Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Say, What?

Happy Fucking New Year.

The Los Angeles Times has a really strange opinion piece up this morning. Written by two distinguished college professors, Jacob Hacker and Daniel Markovits, the column examines the implications of the tax cut bill rewarding the wealthy for being wealthy and suggests an appropriate action for the rest of us.

The first part they got right:

This is bad policy. The outsized tax cuts for the richest Americans and their heirs subvert the principle that those who benefit the most from the American project should pay the most to carry it forward — "not for class warfare reasons," President Clinton reminds us, but "for reasons of fairness and rebuilding the middle class in America."

These "reasons of fairness" apply especially in hard times, when those with the biggest cushions should take on a commensurate share of the burdens. When political institutions use taxes paid by all to bail out institutions that are perceived to benefit only the wealthy few, our sense of shared fate is threatened. The economy looks less and less like a common project and more and more like an exclusive party to which only some Americans are invited but for which all have to pay.

The second part they got dreadfully wrong. Hacker and Markovits suggest that we offset the action by taking the "tax cut" the rest of us got via a payroll deduction holiday and donate it to charitable institutions that can deliver what the government now can't.

Don't get me wrong. I am not opposed to donating money to charities that do assist people when they need help. I donate regularly to such organizations as the Red Cross and local food banks. I support church efforts to provide emergency shelters for the homeless. I think we all need to recognize that we belong to a larger community than just our families and charitable giving is one way to actualize that concept.

What I vehemently disagree with is the suggestion by the authors that this will somehow ease the burden and provide a symbolic gesture to our politicians. While private charities can raise money to support medical research, they can't repair roads, provide the mechanisms for clean air, clean water, and a safe food and medicine supply. Nor can they build public schools and pay for the teachers, librarians, and nurses needed. The can't pay for a functioning police and fire department. They can't plow the roads after a snowstorm. Those are all the functions of government at its various levels.

Hacker and Markovits come close to recognizing this, but, sadly, they back down:

Nothing can take the place of a just tax policy. But political philanthropy can provide immediate help to struggling families. And through its public purpose, it can serve as a form of protest that reclaims American ideals from a legislative process that has squandered them. By putting our money where our mouths are, perhaps we can light a path to better policies — and a better American politics.

If we learn anything from the past three years, I hope that it is that we cannot count on the wealthiest among us to assist us through hard times. We can expect that most will want more and will want to keep it. There are few Bill Gates and Warren Buffets.

The pittance tossed our way, even if enough is left over at the end of the bill paying session to send to charity, cannot possibly offset the damage done by the passage of this tax bill.

And our owners know it.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Recess Appointments

President Obama announced six recess appointments to his administration yesterday, all but one of which were not terribly controversial. Senate Republicans will not be happy with the appointment of James Cole to the number two spot at the Department of Justice. They remember that he was part of the team that investigated Newt Gingrich's ethics. Still, the appointment of four new ambassadors and the government's printer are hardly earthshaking.

From the New York Times:

Mr. Obama’s action will allow Mr. Cole and the other nominees — four ambassadors, as well as the official who runs the Government Printing Office — to serve for one year. The deputy White House chief of staff, Jim Messina, defended the move, saying Mr. Obama felt he had no choice, especially in Mr. Cole’s case.

“We’ve been working hard with the Republicans and have seen some movement forward,” said Mr. Messina, who is with the president here. “There were some that, for whatever reason, they could not help us with and we felt were mission critical, and clearly the deputy attorney general is a critical position to help enforce the laws of the land.”

I'm not a big fan of recess appointments. I would prefer the president respect the constitutional role of the Senate to advise and consent. Still, there is a current backlog of about 550 appointments languishing in the Senate, all of whom will have to be re-nominated once the 112th Congress convenes. The GOP have made it quite clear that there will be even more obstruction starting January 5, 2011, so, with the exception of appointments to the federal bench, President Obama will have to continue the practice of recess appointments.

Of course, changing the filibuster rule in the Senate would unclog the backlog, allowing for up-or-down votes on the nominees, but we all know that isn't going to happen. We're in for another two years of congressional dysfunction.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Compounding Costs

It's a rare day when insurance companies, employers, and labor unions all agree on something, yet that's exactly what is happening in California on the issue of "compound" medications.

From the Los Angeles Times:

An unusual coalition of corporations, insurance companies and labor groups is pushing for legislation that would put restrictions on the customized medicines known as compounded drugs, saying the prescribing of these drugs has become rife with abuse.

Compounded drugs are medications whose ingredients have been tailored to meet a patient's individual needs. Proponents say they improve treatment, but critics say they are typically made with many of the same ingredients found in over-the-counter pills and generic prescription drugs and simply boost profits for doctors and pharmacies.

