Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Home Of The Not-So-Brave

Shuttering Guantanamo Bay has proved far more difficult than President Obama had anticipated. The most visible symbol of the shameful behavior of the United States under the Bush administration remains open because of the fear mongering of those who refuse to acknowledge just how deeply our national honor was stained in the name of "security." Oh, those fear mongers don't mind if other countries are stupid enough to take in those men who have been beaten and tortured and held for years under bogus unspecified charges. Let other countries take the "risk," but don't expect this country to accept them.

What is so shameful about this cowardice is that a lot of it is coming from members of Congress. In May, the Senate voted 90-6 to block the transfer of any Guantanamo Bay detainees to the US. 90-6: that's some powerful bipartisanship, no?

Some real warriors were stung by the cowardice. As reported in the Washington Post, a group of retired US military officers have openly challenged the fear-mongers:

A group of retired senior military officers on Tuesday backed the Obama administration's troubled effort to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, saying that those who oppose transferring detainees to the United States for trial are engaging in fear-mongering.

At a forum on Capitol Hill, the retired generals and admirals argued that shuttering the facility in Cuba is in the strategic interest of the United States because it will destroy a potent propaganda and recruitment tool used by terrorists.

But, they said, the president's goal has nearly been overwhelmed by fear and misinformation.

"It appears to us that a campaign to ratchet up fear has taken off," John D. Hutson, a retired Navy rear admiral and former judge advocate general, said ahead of the forum, which was organized by Human Rights First, a New York-based advocacy group.

Added Hutson: "We believe the people going to be prosecuted are not warriors. They are criminals and thugs. . . . We ought to be using the criminal justice system."

Of course, if on 9/12/01 we had taken the approach suggested by Rear Admiral Hutson against the criminals and thugs who attacked the US, President Bush wouldn't have been able to get his war on, first in Afghanistan (the prelude to the war he really wanted) and then in Iraq (the war he really wanted), and President Obama wouldn't have been able to adopt the war in Afghanistan as his very own display of manliness. Hundreds of billions of dollars wouldn't have poured into the coffers of private contractors and the military industrial complex instead of into the US economy in general.

Instead, we went with the fear factor and we continue to do so, completely unmindful of what it is doing to our reputation as a nation of laws, and ignoring the dangers of the consequences of such unmindfullness.

Even the 'center-left' editorial board of the Los Angeles Times acknowledges the need to end this cowardly behavior with respect to Gitmo:

Shuttering Guantanamo is essential to restoring the United States' image abroad. But it cannot be done unless those prisoners who can't be released are housed elsewhere. If this country doesn't take its share of detainees, how can it lecture other countries about their responsibility to help? In criticizing the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policy, Obama rightly said that "too often our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight." That is precisely what Congress must not do with Guantanamo.

I suggest we send several cartons of Depends to the 111th Congress and urge them to exercise their spines a little. It would do them and the rest of us a world of good.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Through The Back Door

I'm gobsmacked. Abortion rights opponents are using health care reform to end insurance coverage for elective abortions. That's bad enough, but those abortion rights opponents also claim to be Democrats.

From the NY Times:

Abortion opponents in both the House and the Senate are seeking to block the millions of middle- and lower-income people who might receive federal insurance subsidies to help them buy health coverage from using the money on plans that cover abortion. And the abortion opponents are getting enough support from moderate Democrats that both sides say the outcome is too close to call. Opponents of abortion cite as precedent a 30-year-old ban on the use of taxpayer money to pay for elective abortions.

Abortion-rights supporters say such a restriction would all but eliminate from the marketplace private plans that cover the procedure, pushing women who have such coverage to give it up. Nearly half of those with employer-sponsored health plans now have policies that cover abortion, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

What, is all of this an attempt to force President Obama to show he wasn't lying when he said federal money wouldn't be used to cover abortions? That's probably part of it. After all, the president did say that in his Health Care speech to Congress. His position is that while he believes abortion is a woman's right, there are those who in good faith hold the opposite position, so he feels obligated to reach out to those people in the hopes of finding a "middle ground." I wonder if he would also say that while he finds limiting voting rights to those who own property to be odious, there are those who in good faith hold the opposite belief, so he feels obligated to reach out to those people in the hope of finding a "middle ground."

That's bad enough (and it is devastating to women's rights, make no mistake), but leading the charge through the back door are Democrats!

Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, a leading Democratic abortion opponent, said he had commitments from 40 Democrats to block the health care bill unless they have a chance to include the restrictions. ...

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to vote this week on a proposed amendment from Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, to restrict the use of federal subsidies.

Advocates on both sides said that if the committee does not adopt the amendment they expect a very close contest over the issue when the bill reaches the floor. Two Democratic abortion-rights opponents, Senator Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania and Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, are pushing the issue.
[Emphasis added]

It's not just that such proposals discriminate against those not wealthy enough to afford the new mandated insurance programs who therefore have to use federal subsidies to get any kind of insurance policy. Private insurers will be able to remove that procedure from all of their policies, first so that there is no chance that federal funds will be spent illegally, and second to save money all the way around. That's not a step forward in women's rights, it's two giant steps back.

From a woman's right to choose, to no choice at all.


Not exactly the kind we were promised.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Scarlet Letter Of The Law

I've a few professional friends who've begun taking in immigration cases and they tell me that it's a difficult branch of the law, very difficult, primarily because it is so technical. That doesn't surprise me. After all, it's federal law we're talking about here, and the federal court system. Still, attorneys know that, and if they are serious about their jobs, they cope with it. Some of the time that works, but, unfortunately, other times it simply does not.

An article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune is an example of what happens when the letter of the law is invoked to defeat the spirit of the law, and common sense.

[Hoa] Nguyen, 29, came here from Vietnam on a student visa 10 years ago, earned a bachelor's degree at Luther College and a master's degree at the University of Minnesota, got married and made a life in Minneapolis. But she failed to file for a green card and missed a court date in August; she was jailed in Sherburne County.

Last week, an immigration judge denied Nguyen's motion to re-open her case, noting that her arguments did not constitute the "exceptional circumstances" needed to grant the motion. She now faces deportation, possibly within the next two weeks.

Let's review the facts. She came to this country legally on a student visa. She was a student until just recently when she took a break from her PhD program at UMinn. She got married last November to an American citizen. She and her husband went to Viet Nam for a marriage ceremony earlier this year, but when she and her husband returned to the US in February, she was stopped at the airport by immigration authorities who advised her there was an issue as to her student status. Then she received a hearing notice requiring her to appear before an immigration court on August 13. She didn't appear, and on August 14, immigration authorities appeared at her door, arrested her, and took her to jail.

Through an attorney, she argued that her case should be reopened because she was married to a US citizen, and had been for 10 months. The judge denied her motion and ordered deportation. His point was that being married to a US citizen was not a good enough excuse for not appearing on August 13.

OK, she's a flake. She should never have blown off the hearing. She should have appeared with her husband and with a certified copy of her marriage certificate in hand. She probably should be punished, perhaps with a stiff fine for disregarding a valid court order, or a period of time in jail, or perhaps a period of community service. But deportation for 5 years or so? Come on, that's both ludicrous and overkill.

That, however, is how our immigration system works.


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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday Poetry: Mark Brunke

Artificial Light

Under the sweet desert
the anniversary impulse
is bred into
the soldiers heart...
in time nine beats
for eleven measures
and self dissappears
into the arabian rhythm.

In rhythms and beats the orange
sun rises and violent
its violet edges
say good night
and good morning
to insurgents and surges
of soldiers playing and plying
the dead for mediated
affirmations of each other's

Under yellow sodium
artificial light
death came.
To each with ecstasy, sadness,
passion and numbness;
To each with pain,
and hatred.

Two televisions sit facing
each other, transmitting
in different languages, filling
the air with sounds
mixing together,
playing to an ever
deafening crowd.

Mark Brunke

(Published at Poets Against the War.)

Delayed Reaction

Ahmed Zewail, a professor at Caltech, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, and recent appointee to President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, has a wonderful op-ed column in today's Boston Globe. The starting point of this essay is the recent speech given by President Obama in Cairo, Egypt, Mr. Zewail's homeland. Mr. Zewail returned to Egypt after that speech and checked into the Egyptian response to that speech. He discovered that the response was mostly positive, that the US president showed the right amount of respect for Egypt and for Islam, but that people there were still waiting for President Obama to make the first next move.

Mr. Zewail was clearly disappointed in the response because he felt that his former compatriots missed the point, a point he thinks is crucial to the revitalization of Egypt and other Muslim countries. In Mr. Zewail's view President Obama's speech was about education in its deepest sense.

