Thursday, December 31, 2009

Because There Are Rules

One of the sillier Senate rules is the one that allows a single senator to stop the confirmation of a White House nominee for a federal position in its tracks. The ostensible reason for this rule is that the senator placing a hold on the nomination because the senator wants time to check out some pertinent information on the nominee so the record is complete before the confirmation comes up for a vote. In actuality, the hold is usually imposed whenever a senator wants something in return for lifting the hold.

Sen. Jim DeMint's (R-S.C.) hold on the White House nominee for head of the Transportation Security Administration falls under the category of "not-until-you-give me ..." category, as a NY Times editorial makes clear.

The Obama administration failed to offer a nominee until September, pleading the time was needed to find the right executive for the important post. Their belated choice, Erroll Southers, is a former F.B.I. agent who earned high marks when he served as chief of homeland security for California. He was easily approved by two Senate committees and heading for bipartisan confirmation — until the South Carolina Republican obstructed.

What’s the problem? Mr. DeMint says he won’t let the nomination go forward until he’s assured that a legal ban on T.S.A. workers unionizing will remain in place. Even after last week’s near-disaster over the Detroit airport, Senator DeMint clung to his union-bashing and knee-jerk warnings about the risks of security workers being allowed to collectively bargain.

He absurdly argued that “union bosses” will only worsen airline security (never mind that other federal workers and all manner of police forces responsibly exercise that right) while suggesting that President Obama has been out to “appease the terrorists.”

I suspect Sen. DeMint, in addition to union trashing, was also engaging in that Grand Old Party game of "Just Say No", but the point is that he could get away with it under the rules of the Senate.

Now, I think it improbable that the lack of a permanent head for one of our security agencies was the direct cause of the nearly successful Christmas Day bomb attempt by an obviously deranged Nigerian man, but it certainly didn't help. That gave the Democrats a tool to use against the Republicans, and for a change, Harry Reid decided to use it. Sen. DeMint is discovering that his own grandstanding has, because of its timing, just turned around and bit him in the backside.

As much fun as it is to watch Sen. DeMint squirm (and I am enjoying every bit of it), it does show once again that the aristocratic body known as the United States Senate has some collegial rules that need to be tossed, and this is certainly one of them. Will the senators make the change? Not without a lot of pressure being brought to bear, but this case just might be the one to stimulate some action.

We'll know in three weeks when the Senate reconvenes.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I've posted several times on Medicare/Medicaid fraud, most recently in October. Billions of dollars have been drained from these programs by unscrupulous providers, among them medical equipment providers. Too often the Justice Department is too busy with other, "more important" crimes to investigate and prosecute this fraud, but it is more willing to go forward on cases which have been put together for them. Now the DOJ and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have some help, according to an AP report.

Staffed by elder volunteers, the Senior Medicare Patrol uses a two-pronged approach to identifying Medicare fraud.

SMP sends its volunteers to senior centers, retirement communities and elsewhere to encourage Medicare beneficiaries to guard their personal information, beware of too-good-to-be-true offers on medical equipment and carefully review their benefit statements. The patrol also collects tips on potential scams and fields calls from senior citizens who believe their Medicare accounts have been fraudulently billed.

When all they have is a whiff of something fishy, SMP participants often keep probing until they have enough information to send on to the FBI and investigators with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The education of elders on the issue is key. Too many elders don't realize how important their Medicare account number is, especially when combined with their social security number, date of birth, and home address. According to the AP article, an entire "phishing" industry has evolved in which an offer of free transportation to medical appointments yields that vital data, which is then sold to the next stage of scammers.

A careful review of each Medicare benefit statement would alert the elders whenever a piece of equipment or expensive medical test never received is charged. That's when the Senior Medicare Patrol steps in. The volunteers does a little probing and investigating and when there is some hard information, they turn the case over to the FBI and CMS.

The program has been successful, given the limited number of volunteers it has at this point (4,700 in the nation, with an chapter in each state). It has saved the taxpayers more than $100 million since 1997, and that could rise with a little encouragement and some funding to expand the outreach. Not a bad record for a bunch of retirees, eh?

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Some Good Things Happened

For all the kvetching and cavilling I've done about the White House and Congress in 2009, I have to admit that some good things did get done this year, or at least are in progress. David Lazarus, financial columnist for the Los Angeles Times, feels the same way and points to three areas in which we've made progress.

it was also an extraordinary year for consumers, with significant progress made in making banks play more fairly, reforming the healthcare system and improving product safety.

We may not get everything that we want. But the mere fact that all these things have gotten so much high-profile attention, and that at least a modicum of change seems likely across the board, underlines consumers' higher standing in public policy.

First, making the banks play fairly with respect to credit cards was a significant move:

The big win for consumers on the financial front this year was a revamping of credit card rules that introduce some much-needed transparency and fairness to the lending market.

The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act, which President Obama signed into law in May, requires card issuers to give at least 45 days' notice of any significant change to their offerings, and to ensure that cardholders have at least 21 days to pay their bills each month.

It also prevents issuers from boosting interest rates in the first year after an account is opened and blocks banks from raising rates on existing balances.

Mr. Lazarus also points out that there are few more goodies consumers deserve with respect to the banking industry. Congress needs to crack down on bank overdraft procedures and put in place the new watchdog program President Obama suggests is needed, a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Banking lobbyists already have their knickers in a twist over both, but I suspect Congress will be working on both even if after the 2010 elections.

Health care reform, as Mr. Lazarus points out, is still a work in progress. First of all, the House and Senate bills have yet to be reconciled. Second, whatever emerges is going to be far less than what I and millions of other Americans wanted. Still, it's a start.

We may end up with a comprehensive, turbocharged overhaul of the healthcare system and something approaching universal coverage. Or we may end up with table scraps.

The important thing is that this is the furthest we've gotten on healthcare reform in decades, and the issue clearly isn't going away (like, say, Social Security reform, which has all but vanished from the legislative horizon).

Mr. Lazarus is clearly a glass half-full kind of guy, but he's right about the fact that it's been fifteen years since anyone in Washington has even thought about doing something about that 900 pound gorilla in the room.

Finally, and this is something I hadn't considered until reading his column this morning, Mr. Lazarus notes some advances in the consumer safety arena.

Clearly, there's still much work to do on the product-safety front. But that's not to say there weren't some pretty noteworthy advances this year.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission finally got a full-time leader. The position has been open since former President George W. Bush nominated a manufacturing-industry lobbyist for the job in 2007 who later withdrew from consideration once Congress started asking questions.

After remaining vacant for nearly three years, the commission's top spot was finally filled in May when Obama named Inez Tenenbaum to the job.

Moreover, this year saw a new law taking effect that significantly beefed up the Consumer Product Safety Commission and provided federal authorities with more resources for keeping unsafe goods off store shelves.

So, while it may have been a year of weak soup, at least there was some soup to be had. I'm still not thrilled with the Obama presidency or the 111th Congress, but a few good things did get done. I'll toast those few things on Thursday night.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

More Hole Than Doughnut

Color me skeptical, but I don't think Congressional Democrats quite get it when it comes to Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit. The bill as originally passed is defective in several of its provisions, but especially one in which elders who have to take expensive medications often are reduced to choosing between eating and taking their meds because of the so-called doughnut hole, a gap that occurs when a certain dollar level is reached and before the next level kicks in. Enough Medicare beneficiaries have been screaming about this that the Senate has agreed to revisit Part D, something the House has already done. At this point, neither body has really heard what our elders are saying.

From the Washington Post:

Six years after Congress added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, Democrats in the House and Senate are poised to make a central change that they and most older Americans have wanted all along: getting rid of a quirk that forces millions of elderly patients with especially high expenses for medicine to pay for much of it on their own. ...

The Democrats and President Obama have been clear that the "doughnut hole," as the gap is known, would disappear gradually over the next 10 years. They have not mentioned that Medicare patients would, according to House figures, face a slightly larger hole in coverage during two of the next three years than they do today.

