Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why We Never Get What We Want

Avedon Carol made an astute observation yesterday on why "pragmatism" is just not a useful tool, especially when it comes to such important issues as universal access to health care:

If you are only acting in a "pragmatic" fashion instead of asking for at least what you really want (better to ask for twice as much), you are not gonna get what you want. I want Nye Bevan's healthcare system - you know, "socialized medicine". And maybe if I keep talking about it, at least people will know the difference between single-payer and "socialized medicine". You want single-payer? Maybe if you ask for socialized medicine, they will compromise by giving you single-payer.


Liberals never get what we want because we always come to the bargaining table convinced that what we want is too radical a change, so we have to settle for far less. That's a defeatist bargaining stance, one that guarantees that we will fail at even a baby step towards our goal. It's clear that even the most clear sighted amongst us have been conditioned to this approach, especially on the issue of health care, by all the forces of the market place. From "Harry and Louise" commercials to the editorial pages of major newspapers, the debate has already been framed for us, and we accept that frame.

Sadly, the Sacramento Bee, one of my favorite newspapers (especially on California issues), published an excellent example of that framing. Perhaps the best clue to how the reform of health care access will be treated is given by the title of the op-ed piece: "Should health care reform include the choice of a public insurance plan?"

Not "Should we have a single payer plan," which would mean everyone would be enrolled in a Medicare type system, but rather, "Should this be an option." Right off the bat you know that at least as far as the Bee's editorial board is concerned, that's the most we can hope for.

To further that stance, three viewpoints on that limited approach are presented. The first is authored by Jacob Hacker, professor, University of California, Berkeley, and it details every reason why a single payer system is far preferable to anything else:

Public plan choice simply means making a public health insurance plan modeled roughly after Medicare available to anyone – on the same terms under which other plans are available. The case for public plan choice is simple. First, public health insurance outperforms private insurance in controlling costs while maintaining access and benefits. Second, public insurance has also made major strides in quality improvement, and a new public plan working with Medicare alongside private plans would be able to make much greater strides in the future. Third, a competing public plan is essential to set a benchmark for private plans, providing a "check and balance" to ensure that private plans, as well as the public plan, uphold high standards.

To be "fair and balanced", the piece then presents a response to such a plan: an excerpt of a letter sent to President Obama by Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Charles Grassley of Iowa, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.

Washington-run programs undermine market-based competition through their ability to impose price controls and shift costs to other purchasers. Forcing free-market plans to compete with these government-run programs would create an un-level playing field and inevitably doom true competition. Ultimately, we would be left with a single government-run program controlling all of the market.

And that, my friends, would be a bad thing. After all, the profit motive has served this nation so well in other fields, let's complete the destruction by ginning up the health insurance companies' bottom line.

To complete the cycle, the op-ed then provides what apparently is the favored answer, which is an excerpt from a Len Nichols and John Bertko proposal published at The New America Foundation: "A Modest Proposal for a Competing Public Health Plan".

It is possible to structure a new insurance marketplace so that public and private health plans compete on a level playing field. This will require separating the oversight of the public plan from that of the managers of the marketplace. It will also require that all rules of the marketplace – benefit package requirements, insurance regulations and risk adjustment processes – apply to all plans equally, whether public or private. Finally, this model requires that we address cost growth containment systemically and avoid relying heavily on the public plan's potential market power. In turn, this will require a commitment on the part of policymakers to acquire a health information infrastructure, develop best practice information and encourage realigned incentives that promote high-quality, efficient care for all.

Sure it will. And then I will be able to see a doctor about the sudden eruption of monkeys flying out of my posterior.

Look, the very best plan would be the "socialized medicine" that Avedon prefers, and she's right: that's what we should be demanding, or, at the very least, asking for. We don't have to buy into the frame that we can't exclude private insurers because, um, that would be bad and possibly unAmerican. When people tell us that a single payer program won't work, all we have to do is point to Medicare, which for all of its alleged problems is still more efficient and better run than any private insurance plan.

Enough of this caving before we even sit down to negotiate.


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Monday, March 30, 2009

Who Really Runs Congress

Yesterday, I posted on the role lobbyists play in the California state legislature. Today, in a disconcerting bit of synchronicity, the NY Times published an article on the looming legal troubles of lobbyist Paul Magliocchetti (described as a "protege" of Democratic Congressman John P. Murtha). The article suggests that Mr. Magliocchetti just might be another from the Jack Abramoff line of corrupting lobbyists.

...many on Capitol Hill, recalling the scandal that mushroomed around the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, are wondering who else will be ensnared in the investigation as prosecutors pore over the financial records and computer files of one of K Street’s most influential lobbyists, known both for the billions of dollars in earmarks he obtained for his clients and for his open hand toward those he sought to influence.

Former PMA staff members familiar with the inquiry say prosecutors’ initial questions have focused on the possibility that Mr. Magliocchetti used straw campaign contributors — a Florida sommelier and a golf club executive, for example, appear to have given large sums in coordination with PMA — as a front to funnel illegal donations to friendly lawmakers, a felony that could carry a minimum sentence of five years.

More alarming to lawmakers and aides, however, is that prosecutors may turn their attention to the dinners at the Alpine and Capital Grille or other gifts they might have accepted from Mr. Magliocchetti — potential violations of longstanding Congressional ethics rules that could lead to more serious bribery charges if linked to official acts.

Mr. Magliocchetti developed his own niche in the lobbying world, one he prepared for while working as a Navy budget analyst for a Congressional subcommittee.

Mr. Magliocchetti helped pioneer the lucrative specialty of helping contractors lobby for military earmarks, the several billion dollars in pet spending items that members of the panel insert in annual spending bills, often with little oversight.

Earmarks: those nasty little add-ons to bills that never go through the regular budgetary process before the floor vote. Most congress critters aren't even aware of their existence as they vote, and often with the military earmarks even the Pentagon is surprised by the largess, some of which they neither need nor desire.

Another Abramoff? It's hard to tell at this point of the investigation, but one thing is clear. This scandal might involve Democrats as much as the Abramoff scandal involved Republicans. And to that I say good! Political stripe doesn't matter when this kind of corruption is involved.

At some point those who are elected to serve in Congress have got to get the message that their job doesn't involve expensive dinners and gifts from wealthy businessmen for which they pay in the coin of the taxpayer dollar. If it takes a scandal and some convictions to drive that message home, then so be it.

Maybe then we can remove earmarks from the congressional lexicon and the legislative process.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday Poetry: Dorothy Parker

Daylight Saving

My answers are inadequate
To those demanding day and date
And ever set a tiny shock
Through strangers asking what's o'clock;
Whose days are spent in whittling rhyme-
What's time to her, or she to Time?

Dorothy Parker

Who Really Runs California

Today's Sacramento Bee has a lengthy article on how special interests and their lobbyists get their way in state government. The graphic accompanying the article lists the spending of some of those special interests, and the totals for a single state are rather staggering. What is even more staggering is how successful those special interests have been.

Special interests spent a record $553 million lobbying California state government in the past two years.

For them, it was money well spent.

Makers of chemical fire- retardants poured in more than $9 million to kill a ban on fire-proofing chemicals in furniture that consumer groups say cause cancer.

The Morongo Band of Mission Indians used $4.39 million to muscle through a gambling deal to let the tribe add thousands of lucrative new slot machines to its casino.

The oil industry spent more than $10.5 million to influence the Legislature and state agencies. A 2007 industry association report touted that even in a Democratic-controlled Legislature, "of the 52 bills identified as priorities (in 2007), only three that we opposed were approved by the Legislature."

Of those three, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed two.

And that money doesn't just go towards wining and dining legislators or taking them to the Sacramento Kings basketball games. A lot of it is directed to mass mailing, television commercials, and full page newspaper ads:

When retail lobbying is not enough, well-heeled interests have the resources to mobilize public relations campaigns – or at least threaten to do so – to ratchet up the pressure.

In early 2007, the Morongo tribe was telling every reporter and lawmaker within earshot of the Capitol that it had allotted $20 million for a PR offensive to win its battle for more slot machines.

The tribe vowed a statewide TV blitz, 500,000 pieces of direct mail, phone calls and even a door-knocking campaign in the districts of the 10 Democrats on the Assembly's gambling committee.

It appeared to be a "shock-and-awe"- scale effort to press for its gambling expansion aimed at majority Democrats. One lawmaker called the tribe out for bullying tactics.

As it turned out, the tribe spent only $3.5 million that quarter, according to financial disclosures filed months later. But the message had been sent – the tribe had the resources to alter the political playing field in Sacramento. Its casino expansion was approved.