The doctors who "prescribe" these drugs assert that the compounded drugs are customized to fit their patients' needs and drug sensitivities. Unnecessary ingredients in FDA approved drugs are removed, and other elements added. For the extra work involved, the patient gets a much better medication.

Doctors who prescribe and hand out such compounded painkillers and analgesic salves as KetoLido and Lidorub said their patients need them.

By removing certain nonessential elements or turning pills into ointments and salves, pharmacists can develop medicines that, for instance, avert drowsiness, allergic reactions, problems with swallowing pills or damage to the kidney or liver.

Sounds good, right?

Perhaps, but the doctors and pharmacies involved expect to get paid for the "extra effort" involved, and there's the rub.

One bill that a doctor submitted last month to an insurer sought $1,058 for a prescription compound containing Ketoprofen powder, a non-opiate pain medicine, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the bill could become part of a confidential state investigation.

The insurer paid the physician $36, the value listed for the active ingredient on the state pharmaceutical reimbursement schedule, the person said. A similar, 30-day supply of Ketoprofen powder in prescription capsule form sells for $15.79 at Costco pharmacies. ...

Suspicions of abuse have been fueled by advertisements for compounded drugs on Craigslist two years ago that offered "doctors who see work comp patients … $20K a month dispensing meds."

"There are no legal issues, no billing — we do the billing, no costs or risks to the doctor," the ads said. "We have over 400 doctors in California."

The ads boasted that "we have a great product an Anti-Inflammatory Cream that's compounded and has spectacular results" and that doctors could make a $141.60 profit on every prescription.

And that, my friends, is just one reason why health care costs continue to rise.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Place Where Legislation Goes To Die.

The center-left editorial board of the Los Angeles Times actually had a pretty good idea. It suggests that the Senate end the practices of filibusters and secret holds when given the opportunity on January 5, 2011 to change the rules.

The U.S. Senate, once proudly known as the world's greatest deliberative body, has in recent years degenerated into something else: The place where legislation goes to die. It earned that distinction after Democrats won a majority in 2006 and Republicans took unprecedented advantage of long-standing Senate rules allowing the minority to block progress.

There's a good chance Democrats won't hold the majority much longer, however. That's why both parties should be willing to eliminate such anti-democratic practices as the filibuster and the placing of secret holds on legislation. And an opportunity to do so, which only comes along once every two years, is about to arrive.

I think that's a terrific idea, but I am not holding my breath for its implementation. Like the editorial board, I am fully aware that in 2012, absent a miraculous turn-around in the economy and a surge in employment, the Senate will probably come under the control of the Republicans. Now would be a good time to rid the primary source of gridlock in the Senate by allowing for "up or down votes" on legislation and presidential appointments. We could get legislation and adequate staffing in federal agencies and on the federal bench.

Not gonna happen.

The Republicans have no incentive to go for the rules change. They've made it clear since November that they intend to thwart every bill President Obama wants and needs so that they can deprive him of a second term. The "bipartisanship" of the lame duck Congress was a fluke, dealing only with issues some of the Republicans could live with as long as they could insert a couple of earmarks in each one. Come January, however, the intransigence is back in order.

And the Democrats? Well, the Republicans know full well that the Democrats don't have the spine to actually filibuster. Even when the Democrats held control of both Houses, they preferred to keep their powder dry rather than deny Bush appointments (for example, to the US Supreme Court).

So, while the editorial board has the right idea, the grandest country club in the world will have none of it. For the next two years, very little will get accomplished, and what legislation does get by will be that which the Republicans approve of, like more tax cuts for the rich and gutting Social Security.



Monday, December 27, 2010

Another Revolving Door

We're used to seeing former congress critters and their staffers move from their congressional offices to new offices on K Street or corporate board rooms. We're also quite familiar with White House staffers signing on with private concerns anxious for their expertise and contacts. Well, cashing in on government service is not just for civilians.

This weekend the Boston Globe published a remarkable article on the role retired generals and admirals have in defense contracts. They get hired not only by the Pentagon to serve as consultants, but also by many of the same contractors they had dealt with while on active duty.

Among the Globe findings:

■ Dozens of retired generals employed by defense firms maintain Pentagon advisory roles, giving them unparalleled levels of influence and access to inside information on Department of Defense procurement plans.

■ The generals are, in many cases, recruited for private sector roles well before they retire, raising questions about their independence and judgment while still in uniform. The Pentagon is aware and even supports this practice.

