Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mental Health Day

(Once again, copped from Marcellina at The Practice Room.)


Monday, November 29, 2010


The four-day holiday weekend is, alas, over. Most of us will now return to our work-a-day life, commuting to our jobs by car, bicycle, bus, and/or train. Many people, however, spent some time on airplanes this weekend as they traveled to celebrate Thanksgiving, and that meant going through the "enhanced" security procedures of the Transportation Safety Administration.

While the threatened slow-down action by protesting fliers didn't really get off the ground, disgruntled passengers still found a way to voice their pleasure. The ears of the TSA are hopefully burning with the response of fliers who were scanned or patted down by Transportation Safety Officers.

Yesterday's Boston Globe noted the new security features and the government euphemisms used to defuse the blatant invasion of privacy. It also noted some of the public's response to both the euphemisms and the humiliation encountered by passengers.

The aggressively bland language used by the TSA to describe these new policies — enhanced screening procedures, advanced imaging machines, enhanced pat-down — are classic bureaucratese, in which descriptions are seemingly engineered to minimize the meaning conveyed while maximizing the number of words used. (Classic examples of bureaucratese range from the benign, such as transportation project enhancements for flowers along the freeway, to the distressingly disengaged, such as man-caused disasters for terrorism.) Enhanced screening procedures raises more questions than it answers: Enhanced by what? For whom? And what, exactly, is being screened?

You'd think the government would have chosen a better word than "enhanced" for the new procedures, especially since that word, when coupled with "interrogations" didn't exactly hide the fact that what was actually being done was torture. That, however, is the nature of bureaucratese: it is language used to hide meaning rather than clarify it.

But the traveling public had a healthy response of its own to such abuse of language and their privacy. Travelers have come up with their own coded language:

The pat-downs have been dubbed "gate rape", "freedom pats", "freedom fondles" and "freedom frisks", "grope-a-palooza", and "love pats" (that last by Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri). The whole process has been called a "peel and feel".

Travelers had no real way to avoid the new procedures. If they didn't submit, they didn't fly. They did, however, find a way to protest the language used to justify the humiliation and they are taking full advantage of it. Hopefully that kind of action is carried further, all the way to their elected representatives and the White House.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Maya Angelou

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

--Maya Angelou

Award Time

There's some good stuff up at Watching America, so if you have the time I recommend you pay a visit.

The article I selected this week had a really unusual "hook" to it. It's from South Korea's Hankyung and it uses the upcoming selection of Time's "Person of the Year" to explore an issue which deeply affects not only the US, but also the rest of the world: unemployment, especially American unemployment.

Even Korean journalists avoid getting involved in the U.S. jobs issue we hear about from the international news desk. Maybe this wouldn’t be the case if we could report that the unemployment situation was getting better or that there was even the slightest indication of an improvement. But with constant news of youth unemployment, lack of jobs for graduates, baby boomers unprepared for early retirement, and job insecurity among older men and women, there have been incessant anxieties about the prospect of an inevitable long-term unemployment crisis. More than 400,000 new Americans are receiving unemployment benefits every month, with the total number of such people reaching 4.3 million.

Unemployment is scarier than the atomic bomb. This becomes evident in looking at the recent defeat in the U.S. midterm elections, or President Obama’s focus on saving the economy both at home and abroad. Neither of these things seem very out of place when seen from the perspective of jobs. Of course, unemployment is not a problem exclusive to the U.S.

The US is a prime market for the rest of the world. If we can't buy their exports, other nations' economies won't recover either, which means those countries will have unemployment figures rivaling the US. These countries get it. I wonder why ours doesn't. Unless, of course, our leaders do get it just don't care as long as the DJIA is above 10,000.

What is ironic about this article is that The Unemployed American is actually one of the candidates for Person of the Year. The magazine's website has the full list of those under consideration for this honor. Readers are invited to vote on their pick, although the editors make it clear they will not be bound by the results. Here's that list:

Julian Assange
Glenn Beck
David Cameron
The Chilean Miners
Arne Duncan
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Jonathan Franzen
Lady Gaga
Robert Gates
Tony Hayward
Hu Jintao
LeBron James
Steve Jobs
Hamid Karzai
David and Charles Koch
Liu Xiaobo
Barack Obama
Sarah Palin
Nancy Pelosi
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert
The Unemployed American
J. Craig Venter
Elizabeth Warren, Mary Schapiro and Sheila Bair
Mark Zuckerberg

I must admit that list presents a pretty good summary of the year's news, even if it also is a pretty good reflection of what's wrong with our culture. I voted for The Unemployed American. For those of you considering registering your opinion at the web site (and I think freeping it would be a good idea), be warned: the process is unnecessarily complicated and difficult. It might be worth it, however.

The Unemployed American as Person of the Year might put a little more pressure on the government to start tending to its proper responsibilities to us.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Rex Babin / Sacramento Bee (November 23, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Musk Ox

(Photograph by Joel Berger and published by National Geographic.)

Just Due

I probably should put myself in a corner for a time-out, but I simply couldn't help chuckling at this bit of news. It seems that Rahm Emanuel's candidacy for Mayor of Chicago is being challenged on residency requirements.

Under Illinois' municipal code, a candidate must be a resident of the city for a year prior to the election. Emanuel was working as President Obama's White House chief of staff until he returned to Chicago last month to campaign for the Feb. 22 election.

Emanuel said he meets the standard because he owns a home here, has voted here and always intended to move back. Lawyer Burt Odelson said the fact that Emanuel rented out his home, instead of leaving it empty, means he's not a resident.

Okay, it's a bit of political nitpicking, but Chicago politics is supposed to be all about hardball, at least that's what White House supporters told us when some worried that Barack Obama might not be tough enough for his job. Besides, they said, he's got Rahm on staff and Rahm is a real tough guy, one who gets his way more often than not. And, to a great extent, this is probably true. After all, Obama and Emanuel did a pretty good job at slamming the door on liberals when they started screaming about a healthcare reform bill that didn't even include a public option. "Fucking retards" was the epithet, as I recall.

There's more to this story than just good old fashioned Chicago politics, however. When Mayor Daley announced he wouldn't be running for re-election, Emanuel jumped at the chance for another government job. His job at the White House was getting tedious, what with the Republicans and liberals both heaving verbal bombs in his direction. And besides, he was a Chicago boy who made his bones on the national scene. He deserved to be mayor. And that is the point.

Career politicians have a sense of entitlement, one that means when their term is up they are entitled to another cushy job, whether in the public or the private sector. That is their primary qualification. It has nothing to do with service, or with ability. Emanuel, I suspect, fully expected to coast into this new job as his due.

The problem is that there are other career politicians with the same idea and an electorate which will be as cranky in February as they were in November. Emanuel is carrying some pretty heavy baggage in the race, even if he overcomes the residency technicality raised in the lawsuit. Does this mean he can't win? Of course not, but it won't be a walk in the park.

At least I hope not.

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Move Left

The election results in California are at last final, and it was a complete disaster for the Republicans. They lost every single state-wide office and even lost a seat in the state legislature. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that yet one more post mortem has appeared.

This one was written by two of the contributors at Cal Buzz, Phil Trounstine and Jerry Roberts and they have some advice to the state Republican Party on how to get back on track in this traditionally blue state.

First, their assessment of the November 2 debacle:

The state's Republicans are now so trapped in their ideological hall of mirrors that they have become a distorted caricature of themselves. The midterm election demonstrated that they utterly fail to reflect the impulses of the vast majority of California voters, who tend toward fiscal conservatism and social moderation. ...

The party's fixation on opposing everything the Democrats propose is hurting Republicans more than it is their opponents. ...

Republicans don't have to continually serve the interests of the wealthiest 2% of California families; they can focus also on the struggling middle class. And they need to remember that California is not Kentucky or Alaska or any other state where the so-called tea party is a big deal. In California, tea party ideology has little appeal to the vast majority of voters.

