Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

When Government Works

Yesterday, I posted on the news that WellPoint, the parent company of Anthem Blue Cross, had promised to end its practice of rescission except in cases of obvious fraud. I noted that if WellPoint kept its promise, that would be a good thing and I noted that WellPoint's history with respect to rescissions in California wasn't the best.

WellPoint is in the news again today. An investigation by California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner into the outrageous rate hikes for individual policy holders has caused the insurance company to blink once again.

California health insurer Anthem Blue Cross canceled rate hikes of as much as 39% for thousands of California policyholders Thursday after state regulators said the plan was "seriously flawed."

The move came after a consultant to state regulators found that Anthem overstated future medical costs used to justify increases averaging 25% for many of the company's 800,000 customers with individual policies. Correcting the flaws could drop the rate hikes to an average of 15%, the outside analyst said in a report.

"There will be no rate increases at this point," Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner said. "The application was in error. There were all kinds of methodological mistakes." ...

WellPoint acknowledged the errors in its rate filing, calling them "inadvertent miscalculations." Anthem, it said, would file new rate increases for individual policy holders in May, but a spokeswoman declined to say exactly when or indicate how large they would be.

I have no doubt that Anthem Blue Cross will file those rate increases in May, and probably early in the month. It's hard to believe that the mistakes in original plan, the one the Insurance Commissioner dashed, were all that inadvertent. Anthem's technical people know how to calculate premiums based on the California requirement that 70% of each premium dollar go to health care costs and not to administrative overhead and profits. Those technical people could probably put those new rates out tomorrow and just might. There will be rate increases, but at least they will be a slightly more accurate and fair.

This little episode is just one more reminder of the proper role of government. Unrestrained capitalism is destructive to 90% of the populace. Properly regulated capitalism at least gives those of us not born wealthy a shot at a decent life.

One more thing: Steve Poizner is currently running for governor of California and faces Meg Whitman and Tom Campbell in the upcoming Republican primary, but, to be honest, I don't think this was a political move by Mr. Poizner. Throughout his tenure as the state's Insurance Commissioner he has consistently made the right decisions when it comes to insurance practices and insurance rates. He's done a very good job, regardless of his political stance as a conservative. He's entitled to cite this victory over an insurance behemoth in his campaign as evidence of his worthiness as a candidate, and I hope he does.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ending A Deadly Practice

WellPoint, the parent company of Anthem Blue Cross, has announced that the company will end the practice of rescission. In other words, they'll stop cancelling health insurance policies the minute the policy holder actually files a claim for health care.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Stung by criticism and facing tougher federal regulation, two of the nation's largest health insurers say they will stop the practice of dropping sick policyholders.

The moves Tuesday by WellPoint Inc., the parent of Anthem Blue Cross of California, and Blue Shield of California follow action by Congress and the Obama administration to crack down on the practice known as rescission. ...

Insurers have defended rescissions, saying they were trying to stop fraud. But a series of Times articles, legislative hearings, lawsuits and regulatory investigations showed that insurers often rescinded without regard for whether their customers intended to deceive them about preexisting conditions on their applications for coverage.

The practice resulted in some people losing coverage through no fault of their own, often over trivial bits of health history that had nothing to do with the claims that triggered the investigations.

Amid the heightened scrutiny, rescissions have been in decline since 2006.
[Emphasis added]

One of the provisions of the recently enacted healthcare reform bill forbids insurers to refuse coverage on the basis of preexisting conditions, which makes the issue moot. However, that provision doesn't kick in for a couple of years, so if Well Point really does cease the practice, that is good news for healthcare customers. Given the company's history in California, that's a big "if."

Last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius lamented a Reuters report that reported that WellPoint targeted breast cancer patients for rescission. WellPoint's Braly shot back in a letter: "WellPoint does not single out women with breast cancer for rescission. Period."

On Tuesday, the company announced it would end the practice. Rescissions by its California unit Anthem Blue Cross peaked at 866 in 2005.

At that time, the California unit did indeed target patients with breast problems and other serious conditions for rescission investigations, according to a 2006 Times article. "There is a list," Anthem Blue Cross employee Sheila Millan said in a deposition. The list included diseases of the jaw, endometriosis, disorders of the female genital tract and, notably, disorders of the breast.

As noted earlier in the article, after extensive media exposure of the practice (particularly by the Los Angeles Times and scrutiny by the appropriate state agencies, the practice did decline dramatically.

The interesting thing is that honoring their contracts didn't hurt the bottom line of the company, as this article points out:

WellPoint Inc. said that earnings jumped 51% during the first three months of the year compared with the same time last year, even as it lost money in California after state regulators forced it to delay premium increases of as much as 39% for thousands of customers who buy their own insurance.

Would someone tell me again just why our health care needs should be directed by for-profit corporations?

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Some Good News

I needed a break from all the bad news, so this WaPo article was very welcome this morning. The news is what provoked one researcher to exclaim that it was a good day for science (and we haven't had that kind of news in a while).

The National Institutes of Health announced Tuesday that 13 additional lines of human embryonic stem cells are eligible for federal funding, including the most widely used line.

The NIH's approval of the lines should alleviate mounting concerns among some supporters of stem cell research that the Obama administration was hindering the work.

President Obama did follow through on one of his campaign promises when he lifted the blanket restrictions against federal funding for research using any embryonic stem cell lines developed after 2001. However, he also directed the NIH to develop ethical guidelines which had to be met before the funds would flow, and those guidelines turned out to be nearly as restrictive as the Bush rules. After the outcry of researchers, those regulations were revisited and the results are in.

What this means is that those who have been diligently working with embryonic stem cells in research to alleviate the ravages of such conditions as Alzheimer's, juvenile diabetes, and spinal cord injuries can now apply for federal funding of their projects. That will hopefully speed up the process. It may be too late to benefit those of my generation, but there's now more hope for the next generation.

A good day for science and for the rest of us.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Truth To Power

There's an astounding op-ed piece in today's Los Angeles Times, and, no, I am not talking about Jonah Goldberg's latest smarm. Written by Jesselyn Radack, herself the target of harassment by the Justice Department for releasing information to the press when she was a Justice Department ethics attorney, the piece reminds us that there is a crucial difference between "leaker" and "whistleblower."

What undoubtedly provoked Ms. Radack's column was news that Thomas A. Drake, the former NSA official, had been indicted for releasing "classified" information to the press. She freely admits that the news brought back some unpleasant memories of what happened to her during her stint with the Justice Department and after, right up to the present day (she is still the subject of a DOJ investigation).

Here's a brief summary of the crime Mr. Drake allegedly committed:

I submit that Drake, the former NSA official, did not leak. He made valid disclosures revealing the failings of several major NSA programs that use computers to collect and sort electronic intelligence. These mistakes cost billions of dollars. He also described how the agency had rejected a program that would collect communications while protecting Americans' privacy — disclosures eerily similar to those made by Thomas M. Tamm, the former Justice Department lawyer who revealed the NSA's secret surveillance of Americans. Such disclosures are clearly in the public interest. They evidence a violation of law, a gross waste of funds and a patent abuse of authority — the very definition of a protected disclosure under the whistle-blower law. ...

The common denominator of whistle-blowers is the same: They disclose information of significant public importance that reveals illegal, unconstitutional or dangerous conduct, often at the highest levels of government. The government should not be allowed to hide illegal conduct under official-sounding labels such as "classified," "privileged" or "state secrets," which confer an aura of legitimacy on alleged crimes, and whistle-blowers should not be prosecuted. The billions of dollars wasted on modernizing the NSA's vast eavesdropping system is what needs to be investigated, not Drake.
[Emphasis added]

Mr. Drake has been charged, essentially, with leaking "classified" information. Here is where Ms. Radack's steps in to note the profound difference between the terms "whistleblower" and "leaker, and she gives the perfect example of the latter:

In contrast, when I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, unmasked covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, he was not trying to disclose evidence of wrongdoing; in fact, quite the opposite. He put at risk national security and people's lives to undermine a critic. He was trying to punish former Ambassador Joseph Wilson by outing his wife. Libby was leaking, not whistle-blowing. His disclosure to the media had no intrinsic public value whatsoever, and he was rightly prosecuted and convicted. [Emphasis added]

The federal Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 was designed to protect whistleblowers from retaliation so that evidence of fraud, waste, or illegality can be brought to the public's attention. Instead of abiding by that law, the federal government continues to punish people for pointing out activities that harm the public interest, often in critical ways. The hope, obviously, is that people like Thomas Drake and Jesselyn Radack and, yes, Daniel Ellsberg will be frightened into silence.

