Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: Pacific Barreleye Fish

(Photograph courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and published at National Geographic.)

Straight Talk

What a difference an election makes! The US now has a president who speaks the language without cringe-inducing malapropisms or grammatical error, but with grace and dignity. Barack Obama's first speech to the joint session of Congress was delivered to a nation struggling with uncertainty and, yes, fear because of the unremitting stream of bad economic news. We didn't expect him to pat our hands and heads and promise us an instant return to blue skies and frolicking puppies, but we wanted some reassurance that a different future was possible. Mr. Obama delivered the message beautifully, and the rest of the world noticed. From Germany's Berliner Morgenpost (via Watching America):

It was another one of those days when we looked enviously across the Atlantic at our colleagues in the United States. They were beside themselves with enthusiasm over their president and his ability to read his countrymen the riot act and inoculate them with a healthy dose of confidence all at the same time; to single handedly get them behind him without trying to hide the fact that they all would have to put their shoulders to the wheel in the coming years just to get ahead. The Washington Post called his keynote speech admirable. The New York Times said it was a “compelling vision.” CNN took a snap poll of Americans and reported that 85 percent of those surveyed said they were now more confident in the future than they were previously. Eighty-five percent!

Believe me, Americans understand the envy. For eight long years we stood by, humiliated by the embarrassing gaffes and intentionally misleading statements by our leader. We were ready for Barack Obama. While he hasn't done everything I would like, and he has done some things I wish he hadn't, I'm still pleased with the man. That speech is one of the reasons why.


Trouble in Paris

Of course, that's Paris, Texas, my mother's hometown, that has trouble. Last year two white men went drinking with a black man and they had a falling out. The next day the black man's mutilated body was found. His drinking buddies of the night before insisted they had left him along the way, perfectly alright but under the weather. The blood found on their truck was the answer to that 'storying'. We said 'storying' instead of lying to be polite when we were kids here in N.TX.

The parents of the dead man called on the Black Panthers in the Dallas area to come in and help. They were sure without public outcry the crime would be covered up and passed over. The Black Panthers did come in and make a stink, and that's not what we said to be polite.

Dallas-area civil rights activists drawn here last year by the brutal killing of a young black man, who authorities say was run down by two white men, have divided the community they came to help: black Paris residents, some of whom invited the outsiders, and others who'd prefer that they go home.

"I really wish they would stay where they are," local NAACP president James Price said. "We are actively pursuing racial dialogue and harmony. We don't have any more problems than anyone else."

But other local blacks – wary of a history that includes a notorious 1893 lynching and the 2006 jailing of a black teenager who shoved a teacher's aide – welcome activists such as Olinka Green and her New Black Panther Party of Dallas to the northeast Texas town.

"We wouldn't have to come into that town if they took care of their business," said Green, the group's spokeswoman, who helped organize protests arguing unsuccessfully for authorities to reclassify the September slaying of Brandon McClelland as a hate crime.
Demonstrators backed by some Paris residents accused officials of covering up a hate crime. While the designation wouldn't increase the potential punishment in the murder case, the activists hoped it would draw attention to the killing and ensure that a lesser sentence wouldn't be doled out.

The protesters railed against the legal and educational systems in Lamar County, accusing officials of harassment and abuse, unfair prosecutions and sentencing disparities exemplified by the case of Shaquanda Cotton, a black high school student who was sent to a Texas Youth Commission lockup for up to seven years after being convicted of assaulting a teacher's aide. Cotton was freed after about a year.

Activists have also taken up the cause of a black amputee who was threatened with eviction from his Paris apartment after being charged with assault. And a local factory worker filed a federal complaint last week because a hangman's noose, Confederate flag and racist graffiti were on display for months at his workplace. (Emphasis added.)

The history of race relations in the N.TX area is a grim one. In Sherman there was a lynching in the early 1900's, and the courthouse and black business community were burned. There are similar incidents in the past of many towns in this area. Those times are in the past, but not far enough.

Enlightened communities in the east are easier for me, and generally for minorities and educated people, to live in. We forget sometimes that there is real, active, prejudice at work to keep some of us from getting a fair share of opportunity. That attitude was one that I grew up with and am fortunate that I escaped. We who did escape have to keep opposing racism, and even when we get accused of making trouble unnecessarily, we have to keep on standing up for justice.

It's not easy, but we don't want to live easy lives that we have to be ashamed of.

It's the end of Black History Month, but society's not postracist yet.

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Class Warfare; Who's For Dinner?

The number of jobs being lost is an astonishing number, especially because what it represents is households faced with sudden, alarming, economic disasters. Each job lost represents a tilt into desperation. When a household makes a decision to buy something, a car or a house, or even the inevitable refrigerator or lawnmower, the decision involves the amount of money coming in. When that is shut off suddenly, the purchase becomes a huge problem.

This has happened to increasing numbers of us. It's a growing disaster.

Much of the attention in this economic downturn has focused on the growing legions of men and women who are officially counted as unemployed. There are now more than 11 million of them.

But a better picture of the economic distress related to employment emerges when the number of jobless Americans is combined with two other categories of workers: the underemployed (those who are working part time, for example, because they can’t find full-time work) and the so-called labor force reserve, workers who have abandoned their job searches but who would work if employment became available.

This total pool of underutilized labor has now risen above 24 million, according to researchers at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. That total will only grow in the coming months.

The Obama administration has more than enough on its plate at the moment, but before long it will likely have to consider a range of additional strategies, beyond the recently passed stimulus package, for putting jobless Americans to work.

A comparison of the number of people being thrown out of work in this recession with that of the severe recession of 1981-82 will indicate why. The peak unemployment rate was higher in that earlier recession than today’s 7.6 percent, largely because the last big wave of the baby-boom generation was entering the job market in the early ’80s. Those boomers who couldn’t find work were officially counted as unemployed.

What is different and more frightening about the current downturn is the number of people actually losing their jobs — being laid off or fired. That number is dramatically, dangerously higher.

We are a consumer economy. Without consumers, there is not much of an economy left for the country to depend on.

Flipping burgers is a travesty as a job, but without anyone to buy the burgers, even that sort of job is a boon.

Rich and comfortable sorts like to blame irresponsibility for the desperation of losing a home or getting into credit card debt that can't be managed. It's hardly the major element for working people who have had gas for the car, then groceries, and everything that has to be transported, go out of their range within a matter of months. The jobs that are evaporating has pushed huge numbers of us over the edge, into financial disaster. The blame isn't a good thing to throw at the desperate in their plight.


Of course, in the struggle to keep an audience of the worried bigtime earners, CNN Money has a reflection on the plight of those being hit by increases in taxation after years of having their taxes cut.

The burden will indeed go far higher than in the Clinton years via a technicality -- one that will come as a rude shock even to the taxpayers already braced for a soaking.

The group that's hit hardest are the taxpayers I call the HENRYs, for "High Earners Not Rich Yet." The HENRYs are families who make between $250,000 and $500,000 a year.
Here's how the HENRYs will get hammered. Say a family earns $300,000 a year, and pays $50,000 a year in mortgage interest; the family also contributes $5,000 to Boy Scouts, Red Cross and other charities. Under the AMT's top effective tax rate of 35%, they benefit from savings of $19,250 on those deductions.

But under Obama's new plan, the share of that $55,000 that HENRYs can deduct is no longer 35%. It's capped at 28%. Hence, their tax bill rises by almost $4,000. That's a jump in their marginal tax rate, the crucial share of an extra dollar of income they get to keep, from 35% to over 37%.

If you aren't crying yet, it may be because you are well aware that we are all able to cut a few corners and it isn't beyond belief that even those who earn large salaries can make that effort.

Our friend Dr. Professor Wombat also read and marveled at the above article, and made the following great observations;

Its thrust is, essentially, that they'll have a harder time getting rich under new tax burdens, that they were entitled to become rich by dint of hard work and productivity and, by implication, possessed of virtues that others who work hard for far less money don't exhibit.

The 'hammering' the article points to is in the amount of $4000. I would guess just about anybody earning, say, $75,000 a year, could look at the way just about anybody earning $250k lives, and effortlessly point out discretionary spending far greater than that.

But I know some of these $250K types. You start adding up house payments, real estate taxes, insurance, cars, tuitions, student loans, professional fees, heat, medical and dental expenses, drugs, the meter runs. And you don't think, as a first step, that you really don't need that 5000 sq ft house or that 6-series BMW, or that the excellent public schools in your comfortable suburb are an option for your kids, or, in general, that you could change the way you live with little if any serious impact on your quality of life. You think you're paying too much in taxes, that the government wastes it, or uses it to hire featherbedders or timeservers or hacks, or gives it to people who don't work as hard as you do or don't deserve it, or who are illegal immigrants sucking our revenues dry.