I'm not so sure most California voters are fiscally conservative, but I do think they are at the very least socially moderate, and I think Trounstine and Roberts have done a pretty good job in diagnosing just what went wrong in the election. What surprised me is the antidote prescribed for the ailment. Here are a few of the suggestions offered to cure what ails the state GOP:

A change of position on providing a path to citizenship. ...

Getting on board with green jobs and environmental conservation. By arguing that people must pick between the environment and economic development, Republicans are creating a false choice. And voters know it. ...

Changing the party's stance on abortion. There's a way to move to the center on this issue. The party could support a woman's right to choose in line with Roe vs. Wade without endorsing or even supporting abortion. ...

Although this sounds like reprise of George W. Bush's "Compassionate Conservatism," it actually is a bit more grounded in reality. What Messrs Trounstine and Roberts are suggesting is that the state GOP move away from the far, far right and move to the left a little.

Why am I providing a platform for healing the Republican Party? Simple, this is the same prescription I would issue for the state and national Democratic Party: move away from the conservative wing of the party and take some giant steps to the left.

Each one of the suggestions offered by Tournstine and Roberts should also be heeded by Democrats. It's no accident that many of the Democrats ousted on the national level were conservative Blue Dog or DLC types. They were "Republican-lite", and they didn't have much of a chance when real conservatives (however wacky) showed up to oppose them. They lost because real Democrats weren't enthused enough this time around to show up and hold their noses when voting. They didn't bother.

I firmly believe that when we groom and develop real Democrats, those in the tradition of Roosevelt and Kennedy, we'll do better, and so will the rest of the country. That will only happen when our candidates and our party moves away from the corporatists and imperialists and towards the people.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Real Americans

File this one under creepy news.

It seems a Minnesota state legislator was briefly detained by police for carrying a concealed weapon after parking his truck in a Planned Parenthood lot. The lot's security guard spotted the weapon when the man emerged from his vehicle. The solon assured the police that, while he understood the guard's concern, it was all a misunderstanding.

Hackbarth, R-Cedar, is in his eighth term representing District 48A. He represents Elk River, Oak Grove and East Bethel and is considered a strong advocate of conservation issues and an opponent of abortion rights.

He said Tuesday that he is not familiar with the Highland Park area and didn't know he was at Planned Parenthood when he pulled into the empty lot so that he could look for a woman he had met online.

But wait, it gets creepier.

Hackbarth said he had coffee with the woman on Nov. 15, and asked her to dinner the next night but she told him she couldn't because of a commitment she had with a female friend in Highland Park. Hackbarth said he felt that she might have been seeing a man instead, so he parked his car and walked around the block looking for her car. (The security guard spotted Hackbarth's gun when he got out of his car and put on a winter coat.) ...

"I was not a jealous boyfriend," said Hackbarth, who is in the process of divorcing his wife of 25 years. "I was just trying to check up on her. It's totally a misunderstanding."

That explanation apparently satisfied the police officers called to the scene. They sent him on his way, but only after confiscating his weapon. It turns out that Mr. Hackbarth has a licence to carry a concealed weapon, so no charges were filed and the gun was returned to the legislator the next day.

No harm, no foul.

I have a suspicion that Mr. Hackbarth won't get that second date.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Holiday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Ted Rall and featured at the Los Angeles Times. Click on image to enlarge.)


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Restating The Obvious, Again

One of the most maddening things in the world is watching people proceed to make decisions based on assumptions which are clearly unfounded, wrong, even insane, even after they have been told those assumptions have no basis in reality. One can only assume that the folks who operate this way are either crazy or have a hidden agenda. This whole "debate" on Social Security and its solvency is filled with people like this, so it's a constant battle to point out the problem.

Fortunately there are some good souls up to the task, as this op-ed piece shows. Here's the bio for the two writers of the article: "Nancy Altman, the author of "The Battle for Social Security," and Eric Kingson, a professor of social work at Syracuse University, co-direct Social Security Works (socialsecurity-works.org)." Both are obviously deeply concerned by the direction the Cat Food Commission appears to be taking, as evidenced by the preliminary report issued by the co-chairs, Erskine Bowles and Allan Simpson.

As the authors point out, both Simpson and Bowles are no friends of Social Security, especially as it is currently constituted. Both have made it clear that they intended to include Social Security in the work of the commission which was called to deal with the issue of reducing the federal deficit. That was their first mistake, one that they keep repeating and repeating. Our intrepid authors point out the fallacy of the assumption underlying that review of Social Security.

In releasing their plan, the co-chairs went out of their way to make clear that they were proposing changes to Social Security "for its own sake, not for deficit reduction." This was an acknowledgement that Social Security does not and cannot contribute to the deficit, because it has no borrowing authority and by law cannot pay benefits unless it has sufficient income and reserves to cover their cost. But Simpson and Bowles just couldn't keep their hands off the program. [Emphasis added]

Memorize this, class, because it's going to be one the test: SOCIAL SECURITY DOES NOT CONTRIBUTE TO THE DEFICIT.

Altman and Kingson then move on to the other parts of the report based on some pretty obvious and quite dangerous wrong assumptions. Here's my favorite:

Bowles and Simpson argue that we should raise the retirement age because people are living longer. But not everyone is. Over the last quarter-century, life expectancy of lower-income men increased by one year, compared to five for upper-income men. And lower-income women have experienced declines in longevity.

The co-chairs apparently think most Americans can work as long as politicians, Wall Street billionaires and others who have all of life's advantages. In effect, the Bowles-Simpson plan says to America's workers that they must work longer for less because the rich are living longer.
[Emphasis added]


But the authors don't stop there, they also reiterate the most obvious way to shore up the Social Security Trust Fund for another 75 years: raise or eliminate the cap on payroll contributions to the fund. The wealthy pay far less a percentage of their income into Social Security than the rest of us. Raising the cap to $200,000 would mitigate some of that unfairness and keep the Trust Fund in business for another couple of generations.

This is not rocket science, brain surgery, or even Accounting 101. And Simpson and Bowles are not uneducated and presumably not insane. They are both, however, well-off financially, which might explain that hidden agenda I referenced at the start.

If Congress doesn't fight this proposal and defeat it soundly, 2012 might very well make the 2010 bloodbath look like a walk in the park, as Altman and Kingson suggest. We all need to make that very clear, because that assumption, unlike those of Simpson and Bowles, is founded in reality.

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Mostly Right

One of the editorials in today's New York Times came amazingly close to my views on "faith based initiatives." The editorial takes a look at President Obama's tweaking of his predecessor's program and finds it lacking, as well it is. Here's the most important reason:

But the revisions have a glaring omission. Ignoring one of Mr. Obama’s own important campaign promises, and a large coalition of religious, education and civil rights groups, the new decree fails to draw a firm line barring employment discrimination on the basis of religion. The order leaves untouched a 2007 Justice Department memo that dubiously concluded that the government cannot order religious groups not to discriminate as a condition of federal financing. That memo should have been withdrawn long ago by this administration.

But here is where I part company with the editorial:

What is needed is a careful constitutional balance. Groups running worthy social service programs should not be disqualified from receiving federal financing simply because they have a religious affiliation. But they should get no special exemption from antidiscrimination laws. Public money should not be used to underwrite discrimination.

I believe the wall separating church and state should be absolute. If the program is worthy, then it is probably addressing a need that should be handled by the government anyway. Rather than shoving off a government responsibility to provide a safety net for the poor or the unemployed or the homeless to churches, the government should take responsibility.

If a social service program has been developed by a church as an embodiment of its tenets to feed the poor or to care for the downtrodden, then it should go all the way and finance that program completely. If the members of the church are unable to pay for the program itself, they can always seek the assistance of private foundations, which most do.

Or, the church can do what mine has: it can provide the seed money and the space to get the program up and running, and then when it has proven its success, it can remove itself from the picture, allowing the new program to access sources of funding otherwise closed to it.

