reid, I know that they are still a damned sight better than the alternative. And we're beginning to get their attention.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Just A Few Words

I read a very curious editorial this morning. In less than 125 words, the Boston Globe pretty well skewered former Vice President Dick Cheney and his ongoing attempts to revise history by attacking the current administration.

In defiance of "fair use" rules, I am going to present the whole editorial.

Every time it seems that Dick Cheney has finally tired of satirizing himself, the former veep pops up again to castigate President Obama - for abandoning a faulty missile defense system, for ending the shameful practice of torture, and most recently for supposedly “dithering’’ about US strategy in Afghanistan. Yet these criticisms hardly seem to sway the public debate. If anything, they only call attention to how, in 2008, the Bush-Cheney team rebuffed a US commander’s request for 30,000 more troops. It’s as though Cheney’s soul has been taken over by a Democratic dybbuk. Such a mischievous visitor from the spirit world could hardly make a better case for careful deliberation now than Cheney is inadvertently doing. [Emphasis added]

Ouch! That's gotta leave a mark.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sunday Poetry: Dahlia Ravikovitch

The Horns of Hittin

In the morning strange ships were floating on the sea,
prow and stern in the ancient style.
In the eleventh century
Crusader caravans set sail,
riffraff and kings.
Crates of gold and plunder weltered in the ports,
ships of gold
piers of gold.
The sun set marvelous fires in them,
flaming forests.
When the sun dazzled and the waves surged,
their hearts went out to Byzantium.
How cruel and naive those Crusaders were.
They plundered everything.

The villagers were gripped by a boundless terror.
Their daughters were carried off by force,
their blue-eyed grandsons were sired
in disgrace.
No one spared their honor.

Slender-necked ships set sail for Egypt.
As if electrified, the gorgeous troops marched upon Acre.
Swift knights all, bearing the Bishop’s blessing.
A great flock of wolves.
How their blue eyes shone
when they saw the palm trees swaying in the wind.
How they soiled their beards with spittle
when they dragged women into the thicket.
Many fortresses they built,
snipers’ towers, ramparts of basalt.
In the villages their bastards, now full grown,
marveled at them.

In the twelfth century
the Marquis of Montfort’s eye grew dim.
The winds of Galilee hissed over his gloomy fortress.
A curved scimitar burst from the East
like a jester’s staff.
Saladin advanced from the East in motley garb.
With the horns of a wild ox
he gored them hip and thigh, that infidel dog:
did them in
at the Horns of Hittin.

Thenceforth they had no dominion,
no life eternal, no Jerusalem.
How cruel and naive those Crusaders were.
They plundered everything.

Dahlia Ravikovitch

(Re-published at Poets Against the War.)

An Unpatriotic Act

Today's Los Angeles Times has a totally mealy-mouthed editorial on the Patriot Act. Oh, the "center-left" editorial board got some of it right, but it apparently still doesn't get that the Patriot Act, the entire act, not just those provisions about to expire and not just the national security letters, was among the most devastating assaults on constitutional guarantees in our history.

The editorial was right to concentrate on the national security letters, that I will grant, but a more helpful explication would have made it clear that those letters are emblematic of just why the entire act is blatantly unAmerican. Instead, the editorial board chose to nibble along the edges, much the same way Congress is doing.

The Patriot Act's greatest threat to personal privacy lies not in any of the provisions set to expire but in the law's expansion of the use of national security letters, subpoenas that allow the FBI to obtain records without a warrant. In 2008, the FBI issued 24,744 letters involving the records of 7,225 people. Not surprisingly, there have been abuses. In 2007, after an investigation of four FBI offices, the Justice Department's inspector general found irregularities in 22% of documents related to the issuance of national security letters. Last year, he found that the FBI had made "significant progress" in correcting violations.

Even so, the criteria for issuing the letters are too vague. At present, the government must merely certify that the information sought is relevant to an authorized investigation. The bill approved by the Judiciary Committee would increase the burden on the government slightly by requiring a written statement of specific facts demonstrating relevance. A narrower amendment by Feingold and Durbin -- which would have required issuance of national security letters to be related to a suspected foreign agent or terrorist or a possible confederate -- was rejected by the committee. It should be added on the Senate floor or in an eventual conference with the House.

The other problem with national security letters is that the companies or other institutions that receive them are not allowed to reveal that fact publicly, though they can appeal them in a closed hearing in federal District Court. Feingold proposed that the government certify that disclosure of the request would result in serious harm, and that the gag be lifted in a year's time unless the government presented new evidence that secrecy was necessary. The final version of the Patriot Act extension legislation should include those safeguards.

National security letters are nothing more than a way for the government to avoid the oversight of the judiciary with respect to search and seizure. They replace the warrants, applied for with an affidavit signed under penalty of perjury that there is good cause for the search and then reviewed by a court. That the Justice Department's inspector general found evidence of abuse was no shocking revelation. It was expected. The FBI didn't and still doesn't care because its agents will get away with such abuse 90% of the time, primarily because of the secrecy surrounding them.

These provisions don't need to be tinkered with by inserting "safeguards;" they need to be repealed in toto, just as the rest of the Patriot Act should. The 109th Congress, pushed against the wall by the Bush-Cheney White House, passed the act in response to 9/11, an attack that the CIA and the FBI had warned the president about a month before it happened. That information wasn't garnered with national security letters or warrantless wire taps. The attack was successful because a president was too lazy, too stupid, and too incompetent to listen to his own government's briefing.

The 110th Congress, with a Democratic majority did nothing but allow for expansion of those unconstitutional police powers, and the 111th Congress hasn't seen any need to rectify matters so far either. And they won't, unless they are pressured to do so. Weak editorials such as this aren't going to provide any pressure.

What a wasted opportunity.

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Jim Morin / Miami Herald (October 22, 2009) and featured by McClatchy DC. Click on the cartoon to enlarge.)


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: H1N1 Virus

(Photograph courtesy CDC Influenza Laboratory and published May 4, 2009 by National Geographic.)

Comment: I know this is a bit of a departure for critter blogging, since the virus is not a cute, recognizable animal. Still, it is a living organism, and one that is having an impact on the world in all sorts of ways. The National Geographic link, while more than five months old, has updated links with further information on the virus. I urge you to check it out so that you can make informed decisions for yourself and for your loved ones.

Death Merchants

I got quite a jolt during my weekly visit to Watching America. The featured article is from Norway's Dagsavisen, from which I learned that the United States has become the leading exporter of military weapons, passing Russia for that dubious honor. If you think that's bad, wait until you see to whom we are providing that weaponry:

The U.S. provides more than 70 percent of weapons exports to developing nations. Because America is so dependent on the weapons industry, it makes it difficult for Obama to change course, says political scientist William Hartung.