What is so outrageous about the current case is that it was filed with President Barack Obama's implicit approval.

I guess we shouldn't expect too much change out of this guy.

Labels: , ,

Monday, April 26, 2010

Tough Luck

This article in today's Los Angeles Times really infuriated me. After serving six years in the military, more than a year of which was in Iraq, Ekaterine Bautista is being denied citizenship and fears being deported, all for being an undocumented immigrant.

Ms. Bautista was brought to this country as a teenager, but after 9/11 she answered the call and tried to enlist. Recruiting officers told her that without proof of American citizenship or a green card, she was ineligible. Disappointed, she asked for and received permission to use the name of a relative who was a US citizen and this time the Army took her in.

When the Army discovered the "fraud", she received an honorable discharge,even though fellow soldiers and her superiors felt she was a good soldier and deserved to remain in the service. She admits she made a mistake, but the fact is she served her adopted country bravely and honorably.

An illegal immigrant from Mexico, she had served six years in the U.S. military — including a 13-month tour of duty in Iraq — and was eligible to apply for naturalization under a decades-old law.

But approval of her case depended on the discretion of citizenship officials. Bautista had served in the military under a false identity, that of her U.S. citizen aunt, Rosalia Guerra Morelos.

She passed the civics exam, completed all the paperwork and received a letter telling her to show up at the Los Angeles Convention Center on March 31. Then the call came.

"Yeah, I made a mistake," Bautista, 35, said. "But if you look back at my records, I never did anything wrong in the military. On the contrary."

She served well, receiving a binder-full of commendations for her courage, but now she can't drive, work, or even receive any military benefits for her efforts, and she may even be deported.

She belies the standard rhetoric of the anti-immigrationists. She not only didn't suckle at the teat of social services, she gave back to her adopted country in ways that many of those railing against the "illegals" would never even consider for themselves or their families.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has the discretion to grant citizenship to Ms. Bautista. I hope it uses that discretion in her favor. We could use a few more citizens like Ms. Bautista: courageous, dedicated, honorable.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Robert Creeley

Ground Zero

What's after or before
seems a dull locus now
as if there ever could be more

or less of what there is,
a life lived just because
it is a life if nothing more.

The street goes by the door
just like it did before.
Years after I am dead,

there will be someone here instead
perhaps to open it,
look out to see what's there --

even if nothing is,
or ever was,
or somehow all got lost.

Persist, go on, believe.
Dreams may be all we have,
whatever one believe

of worlds wherever they are --
with people waiting there
will know us when we come

when all the strife is over,
all the sad battles lost or won,
all turned to dust.

-- Robert Creeley

Senatorial Snit

The United States Senate is, if you think about it, a really strange part of our government. It has its own rules, many of which are as arcane and stupefying as those of any condo association and about as helpful when it comes to getting anything done. Many of those rules are unwritten, which makes things even more confusing to outsiders. Whether written or not, however, violating those rules is guaranteed to provoke screams of displeasure from the membership.

Although I'm not certain, I suspect that's part of what is behind South Carolina's Sen. Lindsay Graham's current snit. He had been working diligently on an energy bill with Sen. Kerry and Sen. Lieberman and that bill was supposed to be rolled out tomorrow, but Sen. Graham has suddenly backed away from the bill.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said Saturday afternoon that they would postpone the introduction of their long-anticipated energy and climate bill, which they had planned to roll out on Monday. The announcement came after their third partner, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, abruptly pulled out of the effort — at least temporarily.

Graham was irate that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) unexpectedly told fellow Democrats this week that he planned to move an immigration bill in the Senate before the climate bill, an action widely seen as a nod to Latino voters who could make or break Reid's reelection bid, and which Graham said would cripple the energy bill's chances.

In a scathing letter on Saturday, Graham blasted Reid and the Obama administration for putting "partisan, political objectives" ahead of the energy bill, and he warned that "moving forward on immigration — in this hurried, panicked manner — is nothing more than a cynical political ploy."

Now, to be fair to Sen. Graham, the decision to put immigration reform ahead of the climate bill is indeed a cynical political ploy. The Democrats, especially Sen. Reid, are clearly worried about the November election, as well they should be. One key group of supporters, Latinos, has threatened to stay home on election day because neither the White House nor Congress have made any substantial progress in drafting a bill that was promised by Barack Obama. In several jurisdictions, including Sen. Reid's, that could be disastrous.

That said, however, Sen. Graham has been in the Senate long enough to know that the Majority Leader gets to make this kind of decision. It's in the rules and Majority Leaders, regardless of their political stripe, have been wielding that power for decades.

What is so ironic, however, is that Sen. Graham has also been working on an immigration bill with Sen. Schumer. Is he worried that his efforts on that bill will undercut his efforts on the energy and climate bill? Or is he afraid that his party will come down hard on him (if they haven't already) for working with the enemy so much?

Whatever the reason, his backing off with respect to the energy bill practically guarantees that it will not be passed this year or perhaps ever. This Congress just doesn't multitask that well. And that's a shame.

Labels: , ,

Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Joel Pett / Lexington Herald-Leader (April 19, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Florida Panther

(Photo from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and published at National Geographic. Click on the link for more photos and information on the restoration attempts for these gorgeous critters.)

A Hit Piece

The Los Angeles Times has an extraordinarily nasty article on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown today. The headline and the lede blast the current state Attorney General for his ties to Goldman Sachs dating back to when he was mayor of Oakland, California.

Skipping below the lede, however, the article cites facts which make it clear that the "tie" is actually quite tenuous, so tenuous that one wonders why the article was written in the first place:

Brown, a Democrat and California's attorney general, also has connections to Goldman, which was charged with civil fraud last week by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The links are his sister and a complicated financing deal made by the city of Oakland, where he served as mayor for eight years.

That deal, known as an "interest rate swap," was supposed to guarantee Oakland stability in its debt payments but is now costing the cash-strapped city $5 million a year. The agreement, which goes until 2021, has an estimated cancellation cost of $19 million. The city is trying to renegotiate it, and union officials representing government employees are calling on Goldman to let Oakland and other municipalities out of such agreements.

The swap, like those entered into by many governments, began in 1998, the year before Brown took office. City officials renegotiated it in 2003, right before his sister, Kathleen Brown, the former state treasurer, began working for Goldman as the West Coast head of municipal finance. In 2005, when the city paid off the debt Goldman had arranged, it left the interest rate swap in place.

You will note that the original deal was entered into before Mr. Brown became mayor, and that many municipalities entered into these arrangements, not realizing at the time just how dangerous such interest swaps would turn out to be. When the deal was renegotiated, which was during Mr. Brown's tenure, he wasn't directly involved in the process. His sister, who had her own political career, got a job with the firm at some point after the deal was finalized.

Well, slap my face and call me Fannie.

To be fair, the article does mention towards the end that Mr. Brown's probable opponent in November has a few connections to Goldman as well:

Goldman is already a campaign issue. Whitman, the billionaire ex-chief of EBay, has had extensive ties to the company. Her name surfaced at the center of a national financial scandal in 2002 when congressional investigators cited a deal she arranged with Goldman that gave her early access to initial public stock offerings.

Experts said the deal was a conflict because Goldman was seeking millions of dollars in banking business from EBay at the time, and the profits Whitman netted arguably belonged to shareholders. Whitman had a seat on the Goldman board when the scandal broke and resigned soon after.

Bounds downplayed Whitman's time on the board, saying it was for "15 short months nearly 10 years ago." He said she would end her investments in Goldman Sachs if elected," and isn't "some kind of Wall Street banker."
[Emphasis added]

Now, let's just examine the equivalency implied by this hit piece. Jerry Brown inherited a deal made by Oakland before he became mayor, was mayor when the deal was renegotiated (which, by the way, did benefit the city to some extent at the time) although he wasn't directly involved in the negotiation, and his sister, who had been State Treasurer, got a rather nice job with Goldman Sachs sometime thereafter.

Then there's Meg Whitman who, in exchange for some banking business from eBay, got early notice from the banking firm of initial public offerings. Then she sat on the firm's Board of Directors for "15 short months" (15 Februaries?) and only resigned because of the clear conflict of interest noted by the scandal.