Still, the editorial does point out the most glaring flaw in federally funded faith-based initiatives: the fact that tax dollars are being used to fund religious discrimination. For that I am grateful.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Percy Bysshe Shelley


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

--Percy Bysshe Shelley


Yesterday's visit to Watching America was a rather strange one. There were a number of articles that struck me because, while they used America as a backdrop, the articles themselves were directed towards the issues of their respective countries. That backdrop wasn't a very flattering one. If you don't visit this valuable site often, this would be a good time to do so.

That said, the article I finally settled on came from the Economist. It had to do with a trial that took place in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. First, here's the background to the story.

In January “NOT WELCOME” was spray-painted on a sign placed on the site announcing it as the future home of the Islamic Centre of Murfreesboro. The sign was vandalised again in June, one week after a contentious county commission hearing at which a local pastor declared, “We have a duty to investigate anyone under the banner of Islam.” The same month a Republican candidate for Congress from Murfreesboro declared herself “opposed to the idea of an Islamic training centre being built in our community”. In August construction equipment at the site was set alight.

When the righteous right wing terrorists didn't succeed in their intimidation tactics, they ponied up for a civil lawsuit, and here's where it gets good:

...The defence called a single witness, who testified that the county’s planning commission followed proper procedure; the plaintiffs called at least 17, including Frank Gaffney, who runs a think-tank in Washington, DC, and speaks often about the dangers of sharia (for whatever that is worth: on the stand he admitted, “I am not an expert on sharia, but I have talked a lot about it as a threat”). Their attorney’s questioning often focused not on the details of open-meetings laws but on the incompatibility of sharia and American law, on whether Islam is a religion (the federal government filed a brief saying that it is) and on whether advocating sharia law ought to be protected by the first amendment.

Like the author of the article, I am somewhat puzzled by the willingness of the hearing officer in letting that "expert" testimony in, but at least he reached the proper conclusion. He threw the case out.

Now two things about this article struck me. The first, of course, is the sheer meanness of Islamaphobes, a meanness which is not unlike that of their nasty cousins, the racists. One of the attorneys for the plaintiffs declared that the case would go all the way up to the Supreme Court. Gasp! I wonder who will fund that little exercise.

The second thing which struck me was that it was so reminiscent of the huge coverage given by the US press this past summer over the plans to build an Islamic center a few blocks from "Ground Zero." Not a day went by without coverage of the rhetoric roiling about the issue. In fact, the same kind of coverage was given to groups protesting such centers or mosques in various small towns around the nation, always providing a "balanced" version of the facts. Yet, as far as I can tell, there was little mention of the Murfreesboro case in any of the major news outlets the past three weeks.

I did a little Google check on the coverage of the New York center and found that stories started really showing up in June, peaked in August, leveled off in September, and then, by the end of that month, stopped entirely. There are probably several explanations for that. The most obvious is that the over coverage was getting tedious and not grabbing people as much. The second is that the new issue was the imagined threat of Sharia law replacing the US Constitution, which is still getting ink and electrons and was the alleged central issue in the Murfreesboro case.

Probably the main reason, however, is that the midterm elections loomed. There were plenty of stories to cover, several of which contained the left-over stench from the New York center as rightist candidates continued to mouth outrage over the very existence of Muslims, wherever they might be located. In other words, the damage had been done.

I don't know that the timing and over-reporting was intentional on the part of the press, but it certainly had the same effect as if it had been. It now appears that the kind of horrid behavior displayed in the Murfreesboro case is no longer news. It's the norm, and there's nothing newsworthy in the norm.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Joel Pett / Lexington Herald-Leader (November 19, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on the image to enlarge, which you really need to do on this one to get the full glory.)


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Black Rhino

(Photograph by Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters / November 11, 2010 and published by the Los Angeles Times. Click on the link for news on the horrific practice of rhino slaughter for their horns.)

Some Get It, Some Don't

I used to have a sense of humor. There was a time when I would roar with laughter at the whole ridiculous scenario of air travelers being given the choice of a full body scan or a physical pat-down as part of the Global War on Terror. Scenes of women my age, or 4-year-olds, being treated as potential terrorists would seem screamingly funny. I don't laugh at that kind of stuff anymore. I just get angry.

What the TSA, in its sublime arrogance, has decided is that people who desire the privilege of boarding an aircraft must submit to intrusive inspections of their bodies. It's for our own good, we are told, so we should just shut up already.

The New York Times, while implicitly condoning the invasion of privacy involved, at least excoriates the TSA in its editorial for the agency's arrogance and belligerence in handling the controversy:

The Times reported on Friday that civil liberties groups have collected more than 400 complaints since the new pat-downs began three weeks ago. That is a minuscule number compared with all the people who flew. But there are far too many reports of T.S.A. agents groping passengers, using male agents to search female passengers, mocking passengers and disdaining complaints.

Lawsuits have been filed asserting that new, more powerful body-scanning machines violate the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches. In general, it seems to us that the scanners are not unconstitutional, but the lawsuits are a healthy process that will require the government to prove that the scanners are reliable and more effective than other devices.

The Fourth Amendment would certainly protect Americans from unnecessary, overly intimate security checks. And nothing in the Constitution permits power-happy or just downright creepy people from abusing their uniforms and the real need for security. The government could start by making their screening guidelines clear. And they should respond to the concerns of people like the woman who told The Times that she is patted down every time because of an insulin pump.

On the Left Coast, however, the "center left" editorial board of the Los Angeles Times doesn't even bother with the nasty concerns of the flying public.

The quest to keep up with terrorists' shifting methods never ends; as soon as you block one potential attack route, terrorists often find another. In reaction to the new high-tech scans, suicide bombers may well switch to buses and trains rather than airplanes, or airborne killers might resort to inserting explosives into their body cavities, where the machines can't detect them. So, it's reasonable to ask, what's next? Anal probes at the airport? It's safe to say that if the TSA gets to that point, it will have crossed the line, and it might be time to explore less invasive methods. Meanwhile, though, a full-body scan isn't a terribly high price to pay for a measure of peace of mind.

...The new scans might not be foolproof, but they'll spot more dangerous materials than the old detectors and keep passengers safer. If you can't handle such a minor inconvenience, perhaps you should stay on the ground.

Here's the kicker, however. While we are being told to get over our own hang ups with respect to our bodies, our leaders are neatly avoiding the whole issue.

From an AP report published in the Fresno Bee:

On Friday, the GOP's John Boehner was guided past the metal detectors and hand inspections given to other passengers on his flight home to Ohio.

Sweet, eh?

Well, the good news is that Americans are finally beginning to understand just how much they've lost in terms of civil liberties since the Global War on Terror was begun. It appears that a whole lot of people are finally pissed off.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

(Why my bed rarely gets made.)

There Will Be Wars And Rumors Of Wars

Unless there is a dramatic change in the Republican agenda, the next couple of years are going to be contentious, and I do not see any evidence that there will be any kind of change. The 112th Congress will be just as rancorous as the 111th, and even less of the nation's business will get done. Not just domestic policy will be involved. Foreign policy initiatives begun by the Obama administration will also be affected as the Republicans in both houses push back on everything.

Dana H. Allin (senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London) and Steven Simon (adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) have posted a concise summary of several foreign policy areas which are likely to provide the battle ground for the Republican push for 2012.

Bipartisanship in foreign policy has all but disappeared, and the first victim is likely to be the Obama administration's New START treaty with Russia. This agreement, which is both modest in its cuts and extremely favorable to U.S. concerns, has been the centerpiece of President Obama's attempts to reset U.S.-Russian relations. Although there are probably enough votes in the Senate to ensure the treaty's ratification, a handful of Republicans almost certainly will block it from ever coming to the floor for a vote — in large measure because of their determination to deny Obama any foreign policy victory. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could not have been clearer when he said, immediately after the midterm election, that Republicans' "top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office." [Emphasis added]

Killing the New START treaty will be disaster for the Obama White House, but it will also be bad news for the US and the rest of the world. What will be lost is a needed thaw in relations with Russia (whose support will be crucial in other foreign policy areas) and the rest of the world which yearns for ratcheting down of these dangerous weapons and their costs. The reduction of nuclear weapons as negotiated was a good deal for everybody, but that doesn't appear to matter to the Republicans.