While the world’s weapons exports dropped last year, the United States increased its exports to developing nations by almost 50 percent compared to 2007. The U.S. is selling far more weapons than all other countries combined. New numbers from the Congressional Research Service show that America is surging past Russia, who used to be the number one weapons exporter to developing nations. On top of the list of recipients are the Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. ...

Ensuring stability and security for America’s allies is an important part of Washington's foreign policy. But according to a report from the World Policy Institute, the United States is selling weapons or providing military training to almost 90 percent of the countries that, according to the U.S. itself, are harboring terrorists. ...

William Hartung admits that there are advantages for America, but he thinks the world is paying too high a price for American military hegemony. According to a report from the New America Foundation, the U.S. is selling weapons to 18 of the 25 countries at war, and often to both or all of the sides fighting. And Hartung says that with countries like Saudi Arabia on top of the list, America is undermining human rights.
[Emphasis added]

This "dependency on the weapons industry" provides a certain cognitive dissonance to a liberal like me. I, too, have watched in dismay as our manufacturing base has been transferred overseas so that the megacorporations can avoid taxes, hire cheap labor, and ignore environmental concerns. That said, I am appalled that we are considered the best supplier of death on the planet. Yes, I know that guns don't kill people, people kill people, but why do we have to be the ones to provide the means for the murder, especially on such a grand scale? And why do we have to do so in such a blatantly amoral (if not immoral) fashion?

As the article notes, President Obama has taken a few tentative steps towards ratcheting down the flow.

Hartung still thinks that Nobel Peace Prize winner President Barack Obama has shown signs of improvement. The fact that Obama has scrapped the plans for a missile shield and has called for a world free of nuclear weapons has gained a lot of attention. But he also stopped funding for the development of new warheads and has scrapped some new weapons systems, and those are changes Hartung cannot recall any other president has made.

These are modest steps indeed, but at least they are going in the right direction. Defunding a few more projects which will ultimately be shifted overseas to such regimes as Saudi Arabia should be next on the agenda.

"We're Number One!"



You Go, Girl!

Ellen Goodman has long been one of my favorite columnists. I don't always agree with her take on things, but I know she has arrived at her position honestly. There are a few parts of her most recent column I have trouble with, but I still appreciated what she said because her conclusions are sound.

The column begins with a vignette of a three generation trip to the movies: her, her daughter, and her grandchild. She discovered that the tickets were priced differently for each, with the mother having to pay the most. Apparently that ticked Ms. Goodman off and forms the basis for her argument.

I repeat this dialogue and plot because my box office encounter occurred days after President Obama asked Congress to allocate $250 to the 57 million beneficiaries of Social Security and other federal entitlement programs, regardless of our income. This one-time special was framed as a way to compensate for the fact that older Americans will not get a cost-of-living increase in their 2010 checks. “Even as we seek to bring about recovery,’’ said the president, “we must act on behalf of those hardest hit by this recession.’’

Well, sure, but let’s go to the numbers. This will be the first time in 34 years that seniors will not find a raise in their checks. We are not getting a cost-of-living increase for one simple reason: The cost of living has decreased. The checks that rose 5.8 percent last year - largely on energy costs - are already buying more this year.

As for the idea that those on Social Security were “hardest hit’’ by the recession, not so fast. There’s evidence that older Americans suffered fewer mortgage foreclosures. They were no more affected by the stock market meltdown than other age groups, and retirees were obviously less affected by unemployment. And while, yes, they were hit by rising health care costs, were they hit harder than, say, citizens with no health insurance?

(Pssst...Ellen, you use the term "elders" at various points in the column. Why not be consistent and lose the "seniors" and the "elderly" terminology.)

While I agree with her that elders on Medicare probably have made out better in the last couple of years than people with private insurance, and certainly better than those without any insurance, I think a lot of elders did get hit proportionately harder by the stock market meltdown. Those IRAs and 401ks, the necessary supplements to Social Security for most people, really tanked in value. Unlike younger people still in the work force, retired elders don't have the opportunity to rebuild those accounts and don't have the time to wait for them to recover.

But back to that $250 offset for the loss of a cost of living raise for those on Social Security:

There is no question that some of the neediest Americans are elderly, especially single women. But age is not the same as income. Indeed, poverty among the elderly has gone down from 35 percent in 1959 to 10 percent in 2008. Today, elders are half as likely to be poor as are children.

So, why exactly would we give $250 to every senior at every income while poor children remain in deep trouble? How do we justify the transfer of $13 billion or $14 billion to seniors? ...

The president has long talked about “responsibility,’’ especially among children. By 2030, about 20 percent of Americans will be over 65. What are we asking of them? To be nothing but passive recipients of entitlement? Is their only social responsibility to remain financially independent of their children? ...

I’ve always thought that elders were the ones designated by society to take the long view - back to the past and forward to a future when we won’t even be around. In that long view, caring flows down the generations.

Now we face this tiny but telling test. The $250 moment. Wouldn’t it be something if those of us on Social Security looked this particular gift horse in the mouth and said no to Congress? And if a check arrives in the mail, wouldn’t it be something if elders who are able, endorsed it to schools that are meagerly training the next generation of Social Security supporters?

I tend not to think of Social Security as "an entitlement." I think of it as an annuity policy I have been paying for since I got my first job at 16, just as my mother paid her her policy. That said, I fully agree with Ellen Goodman on the $250 gift to the elders. It's not necessary for most, and far too little for the rest. Put that $13 or $14 billion where it will do a far greater good. Housing, job creation, and, yes, education.

And if we elders can't get Congress to be reasonable on the issue, I think we should do as Ellen Goodman suggests: donate that $250 to the closest public school for supplies. I'm sure the teachers would be grateful.

Labels: ,

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging

Things That Make You Go "Huh?"

Apparently Republicans have decided that people are bored of the health care reform process. Or they've decided that even without their cooperation a health care reform bill which at best will provide only minimum improvements for health care access is going to pass, so it's time to move on to something that interests them more. Or they've decided with mid-term elections coming up in a year, it's time to throw their basest base a little red meat to energize them. Whatever the reason(s), the Republicans have come up with a way to link their two most cherished bogeymen: immigrants and the Census.

From McClatchy DC:

Immigration, an issue placed on the congressional backburner by attempts to revamp the nation's health care system, is percolating again as Republican lawmakers are pushing a measure that would require U.S. Census forms to include a question about the citizenship status of respondents.