One of these things is not like the other no matter how you look at it, but LAT has now smeared Jerry Brown with the Goldman tar.

Heckuva job.

Labels: , ,

Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Ubi Sunt?

Once again, Los Angeles Times business columnist David Lazarus asks the right questions and provides some damned good answers. His subject today is the push for financial reform in Congress.

He cites the Republican's objections to the plans being discussed by the Democratic majority and notes how nearly identical they are to the objections being voiced by the banking community (no surprise there). Then he launches into a righteous rant on what we really need to make certain we never get suckered by the banksters again.

Actually, what we want to do is set up a system whereby the government does what it was supposed to do all along, rather than sitting idly on the beach as the sharks go into a feeding frenzy. ...

Where were financial authorities while Goldman Sachs was allegedly defrauding investors by selling securities without telling anyone that they'd been largely designed to go down in flames?

Where were they as Washington Mutual handed out home loans to virtually anyone with a pulse and then resold the toxic debt to others, exacerbating the mortgage mess and leading to the largest bank failure in U.S. history?

Were government officials even awake as Lehman Bros. hid $50 billion in debt from bank examiners and investors with dubious accounting tricks before going bankrupt? ...

The three main agencies overseeing consumer finances — the Office of Thrift Supervision, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Reserve Board — have left people largely to fend for themselves as banks have indulged in what can only be characterized as sociopathic behavior, heedless of any sense of right and wrong.

It's time to make some repairs.

Legislation that's already passed in the House and is now pending in the Senate would do this. Among other things, the Senate bill would:

• Consolidate the consumer-protection responsibilities of half a dozen federal agencies into a single Consumer Financial Protection Agency with the resources to regulate mortgages, credit cards and other consumer products.

• Create a Financial Stability Oversight Council responsible for identifying and monitoring risks posed by brain-freezingly complex financial products and corporate structures.

• Establish new regulations for derivatives, the complicated and risky financial instruments at the heart of the mortgage meltdown.

• Impose new requirements on hedge funds worth more than $100 million. Such funds are currently responsible for huge financial transactions but operate mostly outside the regulatory framework.

Are all of these bullet points contained in the plan the Democrats are pushing? Of course not, but it's the plan that we actually need. At this point, the Dems are doing a little tap dance with their Republican counterparts just to get some reform bill passed in time for the November elections to show that the Democratic Party is for the little guys. After that, maybe the issue will be revisited (you know, kinda sorta like healthcare reform).

The important thing, however, is that at least the Democrats are actually talking about the need for government to get back to the business of regulating the sociopaths whose greed needs constant feeding. If they pass a bill which does at least that, weakly or strongly, that's a nice start.

Labels: ,

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Low Hanging Fruit

When campaigning for president, Barack Obama promised that he would stop the insane and certainly inhumane practices of the Bush administration with respect to the deportation of undocumented immigrants and that he would push for immigration reform in his first year in office. Employer raids have ended, but deportations have climbed since he took the oath of office, and too many of those deportations have come not from the ranks of the "bad guys", the hardened criminals who are shipped out of the country after serving their prison time, but from the larger pool of immigrants whose only crimes have been parking tickets or coming into the country without the proper papers.

Immigrant rights group have been speaking out against the continuation of these horrific practices by ICE. Now a federal appeals court panel has also.

From the Los Angeles Times:

When the Obama administration went before California's 9th Circuit Court last year seeking to deport a middle-class couple from Nevada, one judge criticized the government's case as "horrific." Another labeled it the "most senseless result possible." A third complained of "an extraordinarily bad use of government resources."

"These people have worked hard. They have paid their taxes," Judge William Fletcher said. "Why don't you go after the bad guys?"

The case against the carpenter and the clerk is one of many examples, immigrant rights advocates and labor activists say, of how the Obama administration has continued a policy of tough immigration enforcement against people who are no threat to the United States, even as the administration calls for a new immigration law designed to legalize many of them.

While the judges had no choice but to affirm the deportations, given the current laws, they made it clear that all three of them believed the government should drop its efforts and concentrate on those illegal immigrants who actually pose a threat to this country. Apparently the government took the not-so-subtle hint and has decided not to press the issue, at least for now.

Will this public rebuke stop the continuation of the practice? Not hardly. Apparently officials at ICE have a quota to fill:

A February memo by James M. Chaparro, ICE's head of detention and removals, disclosed that the agency's goal is to deport 400,000 people a year, up from about 349,000 deported in 2008 and 197,000 in 2005.

It's easier to go after the low hanging fruit to meet that quota than to wait around for the real criminals to be released. The couple featured in the LAT article were rousted because they made a serious error. They paid a notario a lot of money to file a petition for sanctuary to ensure that they could continue residing in this country with their two young American-born children. That brought them to the attention of ICE, and proceedings to deport them were initiated.

President Obama should be ashamed of this behavior. He's been in office long enough that he can't blame the Bush administration hold-overs for the over-reaching. This is happening on his watch.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

File This Under Stupid

I often have to remind myself that I shouldn't be sanctimonious about my use of and support for public transportation. Yes, I've cut down the size of my carbon footprint here in Southern California by using public transportation exclusively, but I have to admit that if I could drive, I probably would. I spend four or more hours a day during the weekdays on the bus or train, commuting to my job and traveling around as part of my job, and it's exhausting. But I can't drive for medical reasons, so if nothing else, it is in my best interest to be concerned by the news that fares in my area are once again going up.

Amid the worst economic downturn since World War II, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is planning to increase fares for the first time in two years to help offset a $204-million gap in its operating budget for buses and rail systems. ...

Unless the MTA board of directors rescinds the increase, the one-way cash fare will rise from $1.25 to $1.50, a daily pass will go from $5 to $6 and a monthly pass will increase from $62 to $75. Fares will not be raised for people with disabilities, students, Medicare recipients and people who are 62 or older.

"The monthly pass is going up by $13. That's a meal on the table. The typical transit rider only makes about $12,000 to $17,000 a year," said Barbara Lott-Holland of Los Angeles, a member of the Bus Riders Union who relies on the county transit system.

Now fares themselves do not provide the funds necessary to operate a major metropolitan transit system. The MTA relies on a portion of local sales tax revenues, state funding, and some federal grants to keep the buses and trains rolling. Those sources have been reduced dramatically (if not cut out completely) because of the nasty recession we're still going through. Yes, our MTA has gotten some of the federal stimulus funds, but those funds are restricted to new construction programs (dedicated bus lanes, extension of the subway and light rail lines) and cannot be used for day-to-day operations of the existing services.

That's the biggest part of the problem right now, and it's one that could be solved with the help of members of the California delegation in Washington. Lifting at least some of the restrictions on the federal funds would obviate the need to raise fares and reduce service, the only options available to the MTA right now.

At the same time, however, the MTA's Board of Directors also has to recognize that part of their duties involve extensive lobbying of the federal and state governments to fund public transportation adequately, both here and across the nation, something they have not been too adept at lately. California Governor Arnold Shwarzenegger should never have been allowed to cut out funding for public transportation completely, and yet that's exactly what he and the legislature did.

If the economy picks up, and if jobs begin to appear, a functioning bus and rail system will be needed to get people to work. In the mean time, there has to be a better effort than raising fares to cut the shortfall.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Why I Miss Coffee

I had a hard time making much sense of this news article in the Los Angeles Times. It seems that Cardinal Roger Mahony, who will be retiring as head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church soon, posted a critique of the immigration bill that came out of the Arizona legislature on his blog (which can be accessed here). The blog post isn't all that coherent, and (as the article points out) is wrong on a couple of points. But, as a religious leader, Cardinal Mahony is expected to point out moral error when he sees it, and, as an American, he is entitled to speak his mind. The rest of us can choose to agree with him and to amend our actions or not.

I don't deny that the cardinal's pronouncement is newsworthy, primarily in Los Angeles. I just wish that the article was a little more coherent than the cardinal's blog post.

For example, the article quotes Cardinal Mahony, and then gives his credentials to speak to the issue in a rather unusual fashion:

"The Arizona legislature just passed the country's most retrogressive, mean-spirited, and useless anti-immigrant law," he wrote on his blog. "The tragedy of the law is its totally flawed reasoning: that immigrants come to our country to rob, plunder, and consume public resources. That is not only false, the premise is nonsense."