The New START treaty isn't the only foreign policy initiative which Allin and Simon believe will be adversely affected. Hawks already have been calling for an end to "appeasement" with Iran and there are rumblings that what the would-be newest nuclear nation needs is a missile strike on one of its sites to show that nation the US means business. Getting Israel to back off on more settlements in the occupied territory so that peace negotiations can be placed back on track will be challenged by not only the GOP held House, but in the Senate. The president will be undercut at every opportunity.

This is what we have to look forward to, and it's not a very pleasant vista. Unless the Democrats in the Senate and the White House start demonstrating a spine, it will be a far more dangerous world in 2012 for all of us.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mad Hatter Land

I have really mixed emotions on what I normally would have considered an unmixed success of the American system of constitutionally based justice. Of course, normal doesn't seem to exist anymore, so I guess I'll have to get used to the ambiguities and paradoxes of the post-9/11 America. A man was tried for an horrendous crime and was found not-guilty of all but one charge of the more than 280 charges brought against him.

The trial was run with all the rigors the US Constitution requires, including the exclusion of unlawfully obtained evidence. The defendant will serve at least twenty years for the crime he was convicted of. On its face, the story seems to prove that the US can in fact deal with terrorism in a constitutionally approved way. Scratching the surface, however, yields a different picture.

From the New York Times:

Ahmed Ghailani will face between 20 years and life in prison as a result of his conviction on one charge related to the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa. But because a jury acquitted him on more than 280 other charges -- including every count of murder -- critics of the Obama administration’s strategy on detainees said the verdict proved that civilian courts could not be trusted to handle the prosecution of Al Qaeda terrorists.

Say, what? Civilian courts can't be trusted? Pretty astounding conclusion to be drawn, yet that's exactly the one being proclaimed by those who wanted revenge, not justice.

Here are a couple of quotes cited in the article which shows the deep divide the nation is facing. First, from the avengers:

"This is a tragic wake-up call to the Obama Administration to immediately abandon its ill-advised plan to try Guantánamo terrorists” in federal civilian courts, said Representative Peter King, Republican of New York. “We must treat them as wartime enemies and try them in military commissions at Guantánamo.”

Next, from those who believe the Constitution isn't just for some of the time:

...Mason Clutter, the counsel of the Rule of Law Program at the Constitution Project, a bipartisan non-profit group, said that Mr. Ghailani will serve a lengthy sentence and will have far fewer arguments to make in appealing his conviction than if he had faced a military trial.

“The system worked here,” she said. “I don’t think we judge success based on the number of convictions that were received. I think we judge success based on fair prosecutions consistent with the Constitution and the rule of law.”

Now, if the story ended with just these two views, I wouldn't have the mixed emotions I referenced at the start of this post. I know which side I'm on, and I know I have to work hard to make certain that side prevailed. But this isn't where the story ends, and at this point I'm not at all sure what can be done, short of another American Revolution.

“This complicates the equation with regard to civilian trials of high-level Al Qaeda detainees that the administration would not release” even if they were found not guilty, said Juan C. Zarate, who served as deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism in the Bush administration 2005 to 2009 but who has criticized Republicans who called for never trying terrorists in civilian court.

“The paradox with these kinds of cases has always been that if these individuals are found not-guilty, will the American government let them go free, which is the construct of a criminal proceeding? And the answer is no. That is the reality. This case highlights that tension, and will complicate the political debate about how to handle more senior Al Qaeda figures, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.”
[Emphasis added]

So this is the America of the 21st Century?

Horrifying, isn't it.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

And The Hits Just Keep Coming

The FBI has a new plan for intruding into our internet privacy. In an attempt to drum up support for a proposal to expand a 1994 law on law enforcement access to private communications on the internet, FBI Director Robert Mueller has been visiting with companies in Silicon Valley.

From the New York Times:

Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, traveled to Silicon Valley on Tuesday to meet with top executives of several technology firms about a proposal to make it easier to wiretap Internet users.

Mr. Mueller and the F.B.I.’s general counsel, Valerie Caproni, were scheduled to meet with senior managers of several major companies, including Google and Facebook, according to several people familiar with the discussions. How Mr. Mueller’s proposal was received was not clear. ...

Mr. Mueller wants to expand a 1994 law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, to impose regulations on Internet companies.

The law requires phone and broadband network access providers like Verizon and Comcast to make sure they can immediately comply when presented with a court wiretapping order.

Law enforcement officials want the 1994 law to also cover Internet companies because people increasingly communicate online. An interagency task force of Obama administration officials is trying to develop legislation for the plan, and submit it to Congress early next year.
[Emphasis added]

Now, I understand the challenge which the new technologies present to law enforcement, and there are some good reasons for enabling law enforcement to meet those challenges as long as there are some safeguards in place. I'm not so certain that those safeguards are uppermost in the minds of the FBI and other law enforcement officials. After all, that "court wiretapping order" is quite often the rubberstamp edition issued by FISA, often after the wiretapping has already been done. The FBI, via its own internal audit, admits that the process was abused thousands of times during investigations. The FBI still loves those fishing expedition trips, and that is what concerns me.

It also concerns several other agencies within the government:

The Commerce Department and State Department have questioned whether it would inhibit innovation, as well as whether repressive regimes might harness the same capabilities to identify political dissidents, according to officials familiar with the discussions. [Emphasis added]

Those political dissidents need not be located in places like China, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, or North Korea. They just might be located in places like Houston, Texas or Topeka, Kansas or Temple City, California. Those political dissidents might be complaining about all the broken promises of an elected official and plotting to unseat the incumbent by putting up a primary challenger. Or they might be planning a demonstration in Washington, DC to protest the ongoing military activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. They might even be sharing plans for the construction of (gasp!) GIANT PUPPETS.

Unless any proposal to update the 1994 law also contains clear, unequivocal protections consistent with the Bill of Rights, it should be a non-starter. Should be, but somehow I doubt that will be the case.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pig's Ears

Well, slap my face and call me Fanny! Mitch McConnell and Jim DeMint and I agree on something: earmarks are bad and should cease. These tiny bits of pork which are slipped into a bill just before it comes up for a vote are a drain on the budget. They also are a way to reward campaign contributors and to keep the pipe open and clear for the next donation.

Mitch McConnell, who often brags about all the money he's brought home via this process, has finally changed his tune on the issue and promised to push for an end to earmarks.

Senate Republicans opened the lame-duck session of Congress on Monday by signaling their commitment to the antispending posture that fueled their big gains on Election Day, underscoring the Tea Party movement’s influence on the Republican leadership.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, drove the point home as soon as the Senate convened by announcing that he would support a proposed ban on Congressional earmarks, reversing his longtime practice of avidly pursuing money for his state.

Earmarks, officially known as "congressionally directed spending," have long grated on me because they are such a backdoor route to sleaziness. I don't have any particular objection to pork, which does direct funds to a particular state or district at the request of a representative. I just think the way to accomplish that is through the usual route for spending bills: introduced early in the process and openly discussed in each of the committees through which the bill must pass. If the representative can convince his or her colleagues that the expenditure is worthy and does in fact contribute to the general welfare during this vetting process, than it should be included in the bill. This way, there are no hidden surprises, no bridges to nowhere.