An amendment by Sens. David Vitter, R-La, and Bob Bennett, R-Utah, to freeze Census Bureau funds if it doesn't add the citizenship question to more than 425 million forms before the once-a-decade count begins in April has divided Latino groups, as well as some opponents of comprehensive immigration legislation.

Vitter calls his amendment, which he hopes to attach to a Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill, necessary to try to exclude illegal immigrants from the census count so their numbers won't impact on congressional apportionment or legislative redistricting, which is based on population.

"If the current census plan goes ahead, the inclusion of non-citizens towards apportionment will artificially increase the population count in certain states, and that will likely result in the loss of congressional seats for nine other states, including Louisiana," Vitter said last week.
[Emphasis added]

It's a move that Tom Tancredo would be proud of.

Of course, to include any such provision into the Census questionnaire at this late date will cost nearly $10 billion and, just as important, delay the census process itself to the point of making timely redistricting almost impossible.

That doesn't matter to Mr. Vitter and Mr. Bennett.

What does matter is that many immigrants, documented or not, will probably be intimidated enough to duck the process, something the Republicans are counting on. Don't think immigrant rights groups haven't noticed:

"Such a provision has only one outcome in mind,'' said Randolph McGrorty, an immigration attorney with Catholic Charities Legal Services in Miami. "To intimidate immigrants from participating in the census, thereby suppressing the numbers of the count and thwarting the constitutional and legal requirement that every 'person' be counted." [Emphasis added]

That's right: the census counts "persons" not "citizens." But, hey! what's a little semantics among bigots, eh?

The only comfort I take from all of this is that Vitter, Bennett, and the rest of their cronies are doing a great job in cementing the Hispanic vote for Democrats, and that pool of voters grows larger every year.

Such lunacy just might make the GOP a leading candidate for the next Darwin Award.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Doing The Job

Now, here's a story that put the crunch back in my corn flakes this morning. Federal and local governments got their crime fighters on the same page and busted twenty Californians for Medicare fraud.

Federal officials have charged 20 people with fraudulent Medicare billing in seven cases that total $26 million in unneeded or undelivered medical equipment, the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles said Wednesday.

The charges came out of a joint investigation by the FBI, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and California attorney general's office.
[Emphasis added]

Most of the cases involve motorized wheel chairs that were never delivered, but at least one of the seven cases involved illegal payments for referrals to a couple of clinics. Those clinics are neither named nor described, but I suspect that they are what are known in my business as "mills." Patients come in, are ushered from doctor to doctor up and down the hall, no area of specialization omitted, and expensive tests (usually done on site) and expensive treatments are prescribed regardless of the complaints the patient might have come in with. Then Medicare is billed. But at least the patients are seen, even if only once.

It's those wheel chairs and other medical equipment which were (and ought to be) the primary target of this particular investigation. Some of the companies exist only on paper, have no inventory, no showroom, not even a working telephone number. Once these crooks have the social security number of an elder over 65, the rest is easy. A dummy prescription attached to the bill for a $3,000 wheelchair usually does the trick.

This investigation (which might have cost a total of $1 million, at most) uncovered more than 25 times that in fraud, and this is in just one sweep in one state. Think of the savings to Medicare if all the states' attorney generals and US attorneys cooperated on a regular basis to root out these criminals. With enough publicity, that's exactly what the doctor ordered when it comes to keeping Medicare healthy.

This investigation is one use of taxpayer money I think is appropriate.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Be Careful What You Ask For

Frankly, I was a bit surprised that the Supreme Court decided to hear the case involving the release of the Chinese Muslim Uighurs being held at Guantanamo Bay.

Here's the background to the case. At the trial level, the federal judge who held the habeas corpus hearing ordered the Uighurs released to the US where a number of resident Uighurs had expressed willingness to take in these mistakenly held men, find them suitable jobs, and help them adjust to freedom. The government appealed and won. That decision held the judge did not have the jurisdiction to order the release to the US. The Uighurs' lawyers appealed that decision, arguing that habeas corpus would become an empty concept if judges could not order the release of prisoners with nowhere to go.

Adam Liptak of the NY Times set forth the competing issues nicely this morning.

The case presents the next logical legal question in the series of detainee cases that have reached the Supreme Court. Last year, in Boumediene v. Bush, the court ruled that federal judges have jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus claims from prisoners held at Guantánamo.

Lawyers for the Uighur prisoners say the Boumediene ruling would be an empty one if it did not imply giving judges the power to order prisoners to be released into the United States if they cannot be returned to their home countries or settled elsewhere. ...

The new case pits a fundamental judicial function, that of policing unlawful imprisonment through writs of habeas corpus, against one entrusted to the political branches, that of enacting and enforcing immigration laws.

This case, and others in the chain of decisions after Boumediene, provides a classic constitutional issue with respect to the separation of powers, and that this court decided to take the case on is both surprising and a little frightening. If the court rules that the trial judge over-stepped his power by ordering the release of the unlawfully detained Uighurs into the US, then it effectively diminishes the power of the judiciary with respect to habeas corpus. If, on the other hand, the court rules that the very nature of habeas corpus requires the unlawfully detained to be released somewhere, and if the only somewhere is the US, so be it, then the Court effectively holds that habeas corpus trumps the powers granted to the legislative and executive branches.

Neither outcome is particularly attractive.

All of this, of course, might have been avoided if Congress hadn't gone all cowardly, insisting that no Gitmo prisoners can be released into the US. But it did, and unless it reverses itself and passes legislation allowing for such release when it comes to the non-dangerous detainees, we will be faced with a rather sizable constitutional crisis.

Mr. Liptak suggests that the case will be heard in February. The other two branches of government don't have much time to find a way to avoid this clash, and I don't think either branch has the spine or the wisdom to do so. The most we can hope for from this Supreme Court is that the ruling is unequivocally limited to the case and facts before it. I'm even less optimistic about that.

Heckuva job, George.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


For shame, NY Times, For shame.

Here's the headline: "Medicare Premiums to Rise 15 Percent as Costs Jump." A lot of us elders swallowed hard with that. But here's the rest of the story:

The basic Medicare premium will shoot up next year by 15 percent, to $110.50 a month, federal officials said Monday.

The increase means that monthly premiums would top $100 for the first time — - a stark indication of the rise in medical costs that is driving the debate in Congress about a broad overhaul of the health care system.

About 12 million people, or 27 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries, will have to pay higher premiums. The other 73 percent will be shielded from the increase because, under federal law, their Medicare premiums cannot go up more than the increase in their Social Security benefits.

And Social Security officials announced last week that there would be no increase in Social Security benefits in 2010 because inflation had been extremely low. ...