Proponents say the government can afford to eliminate the gap because the pharmaceutical industry would pay for the phaseout. But less than half of the $80 billion that drugmakers agreed to provide, under a health-care reform agreement over the summer with Senate Democrats and the White House, would be used to help fill the gap, according to Senate Democratic aides. Moreover, there are no budget forecasts far enough into the future to show how much the expanded drug benefit would cost the government once the gap is fully closed. ...

...The Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy organization on whose figures House Democrats relied, estimated that, in 2007, one-quarter of the Medicare patients with drug coverage fell into the gap. Less publicized figures by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency responsible for the program, show that about half that many fell into it. Kaiser and the agency disagree on how often people who reach the gap stop taking some of their medicine.
[Emphasis added]

You will note that both the House and the Senate are considering, among other things, a gradual phase-out of the doughnut hole over ten years. That's not much solace for those hit with the gap, some as early as May each year. Ten years is a long time to wait for someone who's 65 years old. The excuse is the one we've been hearing when it comes to health care reform right from the start: it's going to cost too much money if we eliminate the gap immediately.

Without a Congressional Budget Office prediction, the only estimate of the cost of filling the gap comes from the Medicare program's chief actuary, Richard S. Foster, who told House Republicans it would be $31 billion over the next decade. No one has analyzed how expensive the expanded drug benefits would become after that, although health-care options prepared a year ago by the CBO provided a clue: It said that, if the gap were eliminated right away, it would cost $134 billion over 10 years. [Emphasis added]

The article isn't clear if that $134 billion includes the $40 billion that the pharmaceutical companies are promising to kick in, but, hey!, I'm an optimist. Let's pretend it doesn't. Then the cost is only $94 billion over ten years, or $9.4 billion a year. How much will be appropriated to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (either in the budget or off)? How much gets cheerfully handed over to the Pentagon and their contractor buddies? How much was handed over to the banks and other mega-corporations deemed too big to fail? How much are we giving to the Department of Homeland Security to do its job (especially the TSA and ICE people)? Surely we can find some money that would normally be labeled "earmarks" that would be better spent on our parents and grandparents than on building bridges no one needs or wants. In addition to cutting out the excessive spending I just listed, Congress should let the tax cuts to the wealthy expire, re-implement the estate tax on a more rational basis than zero, and revisit the corporate tax structure.

If the Congress really wants to fix the mess known as Medicare Part D (and I'm not so certain it does), then it should start by eliminating the gap. It should also repeal the provision that forbids the government negotiating with the pharmaceutical companies on prices and it should stop favoring branded drugs over generics. These latter two moves will take some of the financial sting out of the first.

I'm sure there are other ways to finance the elimination of the gap. Mine were generated in just about ten minutes. Please feel free to add to the list in your comments here and to your congress critters.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday Poetry: Diane Di Prima


It is happening even as you read this page. By the time you finish reading this it will be over.

She will have left the hotel and disappeared. He will have eaten the pills. That one will slip and crack her skull on the floor. That one will go out in a driveby shooting.

halfway around the world the bombs are dropping

As you read these words it is already too late. 200,000 children will have starved. One of them held the Jewel in his brain, another could cure plagues with her breath.

As you read this line one thousand have died of AIDS.
They die alone hidden in furnished rooms. They die on the ground all over Africa.

halfway around the world the bombs are falling

Do not think to correct this by refusing to read.
It happens as you put down the paper, head for the door.
The ozone reaches the point of no-return

the butterflies bellyflop, the last firefly, etc.
Do not think to correct this by reading.

The bombs burst the small skull of an Arab infant the silky black hair is stuck to your hands with brains. W/bits of blood. There is less shrieking than you would expect

a soft silence. The silence of the poor, those who could not afford to leave. Drop flowers on them from yr mind, why don't you? "I guess we'll have to stay and take our chances."

They die so silently even as we speak

Black eyes of children seek eyes of the dying mother
bricks fall dirt spurts like fountains in the streets.
In the time you fill a cup they die of thirst.

In the time it takes to turn off the radio.
Not past, not future

The huts are blazing now. South of Market a woman ODs with an elegant sigh. No more no less than is needed.

halfway around the world the bombs are dropping

-- Diane di Prima

(Published at Poets Against the War.)

The Nuclear Option

Last Monday, after reading Paul Krugman's NY Times column, I felt my blood pressure rise. His point was that the US Senate, and consequently the government as a whole, had become dysfunctional because of a strange and harmful Senate rule:

After all, Democrats won big last year, running on a platform that put health reform front and center. In any other advanced democracy this would have given them the mandate and the ability to make major changes. But the need for 60 votes to cut off Senate debate and end a filibuster — a requirement that appears nowhere in the Constitution, but is simply a self-imposed rule — turned what should have been a straightforward piece of legislating into a nail-biter. And it gave a handful of wavering senators extraordinary power to shape the bill.

The political scientist Barbara Sinclair has done the math. In the 1960s, she finds, “extended-debate-related problems” — threatened or actual filibusters — affected only 8 percent of major legislation. By the 1980s, that had risen to 27 percent. But after Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006 and Republicans found themselves in the minority, it soared to 70 percent.
[Emphasis added]

I had thought about posting on Mr. Krugman's column, but then I read The Impolitic and My DD, and I realized that Libby Spencer and Charles Lemos did a much better job than I could have. I recommend both.

Now the reason I'm bringing up the Krugman column a week later is that during my weekly jaunt to Watching America, I found an op-ed piece in Germany's Die Weld which dealt with the same issue just a few days after Krugman's column appeared. After noting the pending passage of the Senate's idea of health care reform, the author (obviously horrified by the whole nasty proceeding in the Senate) had this to say:

It amounts to 40 Republican senators holding the world’s supposedly most noble deliberative body hostage, and they are as proud of their obstructionist politics as though they were a bunch of nasty kids.

Anyone who thinks that description is exaggerated, or perhaps even (perish the thought) partisan, should read the new study published by political scientist Barbara Sinclair on the use of the filibuster during the last 50 years. This parliamentary procedure, not even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, was invoked in only eight percent of major Senate votes during the 1960s. In the 1980s, the rate climbed to 27 percent, edging perilously close to abuse.

But when the Republicans lost their Senate majority in 2006, the rate skyrocketed to 70 percent. It was invoked 139 times in 2008 alone. “We have crossed the mark of over 100 filibusters and acts of procedural obstruction in less than one year,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, said bitterly. “Never since the founding of the Republic, not even in the bitter sentiments preceding the American Civil War, was such a thing ever seen in this body.”
[Emphasis added]

That there are echoes of Krugman's column in another country's press should come as no surprise. He is, after all, a Nobel Laureate in Economics who is published in the NY Times. That said, that an article on US Senate rules appears in another country's press is telling. The exceptional country with an exceptional Constitution is, sadly, not so exceptional in the eyes of the rest of the world.

There are, however, a couple of remedies that might turn things around. For a decade, the Democrats rarely even mentioned a filibuster because the GOP held the threat of changing the-60 vote cloture rule to one requiring only a simple majority. Remember the nuclear option? I think it's time that the Democrats take some calcium pills and do more than threaten. They should just drop that bomb.

Second, although far less likely, this country should take a good, long, hard look at public financing for congressional elections. Yes, we'd probably throw a lot of hard working and big spending lobbyists out of work, but at least we'd have a better shot at having people in Congress more intent on pleasing their constituents than pleasing the big money people at the banks, Wall Street, PHARMA, and their ilk.

I know, I'm naive, but I'm beginning to think I'm not ever going to see real change in my life time (which is growing shorter by the day) unless people of good will start hammering on Congress, and hitting hard, below the belt if necessary.

The new year is just around the corner. Hopefully it will be better than the last ten.

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Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Joel Pett / Lexington Herald-Leader (Dec. 23, 2009) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on the image to enlarge.)


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: Pigs

(Photograph by Amanda Kopp and published at National Geographic. Click on the link for the sweet story behind this photo.)


Imagine reading this paragraph from an opinion in a major metropolitan daily:

WHEN IT became clear that that the congressional elections bill would restrict some funding for voter registration drives in poor black neighborhoods, the expected players voiced the expected outrage, howling at the encroachment on civil rights.

Pretty awful, eh? "Expected players, "expected outrage," "howling:" pretty condescending and arrogant language which makes clear the racism inherent in the writer.