Mahony is the head of the nation's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese and a powerful, influential voice among Catholics and others nationwide. His comments are the highest-level statement from the Catholic hierarchy on the Arizona legislation. The Los Angeles archdiocese is nearly 70% Latino.
[Emphasis added]

While I'm not certain Cardinal Mahony is that influential a voice "among Catholics and others nationwide," he is certainly an important voice in Los Angeles. What I don't understand is why the fact that his flock is 70% Latino (a fact I did not know and am not certain is accurate) pertains to what precedes it. Is the reporter implying a bias?

Then, I guess in an attempt to be fair and balanced, the article contains a rebuttal to the cardinal's blog post:

"I think it's frankly bizarre and the cardinal should apologize for dredging up that old imagery," said Joe Hicks, a commentator for the conservative online news network

Hicks said he was sympathetic to Arizona's struggles in dealing with soaring illegal immigration amid economic crisis. The state's illegal immigrant population increased 70% from 2000 to 2008, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics.
[Emphasis added]

Joe Hicks? Pajamas Media? This is the best the Los Angeles Times can come up with for the other side of the story?

And isn't it an amazing coincidence that the percentage increase in Arizona's illegal immigrant population is the same percentage as the Latino constituency in the Los Angeles archdiocese? Is that supposed to mean something?

I really shouldn't have to be hopped up on caffeine to understand what purports to be the news. What we have here is a waste of ink, electrons, and my early morning time.

Labels: ,

Monday, April 19, 2010

By The Numbers

There's a semi-interesting article in the Los Angeles Times this morning. I say only semi-interesting because the article states the obvious: Americans are unhappy and disgusted with their federal government. They also distrust it. It doesn't take a Pew Research Center poll to discern that, although the numbers are always kind of interesting, especially when compared to earlier polls.

Only 22% of all Americans surveyed said they trusted the government in Washington almost always or most of the time -- among the lowest measures in half a century -- according to a Pew Research Center survey released Sunday night.

The results point to "a perfect storm" of public unrest, Pew reports, "a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter, partisan-based backlash and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials."


About 25% of those surveyed said the federal government had a positive effect on the state of the nation; 25% said this about large corporations. Only 22% said banks had a positive effect, and 31% said the same about the news media.

Interest in government regulation has declined, with one exception, Pew says: "A clear majority [61%] says it is a good idea for the government to more strictly regulate the way major financial companies do business, which is virtually unchanged from last April [60%]."

The article makes it clear that it isn't just Democrats that ought to be nervous about these findings. Republican incumbents are just as likely to feel the wrath of the voting public come November, and that's as it should be. After all, the things that have me cranky about the government either started during the last administration when Republicans for the most part ruled the roost or were dramatically encouraged by the knaves: the housing bubble, the collapse of the economy with the loss of jobs here, the trashing of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms (especially with respect to domestic spying), the initiation of two wars, neither of which could be justified in any rational way, the backing away from international agreements with respect to torture, the unlawful detention of people in black prisons and in Guantanamo Bay. That's just my list this morning before the coffee kicks in. I would imagine that everyone could compile a similar list.

Barack Obama and the Democrats were swept into office by the anger and disgust that people finally admitted to because there were certain promises made. Yet, here we are, nearly two years later, and not much has changed. Oh, we got some healthcare reform, but the bill we got was, for the most part, written by and for the health insurance industry and the pharmaceutical companies. People still aren't back to work, primarily because the financial companies who caused the housing bubble and its collapse, and who were bailed out with federal funds, still aren't extending credit to companies who employ people. Those companies have returned to profitability, their executives are still getting bonuses, but the unemployed list continues to grow.

We're still engaged in those two stupid wars, soldiers are still dying, and we're still spending billions of dollars on them. The intelligence agencies are still reading our emails and listening in on our phone calls. Guantanamo Bay is still open, and the current administration has extended the shelf life of unlimited detention and even targeted killing of those suspected of wanting to harm the US.

Yes, most of us are distrustful of the role federal government is playing in our lives. We didn't need a poll to tell us that, at least that kind of poll. The one that is going to be really interesting to see is the one that is taken in November.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sunday Poetry: ee cummings

but if a living dance upon dead minds

but if a living dance upon dead minds
why,it is love;but at the earliest spear
of sun perfectly should disappear
moon's utmost magic,or stones speak or one
name control more incredible splendor than
our merely universe, love's also there:
and being here imprisoned,tortured here
love everywhere exploding maims and blinds
(but surely does not forget,perish, sleep
cannot be photographed,measured;disdains
the trivial labelling of punctual brains...
-Who wields a poem huger than the grave?
from only Whom shall time no refuge keep
though all the weird worlds must be opened?

ee cummings

(Found at Poem Hunter.)

Multilateralism: Sorta Kinda

My weekly visit to Watching America was an odd one yesterday. Some of the articles selected were downright weird. Others were simply diatribes against the US (and what's with the multiple articles from Pravda?). I did find one rather thoughtful opinion piece in Le Monde. It's an analysis of Barack Obama's foreign policy to date. Not surprisingly, the writer doesn't see all that much difference from that of George W. Bush.

For Mr. Obama, as for Mr. Bush, the goal is still the same: Affirm the primacy of the USA in the world. However, in contrast to his predecessor, who strove to reach that goal by crushing others, Mr. Obama is clearly seeking to make American leadership more legitimate and perhaps even more appealing. But this doesn’t mean in any way that the USA is inclined to share power with others or to accept the rules of multilateralism without conditions.

In reality, Mr. Obama relies on three complimentary methods, in decreasing order of importance: unilateralism in vital situations for the United States, selective bilateralism with all countries that matter to the United States and, finally, residual multilateralism when the first two options are insufficient or unsuitable. The USA’s weak interest in multilateral solutions is obvious in areas of strategic importance for American power: finance and business.


The United States is not prepared to invest in multilateralism unless it would allow it to move its priorities forward. And, in most of the important cases, multilateralism is a clear set back. The Iranian case, which is extremely strategic for the USA, in reality is only falsely multilateral, as the actors that are really influential are limited in number. In fact, they imposed their own rhythm and ignored French alarmism, not so much by naivety as by strategy.

The writer also commented on one other area in which the Obama administration has engaged in what might be called "faux multilateralism," that of global climate change. Copenhagen didn't succeed not just because China dug its heels in, but also because the US allowed the Chinese to do so. Because of the increasingly complicated ties between the two countries (they practically own us, and we're the biggest purchaser of Chinese goods), the Obama administration cut our trade partner more slack than it needed to.

While the writer felt that Europe also shares in the blame for the failure in Copenhagen by not giving it the high level attention it deserved, I wouldn't be so harsh. Europe carried the load at the last conference, the one the Bush administration didn't think it was important to attend. Much of the EU has done a pretty good job at approaching the goals set at that conference, something the US hasn't even begun to consider. Yes, there's a global climate bill flapping in the breeze in Congress, but no one is doing anything to push even that weak tea forward.

All of which brings us back to the concept of multilateralism in Mr. Obama's lexicon: it's old Bush and the neocons' policy dressed in new, more dignified clothes.

Well, at least this administration hasn't started bombing Iran.



Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Tom Toles and published in the Washington Post April 14, 2010. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Young Ostrich

(Photo published at National Geographic.)

Old Wine, New Skins

Tim Rutten had his good columnist hat on for his latest effort. He took a look at the recent poll run by CBS and the NY Times with respect to the Tea Party movement and came up with some solid conclusions.

As it turns out, fewer than 1 in 5 Americans "supports" the tea party movement in any respect, and just 4% of all adult Americans have contributed to it or attended one of its events or both. (On any given day, you probably could drum up twice as many people who think the Pentagon is hiding dead aliens in Area 51.)

Of the 18% of all adults who expressed support for the tea party, the overwhelming majority were white (89%), male (59%) Republicans over age 45 (75%) and significantly more affluent and better educated than the majority of Americans. One in five has an annual income greater than $100,000, and 37% have advanced degrees. More than 9 out of 10 think President Obama is pushing the country into "socialism."