Among those who face higher premiums next year are new Medicare beneficiaries, high-income people and those whose Medicare premiums are paid by Medicaid. Premiums can be as high as $353.60 a month, or more than $4,200 a year, for Medicare beneficiaries who file tax returns with adjusted gross income greater than $214,000 for an individual or $428,000 for a couple.

My mother, a tough old elder at 90, would probably hyperventilate if she had read that headline. Fortunately for her, she thinks the internet is evil and she lives in Wisconsin, so, God willing, she hasn't seen it yet, and probably won't, because as far as I know she is not a NY Times junkie. But there are plenty of people aged 65 to 75 who are not so timid and who do use the internet, and I'm sure they are scared to death, especially if they are on fixed incomes and their retirement accounts have been decimated by the wholesale rape of the financial markets by the banksters.

But let's unpack the story a little. I'm 63. If I took early Social Security, I would get about $2100 per month, but I wouldn't qualify for Medicare for another 21+ months. If I hold off to age 66.5 (yes, I'm in that new bracket), I would get several hundred dollars more per month, but I'd be a new beneficiary at age 65 (so far that requirement hasn't changed), so, at least according to this article, I'd have to pay $110.50 per month for my Medicare policy at age 65. Right now, the group health insurance plan I have (for which I pay because I'm not a full-time worker, but my employer is willing to keep me on the company group plan because I cannot get a private plan) is $1200 a month. It's still a bargain because there is no alternative for me.

Most of the people already on Medicare will not have to pay higher premiums, but some will.

The people who will pay more markedly more for Medicare are those who earn more than $214,00 per year (filing single) or $428,000 (filing as a couple), and the monthly premium is $353.60 a month, still about a quarter of what I pay.

Big whoop.

The important point is that most Medicare beneficiaries will not pay more for their policies next year, that freakin' headline notwithstanding.

Must have been some really fine doughnuts delivered to the Times newsroom yesterday, courtesy of the insurance lobby.

Like I said:

For shame.

Labels: , ,

Monday, October 19, 2009

Every Which Way

It is still, after all, only about the insurance companies and protecting their profits. That is made abundantly clear in this article in today's Los Angeles Times:

By requiring insurers to cover everyone, regardless of pre-existing conditions, healthcare reform will make it more difficult for insurers to control their costs, or "bend the cost curve," by avoiding sick people.

That leaves insurers with the other big cost-containment tool: turning down requests to cover treatments.

"There are going to be a lot of denials," said insurance industry analyst Robert Laszewski, a former health insurance executive. "I am not setting insurance companies up to be villains. But we are telling them to bend the cost curve. How else are they going to bend the cost curve?"

Experts said the legislation under consideration does not significantly enhance patient protections against insurers refusing to cover requests for treatment. Most people currently have no right to challenge health insurers' treatment decisions by suing them for damages.

Apparently reining in administrative costs, which are measurably larger than Medicare's administrative costs, is not something the insurance companies want to consider. They have to keep their executives happy, so paying them reasonable salaries is absolutely out of the question. So is stopping bonus payments to staffers who find a way to screw policy holders out of coverage or to deny them perfectly reasonable treatment.

The one recourse you'd think Congress would grant patients is the right to sue insurers for unfair treatment decisions. Right now, because of a provision in the ERISA law, such suits are not allowable when the coverage is paid for by employers (which is where most of us get our health insurance). Unfortunately, a change in that provision doesn't appear to be in the works. After all, Congress doesn't dare challenge the insurance companies who have been wining and dining them and who have been coughing up big campaign contributions.

Like I said, health care reform is all about insurance company profits and how to maintain or even increase them.

Me, I have 555 days until Medicare. I guess I'm one of the lucky ones.

Labels: ,

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday Poetry: Dahlia Ravikovitch

The Fruit of the Land

a farewell song to the good old days

You asked if we’ve got enough cannons
They laughed and said: More than enough
and we’ve got new improved anti-tank missiles
and bunker busters to penetrate
double-slab reinforced concrete
and we’ve got crates of napalm and crates of explosives,
unlimited quantities, cornucopias,
a feast for the soul, like some finely seasoned delicacy
and above all, that secret weapon,
the one we can’t talk about.
Calm down, man,
the intel officer and the C.O.
and the border police chief
who’s also a colonel in that hush-hush commando unit
are all primed for the order: Go!
and everything’s shined-up like the skin of a snake
and we’ve got chocolate wafers on every base
and grape juice and Tempo soda
and that’s why we won’t give in to terror
we will not fold in the face of violence
we’ll never fold, no matter what
‘cause our billy clubs are nice and hard.
God, who has chosen us from all the nations,
comforteth with apples
the fighting arm of the IDF
and the iron boxes and the crates of fresh explosives
and we’ve got cluster bombs too,
though of course that’s off the record.
Serve us bourekas and cake, O woman of the house,
for we were slaves in the land of Egypt
but never again,
and blot out the remembrance of Amalek
if you can track him down, and if you seek him in vain,
Blessed be the tiny match
that a soldier in some crack unit will suddenly strike
and set off the whole bloody mess.

Dahlia Ravikovitch

(Reprinted at Poets Against the War.)

An Increased Work Load

It came as no surprise to me that the Secret Service has its hands full. I fully expected that, and not just because a black man was elected president. I suspect that any Democrat elected to the White House would have faced an increase in threats, but it's clear that Barack Obama as the first black president has really shaken more than a few cages. This article in the Boston Globe confirms that assessment and provided me with some information I didn't know about the Secret Service.

The unprecedented number of death threats against President Obama, a rise in racist hate groups, and a new wave of antigovernment fervor threaten to overwhelm the US Secret Service, according to government officials and reports, raising new questions about the 144-year-old agency’s overall mission.

The Secret Service is tracking a far broader range of possible threats to the nation’s leaders, the officials said, even as it also investigates financial crimes such as counterfeiting as part of its original mandate.

The new demands are leading some officials, both inside and outside the agency, to raise the possibility of the service curtailing or dropping its role in fighting financial crime to focus more on protecting leaders and their families from assassination attempts and thwarting terrorist plots aimed at high-profile events.

I did not know that the Secret Service was charged with the task of financial crime investigation, primarily counterfeiting, although I did know that it was responsible for the security of visiting foreign dignitaries and for certain political events (e.g., national political conventions).

What really interested me, however, was the fact that the Globe, which I consider a really fine newspaper, if not a national newspaper, thought fit to publish the article and to emphasize the increasing threat of domestic terrorists.