Egypt should take its cue from the fact that the president chose to speak not before government officials, but before an audience of educated young people. As a scientist educated in both Egypt and America, I appreciate the president’s call for new education and science partnerships between Muslim nations and the West, for it is these areas that have the greatest potential to move a society forward.

Mr. Zewail detailed his education in Egypt, which occurred during the "Nasser Revolution" which emphasized education for all Egyptians, including women and non-Muslims. The result was a renaissance in both secular and religious learning, and the country reaped a bountiful harvest from that revolution.

This was the environment that propelled me to enroll at the University of Alexandria, excel in my science studies with outstanding professors, win a scholarship for graduate study at the University of Pennsylvania, and become a professor at the California Institute of Technology.

My experience was hardly unique, and it offers an instructive example of what a commitment to education, unfettered by religious orthodoxies, can accomplish. When optimists speak of cultivating a spirit of progress among Muslim nations, we need look no farther back than the Egypt of my childhood, when the country had the best universities and richest cultural milieu in the region, and was a center of secular and religious learning.

What struck me most about Mr. Zewail's essay is that his thesis is hardly limited to Egypt or even to Muslim countries. Change a few key words in the following extract and you'll see what I mean:

Today in Egypt and throughout much of the Muslim world, more than a quarter of the population is under the age of 30. Neither Muslim governments nor the West can afford to overlook this immense reservoir of human talent and potential.

The most effective way to tap it is through a revitalized educational system, from the elementary grades through college, that is willing to capitalize on the best of both Muslim and Western traditions of learning, with a new emphasis on science and technology, and a recognition that assimilating new ideas represents not a departure from an authentic Muslim heritage but a return to it. A sustained investment in education is what will ultimately lead to greater economic prosperity, enhanced quality of life, and true democratic reform.

There are many regions in the US which continue the battle against teaching certain parts of science (evolution) for religious reasons. Textbooks are still being bowdlerized in the name of orthodoxy. Children, as a result, are getting a third-rate education in a country which, when challenged by President Kennedy after the launch of Sputnik, responded with its own renaissance in scientific education. Yet now, the best the government can come up with is the "teach to the test" debacle of No Child Left Behind or high school exit exams.

President Obama was wise to go to Cairo to deliver his speech, and he was even wiser to appoint Professor Zewail to his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Now he would do well to make the same commitment to education in this country that he urged for Egypt. He has a full plate right now, but surely there is enough room to include a new education initiative, one that focuses on real learning for the real world.


Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Dwane Powell / Raleigh News and Observer (September 25, 2009) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on the cartoon to enlarge.)


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: Neglected Eighty-Eight Butterfly

(Photograph by Joel Sartore and published at National Geographic.)


There wasn't much that intrigued me at Watching America this morning. I guess I'm a little jaded. It's been a lousy news week all the way around. One entry did spark some mild interest, however: a blog entry at The Economist.

It seems that another Bushista has written a "tell-all" book. This one is from former Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer, who apparently relieved himself mightily about his experiences and observations by writing his tome, entitled Speech-less (catchy, no?). Mr. Latimer informs us that Karl Rove was a crashing boor, the president had a nasty streak, and that Latimer's immediate boss was pretentious for no good reason. The book will probably sell well, both to Republicans who still would like to know how such a socialist got elected and to Democrats who want their blood lust sated since it's clear the Obama administration has no intention of investigating and prosecuting the miscreants of the last administration.

After a brief review of the book, Lexington (the blogger) moves on to briefly examine just what the book and its probable popularity actually portends. He concludes, not much. The last half of his essay is, in my opinion, a pretty astute analysis of just where the US is at this moment in time.

...people tend to believe what they want to believe, and Mr Latimer’s book has helped two pre-existing delusions to become stronger.

The first, which is popular among some Republicans, is that Mr Bush was unpopular because he was not conservative enough. Mr Latimer has proved that Mr Bush was not, in fact, a true conservative, argues Jed Babbin, the editor of Human Events, a socially conservative magazine. And this means the conservative movement need no longer be tarred by association with him, apparently. “It lifts the burden of George W. Bush from our shoulders,” exults Mr Babbin, clearing the way for a new Reagan, a genuine one this time, to lead Republicans back to victory.

The second delusion, popular among Democrats, is that Mr Bush will help them win elections indefinitely. It worked in 2006 and 2008, so why not in 2010? Some Democratic strategists think the surest way to keep control of Congress next year is to link every Republican to Mr Bush.

Each delusion, however, carries the seed of destruction for those who hold them as eternal verities.

...Republicans will not tempt tomorrow’s voters if they merely offer a reheated version of what they were selling in 1980. They will not win swing voters if they value doctrinal purity above all else. And they will not be able to govern if they treat all compromise as betrayal. Bruce Bartlett, a former adviser to Reagan, says the Republican Party has been taken over by “anti-tax fanatics” so extreme that he is not sure they wouldn’t rather default on the national debt than raise taxes. That may be an exaggeration, but it is hard to spot much seriousness in either party about getting the nation’s finances in order.

As for the Democrats, they need to realise that no matter how many Bush-baiting books are sold in Washington, DC, the rest of the country is moving on. Mr Obama is the president. His party dominates both chambers up on Capitol Hill. Come election time next November, if unemployment is still high, or Afghanistan has turned into a fiasco, or if health-care reform unravels, or if there is another terrorist attack, Americans will blame the people in power, not the retired guy in Crawford.
[Emphasis added]


I don't know, or care, for that matter, about the problems the GOP is facing. That's their business, one that continues to look murky at best. The Democrats, however, as the only alternative at present continue to worry me. They allegedly have 60 votes in their Senate caucus (although I wouldn't count on either Arlen Specter or Joe Lieberman at all, and I definitely wouldn't lay my life down for any one of the Blue Dogs), and they own the White House, yet they can't seem to get much done on crucial issues ranging from health care, to Afghanistan, to knocking out the unconstitutional provisions of the Patriot Act, to moving those detainees wrongfully held in Guantanamo Bay home or at least to the US mainland, or to stimulating jobs, rather than just a rise in stock prices.

If things don't turn around on these issues, it won't take a terrorist attack to defeat the Democrats. They will have done it on their own. And that means that the US will be screwed for a long time to come.

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Republicans Lie? Unpossible!

An editorial in today's Sacramento Bee warns that if you've enjoyed the civil discourse on health care reforms (e.g., "death panels"), you're going to love the one coming up on climate change legislation. The tools and the wielders of those tools will be the same.

The House has already passed a fairly strong cap-and-trade climate bill, the Waxman-Markey act, which if it becomes law would eventually lead to sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

But on climate change, as on health care, the sticking point will be the Senate. And the usual suspects are doing their best to prevent action. ...

...the main argument against climate action probably won't be the claim that global warming is a myth. It will, instead, be the argument that doing anything to limit global warming would destroy the economy. ...

...the campaign against saving the planet rests mainly on lies.

Thus, last week Glenn Beck – who seems to be challenging Rush Limbaugh for the role of de facto leader of the Republican Party – informed his audience of a "buried" Obama administration study showing that Waxman-Markey would actually cost the average family $1,787 per year. Needless to say, no such study exists.

But we shouldn't be too hard on Beck. Similar – and similarly false – claims about the cost of Waxman-Markey have been circulated by many supposed experts.

In my opinion, we can never be too hard on Glenn Beck. He's a liar, and he needs to be called out on his lies. That isn't hard to do, if only the Democrats would do it. The Bee editorial has offered up a few tips along those lines.

Fact: much of the carbon based energy we use now is wasted. Energy conservation, Dick Cheney's derision aside, would lessen the wastefulness, thereby saving consumers money while easing some of the effects of carbon based climate change. Replacing poorly fit windows and doors, installing more effective insulation, even replacing incandescent light bulbs with more efficient light bulbs would have a demonstrable effect and, with government rebates and tax breaks, would be painless. That's a good first step.

Fact: the Congressional Budget Office took a look at Waxman-Markey and concluded that "in 2020 the bill would cost the average family only $160 a year, or 0.2 percent of income." Yes, that dollar figure rises by 2050, but so should the GDP, so the bite is far less than what Mr. Beck claims.

But those facts don't matter to the usual suspects. All that matters to them is that whatever the Democrats, especially "that one" in the White House, propose must be defeated, even if it means the end of civilization.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging

Curiouser and Curiouser

Today's Los Angeles Times has a rather strange (and not in a good way) article on the death of William E. Sparkman. The part time census worker was found dead near a cemetary in Kentucky, a rope around his neck and the word "fed" scrawled on his chest. Now, given the recent spate of violence against the enemies-of-the-week engendered by AM radio hatemongers and their television counterparts, the conclusion that Mr. Sparkman was killed because he was perceived as a representative of the hated federal government is not a reach. The word on his chest points in that direction.