Clearly McConnell's about-face is a nod to the Tea Partiers, but that really doesn't bother me. That's his business. But do I think it's going to make a difference or that earmarks will now end? Not hardly. All of this posturing (and that's all it is) is tied to a non-binding resolution in the Republican caucus. When the rubber hits the road in the 112th Congress, I suspect those bridges and high-tech security projects for the county fairs will somehow magically appear in a bill the night before a vote.

And then the Tea Partiers will find themselves in the same position that liberals have found themselves in since January, 2008.


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Monday, November 15, 2010

Here We Go Again

We're two weeks post election and already the next election campaign has begun. While a lot of us have been focusing on what the "Cat Food Commission" will come up with to mess up Social Security, the Republicans have decided that the most important issue in the world is not the economy, not the deficit, not joblessness, and not the home foreclosure mess. It's the healthcare reform bill passed by the 111th Congress. Republicans have announced their intention to repeal as much of that bill as possible and to defund the rest. They figure that will ensure a sweeping victory in 2012, which is, of course, the only worthy goal of the 112th Congress.

From the Los Angeles Times:

With their eyes on the 2012 election, Republicans are preparing to maximize conflict with Democrats over healthcare in the new Congress and minimize potential compromises, according to GOP strategists, lawmakers and lobbyists.

That strategy is setting the stage for a bitter stalemate on Capitol Hill over the next two years as the president and senior congressional Democrats dig in to defend their signature achievement.

But Republican leaders and strategists think a renewed battle over healthcare will help the party expand its electoral gains and drive President Obama from the White House.

Now, it's not like the bill as passed is any kind of perfection. There's lots wrong with it, including no way to effectively control premium hikes if individual states can't or won't hammer out regulations to do so. But that's not the kind of nuts and bolts work the Republicans have in mind. Here's a sampling of what we can look forward to for the next two years:

Rep. Joe L. Barton (R- Texas), who is seeking to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has promised investigative hearings of what he has said are Obama administration coverups and improper uses of taxpayer money to promote the law.

Barton's rival for committee chairman, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, said last week in an op-ed piece that his "very top priority" would be pushing legislation to further restrict federal funding for abortion services, another issue sure to stoke conflict with Democrats.

It's not about promoting the general welfare, it's about getting and keeping power. It's about keeping our owners happy enough to keep sending the "campaign donations." And if it takes effectively shutting down government for two years, well, then that's what they'll do.

Heckuva job, Barach.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Marge Piercy

(Yes, again. This time to honor Aung San Suu Kyi.)

The Low Road

What can they do
to you? Whatever they want.
They can set you up, they can
bust you, they can break your fingers, they can
burn your brain with electricity,
blur you with drugs till you
can't walk, can't remember, they can
take your child, wall up
your lover. They can do anything
you can't stop them
from doing. How can you stop
them? Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.

But two people fighting
back to back can cut through
a mob, a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon, an army
can meet an army.

Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction.
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.

--Marge Piercy


Free At Last ...

... At least for now.

Two confessions: I didn't go to Watching America this weekend and I cry easily.

The reason for both confessions is that I was too busy reading this news and crying during the time I set aside each Saturday afternoon for my trip to the site which features articles from the international press on the US.

For years in her native Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has been known simply as "The Lady," a pro-democracy stalwart and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has languished for years in an arbitrary solitary confinement imposed by the nation's ruling military junta.

Although she was snatched from the public limelight, residents of the former Burma have always known this about the charismatic Buddhist activist, now 65: She would not be broken by the military generals she has long defied.

On Saturday, Suu Kyi proved them all right. She was finally released from the mildewing, two-story villa where she has spent much of her house arrest, spanning 15 of the last 21 years.
[Emphasis added]

Fifteen years away from her family, during which time she could not visit her husband as he lay dying and could not travel to receive her Nobel Peace Prize, which her two sons had to do for her. Fifteen years with only an old radio to keep her informed on what was happening in her country and in the world. Fifteen years with only her aging housekeeper and the housekeeper's daughter for company. Fifteen years. And all because she wanted the restoration of democracy and the dismissal of the military junta which ruled her nation.

My tears were those of sadness for all those lost years, but also tears of joy that "The Lady" had finally gained some measure of freedom. Whether the generals believed that she was too old to do much damage, or that by holding fraudulent elections the week before and then releasing her, all international pressure on the vicious regime would cease is irrelevant. Suu Kyi was no longer imprisoned in her own home.

And my tears were also those of personal shame. This woman never gave up on her dream of a democratic Myanmar (Burma). She knew what the costs for her defiance would be steep and yet she still spoke out and organized and led, just as I believe she will now do once again, generals be damned. She did more than just check a box on an electronic petition or post on a blog or kvetch in liberal chatrooms. She went into the streets. Her courage and dedication to the principles of democracy make her an exemplar, someone who points the way for the rest of us.

Welcome out, Aung San Suu Kyi. And may your days of personal freedom be filled with the joy of leading your people to real freedom.


Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Joel Pett / Lexington Herald-Leader (November 10, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Sumatran Tiger Cubs

(Photo taken Nov. 5, 2010, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Safari Park and found at National Geographic.

Buyer's Remorse

Charles Blow has an interesting column up which examines the most recent poll from the Pew Research Center. Apparently Americans are not really all that enthused about the results of the midterm elections and may in fact be suffering "buyer's remorse."

Democrats still searching for a silver lining to the waxing they took last Tuesday can cheer up a bit. According to a new poll, the public may already be experiencing a bit of buyer’s remorse about the choices they’ve made, and Republicans seem to have unrealistic expectations about what their leaders will be able to accomplish.

A poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center found that people are considerably less happy about the Republicans’ victory than they were about the Democrats’ victory in 2006 or about the Republicans’ victory in 1994. They also approve much less of the “Republicans’ policies and plans for the future” than they did of the Democrats’ plans in 2006 or the Republicans’ plans in 1994. ...

The poll itself can be accessed here and the report section seems to indicate more than buyer's remorse. My take on the report is that Americans in general were unhappy with the campaigns and are developing an outright distaste for government in general, especially as it is presently constituted. There isn't much jubilation in the Republican victory by Republican respondents, and there appears to be a call for both sides to get on with the business of government without the rancor and radical rhetoric which has marred the last two years and especially the election.

For example, and this surprised me, a majority of the respondents don't want the healthcare bill repealed, although a sizable portion want the bill tweaked. This simply doesn't match up with the campaign promises made by the Republicans to throw out the bill entirely as they tilted their campaigns to satisfy the Tea Partiers. In fact, a lot of the Republican respondents want their party to move away from that radical fringe.

If the poll is in fact an accurate reflection of the mood of the American public, a whole lot of people are going to be disappointed in the 112th Congress.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

With Friends Like This

Ezra Klein had a rather interesting interesting post up at his Washington Post blog about Sen. Joseph Lieberman's (I-Connecticut) behavior during the crafting of the healthcare reform bill. The context of the post is the recent election and the current finger pointing going on with respect to why the Democrats did so poorly. But it's also about how the Senate operates, especially in dealing with issues crucial to the American public.

Late in the negotiations over the public option, a group of five conservative Democrats and five more-liberal Democrats seemed near to an unexpectedly smart compromise: Allow adults over 55 to buy into Medicare. This idea had a couple of different virtues: For one, it opened an effective and cheap program up to a group of Americans who often have the most trouble finding affordable insurance. For another, the Congressional Budget Office has said this policy would improve Medicare's finances by bringing healthier, younger applicants into the risk pool. Oh, and it's wildly popular with liberals, who want to see Medicare offered as an option to more people, and since Medicare is already up and running, it could've been implemented rapidly.

But Lieberman killed it. It was never really clear why. He'd been invited to the meetings where the compromise was developed, but he'd skipped them. He'd supported the idea when he ran for president with Al Gore, and he'd reaffirmed that support three months prior to its emergence in the health-care debate during an interview with the editorial board of the Connecticut Post. But now that it was on the table, he seemed to be groping for reasons to oppose it. About the best he managed was that it was "duplicative," which was about as nonsensical a position as could be imagined. Nevertheless, he swore to filibuster the bill if the buy-in option was added. The proposal was duly removed.