■ The feeder system from some commands to certain defense firms is so powerful that successive generations of commanders have been hired by the same firms or into the same field. For example, the last seven generals and admirals who worked as Department of Defense gatekeepers for international arms sales are now helping military contractors sell weapons and defense technology overseas.

■ When a general-turned-businessman arrives at the Pentagon, he is often treated with extraordinary deference — as if still in uniform — which can greatly increase his effectiveness as a rainmaker for industry. The military even has name for it — the “bobblehead effect.’’

A huge chunk of the federal budget goes to the Pentagon, and clearly that part of our government would like to see the flow continue. It's pretty obvious from this article just why that is. It's an investment for the future. Unfortunately, it's not the nation's future which is uppermost in these generals' and admirals' minds.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Pablo Neruda

Cat's Dream

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

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

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

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

--Pablo Neruda

(Translated by Alastair Reid.)

A Three-fer

This weekend's Watching America had some of the best articles I've seen there in quite a while. There were so many solid essays that I had trouble selecting just one for comment this morning, so this week I'm going to present three. There's no particular order involved in my presentation.

The first is from Columbia's El Tiempo and it examines the implications of WikiLeaks.

It seems that the Americans’ worst enemies are themselves; this is proven by the recent and immensely embarrassing public disclosure of hundreds of communications between the North American government and its different diplomatic relations throughout the world. In spite of all the attempts to minimize the importance of the rumors in which American diplomatic arrogance puts its most hallowed mantra, “freedom of expression,” on display — a mantra which they defend tooth and nail — in this case it works against them. Seemingly no one can detain the leaking of documents to WikiLeaks, nor can they detain one of its founders, the Australian Julian Assange, in London on charges of sexual abuse brought against him by Sweden. ...

With respect to the position of American society, that’s a problem that worries the government. Americans fanatically defend their First Amendment and one of its most powerful points: freedom of expression. Nevertheless, when referring to its national and political security, they find it problematic justifying the actions of their government. Whether Americans want it to, their government possesses enormous infiltrative power, which it has used at an international level, and whose level of use still remains unclear at the national level. It shouldn’t surprise us that in the future, it will come to light that the government has spied on many of its citizens, political opponents and businesses in an indiscriminate manner and without judicial authorization. This would present an enormous problem for the administration (or administrations) responsible for said actions. ...
[Emphasis added]

It is precisely that "enormous infiltrative power" which Wikileaks intended to expose, especially in its highly secretive nature. What this opinion piece does is to make the necessary and the obvious link to the government's use of that infiltrative power on its own citizens, something that should concern us all.

The second article is more timely: it has to do with air travel in the US under the new security measures. From Mexico's La Cronica:

Now that the Christmas season is here, the great dilemma for the four million people that will travel by air in the United States is deciding whether they should allow themselves to be x-rayed, with the possibility of being seen totally nude, or if they prefer having their most private parts touched in public. ...

Opponents argue that his administration seems committed to trying to stop what has already happened but is not focused on creating a new security system that might prevent further tragedies. Some experts refer to these measures as “theatrics.” They also say that the terrorists will simply change tactics while the administration diverts economic resources that might be used for better intelligence.
[Emphasis added]

That, of course, is an accurate reflection of what many of us assert, especially since those fancy new x-ray machines are being pushed by lobbyists who just happen to be former federal officials. Somebody is making a lot of money by literally exposing the flying public, while terrorists are merrily exploring new ways to torment their imperialist enemies. [Note: the picture accompanying the article is alone worth the visit to the site of the article.]

Finally, a rather snarky yet perceptive commentary on the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell appeared in Spain's El País.

This is a piece of legislation that both richens and updates the story of freedom in America, with its core values reinforced and then shown to the world. It’s even possible to conclude that this renewal confirms the exceptionalism of America — the idea that the United States is a nation apart, always destined to bring to reality the most ambitious dreams of humanity. But the entry of gays into the military will also raise a question, one which the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has already discussed in "A Gay Commander in Chief: Ready or Not?"

The Commander in Chief is the president. Two years ago, many American citizens still doubted that their country was ready for an African-American president. More than a few people interpreted the result of the primaries as an anti-feminist reflex, as if the country wasn’t yet ready for a female president. Nobody can doubt that it certainly is, both for the one and for the other. Now the question is whether it is thinkable for a self-declared homosexual to appear among the next candidates, and whether we would be introduced to a partner. And then, there's following doubt: Which is better, killing two birds with one stone and electing a lesbian president, or merely electing a gay man?

Now, I'm not real happy that the article refers to Maureen Dowd's rather immature column on the issue, but the fact is that this Congressional vote did move the US one step down the road to equal rights for gays and lesbians, making it possible to conceive of a time in this country when one's sexual identity is no more a basis for judgment of character than the color of one's skin.