The threat worked on this specific issue, and the state legislators involved will remember that threat the next time the tribe comes around. The Chamber of Commerce has been working that same angle for decades with its "job-killer" designation on bills the business community wants stopped.

In 2008 alone, 29 of the 39 "job killers" identified by the chamber died in the Legislature. Schwarzenegger vetoed nine of the remaining 10 that made it to his desk.

As the article makes clear, it's not just the money involved which makes the lobbyists so successful. Because of term limits, a lot of legislators don't have the knowledge to navigate state government. Lobbyists (of all people!) are now seen as the repository of institutional memory. Many new members of the assembly get crash courses on how to shepherd a bill through the legislature from their new best friends, thereby giving the lobbyists not only precious face time but also gratitude from the noobs.

So, now we know who runs this state government, and it's not the citizens of California or the people they send to Sacramento. The next question is what do we do about it? Hopefully the Bee has some ideas.

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Meanwhile, In Spain

While President Obama continues to resist any formal investigation into the violations of human rights guaranteed under US and international law by the Bush administration, a court in Spain is looking into the matter, according to the NY Times.

A Spanish court has taken the first steps toward opening a criminal investigation into allegations that six former high-level Bush administration officials violated international law by providing the legal framework to justify the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, an official close to the case said. ...

The move represents a step toward ascertaining the legal accountability of top Bush administration officials for allegations of torture and mistreatment of prisoners in the campaign against terrorism. But some American experts said that even if warrants were issued their significance could be more symbolic than practical, and that it was a near certainty that the warrants would not lead to arrests if the officials did not leave the United States.

The six officials who are the subjects of a suit filed by Spanish lawyers are Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Douglas J. Feith, William J. Haynes II, Jay S. Bybee, and David S. Addington.

The Spanish court actually has jurisdiction in the matter on several grounds, including the fact that five of that nation's residents claim they were tortured while "guests" of the US government in Guantanamo Bay. Equally important, however, is that several international conventions (to which both Spain and the US are signatories) allow for such jurisdiction:

The 98-page complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, is based on the Geneva Conventions and the 1984 Convention Against Torture, which is binding on 145 countries, including Spain and the United States. Countries that are party to the torture convention have the authority to investigate torture cases, especially when a citizen has been abused.

The potential investigation and case is certainly not breaking any new ground in international law. The same Spanish court indicted Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the past. Even the US has assumed jurisdiction over a case involving human rights violations (torture) which took place in another country and obtained a conviction:

This year for the first time, the United States used a law that allows it to prosecute torture in other countries. On Jan. 10, a federal court in Miami sentenced Chuckie Taylor, the son of the former Liberian president, to 97 years in a federal prison for torture, even though the crimes were committed in Liberia.

Last October, when the Miami court handed down the conviction, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey applauded the ruling and said: “This is the first case in the United States to charge an individual with criminal torture. I hope this case will serve as a model to future prosecutions of this type.”

Apparently Mr. Mukasey was prescient. One certainly hopes so.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: Mexican Axolotl

(Photograph by Stephen Dalton/Animals Animals - Earth Scenes and published at National Geographic, which has some interesting information on this amphibian.)

Militarizing the Border

Secretary of State Clinton's recent visit to Mexico was a significant one, primarily because she spoke candidly. The increasing violence at the border and spilling into the US is caused by drug traffickers, and both countries are at fault for the the escalation. She frankly pointed to the failure of the "War on Drugs" waged by this country for decades and to the insatiable market for the illegal drugs in this country which makes it lucrative enough for the drug gangsters to take risks that have resulted in the deadly surge.

So far the Obama administration has resisted the call issued by likes of CNN's resident xenophobe Lou Dobbs to send military troops to the border, but DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano recently implied that the option is still under consideration. That should worry residents of both countries who live near or on the border, and obviously does. An editorial from Mexico's La Jornada makes that clear.

Militarization of points along the border by the Mexican government and police reinforcement ordered by U.S. authorities across the Rio Grande are not necessarily correct steps in the fight against drug traffic, representing, instead, bilateral, ambiguous security. After all, the border between the two countries is only one realm of organized criminal activity, a place to gather and express in particularly violent ways the symptoms of a process of social and institutional decomposition much greater than the space on either side of the border, itself. The passage of drugs, arms, and criminals over the common border is, in effect, the culmination of processes that gestate and develop over time, processes that require attention from both governments in geographic areas far from their common boundary, with spheres of action much broader than police and military.

With these considerations in mind, it can be said that the deployment of a sizable number of security forces to the region does not, in itself, constitute a blow to the power of drug cartels or their logistic and financial structure; instead, it exposes these troops - civilians and military, and Mexicans and U.S. citizens - to infiltration and bribery by criminal groups.

Furthermore, governments of both countries do not seem to be aware that measures being discussed involve undesirable risks for the population along the border - the proliferation of annoyances and outrages – already occurring in Mexico. A consequence is the risk of feeding popular animosity against government troops. Moreover, history indicates that circumstances, such as the one under discussion, tend to multiply border incidents, violations of territorial integrity, and violations of the sovereignty of countries. It would be particularly disastrous if the actions announced yesterday not only fail to end drug traffic, but give rise to conflicts between elements of the Mexican Army and U.S. security agencies.

In summary, measures announced yesterday by Washington, as well as the satisfaction expressed by the Mexican government, have put in place a flawed security strategy - shared, though it is - to focus on fighting superficial expressions of the complex and deep-rooted problem of drug trafficking. If the goal is eradication of the base of [drug trafficking] and other crimes, then the governments of Calderón and Obama should not focus on police and military pursuit, which so far have proved inefficient. Instead, they should address the social, economic, and institutional factors that foster these crimes; undertake effective policies to combat addictions, in order to reduce the demand for illicit drugs; combat the corruption eroding the institutional structure of both countries and, in Mexico, develop and apply a coherent strategy to fight misery, to alleviate poverty, and to reduce lacerating social inequality.

Like most of the problems inherited by President Obama, this one has no easy fix. Sending in the Marines, however, is only going to complicate the matter. Sharing intelligence by the two countries is a good start, but the US is going to have to make some tough social and political decisions that bear on domestic policy if even that is going to have an impact.

First of all, an overhaul of the laws concerning drugs is long overdue. The Obama Justice Department has already indicated that it will no longer consider busting medical marijuana outlets a priority. At this point, the administration should go further, and revise the laws on drug possession and use. Drug addiction should not be treated as a crime but as an illness, and our laws should reflect that and money should be appropriated for sensible research into and treatment of that illness. If we can reduce the demand of what is deemed contraband, the bad guys lose their power and their incentive.

That, I admit, is going to take some education and some time. There are, however, some things that this country could be doing in the meantime. One of the top priorities should be to come down with heavy, hobnailed boots on those US gun dealers who are cheerfully selling the drug gangsters the heavy weaponry which is being used to wreak havoc on both sides of the border, including cities located some distance from that border. Tighter gun laws and heavier penalties for those who funnel weapons to the gangsters are needed. A "well-armed militia" is one thing. A well-armed gang of thugs pushing the hard stuff is something else entirely.

Finally, since this administration has adopted a lot of the lingo from the last one in disappointing ways, such as issuing "benchmarks" to such nations as Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe it could also develop some benchmarks for the Mexican government when it comes to aid. Rooting out corrupt police, soldiers, and office holders should be a goal of both countries, but the aid right now is flowing in only one direction. Make it clear to the Mexican government that they have step up as well, and not just when it comes to combating drugs.

That would be a nice change.

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Our Very Own Madrasas

Tim Rutten has an unusually emotional column in today's Los Angeles Times. Mr. Rutten is usually much less confrontational in print and this piece is actually very close to a rant. It's also right on target.

His subject is the controversy being ginned up by ultra-conservative Catholic groups over the selection of President Obama as the commencement speaker at the University of Notre Dame. New presidents are traditionally invited to speak at the university's graduation, and most accept. Yet, because President Obama is pro-choice and has removed his predecessor's restrictions on stem cell research, certain elements within the country's Roman Catholic population are pushing to have the invitation withdrawn for the president's lack of moral purity.

There are a couple of things about this culture-warfare-as-usual controversy that are fresh and consequential enough to be of interest. The first is the protesters and their connections. Many are part of a vocal, Internet-savvy lobby that has been agitating to coerce the church's prelates into denying Communion to Catholic officeholders who deviate from a rigidly "pro-life" line. Made up of a number of smaller groups, this lobby has campaigned to keep other pro-choice officeholders (of any religion) from speaking at Catholic schools. Its supporters also have been vociferously active in the movement to use abortion as a wedge to lever Catholics into the religious right. ...