In other words, the movement itself is heavily populated with Angry White Men, a phenomenon not that unusual in this country. This time around, however, the phenomenon is getting some slick and very expensive packaging:

...the public packaging of the tea party movement -- and particularly events that win it TV airtime, like cross-country bus tours, rallies and ads -- is mainly the product of California Republican political consultants, foremost among them the Sacramento-based firm of Russo Marsh and Rogers. That company has not only promoted the movement but also used it to raise money for a political action committee, Our Country Deserves Better, founded to oppose Obama during the general election. This week, Politico reported that, according to federal filings, the Our Country PAC has raised $2.7 million since launching the Tea Party Express bus tours.

"That fundraising success," Politico wrote, "has also meant a brisk business for Russo Marsh." The website found that Russo Marsh and a sister firm received $1.9 million of the $4.1 million in payments made by the PAC; some of those funds would have gone for TV airtime and to vendors.
[Emphasis added]

I admit to being a little embarrassed by the fact that to a very great extent the Tea Party movement is a gift from California to the rest of the nation. That said, I am delighted that Tim Rutten and Politico have managed to shine a little light on the "gift." As usual, somebody is making big money on the deal and Mr. Rutten spotted the irony in his concluding remarks:

It's good to see that all the creeping socialism in the nation hasn't silenced traditional voices, like those of the angry white male, nor wrung the profit motive from our politics.

Nicely done, Tim Rutten. Keep it coming.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging


The White House has made it clear that it isn't interested in taking on another contentious issue this year. Healthcare reform engendered too much animosity over the last fifteen months and there's an election coming up in November. President Obama would much prefer that the Democratic leadership in Congress focus on better regulation of the financial sector so that there won't be a repeat of the economic debacle he inherited. Such legislation would show the American public that his administration cares deeply about the "regular people" more than the banksters.

It's beginning to look, however, that the president isn't going to be given that breathing space. Pressure on another front, immigration reform, is beginning to grow, and that pressure is coming not just from immigration rights advocates.

The Arizona legislature has just passed a terrible bill which essentially requires all immigrants, legal or not, to carry their "papers" with them at all times. The Los Angeles Times published a fairly sensible (for the center left board) editorial decrying the bill and urges the Arizona governor to veto it. The editorial also, however, identifies what I think is a good analysis of what lay behind the bill: is the state's way of expressing frustration with the federal government and preparing itself for the comprehensive federal immigration reform residents fear is coming. In the eyes of many Arizonans, any new law granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants will open a floodgate into their backyard.

Arizona's new legislation is terribly wrongheaded, but the state's sense of abandonment by Washington is not something the rest of us can shrug off. Congress must find the courage to create a policy that sensibly regulates the flow of immigration.

Unfortunately, the editorial board mucked up its argument with the same kind of wrongheadedness that led to the bill. The editorial works with an underlying assumption that is just not accurate, as this article from the NY Times reveals.

According to a new analysis of census data, more than half of the working immigrants in this metropolitan area [St. Louis] hold higher-paying white-collar jobs — as professionals, technicians or administrators — rather than lower-paying blue-collar and service jobs.

... In 14 of the 25 largest metropolitan areas, including Boston, New York and San Francisco, more immigrants are employed in white-collar occupations than in lower-wage work like construction, manufacturing or cleaning.

The data belie a common perception in the nation’s hard-fought debate over immigration — articulated by lawmakers, pundits and advocates on all sides of the issue — that the surge in immigration in the last two decades has overwhelmed the United States with low-wage foreign laborers.

Over all, the analysis showed, the 25 million immigrants who live in the country’s largest metropolitan areas (about two-thirds of all immigrants in the country) are nearly evenly distributed across the job and income spectrum.


“The United States is getting a more varied and economically important flow of immigrants than the public seems to realize,” said David Dyssegaard Kallick, director for immigration research at the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan group in New York that conducted the data analysis for The New York Times.

Now, I fully understand that for reasons of geography Arizona, Texas, and California have to deal with the flow of a lot of unskilled laborers coming from Mexico and Central America. They aren't getting too many fashion designers or engineers or surgeons sneaking across the border. Even so, that doesn't mean that those who come are necessarily stealing jobs from the locals and availing themselves of social services.

Americans are inclined to welcome upper-tier immigrants ... believing they contribute to economic growth without burdening public services, the study found. More than 60 percent of Americans are opposed to allowing more low-skilled foreign laborers, regarding them as more likely to be a drag on the economy.

Those kinds of views, in turn, have informed recent efforts by Congress to remake the immigration system. A measure unveiled last month by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, aims to reshape the legal system to give priority to high-skilled, high-earning immigrants, offering narrower channels for low-wage workers. (A bill in 2007 by the Bush administration tilted even more sharply toward upper-tier immigrants; it failed in Congress.)

Yet while visa bottlenecks persist for high-skilled immigrants, on the whole, the census data show, the current system has brought a range of foreign workers across skill and income levels. The analysis suggests, moreover, that the immigrants played a central role in the cycle of the economic growth of cities over the last two decades.

Cities with thriving immigrant populations — with high-earning and lower-wage workers — tended to be those that prospered the most.
[Emphasis added]

The studies referenced by the NY Times certainly don't tell us anything new, they just substantiate what is actually going on. They challenge the assumptions that immigrants, especially those from poor countries, are a drag on America.

And here's the important part: such articles and, yes, editorials are essential if the American public is to be served a healthy dose of reality. That's the job of the press, and in these two cases the press did it jobs well.

So, President Obama: put your seat belt back on. It looks like you're going to have to follow through on your campaign promise to get a decent and reasonable immigration reform bill passed a little sooner than you would have liked.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

War Is No Tea Party

If the Tea Partiers are really so concerned about taxes this April 15th, they might want to consider supporting those of us who want to reduce the Pentagon's budget and who want to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We're spending billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives in our war making, and there isn't any end in sight. Somehow I don't expect to see any rhetoric along those lines coming from those rallies this tax day, which is certainly a shame.

And the cost of those two wars is only going to get higher, according to the Los Angeles Times:

The Pentagon has increased its use of the military's most elite special operations teams in Afghanistan, more than doubling the number of the highly trained teams assigned to hunt down Taliban leaders, according to senior officials.

The secretive buildup reflects the view of the Obama administration and senior military leaders that the U.S. has only a limited amount of time to degrade the capabilities of the Taliban. U.S. forces are in the midst of an overall increase that will add 30,000 troops this year and plan to begin reducing the force in mid-2011.
[Emphasis added]

That certainly is an interesting timeline, one that coincides with the kickoff of the 2012 presidential campaign season. It's also just about the time the American public will finally notice the real cost of war as more and more American soldiers are shipped home dead or maimed after fighting what President Obama told us was the "Good War" when he was running for office.

And to accomplish this political callousness, the Pentagon has called in more Special Ops units, those ever-efficient men with their own special language for what it is they do:

With such an abbreviated timeline, the elite manhunt teams are the most effective weapon for disrupting the insurgent leadership, senior officials said. The officials contend that stepped-up operations by teams inserted in recent months already have eroded the Taliban leadership. Defense officials specifically single out the work of special operations forces in eliminating mid-level Taliban leaders before the February offensive in the Helmand province town of Marja. They say the forces have begun similar operations in nearby Kandahar province.

"You can't kill your way out of these things, but you can remove a lot of the negative influences," said a senior Defense official. "A significant portion of the leadership has fled over the border, been captured or removed from the equation."
[Emphasis added]

Now that's euphemistic acrobatics at its finest. It kind of takes the sting out of the word killing, and wallpapers over the increasing civilian deaths which will also occur, if the past year or so is any indication.

What a waste of money and of lives.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Boston Tea Party

Boston would seem to be the ideal place to hold a tea party. After all, it was the site of that first one, the one that is the symbol for the latest iteration of a group claiming to be patriots because they object to the federal government. So, the Tea Party is planning a mass tea party in Boston tomorrow, although I doubt we'll see an actual re-enactment of history. Oh, thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands will be present, but most of them will be there to worship the darling of the movement, once-for-half-a-term-governor Sarah Palin.

Boston Globe columnist Scott Lehigh has a snarky column up on who won't be present, and it might surprise you.

The GOP’s big names are skipping today’s Tea Party rally. Charlie Baker, the leading Republican candidate for governor, has a, um, scheduling conflict. Ditto state Senator Richard Tisei, his running mate.