The LA Times, however, both punctures that theory and jabs at the "liberal blogosphere" and then proceeds to hint at its own, less inflammatory theory:

The case so far is notable for the lack of details divulged by law enforcement officials -- and the conclusions that have been drawn nonetheless in some quarters of the liberal blogosphere, which is rife with concern that anti-government rhetoric that has escalated in the Obama era could spill over into anti-government violence. ...

But as of Thursday, state police had yet to rule whether Sparkman's death was a homicide, suicide or accident. Investigators were awaiting a full report from the state medical examiner, said Lt. David Jude, a Police Department spokesman. Jude reported the cause of death, and details about the rope, late Thursday afternoon.

Mr. Sparkman died of asphyxiation. When he was found, his body was touching the ground. That his death was not caused by hanging is a possibility, but that rope around his neck certainly points to a hanging, albeit a botched one. The Kentucky police investigating the death still haven't ruled out suicide or accident (?), but they are keeping their conclusions under wraps, at least as far as the press is concerned. And there is still that other piece of evidence: "fed".

While taking the position that there just isn't enough information available to conclude that Mr. Sparkman was killed because of his status as a federal employee the LA Times then suggests that because he was killed in an area rife with marijuana growing, he might have been killed because he stumbled upon a stand while hiking. The growers, under this theory, might have mistaken him for a NARC agent. "Fed."

Oh, please.

It's admittedly too early in the investigation, at least those parts that have been revealed by the Kentucky State Police, to determine exactly what happened, it seems to me that one word, "fed", is a pretty important piece of information. Why is a prestigious newspaper so anxious to play this down? Is it because the "liberal blogosphere" has pointed out the obvious?

Come on, Los Angeles Times, you can do better.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

What A Coincidence!

How unusual: just as Congress is prepared to discuss the extension of three provisions of the Patriot Act which expire at the end of the year and to consider some new bills which would tighten the requirements for obtaining national security letters and other tools for intrusions into the civil liberties of citizens, the Justice Department announced a breakthrough in an investigation into a terrorist plot involving bombs and men with Arab sounding names. Just a coincidence, I guess, an unhappy happenstance.

The Washington Post only indirectly alluded to that coincidence in this article, concentrating instead on the rather muted Justice Department response to the various proposals floating around Congress:

At hearings in the House and Senate, the officials repeatedly said they had no position yet on legislation that Democrats have introduced that would tighten standards and oversight of surveillance tools authorized under laws including the USA Patriot Act.

"We are trying to figure out whether the provisions that are suggested there will work for us as is, or perhaps with modifications," David S. Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday on whether to renew a trio of Patriot Act powers set to expire Dec. 31.

Those provisions allow investigators to use "roving wiretaps" to monitor suspects who may be trying to escape detection by switching cellphone numbers; obtain from third parties the business records of national security targets; and track "lone wolf" suspects who may not belong to a terrorist group but may be planning attacks.

Assistant Attorney General Kris was playing it close to the vest, primarily because he can as the developing story on the latest bomb plot takes up increasing column inches on the front pages of national newspapers. With that kind of backdrop, he knows that he can appear above the fray. The Justice Department has done its job in keeping the country safe.

But it's not just those provisions of the odious Patriot Act which are about to expire that are under discussion in Congress. The national security letters have also grabbed some attention because they completely circumvent the judicial oversight necessary to protect our civil liberties.

Among the most problematic provisions targeted by Democrats is one not due to expire. But Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine testified Wednesday that the national security letter -- a tool that lets FBI agents obtain phone, bank and other personal records from third parties without judicial approval -- has been subject to "serious misuse."

The Patriot Act, passed in late 2001, broadened the FBI's authority to use national security letters by lowering the standard for issuing them and by expanding the number of FBI officials who could sign them. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and two colleagues introduced a bill this week that would place a four-year expiration date on the letters' authority and tighten the standard for issuing them.

Under legislation introduced last week by Democratic Sens. Russell Feingold (Wis.) and Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the FBI would also have to show that people whose records are sought have some connection to terrorism or espionage. Both bills would also, to varying degrees, strengthen requirements for the use of other surveillance tools.

In light of the Inspector General's testimony regarding the "serious misuse" of the national security letter system, it will be interesting to see how long the Assistant Attorney General for National Security remains coolly above the fray with respect to the proposed bills. It will also be interesting to see how President Obama, who deplored the Bush administration's disdain for civil liberty and the US Constitution during his campaign, will react to the proposed cutting back on the powers granted the government under the Patriot Act.

Finally, it will be most interesting to see how the "tenthers" and "teabaggers" will react to a curtailing of the executive branch's over-reaching when it comes to our right to privacy and to be secure in our homes. After all, that's what they seem to be most concerned about.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

At A Glacial Pace

It appears that the Obama administration is moving to give up some of the power grabbed by its predecessor, at least in one area. The Justice Department has developed a new set of guidelines as to when the executive branch can assert the "State Secrets" doctrine to thwart lawsuits against the government. According to this NY Times article, the new policy may be released as early as today, and will involve review by the upper echelon of the Justice Department, right up to and including the Attorney General of any proposed use of the doctrine.

Here's one of the more welcome parts of the proposed policy:

The new policy would also direct the Justice Department to reject a request to use the privilege if officials decide the motivation for doing so is to “conceal violations of the law, inefficiency or administrative error” or to “prevent embarrassment.”

I have to admit that I'm still a little skeptical about this new policy. After all, the Obama administration had no qualms about using the "State Secrets" doctrine several times in its opening months. And, as the NY Times article pointed out, the new policy just happens to suddenly appear as several bills in Congress have been proposed which will likewise curtail the use of this 'hide the salami' tool and will provide guidelines for judges to use when the doctrine is asserted. It looks like the new policy is in part an attempt to blunt the drive for such congressional action.

Several lawmakers adopted a cautious stance on whether they would press forward with the privilege legislation, because they had not yet seen the policy. Still, the lead sponsor of the House version of the bill, Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, noted in a statement that the bills would affect courts, too.

“Fixing the executive branch’s assertion of the privilege is only one part of the equation,” Mr. Nadler said. “Congress must still enact legislation that provides consistent standards and procedures for courts to use when considering state secrets claims. Our constitutional system requires meaningful, independent judicial review of
governmental secrecy claims.”

There is no reason for Congressman Nadler and his colleagues to back off on the bill. Bringing the executive branch back into balance with the other two branches of government would be a welcome beginning to the restoration of our democracy.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Someone Finally States The Obvious

Theodore Roszak's op-ed piece in today's Los Angeles Times states with stunning clarity the most sensible, most workable, and most elegant solution to the health care reform question: make Medicare available to all.

So why has it not occurred to the champions of reform that instead of telling people that the public option is "like Medicare," we might simply let the public option be Medicare? That would reduce all the complexities to one clear-cut public-option solution: Amend Medicare so that it will be available to everyone regardless of age.

Since 1951, the self-employed have been able to buy into Social Security; currently about 9 million of them are in the system. Why not remove the age restriction on Medicare and let everybody buy in who wants to buy in? Medicare provides a very elusive target for right-wing vilification or for those who seek to make reform look so complex that we must wait an additional 20 years to change the system. It is a time-tested program that people know and trust. It has an exemplary track record for low-overhead administration. Medicare is already the most successful cost-control program we have, and it can be made more effective still. (There are estimates that fraud in the system costs over $60 billion a year -- a serious but fixable flaw that accounts for enough money to keep the system solvent.)

Above all, it's here. Its administrative procedures and personnel are in place. Unlike health co-ops -- which remain a mystery to most of us -- Medicare needs only to be expanded, which has to be cheaper than starting from square one. ...

If you're under 65 and want the Medicare option, you would have to pay a designated premium, which would have to be high enough to cover the costs of the expanded coverage. But it is bound to be lower than any private plan. (Seniors would still be covered, without paying a premium, as they are now.) ...

Medicare excludes no one for prior conditions; it is portable and stays with you for a lifetime. Worried seniors may actually like seeing Medicare get bigger and take in more money. That would produce a more durable program that's better able to bargain with providers and pharmaceutical companies. Even Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats may find it more acceptable to vote for an enlarged Medicare than for another public option. And as a bone to the insurance industry, those covered by expanded Medicare, like those covered by classic Medicare, could buy private supplementary insurance plans to pay for whatever remains uncovered.

There: how difficult was that? In just a few column inches (rather than a 1000 page bill written in bureaucratese) Mr. Roszak has distilled a workable plan that should satisfy just about every citizen in the US. It even contains "a bone" for private insurance companies.