In other words, yet again Joe Lieberman, the once-upon-a-time Democrat who became an Independent after he lost the Democratic primary, screwed the party that allowed him to keep his plum committee chairmanships even though he was no longer a Democrat and had zero seniority. Apparently the deal given to him by the Senate Democratic leadership only required that he caucus with the Dems, not that he vote with them. Some deal.

That the "most exclusive country club in the world" is a dysfunctional body comes as no surprise to anyone. That's one of the reasons why voters were angry this election. This little episode also sheds some light on why liberal voters were so angry that many of them just stayed home on election day.

The White House never promised a single-payer system, but did hint at a public option for those who simply could not afford private insurance premiums. When that hint evaporated, there was at least an attempt to compromise on the issue. While the compromise was certainly not a replacement for what most Americans need, at least it was a move in the right direction. And it would have been enough of a sop that liberals would have settled for it. The compromise also had the virtue of shoring up Medicare. Yet Joe Lieberman was allowed to scuttle it, and he will not pay any penalty. He wasn't up for re-election, and he will have the same power in the 112th Congress.

What I find so horrific about the whole episode is that this is the first time I've heard of it, and I followed the healthcare reform process pretty carefully. I also don't consider myself to actually be a "fucking retard," although I will cop to being naive. It would have been nice if somebody in the press had weighed in on the threat made by Joe Lieberman. It would have been nicer if Harry Reid or any other senator had let us know why we couldn't have a public option or something vaguely approaching it beyond stating "the votes aren't there." Well, the votes weren't there earlier this month, and this is one of the reasons why.


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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Oh, Please!

I find it very interesting that Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House for the 110th and 111th Congress is under attack for the disastrous midterm election, yet Harry Reid's leadership position in the Senate is apparently quite secure. Many of the important bills which she "rammed" through the House (according to the Republican Party) languished in the Senate under Reid's timid leadership. She did her job well as Speaker of the House. He, as Senate Majority leader, eh, not so much. Yet she is being attacked by her own party and by some major news outlets and being urged to step aside.

Amazingly, the "center left" editorial board of the Los Angeles Times holds the same opinion I do. Nancy Pelosi didn't cost the Democrats control of Congress. Barack Obama did.

One cogent argument for Pelosi to step down posits that she did a poor job of selling Democratic policies to the electorate. Yet Pelosi, the first female speaker, has been extraordinarily effective as a legislative leader and fundraiser, shepherding through historic reforms amid solid GOP opposition. Getting such legislation passed is her job — drumming up public approval for it is not. That role properly falls to the Democrats' spokesman in chief, President Obama.

Obama himself has acknowledged this, saying the election taught him that leadership isn't just about passing bills but "making an argument that people can understand." Judged solely by her record, and not by GOP attacks trying to paint her as either a Leninist or the Wicked Witch of the West, Pelosi deserves to stay on as her party's leader.
[Emphasis added]

I would only add that not only did President Obama not articulate convincing arguments as to the accomplishments of the Democrats during this difficult times for the country, he also failed to actually lead in crucial fights for the badly needed change he promised, preferring to compromise before the real battles even began. As the editorial noted, the electorate didn't vote against Nancy Pelosi's leadership skills, they voted for an improved economy, jobs, and secure housing, things which the Democrats promised in 2008 and failed to deliver. That failure wasn't Pelosi's; it was Reid's and Obama's.

All of the boys in the blue column should take a hint from Pelosi's style. They should grow a spine.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Return Of The Crazies

The fallout from last week's elections is beginning to manifest. Yesterday I noted the Los Angeles Times op-ed piece by Mr. Biggs from AEI. Today the New York Times published an op-ed piece written by John Bolton (now also with AEI) and John Yoo (chief justifier of torture). I guess the victories by the GOP means all sorts of things will be emerging from their sub-rock basements.

The target Bolton and Yoo selected was the New Start treaty negotiated by the Obama administration which is awaiting Senate approval. That neocon sympathizers would select this topic is hardly surprising. After all, George W. Bush quite enjoyed poking the Russian bear with St. Ronald of Raygun's plan for a Star Wars Missile Defense System. The fact that the system has failed every test designed for it, including many which were geared so that the system had to pass, doesn't seem to bother these bozos. It's a grand idea conceived by a saint, so any attempt to scale it back is heresy and blasphemy and all sorts of other irreligious things.

Just as Saint Ronald and King George II believed, Messrs Bolton and Yoo continue to assert that the US is in charge of the world and its security. It is the only super power capable of this holy mission. In fact, it is the only super power, so there you have it. That this is no longer the case, if it ever was, doesn't seem to bother these two. Any tinkering with this vision from some alternative reality is an unholy act not to be tolerated.

New Start’s faults are legion. The low limits it would place on nuclear warheads ignore the enormous disparities between American and Russian global responsibilities and the importance of America’s “nuclear umbrella” in maintaining international security. The treaty’s constraints on launching platforms would impede Washington’s ability to use conventional warheads even in conflicts far from any Russian interest or responsibility. There are plenty of other deficiencies, from inadequate verification provisions to leaving Moscow’s extensive tactical nuclear weapons capabilities unlimited.

To save the world from Russki-imposed doom, both men urge the Senate to do its constitutional duty and over-ride the president. Apparently the Unitary Executive Theory only applies to Republican presidents. Republican-lite presidents are not worthy. They suggest that the treaty be returned to the president for a new deal, one that keeps intact all of the nuclear weaponry we have or will have real soon now if only it could get designed and built.

To prevent New Start from gravely impairing America’s nuclear capacity, the Senate must ignore the resolution of ratification and demand changes to the treaty itself. These should include deleting the preamble’s language linking nuclear arsenals to defense systems, and inserting new language distinguishing conventional strike capacities from nuclear launching systems or deleting limits on launchers entirely. Congress should pass a new law financing the testing and development of new warhead designs before approving New Start.

Unfortunately, even the lame duck Senate will not approve the treaty, the numbers really aren't there. The new Senate surely will not, and that's a shame. The treaty was a healthy step forward to further reducing the risks of bombing the planet to cinders. Just as shameful, however, is that while we won't have to listen much to Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, who were simply ignorant and nuts, we will be exposed to those such as Andrew Biggs, John Bolton, and John Yoo, who are educated and insane.

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Tuesday, November 09, 2010


There's nothing like a heavy dose of incoming self-serving tripe to add the taste of urine to one's Wheaties. Andrew Biggs, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, provided today's outrageous garbage, hauled in and dumped on Angelenos' breakfast tables.

Mr. Biggs suggests that deficits could be reduced and the economy made better if we would just increase the retirement age. He suggests that "entitlements" such as Social Security need to be pared in these perilous times. And then he insists that everyone, including would-be retirees at age 62, would all be better off. Never mind that Social Security is funded by those who eventually expect to collect on all the premiums they paid over 40 years, and not by the government. Never mind that Social Security contributes not one cent to the federal deficit. Never mind that there are no fucking jobs for those over 62 who got laid off or terminated in the blood bath of the past three years, and for many of those who still are "employed", the work they are doing is only part time and their actual wages are lower in real dollars than they were only five years ago.

None of that apparently matters to our owners at AEI. All they care about is a ready reserve of drones who will labor on until they drop. And they have all sorts of "statistics" to back their demands:

Perhaps the best evidence that future Americans can work longer is that past Americans did: Despite poorer health, shorter lives and more strenuous jobs, in 1950 the typical individual did not claim Social Security until age 68.5. In 1950, more than 20% of Americans worked in physically demanding jobs; today only about 8% do. While today's technology-driven service economy places demands on older workers, it is hard to imagine that things were easier when Americans typically worked on farms or in factories.