Nor will you see US Senator Scott Brown, who, to hear the talk-radio types tell it, pretty much owes his election to the Tea Partiers. Count me as dubious about that. I was out on the campaign trail the weekend before the election, and I didn’t see much evidence of The Tea Party at Brown’s events. Of course, those same attention-craving talk-radio types remind me of the opportunistic 19th century French politician who, hearing a noisy crowd nearby, supposedly declared: “There goes the mob. I am their leader. I must follow them.’’

But don’t take the snub personally, folks. It’s not so much you as it is the headliner. To succeed as a Republican in Massachusetts, a politician needs broad appeal, and rubbing shoulders with Sarah Palin simply isn’t going to confer that.

You see, Mr. Lehigh points out, Ms. Palin just isn't that popular in Massachusetts. He cites a recent poll in support of this proposition:

According to a January Suffolk University poll, only 25 percent of Massachusetts (likely) voters view Palin favorably, while 60 percent see her in an unfavorable light. (Scott Brown’s rating on the same survey was 57 percent favorable, 19 percent unfavorable.)

Mr. Lehigh's assessment of Ms. Palin expresses (with some delightful venom, I might add) just why the GOP pols are wise to keep their distance:

What Palin really represents is the triumph of charisma over content. Yes, Glenn Beck may swoon at the thought of her leading the country, but after her performance as John McCain’s VP nominee, it’s enough to make the more-firmly-hinged shudder. Since that campaign, Palin has resigned as governor of Alaska and embarked on a national tour as a conservative inspirational speaker of sorts, offering up a simple, homespun populism that resonates with some conservatives.

(And for which those conservatives pay mightily for the privilege of hearing, I would add.)

"The triumph of charisma over content." Yes, that captures Ms. Palin nicely. We Americans are suckers for charisma, and by Americans I mean all Americans, not just Republicans. It certainly explains a lot of our history, especially recent history, doesn't it?

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Election Chess

There's kind of a cynical article in today's Los Angeles Times today. James Oliphant, who is actually quite good at analyzing things going on in Washington, seems to be suggesting that the selection of a nominee to the US Supreme Court by the White House and the response to that nominee by the Senate will be guided more by the upcoming elections than by the nominee's fitness for the highest court in the land.

Imagine that.

...Republicans have a weapon they lacked last year when Sonia Sotomayor was tapped for the court. They have enough votes to conceivably mount a filibuster and block the nominee outright. But they'll have to decide whether to use that weapon now or wait until the Supreme Court stakes may even be higher.

For both sides, Justice John Paul Stevens' retirement announcement last week arrived at an inconvenient time. Neither side wants an ideological battle based on divisive social issues, such as gun control or abortion rights, with an election ahead. ...

...the GOP wants to avoid a fight over social issues, which often become the focus of Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

If Obama "picks a moderate, then they should stick to the anti-big government themes that seem to be working. But if the president picks a liberal, then they are going to have to change direction and go after social issues," said John G. Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

That has risks. A fight over social issues could alienate the moderates the party is courting, he said.
[Emphasis added]

Frankly, I haven't seen much of that courting of moderates by the Republicans going on. That party has been too busy tacking rightward to appease the Tea Partiers. Still, the GOP has been working feverishly to dispel the meme of being merely "the party of NO," as the article points out.

The White House also has been surveying the election calculus when it comes to the nominee:

The White House will largely shape the nature of the contest by the nominee it selects.

A more moderate pick, such as federal appellate Judge Merrick Garland, a former prosecutor from Washington, could defuse a potential powder keg before it's lit. A more left-tilting one, such as law professor Pamela Karlan of Stanford University or Diane Wood, a federal appeals court judge in Chicago, could detonate it.

While I appreciate that the White House has to select a nominee that can be confirmed either with or without the fireworks, using the effect on the November elections as the main criterion for the selection is, well, odious, as odious as the GOP's calculated response based on the same criterion.

What appears to be all that concerns the people in Washington, DC is power, the getting of it and then the holding on to it. Power and money.

Labels: ,

Monday, April 12, 2010

Liz Cheney Speaks

Yesterday I commented on how curious it was that a German newspaper would be so interested in the daughter of a former US Vice-President, but I concluded that this particular former Vice-President and his daughter were a reminder of eight deadly years the world suffered under the Bush administration. Of course, it didn't help that both of these figures are making their presence felt everywhere they can: hardly a Sunday goes by without at least one of them on the talk shows, and both are racking up some serious airline miles the rest of the week as they give speeches to the faithful of the GOP and attend the mini-conventions that party has been holding in gearing up for the November elections.

Liz Cheney attended and spoke at a conference organized by the GOP in (of all places) New Orleans. Here's a little of what she had to say:

Looking like a potential candidate for office herself, Liz Cheney kicked off a three-day Republican conference Thursday evening with a blistering indictment of President Barack Obama's foreign policy.


The daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney was reticent about her future political plans, but she admitted that she enjoys the national spotlight. "Like my father and mother before me, I am proud to be in the arena," she said.

Some have even suggested that she run for the Senate from her home state of Virginia.


It was in foreign policy where Cheney detailed her critique of Obama's record, though, from threatening to prosecute CIA officers on charges of torturing terrorism suspects to hiring lawyers for the Justice Department who'd represented detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.


She said that Obama's new nuclear strategy ruling out the use of nuclear weapons to retaliate against biological, chemical or cyber attacks from some countries showed his "naivete."

She also lambasted his approach to Iran. "All those deadlines that have been put on the Iranian government have been ignored again and again," she said. "In this administration's dealings with Iran, the deadlines are meaningless, the sanctions worthless and the speeches pointless."

She ripped Obama for criticizing Israel over its insistence on building new settlements in the occupied West Bank. "The world is safer when there is no daylight between the United States and Israel," she said.

Clearly Ms. Cheney is reading from the same script her father has been using for the past year: the same revisionism, the same fear-mongering of an administration too soft and too naive to keep the US secure in a world filled with devils, the same half-truths and even lies. Unlike her father, however, Liz Cheney is young and healthy and will be around a lot longer to spread the fear.

This isn't about the root differences between the two parties, the ideological markers which differentiate the Republicans and the Democrats. It's about winning elections and the power that comes with the win (something the Democrats don't appear to understand) by appealing to the basest of the base. In that respect, Liz Cheney is just like Sarah Palin, but, and here's the dangerous part, she's better educated, more knowledgeable, and better connected.

And that's why, as I said yesterday, she makes me very nervous.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Henry Reed


To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.

Henry Reed

The Cheney Tag Team

Watching America was a bit of a mixed bag this week. Oh, there were several articles on the START treaty, and a couple on Afghanistan and on/by Israel concerning Middle East peace talks, but no one subject dominated. It was, in other words, a really interesting visit.

I settled on one article for this week's review because it seemed an odd topic for another country's press to consider. Generally, still-living former leaders usually don't garner much attention by the world press unless they are delivering a major policy speech on behalf of the current administration, are arrested for corruption, or are just falling-down drunk. The world, however, is still fascinated by Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz.

From Germany's die Welt:

Critics call her a right-wing jihadist or Sarah Palin with a pedigree: Liz, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is keeping the family tradition alive with aggression, defamation and the rewriting of history. She’ll have a remarkable political career.

It was supposed to be a backhanded compliment when one critic described Liz Cheney as “Sarah Palin with a pedigree” because of her law degree and her familial ties to a vice president. Another critic called her a right-wing jihadist, and yet another said she had the same rude manners as her father. Her propensity for getting talk show discussions red hot within seconds has all the fairness and charm of a partisan guerilla ambush.

Admirers and critics alike say the 34-year-old is Dick Cheney’s ideological heir as well as his legal advisor — and a chip off the old block. Nobody is outraged by Elizabeth Cheney Perry without granting her a certain amount of grudging respect. Those delighted that some of her positions lie further to the right of her father’s are already whispering of a possible congressional run in 2012.
[Emphasis added]

It certainly wouldn't be the first time a scion from a political family entered the electoral arena. As the columnist pointed out, its an American tradition that stretches back to the Adams family, moved through the Roosevelts, and on to the Bushes. It's usually, however, done with a little more finesse than Ms. Cheney is displaying at the present. Her claim, for example, that there were no terrorist attacks during her father's term as Vice President was a stunner. 9/11? The fault of the Clinton administration. The failed Easter bomber? Proof that President Obama is soft on terror.