All in all, a good week for Watching America. By the way, if you have any cash left over this holiday season, you might consider directing it Watching America's way. Of course, you might also consider sending it my way, because I can always use it, but Watching America is trying to raise funds to cover costs.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Jim Morin / The Miami Herald (Dec. 26, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Siberian Reindeer

(Photograph by Maria Stenzel and published at National Geographic. Click on image to enlarge.)

Tidings of Great Joy

I had fully intended to take today off from blogging. It is, after all, Christmas and as a practicing Christian (OK, so I haven't gotten it right yet) I treasure this holy day. I meant to just slap up a Christmas Tree graphic with a few well-wishes and to leave it at that. But I came across this article in the New York Times and couldn't resist.

It's about the use of off-the-grid electricity generated by renewable energy sources such as solar panels, biomass, and mini-hydroelectric dams by poor people in the third world located far from traditional power sources. The lead example is the torturous path a woman had to take to recharge her cell phone (the only access many have for financial transactions in rural areas in this part of the world). Finally, she scraped together enough money to put a single solar panel on the roof of her home. That provided enough electricity to not only recharge her phone, but also to run some LED lights so that her children could study at night. She's saving money now that she doesn't have to pay for a wild three hour ride to the closest charging station and she doesn't have to pay for kerosene for the only light source her kids had.

The article notes that such devices are gaining in popularity, and are providing an alternative to waiting for the governments of poor countries to find the money to extend power far from the capitals. And these devices are not adversely affecting the environment the way traditional energy sources and the grid to deliver that energy would.

As small-scale renewable energy becomes cheaper, more reliable and more efficient, it is providing the first drops of modern power to people who live far from slow-growing electricity grids and fuel pipelines in developing countries. Although dwarfed by the big renewable energy projects that many industrialized countries are embracing to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, these tiny systems are playing an epic, transformative role.

It's healthy trend, but it's limited at the present for a number of reasons, not the least of which is economy of scale, as noted by John Maina, executive coordinator of Sustainable Community Development Services based in Kenya.

“Finally, these products exist, people are asking for them and are willing to pay,” he said. “But we can’t get supply.” He said small African organizations like his do not have the purchasing power or connections to place bulk orders themselves from distant manufacturers, forcing them to scramble for items each time a shipment happens to come into the country.

Part of the problem is that the new systems buck the traditional mold, in which power is generated by a very small number of huge government-owned companies that gradually extend the grid into rural areas. Investors are reluctant to pour money into products that serve a dispersed market of poor rural consumers because they see the risk as too high.

Developed countries are more interested in the grandiose: the huge windmill farms, the major hydroelectric projects. Simple devices which would serve the millions of poor rural dwellers are just not sexy enough for the much smaller investment which would be needed to proved such a major difference in the lives of so many people.

The United Nations is beginning to "get" the benefits of the smaller but wiser projects involving single solar panels and individual biomass tanks filled with the manure of the family cows. Now it's a matter of educating the rest of the world, and, quite frankly, this article does a fine job along those lines.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

This Is How It's Done

Every once in a while I come upon an opinion piece which tackles an issue without trying to be nice and which uses the right language and rhetoric to frame and discuss the issue. This one by Michael Brune (executive director of the Sierra Club) falls into this category of superlative columns.

...for a feel-good story, it's hard to top what's happened since: Federal investment helped General Motors get back on its feet and return to profitability, and GM has come out with a game-changing new car, the plug-in hybrid electric Chevy Volt. Motor Trend magazine named the Volt its 2011 Car of the Year. GM is investing $163 million in three plants (including one in hard-hit Flint, Mich.,) to help produce the car and is hiring 1,000 engineers to continue work on the Volt and develop other electric vehicles that will cut America's dependence on oil.

Looks like a win-win-win situation, right? Well, some people didn't think so and Mr. Brune nails the Scrooges in a strategic spot:

Conservative columnist George Will for one: He sees it as an example of "meretricious accounting and deceptive marketing … foist[ing] state capitalism on an appalled country."

Radio host Rush Limbaugh derides the Volt as " Obama's new car," and labels it part of the electric car industry's "century-long history of failure."

And it's not just the loony pundits that decried one potential success story for the United States. Whether the subject is electric cars, or windmill and solar energy generation, a lot of Republicans feel government assistance for clean technology is just a boondoggle, a waste of precious tax dollars, and (most importantly) tampering with the sacred free market, dominated, of course, by the huge oil companies, sponsors and owners of the Republican Party.