The principal organizer of the Notre Dame protest is a group called the Cardinal Newman Society -- no, they're not the people who ran the Newman Centers you may recall from your college campus. This bunch came together in 1992 to enforce more stringent orthodoxy at American Catholic universities. ...

The Newman Society is linked to two organizations -- CatholicVote.org and the Fidelis Center -- whose programs are clearly geared toward bringing Catholics into the Republican Party.

Two vigorous spokesmen for the protest have been Southern California talk-show host Hugh Hewitt and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, who converted from evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism about four years ago. "The faithful Catholic world is justly enraged at the treachery of Notre Dame's leadership," Terry said. "Notre Dame will rue the day they invited this agent of death to speak."

Some people just won't be happy until the Inquisition has office space again and kindling is being piled up around the local stakes.
[Emphasis added]

Fortunately, there has been some push-back by other Catholics, and their response is quite telling:

...The publisher of the influential National Catholic Reporter newspaper has accused the Newman Society of trying to turn the church's universities into "Catholic madrasas." Father John Jenkins, the university's president, has said he has no intention of withdrawing the invitation made to Obama, whom he called "an inspiring leader."

According to Notre Dame's campus newspaper, student reaction to the invitation has been overwhelmingly positive, though the paper reports an interesting split: 70% of the letters it has received from alumni oppose the president's appearance, while 73% of current students and 97% of the graduating seniors approve of the invitation.

It seems that GOP activists are going to have to look elsewhere -- and to another generation -- for their single-issue voters.

Now, I would be the first to accede to the proposition that these groups have every right to protest the selection of any speaker at the university. I know I'd be terribly upset if Notre Dame had invited the holocaust-denying Bishop instead of President Obama. If they had, either Ruth or I would have blasted the selection here. But I don't think we have a right to impose our will in an arena where open inquiry is supposed to be the goal. Free speech has to be free and heard, especially at a university.

What Mr. Rutten objects to, and I agree with him, is that these groups are trying to close down that free speech entirely in order to benefit a particular political party. That's a little different. It's also an abomination.

And Mr. Rutten? More like this, please.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Friday Catblogging


Maxxine chows down on wheatgrass at her Austin garden. She is a rescue cat, just a bit over a year old, has Maine coon traits.

War On War Off is the farmer in residence there. This scene suggests it's worth the trouble.

Frankie is giving me that tolerating idiots look because I got his name wrong last time I put his picture up. Barndog gave me a second chance, so here he is again! Growing daily and pushing his fellow residents around.


Going on All Fours

An electorate that prefers feudalism often tends to give Texas education a slant back into the dark ages. Yesterday, the state narrowly avoided becoming more of a joke than it already is. By a margin of nothing, a tie vote from our state's School Board kept evolution from being hounded out of science curricula.

That may sound like an item from the early nineteenth century, but you see in our state we have a huge number of voters who are afraid of anything rational. It contradicts the foundations of their entire system. If we go rational it injures their sense of worth.

In a decision watched by science educators across the nation, the State Board of Education on Thursday narrowly turned aside a last-ditch effort by social conservatives to require that "weaknesses" in the theory of evolution be taught in science classes in Texas.

Board members deadlocked 7-7 on a motion to restore a longtime curriculum rule that "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories – notably Charles Darwin's theory of evolution – be covered in science classes and textbooks for those subjects.

The tie vote upheld a preliminary decision by the board in January to delete the strengths-and-weaknesses rule in the new curriculum standards for science classes that will be in force for the next decade. That decision, if finalized in a last vote today, changes 20 years of Texas education policy.

Because the standards spell out what must be covered in textbooks, science educators and publishers have been monitoring the Texas debate closely. As one of the largest textbook purchasers in the nation, Texas influences what is sold in other states.

The science standards adopted by the board also will figure into questions used on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

Voting for the requirement were the seven Republican board members aligned with social conservative groups. Against the proposal were three other Republicans and four Democrats. Critics of evolution managed to add a few small caveats to the curriculum, but none as sweeping as the strengths-and-weaknesses rule.

Board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, proposed that the rule be put back into the standards, arguing that evolution advocates were trying to stifle classroom discussion of Darwin's theory that humans gradually developed from lower life forms.

"I don't see how we can say there is no disagreement about evolution. There is disagreement," said Mercer, taking issue with science teachers and academics who told the board that the theory of evolution is universally accepted in the scientific community. He cited a document by hundreds of scientists questioning some of Darwin's tenets.

He also charged that evolution advocates have a history of falsifying evidence and drawing erroneous conclusions to support their position.
The language adopted by board members on evolution and other scientific theories states that students shall "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning and experimental and observational testing."

Action on the science standards caps several months of debate. The issue last flared up when the board adopted new biology textbooks in 2003, when social conservatives tried to reject books that were deemed too pro-evolution but failed.

This being a new century really threatens those elements that prefer faith, because it's comfortable, to functional. Sadly, the same elements who proclaim their faith sustains them insist that we have to act on its basis too.

The right wing likes to think if they just had the rest of us under control, it would make the world work out better for them. The shame of it all is that we have to keep combating rampant ignorance to keep their kids, as well as ours, from being denied their rights to education.

P.Z. Myers had a rant worth sharing this morning on the occasion of a winger who waxed self-righteous over the death of children on their way to a ski trip in Montana.

Once again, I am confirmed in my opinion that Christianity is a breeder of evil, a cesspit in which the most hateful and inhuman commitment to lies and delusions can ferment. Don't ever preach at me about Christian morality: I've seen it, and it is empty of love for humanity, replaced with sanctimonious idolatry and commitment to dead, dumb superstition.

While I think there are exceptions, it is always a source of amazement that so many base a belief system devoid of acceptance for their fellow men on teachings that emphasize love and tolerance.

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Charitable Kickbacks

Joel Stein's latest column in the Los Angeles Times is marred by his rather lame attempts at snark (he is no Rosa Brooks), but his point still manages to come through. Why should people get a government kickback for making a charitable donation?

President Obama wants to take money away from charities. Which is awesome. Only he doesn't go far enough.

His proposal, which Republicans and Democrats both hate, would force rich people to deduct only 28% of their charitable donations, instead of 35%. This change would have two obvious disadvantages: It's boring and requires math. A simpler solution would be to eliminate everyone's tax break for donations. ...

The idea behind the tax break is that you give $1 to a good cause and the government kicks back 28 cents on your tax bill. This is also the government's scheme for getting you to buy toxic assets, only in that case you pay $1 and the government gives you $14.

The problem with even a 28-cent contribution from the government is that we all then have 28 cents less in tax revenue. Which essentially means I am being forced to give my money to the charity of your choice. ...

The charity of your choice, as important as it may be, is not what taxes are for. Taxes are for whatever we all agree is absolutely necessary. ...

By allowing charity deductions, I have to pay more in taxes so you can support causes I didn't get to approve of through my vote. In 2006, that was $40 billion more we had to pay, according to Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation. ...

Taxes aren't a punishment you can get out of by donating money. Taxes are our necessary contribution to the country. The money we'd save with Obama's tiny change would help pay for healthcare. ...

I stripped a lot of Mr. Stein's wise-ass comments out, mainly because they were distracting. His brand of humor works far better out loud in a comedy club than it does in print. That said, his analysis is right on the money. Why should the government be supporting All Saints Episcopal Church by knocking money off my tax bill? That's hardly consistent with the wall that's supposed to exist between government and religion. It's also unfair to those other taxpayers who, for various reasons, many of them reasonable, deplore the social activism of that church. And it's really unfair to those people who donate their time rather than money to causes they believe in. They don't get any kind of a tax break for their donation.

I suppose an argument could be made (and probably was made at the time the deduction was inserted into the tax code) that government wanted to give an incentive for charitable giving in the hopes that the charity would provide services the government couldn't or didn't want to provide. That somehow rings hollow, however. How is supporting a religious institution with a tithe something the government wants to get involved in?

That's not, as Mr. Stein points out, what tax money should be used for.

Those of us who are able to make donations should do so because we believe it is the right thing to do, not so that we can get a government funded kickback. It's really not such a hard concept, not nearly as hard as politicians seem to think.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Thursday Birdblogging

Eastern Screech Owl. Photo taken in northern San Antonio in June 2000 by Angela Bartels.

Cool Facts

* Red and gray individuals occur across the range of the Eastern Screech-Owl, with about one-third of all individuals being red. Rufous owls are more common in the East, with fewer than 15% red at the western edge of the range. No red owls are known from southern Texas, although they occur further north in Texas and further south in Mexico. Intermediate brownish individuals also occur in most populations.

* The Eastern Screech-Owl eats a variety of small animals. Two captive males ate from one-quarter to one-third of their own body weight in food each night, but sometimes skipped a night and stored food instead.