As I mentioned yesterday and last Sunday, the extremist militias are once again on the rise, aided and abetted by members of the GOP, hate-talk media buffoons, and even the "reputable" press. They are becoming bolder because no one has effectively called them out. When the Department of Homeland Security issued its report on the danger of such groups, the GOP got its collective knickers in a twist and screamed in outrage. DHS promptly apologized and withdrew the report.

As a result, the Secret Service is now working double time to keep up with the problem, and doing it with inadequate funding for such things as a decent computer system.

The Service currently protects 32 people - 24 full time and eight part time. It also coordinates security at high-profile events, such as meetings of world leaders and political party conventions. Between Oct. 1, 2008, and Sept. 30, the Secret Service said it protected 116 heads of state and 58 spouses.

“The service’s protection mission has increased and become more urgent, due to the increase in terrorist threats and expanded arsenal of weapons that terrorists could use in an assassination attempt or attacks on facilities,’’ according to the congressional report.

Now, the thrust of the Globe article was the decision facing Congress as to whether it will be necessary to split off the Secret Service's other tasks and to transfer those duties to the Treasury Department, but it did a very creditable job in explaining why the security detail had become so very important right now. It even referred to this Southern Poverty Law Center report in great detail (but didn't link to it...which is one thing that disappointed me in the article, especially since I read the electronic version where it would have been easy to insert the link).

At some point, and hopefully very soon, something concrete has to be done with respect to the threat that these groups pose. Freedom of Speech (while not absolute) is one thing. Packing guns to a presidential speech and to congressional town hall meetings is something else, as are training exercises with more deadly weapons. Furthermore, encouraging and inciting violence is not protected speech, something that Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Lou Dobbs have to learn.

The Boston Globe did its job today. For that I am grateful.

Labels: ,

Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Kevin Siers / The Charlotte Observer (October 16, 2009) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on the image to enlarge.)


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: Jumping Spider

(Photograph by Robert L. Curry and published at National Geographic. Relax, this is a vegetarian spider.)

What Others See: The Right Fist Of Fury

Watching America is still filled with the international response to President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize. I guess the rest of the world was just as flummoxed as we were by the surprising announcement. Not everyone was critical, or disgusted. In fact, many of the world's press saw the selection as an expression of hope: both for President Obama and for America.

One article, however, provided another view of America, although that view was not colored by the Nobel Prize issue. It examined the re-emergence of one of the more frightening aspects of this country. From Belgium's Le Soir (as translated by Watching America):

The violence of the attacks thrown by the extreme right at Barack Obama has assumed a hallucinatory dimension. These harsh faces, those threatening fists, those brandished placards recall the incendiary sermons of the national Catholic and anti-Semitic priest Charles Coughlin against President Roosevelt at the end of the 1930s, the heinous hunting of racists by some "riders of liberty" in the deep South in the 1950s, the hysterical attacks against John and Robert Kennedy and those who stood behind Martin Luther King for the civil rights of blacks.

In the image of Léon Degrelle, who pretended to represent the "real country" and French Action by crying out against the "Jew Léon Blum," the American far right presents itself as the "Real America," and diminishes its opponents as invaders or infiltrators. Declaring itself "pure wool," white and Christian, it drapes itself in the national banner and excommunicates those who are different. And it is all the more triggered by hate. However, the scope of the attacks targeting Barack Obama no longer reveals simply democratic uproar, but rather a call for murder. ...

The euphoria that won international opinion after the Democratic victory last November has almost made us forget that the part of America that was stubbornly opposed to Obama hasn't been won over; that it was always there, furious, aggressive, venomous and incapable of accepting defeat.
[Emphasis added]

Jean-Paul Marthoz, the gentleman who wrote this opinion piece, has provided a solid analysis of just what is behind the fury, aggression, and venom of the extreme right. He also point out why not just Americans should be troubled by those too many of us dismiss as a few whackos:

This rancorous America is in the minority, but it is far from marginal because it is anchored in the heart of the Republican party, which is put under pressure by its own extremists. Moreover, some of its most disjointed arguments take advantage of a thundering media intermediary, not only in the wild, wild west of the internet, but also in the notable television channel that thinks of itself as respectable, like Fox News. [Emphasis added]

By refusing to openly reject the positions and threats of the extreme right, the Republican Party has given those on its extremist fringe a right to claim legitimacy, a claim that is bolstered by those enablers in the media who seem intent to egg them on. And that allows existing groups to increase the violent rhetoric and to recruit new members with impunity.

Last Sunday, I posted on one such group, the Oath Keepers, based on an article I read in the Los Angeles Times which seemed intent to show that the group was composed of just "regular folks" who were a little concerned about the direction the country was taking. That bit of puffery mentioned the ten part oath taken by members, but never bothered to link to the group's web site which explicitly unpacks that oath in frightening fashion. How's that for free advertising for a militia group?

In my post I linked to a report prepared by the Southern Poverty Law Center on the reappearance of the militia movement. Since the report didn't get the kind of attention the Oath Keepers got, I recommend you go read it and the accompanying reports to get a fuller picture of just what is happening. Here's a taste:

They're back. Almost a decade after largely disappearing from public view, right-wing militias, ideologically driven tax defiers and sovereign citizens are appearing in large numbers around the country. "Paper terrorism" — the use of property liens and citizens' "courts" to harass enemies — is on the rise. And once-popular militia conspiracy theories are making the rounds again, this time accompanied by nativist theories about secret Mexican plans to "reconquer" the American Southwest. One law enforcement agency has found 50 new militia training groups — one of them made up of present and former police officers and soldiers. Authorities around the country are reporting a worrying uptick in Patriot activities and propaganda. "This is the most significant growth we've seen in 10 to 12 years," says one. "All it's lacking is a spark. I think it's only a matter of time before you see threats and violence."

Just a spark.

Mr. Marthoz is right to be worried. We all should be.


Mere Tinkering

Earlier this month, I commented on the Department of Homeland Security's attempt to rein in Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. America's Sheriff had taken to conducting his own immigration sweeps under the color of a federal program known as 287(g), rousting people solely on the basis of how Mexican they looked rather than on the basis of their having committed violent crimes, which was the justification for the program.

It now appears that DHS is renegotiating with all of the local police departments in the program as an attempt to provide more "oversight" so as curb the excesses found in the program by a federal watchdog. DHS announced some of the changes yesterday.

Despite continuing criticism about the program, authorities announced Friday that 67 local and state law enforcement agencies across the country would continue enforcing immigration law under special agreements with the federal government, but that they would be subject to more oversight. ...

[ICE Assistant Secretary John] Morton announced in July that the program, which has drawn criticism about racial profiling and civil rights violations, would continue but that every agency wanting to participate would have to sign a new agreement by this week. Under the revised guidelines, the police agencies would have to focus on serious criminals and would be bound by civil rights and constitutional laws.