Universal health care access: it's not just for Europe anymore.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Well, Duh

I may have been overly simplistic in asserting that Senate Republicans would not vote Sen. Baucus's health care proposal because they wouldn't vote for any reform coming from a Democratic Congress for a Democratic President. It appears that they may have what seems to them a good reason: too many tax dollars are involved. That means that nobody likes the bill, well, except for Max Baucus and the insurance industry.

Just why this is so is set out nicely in an opinion column written for the Boston Globe by Maggie Mahar, a fellow at the Century Foundation. Here are just a few of the details Ms. Mahar found in the Baucus bill which makes it so unpalatable for any sentient being:

It’s no surprise that his bill includes no public sector insurance plan. Instead, the only competition that giant insurers face will come from tiny co-operatives - and even then, to qualify for federal funding, they must be fledglings. Established co-ops will not qualify for help. Thus, private insurers can count on controlling the marketplace as millions of new customers who don’t have job-based coverage are required by law to come their way, tax subsidies in hand.

...The Baucus bill won’t let insurers hike premiums because a customer suffers from a pre-existing condition. But it lets insurers charge older Americas five times as much as younger customers.

The Baucus legislation also imposes a penalty on single-parenthood. If you live alone with one child, you will be asked to shell out 80 percent more than a childless adult.

Of course it makes sense that coverage for a mother and child would cost more than the premium for a single person. But since children typically use much less health care than adults, 80 percent is a steep surcharge for single-parenthood - especially since a couple with children would pay only 50 percent more than a childless couple. ...

Single parents also tend to cling to the lower rungs of the income ladder. Many will qualify for at least a partial, if not a full subsidy. Who lays out the extra 80 percent? That’s right - you and I.

Finally, if under the Baucus bill, insurers can charge middle-income 50-somethings five times as much as even the most affluent 20-somethings, a great many of those older customers are going to need fat subsidies, sending more tax dollars to Aetna.

Aetna (or Blue Cross, or any of the other major health insurance players) don't really care where the money comes from, just as long as it keeps coming at a rate they have become accustomed to. Republicans wouldn't ordinarily object, free market and all, but in their view, the tax dollars are causing a benefit to a group of people they feel are unworthy: the poor and single women with kids.

So, the bill doesn't reform anything. In fact, it's going to cost us more for health care no matter how you look at it, more than a single payer system would have cost us.

Sweet deal, but not for us.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday Poetry: Wilfred Owen

Arms and the Boy

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman's flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads
Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads.
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.

For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

Wilfred Owen

One Problem and Four Wrong Answers

Today's Los Angeles Times was a little weirder than usual. In the news section, I found a rather extraordinary article on one of the difficult problems in reining in health care costs. The biggest health care expenditures occur in the last two years of life (no surprise there), which means Medicare takes a big hit at that point because in most cases it is the insurer. What shocked me was that in the Los Angeles area, those costs are nearly double the national average. There is no single reason for that, but rather a complex set of factors, and the article takes a good look at some of those factors.

Some experts say high costs for patients at big-city hospitals such as White Memorial reflect a free-spending, out-of-control medical marketplace. Others say medical costs are higher in urban areas because the poor need more care and the rich demand it. Others say the profit motive is at play.

Still others say that when lives are at stake, cost should not be an issue.

Whatever the reason, the question itself has taken on added importance as the Obama administration pushes a massive expansion of medical care to the uninsured. In campaigning for a healthcare overhaul, President Obama has made repeated calls for changes that will help "Americans avoid the unnecessary hospital stays, treatments and tests that drive up costs."

OK, so the style sucks ("some say" should be banned from any news report), but the article does raise the right issues and surveys some of the answers. All in all, the article is well worth the read.

The article is not the weird part, however. That comes in the editorial section where four conservatives (none serving in Congress at the present time) step forward with their views on what would fix the whole health care problem. The names are very familiar, as are the views.

First up (and go hide your cat) is former Sen. Bill Frist, whose suggestion is that we "Focus on Wellness:"

The key word is "interventions." Think about it: Having more people getting more health screenings, mammograms, pap smears and colonoscopies has to cost more money.

While we want such services to be widely available, reform that concentrates merely on offering more of those things isn't the way to fix what ails the nation. Instead, we need a system that concentrates on keeping us well, so we need less "healthcare" and fewer "preventive interventions" in the first place.

The major determinants of health are not doctors, hospitals, universal insurance, public plans and expanded health services. Much more significant is behavior -- things such as diet, exercise, smoking and drinking -- basic education and socioeconomic status. So if the goal is to make us healthier, to lower the burden and thus the societal costs of disease, policymakers in Washington must actively promote health and wellness. And the way to do that is by providing incentives for the implementation and sustained use of employer-backed wellness programs.

So, quit smoking, drinking, eating fried foods, and start exercising and stay in school and all will be well in the land, at least eventually. For those too far along for such a program, or who don't have an employer willing to fund a wellness program, well, too bad for them. They'll have to live/die with their own choices.

Next up is Mickey Edwards, whose idea is "Solve the urgent healthcare problems, and leave the rest." His idea on what the "urgent problems" is also unsurprising:

Step one: Authorize creation of an alternative, non-government source of insurance -- a "pool" that would allow the uninsured, self-insured, etc., to join in a private plan that would not be tied to any particular employer or association. This plan already has a great deal of bipartisan support and could easily be brought to life.

Step two: Corporations are creatures of government, provided with special government protections against the kinds of liability that plain citizens might face in providing goods or services. All "government creations" (radio and television stations using the public airwaves, for example) face certain restrictions as a price for the government benefit they receive. While insurance companies might have to charge more for covering an event that is very likely to occur (increasing the insurer's risk), they could, as government-empowered entities, be required to insure those with preexisting conditions and cover any recurrences or ongoing problems linked to those conditions.

Sound familiar? It should: that's what Max Baucus is touting. Funny how some things don't make any sense no matter which side of the aisle utters it.

Third on the list comes from David Frum whose mantra is "Give insurers more power."

The big problem with America's private-sector health insurance companies is that they are not nearly powerful enough. ...

What we need instead is to assert federal regulatory authority over the whole marketplace and get the states out of healthcare altogether. Let the insurers do business as national entities; let the market contract to four or eight major insurers; and then let them do unto their suppliers as Wal-Mart does unto its suppliers: squeeze them.

Suppliers will respond by searching fiercely for efficiencies and economies.

Most things cost less in the United States because America's huge internal market allows for mighty economies of scale. In health insurance, Americans have forgone those advantages too long. Liberals want the federal government to displace the private insurers because (they claim) capitalism fails in healthcare. Before succumbing to state control, though, wouldn't it be wiser to allow capitalism a fair and national try?

Been there, done that, which is why we are where we are. You want economies of scale, turn it over to the government and let the new version of Medicare beat on the cheaters. Sheesh, what a moron!

Finally, there's Richard Viguerie, who picks up where David Frum left off. His insight is "Conservatives encourage competition in healthcare:"

First, it's time for honesty from Democrats, Republicans and the health profession. People don't know their own healthcare costs when they're covered, therefore they don't shop around for better prices and there's less incentive to keep costs low. Health savings accounts would put sanity back into the system because people would have "skin in the game." When people spend their own money, they spend it more wisely.

Second, government must not directly or indirectly control healthcare. Democrats and Republicans have demonstrated time and again that they succumb to special interests. Keep the government's nose out of patient-doctor relationships and do not create a government database of medical records.

Third, respect constitutional constraints, which means most federal involvement is barred or limited. Use the commerce clause of the Constitution productively, as it was intended, to break down inefficient barriers to interstate commerce. Allow citizens of any state to choose from what's available in all 50 states. Let consumers carry their coverage from job to job and from state to state. Include reasonable tort reform, but only consistent with the Constitution.

Fourth, don't discourage profit. The desire for profit drives better prices, service and products.

Oh, the apotheosis of conservative brilliance! It burns! And it stinks. Apparently Mr. Viguerie still has faith in the executives of AIG, Country Wide Finance, and the Chrysler Corporation. Look, Richard, nowhere in the US Constitution is it mandated that the desire for profit shall be sated at the cost of healthcare. Get over it.

So, that's the thinking and the proposals from the conservative luminaries offered by the Los Angeles Times. This certainly explains why people like Rep. Boehner and Sen. McConnell haven't offered a competing plan.

They. Got. Nothing.

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Sunday Funnies

Cartoon by Kevin Siers of The Charlotte Observer (September 18, 2009) and featured at McClatchy DC.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: Pronghorn Antelope

(Photograph by Joe Riis and published by National Geographic.)