Now read the real paragraph in Joanna Weiss's op-ed column in the Boston Globe:

WHEN IT became clear that that the congressional health care bill would restrict some funding for abortions, the expected players voiced the expected outrage, howling at the encroachment on women’s rights.

To be fair, Ms. Weiss is no misogynist, merely a self-described GenX-er who yearns for a little "detente" between the two sides in the abortion debate. She wants the two sides to each admit that the issue is not a simple one and that there are merits to both sides, shades of gray, if you will.

Oh, really? Roe v Wade was about a woman's right to privacy when it comes to reproductive issues, not about the religious sensitivities of one side or the other. Either a woman has the right to choose, or she does not, just as either one is pregnant or is not, or a citizen has a right to vote or does not have that right. There are no shades of gray here.

Ms. Weiss suggests that the current argument may not really be a step backward on women's rights. After all, with the mandated insurance, women, even poor women, will have access to contraception, which would make unwanted pregnancies disappear--just. like. that!

...Perhaps the congressional elections bill isn’t a terrible moment for civil rights, but a great one, a point when both sides of the voter registration debate can move past the polarized rhetoric and start working toward a goal that most people would share: making voting safe, legal, and very, very rare among poor blacks.

God, it's only December 26th, and already I miss Ellen Goodman

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging

Wise Woman

Ellen Goodman made me blink this morning. She announced that she would be ending her tenure with the Boston Globe on January 1. I presume Ms. Goodman is retiring, although it is possible that the move is one of necessity, given the financial woes of the Globe since its purchase by the NY Times Corporation.

In any event, today's column is a perfect example of a subject she explored relentlessly over the forty years she has been a journalist: women and their place in society.

Today, half the law students and medical students are female. But only 15 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. We had the first serious woman candidate run for president . . . and lose. We had a mother of five, a governor, and a Title IX baby run for vice president . . . as a conservative.

The Equal Rights Amendment was defeated because people were scared into believing that women could end up in combat. Now nearly a quarter-million women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 120 have died, 650 have been wounded. But still no ERA.

What a story this has been to cover. Women now hold the majority of jobs . . . because men have lost more of them. Women earn six out of 10 college degrees . . . yet earn 77 cents for every male dollar.

A woman is now speaker of the House, but there are only 73 women in that House and 17 in the Senate. At 60, Meryl Streep is playing a romantic lead, yet girdles have been resurrected as “body shapers’’ and girls are forced into ever-more narrow standards of beauty. Young women grow up believing they can be anything they want, just don’t call them by the F-word: feminist.

Heh, ain't that the truth, something I always associate with Ms. Goodman, even when that truth is almost unbearable in its implications. Her list of where we've gone and where we haven't quite reached isn't complete, but it will be a while before that journey is over. Just the past several weeks we've been delivered another dose of truth from our male congress critters on the federal funding for abortion issue. After forty years of struggle, of two steps forward, but always one step back, women are still being denied control over their own bodies.

While I am sad that Ms. Goodman won't be chronicling the that journey at the Globe after January 1, I am grateful for the work she has done for the past forty years.

Thank you, dear wise woman.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Peace On Earth

Alan J. Kuperman, the director of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program at the University of Texas at Austin, has suggested the US give Iran a rather nasty gift for the holidays. His lengthy opinion piece in today's NY Times urges the US to bomb the known nuclear targets in Iran to show we mean business, because, of course, it's Christmas and Christmas is such a good time to teach the lessons of Christianity to the heathens.

PRESIDENT OBAMA should not lament but sigh in relief that Iran has rejected his nuclear deal, which was ill conceived from the start. Under the deal, which was formally offered through the United Nations, Iran was to surrender some 2,600 pounds of lightly enriched uranium (some three-quarters of its known stockpile) to Russia, and the next year get back a supply of uranium fuel sufficient to run its Tehran research reactor for three decades. The proposal did not require Iran to halt its enrichment program, despite several United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding such a moratorium.

Iran was thus to be rewarded with much-coveted reactor fuel despite violating international law. Within a year, or sooner in light of its expanding enrichment program, Iran would almost certainly have replenished and augmented its stockpile of enriched uranium, nullifying any ostensible nonproliferation benefit of the deal. ...

Tehran’s rejection of the original proposal is revealing. It shows that Iran, for domestic political reasons, cannot make even temporary concessions on its bomb program, regardless of incentives or sanctions. Since peaceful carrots and sticks cannot work, and an invasion would be foolhardy, the United States faces a stark choice: military air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities or acquiescence to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. ...

Incentives and sanctions will not work, but air strikes could degrade and deter Iran’s bomb program at relatively little cost or risk, and therefore are worth a try. They should be precision attacks, aimed only at nuclear facilities, to remind Iran of the many other valuable sites that could be bombed if it were foolish enough to retaliate.

At least Mr. Kuperman recognizes that opening a third war would be foolhardy, as would giving Israel the green light to do our dirty work. That's something, I guess. What is so painful about his essay, however, is that Mr. Kuperman has already decided that further negotiations backed by sanctions won't work, even though direct sanctions haven't been identified and threatened in any meaningful way by the parties engaged in the negotiations.

Further, he admits that the aerial bombing may not do much, if any, real damage to the nuclear facilities because of their being embedded deep underground. Would the next step in his fantasy be the use of tactical nuclear weapons, the "bunker busters" which our military may or may not have? Or would we simply move on to other targets such as oil and gas facilities or important religious sites? That's sure to garner the US a lot of good will in the region.

And what about Iran? Will the aerial bombing, effective or not, cow that nation's leaders into submission or will it stiffen their resolve and enable them to justify retaliation, either against US forces in the region, or against Israel. Will they install blockades to stop the shipment of gas and oil from the area, thereby upping the ante?

Mr. Kuperman doesn't seem to care about any of that. All he wants to do is "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran." He sounds like another American, one who lost an election last year.


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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cheap Shots

Yes, California's budget woes continue. Next year a nearly $21 billion shortfall is expected and the Governator has already demanded more money from the feds or he's going to reduce or even eliminate public services including In Home Health Services and California WORKS. He took his demands directly to Washington, meeting with the state's delegations and appearing on a few Sunday morning talk shows. It was what he said during one of those television appearances that really set off the "center-left" editorial board of the Los Angeles Times.

It's probably true, as Schwarzenegger said Sunday on "State of the Union" on CNN, that California pays "approximately a billion dollars for the incarceration of undocumented immigrants" and gets only $100 million in return. The federal government does indeed have an obligation to reimburse the state for part of the cost of the failure to adequately control the nation's borders, and the governor is right to seek every bit of revenue and reimbursement due to the state, to decrease the damage caused by inevitable cuts.

But illegal immigration didn't get California into its budget fix, and full federal payment -- an unlikely prospect -- wouldn't get us out. Playing to the anti-immigrant chorus, even in a quest for federal money, undermines the message every Californian must hear: We cannot currently pay for those programs that we consistently list as our top priorities, including first-rate education, transportation and public safety, and it's not because of the size of the undocumented population. It's because of our appetite for services, the structure of our tax system and the dysfunction of our government.

...perhaps because his career has put him so directly in touch with the popular imagination, he also gives voice to the common wisdom of the day -- even if that wisdom is wrong, as it is when it assigns the state's troubles to public workers, welfare recipients and illegal immigrants.
[Emphasis added]

The editorial did, for the most part, get it right. The governor knows better. What the editorial should have done (and didn't), however, is to rebut that "common wisdom" with the facts readily available to it. Studies have shown that undocumented workers ultimately don't cost the state. They pay a disproportionate share of their income on sales taxes at the grocery store, clothing store, and at the gasoline pump. They have state and federal taxes deducted from their paychecks. Even more, they pay into federal programs such as Medicare and Social Security in which they will never be able to enroll.

An editorial with those hard facts would have been stronger. It also would have fulfilled the press's obligation to inform the public. I give it a C+, but at least it's a start.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pennies Make Dollars

Sometimes I despair at the stupidity of government bureaucrats. Other times I get cynical and realize that those same bureaucrats aren't stupid, just lazy or, even worse, in the business of making private contractors happy. I'm not sure which of the emotions got twanged the hardest by this story.