One impediment frequently cited to Americans working longer is the shortage of jobs. Certainly unemployment is high at the moment, which is why any increase in the early retirement age should be phased in over time. But with 10,000 baby boomers leaving the workforce each day, businesses will need more employees as the economy recovers. And more affluent retirees are likely to spend more, which will in turn create jobs.

Yeah, that'll get it. And I'm the Queen of Rumania.

But here's the real kicker: he's got a cure for what ails us:

Several steps would make longer work lives easier while protecting those who can't work. To begin, the Social Security payroll tax should be reduced or eliminated for individuals over age 62, giving older Americans the incentive to work and employers the incentive to hire them. To protect individuals who cannot work longer, Social Security disability benefits should remain available and the eligibility age for Supplemental Security Income — a means-tested benefit for the poor — should be lowered from 65 to 62. Finally, Medicare should be made the primary payer of health costs for individuals over age 65, which would significantly lower employers' health insurance costs for older workers. [Emphasis added]

Hmmm...I was under the impression that Medicare was already the primary payer of health insurance costs for people over 65, whether they were working or not. If Mr. Biggs thinks that would lower employers' health insurance costs, where was he during the healthcare reform debate when many of us were suggesting that Medicare For All would have that effect across the board? Cowering in the corner, I suspect.

Look, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Social Security system, even now as more workers are forced into an early retirement they hadn't anticipated or desired, that wouldn't be cured by raising or removing the cap on the payroll tax for Social Security.

Perhaps Mr. Biggs, if he really wants to reduce the federal deficit, should consider a more appropriate target, like the two, soon to be three, unnecessary wars we are engaged in. Or the bloated Pentagon budget itself. Or the corporate welfare that sucks out tax dollars without replacing them.

Fucking moron.

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Monday, November 08, 2010

Rationing Health Care

There's a rather curious editorial in today's Los Angeles Times. I gather that the "center-left" editorial board was attempting to plump for more scientifically based decisions on health care, especially when it comes to expensive screening tests which may or may not be reliable, but the editorial itself is rather unclear, and therefore unhelpful.

The editorial was written against the backdrop of the failure of the federal government's Preventive Services Task Force to meet as planned November 1 and 2. This group of 15 primary care physicians has as its task the development of recommendations for which tests should be used by doctors and which should not. One of the members of the task force suggests the meeting was cancelled because it was too close to the elections, which, if true, is shameful and more evidence of politics trumping science.

Among the topics the task force was assigned were the usefulness of routine mammograms for women and the current testing done to screen for prostate cancer for men. The report on mammography was met with howls of protest, even though nothing in the report suggested that mammograms would be banned outright. The report on prostate cancer screening is still not out, and presumably was at least one of the topics on the agenda for the November meeting.

The failure of the task force to meet implies that the administration didn't want to give the Republicans yet another talking point on government intrusion into our lives. "Rationing Health Care" is right up there with "Death Panels" when it comes to red meat being tossed to the Republican base. It is at this point that the editorial does make some sense:

These episodes illustrate what may be the biggest challenge facing policymakers as they try to restrain the healthcare costs that are consuming so much of the country's resources. Americans have a hard time accepting limits on their access to care, even if the treatment or drug is shown to be ineffective. They're much more willing to put up with rationing by income, which the current system imposes by allowing wealthier people to buy more and better care, than accept even the whiff of rationing by the government.

Bear in mind that the task force doesn't try to determine whether screening saves money in the long run for patients, or even whether a particular test works better than other, less expensive methods. "Cost just isn't a consideration when the task force deliberates," Dr. Ned Calonge told the Washington Post last year. The panel simply tries to judge whether a prevention technique is medically effective. Nevertheless, a common, misguided criticism of the task force in the wake of the mammogram decision was that it was trying to cut costs, not improve medicine.
[Emphasis added]

The Preventive Services Task Force could play a valuable role in containing health costs if it identifies medical tests which are simply ineffective on a scientific basis. If, however, the task force is going to be shackled by political considerations, then its existence is a waste of the doctors' time and taxpayers' money.

I just wish the editorial would have been a little clearer and a little more forceful in pointing that out.


Sunday, November 07, 2010

Sunday Poetry: William Butler Yeats

The Second Coming

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

--William Butler Yeats

Nothing New Under The Sun

A goodly numbers of the articles posted at Watching America concerned the American midterm election and the impact it would have on President Obama, the US, and the world. Many of them bought into the hype that it was a stunning defeat for the president and his party and a huge, unprecedented victory for the Republicans and their newest splinter group, the Tea Party. Many, but not all.

This column by Robert Gardner in Canada's National Post argues that the election results are neither astounding nor even all that unusual. In fact, he finds the results to be a reflection of the stability of the US two-party political system and cites some numbers to back his thesis up.

While the rate at which incumbents were re-elected was relatively low, it was still, in absolute terms, astonishingly high: 85.6%. And it was only a little lower than the mid-terms of 1994 and 1982: in both those years, the rate of re-election was 90%.

And notice what hasn’t been mentioned so far: the Senate. Incumbents were re-elected in 84.4% of Senate races, which is actually a little higher than the rate of return for incumbents in the last midterm in 2006.

What’s remarkable about these results, and the results of every congressional election in modern American history, isn’t how much changes. It’s how much doesn’t.

Mr. Gardner also comments on one of the shabbiest numbers from the election: voter turnout. While he doesn't overtly link voter apathy to the unsurprising results, he at least implies a link.

Of course, turnout is always lower in mid-terms. But as we were told for months, this week’s election was fuelled by unprecedented anger and excitement. And so turnout soared all the way from 37.1% in 2006 to … 42%.

If the Apathetics were a political party, they would have swept the Democrats and Republicans from Congress. And pundits would have had something worth shouting about.

That less than half of those eligible to vote turned out on election day is shameful, even if not surprising. I think, however, the reason is more than simple apathy. As angry or excited as one fractional segment of the country was, most Americans doubted that anything they could do or say would make a difference. They and the opinions they hold don't matter to the powers running this country. And, to be honest, they have a point. While many of them lost their jobs and their homes in the ruinous economy, those actively involved in ruining that economy got bailed out and handsomely rewarded.

During his campaign in 2008, Barack Obama went to great lengths to convince people that what they thought and what they wanted did matter. He promised them change, especially in the way government operated. As president, those promises rang hollow and the electorate's cynicism deepened. So they didn't turn out this election, especially for the Democrats and their leader.

So, another one is in the books, fully analyzed and closely parsed. Nothing new here, nothing to see.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Rex Babin, Sacramento Bee (November 2, 2010) and featured at McClathcy DC. Click on image to enlarge, a real necessity this time.)


Saturday, November 06, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Walrus

(Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic and published at National Geographic. Click on the link to get some good news on the growing herds of these walrus, and then click on the picture here to get a really good view of the these beauties.)

Here's A Quarter. Buy A Clue.

Bob Herbert's latest offering quite simply nails it. Titled "Tone-Deaf in DC," the column correctly assesses the aftermath of the election. It's clear that neither party understands just what it is the American public wants and desperately needs. What's worse, neither party cares.

What voters want is leadership that will help them through an economic nightmare and fix a country that has been pitched into a state of sharp decline. They long for leaders with a clear and compelling vision of a better America and a road map for getting there. That leadership has long been AWOL. The hope in the tumultuous elections of 2008 was that it would come from Mr. Obama and the Democrats, but that hope, after just two years, is on life support. ...

The Democrats are in disarray because it’s a party that lacks a spine. The Republicans, conversely, fight like wild people whether they’re in the majority or not. What neither party is doing is offering a bold, coherent plan to get the nation’s economy in good shape and create jobs, to bring our young men and women home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to rebuild the education system in a way that will prepare the next generation for the great challenges of the 21st century, and to reinvigorate the can-do spirit of America in a way that makes people believe that they are working together toward grand and constructive goals.
[Emphasis added]

Why, yes. I believe that pretty much summarizes things. Unfortunately, neither party has shown any particular interest in providing such a plan or even the vision which would make planning more coherent. By all appearances, all that both parties are concerned with is power: the power to keep their corporate donors happy and their bases in line. That's not exactly encouraging for the rest of us on either side of the ever-widening political divide.