Much of this arises from plain old selfishness or greed. But much, too, arises from these folks' isolation from others. Many of them have far more contact with, and empathy for, professionals of their ilk ten thousand miles from here than they do with the people who cut their meat, or sell them books, or plow their streets, or cut their grass, or fix their plumbing.

The social contract desperately needs reweaving in this country, and the world. And it's hard to imagine it being done without a serious jolt to self-justifying complacency. Too bad.
ProfWombat | 02.28.09 - 7:55 am | #

The saddest part of our society has to be those who just can't see the public interest as their own interest. With that kind of blinders on, they vote in class warriors against the less fortunate, and the present financial meltdown results.

Try it, one more time, with feeling. Without consumers, the consumer economy falls apart.

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Nice Frame You Got There

The news is out: President Obama is going to rescind the midnight oil executive order issued by President Bush to protect the jobs of those health workers who refuse to provide care which violates their religious tenets. Of course, the order was designed to make abortion and access to contraception even more difficult, but the Bush administration and its base-base supporters preferred to cast the argument in terms of preserving the religious freedom of a certain group of employees. It's pretty hard to argue against religious freedom in this country, which is why the frame was selected. It's an old tactic, one that the Religious Reich adopted when it designated its stance as "Pro-Life" rather than anti-abortion or anti-choice.

Unfortunately, it's the same frame adopted in this article in the Washington Post.

The Obama administration's move to rescind broad new job protections for health workers who refuse to provide care they find objectionable triggered an immediate political storm yesterday, underscoring the difficulties the president faces in his effort to find common ground on anything related to the explosive issue of abortion.

The administration's plans, revealed quietly with a terse posting on a federal Web site, unleashed a flood of heated reaction, with supporters praising the proposal as a crucial victory for women's health and reproductive rights, and opponents condemning it as a devastating setback for freedom of religion.

Why, in light of Roe v Wade, is there even any discussion of the issue? Well, conservatives of a certain stripe still haven't accepted the law of the land. (They also haven't accepted science either, so that fits the profile.) The whole point of Roe is that a woman is entitled to privacy and that includes the right to choose not to bear a child. It's her decision.

Bush's last minute order went even further than the abortion issue, however. Broadly drafted, it could easily be applied to family counseling and to information on birth control.

Women's health advocates, family-planning proponents, abortion rights activists and others condemned the regulation, saying it created a major obstacle to providing many health services, including family planning and infertility treatment, and possibly a wide range of scientific research. After reviewing the regulation, newly appointed officials at the Health and Human Services Department agreed.

"We've been concerned that the way the Bush rule is written, it could make it harder for women to get the care they need," said an HHS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for the same reason. "It is worded so vaguely that some have argued it could limit family-planning counseling and even potentially blood transfusions and end-of-life care."

Bush screwed the order up by painting it so broadly, but that ignores the argument that women have the right to choose. That is central to the argument and all the harumphing about providers' religious freedoms is just nonsense. If a nurse or doctor is opposed to abortion, then they shouldn't work at a hospital or clinic which provides it. If a pharmacist believes the morning after pill or the birth control pill is of the devil, he shouldn't work at a pharmacy which dispenses them. I am opposed to the death penalty, which is why I never considered working for the District Attorney's office. It's not that hard a decision, folks.

WaPo's article, however, dwelt at length, at great length, on the religious freedom aspect. I didn't count the words, but my impression is that direct and indirect quotes from the Religious Reich far outnumbered those from family planning and choice advocates. The picture on the online version of the story is not of President Obama, nor the president of any family planning group. It is of The Rev. Joel Hunter, an anti-choice religious leader Obama has tapped to serve on his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. And the article leans heavily on the "religious freedom" frame.

It also reiterates the old "let's find some common ground" meme in an area in which it simply does not apply. Just as one is either pregnant or not pregnant, one either has reproductive freedom or one does not.

I guess that's what WaPo's idea of "fair and balanced" is.


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Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday Catblogging

Jocabel, my very feral cat, likes to take me for walks. This week she had a pear tree in bloom and some jonquils to show me. She blends in with the scenery sometimes, as you can see.

This morning we had a 'blue norther', and temperatures are down in the 50's now, from 80F yesterday.


Big Government

It's a phrase that comes from the right seemingly automatically whenever a government program works to solve a problem: big government. The huge stimulus package that President Obama has presented to counter the effect of the past eight years' battle against public interests calls it forth constantly. While I think liberals slough it off, it seems to be a good time to mention that 'big' government is the mantra that is supposed to point out to wingers what is wrong with solving problems.

The Wall Street Journal of course provided the ultimate warning light; Daniel Henninger writes there that we have been, essentially, kidnapped.

...the economic crisis, as it did for Franklin D. Roosevelt, will serve as a stepping stone to a radical shift in the relationship between the people and their government. It will bind Americans to their government in ways not experienced since the New Deal. This tectonic shift, if successful, will be equal to the forces of public authority set in motion by Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. The Obama presidency is going to be a radical presidency.
Mr. Obama believes health-care costs cause a bankruptcy "every 30 seconds" and will drive 1.5 million Americans from their homes this year. Therefore, the budget's vision on health is "historic" and a "downpayment" toward comprehensive health insurance. This "will not wait another year," he said.

He announced "tax-free universal savings accounts" as a solution to Social Security's crisis. This is a savings plan supported by federal matching contributions automatically deposited in individual accounts.

Mr. Obama acknowledged that this spending -- which in the public sector's new vocabulary is always "investment" -- will be costly. His read-my-lips moment was that no family with an income under $250,000 will pay a "single dime" in new taxes to support the construction of this new federal skyscraper. If that's still true in 2015, Mr. Obama will be walking back and forth across the Potomac River.

He told Congress he does not believe in bigger government. I don't believe that. It's becoming clear that the private sector is going to be demoted into a secondary role in the U.S. system. This isn't socialism, but it is not the system we've had since the early 1980s. It would be a reordered economic system, its direction chosen and guided by Mr. Obama and his inner circle.

Gov. Bobby Jindal's postspeech reply did not come close to recognizing the gauntlet Mr. Obama has thrown down to the opposition. Unless the GOP can discover a radical message of its own to distinguish it from the president's, it should prepare to live under Mr. Obama's radicalism for at least a generation.

The fair and balanced part, in case you missed it, is that 'this isn't socialism'. That is immediately followed by the dreaded control of the Obamas. These are those liberals who are going to run things now, in this lurid picture of being usurped. That big government monster is an operation by the Other Sort - as opposed to the incompetence that the mogul horde 'base' has given us for eight years. That we have a radical shift to head off the disaster brought on by corporate welfare that throws the public to the free market - there's your ultimate threat for those corporate shills.

The opposite of that threatened big government has been seen up close and personal, and it consisted of government agencies run by the very people who opposed them. In the case of FEMA, we saw one of the worst exhibits of Small Government. When a hack who got his post by being a political operative was given real needs to meet, he dressed up and ran in circles while New Orleans drowned. In the case of all the agencies of the executive branch, political loyalty to the opponents of public interest was all the qualifications wanted or accepted. The result has been unmitigated disaster.

This big government thing appears to be really great for a change. Under it, we get agencies headed by those with expertise in their areas, who are actually performing the job they are given. Of course, they will have to fight tooth and nail against the Small. There is only one principle that guides the Small. It is that public interest is and will remain forever the denial of the very services that government is there to perform. It may be called Small Government by the right wingers, but its effect is that of government with Very Little Brain. (Sorry, piglet, you would have done it better.)

The corporate welfare advocates have a lot of bugaboos, and seem to be scared of losing the control they have shown they can't handle. Big government, like liberal, and socialized medicine, are terms that strike fear in their ranks. It's time that we liberals started to take pride in producing the antidote to winger disaster.

Radical government is a beginning. It's much more likely to succeed than the 'conservative' kind, that pits the rich against the poor, and cheats. Less government of the Small, by the Small, and for the Small. More radical big government, please.

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A Different Assessment

Last Saturday I pointed out that the Pentagon report on Guantanamo Bay in which it concluded that there were no violations of international human rights laws might have been a bit biased. I suggested that a review by a more neutral group, like the International Red Cross or the United Nations would have given us a more honest assessment. Well, such a review has been done by the United Nations, and while limited in its scope, a different conclusion was reached. From the Washington Post:

A United Nations special investigator has concluded in a report scheduled for release Friday that foreign intelligence agents sent to question U.S.-held terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay had violated international human-rights laws.

According to an advance copy of the report, obtained by The Washington Post, Martin Scheinin, a Finnish diplomat and the U.N. special investigator for human rights, said foreign agents visiting Guantanamo or secret U.S. jails overseas committed "an internationally wrongful act" even if they merely observed interrogations.

"They were acting in breach of their legal obligations in regard to the prohibition on torture and arbitrary detention," Scheinin, who is also a law professor at the European University Institute in Florence, said in a telephone interview.