Her name is Nancy Fichtner. Normally she works at the VA Medical Center in Grand Junction, Colo.

But today Fichtner was at the White House with her children, receiving an award from President Obama.

This being the federal government, the award has a cute acronym: the SAVE (Securing Americans Value and Efficiency) Award. The idea started earlier this year when Obama asked federal employees for their cost-saving ideas. Some 38,000 proposals came in, most passed along to their agencies for implementation. Officials winnowed the best down to the final four and put them to an online vote that attracted almost 85,000 votes. The three runner-ups: make Social Security appointments online; stop double-inspecting HUD housing; direct deposit of National Forest fees.

And the winner was ... Fichtner, who noticed that the VA hospitals were discarding medicine before sending patients home. Her elegantly simple but potentially financial windfall of an idea: let veterans keep their remaining meds on being discharged instead of charging the VA to fill new prescriptions.
[Emphasis added]

Here's the deal: a patient at a VA hospital is given medicine to take during his stay, say an inhaler. The vet doesn't use up the entire lot before being released and because it's been started by the patient, the hospital just chucks the remainder. Then the vet, who still needs the medication, goes to the pharmacy and gets a prescription filled for the same med and the VA pays for it. How dumb is that?

Well, maybe not so dumb from the standpoint of the manufacturer of the drug, who probably is quite unhappy at the change being implemented thanks to Ms. Fichter, but that's another story, one we've seen play out over the past decade.

So, this one simple idea should save the Veteran's Administration (and us taxpayers) a tidy sum. As one congresscritter wisely noted years ago, "A billion here, a billion there: pretty soon you're talking real money."

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Justifying Gitmo North

Yesterday I posted on a December 17, 2009 article published in Germany's Die Tageszeitung about the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay to an Illinois prison. Today, the Los Angeles Times got around to examining the move and the problem of indefinite detention. Not exactly a scoop, eh?

President Obama began the year with a pledge to close the Guantanamo prison, and to restore due process and the core constitutional values that he said "made this country great."

But his administration has set out a multi-pronged legal policy for the remaining Guantanamo prisoners that bears a striking similarity to that of the final year of George W. Bush's presidency.

Some detainees could be held indefinitely without being charged, if they're deemed impossible to prosecute but too dangerous to release. Congress gave the president that power after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the Bush and now the Obama administrations. Bush used that authority to capture and imprison people he determined were a danger to the nation.
[Emphasis added]

As I said yesterday, there's not much change evident in the Obama administration's stance on the issue. The White House will determine who is "impossible to prosecute but too dangerous to release," and it claims that Congress gave the president that authority.

To hold the detainees who are not being tried, Obama relies on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to a memo describing the legal argument prepared by the Defense Department for members of the Illinois delegation in Congress.

Two things strike me about this paragraph. The first is that the legal memo was prepared by the Defense Department and not the Justice Department. Why? Did the Attorney General decide to take a pass on that task, perhaps because the theory involved is blatantly unconstitutional?

Second, apparently the current White House agrees with its predecessor that Congress can pass a law which overrides the US Constitution. For a man who taught Constitutional Law, President Obama sure has a funny view of our central founding document.

The White House claims that at this point in the case-by-case review of the remaining detainees there are no detainees in the "too dangerous to release" class, so the issue may be moot. Yeah, right. And I have this wonderful land in the Everglades that would be just perfect for a mega-mall. Even if none of the detainees fall into that class (and that is a big "if"), the fact that the President of the United States claims he has the authority to place people into that class is horrifying.

For over eight years this country has been reacting, badly, to a terrorist attack that pales besides the terrorism we have since committed in two nations in response to that despicable act. It's time for the jelly-kneed cowardice to end and for a return to the constitutional principles that are the only things exceptional about this nation.

That's the change I want. That's the change we should demand.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sunday Poetry: John Donne

No man is an island

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

Gitmo North

Watching America had in interesting blend of stories about the US. Most were about Barack Obama, and those were split between the Nobel Peace Laureate's announcement of a troop surge in Afghanistan and his appearance at the climate conference in Copenhagen. One article, however, had a different subject: that of President Obama's attempt to close down the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. With its accurate analysis of the US prison culture, the article was a painful read.

From Germany's Die Tageszeitung:

Obama’s goal of closing the Guantanamo facility is thus one small step closer to realization. According to one of Obama’s first orders, Guantanamo was to be closed by the end of January 2010. That this will not occur is one of Obama’s bitter realities as this internationally very popular decision ran up against stubborn and totally irrational opposition in his own country. Besides, the measure resulted in many inevitable court rulings that were seen as advantageous to the inmates. ...

More than two million people are behind bars in the United States. American society cares about the fate of these social losers to the extent that they are locked away. The criminal justice system in the United States also creates jobs in many areas; where factories closed down, prisons were built so the unemployed at least had a chance to work as guards, or in institutional laundries and bakeries. Thomson was one of those lockups, but its prisoner population today is a mere 200 inmates. ...

This all worked without any great difficulty, as long as the inmates consisted only of spree killers, murderers, rapists and narcotics kingpins. But those coming from Guantanamo apparently belong to an entirely different category, presumably some kind of monsters with supernatural powers. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas was “deeply disturbed” by Obama’s plan and remarked, “This action will expose our citizens to unnecessary danger; that’s unjustifiable and unacceptable.”


The opinion writer pretty much nailed the US penchant for locking people up and throwing away the key, although it does not take into consideration the huge number of people in prison for drug-related crimes, such as simple possession. Still, the implication is clear: the US is more interested in incarceration than in rehabilitation. And that implication leads to the next, one that is even more damaging to a nation which claims to be devoted to the Rule of Law.

"The only thing that President Obama is doing with this announcement is changing the ZIP code of Guantanamo," said Tom Parker, Amnesty International USA policy director. "The detainees who are currently scheduled to be relocated to Thomson have not been charged with any crime," Parker said. "In seven years, the U.S. government, including the CIA and FBI, has not produced any evidence against these individuals that can be taken into a court of law." [Emphasis added]

During the election campaign, Barack Obama promised to close down Guantanamo Bay. Many of us and most of the rest of the world were relieved when he moved to keep his promise shortly after his inauguration. Unfortunately, the promise was an empty one, as Tom Parker pointed out. Those prisoners who have not been charged are simply being transferred from one locale to another. The president intends to hold them indefinitely because they are "dangerous," even though no credible and admissible evidence has been produced to justify the detention, contrary to the requirements of the US Constitution.

This is both deeply shameful and extremely dangerous, more dangerous to our democracy than the 70 or so men being transferred could ever be. It is also a continuation of the Bush-Cheney administration policies.

No change here.

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Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Tom Toles and published by the Washington Post. Click on image to enlarge.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: Guanacos

(Photograph from the Wildlife Conservation Society and published at National Geographic.)

Real ID: Not Dead Yet

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano gave the states a sort of Christmas present: the deadline for the implementation of Real ID has been extended from December 31, 2009 to May 11, 2010. The main reason for the extension is to avoid the extra scrutiny of those holiday travelers from states which will not be in compliance with the law by the end of this year. From the Washington Post:

Under a controversial 2005 domestic security program passed by Congress and known as Real ID, states were required to issue more secure licenses by the end of 2009. Those would be the only licenses accepted by federal officials for such purposes as boarding commercial aircraft. Instead, states now have until May 11, 2011, to comply with Real ID, Napolitano said.

"In order to ensure that the millions of Americans traveling this holiday season are not disrupted, DHS is extending the Dec. 31 REAL ID material compliance deadline," Napolitano said in a written statement.

Real ID has indeed been controversial, and for several reasons. Civil libertarians have pointed out that the program is just a fancy variation of a national identification card with all the intrusive collection of data on citizens that implies. States have objected to the requirements as involving a costly and unfunded mandate from the federal government at a time when states are having difficulty financing even the most basic of services.

In the face of these objections, President Obama has suggested a replacement for the original law:

After opponents fought the Bush administration to a standstill, Obama security officials and governors jointly asked Congress last spring to replace Real ID with a new program called Pass ID, which would cost half as much, be less stringent and come with federal grants.