Smarter Than The GOP

My visit to Watching America was a brief one this morning, primarily because I found what I was looking for almost immediately. I was interested in seeing what our European allies had to say about President Obama's decision to pull the plug on the Bush administration's Missile Defense System. I suspect this op-ed piece from Germany's Der Tagesspiegel is pretty representative.

...The whole matter revolves around whether or not Iran poses a credible threat. Either Bush is right in maintaining that Iran is making progress working toward a nuclear bomb and the long-range missiles to deliver it at least as far as Israel, Europe and U.S. military bases overseas; in that case, there must be plans in place to counter that whether one likes Bush or not. Or Obama is correct in his new approach: Tehran isn’t making the technological progress they need, as many had feared. In that case, the West can postpone – not abandon - defensive measures and give diplomacy a chance to dissuade Iran from its plans via sanctions and incentives. ...

Obama is considering only those sober facts concerning U.S. interests. He considers the missile shield a technology that doesn’t yet work against a threat that isn’t yet imminent at a cost that would be uncontrollable. Besides that, locating such a shield in Poland and the Czech Republic only serves to hinder any agreement with Moscow concerning heftier sanctions against Iran. The projects in Eastern Europe, therefore, will be halted because their cost is higher than their worth. If a missile defense system becomes necessary, it could be based in Turkey or on naval vessels.
[Emphasis added]

Which is essentially what I said here, and what Sec. of Defense Gates and President Obama said on Thursday. And as to the GOP whines about selling out Poland and the Czech Republic, the columnist even has that covered:

...One side effect of the policy change: the disappointment with the United States is pulling Poland and the Czech Republic closer to Western Europe. The chasms opened during the Bush years have been closed at least a little.

Why, yes, I believe that covers things nicely. Too bad the Republicans can't see the light, but considering where their heads appear to be lodged, that isn't too surprising.

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The Great Writ

Federal judges are still doing their jobs, and one has just done hers admirably. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly granted a writ of habeas corpus (in a sealed decision) for a Guantanamo Bay detainee who has been held for seven years, probably in a case of mistaken identity. The Miami Herald, probably the best source for news on Guantanamo Bay, has the story here:

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly filed the sealed decision to grant a writ of habeas corpus for Fouad al Rabia, 50, Thursday evening at the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The public portion of her order instructed the U.S. government "to take all necessary and appropriate diplomatic steps'' to arrange Rabia's release "forthwith.''

Mr. al Rabia's lawyers did their job equally as well, pointing out the horrendous circumstances of their client's detention.

Defense attorneys argued at four-day court hearing last month that the U.S. military had worn Rabia down through relentless and abusive interrogation to the point where he falsely confessed that he ran a supply depot in the Battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in December 2001. ...

His lawyer, David Cynamon, argued at an unclassified portion of his hearing last month that U.S. interrogators learned of Rabia's Arabic honorific, Abu Abdullah al Kuwaiti, and confused him with another Kuwaiti who had the same nickname. That Abu Abdullah did handle logistics and supplies in the showdown between U.S. Special Forces and their allies and loyalists to Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora, said Cynamon. But he was killed in the American-led shock-and-awe strikes on al Qaeda fanatics defending bin Laden in a tunnel and cave complex.

"The government's so-called case against Mr. al Rabia was based almost entirely on false 'confessions' wrung out of him by months of clearly improper and abusive interrogation techniques taken right from the playbook of the North Koreans and Chinese Communists,'' Cynamon told The Miami Herald Thursday night. "Our government should be ashamed of itself -- first for using such tactics, then for defending them in court. This is why the writ of habeas corpus matters.''
[Emphasis added]

Mr. al Rabia endured seven years of detention and torture, which would still have been evil even if he was in fact the same man as the one who ran supplies for Al Qaeda, but he wasn't. The US government should have been able to ascertain that fact quite easily if various intelligence people had been checked. That, apparently, would have been too much trouble. Our government's thugs had a guy with a funny sobriquet, one about as unusual as calling a man from Dallas "Tex", and that was enough for them.

Attorney Cynamon got it right: this is indeed why the Great Writ matters.

The Justice Department is still studying Judge Kollar-Kotelly's decision, which means an appeal is still possible. I would hope that this administration has more sense and more appreciation for justice than the last one, but so far it hasn't shown any such change when it comes to Gitmo detainees.

This is one to watch.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging

Good News/Not So Good News

Yesterday I noted that press reports predicted that President Obama would be shelving at least part of the Missile Defense System that had the Russians so upset. While I had hopes that the entire concept of installing the fantasy system in Eastern Europe to defend our allies from Iranian missiles would be shelved in its entirety, that wasn't exactly what Defense Secretary Gates and President Obama announced later in the day.

"Son of Star Wars" was to be scrapped, but a new system, one with more reality based technology will be phased in according to a time line issued by the White House. At least initially, the missile component will be aboard ships rather than in Poland, and will be in place seven years sooner than the project envisioned by George W. Bush. A radar display will be built in a European country to be named later. We're still going to be spending billions of dollars to defend against an Iranian nuclear missile program still in its relative infancy, but at least it's one that might work, were it actually needed.

Both Secretary Gates and President Obama made it clear that the US was still in the business of protecting NATO countries from attacks emanating from the East. The military industrial complex would continue to receive its annual infusion from the Treasury. That, however, didn't stop Republicans (and their perennial ally, Senator Joe-not-Avigdor Lieberman) from profound outrage at the idea. The NY Times noted this response from the GOP's House leader:

The decision drew immediate Republican criticism. “Scrapping the U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic does little more than empower Russia and Iran at the expense of our allies in Europe,” said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader. “It shows a willful determination to continue ignoring the threat posed by some of the most dangerous regimes in the world.”

Say, what? Defense Secretary Gates, a hold-over from the Bush administration, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff all agreed with the decision made by President Obama. Does Mr. Boehner know something they don't?

And how, exactly does this "empower" Russia? That country's leaders have been sitting back and watching the Bush administration piss away tens of billions of dollars on a weapons system that clearly was never going to work anyway. Further, the placement of the system at Russia's back door gave its leaders plenty of fuel to denounce the US as a dangerous aggressor, much the same way a US administration would should Russia decide to place missiles in, oh, say, Cuba. But facts have never deterred the Republicans, and they certainly didn't yesterday.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, President Obama did execute a rather nifty almost balletic move yesterday. While I'm no fan of the kind of military expenditure that the new system will require, I have to admit that the shift by President Obama makes some sense, something that Bush's Military Defense System never did.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Been Down So Long

The news has been dreadful for months, at least from this liberal's perspective, but I read something this morning which caused me to smile a little. Unfortunately, the news came in an AP article, which means I won't be quoting from the article itself.

Unnamed sources in Poland and the Czech Republic told the AP that President Obama has called leaders in both countries to advise he would be pulling out of the Defense Missile Program agreements with them made by the Bush administration. The plans were for US missiles to be placed in Poland and a radar site to be placed in the Czech Republic, both on Russia's door step. Russian leaders were understandably infuriated by the plan, and this has complicated US-Russian relations since the Bush administration announced the agreements.

Now, as far as I can tell, the Missile Defense System still hasn't been shown to be workable, even when the tests are designed so heavily in favor of the system that failure would seem impossible. The whole idea was based on President Reagan's "Star Wars" fantasy program, sold to him by the military industrial complex decades ago, but as designed it just doesn't work. That didn't stop George W. Bush, by golly, and he pressed forward, ratcheting up tensions with Russia unnecessarily.

One Russian official quoted in the AP article has suggested that the Obama administration's actions are designed to elicit more support from Russia in dealing with Iran. If that is the case, well, then, bravo! We need Russia's help with Iran. Giving up a fantasy system that will probably never work and has cost us billions to get that support sounds like a splendid idea.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is scheduled to give a press conference today, and the anticipated subject is the Missile Defense System. Hopefully Secretary Gates will announce at least the cancellation of these two aspects of the project, if not the shelving of the whole mess.

That would be change I could believe in.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Stunt Doubles

Tim Rutten's op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times does a fairly good job of providing some of the political background of the crazies suddenly cornering the public discourse. He also, perhaps unintentionally, implies just why no one from the traditional conservative side of the aisle is making any attempt to rein them in.

His column begins with Sen. Joe Wilson, who was admonished by the House of Representatives for his unseemly behavior during President Obama's health care speech:

The fact is that the right-wing anti-Obama movement in the U.S. these days is overpopulated with nuts, fundamentalists and paranoids who won't be easily stopped by a few congressional reprimands.