Human rights groups have already made it clear that the foreign agents did more than merely observe interrogations, however.

The U.S. military has allowed intelligence and law enforcement agents from at least 18 countries to interrogate Guantanamo inmates since the detention center opened in 2002, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based group that provides legal representation to many Guantanamo prisoners.

According to the group, interrogators from Tunisia, Libya, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Jordan verbally threatened citizens of their countries held at Guantanamo, warning them that they would be abused at home if they didn't cooperate. Other countries that have sent interrogators to Guantanamo include Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain and Morocco, the center says.

That's not exactly the picture that the Pentagon report painted, which is hardly a surprise. And that is why it is so important that the 111th Congress investigate the matter even if President Obama is uncomfortable with this "looking backward." At least some in Congress agree. According to the NY Times, several Senate committees are planning to do just that:

The Senate Intelligence Committee is completing plans to begin a review of the C.I.A.’s detention and interrogation program, another sign that lawmakers are determined to have a public accounting of controversial Bush administration programs despite White House concerns about the impact of unearthing the past.

Good. Even if the Intelligence Committee's claim that it will be concentrating on the reliability of information gathered by the use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques is held to, it will be a useful start. Then the Senate Judiciary Committee can do a wider inquiry.

We need this to happen if we are ever to fully understand just what evil was wrought in our names. We also need this to happen so that we can ensure that such horrific behavior is never allowed again.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thursday Birdblogging

1WattHermit had taken some pictures, left at comments on eschaton one morning when I got online. I borrowed these purple finch from him.

Cool Facts

* The Purple Finch feeds on flowers by crushing the base to get the nectar and leaving the upper flower undamaged. In a similar action, it often feeds on the seeds of fruits rather than the pulp.

* The decline of the Purple Finch in the East may be partly explained by competition with the introduced House Finch. In aggressive interactions, the House Finch nearly always wins. A population decline was noted with the introduction of the House Sparrow too, nearly 100 years earlier.

* Two subspecies of the Purple Finch are recognized, a Pacific Coast form and the more widespread form. The Pacific form differs by having a different wing shape and duller colors. The songs differ too, with Eastern birds singing a more leisurely series of warbles spanning a wider range of notes.


Profit Motif in Health Care

As I approach that age when Medicare is available, I am becoming very aware that the system is in desperate straits. The funds available for care are inadequate for present patients, and I hear about doctors turning away Medicare patients because they can't pay the fees the doctors routinely charge for services.

A study released yesterday gives a bleak view of the medical profession, once again reminding me that Dr. Professor Wombat warns often in our chats at eschaton that profit is not an impetus to quality of service in the medical professions.

Medicare costs vary wildly across the country, according to a study that found the government paying twice as much for treating a patient in Miami as in San Francisco.

The dramatic cost differences don't appear connected to climate or to who lives where, and people in the more expensive areas don't get better care.

More expensive medical technology is only part of the picture, according to the report released Wednesday by the Dartmouth Atlas Project, which studies medical resources. The findings were being published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The study said the differences in spending from one area to another can be blamed on decisions made by individual doctors who are influenced by what medical services are available nearby.

"Technology doesn't drive the growth in health care spending, people do," said Dr. Elliott Fisher, the lead study author and a medicine professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice.

Fisher said physicians are not the only issue, but also questions like whether there's a local medical health race among local hospitals or whether a community has a single hospital that is more focused on primary care.
The Dartmouth Atlas findings, drawn from an analysis of government Medicare data from 1992-2006, suggest great inefficiencies in care in some parts of the country. It also says there is plenty of room for reform if practices in the regions of the country that are less expensive could become the national norm.

That won't come easy since the country's medical system frequently rewards expensive practices, the study notes. For example, hospitals lose money if they improve care in a way that reduces admissions. Doctors don't have a financial incentive to spend time carefully listening to a patient rather than quickly referring them to a specialist.

"There are no financial rewards for collaboration, coordination or conservative practice," the study said.

As medical expenses have constituted the cause in about 50% of bankruptcies in this country, the need to restrain those costs is very obvious. Those of us who don't have work provision of insurance are well aware that we are paying exorbitant rates for what may be pretty poor service if we ever need it.

The review of medical care in this country now being performed under President Obama's instigation needs to take a close look at elements driving up costs without any benefits in better service. The U.S. should exit from its present role of the only country among 'civilized' nations that lets its citizens suffer the lack of health care. Bringing our health system into a role of protector of U.S. citizens, from its present role of taking advantage of us, would be a good beginning.

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Our Ms. Brooks: A Legacy

Rosa Brooks provided a startling revelation in her latest column: she is the daughter of Barbara Ehrenreich, one of the three authors who published the satirical article "How to Build Your Own Home H-Bomb" some thirty years ago.

The article, published in Seven Days magazine, was chock-full of helpful tips for would-be nuclear bomb makers. For instance, it advised those struggling to enrich uranium to make "a simple home centrifuge. Fill a standard-size bucket one-quarter full of liquid uranium hexafluoride. Attach a six-foot rope to the bucket handle. Now swing the [bucket] around your head as fast as possible. Keep this up for about 45 minutes."

That spoof re-entered the news recently, and not in a nice way. An admission that he had read the article was one of the key pieces of evidence used to justify the rendition, torture, and detention of Binyam Mohamed at Guantanamo Bay. Mr. Mohamed has finally been released, enabling him to return to Great Britain, but not without what have to be some horrendous scars.

Mohamed, an Ethiopian refugee, moved to Britain with his father in 1994. In June 2001, Mohamed -- then 22 -- traveled to Afghanistan. When the war began there in October 2001, he fled to Pakistan. In April 2002, he tried to fly back to Britain, but his papers weren't in order and he was detained by Pakistani authorities.

According to his lawyers, he was then subjected to brutal interrogation by Pakistani and U.S. agents, who seemed convinced that he was a top Al Qaeda figure in possession of nuclear secrets. They say he was beaten and threatened with death, then "rendered"-- apparently with CIA cooperation -- in July 2002 to Morocco, where interrogators repeatedly slashed his genitals with a scalpel. ...

At some point, they say, Mohamed began to confess to an impressive range of sins. Pressed for details about his purported nuclear know-how, for instance, Mohamed admitted that he had, indeed, once read my mother's article on the Web, but said it was just a spoof.

They didn't get the joke. According to Mohamed's attorneys, who have had access to classified records, the article seems to have been deemed a crucial piece of "evidence" against their client. An intelligence-community game of Telephone ensued, in which Mohamed's "confession" that he'd read up on the manufacture of nuclear weapons was passed along from interrogator to interrogator, until U.S. authorities convinced themselves that Mohamed was part of a dangerous nuclear plot against the United States.

Now, that is bad enough, but there's more. Whether to avoid "political embarrassment" at the sheer dogged stupidity of our obviously misnamed "intelligence" system or whether to keep the details of the shameful practices involved in extraordinary rendition secret, the Bush administration agreed to release Mr. Mohamed only on the condition that none of these facts be revealed. That condition was coupled with some nasty vague threats to withhold further US intelligence from the British if it was not met.

That is despicable, but certainly within keeping with the gang of thugs who ran this country for eight years. What is dismaying is that President Obama apparently has signed off on keeping the details secret. That is not exactly the transparency and the change that we were promised.

I suspect the only way we are going to get the full story of the horrendouse abuses which took place in our name is for 111th Congress to get its investigation into these matter in full gear.

"Political embarrassment."


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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Froomkin Chat

For those of you who didn't check in at the chat with Dan Froomkin today, there were a few significant statements he made there, that I wanted you to see;

(Q:) Farmington Hills, Mich.: Dan,

I have to say that I don't care for the new column format. It seems harder to read all your posts and the flow of the blog is really interrupted for me. I like the old way better, but who know maybe I'll get used to this.

After hearing Obama's speech yesterday I'm wondering if you believe he has the ability to change conservative thinking to accept government as long as it is good government. Can he move us beyond ideology in regards to the size of government and make us more pragmatic? Do you see this change happening or are the dividing lines too entrenched?

Dan Froomkin: As for your comment on the format, thanks. Perhaps we'll meet half way or something.

Your question is an excellent one. Certainly, there's no evidence yet that the Republican leadership is the least bit interested in moving beyond ideology at this point. They see Obama's pragmatism as liberalism in sheep's clothing -- and they aren't entirely wrong. And consider that contempt for government is sort of a hallmark of modern Republican politics.

But I also think it's possible that Obama is shifting the political center while the Republican leadership isn't looking. And that might spell real trouble for them.
(Q:)Shepherdstown, W.V.: Dan - Always enjoy your analysis, and I thought your posting about the speech was quite accurate. My question is, did you see the president talking with Sen. Shelby (R-Ala.)? Do you think he apologized to President Obama for casting doubts on his U.S. citizenship? That appears to be an issue that just won't die - I saw on a blog that some soldier is suing for the right to examine the birth certificate. I mean, gimme a break!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Obama apparently doesn't take any of that stuff personally. Which I just don't get. But I think it serves him extremely well.