Now, that's interesting. The justification for the partnership between federal immigration and local police authorities allowed under the 1996 law was that it was a sensible way to get violent criminals off the streets and out of the country. Thirteen years later "revised guidelines" are necessary to implement the stated purpose of the law? And local cops have to be reminded of civil rights and constitutional laws?


But there's more. Here's how those "revised guidelines" are translated into the new agreements:

The proposed agreement in Los Angeles County would give the sheriff's department more responsibility in processing illegal immigrants for possible deportation, according to a recent report by Merrick Bobb, special advisor to the supervisors. The additional responsibilities would require that the custody assistants begin the screening process before inmates are convicted, rather than after conviction, contrary to the supervisors' original direction to the sheriff's department, Bobb said. [Emphasis added]

That's sort of like allowing the hangman in to measure the defendant before the trial. It's a great time saver.

So much for civil rights and constitutional laws.

Labels: ,

Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging

El's Tigerlily at 6 mos: patient kitty, 2 weeks after spay, anxious to get the collar off. She gets pretty good reception right now, but I can see why she's getting bored of it.

Sportin' Man

Yes, thanks. I am feeling better.

One of the reasons I feel better, albeit a small one, came in the form of this editorial in the Los Angeles Times. The "center-left" editorial board actually displayed a sense of humor in analyzing the world-shaking news that Rush Limbaugh, the conservatives' mouth-in-chief, is not going to be a National Football League owner after all.

Limbaugh blamed his troubles on an "ongoing effort by the left in this country ... to destroy conservatism, to prevent the mainstreaming of anyone who is prominent as a conservative." But if politics were the issue, the league might well have embraced Limbaugh. Owners, executives and players give far more to GOP candidates than to Democrats. Instead, the league's problem with El Rushbo appears to have been the incendiary, polarizing way in which he advances his views. The league's practice of sharing a crucial source of revenue -- broadcasting contracts -- makes owners unusually sensitive to controversial figures who might scare off fans or sponsors. Unless, of course, they can score touchdowns.

It's odd that a business built around a quintessentially American game -- teams of oversized men pounding each other senseless to promote the sale of cars, trucks and beer -- would be run more like a socialist collective than a free market. But that's how the major sports leagues function in this country, thanks to exemptions from antitrust laws. The share-the-wealth approach is particularly helpful to football teams in smaller markets, such as St. Louis. But the collaborative structure also means that anyone trying to buy or sell a team has to persuade owners of 24 of the league’s 32 teams to approve the deal. The notion of owners sitting in judgment on their would-be competitors is richly ironic, given that their predecessors included unabashed gamblers and felons.

That's about as accurate assessment of professional sports in the US as I've seen in a long time. Corporate socialism: it's what's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

There, now. Wasn't that better than a reprise of a six-year-old hiding out in a cardboard box?


Thursday, October 15, 2009

What Avedon Said

I've got nothing but a pernicious head cold this morning, so I'll let Avedon Carol do my talking for me:

But there's a younger generation out there that, as BDBlue points out, grew up in the Reagan era and doesn't even appreciate what Social Security has accomplished. Young, healthy kids who are now seeing Democrats who were put in power by liberals openly transferring taxpayers' wealth to criminal banksters, and who are about to force them to buy overpriced crappy insurance from the same criminals who've been denying them health care all along.

And the only people who are suggesting in public that these Democrats might be doing them wrong are...right-wingers whose stock-in-trade is bashing the left. And there's no one on TV telling them that it's not "blacks" and "liberals" and "gays" and "illegal aliens" who are responsible for this.

I don't think we're going to see a more progressive future. I think the backlash against the conservative program that Obama and the Democratic leadership are currently helping to cement will be aimed at liberals, not at the conservatives who have worked so tirelessly and effectively for 35 years to destroy what they regard as the greatest threat to their dominion: the American middle-class.

Exactly so.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Drink The Koolaid

Today's Los Angeles Times contains an editorial which demonstrates just how badly we've been had in the whole push for health care reform. The "center-left" editorial board, unfortunately, is totally oblivious to the basis for the monstrosity about to be foisted on the American public.

In referencing the despicable and patently contrived study bought from Price Waterhouse by the insurance industry, the editorial uses language which makes it clear that the Times just doesn't get it.

The insurance industry waited remarkably long to open fire, given that one of the goals of the overhaul is to stop insurers from doing many of the things they do to improve their bottom lines. Every one of the proposals for comprehensive reform tries to stop insurers from cherry-picking customers and denying claims on flimsy pretexts. But insurers backed the Obama administration's reform efforts at first because their interests aligned with those of doctors, hospitals and consumers in support of three interlocking aims: to extend coverage to all Americans, rein in rising costs and improve quality. Universal insurance coverage would bring millions of new customers to the companies and broaden the risk pool, raising insurers' revenue and spreading their costs over a wider base. [Emphasis added]

And that language continues throughout the editorial:

Simply pumping more dollars into subsidies and jacking up the penalties for noncompliance, however, isn't the solution. Subsidies may need to be higher than the Finance Committee proposed, but Congress should also give the market flexibility to develop more affordable options for coverage, such as less expensive policies that cover major expenses, not routine ones.

A related idea promoted by the left-of-center think tank Third Way is to reduce the minimum benefits the legislation would require insurers to provide, which should lessen the cost of coverage. Lowering the minimum benefit level would raise out-of-pocket costs for many consumers, but that's a fair trade-off for more affordable options and fewer uninsured. Making the mandatory coverage less expensive would give consumers more reason to comply. So too would allowing insurers to impose waiting periods for new policies. Such steps would help produce a meaningful individual mandate, which is vital -- not just to insurers but to the effort to deliver more accessible and affordable healthcare.
[Emphasis added]

As the past six months have rolled by it is clear that this "reform" had absolutely nothing to do with universal access to health care, but rather everything to do with universal insurance coverage, and in private insurance coverage to boot. The insurance companies were only too happy to stay at the table this go-round because from the start a single payer government system, modeled after Medicare and Medicaid was off the table. They only got itchy it began to look like the bought and paid-for promise to exclude a "public option" run by the government was about to be broken because of some serious pressure being brought to bear by the the very public whose interests were being ignored. That's why the Price Waterhouse report suddenly appeared.