Unlike the national parties, Bob Herbert does have a clue, and some hope, and a pretty good sense of what our Plan B should be:

What this election tells me is that real leadership will have to come from elsewhere, from outside of Washington, perhaps from elected officials in statehouses or municipal buildings that are closer to the people, from foundations and grass-roots organizations, from the labor movement and houses of worship and community centers.

The civil rights pioneers did not wait for presidential or Congressional leadership, nor did the leaders of the women’s movement. They plunged ahead with their crucial work against the longest odds and in the face of seemingly implacable hostility. Leaders of the labor movement braved guns, bombs, imprisonment and heaven knows what else to bring fair wages and dignity to working people.

From you lips, Bob. From your lips...

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Friday, November 05, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Things That Make Me Crazy

I have concluded that life is filled with petty annoyances. I've been frequently advised to just shrug them off and get on with the important things, but there are times when that simply is not possible, and this weekend is going to be one of those times. Daylight Savings Time ends on Sunday.

I don't know who came up with this lame brain idea, but I hope whoever it was is suffering eternal torment. I mean, really. I'm told that the idea was generated to give farmers more daylight hours to work on their crops, but that simply makes no sense. Nor does the excuse for extending the number of weeks of DST given by Congress several years ago: it gives customers more daylight hours to shop. The old joke that the time change is evidence of the White Man's Derangement Syndrome in which he cuts the top of a blanket off and sews that part on the bottom of the blanket to make it longer makes about as much sense (and may even be accurate).

Kathryn Wilkens points out just how crazy this time change business really is in the Los Angeles Times. Not only is the time change crazy, she indicates, it is crazy-making because twice a year it is an enormous waste of time. In her case, she and her husband have 40 different time measuring devices to change: cell phones, car clocks, computers, stove and microwave, watches, clocks ... the list is horrifying. I don't have nearly that many items to shift, but I have enough that I'm tired out by just thinking about the effort.

The biggest problem, however, is one that does not involve outside things, but internal things, and Ms. Wilkens gets it right:

There's one clock, however, that's impossible to reset: my internal clock. My brain and body will be out of sync for days. My insomnia will get worse and I'll be cranky — especially when I realize that in five months, I'll have to go through this all over again.

I say we end this nonsense. Pick one time for each region and keep it that way year round. I don't particularly care which time scheme (DST of Standard) is chosen. Just keep it so I don't have to go through this twice a year.


Thursday, November 04, 2010

Setting The Agenda

The days after an election traditionally are set aside for post-mortems, so a lot of ink and electrons are being spilled trying to determine just what went wrong for Democrats and what went right for Republicans. It's also a time when people start reminding the victors of those campaign promises and start demanding that they keep them. That's why I was quite happy to see Tom Hayden, a '60's radical bad boy, offer his advice to California and to Governor-Elect Jerry Brown in the Los Angeles Times.

Now Hayden is someone I've always appreciated for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he belied my father's dismissal of those who marched for civil rights and against war back in the day: "eh...arsonists at 18 are always firefighters at 48." Yes, Hayden went from "rabble rousing" to mainstream politics, serving in the California state legislature and serving on various state commissions over the years. He may have toned down his rhetoric, but he never diluted his commitment to peace or to justice. Instead of tearing down the system, he burrowed his way into it and then began subverting the worst parts of it. Good man, him.

What he has to say in this opinion piece is highly relevant to California and to the rest of the country. His focus is on California's commitment to green energy, a commitment which this election proves to still be quite strong. Jerry Brown included an emphasis on continuing this drive, one that he helped start during his first governorship. However, given the state of California's economy, it won't be quite so easy this time. Hayden gives him some wise advice on how to keep those campaign promises.

...it is Brown's California that is poised to implement a vision of putting people to work at green jobs that will reduce air pollution and carbon emissions. Brown's promise is to create 500,000 new green jobs in the next eight years, and we voters should hold him to — and help him realize — that pledge.

Brown faces two main challenges. The first is how to pay for a cleaner energy future. He has expressed hope that setting a requirement that one-third of the state's energy needs come from renewable sources by 2020 will jump-start private investment. Brown cites the example of the aerospace industry as a model. But he downplays the billions in federal investment that made that industry possible. He needs to recognize that some combination of rate hikes and tax revenues will be necessary to get the electricity-based transit revolution he envisions up and running.

The other challenge is to ensure that all Californians benefit from the state's green energy push. Brown has succeeded in portraying his energy vision as good for the economy, but he has not explained how it will benefit the black and brown voters at the core of his support. Put bluntly, the green future cannot be purely white. This is a great opportunity to put people to work who are now locked out of the job market. And in the end, it makes far more sense to employ at-risk youth weatherizing homes and installing solar collectors than locking them up in the largest mass incarceration system in the world. ...

Brown may find that a greener future is incompatible with the state's massive spending on incarceration at the expense of education. African Americans are 3% of UC students and Latinos are 11%. At the same time, those groups are 30% and 40%, respectively, of the state's inmates. While the state was building 33 new prisons in recent decades, its school funding has been stagnant. Prioritizing education and rehabilitation over prisons in state budgets could both save money and supply a steady and well-trained workforce for a green economy.

Nicely said, Mr. Hayden.

Or, more properly, Right On!

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Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Except In California

It wasn't quite the bloodbath the pundits predicted, but damned near. The GOP has taken control of the House and gained at least enough seats in the Senate to make life even more complicated for Harry Reid (who managed to win re-election). The Republicans snagged some governorships, including some I thought would go/stay Democratic. The Tea Party won some (most notably Rand Paul in Kentucky), and lost some (Angle in Nevada, O'Donnell in Delaware, Paladino in New York).

And then there's California.

Jerry Brown, who snoozed through the early campaign and delayed campaigning until Labor Day, won decisively even though heavily outspent by Meg Whitman. Our new governor can thank the unions for this victory.

Barbara Boxer, in a campaign she admits was the hardest of her career, appears to have defeated Carly Fiorina for the senate seat. Roughly 90% of the precincts have reported, but as of 2AM, Ms. Fiorina hadn't conceded. Still, Boxer appears to have kept the seat. President Obama's multiple visits on her behalf may have helped just enough to make the difference.

Democrat Gavin Newsom is the new Lieutenant Governor, and has kept his political career shining bright. There is no question but the governorship is his next target, at least at this point.

I couldn't find any definitive results on the Attorney General slot, but, frankly, either candidate would be fine in my opinion. Republican Steve Cooley, who has done a creditable job as Los Angeles District Attorney and Democrat Kamala Harris, who has done a creditable job as San Francisco District Attorney, are in a dead-heat as of 2AM (Harris has a half-point lead). This position is also a springboard for higher office.

The state legislature appears to remain in Democratic hands, but the margin has shifted a bit. Again, because more than half of the California ballots have been cast by mail, results aren't final. What does appear to be final, however, is a major change in how it will conduct its business. Voters have passed a proposition which makes a simple majority sufficient to pass a budget, rolling back the two-thirds majority requirement which has made getting a budget passed on time impossible of late.

The other propositions on the ballot also deserve a little scrutiny. The legalize marijuana initiative failed, which doesn't surprise me. The feds made it clear that they would step in and enforce federal law on the issue, and medical marijuana proponents were fearful that the enforcement would extend to them as well.

Prop 23, which would have delayed forever the environmental laws in California and which was heavily bankrolled by outside oil interests, failed resoundingly. Take that, Koch Brothers, Inc.

Not a bad night at all for California liberals when it comes to state politics. On the national level, however, it's the disaster which was predicted.

Hopefully we'll get a few weeks before the next campaign starts.

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