It's clear that Liz Cheney is indeed "a chip off the old block," and the rest of the world is watching her progress with trepidation as well as amusement. After all, Vice President Cheney played a key role in the last administration, one that started two wars, trashed the rule of law when it was inconvenient, and helped set off a worldwide economic catastrophe.

To be honest, I'm a little nervous about her myself.

Labels: ,

Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Kevin Siers / The Charlotte Observer (April 8, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Varanus Bitatawa Lizard

(Photograph by Joseph Brown and published at National Geographic. Click on the link for more information on this recently discovered 6.5 foot lizard.)

Christian Terrorists

I was a youngster when I first heard "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," and I thought that was about the coolest thing I had ever heard. I was so moved by the phrase that I promptly marched down to the local Republican Party headquarters and volunteered. My assigned task was not to pass out campaign literature at grocery stores, or to take part in phone banking. I was considered too young for such important jobs. My job was to read all of the Milwaukee Sentinel and the Milwaukee Journal and to clip articles that I considered would be useful to the party and its candidates.

I guess I've come full circle. I don't often read the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (yes, the two papers merged so the city now has one daily), but I surely read a lot of newspapers, collecting articles that intrigue, infuriate, or enlighten me. Yesterday I came across one that fell into the last category, a commentary written by Leonard Pitts Jr of the Miami Herald and reprinted in McClatchy DC. He makes some powerful statements on the kind of extremism we're witnessing right now.

A few words about Christian terrorism.

And I suppose the first words should be about those words: "Christian terrorism." The term will seem jarring to those who've grown comfortable regarding terrorism as something exclusive to Islam.

That this is a self-deluding fallacy should have long since been apparent to anyone who's been paying attention. From Eric Rudolph's bombing of the Atlanta Olympics, a gay nightclub and two abortion clinics to the so-called Phineas Priests who bombed banks, a newspaper and a Planned Parenthood office in Spokane, from Matt Hale soliciting the murder of a federal judge in Chicago to Scott Roeder's assassination of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, from brothers Matthew and Tyler Williams murdering a gay couple near Redding, Calif., to Timothy McVeigh destroying a federal building and 168 lives in Oklahoma City, we have seen no shortage of "Christians" who believe Jesus requires — or at least allows — them to commit murder.

If federal officials are correct, we now have one more name to add to the dishonor roll. That name would be Hutaree, a self-styled Christian militia in Michigan, nine members of which have been arrested and accused of plotting to kill police officers in hopes of sparking an anti-government uprising.

Many of us would doubtless resist referring to plots like this as Christian terrorism, feeling it unfair to tar the great body of Christendom with the actions of its fringe radicals. And here, we will pause for Muslim readers to loudly clear their throats


Why does their Jesus need the help of men in camo fatigues with guns and bombs? In this, he is much like the Allah for whom certain Muslims blow up marketplaces and crowded buses. Muslim and American terrorists, it seems, both apparently serve a puny and impotent God who can't do anything without their help.

It saddens me that we have come to the point where the man who said "Even as you do unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me", who blessed the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, is used as justification for murder. It grieves me that the term "Christian terrorism" is not an oxymoron. It disgusts me that those who claim to adhere to the Gospels urge their co-religionists not to retreat but to reload.

Mr. Pitts (whom I will henceforth refer to as "Our man, Mr. Pitts") has nailed this dangerous lunacy brilliantly, naming it for what it is. And for that I am grateful.


Friday, April 09, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

(Friday, kittehs, and baseball: three of my favorite things.)

Out From Under The Rock

On Wednesday I pointed out the deadly combination of lax governmental oversight, a politically connected and profit-at-any-cost mine owner, and a non-union workforce as likely causes for the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. The "center left" editorial board at the Los Angeles Times has come to pretty much the same conclusion.

...What's clear from the Upper Big Branch disaster is that tough new rules put in place following the deaths of 12 miners at the Sago mine in West Virginia in 2006 still don't go far enough, and penalties imposed on mining companies that break them are too easy to evade.

The safety record of Upper Big Branch mine owner Massey Energy might be, as company executives claim, better than the industry average. But that's not saying much. Since the new regulations were imposed four years ago, federal officials have noted hundreds of violations at the mine and proposed $1.77 million in fines -- yet Massey has paid only about $365,000. That's because mine owners can appeal citations, and lawyers can drag out the adjudication process for years. The government can shut down mines with a history of significant safety violations, but such charges go on a company's record only after the appeals have been resolved. So operators can continue to run a potentially unsafe mine long after inspectors have put up red flags, which is something Congress should address. ...

Perhaps there's no connection between Blankenship's stance on labor and environmental issues and Monday's explosion. Yet disaster is the inevitable outcome when the pursuit of profits causes leaders to ignore overwhelming scientific evidence about the environmental damage of coal burning or the great, preventable dangers of coal mining. Upper Big Branch only serves as the latest reminder of that truism.
[Emphasis added]

After the Sago mining disaster, Congress acted by toughening safety requirements for mining operations, but obviously the new rules implemented by the Mining Safety and Health Administration didn't go nearly far enough. The delaying tactics used by Massey Energy and other mine owners and operators essentially nullified the changes intended to actually improve mine safety.

Now that the US Supreme Court has decided that corporations are "people" entitled to free speech, perhaps federal prosecutors should extend the ruling by charging the corporations with criminal negligence, maybe even negligent homicide. Seeing Mr. Blankenship in a yellow jump suit in court on such charges wouldn't bring back the dead miners, but it sure would send a message.


Thursday, April 08, 2010

Eh, The Kids Are All Right

I found some actually surprising news this morning. The subject matter and conclusions weren't all that surprising, but the fact that this opinion piece on the changing attitudes toward immigrants in California was written by a Republican raised my eyebrows. Dan Schnur, currently the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, also served as communications director for Gov. Pete Wilson and was an advisor to the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. John McCain.

It wasn't all that long ago (1994) that Californians passed a proposition which would deny social services to illegal immigrants. The proposition was struck down as unconstitutional, much to the dismay of the voters. Such a proposition would not be passed so handily these days, according to Mr. Schnur after he viewed some recent poll numbers.

...In 1994, Proposition 187 passed with almost 60% of the vote, and polling done by both political parties during subsequent election campaigns has suggested that the state's electorate would continue to support measures to deny a broad range of social services to illegal immigrants. Our new poll, however, found that California voters today are almost evenly divided on the question. Forty-five percent of respondents still support the denial of services -- including public schooling and healthcare to illegal immigrants -- but 47% oppose the idea. This represents a marked shift in public opinion with ramifications for both state and national politics and policy reform efforts.

It would be natural to assume that California's growing numbers of Latino and Asian American voters are the reason for this historic shift. But that would be only part of the story. Although voters from these two groups oppose the denial of social services at a greater level than white or African American voters, the opinion gap on this question is much more pronounced when results are broken down demographically by age rather than race.

Californians aged 18 to 29 opposed this proposal by more than a 20-point margin, while voters 65 and over supported it by 12 points. That's a differential of more than 30 points between age groups on the question of whether illegal immigrants should receive social services from the state, a much larger disparity than when the results were examined by racial or ethnic category. Further, on the more basic question of whether illegal immigrants have an overall positive or negative effect on the state, voters under 45 joined Latino and Asian American respondents in answering that illegal immigrants represent a net benefit.
[Emphasis added]

Why such a substantial age disparity? Mr. Schnur points to what I consider a fairly obvious factor: younger people have grown up with neighbors of different ethnicities.

Just as young people are more likely to have gotten to know a gay neighbor or co-worker, the growth in the Latino and Asian population in the state has given young Californians a much higher comfort level than their elders with those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. In both cases, exposure has brought familiarity, which has in turn brought tolerance. [Emphasis added]

So, has California become a paradise of forward, humane thinking? Not hardly, at least not yet. Still, as immigration policy is debated in the coming year, politicians might want to take a look at the findings in this poll. If the younger people start voting regularly, politicians will have to acknowledge the sea change starting in California.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Another Mining Disaster

It was just four years ago that news of a mining disaster hit. I thought then that perhaps we finally had hit a tipping point with respect to mine safety, Sago was that dramatic. Silly me. What appears to be a replay of the Sago disaster is playing out in West Virginia: 25 miners dead, 4 missing. The presumed cause of the disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine, operated by Massey Energy, was a build-up of methane gas which exploded. A sampling of news articles from the past two days provides the causes behind the cause.