(Q:)But I also think it's possible that Obama is shifting the political center... : I think this is a great point, Dan. The MSM and the cable shows keep focusing on the fact that Obama is not getting much support from Republicans. They don't seem to connect that with the fact that there are demonstrably fewer Republicans than in the past and that the further away from Capitol Hill you get, the more Republicans you do find willing to give Obama some support.

He's already got the Dems and, most importantly, independents. Even with just a few Republicans supporting him, Obama and his party are developing a strong base from which to govern and win future elections.

Dan Froomkin: I think you may be correct, but I think any such reality will take a long time to penetrate the Beltway. The inside-the-Beltway mentality seems inimically linked to cable TV -- and cable TV shows no signs of adjusting its practice of "balancing" everything along the Bush-era right-left axis.

(Q:) San Jose, Calif.: Hi Dan,

You haven't skipped a beat since the new administration came to the beltway. Keep up the good work.

What do you make of the things, national security matters in particular, on which the Obama Administration has NOT changed course from the previous administration? Specifically, the two court cases happening in my neck of the woods: the case of Jeppeson, the CIA contractor accused of planning extraordinary rendition flights and the case of the telecoms and their immunity to their possible involvement in a conspiracy to violate the fourth amendment, both of which the new justice department is taking the same position as the old justice department--they threaten national security secrets. Both plaintiffs' claims are legitimate, and in the case the telecoms, the judge is already questioning the constitutionality of the telecom immunity law. Your coverage of these cases has been great, but it seem that perhaps too much focus has been on what Obama is doing differently, and more focus should be on what is the same, and why.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I am, bluntly, shocked. I don't get it. And you know what else I don't get? Why they aren't explaining their position. Where's the vaunted transparency?

I weighed in on some of those issues here.

There's a theory which is that the Obama folks are just trying to buy a little time to firm up their positions, but that theory is wearing thin.

He also agreed with a lot of bloggers that on Saturday Night Live he expects Gov. Jindal will be portrayed well by Kenneth Ellen Parcell ("Kenneth the Page") from 30 Rock

The question and answer format occasionally gives the reporter/commenter a reason to say things that he/she doesn't have occasion to say in regular columns, and I thought Dan Froomkin had a few things of that nature in this section. I like the observation that GoPerv leadership looks like they're falling into a very big, wide open trap by begging for bipartisanship and slapping it down when it's offered.

Another point he makes is an unpleasant one, but I'm glad he made it. While I want to see President Obama doing everything I like to see, I have to admit I am like Froomkin, kind of shocked that he hasn't turned around the outlandish DOJ position on secrecy in the Gitmo/torture trials. I want this to change, too.

In other comments today at WaPo, there were hilarious ones when the article came out to the effect that earnings have declined 77%. You know I weighed in. And I'm sure you all know I said that the decline is well earned.

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Real World Finances

The scenic disarray of the Party of Nope was an astonishment to many as last night's rousing address by President Obama was followed by a specious rationale for more tax cuts by LA Gov. Jindal. It is past tense in every way, as eight years have shown even the doddering recidivist element that tax cuts aren't working, don't work, and won't work in the future.

Refreshingly enough, this morning NYT has an article that gives an honest admission of reality, calling for the tax hike that must come to pay for our present spending. Writing it out of the budget didn't avoid paying for the stupid war on the Middle East. Borrowing from China didn't pay for the huge subsidies to failed financial institutions.

We have reality back in the saddle with our month-old Democratic administration. The return of reality means that all the fantasies have to be paid for now.

Toward the end of Monday’s meetings on fiscal responsibility at the White House, Senator Kent Conrad stood up and produced a little bolt of honesty. “Revenue is the thing almost nobody wants to talk about,” said Mr. Conrad, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “But I think if we’re going to be honest with each other, we’ve got to recognize that is part of a solution as well.

Mr. Conrad’s frankness was delivered in the cryptic language of budget experts, and many people might have missed the point. So allow me to translate:

Your taxes are going up.

They will probably go up in the coming decade, and the increase will be permanent. For a half-century, federal taxes have remained fairly constant relative to the size of the American economy — equal to about 18 percent of gross domestic product. But the 18 percent era has to end soon.

It won’t end because President Obama is some radical tax and spender, either. It will end because of a basic economic reality.

Americans have made it clear that they want a certain kind of government, one that can field a strong military and also maintain popular programs like Medicare. Yet we are not paying nearly enough taxes to maintain those programs. Even major changes to the health care system — the single most important step for closing the budget gap — will not close it entirely. Taxes must rise, too.

This is a point on which serious Democrats and serious Republicans agree, even if they do so with euphemism. “We are on an unsustainable path,” says Peter Orszag, Mr. Obama’s budget director. Judd Gregg, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, has said, “Revenues are going to have to go up.” Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Dan Crippen, budget experts who advised the McCain campaign, have quietly acknowledged the same.

Fortunately, the coming tax increase does not have to be economically ruinous. Despite all the scary stories you’ve heard, the evidence that higher taxes necessarily cripple an economy is somewhere between thin and nonexistent.

When over the past 60 years did the American economy grow fastest? The 1950s and 1960s, when the top marginal tax rate was a now-unthinkable 90 percent. And when over the past generation did the economy grow fastest? The late 1990s, when President Bill Clinton briefly took federal taxes to 20 percent of the G.D.P.
(Emphasis added.)

This is a subject mentioned in the cab before, under the name of Sharing the Responsibility. For too long, the right wing has convinced business interests that they can shovel their buden onto the consumer, the same consumer they expect to support them again in the stores where their goods are sold. To no sane person's surprise, that hasn't worked out. We are in economic meltdown, because the consumers have been played like the goose laying golden eggs. The ones killing the goose haven't got any more of those golden eggs to go in their bank accounts.

The public has been showing a great deal of rational behavior and opinion lately. It is good timing to let them know now, that a return to prosperity will necessitate responsible financing. The money fairy - a.k.a. 'pony' - was made up by the past occupier of the White House, and never existed. We are the source of our prosperity, and putting ourselves back to work will work the magic we want. Paying for things has come back onto the table.

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Making Sausage: How You Can Help

Yesterday at Eschaton, seemingly out of nowhere, the Master of Bobblespeak, Culture of Truth, began listing some of the bills that have been introduced into the House of Representatives. A few were rather telling, among them multiple bills making it unlawful to relocate detainees currently being held at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp to specific states. Just a little GOP NIMBYism for the folks back at home.

One, however, particularly caught my eye because it dealt with torture: H.R. 893. The bill, which is an amendment to the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, is short and straightforward. Here's the most pertinent part:

(a) In General- No person in the custody or under the effective control of the United States shall be subject to any treatment or technique of interrogation not authorized by and listed in the United States Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations.

This is important for a number of reasons. It means that any person being detained by the US ("under the effective control of the United States") anywhere is covered. Whether in Guantanamo Bay or Bagram, the detained may not be waterboarded or tortured. When the US Supreme Court held that the detainees at Guantanamo were entitled to basic human rights, including habeas corpus, several detainees were shifted by the Bush administration to Bagram, which it hoped put them out of the reach of the Supreme Court ruling.

Next, the amendment is directed not only to the military, which would obviously by bound by the US Army Field Manual, but also to any other agency, including the CIA. As I posted recently, President Obama and members of his administration are doing a little backpedaling on his promise to end torture as an interrogation technique, suggesting, among other things, that maybe the CIA might need a different set of guidelines. This bill would foreclose that hinted-at exception.

The bill is a good one and puts the President into the position of executing a law he promised during his campaign or of openly breaking his promise, something I don't think this president is going to be willing to do on such an issue as torture. The trick is going to be getting the bill through Congress without a lot of tampering. This is where we come in.

The current status of the bill is that it has been referred to the appropriate committees, the Committee on Armed Services (chaired by Ike Skelton, D-MO) and the Committee on the Judiciary (chaired by John Conyers, D-MI).

One of the most remarkable tools for tracking legislation is Thomas, which not only gives the text of bills and their status, but also links to the various committees and their addresses, phone and fax numbers, as well as their membership.

So, here's the link to the Armed Services Committee and here's the one to the Judiciary Committee. Now would be a good time to send a politely worded letter/fax/email to the chair of each committee urging prompt action on the bill. If one of your congress critters is on the committee, a phone call to the local office suggesting the same is also in order.

Why do this now, so early in the process? Well, it's in committee that bills get marked up, altered, added to. This bill, a simple amendment, doesn't require any such messing-up. If we get in now and make it clear that this is the bill we want, there just might be less chance of said messing-up. It also will let the committee members know that voters are paying attention to what they do and will hold them accountable.