* The trilling song on one pitch, sometimes known as the Bounce Song, is used by members of a pair or a family to keep in contact. The male will trill to advertise a nest site, court the female, and when arriving at a nest with food. The descending Whinny is used in territory defense. The songs usually are uttered separately, but sometimes are heard together.

* Eastern Screech-Owl pairs usually are monogamous and remain together for life. Some males, however, will mate with two different females. The second female may evict the first female, lay her own eggs in the nest, and incubate both clutches.

* The Eastern Screech-Owl is known to eat a variety of songbirds, including the European Starling. Despite this fact, the starling regularly displaces the owl from nesting sites and takes over the hole to raise its own brood.


Nappies Hustled

Get your attention? The title may bring a smile, but what has happened near here is disturbing. How desperate do you have to be to steal diapers?

The crime story near my house is about a man who had a need big enough to risk prison for some diapers. As I have worked in charities before, I know that sometimes people can't afford diapers when their babies have to have one. I've gone into a church nursery and taken a stack of diapers for some one in need, myself. This news item shouldn't come as a surprise.

In tough times some are stealing it seems out of necessity. Before Thanksgiving a woman was accused of stealing a turkey from a local grocery store. More recently a man stole two packs of diapers from a Dollar General in Sherman.

Those desperate in this economy are taking desperate measures. Athough no one can prove a motive for stealing, it seems more items of necessity are disappearing from store shelves. This is not the first time an incident like this has happened. Advice? If your on a tight budget shop around. Some stores are keeping prices low for residents.

Joy Ashby, DME Coordinator for TMC Medical Supplies says, "We just don't do much of a markup. We are trying to help keep prices low for the community."

If you are looking for low priced items such as diapers, a 20 pack at TMC is only $3 while other stores prices range from $5 to $11 a pack.

This isn't a local crime wave. It seems that similar events are occurring in other places as well.

I was at a Walgreens store in an upscale Nashville neighborhood buying shaving razors. Like most stores, this place keeps the shaving stuff behind lock and key. The difference is that managers also alarmed their display case, so that when the door is unlocked a little alarm goes off that grows increasingly louder—and more annoying—until the case is locked again.

I remarked to the woman helping me that it seemed odd to keep shaving supplies behind an alarmed door. She told me that as the economy deteriorates, they're having a much bigger problem with shoplifting.

"It's gotten much worse just in the last month," she said. "We've even taken to locking up some of the diapers. That's how desperate people are getting."

She paused, looked over her shoulder and said in a low tone, "But if someone is in such bad shape that they need to steal diapers for their kids, it's hard for me to not want to just give them to them."

Good for you, saleslady. This reminds me of a Fish and Wildlife officer who confided that if they knew people were shooting geese to feed the family, as long as the hunter wasn't killing really endangered wildlife, the officers looked the other way.

A fatality of our cut-throat economy is that too many working people feel more threatened than sympathetic. The economic meltdown may be a time to take another look at our own habits of giving.

The crime in our area isn't huge, it's rural and in a place where people generally know each other there are a lot of very good reasons to keep your act clean. Sadly, that doesn't mean you can't be required to work without pay to keep a position. The work without pay is called 'working off the book', and I have heard from fellow workers at a few places that they'd been able to hang onto a needed job only by doing it for managers who in turn were required to show really good profits to keep their jobs.

In other words, you can rob people secure in keeping a record of good behavior, but stealing to take care of your children will get you in trouble.

We're growing extra rows in our gardens for folks who need to eat. Today I have a closet to clean out. There are a bunch of cleanliness-related products I will probably never use, and might help some one out if I make a trip to the local shelter. I just may have to pick up some diapers on the way.

You're invited.


Update: Good grief, the diapers I found were more like $8 for 24. I would definitely be boiling the cloth kind in a washtub in the back yard, if I had little fellas to care for right about now.

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Elections Matter

I will say this for Republicans: they may not have any fresh ideas to offer as alternatives to the proposals offered by Democrats, but they sure can muster a united front opposed to those proposals. The same is true when it comes to President Obama's nominations to key positions in his administration. The most recent example came with the nomination of Elena Kagan as Solicitor General.

The "center left" editorial board of the Los Angeles Times did a pretty good job of pointing out the GOP's obstructionism in an editorial published in today's edition.

In 2006, during hearings on President Bush's nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reminded Democrats inclined to oppose Alito that "elections matter." Apparently Graham's wisdom was lost on 31 of his fellow Republicans who voted against President Obama's nomination of Elena Kagan, dean of Harvard Law School, to serve as U.S. solicitor general, the government's chief courtroom advocate. (Graham himself didn't vote.)

That Kagan was confirmed anyway doesn't make the partisan vote against her any less outrageous or hypocritical. The opposition of senators who should know better, such as Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), augurs ominously for bipartisan consideration of any Obama nominee to the Supreme Court. Apparently Senate Republicans are determined to continue the tiresome tit-for-tat between the parties that has bedeviled the confirmation process for judicial nominees at least since the Clinton administration.

What the editorial implies, although doesn't state explicitly, is that one reason Ms. Kagan faced such ludicrous opposition (come on, the woman is Dean of the Harvard Law School!) is that she is considered the front runner as a nominee for the next US Supreme Court opening. That's why the administration's "top lawyer" was grilled so extensively by Republicans on such issues as the death penalty and eminent domain. They were simply issuing a warning to the President of what he could expect should Ms. Kagan be nominated to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, should she retire.

The editorial concludes with a warning to the GOP that such a show of pure partisanship might move President Obama away from the "bipartisanship" he appears to desire so strongly and that he might finally decide that trying to confer with the opposition on nominations and key programs is a useless waste of time and energy.

We should be so lucky.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Faux Channel Gets Pwnd

If you want a great thrill, I recommend taking the pleasant step of telling your travel service that you have a special requirement from your reservation, that there be No Fox Channel in your room. Yes, that felt good. And it's now official, it's in my email requirements. No.Fox.Channel. I have been known to ask the management to change the channel before, but this is official.

Try that out for fun. Achenblog has nailed the same feeling in yesterday's column. Thanks, Mr. Achenbach.

After Obama's presser, I clicked on Fox News, where Bill O'Reilly and Karl Rove were huffing and sniffing and snarling and wheezing, emphatically unimpressed by the president's performance. Fox needs to go with a different team there. The double dose of middle-aged white-guy dyspepsia is overkill. And those two are strong medicine even when solo: It's like teaming Genghis Khan with Attila the Hun.

Obama struggled, seemingly straining to see what it said on the monitor directly in front of him -- why can't he just speak from notes for once? -- and he still has that tendency to be windy. (I don't agree that he was "boring," as Drudge puts it in this morning's big headline.) But he also delivered some memorable lines:

"It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak."

"I have no investment in causing controversy. I'm happy to avoid it."

"We're not immediately going to get Middle East peace. We've been in office a little over 60 days."

"This is a big ocean liner, its not a speedboat."

The most important moment may have come in his opening statement, when he defended the profit motive: "[T]he rest of us can't afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit. That drive is what has always fueled our prosperity, and it is what will ultimately get these banks lending and our economy moving once more."

Were I his speechwriter, I would have added, "Greed is good."

You know, just to roil the blogosphere. Make some heads explode.

Some might say Obama can be a bit pedantic, to which I'd say: Um, is that bad? I learned some things from The Professor. I didn't know that AIG selling a derivative would be counted as part of the GDP. (And yet a volunteer's labor assisting the elderly, or planting trees in a boulevard median, wouldn't be counted as anything, is my guess.) I assume he misspoke when he said the majority of our recent economic growth has been in the financial sector -- because I think he used the 40 percent figure a couple of days ago -- but whatever, it's a lot, and it's been illusory.

It's hard to look rational when all you can do is rail against one of the most sane people in D.C. So far as I can tell, no one in the right wing press has tried, yet.

Join me in telling the management wherever you are staying or eating; no Faux news, no propaganda allowed.

This is going to be a great trip.

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For anyone who hasn't seen Fiddler on the Roof, the word 'tradition' has particular meaning about the roles of the sexes in that play. Of course, there is no reason for roles that sex plays in determining one's role in a family, so it has been sloughed off on 'tradition'.

Wonderfully, in writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Scalia referred to that 'tradition' for attitudes regarding homosexuality. I wonder if he even considered the musical and its pointing out the absurdity of it, when he chose to ascribe homophobia to 'tradition'.

Representative Barney Frank yesterday defended his use of the term "homophobe" to describe Antonin Scalia, the conservative Supreme Court justice who has ruled in favor of limiting legal protections for gays.