That plan would give states five years to include in their IDs a digital photograph and machine-readable features such as a bar code. It would also require states to verify applicants' identities and legal status by checking federal immigration, Social Security and State Department databases and original birth certificate records.

It would add stronger privacy controls than contained in the Real ID program and drop a demand for new databases.

President Obama's plan just added to the controversy. Now congressional Republicans are upset, claiming that the president's proposal weakens national security instead of bolstering it, the reason for the original bill, and Democrats don't like the natural tie-in with the overhaul of immigration laws. Fortunately for all of us who object to both Real ID and Pass ID for all sorts of reasons, Congress hasn't acted on the new bill, primarily because it has been far too busy playing "Let's Pretend" with health care reform.

Make no mistake, however: Real ID is not dead. It's just lying low. Unless and until Congress acknowledges that the program is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, it will once again arise, certainly no later than May 10, 2010. The camel has already taken up full residence in the tent.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging

Clean Cups! Clean Cups!

Now here's a scenario worthy of a Lewis Carroll tea party: Republicans in the Senate were prepared to filibuster the defense spending bill needed to keep the Pentagon in business for another year. The reason? The GOP saw that as a way to delay health care reform.

Say what?

No, really. By filibustering a bill that normally is passed with the GOP leading the military marching band, flag lapel pins glinting in the sunlight, Republicans hoped to forestall bringing the health care bill to the floor, thereby forcing Democrats to go home for the holidays to face what Republicans are gambling are irate voters who will make it difficult for any health care reform to pass. What is so amazing is the GOP was not only willing to politicize a defense bill, it was quite up front about it.

From the NY Times:

The Senate voted early Friday morning to force final action on a Pentagon spending measure as Democrats broke a Republican attempt to use the military money to stall action on the health care overhaul.

In an unusual dead-of-night session that opened just after midnight, senators voted 63 to 33 to shut off debate on the $626 billion plan, which is the last spending measure due to pass this year and was easily passed by the House earlier this week. A final vote is expected early Saturday.

Democrats had to struggle to line up all 60 of their members in support of a key procedural vote to overcome anticipated Republican opposition to a bill Republicans would normally rally behind and have criticized Democrats for politicizing in the past. ...

Republicans acknowledged their resistance to the Pentagon measure was due to their desire to prolong the debate over the Democratic health care overhaul.

“Most of us are going to support the Department of Defense appropriations bill when the time is right, but I think it is very important to have the opportunity to talk about the health care bill,” said Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas.

Asked if he would vote for the defense bill, which Republicans routinely support, Senator Sam Brownback Republican of Kansas, replied bluntly: “No. I don’t want health care.”
[Emphasis added]

Sen. Brownback's rather odd response aside (did anyone bother to tell him that we would be happy to deny him health care if he would just put that sentiment in writing?), the candor of the Republicans with respect to delaying funding to their favorite cash cow is more than a little stunning. Don't these bozos know that the American public already knows just how cynical and corrupt the Senate is? Haven't the last ten years established that firmly in all of our minds? Did they really need to ram it home just one more time without even a thank-you?

Alas, once again the Democrats deprived the Republicans of an opportunity of showing just how irredeemable they are by putting together the 60 votes necessary to bust the filibuster.

A pox on both their houses.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Spooky Stuff

As the year winds down to a close, one thing the 111th Congress has not rushed to do (yet) is to extend certain provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire at the end of the year. What I suspect will happen is that in the next day or two, short-term extensions will pass which will enable Congress to revisit that detestable legislation in 2010. Hopefully the entire act will be reviewed and not just those set to expire.

An article in the NY Times gives some concrete reasons for why such a full-scale review is necessary.

In February, a Department of Homeland Security intelligence official wrote a “threat assessment” for the police in Wisconsin about a demonstration involving local pro- and anti-abortion rights groups.

That report soon drew internal criticism because the groups “posed no threat to homeland security,” according to a department memorandum released on Wednesday in connection with a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The agency destroyed all its copies of the report and gave the author remedial training.

In March 2008, the office produced a “terrorism watch list” report about a Muslim conference in Georgia at which several Americans were scheduled to speak, even though it “did not have any evidence the conference or the speakers promoted radical extremism or terrorist activity,” and such speech is constitutionally protected, an internal report said.

And in October 2007, the office sent a report, “Nation of Islam: Uncertain Leadership Succession Poses Risks,” to hundreds of federal officials. Department guidelines had called for the files to be destroyed because the assessment of the group had lasted more than 180 days without uncovering evidence of potential terrorism.

As the article points out, all three reports and the files which generated those reports were ordered destroyed by DHS. While that is some comfort, it is cold comfort at best. First of all, I am not convinced that all traces of those investigations have disappeared. Somewhere there are files containing the names of subjects just waiting to be pulled up. And at least one of those reports was ordered destroyed after it had been sent to "hundreds of government officials."

Second, and perhaps even more important, the Patriot Act, in both its iterations, fostered an atmosphere in which such unlawful intelligence gathering was bound to happen, especially when the penalty for such snooping on citizens was nothing more than "remedial training." That means that such behavior will continue, especially since the current White House has done nothing concrete to ensure the behavior stops.

And that means that Congress should do the job by just repealing the Patriot Act. Of course, such a bold move is unlikely, given the current make-up of our national legislature, unless a few feet are held to the fire. One way to do that is to publish more articles like this one. Let's see if our press is ready to return to work.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Signs Of Life

For all the angst and heartbreak this whole crazy episode of "health care reform" has brought us all, there were a few times I actually felt something akin to hope. I know, that's crazy talk. Progressives have been on the losing end on each and every issue. Still, there have been moments when just how high the deck was stacked against real reform was pointed out by unlikely sources. This morning contained one of those moments. In an editorial entitled "The Million Dollar Man", the NY Times clearly and decisively ripped Joseph I. Lieberman (I-CT) a new one for his crass and contemptuous behavior.

...way back in September, the senator was publicly championing a Medicare buy-in.

In an interview with The Connecticut Post, he said he had been refining his views on health care for many years and was “very focused on a group post-50, or maybe more like post-55” whose members should be able to buy Medicare if they lacked insurance.

This week, when there actually seemed to be a compromise on health care that did not focus on Mr. Lieberman, he announced that he would block the package if the Democrats included a terrible idea — allowing people between 55 and 65 to buy Medicare.

He presented this as a principled effort to keep down federal debt, but when a Times reporter asked about his 180-degree turn, he said he had forgotten taking his earlier position until the Democratic leadership reminded him about it over the weekend.

Mr. Lieberman has taken more than $1 million from the industry over his Senate career. In his 2006 re-election campaign, he ranked second in the Senate in contributions from the industry. He doesn’t seem to have forgotten that.

There's nothing ambiguous or nuanced about that assessment, and it is right on the money (to coin a phrase). While a huge segment of the Congress is now and has been for decades on the payroll of the insurance industry, something which a lot of us on the left have been pointing out for almost that long, few (if any) in the traditional media have found that particularly newsworthy. This time, however, Sen. Lieberman (who caucuses with the Democrats but has suggested he might run for re-election as a Republican) overplayed his hand, at least as far as the Times is concerned.

It's about time somebody noticed.

Now the question becomes, "And just what is anybody going to do about it?"

On that I am not so optimistic, but the signs of life shown by the editorial board of one of the nation's most influential newspapers is, at the very least, encouraging.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Happy Birthday

On this date in 1791, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, the "Bill of Rights," were ratified. The process was a stormy one, and ratification was certainly not a foregone conclusion, but the nation's founders got it together enough to provide us and the rest of the world with a remarkable list of rights the government could not abridge and then appended the list to that even more remarkable foundational document, the Constitution.

A thumbnail sketch of that process was provided in an op-ed written by Jonathan Estrin and Marshall Croddy for the Los Angeles Times. Both men lead the L.A.-based Constitutional Rights Foundation which is dedicated to civic education. After tracing the events leading to the ratification, Estrin and Croddy suggest that it is doubtful that today's political leaders have the skills and passions for democracy that our founders had.