It wasn't so long ago that innovation and industrial know-how were a source of bipartisan pride, an all-American value. Then President Obama made clean-energy jobs and technology centerpieces of his new administration, and suddenly a swath of the Republican Party concluded that saving energy and supporting the growth of green industries were indications of incipient socialism.

Meanwhile, of course, other nations, including China, are investing heavily in clean technology because they realize not only is that necessary to keep the world from choking to death but also that the days of cheap and accessible oil are gone.

Here is where Mr. Brune pulls out all the stops in framing the issue the way the Democrats should but haven't:

Replacing dirty energy sources with solar and wind will rebuild America's manufacturing base and improve our economic competitiveness. Clean energy will cut air and water pollution, and help us to stabilize our climate. Energy independence is both patriotic and principled, and should be bipartisan once again. I have greater faith than ever in America's ability to forge a clean-energy future — and more cause than ever to wonder what Limbaugh is smoking in that cigar of his.

Why, yes. Yes, I think that gets it.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

The 111th Congress

It's been a tumultuous two years when it comes to the 111th Congress. Some big legislation got passed (health care reform, 'stimulus' packages, etc), most of which were hardly the progressive programs we envisioned when we voted in 2008. The stuff we wanted just never happened. The excuses emanating from the White House and the Senate all boiled down to the same line: "We just don't have the votes!"

Ironically, after the Democrats got whacked, and whacked hard, in the November elections, somehow the votes magically appeared during the lame duck session. All sorts of legislation got passed that bore at least a little resemblance to the progressive ideals. The DREAM Act failed, but the New START treaty passed, as did a bill to provide further health care treatment to the 9/11 first responders.

What is significant about the latter two victories is that for weeks the Senate Republican leaders made it clear that both were dead in the water. After their victory in the November elections, Republicans figured they'd take over now, rather than later. Somehow, however, that just didn't happen.

From the Los Angeles Times:

The Senate approved a nuclear arms treaty with Russia and a bill to aid Sept. 11 first responders Wednesday, wrapping up a lame-duck congressional session that left Democrats jubilant and some Republicans feeling whipsawed. ...

"President Obama was on the verge of being the next Jimmy Carter, and incompetent GOP messaging and legislating has made him into a modern-day FDR," said Brian Darling, a Senate analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation. ...

"It seems that the GOP snatched defeat from the jaws of victory," Darling said.

Only the Republicans could see the past two weeks' flurry of activity as an unmitigated disaster. Unless they get everything they want, the aren't satisfied. The 9/11 first responders bill isn't the one originally introduced: to get Republican votes, the initial appropriation was reduced by nearly one-half. That's a huge difference, but the compromise and the pressure being brought by public disgust at the GOP's recalcitrance worked. Harry got the votes.

Well, the 111th Congress is going out with a bang, but it would have been nice if Harry had pulled a few of these noisy tricks earlier on, say, starting in the second week of January, 2008. His job is going to be more difficult in 2011, and I don't see any major changes in Democratic messaging, so the 112th Congress will probably be even less satisfying for liberals than the 111th.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Temporary Attitude Adjustment

Because I didn't have to got to work this morning (a good thing, because the latest storm has swept in and, once again, it is pouring rain), I decided to look for the silver lining in the cloud that has been hovering over me and the rest of the nation for so long. I went looking for some good news. I found a few items that qualified.

First, the 2010 Census:

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke is calling the 2010 census a success, saying it saved more money than expected.

Locke spoke at a press conference Tuesday to announce the 2010 results. He says the census ended up spending $1.87 billion less than expected, in part because of a strong participation rate.

That figure is higher than the original $1.6 billion in cost savings announced in August.

Any government project that comes in under budget should be lauded. Well done, Mr. Locke. In addition to the cost savings, however, was the semi-good news that 74% of the public cooperated in the survey. I would have preferred a much higher number, but at least we matched the level of the 2000 census. It's as if Michelle Bachman didn't exist.

Next on the list (and this is a biggie) is the passage by Congress of a food safety bill:

The legislation is aimed at preventing tainted food from entering the supply chain, then sickening Americans and forcing massive recalls. It would give the FDA new power to demand recalls and require importers to certify the safety of what they're bringing into this country.

The bill would give the FDA, which is responsible for overseeing about 80% of the nation's food supply, the authority to require domestic food producers to draw up detailed plans to ensure the safety of their products.

Domestic companies also would have to make their records available more quickly to the FDA, and the agency would be directed to inspect production facilities more frequently -- a process now so inadequate that many plants are not checked for years at a time.

Giving the FDA more teeth (and hopefully more money to go along with the enhanced powers) is a wonderful first step in securing our food supply. The food corporations took a big hit on this: they spent big dollars on lobbying against such oversight and lost and now they'll have to start spending money cleaning up their filthy practices.