First, from yesterday's NY Times:

Federal records indicate that the Upper Big Branch mine has recorded an injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations for at least six of the past 10 years. The records also show that the mine had 458 violations in 2009, with a total of $897,325 in safety penalties assessed against it last year. It has paid $168,393 in safety penalties.

“Massey’s commitment to safety has long been questioned in the coalfields,” said Tony Oppegard, a lawyer and mine safety advocate from Kentucky.

Those concerns, he said, were heightened in 2006 when an internal memo written by Mr. Blankenship became public. In the memo, Mr. Blankenship instructed the company’s underground mine superintendents to place coal production first.

“This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills,” he wrote.

Mine safety just isn't that important to Mr. Blankenship and many others in the mine owners caucus. Even if inspections turn up safety violations, the fines can be contested and reduced to levels which don't threaten the bottom line. The feds can be managed.

So can the state governments, as this op-ed column by Dylan Matthews for the Washington Post makes clear.

Even aside from its abysmal safety record, Massey, and its leader, Don Blankenship, are almost cartoonishly villainous in the way they approach everything from the environment to union rights to media scrutiny. They've pioneered mountain top removal mining, a particularly destructive form of mining that dirties local water supplies, ruins animal habitats, and damages the foundations of nearby houses, all while eliminating much of the Appalachians. Massey refuses to hire union workers, and thus denies its workers an advocacy group that could press for, among other things, safer ventilation systems. And Blankenship himself has been downright thuggish to critics and reporters, grabbing an ABC news camera and saying the cameraman was "liable to get shot" if he kept taking pictures.

Mr. Blankenship, however, owns West Virginia's legislature, governor, and even the state's supreme court. Bought and paid for by generous campaign donations, the state wouldn't dare cross this major Republican player.

Left out of the equation, miners go to work each day knowing that they have no back-up, that when the disaster hits, there will be a media frenzy, people will be outraged, but nothing will change. Some miners, however, those who are unionized, have a better chance at staying alive. Unfortunately for the victims of the latest disaster, the Upper Big Branch Mine isn't unionized, something that Susan Kushner Resnick noted her opinion piece for the Boston Globe this morning:

ANOTHER YEAR, another group of men killed in a coal mine. You already know the story, because it rarely changes. Inspectors discover violations. Mine operators ignore them. Miners work through the danger because they need to make a living. Gas builds up and explodes. Some men die instantly from the force of the blast, and some die from the carbon monoxide. There are always a few unaccounted for or trapped, and those mysteries keep everyone’s hope alive for a while. Then, usually, they die, too. ...

Finally, there are paychecks. If the Upper Big Branch mine had been unionized, Smith said, “our safety committee would have made sure the mine was aggressively followed up on and citations dealt with.’’

But it wasn’t. Not everyone can find a job in a union shop. But some choose to work in nonunion mines because they tend to pay better. Smith says when a union mine and a nonunion mine are located near each other, the nonunion men make a bit more per hour. What they lose, he notes, is the freedom to complain when safety is ignored. That kind of talk can lead to an escort to the door.

Ms. Resnick understands that the miners make a choice to work in a non-union mine, but it's the kind of choice that these men make so that they can take care of their families. That is hardly a sin, even if it ultimately proves to be foolish, even deadly.

The real sinners are the mine operators. Their choice to put profit ahead of safety cannot, as Ms. Resnick points out, be justified.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Elections Matter

One of the sorriest stories about the White House and the 111th Congress is that they've been so tied up over the economy and over health care reform, very little else has been done. Oh, President Obama made a raft of "recess appointments" last week while the Congress was on Spring Break, but those appointments are essentially short lived and didn't put even a small dent in the list of his appointments just hanging out there waiting for Senate approval.

Among those appointments are nominees for the federal bench, and the federal judiciary is screaming for judges to be named, approved, and installed. One of those nominees is Goodwin Liu for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Mr. Liu has gotten the stamp of approval from the American Bar Association. Amazingly, Kenneth Starr also feels he is well qualified for the position.

So what's the problem? In a word, Republicans. Led by Sen. Sessions, the Republicans have made it clear they will fight this nomination because Mr. Liu is considered too far out of the mainstream to qualify for the federal bench. What really bugs Mr. Sessions is that a Democratic president has proposed him, not that Mr. Liu is actually out of the mainstream. Even the "center-left" editorial board of the Los Angeles Times recognizes the "Just Say No" impetus behind Mr. Sessions bombast, the same bombast he used against Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor, hardly a liberal firebrand.

Yes, Mr. Liu is young, and yes, he hasn't any judicial experience, but it's not like the Republicans, when in power, haven't proposed similar nominees, as the Times editorial pointed out:

Because he is an academic, Liu has a long paper trail of views about the Constitution and constitutional interpretation that's unusual in a judicial nominee. He's also very young. But so were some notable appeals court appointees of Republican presidents. For example, Alex Kozinski, now the chief judge of the 9th Circuit, was 34 when President Reagan named him to the appeals court. Kenneth W. Starr, the future Whitewater special prosecutor, was 37 when Reagan placed him on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. ...

Like his Republican forerunners, Liu represents a departure from the usual practice of filling appeals courts with middle-aged lawyers with previous judicial experience or long careers in private practice. The question for outspoken academics (and politicians) who ascend to the bench, however, is not how old they are, but whether they can trade the role of advocate for that of arbiter. An additional question for appellate judges is whether they will apply Supreme Court precedent even when it conflicts with their own constitutional vision. In Liu's case, that would mean that he couldn't get ahead of the Supreme Court on whether to recognize education, shelter or subsistence as constitutional rights. The American Bar Assn. obviously has concluded that Liu can satisfy both obligations. It has rated him "well qualified." We agree.

So, why isn't Harry Reid forcing the issue?

Who knows. It's clear that the Republicans have no intention of keeping their powder dry on any issue presented by the Democrats and by the President. Neither should the Democrats, especially after 8 years of making nice to the Republicans gave us a Supreme Court laden with troglodytes. And it's not like the Democrats have all the time in the world to flesh out the President's agenda. November is closing in on them, and the mood of the country, all across the political spectrum, is ugly, especially when it comes to incumbents.

It's time for Senate Democrats, particularly Harry Reid, to remind the Republicans that elections matter, and that the last one was won by the Democrats.

Labels: ,

Monday, April 05, 2010

Unsurprising News

It's 2010, the November elections are just about seven months away with campaigns in full swing, and the editorial board of the NY Times has discovered that our democracy is fueled by money and run by those who have it.

Political money’s power to upstage the boilerplate bromides fed daily to constituents is currently bedeviling the Republican National Committee and its chairman, Michael Steele. The ultimate threat from the notorious “Voyeur” incident (in which an R.N.C. staff member shepherded Young Eagle donors to a California bondage nightclub) is not so much to the party’s family-values agenda as its financial goals.

Republican fund-raisers are worried that the money pipeline will suffer. The Family Research Council, a political beacon for social conservatives, urged members to stop giving money to the R.N.C. And Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate and celebrity fund-raiser, is emphasizing that she will not be present at a New Orleans money rally in which the R.N.C. had touted her presence.

It's a little late to be recognizing the obvious. Even if the NYT had only gone back 12 months, there was ample evidence of the role of money in politics. The US Supreme Court has ruled that there can be no cap on money donated by corporations to campaigns on "free speech" grounds. The health care "reform" bill was dictated by insurance companies and PHARMA, notoriously large campaign donors, right from the start. These days, the financial community is blocking any meaningful reform on how its members do business and how they enrich their CEOs.

Meanwhile, here in California Meg Whitman is buying the governor's office with her own personal fortune (which is sizable), dramatically outpacing her Republican opponent and now even leading the presumed Democrat in the race, former Governor Jerry Brown.

Is it any wonder that such organizations as the Tea Party suddenly emerged to compete with the two parties for attention? "Regular" people have been cut out of the process, and most don't like it one bit. While the Tea Partiers may embrace a lot of odious ideas such as racism and the dismantling of the federal government, they also recognize that most of the politicians aren't looking out for the people of the country, only for the corporations. Ironically, Sarah Palin, "celebrity fund-raiser," has become the darling of the Tea Party. Her refusal to speak at one fund raising event (but not all of them -- that's where a huge chunk of her income lies) increases her visibility and her standing.

It's going to an interesting seven months for both parties.

Painful, but interesting.

Labels: , ,