"What a 'homophobe' means is someone who has prejudice about gay people," Frank told WBZ radio, arguing that Scalia's judicial writing "makes it very clear that he's angry, frankly, about the existence of gay people."

A Supreme Court spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment from Scalia.

In particular, Frank cited Scalia's opinion in the 2003 case in which the Supreme Court struck down state laws barring consensual acts of sodomy.

In his dissent, Scalia wrote that the 6-to-3 vote served to ratify an "agenda promoted by some homosexual activists directed at eliminating the moral opprobrium that has traditionally attached to homosexual conduct."

That he sees tradition as a reason for anything certainly puts Justice Scalia in the camp of practicers of baby-splitting. Justice Alito seems to cling to the same absurdity when he denies women the right to choose their own medical procedure.

Yes, I proposed splitting babies recently in conversation at eschaton's comments, and certainly impressed Moe, who parades a distaste for kids. It is a Mosaic, or at least biblical, tradition that it brought about peace to propose splitting a baby; that makes it something of a milestone in justice that we can easily say is best honored by avoidance.

The role of a justice on the Supreme Court calls for a much higher standard than has been exhibited by the majority. In his choice of the next Justice for our highest court, we expect President Obama to look much higher than a regrettable tradition of choosing ideologues that has been the practice of right wing presidents of our past.

Any practitioner of real justice will avoid using a standard other than fair treatment when deciding matters that determine our treatment of fellow citizens.

In Fiddler on the Roof, 'Tradition' denies a girl the partner of her choice because she comes from a poor family. That seems to be the court's modus operandi, under the right wing ideololgy that dominates it.

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The health insurance industry must be feeling the heat. Yesterday, representatives from the industry made a rather dramatic announcement, according to the New York Times:

The health insurance industry said Tuesday that it was willing to end the practice of charging higher premiums to sick people if Congress adopted a comprehensive plan that provided coverage to all Americans.

The industry’s flexible position on the issue came as a surprise to lawmakers, and could make it easier to reach an agreement in Congress because it narrows the issues on which insurers are ready to fight the Democrats who control Congress and the White House.

Now, this really is a dramatic reversal. The insurance industry has long taken the position that it was necessary to limit coverage (or to deny it) to those with pre-existing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes or a history of cancer. If coverage was granted, the premiums had to be high or rates for younger, healthier people would have to be raised to the point that those customers would choose to go without coverage.

In the past, insurers have warned that if they could not consider a person’s health in setting premiums, the rates charged to young, healthy people would soar, making coverage unaffordable.

But Karen M. Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a major trade group, told lawmakers on Tuesday that insurers were exploring ideas to prevent such increases by spreading the risks and costs across a larger population of both healthy and unhealthy people.

Why the change of heart? Well, one of the ideas on the table is a single payer system in which the government would compete with private insurers. While Medicare may have its problems at the present time, the program does operate at a much lower administrative cost than insurers. It is likely that the new programs would duplicate that efficiency to the extent that premiums would be so much lower than those of private insurers that people would overwhelmingly choose the government program. The industry isn't having any of that, thank you.

Insurers said they were still staunchly opposed to creation of a new government-run health insurance plan, which, under many Democratic proposals, would compete directly with private insurers.

And, it's not like the industry has completely capitulated. Its representatives have made it clear that they still intend to base premiums on such factors as age, place of residence, and size of family. Obviously the insurance companies have gauged the mood of the country on the issue and are hoping that one concession will take the pressure off enough that they can still operate at the profits they have enjoyed for decades. They're hoping that this partial re-write of Harry and Louise's script will work the same magic the commercial did back in the 1990s.

If Congressional Democrats blink, of course, it will. Now's a good time to ratchet up some pressure of our own. Calls and letters to our congress critters over the coming weeks and months are going to be necessary. Time to limber up the fingers again.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Primarying No More

Remember that primary that went on until we all were screaming Just Stop? If you are blessedly forgetful, congratulations. I remember it well, and would rather not ever see the Neverending Story wind on like that again. Thankfully, the Democratic National Committee shared that experience with us and wants to head it off at the Past.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., will co-chair a 37-member panel aimed at changing the presidential nominating process, the Democratic National Committee announced Monday night.

DNC Chairman Tim Kaine announced the Democratic Change Commission membership will include fellow Richmond Democrat State Del. Jennifer McClellan.

Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman is the only mayor included on the panel. The group will address: changing the window of time during which states can hold presidential primaries and caucuses; reducing the number of superdelegates (thus giving primaries and caucuses more weight in nomination fights), and improving the caucus system. The commission is to report back to the Democratic Party's Rules and Bylaws Committee by January 1, 2010.

The prolonged Democratic presidential primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton last year left people still wondering by summertime who would be the party's presidential nominee. Some saw the drawn out primary contest as bruising to the party, while other observers say the process helped to strengthen grassroots organizing since more states had the chance to vote in contested presidential primaries. By August there was still grumbling that superdelegates -- party insiders who can vote at the Democratic nominating convention for any presidential nominee they choose -- could sidestep the will of primary voters.

In announcing the commission, Kaine said he hopes to work with the Republican National Committee on "a common approach that puts voters first."

Voters would like that. I would also like to see less spending on advertisements required. The role of Dollars in the campaigns is disheartening. Debates, town meetings, press conferences would all be better ways for making voting decisions.

The Superdelegates were particularly unsavory, as it gives the impression that mere voters can't be trusted to make choices good enough for leadership. As it wound along, the Democratic campaign was a public-oriented event, however it drew on. However, it is easy to see that the use of Superdelegates could easily fall into the hands of a more authoritarian candidate and be misused to the detriment of the party, and of all voters' will.

Good to begin so soon, and to determine what will serve best to keep the Democratic Party responsive to the populace. We never, ever want to be For Sale like the Gang of Nope.

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Refusal to Submit to Authoritarian Orders

For the first time ever I really wish I were a Nobel Laureate. Of course I deserve it for my brilliant writing, but actually I want to be one of the group that canceled its meeting rather than go on without the Dalai Lama when he was denied a visa.

Thank you, Nobel people who will not be party to the government cowardice that had to be instrumental in making this vile gesture. The Dalai Lama is offensive to no one and no country except to China, and to China only because he symbolizes a country that just won't be supine before their demands. Thanks, Nobel Laureates, for refusing to join this oppression.

A peace conference for Nobel laureates in South Africa has been postponed indefinitely after Pretoria refused the Dalai Lama a visa, organisers say.

This week's meeting in Johannesburg was linked to the 2010 Football World Cup, which the country is hosting.

A storm of controversy erupted over the ban, with the government being accused of bowing to Chinese pressure.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former South African President FW de Klerk pulled out of the meeting in protest.

Despite the controversy surrounding the decision, government spokesman Thabo Masebe confirmed that no visa would be issued "between now and the World Cup".

Saying the move did not amount to a ban, he told the BBC that no other government had forced the decision on South Africa.

The visa had been declined because the Dalai Lama's presence "would not be in the best interests of South Africa at this time", he said.

The government spokesman told Reuters news agency that the presence of the Dalai Lama risked distracting attention from the World Cup.

'Spirit of peace'

The conference, scheduled for Friday, was intended to discuss football's role in fighting racism and xenophobia.

But the chairman of the South Africa 2010 Organising Committee said the conference was being postponed indefinitely.

"The convenors have... decided in the spirit of peace to postpone the South African peace conference to ensure it is held under conducive conditions," Irvin Khoza was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.
Archbishop Tutu has branded the government's decision as "disgraceful" and accused the government of "shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure", a sentiment echoed in the local media.

Chinese officials in Pretoria said Beijing had warned against allowing the Dalai Lama into the country, saying it would harm bilateral relations.

There may be room in international affairs for kowtowing to the Chinese in some areas, but to let that repressive regime taint their own country's record is a huge error on the part of South Africa. A statement that says that China is offended by exercise of another country's freedoms is offensive, and should be treated that way.

Any peace conference that would let its government dictate certain peace organizations are making trouble - by a refusal to be cowed into accepting repression - would not be a peace conference worthy of the movement's heritage.

You have earned the respect of the world. I am hoping the U.S. can join you, Nobel laureates, in earning that respect by leaving the company of violators of the Geneva conventions very soon.

(Call anytime.)

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Last week was Sunshine Week, a national effort by media organizations to promote openness in government. I knew about it only because the Sacramento Bee had a couple of editorials on the issue as it pertains to the California State government. One of those editorials decried the fact that even though state regulations require agencies to post pertinent information on web sites, those sites are incomplete and difficult to navigate, increasing the opacity.

At this critical time in the state's history, when the public is being asked to pay higher taxes, it's especially important for the state and local governments to be transparent. Before voters approve measures to give the state more money, they want to know how their money is being spent and to what effect. That information is in databases the public pays to maintain.