The last on this very short list is news on regulating health care premiums:

Pushing to restrain skyrocketing health insurance premiums, the Obama administration Tuesday set out new rules requiring insurers to justify any increase of more than 10% a year.

And administration officials outlined new efforts to increase federal review of premiums if state regulators do not have the capacity to protect consumers.

The new regulations should stop some of the more egregious hikes planned by the rapacious health insurers, but at least it's something. After requiring all Americans to get health insurance, the insurance company assumed they'd have free rein on the issue of what they could charge their captive market. Not so.

It's still raining outside, but at least my blood pressure has settled somewhat. I'll continue fussing about things later.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Crunch Time


The Los Angeles Times finally got around to pointing out the appalling Republican hypocrisy when it comes to caring for the first responders to the 9/11 attacks in New York City.

After the tragedy, Republicans went around extolling the courage and selflessness of those first on the scene and commending those who were given the task of cleaning up the horrific mess. "9/11!" became the battle cry for an ill-conceived war in Afghanistan, for building a stupid fence across the border with Mexico, for the obliteration of our civil rights. Now, when those who were stricken with severe injuries or devastating lung conditions while performing their duties under the most trying of conditions, the Republicans say we can't afford it, and besides the Senate has more important business to tend to.

Congressional Republicans are coming under growing criticism for their opposition to a bill that would provide medical care for Sept. 11 attack responders and survivors, including ailing police officers and firefighters.

As advocates press for Senate approval, Republican resistance to the measure has grown increasingly untenable.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the GOP fashioned itself as the party that celebrated the heroism of the Sept. 11 workers, but now is seen by many as stalling the healthcare of last resort. ...

The Rev. Stephan Petrovic of Ohio, a chaplain who tended to the dead and dying at the World Trade Center and who now is in hospice care, does not expect to see another Christmas. Petrovic, his voice barely audible, suffered lung damage that he said resulted from breathing dust at the site following the attack. ...

Many responders and volunteers no longer have insurance as they became disabled from work or have bounced around the workers' compensation system.

"What insurance?" said Petrovic, 59. "Most of us lost our jobs; we couldn't work anywhere. We're sick people."

The "official" excuse peddled by the GOP is that the budget can't handle another "entitlement" program. How odd: it found a way for the budget to handle an "entitlement" program for the wealthy by extending that class's tax cuts.

The real reason for the unholy recalcitrance comes as no surprise.

The cost of the bill would be paid by charging fees on foreign companies that provide goods to the U.S. government and continuing existing visa fees on tourists and companies that hire certain foreign workers.

The Chamber of Commerce has been busy lobbying Congress on the bill, reminding the critters who their real constituents are. Retaining an old fee and imposing a new one just isn't prudent when it comes to who gets to make more money and who goes without health care.

Perhaps we could fund it differently. Perhaps we can take away the overly generous health care insurance plans provided to members of Congress and give it to those who are suffering so. Maybe that would work.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

DREAM Shattered

Senate Republicans may have allowed the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, but there was no way it was going to let the DREAM act pass and so it didn't. This was a mistake and may very well bite them on the backside come 2012. The anti-immigrant phobia may play well for the basest of the base, but immigrants, legal or not, are the fastest growing demographic in the country, especially in the Southwest.

Some of the more savvy of the political insiders discovered that fact in California, a state in which the Democrats won across the board. Meg Whitman, who poured $140 million of her own money into her governor's race, got trounced by the frugal Jerry Brown. L.A. Times columnist George Skelton interviewed one of Whitman's senior advisors, Rob Stutzman, and Stutzman admits the Latino backlash did his candidate in.

Senior advisor Rob Stutzman isn't exactly spilling his guts about the former EBay chief's spectacular thumping. The billionaire lost to low-budget Jerry Brown by 54% to 41%, despite spending a record $160 million-plus, roughly $142 million of it her own money.

But the veteran Republican strategist is blaming the mini-landslide size of Whitman's loss on some ugly dust-ups over illegal immigration that alienated Latinos from the GOP.

And Skelton cites some crucial numbers to back that assertion up:

On Nov. 2, a record 22% of the California electorate was Latino. They voted heavily for Democrat Brown — somewhere between 64% and 80%, depending on which poll you believe.

Whatever the real figure, it should scare the GOP because Latinos are by far California's fastest-growing voter group.

It's not just California with the high numbers of Latinos, and it's not just Latinos who are affected by the anti-immigrant sentiment of Republicans. Stutzman gets that, even if a little too late.