Congress and the White House have just spent six months debating the best way to increase the bottom line of the insurance companies, not the best way to provide access to affordable health care. And the results of all that debate will not change a thing, at least for the better. And that's shame. The only consolation I have, and it's a personal one, is that in one year, 9 months and 3 weeks I qualify for Medicare. That policy is one I can afford.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The California Bidet

A recent Los Angeles Times editorial blasted Republican state legislators for their determined obstructionism and asserted the motive was simply to shrink the state government further to the benefit of their private sector buddies. While I think that's giving the GOP yahoos too much credit for having any sort of plan, I also have to admit the editorial contained a compelling argument, and the evidence they submit in support of that argument is strong.

California's Republican state senators claim they act the way they do -- blocking budget votes, demanding health and education cuts, opening tax loopholes for downtrodden classes such as yacht owners -- because they want to protect their constituents from overbearing and ineffective government. They're becoming progressively less believable, especially after GOP senators last month held more than 20 mostly worthy bills hostage in order to try killing a program that old-school Republicans would have championed.

The senators refused to vote on Democrats' bills in an effort to eliminate ReadyReturn, a service of the Franchise Tax Board. Instead of just combing tax returns for mistakes, the board came up with the program to actually help some taxpayers, Tax officials complete returns for simple filers -- those whose income is mostly from wages -- allowing them to just sign it and send it in (with a check). Filers, if they prefer, can still figure their taxes themselves.

So, here's a program that increases compliance with filing requirements, results in fewer errors in the returns, and brings in more tax dollars to the state. What's the GOP's beef?

...because in this case efficient and responsive government means fewer sales of TurboTax, software that helps filers prepare their tax returns and that, presumably, more Californians would buy if the Franchise Tax Board were as inefficient and messed up as so many other state programs. Intuit is the company that makes TurboTax, and perhaps you can guess what else it does: It gives lots of money to GOP lawmakers.

That lawmakers on either side of the aisle are susceptible to pressure from campaign donors comes as no surprise, but I think there is a little bit more at work here than that. I think the Republican minority in Sacramento have decided to follow the lead of their national counterparts and are using the tactic of just saying "NO" to any Democratic proposal, even those that clearly benefit the state. That way, nothing gets done just in time for the next election cycle, during which the very people who caused the gridlock will point to it as evidence that Democrats can't govern. If saying "NO" also benefits the business interests who are the GOP's real constituency, that's even better.

And the voters of some districts will nod their heads in agreement and return those same yahoos for another couple of years of obstructionism, assuming the state lasts that long.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Expensive Medicine For Everybody!

Thanks to a tip from Moonbootica during a chat at Eschaton yesterday, I learned that our pharmaceuticals have been ripping us off even more than I was aware of, and may very well be doing the same to Britain. It seems that one of the two suppliers of the H1N1 flu vaccine for Great Britain, Baxter, has been sued by multiple states for gross overcharging of Medicaid, and the company settled those suits rather than litigate.

From the UK's Guardian:

A company producing swine flu vaccine for Britain has paid millions of pounds in out-of-court settlements after being accused of fraudulently overcharging for medicines.

Baxter, the US pharmaceutical giant, reached at least seven huge settlements over the past 12 months, some of them for millions of dollars. The company had been accused of fraud amid allegations that it had overpriced medicines by as much as 1,300%. ...

Baxter became involved in prolonged litigation after being accused of fraudulently overcharging Medicaid, the US health programme that provides a safety net for the poorest families. Executives from the company paid out $2m to the Kentucky state government this year. Jack Conway, the Kentucky attorney general, said: "All of this could have been easily avoided if Baxter… had done what the law requires: report truthful prices. ...

Despite the scandal, Baxter was one of two companies awarded the contract to produce 132 million doses of vaccine for Britain. The other company, GlaxoSmithKline, received a "positive opinion" for its drug, Pandemrix, last month. Britain is reported to have ordered enough swine flu vaccine to give each person two doses. The growing cost of the vaccines has prompted concerns from politicians, but the Department of Health and the drug companies have declined to say exactly how much each vaccine costs.

Now, two things came to mind when I read that story. The first is that it appears that Baxter just might be pulling the same scam on Britain that it obviously pulled on various states in the US. Charging what the market will bear, even when lives are at stake, is something our pharmaceutical companies are great at. That they've expanded such practices to the international market should come as no surprise, but that the British would put up with it is a surprise.

Second, the nefarious ways of the pharmaceutical industry is a pet peeve of mine, as you may have noticed. I generally keep track of the news on that industry, and I wasn't aware of the state suits against Baxter and their settlements, even though one of the states involved was my own. I did take the month of August off from blogging, but I still read the news, both on line and in paper form, yet this caught me off guard. Once again, our free press has failed in its duty.

Because of that, I did a little nosing around for news of the company, primarily with respect to its financial health and found this July 16,2009 report:

The company posted net income of $587 million, or 96 cents a share, compared with $544 million, or 85 cents a share, for the same period in 2008. The weighted average number of outstanding shares for the latest quarter shrank to 612 million from the prior year's 638 million.

Keep in mind that the Guardian reported these settlements occurred over the last year, yet in the second quarter of this year, Baxter still posted a hefty profit and managed to buy back a chunk of outstanding shares. In other words, those settlements made almost no difference to the company's operations and profitability.

But, hey! That's the beauty of the market place, right?


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Poetry: Emily Dickinson

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Emily Dickinson

A 'Sacred' Oath

About a month ago, the Los Angeles Times published an article on one of the newest militia groups, the Oath Keepers. I was offended by the article because it was clearly written to show that at least one of the group's leaders, Rand Cardwell, was no foaming-at-the-mouth right-wing nut, but rather just a "regular guy," one who had been recently laid off and whose wife was having a re-occurrence of lung cancer. A Marine, he claimed that he was no racist and that he had proudly served alongside African Americans during his tour as a Marine. He just didn't like what he was seeing happening to his country.

"Our goal," he said, "is to support and defend the Constitution, and that's where it begins and ends at. . . . We're not a hate group. We're not a racist group. We're not calling for armed revolt against the government." ...

He says his opposition is rooted in deeply American values -- the same ones Obama acknowledged in his recent speech to Congress, when he noted "our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government."

But as Cardwell watched federal power grow -- first under President George W. Bush -- that healthy skepticism has led him to conclude that now is the time to sound an alarm. ...

His concerns began massing toward the end of the Bush administration. There was warrantless wiretapping, the Patriot Act, and the 2005 Real ID Act -- the proposed law, currently in administrative limbo, that would establish national standards for driver's licenses.

But it was the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the multibillion-dollar bailout of the financial system launched under Bush in autumn 2008, that compelled him to act. Cardwell feared TARP would give government unprecedented sway over private sector companies.

"That was the spike going into my forehead," he said. "Because our nation was already in huge debt. The fact that you've got the federal government that's going to take our tax dollars and give them to financial institutions violates the very principles our nation was founded on."