After watching the debacles of the 111th Congress, I sadly must agree. The Republicans have spent the last year just saying "NO!" to whatever proposals the Democrats in the White House and in Congress submit. The Democrats, on the other hand, have been busy selling out the interests of the citizenry to the highest corporate bidders in economic stimulus and health care reform. Both sides of the aisle, their pockets bulging with pieces of silver, couldn't find a Constitutional Convention with a map, much less take a meaningful part in one.

Still, I'm not ready to throw in the towel on this experiment. Like Mr. Estrin and Mr. Croddy, I believe that it is possible to regain our democracy, and I think their proposals are good ones.

For our democracy to continue to flourish, we must have an educated and involved citizenry. We must have leaders who can debate and compromise to find solutions to our vexing problems.

And we must educate our young people to take these civic roles in the future. This vital task must be borne by both parents and schools.

Research shows that parents can play a major role in the development of their children's civic education. You can make a big difference by engaging your children in discussions about issues and politics, watching and discussing the news with them, and by taking them to the polls or public meetings with you.

Schools must encourage civic learning. Students should have plenty of practice in structured discussion of politics and controversial issues to help them learn to analyze cause and effect and multiple points of view, present fact- and logic-based opinions, and listen to what others have to say.

Research shows that students who have the opportunity to participate in simulations such as legislative hearings, mock trials and, yes, even constitutional conventions not only learn more but develop greater civic skills and interest in politics.

Although we need to make sure our children are proficient in math and reading, it is vitally important to the future of our democracy that they also learn what it means to be a competent and involved citizen.

Yes, I think that gets it nicely.


Monday, December 14, 2009

There Be Monsters Here

Yesterday's NY Times had an absolutely riveting story on the pushing of hormone replacement therapy (hrt) for menopausal women by the pharmaceuticals. The story is long and it is detailed, but it deserves a careful read.

The story deals with two parts of the issue. The first describes the lengths Wyeth (which was subsequently absorbed by Pfizer) went to promote sales of Prempro even in the face of increasing evidence of its connection to breast cancer.

MILLIONS of American women in the 1990s were told they could help their bodies ward off major illness by taking menopausal hormone drugs. Some medical associations said so. Many gynecologists and physicians said so. Respected medical journals said so, too.

Along the way, television commercials positioned hormone drugs as treatments for more than hot flashes and night sweats — just two of the better-known symptoms of menopause, which is technically defined as commencing one year after a woman’s last menstrual cycle.

One commercial about estrogen loss by the drug maker Wyeth featured a character named Dr. Heartman in a white coat discussing research into connections between menopause and heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and blindness. ...

PREMPRO is a combination of Premarin, an estrogen drug derived from the urine of pregnant mares and first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1942, with an additional hormone, progestin.

Part of the Premarin saga shows how a drug maker successfully and cannily expanded a franchise whose central ingredient is horse estrogens into a billion-dollar panacea for aging women. Yet several hundred pages of court documents also raise questions about another aspect of Premarin’s trajectory: how Wyeth worked over decades to maintain the image and credibility of its hormone drugs even as the products were repeatedly under siege.

Pfizer representatives say court documents paint an unfair picture of Wyeth’s practices and that plaintiffs’ lawyers have cherry-picked documents for out-of-context comments to sway juries.

Still, the documents offer a snapshot of Wyeth’s efforts. Taken together, they depict a company that over several decades spent tens of millions of dollars on influential physicians, professional medical societies, scientific publications, courses and celebrity ads, inundating doctors and patients with a sea of positive preventive health messages that plaintiffs’ lawyers say deflected users’ attention from cancer concerns.

Even as evidence mounted of an association of the drugs with cancer — first in the 1970s with Premarin and endometrial cancer, then in the 1990s with Prempro and breast cancer — Wyeth tried to contain the concerns, the court documents show. (A note handwritten in 1996 by a Wyeth employee responding to a new report of breast cancer risks associated with hormone therapy said: “Dismiss/distract.”)
[Emphasis added]

Now, this horrific chain of events is not surprising. We've seen this several times in the last few years, usually as part of lawsuits (about which the article has some interesting things to say) in which plaintiffs claim, and often establish, that the drug makers knew that there were dangerous side effects but hid that knowledge from the government and from medical providers. The second part of the article shows how in this case the deception was not all that difficult.

MENOPAUSAL hormone therapy has long been pitched as a way to stave off what some doctors viewed as the undesirable aspects of female aging.

In the popular 1966 book “Feminine Forever,” Dr. Robert A. Wilson, a gynecologist, used disparaging descriptions of aging women (“flabby,” “shrunken,” “dull-minded,” “desexed”) to upend the prevailing idea of menopause as a normal stage of life. Women and their physicians, Dr. Wilson wrote, should regard menopause as a degenerative disease that could be prevented or cured with the use of hormone drugs.

Disease, not normal stage of life.

In our culture women are seen not as "maiden, mother, crone," but as either arm-candy or walking-womb. Once those phases have been passed through, women no longer have any value (something which actors of the female persuasion have long lamented). Is it any wonder that women would be susceptible to the advertising? Even Barbara Ehrenreich went through hormone replacement therapy. She also went through chemotherapy after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

It is also the reason that women (and now even some men) go through the agonies of botox and plastic surgery and spend billions of dollars each year chasing the latest skin toner, wrinkle remover, hair restorer, and exercise regime lest they be seen as flabby, shrunken, dull-minded, or desexed. That is, those who live through the strokes and cancer treatments do.

There's something dreadfully and fatally wrong with this picture, but it's one we rarely sit back and consider. Thankfully, this NY Times article provided us a chance to do so, and for that I am grateful.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunday Poetry: Henry Howard


Sometimes the strongest voice
Is scarcely raised above a whisper,
Quiet as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings,
A gentle movement of the air
That makes a sound no thunder can suppress.

On your way to the rally at Freedom Square,
Perhaps you had been taught long ago how to talk to God:
So softly only God can hear you,
But in the lesson you have taught us with your dying,
The whole world can hear you now.

You did not join in fiery chants
Or calls for revolution,
Choosing instead
To let your ballot be your voice.

But when your vote was trampled
By those who cling to power at any cost,
You voted with your feet
Until a sniper’s bullet laid bare your heart.

“I’m burning! I’m burning!” you cried,
With the only words that millions heard you speak.
But the moment that silenced your voice forever
Set a fire of hope that is burning still.

Before you marched,
Only those closest to you
Knew your name.
Yet within hours of your death,
You became a global household name.

How strange that they silenced you, Neda,
Whose very name
Means “Voice.”
From the silence of the grave,
You have become “The Voice of Iran.”

Neda—even your name is gentle.
It rolls off the tongue
With a playful softness
Reflected in the Internet pictures of your face.

At 26, you were just beginning to find your voice,
But your death made the world hear
The legions of the voiceless,
And brought Iran,
So far away, so misunderstood,
Into our own backyards.

The State will always use
The cruelest and crudest weapons
To shoot down what can never be silenced:
The primal cry of every soul
To be counted as equal.

Shadowy men, faceless and unnamed,
Blew a hole in your heart
And broke the heart of a nation,
But the State will never learn:
When power confronts humanity,
One voice may be silenced
But a people awakens,
And never silenced again.

Henry Howard

(Published at Poets Against the War.)

Just Mean

Here's a statistic I didn't need to read first thing this morning: only 48% of those eligible received food stamps in 2007 in California, one of only two states that failed to register at least half of their eligible residents for the program. The information came in an unusually good editorial in today's Los Angeles Times. Here's the skinny:

California is a bad place to be hungry. While the demand for food stamps is increasing across the nation, people who are eligible for the program are less likely to be enrolled in it here than in any other state but Wyoming. The percentage of low-income children who eat free breakfasts at school here is also lower than the national average.