Open government is not just a benefit for reporters in pursuit of news stories. It's an essential element for all citizens of a healthy democracy. Through freedom of information laws, everyone has a right to find out how government is working and to hold public officials accountable.

The editorial sets forth nicely just what state sunshine laws are all about. The problem at the federal level, however, is more complicated because of a system of classification now run amok. The New York Times published an editorial yesterday (which may have been a belated nod to Sunshine Week) which lambastes the hiding of information by agencies through spurious designations which imply that the information must be restricted in its dissemination for security reasons.

By last count, the federal government employs 107 different categories of restricted information — one off-limits category zanily pronounces, “sensitive but unclassified.” This muddle of mislabeling seems designed not to protect legitimate secrets but to empower bureaucrats. The end result has been to greatly blunt the Freedom of Information Act’s mandate to let the public in on the business of government, plain and simple.

The House has just approved a measure to end this plague of pseudoclassification. Its backers say it is not just a boon for the public, but an attempt to promote “a common language within government.” There are so many taboos that agencies are even having trouble understanding one another’s rubber-stamp restrictions. ...

According to the bill’s sponsor, Representative Steve Driehaus, Democrat of Ohio, there were 362,000 F.O.I.A. requests last year, and almost a third of them still remain to be processed because of overclassification. The bill requires classifiers to be trained for the task and to put their IDs on what they deem out of bounds, subject to inspector general review.

While the St. Peter Principle ("give a janitor a key and he thinks he's St. Peter") may be at work, the last administration relied on such secrecy to promote its own agendas. It is no wonder that so many F.O.I.A. requests remain unanswered. That was the intention. There is no telling at this point just how our government was subverted to enrich some favored campaign contributers or to gut regulations designed to protect the health and welfare of the citizens. We may never know if the current administration persists in its view that it is better to look forward than to actually learn from the past. That's why this proposal is so very necessary.

Congressman Driehaus's bill, HR 1323, has been passed by the House, received in the Senate and referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. If one of your senators serves on that committee, make a call and urge him or her to pass it out of committee to the entire Senate for a vote.

Then the rest of us need to get our typing and dialing fingers busy to make sure the bill becomes law.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Face Time

Usually I do some cruising around to see what people are saying and of course, this a.m. I heard a bit about the use of 'punch drunk' to describe our president. I don't recall anyone using that to describe the last one, although it would have described his behavior a lot of the time. Last week, it was the President's awkward moment describing his poor bowling as Special Olympics quality.

With the press seeming to have zoned in on anything that can chip away at that ivory tower, I think he's doing exactly the right thing by getting himself on the air as much as he can. If all we had to represent the president was the mantra of the moment from the press, it absolutely wouldn't do him justice.

Today Dan Froomkin does a collection, as he often does, of the way the press is treating news about President Obama. It gives very short shrift to the press's poor attention to actual issues. Under the title; "Why Obama is Still Smiling", Froomkin comes up with a few very telling points.

Fineman writes: "While the Beltway is getting its populist freak on over AIG, a bigger, more fateful drama is underway....It's about nothing less than whether the Obama administration can reverse a generation's worth of skepticism about the role of government in our lives. The federal budget is the Rosetta stone of American public philosophy, and Obama and Emanuel want to re-chisel it in expensive new ways: quality health care for all; better, more innovative public education; a rewritten IRS code that taxes the wealthy more heavily to channel benefits to lower-income Americans; and a new global effort to slow climate change.....

"'We believe in the affirmative role of government,' Emanuel says. 'Not "active" for its own sake, but affirmative in the sense of being a force for good in everyday lives—education, health, a lessening of economic and social schisms in society.'"

Can Obama break through the chatter to make this point directly to the people?
(Via Dionne): "The AIG flap and Friday's dismal report from the Congressional Budget Office predicting the deficit will surpass $1.8 trillion this year will only strengthen the forces of evasion....

"Already, his lieutenants are signaling how he will cast the choice: between 'taking on the country's long-term challenges' or just 'lowering our sights and muddling through,' as one senior aide put it."
Historian Joyce Appleby writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "In similar circumstances, [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt recognized the limited horizon he had, and he shared the same sense of urgency about moving the country in a new direction....

"An astute politician, FDR saw the days ahead bringing schisms among his supporters, comebacks from the opposing party and public disenchantment with the government's effectiveness. It was then that he looked beyond the politics of Congress and the Supreme Court to the fourth, informal branch of American government: the public. He would defy the odds of losing in the 1934 off-year election by carefully cultivating the ordinary men and women who had voted for him."

It's a given that the press will gnaw around the edges and represent the president as anything but the quality player in their manufactured drama, while the Gang of Nope continues to throw outrageous lies about what they did over their ten years of dominance, since it worked out really badly.

Operating in the center of all this slurry is some one who has to get through the muck to keep the country from succumbing to the crimes that have been done to it, and that continue on unabated from the wingnuts.

I'd rather he do it than me. But seeing that he's managing the fray with dignity and aplomb is reassuring.


Truly great development on environmental advances;

The Environmental Protection Agency sent a proposal to the White House on Friday finding that global warming is endangering the public's health and welfare, according to several sources, a move that could have far-reaching implications for the nation's economy and environment.

The proposal -- which comes in response to a 2007 Supreme Court decision ordering EPA to consider whether carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases should be regulated under the Clean Air Act -- could lay the groundwork for nationwide measures to limit such emissions. It reverses one of the Bush administration's landmark environmental decisions: In July 2008 then-EPA administrator Stephen Johnson rejected his scientific and technical staff's recommendation and announced the agency would seek months of further public comment on the threat posed by global warming pollution.

"This is historic news," said Frank O'Donnell, who heads the public watchdog group Clean Air Watch.

The executive branch has returned to scientific truths and public service. This is extremely good news.

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Perks and Boards

As Enron wound down in the early 21st Century, eight years of maladministration began, and the Enron Board of Directors slipped away into the memory hole. Although there had been noises about prosecuting the Board for failures of its fiduciary duties, those were forgotten by a Department of Justice that was directed to political advancement of the Gang of Nope.

The meaning of director has been lost in a sea of perks, in my experience. Working with a member of several Boards of Directors, I encountered the service on the board as a matter of attending meetings occasionally, taking a yearly excursion at a high dollar resort, getting paid well for service on the board, and leaving the work to company managers. Occasionally the Board member got Minutes, a Resolution, an Affidavit or some such paper to sign off on.

As a result of this kind of service, one board my associate served on got entangled in a mess regarding backdating stock options. The board had simply signed the usual papers, and found out that the CEO and a few others in the firm had gotten stock options cashed at rates of a previous, lower cost, date. In other words, the company executives cheated stockholders because they paid less for stocks than those stocks cost at that time - so the amount they should have paid did not accrue to the company's total assets. Board members had not registered that papers they were sent to sign, something they executed regularly, this time involved a shady transaction.

Service on Boards of Directors has been a matter of fulfilling a symbolic function for good returns for some time, throughout our business sector. As regulations became a dirty word, the actual functions of Board members grew to be a farce.

There have been a few rumblings about failures to direct by those Boards - on Wall Street and financial industry firms now melting down the world's economy with their financial 'instruments'. What were they doing while the company ran amuck? Seems like old times.

Why haven't we learned that it is the boards who are responsible for the massive failures of strategy and risk management at these companies? Regulators, journalists, securities analysts and investors routinely ignore the most obvious indicators of investment risk that are presented by bad boards of directors.

This is particularly obvious in the case of AIG, which has been a serial offender in corporate governance, especially in executive compensation.

Those of us who remember former CEO Hank Greenberg's departure from AIG in 2005, after a corporate governance meltdown that included excessive compensation, appreciate the irony of his comment to ABC News that the retention bonuses were "mind-boggling." Mr. Kettle, Pot is on line 1.

Compensation committees are not responsible for individual pay packages below the CEO, but they are responsible for determining their overall structure -- and for making sure that the CEO's job includes effective management on compensation issues.

Retention of employees may be a legitimate goal of a compensation program, but it can be accomplished in a way that is both effective and credible by being tied to performance goals and by delaying vesting until after the bailout funds are returned to taxpayers.

The Corporate Library released a report in February about the boards of the bailout companies, many of which were outliers in their governance and compensation practices. Some of these were clear indicators of investment and liability risk. In several cases, we found individuals who not only sat on more than four corporate boards but also sat on more than one of these particularly troubled boards during this period.

Several other directors from these troubled boards also sat on either five or six boards altogether. We call the phenomenon of directors who serve on four or more corporate boards "overboarding."