Wilson, for example, isn't just a loudmouth with impulse-control issues. He's one of those Southern lawmakers with links to the sinister neo-Confederate movement and, as a state legislator, was one of the die-hards who opposed removing the Confederate battle flag from atop the South Carolina statehouse. He's also an unrepentant supporter of Obama's extreme critics. When he spoke on the House floor Monday, Wilson praised the "patriots" who turned the town halls into shouting matches and the tea party demonstrators who gathered in Washington last weekend to oppose "a government takeover" of healthcare. (Among the 179 representatives who voted against rebuking Wilson -- and circulated a letter on his behalf -- was Iowa's Steve King, who recently alleged that Obama was excluding "white men" from his initiatives.)

From there, Rutten moves on to one of the leaders of the teabagger movement, former radio talk show host Mark Williams.

Williams rather grandiloquently portrays himself as a kind of unlikely David battling an amorphous Goliath. The truth, however, is more prosaic because the tea parties are a grass-roots movement only in the sense familiar to those who know their way around California politics, where this whole thing began: The seed money and advice have come from a political action committee headquartered here and called Our Country Deserves Better. It's actually the successor to a PAC formed to defeat Obama in the general election. Williams was hired to work for the original PAC and then moved on to where the next job was.

The operators of Our Country Deserves Better also will be familiar to Californians because they're longtime activists on the state GOP's extreme right flank. One is former assemblyman and unsuccessful congressional candidate Howard Kaloogian, whose one notable success was as chairman of the campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis; another is political strategist Sal Russo, who once worked for Ronald Reagan.

The motley crew leading this "grass roots" groundswell may be nuttier than your maiden aunt's Christmas fruitcake, but they have direct ties to the power structure of the GOP in California and around the country.

That's a big reason I think it is a mistake to think that "more reasonable" Republicans are getting nervous and embarrassed by the antics of their far-right brethren. Rather, I think the GOP is quite happy at having the crazies do their dirty work for them. The birthers, teabaggers, and 10thers as the representatives of a growing "grass roots" discontent make it easier for Republicans to "Just Say No" to whatever the Democrats, especially President Barack Obama propose. Their base, especially their basest base, have been whipped up and are now willing to provide their more decorous backsides cover for the obstructionism they believe will return them to power.

Evidence of that is no further than a current front page away. After Sen. Max Baucus gutted the health care reform bill of anything that might be considered even remotely liberal, the ranking member of the Finance Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley has announced that he still won't vote for it. What a surprise, eh?

The GOP is quite happy to let the crazies take over the discourse, to take the ridicule and opprobrium of the sane. It's not a bug. It's a feature. And from where I sit, it's beginning to look like a very effective strategy.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Party Of No

Today's Los Angeles Times has an article which exemplifies why it is important for voters to pay attention to races at the state and local levels. California's Republican state legislators continue to steamroller the majority by refusing any reasonable bill if their petty demands aren't met.

Republicans in the Senate blocked more than 20 bills -- all needing GOP votes to pass, many approved by the lower house with bipartisan or near-unanimous support -- to leverage a trio of unrelated demands. Chief among those was the elimination of a program that allowed mostly low-income Californians to have the state do their tax returns free, something the maker of TurboTax has been trying to achieve for years.

The other demands, which Democrats say they were willing to meet, were putting a Republican name on a popular bill and tweaking corporate tax breaks passed months ago.

Now, the main objection the Republicans voiced was that poor people should have to pay to have their tax returns prepared just like the wealthy do. After all, for the state to step in would cut into the profits of a segment of private enterprise, the greatest of all sins. The result? Some very important bills weren't passed in the Senate as the legislative session ended. They died.

Here are just a few of those DOA bills:

* A measure to ease borrowing for cities and counties. The state took $1.9 billion of their funds this summer and has three years to repay it. Municipalities hope to borrow from Wall Street to bridge the gap. The failure of SB 67, by the Senate budget committee, will cost cities and counties about $200 million more to do that, said Paul McIntosh, executive director of the California State Assn. of Counties. That makes more cuts to police and fire departments likely, he said.

* Federal money for the next swine flu outbreak. SB 769, by Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), would have distributed federal funds to counties. Local agencies could now lose out on at least $42 million in newly allocated funds, and possibly tens of millions more in future grants, said Bruce Pomer, executive director of the Health Officers Assn. of California.

* A hospital fee to bring in more than $2 billion in federal funds for healthcare. ...

The measure that really punched me in the gut, however, was a plan to keep dozens of domestic-violence shelters from closing. It passed the Assembly unanimously, yet Republican state senators were miffed because the Democrats had promised to tweak a tax break for corporations a little further and to add a Republican name as sponsor to a very popular bill and hadn't yet followed through.

All of this sounds dreadfully familiar. Republicans in the US Congress have added yet more demands to the "bipartisan bill" Sen. Max Baucus promised to deliver which would save us all. In other words, Republicans have no intention of allowing health care reform in any meaningful way to pass. Why? Because they can.

As above, so below.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Justice Delayed

I was stunned to see an op-ed piece in this morning's Los Angeles Times written by Ronald M. George, Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. I don't believe I've ever seen a Chief Justice write such a piece, although I suppose it has happened in the past. Still, the subject has to be pretty serious for jurists to take to the editorial pages of a major metropolitan newspaper.

In this case, it certainly is. Justice George addresses in this essay the fact that for the first time in California history, our courts will be closed one day a month because of the serious financial problems the state of California has.

Starting Sept. 16, the largest court system in the nation will be closing the doors of courthouses across the state one day each month. On Wednesday, an estimated 3 million cases will be delayed, 150 jury trials interrupted and 250 child custody cases unheard. Jails will be more crowded as arraignment and release dates are postponed; attorneys and their clients will be inconvenienced, as will jurors; and the public will experience longer lines, more delays and more crowded courtrooms.


California's economic crisis has affected government at all levels and in nearly every area of service, as well as every aspect of private life and business. For seven months, Californians have endured the effects of mandatory furloughs for many state workers, first two days a month and now three. But courts are not state agencies. And courthouses -- known earlier in our history as "temples of justice" -- are not just office buildings; they are the repository of our fundamental commitment to justice for all. The unintended yet inevitable symbolism of "Closed" signs on institutions that embody our democratic ideals is yet another tragic indicator of the severity of California's economic crisis.


One irony of the current crisis is that it restricts court services at a time when the need for them is increasing. The economic downturn has produced a sharp spike in civil filings, especially in the areas of contract and unlawful detainer, which includes evictions. This increase has more than offset a small decline in criminal filings. What this means to judges and court staff is that we are asking them to do more with less. What this means for all Californians is that we must provide adequate resources for courts to resolve disputes in an orderly manner, or suffer the consequences of being unable to meet the public's needs.

For many facing the loss of a roof over their heads, the irony will quickly turn to tragedy, all because our state government refused to do the right, albeit difficult thing: raise taxes as well as cut some services. That the halls of justice are being shuttered for even one day a month is a shameful episode in our history, one that could have been avoided with a little good sense and good will, something the GOP legislators apparently have little of.

And it isn't just our Superior, Municipal, and Appellate Courts which will be closed. Many of the Administrative Law Courts have also been hit. The one I appear before on a regular basis has had to face even deeper cuts: those courts are closed three days a month, and salaries have been cut up to 15% for all employees, including judges.

Justice is being furloughed, and I still cannot understand why this happened. Neither do most of the rest of the people of this state.

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The Elephants In The Room

James Carroll's column in today's Boston Globe deftly points out a key reason why President Obama's plan for reforming health care is in such trouble. And that reason, rarely noted by any other voices in the media or in government, is one that this president shares with one of his predecessors.

...Indeed, today’s health care reform takes as its starting point LBJ’s success in establishing Medicare and Medicaid. Obama is often compared to John F. Kennedy, but Johnson may be the more apt analogy - if not yet because of shared legislative accomplishments (in winning appropriations for Head Start, Vista, Model Cities, and the Job Corps, Johnson erected actual pillars of the Great Society), then because Obama’s opportunity for historic social transformation is also about to be squandered by a misbegotten war.

Or rather, two wars. The elephants in the congressional chamber last week were not the scowling Republicans, but Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of which was mentioned. In both places, American wars are quite clearly spinning toward catastrophe. ...

The scale of President Obama’s military mistake is becoming clear exactly as the moment of his greatest opportunity to improve American life has arrived. The tragedy, as with Lyndon Johnson, will be the destruction of his proposed social transformation by his simultaneous opting for war, as his core supporters among liberals and Democrats feel bound to oppose him. ...
[Emphasis added]

Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats have been complaining for months that such a dramatic overhaul of the nation's health care system is simply not feasible. We cannot afford it, not in these times with the economy still swirling around the commode and millions of Americans out of work. One of the reasons for our failed economy, never mentioned in the past eight years, is that the US has been pouring hundreds of billions of dollars, most of it off-budget, into the "misbegotten" wars George W. Bush so brazenly pushed us into. While Iraq is allegedly winding-down (American troops continue to die there, along with even more Iraqis), President Obama will soon be pushing for more troops in Afghanistan, a push that will be met with a stiff wall of resistance from even Democrats such as Carl Levin.