"We've got to stop looking at it as purely a legal issue," he says. "If you want to make it a moral issue, we should appreciate the virtue of men and women trying to make the best life possible for their families.

"As long as radio talk show guys demagogue on the issue and Republicans are cowed and not willing to stand up to it, nothing's going to change."

Which is to say, as Skelton points out, that there won't be another Republican governor in California for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to say that as immigrant families fan out across the US, the anti-immigrant fervor could have some real consequences across the country. Meaningful and fair immigration reform may be dead this year, and probably for the next two years, but Republicans are the ones who will be affected the most when it comes to the next election.

But, hey! The GOP apparently doesn't care. That party's leaders have made it clear that the only important thing is that Obama looks bad come 2012.

We'll see how that works out for them.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Ursula Le Guin

American Wars

Like the topaz in the toad's head
the comfort in the terrible histories
was up front, easy to find:
Once upon a time in a kingdom far away.
Even to the dreadful now of news
we listened comforted
by far timezones, languages we didn't speak,
the wide, forgetful oceans.
Today, no comfort but the jewel courage.
The war is ours, now, here, it is our republic
facing its own betraying terror.
And how we tell the story is forever after.

-- Ursula K. Le Guin

(Found at Poets Against War.)


Watching America had a more diverse menu this week, but the WikiLeaks stories continue to pop up across the world press. People around the world are watching to see just what the US does to punish Julian Assange for his temerity. What was interesting to me is that many of the articles recognize the role the First Amendment to the US Constitution plays in this.

There are several articles worth perusing (which is why I included the link to Watching America's home page), but the one I was intrigued by came from Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The Obama administration is desperately trying to put WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on trial. The White House should back away from that idea as soon as possible. Public reaction to an indictment would be disastrous.

The desire to teach someone a lesson isn’t a valid basis for a fair trial, and slick tricks are unbecoming to a constitutional government. That’s why the Obama administration should back away from any plan to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for aiding and abetting the illegal transfer of classified documents.

If Reymer Klüver, the author of the op-ed, is referring to the US public when he uses the term "public reaction," I think he will be disappointed. Most Americans have no clue as to the basis for the whole kerfuffle, although major news outlets in this country are trying to educate them on the fly as to the nature and the importance of the First Amendment. That said, I think many in the rest of the world get it and get the hypocrisy of the Obama administration in grasping for ways to punish Julian Assange so that international public reaction might indeed be disastrous.

Klüver also has some advice to the US with respect to how to avoid some of the problems attendant to the release of classified information. That advice is nothing new or startling, and it only addresses things at the most basic level, but apparently the Obama White House needs some rudimentary education:

Of course, the United States can’t afford to have its secret documents flooding into the public marketplace en masse. But it should address that situation by improving its intelligence procedures, not by trying to put together a questionable legal maneuver.

In other words, quit classifying every document that might be embarrassing as secret, and quit employing tens of thousands of people to manage those documents.

Not rocket science, you know.


Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Mike Luckovich and published December 14, 2010 Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Click on image to enlarge.))


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Fork-Marked Lemur

(Photograph by Russell A. Mittermeier, Conservation International and published by National Geographic.)

And The Hits Just Keep Coming

It's going to be a rainy week for California, but it's water that's coming, not jobs. The November jobless report just came out and California continues to be higher than the national average:

Unemployment in the state stalled at 12.4 percent in November for the third straight month, the Employment Development Department said Friday.

A major culprit: weak holiday hiring by retailers despite strong sales reports.

It's even worse than that at the state's capitol, Sacramento, and for the same reason:

The Sacramento area's unemployment rate jumped six-tenths of a point in November, to 12.6 percent, with the region losing 2,800 jobs. A single devastating layoff at a North Highlands loan center was a key reason. But Sacramento, like the rest of the state, was also hurt by lackluster hiring by retailers.

While sales figures were higher than anticipated, retailers, worried that it was just a "blip", extended the working hours of current employees rather than hire seasonal help to save money. That might make sense in the short term as retailers take a wait-and-see stance, but in the long run, it's the wrong choice. There will be fewer people able to buy and less money in circulation to enable major purchases. The retailers' short-sightedness is just adding to the problem.

And that problem is being aggravated at the state level. Fewer purchases means less sales tax being paid. Fewer employees means less income tax being paid. The state budget, still in crisis, will have less money to work with.

This vicious circle isn't going to be broken until employers of all kinds, including the retailers, stop sitting on their mounds of cash and start hiring. They are running out of excuses.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Be Careful What You Sue For

I knew that at least one of my favorite Los Angeles Times business columnists would contribute to the discussion of the recent court challenges to the "individual mandate" of the Obama healthcare reform law, and I was right. David Lazarus' most recent column takes a look at the current ruckus. His opening sentence captures the issue quite nicely:

"What part of the insurance business do opponents of healthcare reform not understand?"