I wondered when I first read the article (and continue to wonder today) just where Mr. Cardwell's concern was in the early days of the Bush administration, when the Patriot Act was rammed through and when the news of warrantless wire-tapping and email searches surfaced. Where was he when it became clear that the nation was lied into a war that had no rationale beyond the desire to corner the oil market? A lot of his comrades in the Marine Corps died and are dying because of that little extra-constitutional move. Why did he wait until the TARP vote (which, by the way, came after the November, 2008 elections) to voice his displeasure? And why did he think this latest iteration of the Patriot movement of the 1990s was for him?

The Oath Keepers is an interesting groups for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that they have a specific target audience: the military and public safety personnel, active and inactive, although all those sympathetic to the movement are welcome. The target audience is reminded that they have taken an oath to defend the Constitution and not the government, and members are asked to sign on to a list of promises in support of that oath.

I went to the organization's website to find the list of those promises. I'm just listing the promises here, but if you want to see the rationale for each one, click on over.

1. We will NOT obey orders to disarm the American people.

2. We will NOT obey orders to conduct warrantless searches of the American people

3. We will NOT obey orders to detain American citizens as “unlawful enemy combatants” or to subject them to military tribunal.

4. We will NOT obey orders to impose martial law or a “state of emergency” on a state.

5. We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty.

6. We will NOT obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.

7. We will NOT obey any order to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext.

8. We will NOT obey orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people to “keep the peace” or to “maintain control.”

9. We will NOT obey any orders to confiscate the property of the American people, including food and other essential supplies.

10.We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

Clearly some of these promises are just loopy, based on the delusional ravings of the Becks and Dobbs of the "mainstream" media. Some, on their face, are just cut and pasted from the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. The real tell, however, is the first promise, the one about disarming the public. The fact that keeping guns of all sorts, from S&W Model 41s for plinking to assault weapons and grenade launchers in the hands of everyone, especially those members who have been trained in their use is on top the list is chilling.

What is especially troubling is that the Oath Keepers is just one group among many militia style organizations which have resurfaced and which are gaining ground among a significant segment of the population. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented this rise in a report available on their website. I urge you to go read it. Here's what the SPLC had to say about the resurgence:

Almost a decade after largely disappearing from public view, right-wing militias, ideologically driven tax defiers and sovereign citizens are appearing in large numbers around the country. "Paper terrorism" — the use of property liens and citizens' "courts" to harass enemies — is on the rise. And once-popular militia conspiracy theories are making the rounds again, this time accompanied by nativist theories about secret Mexican plans to "reconquer" the American Southwest. One law enforcement agency has found 50 new militia training groups — one of them made up of present and former police officers and soldiers. Authorities around the country are reporting a worrying uptick in Patriot activities and propaganda. "This is the most significant growth we've seen in 10 to 12 years," says one. "All it's lacking is a spark. I think it's only a matter of time before you see threats and violence."

A key difference this time is that the federal government — the entity that almost the entire radical right views as its primary enemy — is headed by a black man. That, coupled with high levels of non-white immigration and a decline in the percentage of whites overall in America, has helped to racialize the Patriot movement, which in the past was not primarily motivated by race hate. One result has been a remarkable rash of domestic terror incidents since the presidential campaign, most of them related to anger over the election of Barack Obama. At the same time, ostensibly mainstream politicians and media pundits have helped to spread Patriot and related propaganda, from conspiracy theories about a secret network of U.S. concentration camps to wholly unsubstantiated claims about the president's country of birth.
[Emphasis added]

So that's why I deplore the Los Angeles Times's puff piece. While I agree that demonizing those who hold beliefs different than mine is unhealthy and unhelpful, granting those whose beliefs are dangerous to the entire nation the camouflage of "regular folks" is unconscionable. I have a great respect for all aspects of the creation. I like snakes. I would never, however, invite a rattler into my apartment to share food and water. The Times did us a great disservice by this one-sided, dishonest article. By its standard, the Times would have made Timothy McVeigh an Eagle Scout. Once again, our media has let us down.

Labels: , ,

Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Pulitzer Prize-winner Mike Lukovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and copped from his blog site. Click on cartoon to enlarge.)


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: Sea Star

(Photograph by Bruno Vellutini, courtesy Nikon Small World, and published at National Geographic.)

Blessed Are The Peacemakers

As I expected, the most current articles posted at Watching America reflect the world's response to President Obama's selection as this year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Most of those articles indicated the surprise I felt on reading the news of the award, and most suggested what I did yesterday: that the award seemed to express more of a hope than a reward. President Obama himself indicated that he believed the award was a "call to action" more than anything else.

Well, that call will soon be an insistent one, as this article from Germany's Financial Times-Deutschland makes clear. The opinion piece was published October 4, 2009, well before the Nobel Committee's announcement, and certainly showcases the dilemma President Obama faces with respect to the war in Afghanistan.

What happens next in Afghanistan is entirely dependent on Barack Obama’s decision, and he is considering the big picture. His military commanders on the ground are asking for more troops for a counter-insurgency strategy like the one successfully employed in Iraq: instead of hunkering down on large installations from which troops emerge to pursue the Taliban, smaller units are to live among the people in order to protect them. In this way, trust can be built among the population and regions made safer.

But the price for such a strategy is high: more troops who – at least in the beginning – will be exposed to far greater risk. ...

If, on the other hand, Obama decides to continue on with his ineffectual policy of muddling through, a course based solely on future withdrawal, then Germany needs to begin reducing its participation now. Nothing significant can be accomplished; there is no reason to commit the German army to fighting a protracted and bloody rear guard action.

Although the decision must be made by President Obama, that decision affects more than US troops and US foreign policy. Our NATO allies also have a stake in the "Good War," the war Mr. Obama stated was a noble one and one that should be won during his campaign. Now, even our closest allies have their doubts on the war, especially the way it has been fought the past eight years.

Consequently, after the Nobel award, President Obama finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Hopefully he recognizes that and, in concert with our allies, begins the difficult task of winding down the war in ways other than bombing Afghanistan and Pakistan back to the Middle Ages. If he truly believes that the Nobel Peace Prize was a call to action, he will find a way to end our disgraceful involvement and will negotiate a peace with the Taliban and every other element in Afghanistan under the aegis of the United Nations.

If, on the other hand, he gives into those in the military who want an increase in troops and an increase in violence, then he will have sullied that prestigious award and, given the American public's growing discontent with ongoing war status, diminished his chance for a second term.

It's a tough call, Mr. President, but you promised you could handle tough decisions. Get to it.

Labels: ,