Do it. You'll feel better, and so will I.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Merkins Acting Downright Rational

Just in time for tonight's State of the Union address, a few polls are showing that the elections did indeed mean something. The progressive point of view is working out for us, and Americans being polled this last week like it.

Dan Froomkin reports on the latest WaPo/ABC poll; results just in.

President Obama goes into tonight's big event in a commanding position, despite the enormous challenges he and the country face.

He is vastly more popular than the members of Congress he is addressing, and the American public strongly supports the policies he has advanced so far.

In fact, two new polls show not only that Americans are resoundingly behind him, but that they want his political opponents to back down and let him govern.

On the issue of bipartisanship, something of an inside-the-Beltway obsession, the public actually thinks Obama has gone too far, while Republicans haven't gone far enough. According to the New York Times/CBS News Poll, a whopping 79 percent of Americans think working in a bipartisan way is more important for Republicans than sticking to their party's policies. By contrast, 56 percent think it's more important for Obama to stick to the policies he campaigned on than to reach out.

Obama's approval rating is dropping slightly because support from Republicans is plummeting. But overall, the numbers suggest that the Republican Party's decision to redefine itself in opposition to Obama and his stimulus package may simply accelerate its transformation to a regional party without much of a national foothold.
Americans put far more faith in Obama than in congressional Republicans: Sixty-one percent said they trust Obama more than the GOP on economic matters; 26 percent side with the Republicans in Congress. On that question, Obama's advantage is bigger than George W. Bush, Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush ever had over the opposition party in the legislature.

"Overall, Democrats maintain an edge of nearly 2 to 1 over Republicans as the party that Americans prefer to confront 'the big issues' over the next few years."

It really looks as if the drooling dolt that our right wing elements seem always to be addressing has slipped off under the rocks they should stay under. I look forward to an intelligent SOTU for the first time since Clinton gave them. What a wonderful event, that and seeing in poll numbers that my fellow citizens are acting like adults with brains.

Things look good. Too bad it took financial catastrophe to bring this out. I would have much preferred that torture had been the final straw for us all.

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Voting Rights

Long, long ago there was a young country writing a Constitution. At the time there was little communication, and it took a day to get to Mt. Vernon from the District of Columbia. Under those circumstances, it appeared that the capitol area should be specially designated as a district while the other areas were granted statehood, so that undue influence wouldn't be conferred by the immediate environs of the capitol and government. Residents of D.C. were denied the vote by our original U.S. Constitution, as were women and descendants of slaves.

The U.S. Senate is scheduled to debate giving the District of Columbia a voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives next week (ed.note; written Feb. 16). Delegate Eleanor Homes Norton (D-DC) has told reporters that she believes the votes are there to pass the legislation. The Obama fever gripping the Congress during President Barack Obama's 'honeymoon' period may be enough to propel the bill to passage.

Obama's recent opponent, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has declared he believes such legislation would be unconstitutional because the District of Columbia is not a state. Residents of the District gained the Presidential vote with passage of the 23rd Amendment however lack voting representation in Congress.

For most of us today the lack of a vote would be a cause of real consternation. For residents of D.C. it is an anachronistic denial of basic citizens' rights. It has deteriorated into a right wing issue to deny the vote to D.C. - because the residents are overwhelmingly Democratic in affiliation.

This week the vote for citizens residing in D.C. comes again to a vote in Congress. Fortunately, the party of Nope is out of control, in this sense in a good way. This would seem like good time to get beyond the errors of the writers of the original Constitution, and confer the rights of citizenship on D.C. residents. Incidentally, even Ken Starr admits that the Constitution is invalid as an excuse for denying voting rights to D.C.

The right wing has used redistricting, that trammeled on long established traditions, to deny rights to citizens in my home state of Texas. This last refuge of scoundrels will be revived in the D.C. citizenship vote, under the guise of preserving the Constitution. As we have observed all too closely over the past eight years, the Constitution is of absolutely no concern to wingers when it gets in the way of their ideology. The previous occupier of the White House ignored it to make war without justification, and in whittling away at individual rights, the rule of law and the role of the President, which is to execute the laws. To use the Constitution as a basis to keep a longstanding right to the vote from this country's citizens is a new height of hypocrisy.

The vote is a basic right. This Congress should extend that right to the District of Columbia.

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An Obvious Answer

On occasion, the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times gets it right, and yesterday was one of those occasions. It called for President Obama to cut through the legal entanglements tying the Uighurs being held wrongfully in Guantanamo Bay to their cells by granting them political asylum in the US.

I posted back in October (here and here) on the plight of these men who were snatched up in Afghanistan where they had gone for training in the use of arms. It quickly became clear even to the CIA and Pentagon that these men were not enemy combatants, but once they landed in Guantanamo Bay, they were stuck there, presumably forever.

Their cases were among the first to be heard by the District Court of Appeals after the US Supreme Court ruled that the detainees were entitled to habeas corpus hearings. The trial judge granted their writ and ordered them released, but the Bush administration promptly filed for a stay while they appealed the order. Recently, a three-judge panel ruled that the trial judge did not have the legal authority to order the release (which, in my opinion, is as strained a ruling as I've seen in a good while), so the Uighurs are once again sitting in their cells.

Here is what the LAT editorial had to say:

The detainees are Uighurs, a minority of Turkic origin living in western China. They were taken to Guantanamo in 2002 after being captured in Pakistan, where they had relocated after receiving firearms training in Afghanistan related, they said, to their resistance to Chinese oppression. Once it was clear that their continued imprisonment was unnecessary, the Bush administration tried to persuade some nation other than China -- where they might have faced persecution -- to accept them, but that task was complicated by the reluctance of several countries to alienate Beijing. Meanwhile, the Uighurs languish in what passes for luxury accommodations at Guantanamo.

A federal judge ruled in October that, given the government's failure to relocate them, the Uighurs must be released and allowed to remain in the United States. The government appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and last week the court decided that the judiciary couldn't approve the release because immigration decisions are the preserve of Congress and the president. Sympathy for the Uighurs' long confinement, Senior Judge Arthur Raymond Randolph wrote for the three-judge panel, isn't "a legal basis for upsetting settled law and overriding the prerogatives of the political branches." ...

...even under the appeals court decision, there is a way to redress this injustice. President Obama, who has been adamant about ending abuses at Guantanamo, can order Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to grant political asylum to the 17 Uighur detainees. That would accomplish what the appeals court refused to order: just compensation for their ordeal.

The suggested response is the right one and circumvents all of the nonsense of further appeals and delays. At the initial hearing, it was made clear that there were American sponsors to take in all of these men, so it isn't like they would be simply cut loose in a country far from their own where they faced persecution and so could not return.

Please email President Obama and urge him to make this simple humanitarian gesture. He promised he would close the Guantanamo Prison camp. Removing 19 prisoners from it would make keeping that promise just that much easier. It also would be the right thing to do.

Oh, and Los Angeles Times, nicely done.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Governors Refuse Possibility of Success

Governor Perry in TX is still claiming he may well refuse stimulus unemployment payments because it will mean adding part time workers to the unemployment benefits paid. He joins Gov. Sanford, Gov. Jindal, Gov. Barbour and a few others whose interests are not served by ending the economic meltdown. In two years, they claim, when the funds are finished from this particular legislation, that would add to their states' expenses.

Do I hear rational readers asking about why refuse added income now because something might possibly happen in two years? That seems pretty farfetched to anyone who looks back over the past two years and sees that the same right wing refuseniks were saying up until about four months ago that the 'fundamentals were sound', and praising the great job growth that the last eight years had brought about. What will happen two years from now is no more likely to look like what these poor prognosticators predicted than anything from two years back.

Of course, if you worked at the Wall Street Journal, you would be accepting that prediction of dire effects as gospel truth. That's what you get paid to do.

Debt-laden state governments were supposed to be the big winners from the $787 billion economic stimulus bill. But at least five Republican Governors are saying thanks but no thanks to some of the $150 billion of "free" money doled out to states, because it could make their budget headaches much worse down the line. And they're right. (Emphasis added.)

The possibility, two years from now, that the emergency will still exists presumes success of the wingers' efforts to stave off economic recovery. Just as they predicted success of McCain/Palin in the last election, this requires a reading of events that ignores facts, and demands irrational behavior by the rest of the country as well.

The writer goes sailing merrily on as if no reader might at this point be saying 'give us a break'. Perhaps the readership has been culled of anyone intelligent enough at this point to see that governors grandstanding against the elected president of all the people might just be making ridiculous and unlikely predictions so that they can excuse their own actions against their states' and the nation's interest.

The governor makes the point for the WSJ writer, however; Mr. Perry sent a letter to President Obama last week warning that Texas may refuse certain stimulus funds. "If this money expands entitlements, we will not accept it. This is exactly how addicts get hooked on drugs," he says.