Even if the financially crippled state had to pay for food stamps and school breakfasts, its failure to feed the poor would be a source of shame. Nothing is more fundamental to society than keeping hunger at bay. But food stamps and subsidized breakfasts for children are federal programs; the state is responsible only for some administrative costs for food stamps. In other words, the state and many of its school districts are turning away money to alleviate hunger, money that would boost the spending power of impoverished households, improve the health of residents and help children achieve more in school -- all of which would improve the state's economy too.
[Emphasis added]

How is this possible? Well, some who obviously felt the poor were a bunch of frauds looking to ride the public gravy train found some interesting ways to make registering for these federally funded benefits damned near impossible. Here are just two of the tricksy requirements:

* Quarterly recertification. California is the only state that requires recipients to be recertified for eligibility every three months. Other states require recertification just twice a year. ...

* Fingerprinting. Fingerprinting of food-stamp recipients is intended to reduce fraud, so that a single person cannot receive food stamps in more than one county. But for some -- the infirm, the working poor -- simply getting to the local welfare office to be fingerprinted can be onerous enough to keep them from enrolling.

If people are too poor to provide adequate food for their families, the chances are they are also too poor to afford a car or even a monthly bus pass. If they are working at minimum wage, they also can't afford to take time off from work to stand in line to re-register and/or get fingerprinted (fingerprinted? for chrissakes, how is that supposed to stop fraud?).

If the state truly wanted to cut costs, it would get rid of such stupid and unnecessary procedures, thereby also cutting the costs of hunger. Poor families would have food, and would be able to use the money they would have spent on food on other necessities.

But this isn't really about saving the state money. It's about punishing those who are poor. And this isn't just mean, it verges on the evil.


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Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Jim Morin / Miami Herald (December 11, 2009) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on the image to enlarge.)


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: Arctic Jellyfish

(Photograph by Kevin Raskoff and published at National Geographic.)

NOTE: I am still desperately fluish. More substantive posts are at least 24 hours away.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Much Ado

Today's NY Times has an editorial which made me blink a few times. Here's the thesis:

Under federal law, people who pose a heightened risk of violence cannot buy or own firearms, including convicted felons, domestic abusers, the seriously mentally ill and several other categories. Suspected terrorist is not one them.

Individuals on the government’s terrorist watch list can be barred from boarding airplanes, but not from purchasing high-powered guns or explosives. Bipartisan legislation in both houses of Congress would end this ridiculous loophole, commonly known as the “terror gap.”

That's blink number one. I mean, who could object to restricting gun sales to terrorists, right? Well, I would have agreed but for the insertion of the phrase "terror gap." Come on, didn't the editorial board see the movie "Dr. Strangelove"? That phrase made me go back and re-read these first two paragraphs.

Yes, we're talking about the government's terrorist watch list, a list developed by the Bush administration in response to 9/11, primarily because they were caught ignoring all the evidence and warnings from the Clinton administration and from our intelligence agencies before that horrendous event. That list contains thousands of names that don't belong there and doesn't include the names of a number of suspected terrorists who do, according to a March, 2009 DOJ Inspector General Report. The NRA, in response to the proposed bipartisan legislation, pointed this fact out (thereby providing one of the few times I have agreed with that group, which is blink number two).

The editorial tries to reassure such sceptics as I am at this point:

The terror-gap measure is more modest and balanced than its opponents make it appear. It would not automatically disqualify people on the watch list from purchasing a weapon. Rather, the attorney general would be given discretionary power to deny the issuance of a firearm or explosives in instances when the government has reason to believe the person may use the weapon in connection with terrorism. The authority would have to be exercised according to written guidelines. Due process safeguards are built in to permit the affected person to challenge a denial.

Blink the third.

Um, yes. That sounds reassuring. Due process, eh?

What happens when an individual actually challenges the denial? Does the government get to use the "government secrets" ploy? "No, you can't buy a gun, but the reason you can't is classified. Sorry, chump."

Look, I'm all in favor of gun control. I still don't see the reason any civilian gun enthusiast or hunter needs an AK-47. But I don't see why that unconstitutional terrorist watch list, comprised of names obtained by warrantless email snooping and wire tapping, should be used as the basis for anything.

Here's a quarter, NY Times. Go buy a clue.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Villains Of The Piece

On Sunday, I lauded the efforts of Rep. Lois Capps to keep the pressure on to remove the Stupak Amendment from the health care reform act. I noted that women in the Senate were working on the same issue. Today's Los Angeles Times has some follow up information on the funding for abortion and on the public option provision.

President Obama traveled to Capitol Hill on Sunday to rally Democrats on his signature healthcare initiative as the Senate moved closer to addressing two of the biggest land mines in the bill's path: the terms of a new public insurance option and limits on federal abortion funding.

A showdown on the abortion issue is scheduled for early this week. An amendment to set stricter limits on federal funding is expected to be defeated.

As for the public option, behind-the-scenes Democratic negotiations to satisfy both liberals and moderates quickened Sunday.

It appears that the proposed amendment on the funding for abortion is similar to the compromise Rep. Capps originally proposed in the House, which, unfortunately was defeated in favor of the Stupak Amendment. It would direct that in federally subsidized insurance policies, only the private funds could be used. Capps' amendment was better insofar as it directed that among the pool available to those using the subsidy plan at least one policy had to cover abortion and at least one had to exclude coverage for abortion.

As to the public option plan, it's pretty hard to tell at this juncture just what the Senate has in mind, but I suspect it's a watered down version which would have rather strict limitations and would phase in over years instead of not being available immediately. That means essentially no public option at all.

But neither suits a certain contingent of the Democratic Party. Here is a list of the current identifiable villains.

First, on the abortion funding issue:

"The minute those issues are resolved, this process will accelerate," said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who has backed stronger antiabortion language but says he will support the legislation even if it is not changed.

The abortion amendment, expected to be offered by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), is similar to language approved by the House. It would ban abortion coverage under the public option as well as prohibit insurers from covering abortion services for any woman who receives federal subsidies to buy insurance. The only exceptions would be in cases of rape or incest or to save the woman's life.

Now, the public option issue:

Most congressional Democrats consider the public insurance option crucial to ensure that people of moderate means have more choices and more affordable plans. But centrists worry that a public option would undercut the private market. Several -- including Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Nelson -- have said they would not vote for the bill if it included such a provision.

These senators have decided that we can't be riling the Council of Bishops or the insurance industry. Both groups are far more important than the health of women or the health of the poor and those of moderate means.

I guess we shouldn't be surprised. We should, however, be mad as hell and be willing to do something about it.

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Monday, December 07, 2009


Yesterday, I followed a link to the UK's Guardian which announces an unusual agreement among many of the world's newspapers. All have agreed to run the same editorial calling on world leaders to get something done on climate change at the Copenhagen meeting. Sadly, none of the US papers I start my day with, the NY Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, or L.A. Times participated in this worthy project. I am therefore publishing that editorial, in its entirety, here:

Tomorrow 56 newspapers in 45 countries take the unprecedented step of speaking with one voice through a common editorial. We do so because humanity faces a profound emergency.

Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting and last year's inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world's response has been feeble and half-hearted.

Climate change has been caused over centuries, has consequences that will endure for all time and our prospects of taming it will be determined in the next 14 days. We call on the representatives of the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to fall into dispute, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics. This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor world, or between east and west. Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone.

The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C, an aim that will require global emissions to peak and begin falling within the next 5-10 years. A bigger rise of 3-4C — the smallest increase we can prudently expect to follow inaction — would parch continents, turning farmland into desert. Half of all species could become extinct, untold millions of people would be displaced, whole nations drowned by the sea. The controversy over emails by British researchers that suggest they tried to suppress inconvenient data has muddied the waters but failed to dent the mass of evidence on which these predictions are based.

Few believe that Copenhagen can any longer produce a fully polished treaty; real progress towards one could only begin with the arrival of President Obama in the White House and the reversal of years of US obstructionism. Even now the world finds itself at the mercy of American domestic politics, for the president cannot fully commit to the action required until the US Congress has done so.

But the politicians in Copenhagen can and must agree the essential elements of a fair and effective deal and, crucially, a firm timetable for turning it into a treaty. Next June's UN climate meeting in Bonn should be their deadline. As one negotiator put it: "We can go into extra time but we can't afford a replay."

At the deal's heart must be a settlement between the rich world and the developing world covering how the burden of fighting climate change will be divided — and how we will share a newly precious resource: the trillion or so tonnes of carbon that we can emit before the mercury rises to dangerous levels.