We can't afford a public option (much less the far saner single payer system), the argument goes, but one of the reasons we can't is that the current president will insist on billions of dollars more for what can only be seen now as "Obama's War." Trimming those expenditures and making them available for real reform in health care access would remove the main excuse being used by the GOP and the Blue Dogs (urged on by their health care corporation funders) to stop it.

It's not likely to happen, as I am sure Mr. Carroll knows, but at least one pundit has noticed the connection and pointed out the nakedness of the emperor.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday Poetry: Jean Girard

Dreams of my Daughters

If I were the Palestinian gynecologist
whose two daughters and niece
were slaughtered by an Israeli bomb
in Gaza recently, this would be

my way of telling you of suffering
outraged. What did these beautiful
girls do to harm Israel? All innocent.
All on the thin edge of the moment,

opening their future, meeting life
more than halfway, in love with hope,
dreaming of becoming a doctor,
a teacher, a musician. Here

on this very splash of blood
lie torn notebooks, a comb,
a towel and a kerchief to cover
an all-too-fragile brain-case.

God protect them in heaven
as I could not protect them in hell.
Give me the strength to believe --
not in peace, for that word has now

lost all its meaning -- but that
a more human race will spring
from the loins of other girls
by some miracle salvaged

from such ruinous assaults,
such soul-consuming hatreds.
My lovely girls are gone. Can I
revive my will to trust once more?

(In honor of Dr. Ezeldeen Abu Al-Aish)

Jean Girard

(Published at Poets Against the War. If you haven't visited this site, I urge you to do so.)

A Gentleman Never Tells

Steve Lopez has a wonderfully snarky column in today's Los Angeles Times. His subject (or target) is Mike Duvall, the former California state assemblyman caught bragging about his sexual conquests during a break in a legislative hearing. He didn't know the camera was rolling and the mic was live.

So maybe I'm not the best person to judge Mike "Spanky" Duvall, the family values crusader from Yorba Linda. He's the unfortunate chap who resigned from the state Assembly last week after he was caught on camera boasting of his sexual conquests and peccadilloes, which include a mistress who wears panties the size of an eye patch.

"So I am getting into spanking her," Duvall told his colleague, Jeff Miller of Corona, while the two sat on the dais during a break at a hearing in Sacramento. They did not know the microphone was on. "Yeah, I like it. . . . She goes, 'I know you like spanking me.' I said, 'Yeah, that's 'cause you're such a bad girl.' "

Not that I don't have my own fetishes. I like to fantasize, for instance, that while two legislators kibitz at an Appropriations Committee hearing in a state with crippling budget problems and a ridiculous load of unfinished business, the knuckleheads are talking about something other than spanking and underpants.

Now, as Mr. Lopez implies, this would be just another story about a hypocritical Family Values guy (and both parties have them) except for one thing: one of his conquests just might be a lobbyist.

Duvall is a gamer, though. Boasting about sextracurricular activities at a government hearing is brazenly bad form, but doing so with a camera in the room puts you in the Stupid Human Hall of Fame. And to make matters worse, one of Duvall's concubines may be a lobbyist with Sempra Energy.

Sempra has spent $800,000 on lobbying the first half of this year, $2,800 of it on Duvall, who was vice chairman of an energy committee and took Sempra's side in four votes this year. So this isn't just a sex scandal. It's a window on Sacramento's notorious pay-to-play culture, and now we're left to wonder if a G-string can buy as much influence as a campaign check.

So, now that Mr. Duvall has resigned, Orange County has to fork out more than $400,000 for a special election, money that could have been used for something more useful to its citizens during this financially tenuous times.

Oh, well, I guess boys will be boys.

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Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Tom Toles and published in the Washington Post.)


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bonus Critter Blogging: Giant Woolly Rat

(Photograph courtesy Kristofer Helgen and published at National Geographic.)

The Audacity Of Imperialism

President Obama has worked hard the past eight months to reassure the rest of the world that his administration would return to traditional diplomacy as the cornerstone of US foreign policy, rather than relying solely on guns and bombs to get our way. He continues to search for ways to engage North Korea and Iran in talks on their respective nuclear weapon ambitions and he has worked with other nations to assist the US in getting these two countries to the table. His State Department, led by Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has worked diligently to repair ties with Asia, Africa, and Latin America, ties frayed by disuse or abuse by the Bush administration.

As welcome and as laudable as all of these efforts are, however, they are being offset by the continuation of the sabre rattling which was the hallmark George W. Bush. The latest incident involves some threats by Admiral Mike Mullin, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, directed toward Pakistan. Needless to say, Admiral Mullin's comments were not well-received by Pakistan.

From an editorial in Pakistan's The Nation:

WHILE the warning by US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen that the US would conduct unilateral strikes inside Pakistan to pursue those who had attacked US citizens is an attempt to mount pressure on Pakistan to expand its military operation from Malakand to Waziristan, it also shows erratic swings in the US policy towards Pakistan. What is more, he exuded confidence in saying that the Pakistan government had no objection to such strikes.

What he means is that the US in the event of some attack either on its citizens or homeland would be launching a ground attack on Pakistan's soil, a strategy that is based on US's perception of Pakistan as a militant safe haven. This, in addition to the predator strikes, makes for a deadly combination that will greatly destabilize the country. The last time the US launched a ground offensive against Pakistan was in 2008 in Angoor Ada, a village close to the Pak-Afghan international border that claimed a number of innocent lives. Admiral Mullen fails to notice a key point that adventurism of this sort constitutes a gross violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Repercussions of such a move at a time when a political government holds office would be grave. Keeping in view the ordinary Pakistanis who will hardly ever tolerate presence of US forces, the storm of popular protests and the chaos that would follow it would greatly undermine a nascent democracy and its attempts to take root. ...
[Emphasis added]

Yes, Pakistan has a very leaky border with Afghanistan mostly because of the rugged geography of the area, and, yes, the Taliban have been using that porousness to great advantage. Still, even assuming the US has the right to continue the war in Afghanistan (and I clearly do not so assume), the US has no right to unilaterally invade Pakistan with drones, special operatives, or troops. Admiral Mullin claims that the US has the permission of Pakistan for such actions, but I don't think an after-the-fact "By the way, we hit one of your villages a few hours ago," qualifies as permission.

What is so maddening about this sabre rattling is that Pakistan has finally moved out from under the military rule of the past decades and have in place a civilian government which was duly elected. The Pakistani military still wields considerable power and the current government is weak by comparison, but destabilizing that civilian government by what the people of Pakistan see as further US imperialism does us no good whatsoever, and certainly doesn't help the people of Pakistan.

Continuing the Bush tradition in this area of the world also belies all of the other diplomatic efforts of the Obama White House. The war in Afghanistan is now Mr. Obama's war, and it appears to be as open-ended as Bush's war in Iraq. Both wars were ill-advised, both have no real reason to continue. Congress and the American people need to step in and to reign in the president on this madness.

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Yesterday we got a wonderful example of truthiness by the media. CNN, after a staffer heard something weird on a scanner set on the Coast Guard, announced that a Coast Guard ship had fired on a boat on the Potomac River near the Pentagon. Then all hell broke loose, "journalistically" speaking. Unfortunately for CNN, and the other media outlets which ran with the story, there really was no story. What had happened was a routine Coast Guard training exercise, one that takes place four times a week.

Dana Milbank, columnist for the Washington Post, described the media feeding frenzy quite nicely:

"We have seen at least one boat come up the Potomac and challenge the Coast Guard," reported CNN's Jeanne Meserve, as the network showed a gloomy, long-range image of the river with the caption "Coast Guard fires on boat on Potomac River." The Coast Guard, Meserve said, "sent a transmission saying they expended 10 rounds."

Gunfire on the Potomac! Near the Pentagon! On 9/11! Federal Aviation Administration officials, watching the scene on CNN, ordered a ground stop at nearby Reagan National Airport. About 10 police cars sped to the scene, between the Memorial and 14th Street bridges. Officials at Coast Guard headquarters didn't seem to know what was going on.

The media-industrial complex began to turn its gears. Seven minutes after the CNN report, the Reuters news service issued a bulletin: "Coast Guard Fired on Suspicious Boat on Potomac River in Central Washington, DC.--CNN."

Not to be outdone, CNN arch-nemesis Fox News interrupted its broadcast with the "breaking news" that a "U.S. Coast Guard ship of some type fired on what is considered a suspicious boat in the Potomac River." By that time, CNN had Bush administration homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend on air, talking about how "it is very unusual."