That wicked entitlement getting kicked down the road will of course be picked up by the state legislature under a provision written in by a cagey Rep. Clyburn, who slipped a little-noticed provision into the stimulus bill giving state legislatures the power to overrule Governors and spend the money "by means of the adoption of a concurrent resolution." Most state legislatures are versions of Congress; they can't say no to new spending. Note that the WSJ writer assumes you are every bit as unwilling to see benefits going to those not in the top .01% of the wealthy as he and the recalcitrant governors are.

As Diane and I have both been pointing out, the 'entitlement' mantra has become the cry off class warriors fighting against the stimulus plan that proposes to bring some of the vanquished prosperity back into our economy by giving consumers the wherewithal to consume. The wicked effects of letting working people life is earnestly being opposed by the marshalled forces of the right wing.

If the stimulus plan fails, we have the recidivists who oppose living wages to thank. If it succeeds, they will be sure to scramble to the front of the line grappling for entitlements for themselves, and credit for success.

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Ruling Against the Supremes

First, thank you all for the good conversation, and 250,000 hits as of this morning. This was a happy blogiversary, but I am not the 'better half'.
The disturbing tendencies shown by the Supreme Court as presently constituted has given new force to growing need to bring the court into a better form for its functions. As the third branch of government, the Supreme Court has the charge of wielding the laws and giving them form. As it presently functions, this Supreme Court has ruled to a great degree to impose free market and anti-woman's rights views on the country.

In Ledbetter, the Supremes showed that a woman's rights were subordinate to business interests and used a completely irrational basis for their ruling. Specifically, a woman was subject to wage discrimination if she could not do the impossible; find out what her peers were being paid within 90 days of being hired.

In ruling against a hypothetical 'partial birth abortion' procedure, the Supremes declared themselves uber-doctors. They declared that a woman's health had to be subjected to the need to preserve the fetus's life if the medical procedure dictated by particular circumstances necessitated extracting a fetus with as little strain as possible to the woman concerned. Needless to say, no one would choose abortion as birth control, least of all the procedure that the Supremes decided they had medical knowledge of - above that of medical practitioners. Yet the Supremes felt that to carry out the country's laws dictated that they should become practitioners of obstetrics. Doctors have a new force to fear, as the Supremes enter into making decisions that should be based on individual medical necessity.

The majority on the Supreme Court is at present composed of religious doctrine advocates who have warped the law of the land toward a view of legality that is antithetical to the interests of the U.S. They are dominated by a group of relatively youthful ideologues, and that forms a real threat to the country's national health.

A review of the Court's mandate by a group of prominent law professors and jurists organized by Duke University law professor Paul D. Carrington has concluded that changes need to be made in the interests of continuing rational government.

...the group proposes a form of term limits, moving justices to senior status after 18 years on the court. The proposal says that justices now linger so long that it diminishes the likelihood that the court's decisions "will reflect the moral and political values of the contemporary citizens they govern."

To get around the Constitution's prescription that justices serve for life, the group would let justices stay on the court in a senior role -- filling in on a case, perhaps, or dispatched to lower courts -- or lure them into retirement with promises of hefty bonuses.

It would set up a regular rotation on the court by providing for the nomination of a new justice by the president with each new two-year term of Congress. If that results in more than the current nine justices, only the nine most junior would hear cases.

The new policy would not take effect until those already on the court are off, but the current tenure of the court suggests what a radical change that would be. Four of the court's justices -- John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and David H. Souter -- have already surpassed the 18-year mark, and Clarence Thomas gets there later this year. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer are not far behind.

University of Chicago professor Eric Posner said the Constitution's call for lifetime appointments is one element of American democracy that is never copied by other countries, perhaps because "it is very undemocratic."

"People who wield an enormous amount of power should not have lifetime appointments," Posner said.

Relatedly, the group calls for the justice who serves as chief to be limited to seven years in the job, because it has "extended into numerous other political, administrative and non-judicial roles calling for a measure of special accountability."

The third proposal deals with the removal of justices in failing health "who are increasingly prone to remain in office and retain their political power even if no longer able to perform their office."

It did not name names. But it said the chief justice should have the duty of advising such a justice to resign and promptly report that fact to the Judicial Conference of the United States (if the chief is the one in question, it falls to other justices to report him).

And the proposal would deprive the justices of one of their greatest powers: deciding which cases they hear. Justices now comb through the thousands of petitions for certiorari they receive each year, and in recent years have declared a declining portion of them worthy of their time.

The court issued 67 merit opinions last term, the lowest number since the 1950s. The number of cases the court will decide this term is a bit higher.

"It is increasingly difficult to justify absolute independence for justices whose chief work is expressing and imposing on the public laws on topics of their choice," the proposal said.

It envisions a "Certiorari Division" made up of senior justices and appellate judges who would review the petitions and send 80 to 100 each year for the Supreme Court to decide, whether it wanted to or not.

The illness that Justice Ginsburg has been suffering indicates that a new appointment may be coming up. The proposed new justice would replace one of the greatest progressives on the court, and not improve prospects for a new rational face on the court as a whole. That decisions have shown decidedly right wing prejudices bodes ill for the present, taking the Supremes back into a mindset that its American constituency has rejected.

We are poorly served by the minority, regressive, views now shown by the Supreme Court in its rulings. The proposed future changes might head off such an emergency recurring. Unfortunately, that will not improve the prospects of continued injustice in the coming decade, at least. The effects of a really horrible presidency threaten to remain with us for some time to come.

A recall petition may become a consideration if present injustices continue.

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Sometimes Screaming Works

Both Ruth and I, along with many other bloggers, have been pointing out that the last thing President Obama and the 111th Congress needs to do is mess with Social Security. Ruth pointed out yesterday that to refer to Social Security as an "entitlement" is to frame the argument in favor of those conservatives who see the program as a give-away to the ne'er-do-wells who weren't smart enough to save for retirement. It also ignores the fact that people like Ruth and I have been paying into Social Security for over 40 years. We willingly participated in the insurance policy because we knew those premiums would be used to protect the generation before us. We counted on the next generation to do the same for us, and they are.

Social Security is not broken. Even the direst of forecasts shows complete solvency for at least 30 more years, and that's without cutting benefits or raising the cap on payroll payments into the fund. Why is President Obama even thinking about Social Security as a troubled program?

Apparently he is beginning to change his thinking, and that is a hopeful sign.

Mr. Obama considered announcing the formation of a Social Security task force at a White House “fiscal responsibility summit” that he will convene on Monday. But several Democrats said that idea had been shelved, partly because of objections from House and Senate leaders.

The president signaled in his campaign that he would support addressing the retirement system’s looming financing shortfall, in part by applying payroll taxes to incomes above $250,000. But that would ignite intense opposition from Republicans, especially with the economy deep in recession.

Liberal Democrats are already serving notice that they will be equally vehement in opposing any reductions in scheduled benefits for future retirees. But any solution, budget analysts said, must include a mix of both approaches, though current beneficiaries would see no change. ...

Social Security still runs a surplus, and its reserves will not be exhausted until 2041, after which enough payroll taxes will come in to cover 78 percent of benefits, according to the 2008 annual report of the program trustees. Medicare, by contrast, requires big infusions from general revenues each year; its hospital trust fund is already running annual deficits and will be exhausted by 2019.
[Emphasis added]

Unnamed budget analysts be damned: there is no reason to cut benefits. There may be a good reason to lift the cap above its current levels at some point down the road, but, again, this program is not broken. I think what worries our congress critters on both sides of the aisle is that program's surplus won't be available to tap into the next time some glorious bit of pork begins to interest them.

That said, however, I do recognize that Medicare and Medicaid programs are in trouble and do need attention, but that attention shouldn't be couched in terms of cutting benefits to those who need and deserve them. Health care costs in general should be a priority for this administration. That is not the same thing as real benefits.

One area that needs some focus is that of Medicare fraud. Ronnie Bennett had an an excellent post on the issue just last week. If the federal authorities went after the fraudsters in durable medical equipment and the cappers who take advantage of gullible elders the way the last administration went after "voter fraud," we could save at least a billion or two annually for the Medicare and Medicaid programs. She cites a 1997 study that found ”…for every dollar spent to investigate and prosecute health care fraud in civil cases, the federal government receives $15 dollars back in return.”

So, enough of this nonsense about "fixing Social Security."


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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sunday Poetry: Pablo Neruda

Cat's Dream

How neatly a cat sleeps,
sleeps with its paws and its posture,
sleeps with its wicked claws,
and with its unfeeling blood,
sleeps with all the rings--
a series of burnt circles--
which have formed the odd geology
of its sand-colored tail.

I should like to sleep like a cat,
with all the fur of time,
with a tongue rough as flint,
with the dry sex of fire;
and after speaking to no one,
stretch myself over the world,
over roofs and landscapes,
with a passionate desire
to hunt the rats in my dreams.