Overboarding can limit the time and attention a director has for each board. It can also be an indicator of -- or a contributor to -- so many relationships and connections that it makes it more difficult to provide the respectful skepticism necessary for independent oversight.

In all, 11 of the 27 companies we identified as "troubled" had at least one overboarded director. Six had more than one; at Merrill Lynch, there were five. By comparison, fewer than 30 percent of S&P 500 companies have even a single overboarded director, and fewer than 5 percent have more than one.
Badly designed compensation is an indicator of poor corporate governance, and poor corporate governance is an indicator of investment risk. Instead of trying to tax the bonuses at AIG, the government and the shareholders should insist on new directors.....insanity is allowing the same people to continue to serve on the board after massive failure and expecting them to produce a different result.

The slippage of regulations over the eight years of war criminal conduct of the White House and executive branch removed any obstacles there may ever have been to malfeasance by companies' executives and their boards. The failures of public protections has meant disaster to the world's economy.

Just as the regulatory agencies such as FDIC and SEC have been perverted into industry shills, the boards have joined executives in carving out a return for themselves from earnings they were supposed to insure to the company and its stockholders. The times were great for theft.

The end is here for malfeasance in corporate offices. If companies are to return to honest functioning, regulation and law must be foremost; the routine robbery by executives cannot be tolerated any longer.

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Here We Go Again

Republicans in the California legislature are at it again. After months of obstructing a state budget and bringing the state perilously close to bankruptcy because they refused any tax increases, a few of them finally caved once funding for services such as public transportation and education were cut to the bone. Now they are stalling an Assembly bill which would make it possible to accept funds for extending unemployment benefits from the federal government.

From a Los Angeles Times' editorial:

Imagine the federal government offering California more than $2.5 billion to help its unemployed workers. You'd think that lawmakers would leap at the money, especially with the unemployment rate climbing to 10.5% in February. And yet when the Assembly took up a bill last week to make the state eligible for the aid, resistance from Republicans left the measure one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed for speedy passage. Proponents plan to bring a new version of ABX3 23 to the Assembly today, and lawmakers shouldn't hesitate to pass it.

...To enable its workers to receive an extra 20 weeks of federally funded aid, though, California would have to change the way it measures its unemployment rate. Under state law, the extended benefits would flow only when the rate for workers eligible for benefits -- a category that excludes the self-employed, among other groups -- tops 5%. The state hasn't met that threshold since 1983. By contrast, it would be eligible for the aid today if it considered the overall unemployment rate for three consecutive months, as allowed by federal law. That threshold is 6.5%, which California has exceeded since April 2008.

The alleged reason? The Republicans claim that after federal funds are cut off in 2010, state employers might be stuck with continuing the benefits. Assemblyman Joe Coto (D-San Jose), the sponsor of the bill, felt that the original bill did no such thing, but he is currently working with officials on the language of the bill so that there are no ambiguities with respect to continuing the benefits without the federal aid. I wonder what excuse the Republicans will pull out for the next vote.

Unemployment in California reached over 10% last month. The unemployment insurance fund is almost empty, and the extra money from the government will keep a lot of folks from hunger and homelessness. It's not like the unemployed will bank the dollars. They will purchase necessities, shoring up local businesses, and they will pay sales taxes on some of those necessities. None of that apparently matters to the state's GOP.

It just might matter to voters, however, and 2010 isn't that far away.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday Poetry: Robert Frost

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost

Some Good News

Every once in a while I have to stop my kvetching and report on news that gives me at least a little hope. Today's edition has to do with state and local governments getting serious about promoting and funding alternative and renewable energy sources. It comes from the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Recycled turbines that turn renewable wind energy into electricity are expected to begin appearing this summer in Anoka, Buffalo, North St. Paul and eight other Minnesota cities that are part of a power agency.

Buffalo, which expects work to begin in June, is likely to be the first city with one of the 115-foot-tall turbines among the 11-member cities of the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (MMPA). The joint-powers agency has agreed to pay about $3.6 million for a dozen refurbished windmills that were used in a Palm Springs, Calif., wind farm. The Hometown WindPower program is aimed at meeting a state law requiring most electrical utilities to provide 25 percent of their total electricity sales from renewable sources, such as wind or water power, by 2025. ...

Dave Boyles, the WindPower project manager, said that traditional fossil fuel or nuclear-generated electricity is now cheaper than wind power but that those fuel costs are likely to rise, making windmills more competitive over their 20-year lifetime.

He said that in return for tax subsidies, citizens "will be getting a reliable source of renewable energy that does not contribute to climate change and has no carbon footprint."

There are several good things going on here. The first is that the joint-powers agency was smart enough to purchase refurbished windmills that have proven their effectiveness in California, which is replacing them with later models. The cost savings to Minnesota over purchasing brand new ones will be substantial. The decision also reflects a pretty nifty recycling move.

The second is that the agency has recognized that in the short term, the wind generated power will be more expensive than carbon-based and nuclear power, but that in long term, the benefits to the planet will certainly be much greater than either traditional source. Except for the sour Galtian comments appended to the article, many Minnesotans appear not only willing to bear the additional cost, but actually welcome the move.

The third good thing is that the agency has found a very sensible way of financing the purchase and installation of the windmills. Providing tax credits to bondholders instead of interest makes it a feasible "win-win" approach that may very well lessen the initial start up cost to the project. In these economic times, that's a real plus.

Finally, although perhaps tangential, the first project is expected to commence in June. That should mean jobs for Minnesotans to get the installation finished and the maintenance required rolling this year. Who could be displeased by that?

There is one thing about the article, however, and about wind turbines in general, that still dismays me. The turbines Minnesota is purchasing from Palm Springs were made in Denmark. While I am not certain, I'm pretty sure that no company in the United States is manufacturing the units, which I find puzzling. We certainly have the technological and engineering know-how to do so and a skilled work force to make it work.

Hopefully, with a White House which has made renewable energy an important item on its agenda, that will change. President Obama and his administration would do well to use the same kind of creative thinking that this Minnesota agency has displayed to make it worthwhile for new and/or existing heavy equipment manufacturers to turn out the turbines here in the US. That would be the icing on the cake.

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People Power

Welcome to the first week of Ooopsies. The public has been politicized, something that really happened when suddenly Barack Obama the candidate kept winning despite the pundits' dismissal. Coming into office with the push of insistent public approval, President Obama has been taking the reins of an out-of-control fire engine on the way to a fire.

Lots of mess has ensued, but its the kind of mess that the public could deal with, knowing that eight years of robbing them had led up to it. This week, the tolerance shut down when even the president took a passive approach to dealing with more blatant robbery than ever - corporate CEO's who took down a lot of the financial world giving themselves hefty rewards.

I admit I'm as usual disappointed that finding out this country was using torture as a standard operating procedure didn't prove the final straw. Instead, CEO's who have destroyed our economy insisting they needed more gold toilet seats did the trick.

The maxim of business that made America prosper was that executives worked to make the firm strong, to direct it into a functioning producer of wealth for the long term. As I have pointed out here previously, when business was turned into a money machine for the executives instead of the firm's investors and workers, the American economy turned self-destructive.

Far and wide, pundittoes are declaiming the same thing, that we wuz robbed. They're a bit behind in taking up this theme, because in almost every American family there are examples of this victimization by unregulated, rampant, theft. It isn't even the first time this has happened to most families, because many of them still have memories of, or tales from, the 20's when the same thing occurred, that our laws were supposed to protect us from.

Frank Rich does a long diatribe about the Wall Street frenzy. He points up quite a number of the problems Americans are not stepping away from any longer, and gives a nice handy list of what's brought on the crucible.

What made Jon Stewart’s takedown of Jim Cramer resonate was less his specific brief against CNBC’s cheerleading for bad stocks than his larger indictment of the gaping economic inequality that defined the bubble. As Stewart said, there were “two markets” — the long-term market that Americans earnestly thought would sustain their 401(k)’s, and the fast-moving, short-term “real market” in the back room where high-rolling insiders wagered “giant piles of money” and brought down everyone with them.

No one is more commanding on this subject than our president. In his town-hall meeting in Costa Mesa, Calif., on Wednesday, he described the A.I.G. bonuses as merely a symptom of “a culture where people made enormous sums of money taking irresponsible risks that have now put the entire economy at risk.” But rhetoric won’t tamp down the anger out there, and neither will calculated displays of presidential “outrage.” We must have governance to match the message.

To get ahead of the anger, Obama must do what he has repeatedly promised but not always done: make everything about his economic policies transparent and hold every player accountable. His administration must start actually answering the questions that officials like Geithner and Summers routinely duck.