I'm a little surprised that reporters are still listening to police scanners to dig up news. I'm even more surprised that a national cable news outlet, one with plenty of staff and plenty of sophisticated technology, is doing so and then simply airing the story without having a complete set of facts. While the Coast Guard wasn't particularly helpful (probably not understanding the CNN questions because the training exercise was so routine), surely CNN has other sources it could have checked with. And Reuters and Fox apparently did no other checking, leading to Mr. Milbank's conclusion about the whole matter:

On the eighth anniversary of the terrorist strikes, the Coast Guard incident served as an unwelcome reminder of two facts of life in the capital: Homeland security authorities continue to bear an occasional, unnerving likeness to Keystone Kops, and the cable-news-driven, minute-by-minute news cycle has a unique ability to sow mass confusion and misinformation. [Emphasis added]

Howard Kurtz and Paul Duggan, also of the Washington Post, examined the episode as well. In that column, Kurtz (who has a gig with CNN as a media critic) and Duggan cited responses from two outlets about their very different handling of the incident.

Courtney Dolan, a spokeswoman for Thomson Reuters, said the wire service had no regrets about moving bulletins based on CNN's reports: "We have an obligation to our clients to publish information that could move financial markets, and this story certainly had the potential to do that."

MSNBC, which had been airing a tape of the 2001 attacks, broke in to report that the Potomac incident had been a training exercise. Spokesman Jeremy Gaines said the network "took a few minutes to gather the facts before going to air."
[Emphasis added]

I'm impressed that the Reuters spokesperson was so candid in her assessment of her company's mission, impressed and appalled.

I'm even more impressed (and not at all appalled) that MSNBC in this instance felt that getting the story right was more important than getting the story first, a lesson that CNN has apparently yet to learn.

But I'm also depressed that what Kurtz and Duggan call "the media echo chamber" operates so efficiently.

Truthiness: it's what's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging

The Shout Heard 'Round The World

Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) claims that his appalling behavior at the President's speech to the Joint Session was due to being overly emotional, that he was caught up in the heat of the moment.

I don't think so.

I think it was pre-planned and calculated to inject a not-so-subtle racism into the health care debate, coming as it did when President Obama asserted that the new program would not pay for the health care of undocumented immigrants. And it had its intended effect.

From the Sacramento Bee:

On national television, President Barack Obama contended this week that his plan to overhaul the country's health care system wouldn't spend a single federal dime on undocumented immigrants.

As he spoke, a Republican congressman called the president a liar - once again bringing the incendiary issue of illegal immigration to the forefront of the national debate on health care. ...

Few dispute that undocumented immigrants pose some financial drain on the nation's health care system, but some experts say the extent of that cost has been wildly exaggerated.
[Emphasis added]

The assumption is that undocumented immigrants, who mostly don't have health insurance, are the biggest abusers of 'free' health care. This is a tricky assumption, because it rests on another assumption, that citizens and immigrants here lawfully all have insurance, which is simply not the case, according to a study done by UCLA.

Here's a graphic based on the UCLA study that accompanied the SacBee article

20% is still a pretty substantial portion of the uninsured, those most likely to use an emergency room for health care, but certainly nowhere near the number usually implied by those who complain that the undocumented are getting a free ride at the expense of those who have insurance. The argument is that because the hospitals lose money on the uninsured illegal, they have to raise the costs of care on those who have insurance, thereby resulting in increased premiums. Even that argument is based on a false assumption (several, actually):

In fact, the biggest source of uncompensated care - $7.7 billion - is attributable to federal underpayment for services provided to Medicare and Medi-Cal patients.

Of the $11.3 billion in uncompensated care California hospitals reported last year, about $1.5 billion was attributed to undocumented immigrants.

That's roughly 10%.

But those numbers are only part of the story, although apparently our congress critters think they are an important part. What isn't often expressed are the potential costs of not providing health care, something the SacBee article also noted.

At the same time, health officials worry that denying health care to undocumented immigrants could have costly consequences to public health, particularly in controlling communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis and H1N1 flu.

Unfortunately, that argument hasn't made it to the table. I suspect that it's too nuanced for our penny-wise politicians. It's much easier to blame the illegals than to work for the public good and certainly more lucrative.

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Trapped In The Maze

The Roman Catholic Church may have theologically dispensed with limbo, but the US government certainly has not, if this NY Times article is any evidence.

...For a year and a half Ms. Jiang, a waitress with no criminal record and a history of attempted suicide, was locked away in an immigration jail in Florida. Often in solitary confinement, she sank ever deeper into mental illness, relatives say, not eating for days, or vomiting after meals for fear of being poisoned.

With no lawyer to plead for asylum on her behalf, she had been ordered to be deported to her native China, from which her family says she fled in 1995 after being forcibly sterilized at age 20. Too ill to obtain the travel documents needed for the deportation to take place, she was trapped in an immigration limbo: a fate that detainee advocates say is common in a system that has no rules for determining mental competency and no obligation to provide anyone with legal representation.
[Emphasis added]

That Xiu Ping Jiang had mental problems even before being locked up seems pretty clear from the article: her behavior at hearings before the immigration authorities was bizarre. However, because the judges involved had no training in spotting mental health issues (and apparently no human sensitivity at all), she was simply ordered deported. Because she was incapable of obtaining the necessary documents for travel, she was left to rot in custody.

Now, from a purely pragmatic perspective, it would have been cheaper for the government to provide her with a lawyer and a competency hearing. While "on ICE", she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and was provided with medical treatment. Her stay on our tab cost far more than a lawyer would have. But more than dollars and good sense is involved here.

What kind of justice is it to simply ram a person through a system without any legal representation? A lawyer would have immediately spotted Ms. Jiang's mental incompetence and would also have noted that she fled a regime that sterilized her, perhaps giving rise to a plea for asylum. Are certain basic legal rights only for citizens, rather than for all people our government asserts power over?

Ms. Jiang is out of jail and her case has been re-opened by the judge, but only because her story leaked out and was fortuitously picked up by the New York Times. Somebody got embarrassed. One has to wonder how many other people like Ms. Jiang are still rotting away in detention because their stories didn't get out.

Beacon on the hill?

Not hardly.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

The View From Under The Bus

Dana Milbank's column in today's Washington Post was one of the better commentaries on the behavior of the GOP congress critters at last night's speech by President Obama to the 111th Congress. The unseemly outburst of Rep. Joe Wilson of South Caroline ("You lie!") was the most memorable of the evening for its incredible breach of congressional etiquette, but was certainly not the only one.

But even by that standard, there was something appalling about the display on the House floor for what was supposed to be a sacred ritual of American democracy: the nation watching while Cabinet members, lawmakers from both chambers and the diplomatic corps assembled.

Wilson was only the most flagrant. There was booing from House Republicans when the president caricatured a conservative argument by saying they would "leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own." They hissed when he protested their "scare tactics." They grumbled as they do in Britain's House of Commons when Obama spoke of the "blizzard of charges and countercharges."

When he asserted that "nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have," there was scoffing and outright laughter on the GOP side. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) shook his head in disbelief. Several Republicans shouted "What plan?" and Rep. Louis Gohmert (Tex.) waved at Obama a handwritten poster he made on a letter-size piece of paper: "WHAT PLAN?" Gohmert then took that down and replaced it with another handmade poster that said "WHAT BILL?" ...

But while the majority of both parties' lawmakers behaved as adults, the insolence by House Republicans stole the show.

These are the people that the Obama White House continues to coddle, to reach out to, to cave in to. A fat lot of good it did him, and, more importantly, did us. Instead of being shamed into cooperating in the national interest, the "make nice" approach only emboldened them to the point that on national television, during a "sacred ritual," one of them called the President of the United States a liar.

Now, the irony of all this is that Rep. Wilson's outburst was actually nothing compared to what I shouted at the television screen (much to my neighbors' shock) as once again we progressives, the people who raised the money and pounded the pavement to get the first African American elected president, were sacrificed.

The public option (weak tea compared to what we really need and what we really deserve -- Medicare for all --) was expendable if it means we get some reform, any reform at all. Of course, that means there will be nothing left to keep the insurance companies in line, nothing. Oh, they might promise to cover pre-existing conditions, but at what price? What kind of improvement is that? It's like a doctor saying to a stroke victim with left sided paralysis, "There, you can wiggle one of your fingers! Isn't that better? Next patient."

What really set me off, however, was the president's bold assertion that nothing he has proposed would allow for government funding of abortion, as if that were a good thing. What, those of us who suffer the crushing disability of having a vagina don't deserve appropriate medical care?


Business as usual.

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