I have seen how the cat asleep
would undulate, how the night
flowed through it like dark water;
and at times, it was going to fall
or possibly plunge into
the bare deserted snowdrifts.
Sometimes it grew so much in sleep
like a tiger's great-grandfather,
and would leap in the darkness over
rooftops, clouds and volcanoes.

Sleep, sleep cat of the night,
with episcopal ceremony
and your stone-carved moustache.
Take care of all our dreams;
control the obscurity
of our slumbering prowess
with your relentless heart
and the great ruff of your tail.

Pablo Neruda

(Translated by Alastair Reid)

An Interesting Sign

It's the weekend, so I made my weekly trek over to Watching America. Lots of international discussion about the global economy with lots of pointed fingers, many in our direction, but that may just be the site's bias this week.

One article that wasn't about the global meltdown came from China View, an English language newspaper published in China and carried by Xinhua for the internet. The tag at the top of the page is interesting "China View: Publicize China, Report the World." That certainly does give a clear notice of the paper's intent.

The article I was interested in had to do with a possible partnership between the US and China on combating climate change and is an interview with an American professor.

Although the U.S.-China relationship has made much progress in the past 30 years, mutual mistrust over each other's long-term intentions remains deep, said Professor Kenneth Lieberthal from the University of Michigan.

But now there is an opportunity for the two countries to increase mutual trust through the cooperation on climate change, Lieberthal said in a recent interview with Xinhua. ...

Such cooperation would yield several important results, including making it easier for both governments to be more effective in promoting climate change measures domestically, he said.

Secondly, "the effective cooperation will focus on the broader issue of clean energy," he said. "Finally, I think there will have a very good effect on the global negotiations in helping to bridge the differences between the industrialized world and the developing world as a whole."

"So I think there are a lot of very serious benefits to the U.S.-China cooperation on climate change," said Lieberthal.

Through full and effective cooperation on clean energy and related climate change issues, "we can build the kind of long-term trust," he said.

This is essentially the position suggested by Secretary of State Clinton during her recent tour of Asia, so it's clear that the interview of Professor Lieberthal was timely. What is so interesting is that the interview actually took place and that Xinhua is plumping it through several Chinese outlets, including an English language one.

Xinhua is part of the carefully managed media that the government keeps a fairly tight grip on so it is entirely possible that China's leaders are willing to work with the US on this global issue in a way that could have a tremendous impact on the problem.

If that's the case, it's good news. Damned good news.

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Those "Entitlements"

It's getting pretty loopy to hear the essentials of our government's services, those things it's there to provide us, maligned as 'entitlements'. Of course, top of the list is social security. I collect social security. In every job I ever held, the money was taken from my paycheck to provide social security. If anyone wants to take that away, it's highway robbery.

This morning, the corporate welfare advocate Fred Hiatt used his undeserved podium at WaPo to persuade the gullible that we're ruining the country by keeping the social contract that is the basis for government. I quote from it extensively, so that you will not need to give WaPo a hit that will prove to Hiatt that he's 'popular', as he concluded from hits in last year's editorial wrap.

PRESIDENT OBAMA says that it's time to stop kicking the can down the road when it comes to dealing with runaway entitlement spending and the grim long-term fiscal picture. This week will put those words to the test.

"We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else's," he told The Post five days before taking office.

Is that about to happen? The signals are mixed, at best. The fiscal responsibility summit that Mr. Obama announced with fanfare has turned into something of a fiscal responsibility improv, a slapdash affair in which invitations were being issued as late as Friday. It seems destined to end up being yet another gabfest about the dire fiscal situation -- albeit a presidential-level gabfest.
There isn't likely to be a repeat of the Bush administration charade of submitting budgets that leave out known, huge costs, such as dealing with the alternative minimum tax. The administration's decision to return to showing a 10-year budgetary path, rather than the Bush administration's five, is another welcome sign of willingness to deal with fiscal reality.

To be clear, we're not talking about making cuts now; the economy needs boosting, and deficit spending is in order. But the large gap between revenue and spending must eventually be closed. Mr. Obama would be wise to use the economic crisis as a reason to rethink some of his campaign promises, such as not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000 a year and to cut taxes further on those making up to $200,000 a year. How can additional tax cuts be affordable given the existing gap between spending and revenue? Likewise, if Mr. Obama is to propose -- and find a way to pay for -- a broad expansion of health insurance, he should reconsider his opposition to changing the preferential tax treatment of employer-provided health insurance. Why should some taxpayers without health insurance subsidize the overly generous policies enjoyed by others?

"This, by the way, is where there are going to be very difficult choices and issues of sacrifice and responsibility and duty," Mr. Obama said with respect to the fiscal challenge. "You have to have a president who is willing to spend some political capital on this. And I intend to spend some." The next several days would be a good time to start.

As usual, comments are much more intelligent than the editorial.

saulfriedman1 wrote:
Pls. Stop with this "entitlement hysteria." There is no problem with Social Security. It's more solid than GM, The Bank of America, CitiGroup, etc. Even if no action is taken SS will be solvent for 40 more years, can the Post Say that?
2/21/2009 9:05:37 PM
Recommended (7)

dennis_donaghey wrote:
A little bit of history to gitarre and dembries is in order: while you talk about how dems spend please keep in mind that the deficit Obama inherited was a gift from 3 presidents, Reagan, Bush and Bush II. So while republicans TALK about "fiscal responsibilty" the ones in power never walk the walk.

Neocon ideas are bankrupt. We will not "remake the middle east", we won't win the war on terror by invading middle east countries, we will only exacerbate the problem.

Of course all of this is way above their heads. All they ever say is "tax cuts" while passing higher and higher defense budgets. While we spend more on defense than the next 45 countries combined, just exactly who are we defending against? You want fiscal responsibilty? Fine, then quit being the "policeman of the world" and focus on reducing tensions around the world.

The biggest problems facing the planet are due to unyielding certainty of the idealogues, both theirs and ours.
2/22/2009 10:54:36 AM
Recommended (1)

My comment:

jocabel wrote:
'Runaway' entitlement spending is WaPo editorialists term, meant to prejudice the rest of the article. I actually was thrilled to think you were about to address real issues with the sentence "the Bush administration charade of submitting budgets that leave out known, huge costs, such as dealing with ..." but instead of the runaway costs of the deranged war, WaPo deluded its readers that the AMT was the big drag on U.S. fiscal sanity. Nope. Readers are again supposed to take the lead of WaPo editorialists and ignore reality. Entitlements like social security are taken out of individual paychecks, and are part of keeping individuals operative and contributing to the economy. Entitlements such as schools, post offices and roads make the nation function. The businesses so favored by WaPo have not done their part, and it has to be done for them, yet WaPo wants government to continue selling out the country to give welfare to the very element that has drained away our prosperity. There are none so blind as those who WILL NOT see. Wrong again.
2/22/2009 4:39:24 AM
Recommended (5)

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Neglecting the Troops

Our troops get lots of praise and attention for their service, and we hope they get just rewards. I haven't been one, so I don't know what their lives are like. I do know I have heard a few times about our troops having to go on public assistance to take care of their families. The pay must not be great. Now I discover that when they have a need and go to their own established assistance organization, their needs are not a big factor in that operation either.

There is, I find, Army Emergency Relief (AER), a charitable operation under the Army's auspices, that gets donations from the troops and interested parties. That AER is supposed to exist for the purpose of helping out in time of need. Mysteriously, there is much more reserved for the AER in savings than ever is given out in aid. An Associated Press report found some really sad facts in investigating the AER and its use by our troops.

As soldiers stream home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the biggest charity inside the U.S. military has been stockpiling tens of millions of dollars meant to help put returning fighters back on their feet, an Associated Press investigation shows.
Between 2003 and 2007 — as many military families dealt with long war deployments and increased numbers of home foreclosures — Army Emergency Relief grew into a $345 million behemoth. During those years, the charity packed away $117 million into its own reserves while spending just $64 million on direct aid, according to an AP analysis of its tax records.

Tax-exempt and legally separate from the military, AER projects a facade of independence but really operates under close Army control. The massive nonprofit — funded predominantly by troops — allows superiors to squeeze soldiers for contributions; forces struggling soldiers to repay loans — sometimes delaying transfers and promotions; and too often violates its own rules by rewarding donors, such as giving free passes from physical training, the AP found.

Founded in 1942, AER eases cash emergencies of active-duty soldiers and retirees and provides college scholarships for their families. Its emergency aid covers mortgage payments and food, car repairs, medical bills, travel to family funerals, and the like.

Instead of giving money away, though, the Army charity lent out 91 percent of its emergency aid during the period 2003-2007. For accounting purposes, the loans, dispensed interest-free, are counted as expenses only when they are not paid back.
The Army also exercises its leverage in raising contributions from soldiers. It reaches out only to troops and veterans in annual campaigns organized by Army personnel.

For those on active duty, AER organizes appeals along the chain of command. Low-ranking personnel are typically solicited by a superior who knows them personally.