Rich nations like to point to the arithmetic truth that there can be no solution until developing giants such as China take more radical steps than they have so far. But the rich world is responsible for most of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere – three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. It must now take a lead, and every developed country must commit to deep cuts which will reduce their emissions within a decade to very substantially less than their 1990 level.

Developing countries can point out they did not cause the bulk of the problem, and also that the poorest regions of the world will be hardest hit. But they will increasingly contribute to warming, and must thus pledge meaningful and quantifiable action of their own. Though both fell short of what some had hoped for, the recent commitments to emissions targets by the world's biggest polluters, the United States and China, were important steps in the right direction.

Social justice demands that the industrialised world digs deep into its pockets and pledges cash to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, and clean technologies to enable them to grow economically without growing their emissions. The architecture of a future treaty must also be pinned down – with rigorous multilateral monitoring, fair rewards for protecting forests, and the credible assessment of "exported emissions" so that the burden can eventually be more equitably shared between those who produce polluting products and those who consume them. And fairness requires that the burden placed on individual developed countries should take into account their ability to bear it; for instance newer EU members, often much poorer than "old Europe", must not suffer more than their richer partners.

The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance — and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing.

Many of us, particularly in the developed world, will have to change our lifestyles. The era of flights that cost less than the taxi ride to the airport is drawing to a close. We will have to shop, eat and travel more intelligently. We will have to pay more for our energy, and use less of it.

But the shift to a low-carbon society holds out the prospect of more opportunity than sacrifice. Already some countries have recognized that embracing the transformation can bring growth, jobs and better quality lives. The flow of capital tells its own story: last year for the first time more was invested in renewable forms of energy than producing electricity from fossil fuels.

Kicking our carbon habit within a few short decades will require a feat of engineering and innovation to match anything in our history. But whereas putting a man on the moon or splitting the atom were born of conflict and competition, the coming carbon race must be driven by a collaborative effort to achieve collective salvation.

Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness, of what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature".

It is in that spirit that 56 newspapers from around the world have united behind this editorial. If we, with such different national and political perspectives, can agree on what must be done then surely our leaders can too.

The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history's judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.

This editorial will be published tomorrow by 56 newspapers around the world in 20 languages including Chinese, Arabic and Russian. The text was drafted by a Guardian team during more than a month of consultations with editors from more than 20 of the papers involved. Like the Guardian most of the newspapers have taken the unusual step of featuring the editorial on their front page.

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sunday Poetry: Anne Sexton

An Obsessive Combination Of Onotological Inscape, Trickery And Love

Busy, with an idea for a code, I write
signals hurrying from left to right,
or right to left, by obscure routes,
for my own reasons; taking a word like writes
down tiers of tries until its secret rites
make sense; or until, suddenly, RATS
can amazingly and funnily become STAR
and right to left that small star
is mine, for my own liking, to stare
its five lucky pins inside out, to store
forever kindly, as if it were a star
I touched and a miracle I really wrote.

Anne Sexton

More Like This, Please

Congress continues the glacial pace on its idea of health care reform, but there are some signals that progressive Democrats are mobilizing on at least one aspect, the Stupak Amendment, which bars any federal money being used for abortions, including federal subsidies for insurance. One of those leading what may be a House rebellion on the issue is California's Lois Capps of Santa Barbara.

Congresswoman Capps tried to head off the issue right from the start by offering an amendment consistent with the gawdawful Hyde Amendment, but which indicated that among the pool of policies available for the subsidies there had to be at least one which covered abortion and one which did not. This was a compromise I didn't especially appreciate at the time, but I now see why she offered it. It got through committee, but was dropped in favor of the Stupak disaster.

Ms. Capps, however, has not given up the fight, according to the Sacramento Bee:

She's one of the most liberal members of the U.S. House, a longtime advocate of universal health care. She says she's thrilled to be a member of a Congress on the verge of passing a historic overhaul of the nation's health care system, legislation that she says was first proposed by President Teddy Roosevelt and that "means everything to me."

In a high-stakes battle, she's also threatening to vote against the bill because one issue is even more important to her: abortion. ...

Capps, of Santa Barbara, is one of 40 lawmakers threatening to derail the legislation if a House-Senate conference committee does not remove language that would restrict access to abortions. ...

"The stakes are now really high and the advocates are going to make all of the difference in the world," said Capps, attending a standing-room-only abortion-rights rally and standing in front of a bright orange and white sign that said "Abortion Is Health Care." She drew loud applause when she announced: "I am one who cannot even envision voting for health care reform that takes us back on women's rights."
[Emphasis added]

Congresswoman Capps is being joined in the fight by Senator Barbara Boxer, also of California:

California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, part of a team of women leading the abortion fight in the Senate, said abortion-rights backers will defeat Stupak's amendment, but she said it's a fight that they had hoped to avoid.

"We didn't ask for it," she said. "We didn't look for it. But now that we're in it, we will win it."

I'm proud of both of these women and the other women in Congress for taking this on, and of the sensible men joining them in this fight.

Being proud is one thing, but that's not enough. Get on the horn and let your reps know that abortion is a legal medical procedure and to foreclose insurance coverage for that legal medical procedure is an abomination. If any of them is coming up for re-election next November (I'm looking at you, Jane Harman), then let them know that the financial and volunteer support they might have gotten from you will not happen without a vote removing the Stupak Amendment. If there's primary challenger, point out which direction your efforts will go, and make it clear that you will follow through. Then get your sisters, mothers, girlfriends, daughters, and wives to make the same kind of call.

Just do it.

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Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Jim Morin / Miami Herald (December 4, 2009) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, December 05, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: Emperor Penguin

(Photograph courtesy NOAA and published at National Geographic.)

Talk Talk

It's Saturday, and I've made my weekly visit to Watching America. There weren't any surprises. Most of the articles selected were responses to the current Nobel Peace Laureate's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. One article, however, took on a different subject, that of normalizing US relations with Cuba..

From Honduras' La Prensa:

U.S. President Barack Obama reassured the Cuban blogger, Yoani Sánchez, that he wishes “increased respect for the human rights and for political and economic freedoms” for the island, as stated today in her blog, “Generation Y.”

In response to the inquiry Sánchez wrote to him, Obama also stated that he supports a direct dialogue with the Cuban administration presided over by General Raúl Castro, but doesn’t want to “talk just for the sake of talking.” ...

Obama told Sánchez that his “administration is ready to establish diplomatic ties with the Cuban government in a couple of mutual interest areas,” as has been done in the talks regarding immigration issues and direct mail.

“It is also my intent to facilitate greater contact with the Cuban people, especially among divided Cuban families, which I have done by removing U.S. restrictions on family visits and remittances,” the president added. ...

“We have already initiated a dialogue on areas of mutual concern—safe, legal, and orderly migration, and reestablishing direct mail service. These are small steps, but an important part of a process to move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new and more positive, direction.”

Now, I suspect a lot of people are going to be surprised that Cubans not only have access to the internet but also can have blogs. That doesn't fit the picture painted for us over the last fifty years. Me, I was surprised that President Obama, or one of his staffers, took the time to respond to Ms. Sanchez' inquiry. After all, this has been an extraordinarily busy eleven months for the White House. Even I have to admit that the mere fact that a response was made is gratifying.

President Obama has in fact initiated some positive changes in our relations with Cuba, even if they are "small steps." What Mr. Obama is calling for, however, is some movement from the Cuban government, especially in the area of human rights, before going further, and that is disappointing.

No such pre-conditions are in place with respect to other nations with human rights issues. We deal regularly with some of the most oppressive regimes on the planet, among them China, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other nations in the Middle East. We even partner with them when it is in our economic and military interests to do so. The reasons usually given for such endeavors is that by engaging those nations in mutually beneficial projects we set the stage for substantive talks on the issues that worry us. Why should our relations with Cuba be any different?

Mr. Obama has done more than any administration since the Cuban Revolution to re-engage that island nation simply by talking to them on the limited issues mentioned in his reply to the blogger. Good on him. Now, however, it's time to move further and without any strings attached.

In other words, it's time for him to actually earn his Nobel Prize.