Inquiring Americans have the right to know why it took six months for us to learn (some of) what A.I.G. did with our money. We need to understand why some of that money was used to bail out foreign banks. And why Goldman, which declared that its potential losses with A.I.G. were “immaterial,” nonetheless got the largest-known A.I.G. handout of taxpayers’ cash ($12.9 billion) while also receiving a TARP bailout. We need to be told why retention bonuses went to some 50 bankers who not only were in the toxic A.I.G. unit but who left despite the “retention” jackpots. We must be told why taxpayers have so little control of the bailed-out financial institutions that we now own some or most of. And where are the M.R.I.’s from those “stress tests” the Treasury Department is giving those banks?
As the nation’s anger rose last week, the president took responsibility for what’s happening on his watch — more than he needed to, given the disaster he inherited. But in the credit mess, action must match words. To fall short would be to deliver us into the catastrophic hands of a Republican opposition whose only known economic program is to reject job-creating stimulus spending and root for Obama and, by extension, the country to fail.

Of course, the spectacle of an aroused populace has suddenly turned the suckup party into born-again populists. While those of us who have opposed their thieving for most of our lives think it's all too obvious that it's the Party of Nope that's engineered and cheered on this economic disaster, we've learned not to expect that being obvious means that this travesty will be perceived by the general public.

There were still about 25% who believed in the departed cretin in chief even as the world's economy collapsed around us, reassurance that our country didn't torture was disproved in all directions, wars that were adventures at best (business opportunities at worst) raged on unabated, and the executive department as a whole continuously betrayed the public interest at any opportunity. This is fertile ground for the charade we're seeing from the ringleaders of the Gang of Nope.

While I can't give the president all the answers, I do see him trying to do the right thing. It isn't easy, not for him and not for me, to get through this time. It's going to take a lot more than saying 'I told you so' - for all of us.

Like FDR, President Obama is trying to do a lot of things. Some are failures, some are successes. I will look for the failures to be abandoned, the successes to be strengthened and improved upon. If I can help, I will. This post is one attempt on my part.

I'm going to expect those of good will to forge to the front, and let the gangsters eat our dust.

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We are now 62 days into the Obama administration. Two months isn't long enough to provide a complete measure of a president, but in this case it does give us some indication of what we can expect. It also is sufficient to judge whether or not promises made during the campaign are likely to be kept.

Two major newspapers, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, each made some assessments of President Obama's first months in office and, interestingly, dealt with some of the same issues, including Candidate Obama's promise to repudiate the Bush administration's chicanery once he became President Obama. Although each editorial board was willing to cut the new president some slack because of the dire state of the nation when he took office, both noted that the obvious excuses weren't going to fly forever, especially when it came to the Global War on Terror.

First, the Los Angeles Times:

Another issue on which Obama seems to be backsliding involves the "state secrets" privilege, the legal doctrine the Bush administration overused and misapplied to have embarrassing cases thrown out of court on grounds of national security. Before the election, Obama criticized President Bush's repeated use of the privilege, but in a federal courthouse in February, when offered the opportunity to change positions and not invoke it in a case charging government torture, the Obama administration demurred.

We understand that being president carries great responsibility, and that when the director of Central Intelligence marches into the Oval Office with a file full of top-secret information and tells you that its disclosure could gravely damage the country, it's not so easy to say no. But Obama must not renege on his promises to increase transparency and to stop using the state secrets privilege to deny critics their day in court.

The New York Times was more pointed in its language:

It was great news, but also recalled our distress that the Justice Department had abandoned transparency just last month in a case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The case involves five men who were seized and transported to American facilities abroad or countries known for torturing prisoners.

The Obama administration advanced the same expansive state-secrets argument pressed by Mr. Bush’s lawyers to get a trial court to dismiss the case without any evidence being presented. Even the judges seemed surprised, asking whether the government wanted a delay to reconsider its position.

The Obama team should have taken the delay. It should now support bipartisan legislation to fix this problem by expanding judges’ powers to examine evidence the government wants to keep secret and decide whether to admit it based on facts rather than claims of presidential power. It is hard to fathom what signal Mr. Obama is trying to send by stifling cases that must be heard.

Both editorial boards were far kinder than they should have been on this issue. The excuse that revealing how the CIA operates would jeopardize its ability to gather the information necessary to protect the nation just doesn't wash. When an agency of this government engages in activities in clear contravention of domestic and international law, including those dealing with torture and kidnapping, that agency needs to be brought back under control, something the Bush White House refused to do because it suited Bush's delusions of absolute power.

The continuing invocation of the state-secrets doctrine to cover the collective backsides of an unrestrained CIA would be laughable if it weren't so dangerous to our concepts of human rights and the rule of law. That President Obama has bought into the specious CIA arguments does not bode well for the rest of his term. Yes, he has removed the term "enemy combatant" from the lexicon, and yes, he is working to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, but if he doesn't accord those kidnapped, tortured, and detained the rights guaranteed by our constitution, knowing the charges for which they are being held and access to a speedy and fair trial, those moves are meaningless.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: Jellyfish

(Photograph courtesy Martin George/QVMAG and published at National Geographic.)

Barack's Iraq?

I read an interesting interview at Germany's Die Zeit. Yes, it's the weekend and, yes, I've made the pilgrimage to Watching America. Anyway, the interview was with Brahma Chellany, professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi, India.

Professor Chellany had a number of interesting observations about the current state of Pakistan, which he designates as a "failed state," not so much because of the weak state of the current civilian government but because the real power in Pakistan has been the military, especially since Pervez Musharraf took over in a coup. The danger here, of course, is that Pakistan is also a nuclear state, something which must worry India and the rest of the region a great deal.

All of that is by way of setting the stage for the part of the interview I considered most interesting. At this point in history, the fate of Pakistan and Afghanistan appear to be intricately linked.

Brahma Chellaney (BC): President Asif Ali Zardari did well to avoid confrontation with the opposition and reinstate the judges fired by former dictator Pervez Musharraf. But the easing of political tension hasn’t removed the danger that Pakistan, a nuclear nation, might dissolve. Pakistan – as well as Afghanistan – is de facto a “failed state.” The boundaries between the governmental and non-governmental participants are extremely blurred. The president is really more a mayor of the capital city. The national borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan have virtually ceased to exist; it’s difficult to deal with both nations as though they were separate political entities. ... [Emphasis added]

After 9/11, George Bush decided to invade Afghanistan, and in the hysterical response to the terrorist attack, most Americans supported the move. Unfortunately, neither he nor the American public had been paying attention to history. Britain had failed in Afghanistan, and, much more recently, so had the Soviet Union. Ironically, because of the Cold War, US leaders decided to back the "insurgents" against the Russians and poured money, weapons, and intelligence resources into the mess, thereby empowering the very figures who would ultimately have a connection to those who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. We backed the very same people that we are fighting today, and not very successfully.

Now part of the reason for that is that the Bush administration was far more interested in Iraq, probably because Iraq has oil and Afghanistan just has opium poppies. President Bush diluted our commitment in Afghanistan and poured it into Iraq with devastating consequences for both theaters. Today's Washington Post makes that clear. The debacle in Iraq was one of the major reasons for the repudiation of the Republican Party in the last election.

Recognizing that fact, Candidate Obama vowed to pull troops out of Iraq. Unfortunately, he intends to send them to Afghanistan, the "good war", fully ignoring all of the history of the region. Here's what Professor Chellaney noted in the Die Welt interview:

America is preparing to repeat the same mistakes that were made by Ronald Reagan when he opposed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. That’s when the entire Afghanistan-Pakistan disaster began. Obama wants to train and arm new militias in every Afghan province although the country is already awash in armed militias. The militias armed and trained by Reagan, the so-called Mujahadin, became international terrorists. Besides that, Obama wants to cut a deal with the Taliban at the same time he’s hiding behind a troop surge. History again repeats itself. The Taliban was created by the Pakistani intelligence services with the support of the CIA. In October 2001, American policy did a complete turnabout and declared war on the Taliban. [Emphasis added]

So, what's a poor new incumbent to do? Certainly not keep repeating the same mistakes of previous administrations and expecting different results. While President Obama has shown significant signs of a dramatic and welcome change in foreign policy, he still feels compelled to show biceps when it comes to war making, in this case, in Afghanistan.

What he needs to do is spit out the bullet and bite down on contrition. Yes, we broke it and we own it, but we can't fix it without the assistance of the rest of the world, especially the countries in the region (India, Iran, and the Arab nations). India has already poured over $1 billion into Afghanistan in reconstruction aid. Our NATO allies would probably prefer equivalent monetary donations to military assistance. Diplomatic pressure on the war lords of Afghanistan and the military powers in Pakistan could be redoubled by the rest of the world without complaint.

Another "surge" is not the answer.

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