Spiegel, the AER administrator, said he’s unaware of specific violations but added: ‘‘I spent 29 years in the Army, I know how ... first sergeants operate. Some of them do strong-arm.’’

It's not an economic time when there are a lot of options, and I understand that graduates getting out of schools are getting few offers. As I recently found out, jobs that have been lined up are even falling through as graduation approaches. The military seems like one of the few options many newcomers to employment age have. Making service worthwhile might attract a lot more of those, but that doesn't seem to be an operating principle of the AER.

The effect of its stewardship on the staff of AER appears to have been to make it cherish the money, rather than the troops they're there to serve. The time for a serious overhaul of this kind of uncharitable behavior is now, and should have been sooner. The people who serve this country in our military deserve to get help, not another instance of neglect.

Army Emergency Relief isn't a holding company, and building up a big bank account should never have become its design.

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Obama's Road To Iran

Doyle McManus has provided a rather nice bit of analysis on the new administration's likely approach to Iran. Underlying the column's argument is the assumption that Iran wants nuclear capability for weaponry rather than for the generation of power, and while that may in fact be the case, it is still an assumption. That caveat aside, I am cheered by the fact that President Obama and those he has surrounded himself with are thinking in terms of real-world outcomes to the various options currently available to them.

Most (and maybe all) of Obama's advisors see the costs of attacking Iran as outweighing the benefits. If Iran gets closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, they've warned, military action won't look any more appetizing than it did under George W. Bush.

But that doesn't mean the United States would do nothing. Instead, Obama aides suggested in their writings, the U.S. should pursue a Persian Gulf version of the containment strategy used against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

What would that mean? For starters, a nuclear-capable Iran would face continued, serious pressure from the United States and its allies to dismantle whatever it had built. Obama might declare that a nuclear attack on Israel would be treated as an attack on the U.S. homeland. And the U.S. military would act to bolster Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states against conventional-warfare threats from an emboldened Iranian regime. ...

None of this thinking means Obama has abandoned hope in negotiations to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons. At this point, one official said, the administration is focusing on Plan A, not Plan B. But it's welcome evidence that behind the slogan of hope lies a realistic appraisal of the possible outcomes.

President Obama has more tools to work with than his predecessor because he has made it clear, both during his campaign and after, that he is willing to talk to Iran (and to listen) without any of the insulting preconditions listed by the Bush regime. He also can go to the rest of the world for guidance and assistance without any of the baggage of the last eight years. Europe knows that they are going to be dealing with an American president who has promised an end to unilateralism carried out with bombs. Russia rattled a few sabres and was met with a measured yet firm response. And China, with the drop in energy prices worldwide, does not need to fear angering the mullahs with whom they have negotiated major contracts.

Containment, which Mr. McManus refers to as "the middle way", does appear to be the best the US and the rest of the world can hope for, but it was a successful tactic during the Cold War, and should work as Plan B during these times. Meanwhile, Plan A, open and frank discussions with Iran, should proceed.

It's about time.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: Millipede

(Photo by Zury Benitez and published at National Geographic.)

Whoa, Surprising!

Well, smack me upside the head with a fresh halibut and call me Hanna. A Republican has gone on record for taking a few steps towards normalizing relations with Cuba.

Restrictive U.S. policies toward Cuba are ineffective, have failed to achieve their stated purpose of promoting democracy and should be reevaluated to take advantage of recent political changes on the island, according to the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The views of Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) are appended to a report by minority committee staffers that calls for lifting Bush administration restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, reinstituting formal bilateral cooperation on drug interdiction and migration, and allowing Cuba to buy U.S. agricultural products on credit. Scheduled for release Monday, the report stops short of proposing that the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba be lifted.

I anticipate great amounts of fevered fanning and pearl clutching from some segments of the Grand Ol' Party, but I also think the pragmatists still hanging around in those parts won't be too terribly upset, especially by the part that recommends loosening of the agricultural trade restrictions. And pragmatists in both parties have to be aware that there are some significant shifts on the horizon when it comes to leadership in Cuba as well as shifts in Florida where some of the die hard anti-Fidel forces are also, well, dying out. Now is a terrific time for Congress to review some of these regulations born of unseemly fears over a 50-year-old revolution in a tiny island 90 miles away.

It appears that the first step will have to be taken by Congress, however. Right now, President Obama apparently has his hands full with the economy and Afghanistan. His Secretary of State is doing good things, but she is doing them in Asia, and perhaps for good reason. That region and our economy are, unfortunately, inextricably linked because of the policies of the last eight years.

...Cuba, and Latin America in general, has so far received little attention from the Obama administration amid the turmoil of the economic crisis at home and the Afghan war and other pressing issues abroad. No director for the region has been named within the National Security Council staff, and regional officials at the State Department have remained in place.

At some point, the current administration is going to have to pay attention to our neighbors to the south. This is as good as any way to begin the process, but I think it will take Congress to push them in that direction. And that means, that it will take us to push Congress in that direction.

It's the right thing to do.

And Senator Lugar, thank you.

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Stockyard Squeals

For much of the world, lunch is broken. This week in Nairobi the world held a conference on environment, which concerned itself greatly about food supply. Our news was dominated by a squeal of greed from the former stockyards.

Food supplies are threatened by increasing environmental breakdown, and today we learn that surface water for farming is about to be seriously curtailed in California. In the rest of the West, a drought has lasted for several years. In Kenya this week a conference was held on food supplies worldwide, and the news is bad.

In Nairobi, the UN Environment Program estimated that the world food supply could diminish by close to 25% in the next forty years.

Up to a quarter of global food production could be lost by 2050 due to the combined impact of such problems as climate change, land degradation and water scarcity, the United Nations says.

The fall-off will strike just as 2 billion more people are added to the world's population, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which says cereal yields have stagnated worldwide and fish catches are declining.

In a new report, UNEP says a 100-year trend of falling food costs could be at an end and that last year's sharp price rises have driven 110 million people into poverty.

While we are all realizing the pinch of diminishing investments' values, I doubt that anyone reading this post at this moment is actually hungry. It's all the more troubling then to realize that our news of the day is known to the rest of the world as it confronts real hunger.

We are sending out screams on the floor of Chicago money-trading - screams of demands that poor people have to pay off their sometimes fraudulently obtained mortgages. These are demands made by wealthy traders. We are listening to the whines of governors that they won't accept money from the federal government because it might crimp local autonomies. These are whines from well-fed men in expensive suits. This is the news we are broadcasting to those confronting actual poverty and hunger.

Over half of the food produced globally is lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain, finds a new study by the United Nations Environment Programme released today.

This staggering amount of waste plus environmental degradation is putting an end to a 100-year trend of falling food prices, the study warns. Food prices may increase by 30 to 50 percent within decades, forcing those living in extreme poverty to spend up to 90 percent of their income on food, findings that are supported by a recent report from the World Bank.

The UN report was issued at the UNEP Governing Council and Global Ministerial Environment Forum taking place in Nairobi through Friday. The environment ministers are focused on finding solutions to the world's environmental, financial, food and energy crises through the emerging concept of a green economy.
"The Environmental Food Crisis" report offers seven major recommendations:

1. Regulate food prices and provide safety nets for the impoverished

2. Promote environmentally sustainable higher-generation biofuels that do not compete for cropland and water resources

3. Reallocate cereals used in animal feed to human consumption by developing alternative feeds based on new technology, waste and discards

4. Support small-scale farmers by a global fund for micro-finance in developing diversified and resilient ecoagriculture and intercropping systems

5. Increase trade and market access by improving infrastructure, reducing trade barriers, enhancing government subsidies and safety nets, as well as reducing armed conflict and corruption

6. Limit global warming

7. Raise awareness of the pressures of increasing population growth and consumption patterns on ecosystems.

I listened in only a little while to our new Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner addressing the G7 meeting. He talked about U.S. competitiveness, and a questioner from the African continent asked if the U.S. couldn't frame its views with other concerns than competitiveness. The questioner suggested that shared access might be a healthy consideration.

Does the decrease in resources mean that we are competing for more of them? It shouldn't. Our policies need to be focused instead on making a place for all of the world's people. If we leave the rest of the world hungry while we hoard everything for ourselves, we are being more than immoral. We are inviting a response 'in kind'. Consider the contrast we present the rest of the world when our major news item is a squeal of greed when a large part of this world is concerned about worldwide poverty and hunger.

We can do a lot to assuage problems in the rest of the world, and need to make that our aim. If we befoul the air, it hurts the lungs of people everywhere. If we take up more than our share of the resources of the world, we inspire ugly emotions about our own populace.

A new, caring, attitude has come into the high offices in government with this year's election. That new attitude can go a long way to bringing us to a higher understanding of our role, and making our place in the world one of helping, not hurting.

We can be a better nation for ourselves, our families, and for the world.

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