The only reason the health insurance industry agreed to come on board the effort to control rising medical costs was that they were promised a huge new pool of customers who would have to buy health insurance. In return, the insurers agreed to provide coverage for all who applied. It's called "spreading the risk." Healthy people who don't go to doctors often would help offset the costs of people with health problems who have to go to doctors often.

That's why the "individual mandate" is key to the reform, yet that element is what is sticking in the craw of so many conservatives.

I understand why the idea of an insurance mandate is troublesome to some people. Any time the government says you have to do something, it goes against the grain of good old-fashioned, don't-tread-on-me, live-free-or-die American values.

But here's the thing: If we want to rely on private companies for our health insurance, and if we want them to cover everyone, then we need to spread the risk as widely as possible to keep costs down.

Ironically, as Lazarus points out, in a recent poll almost the same number of people disapproved of the mandate as approved of the requirement that insurance companies accept all applicants.

So, what now?

Well, it's clear that the issue will be wending its way to the US Supreme Court. This is going to be a tough call for the conservative Roberts Court. If they agree that the mandate exceeded congressional authority, the insurance industry is going to be stuck with the bill. If they uphold the mandate, Congress is going to have a new tool in its arsenal, one that this Court doesn't want it to have. Quite a dilemma, that.

Of course, all of this could have been avoided by a Medicare For All bill. Even a viable public option would have done some good, but the insurance companies screamed and the right wing shouted, "SOCIALISM!!!!" So neither option was on the table right from the start.

Pass the popcorn. This is going to be interesting to watch.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

A New Approach

What if beta-amyloid plaquing isn't the cause of Alzheimer's disease, but merely an accompanying risk factor? If that's the case, then current research on this disease needs to be refocused, according to Karl Herrup, chairman of the department of cell biology and neuroscience at Rutgers University. He has offered an alternative theory, one that really needs to be explored.

From the Los Angeles Times:

He suggests three steps are involved in the development of Alzheimer's disease. First, there is some type of vascular brain injury. This can be a type of physical head trauma that occurred earlier in life, small strokes that occur in old age or other types of vascular injury. Second, the brain responds to this injury with inflammation. However, the normal inflammatory response doesn't shut itself off and becomes chronic and destructive. Finally, the cells of the brain are permanently altered and cannot return to a normal function.

If Herrup's theory is accurate, then prevention and treatment models will change accordingly. Maintaining cardiovascular health becomes significantly more important. Head injuries, however minor, will have to be monitored longer to check on the inflammatory process. And treatment for Alzheimer's will take a slightly different direction:

The hypothesis points to other avenues of research, he said, such as using anti-inflammatory drugs early in the disease process or targeting therapies that would act on the physiological changes in brain cells that occur after long-term inflammation.

Interesting hypothesis. Hopefully it will be tested thoroughly. Even if the theory doesn't pass muster, however, it should lead to some mighty important knowledge about this devastating disease.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dream On

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised to bring the DREAM act to a vote before the end of the year, but it is highly unlikely that the first step towards immigration reform will even come to an actual vote, much less pass. The Republicans have made it clear that the DREAM is dead. Even those Republicans who helped draft the measure have backed away from it, citing the high unemployment rates among 'real' Americans as their primary excuse. That move just might come back to haunt them, especially if current demographic trends continue, according to this article:

After years of courting Latino voters with a softer tone on immigration, Republican leaders in Congress have all but abandoned that posture, risking what remains of GOP support among the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population.

The latest example is the near-unanimous opposition by Senate Republicans to the Dream Act, a measure that provides a way for some illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children to become citizens. ...

Nearly 40% of all Latinos in the U.S. are immigrants, and a vast majority of Latino voters — 85%, according to a recent poll by the Pew Hispanic Center — support creation of a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally.

What's really going on here is that current GOP senators are bowing to the pressure being exerted by the far-right members of their party. The danger to such an approach should be obvious, but here's a clue: Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina didn't do so well in California and Sharon Angle didn't win in Nevada. Abel Maldonado, the current Lieutenant Governor of California, issued a piece of advice to his Republican colleagues: read the obituaries and the birth notices in local papers, and then see why getting serious about immigration reform is imperative if the party is to survive.

He's beginning to look like the smartest man in his party.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Eye Of A Needle Just Got Larger

Andrew Trees has an interesting essay in today's Los Angeles Times. He notes the fact that politics today has been turned over to the wealthiest among us because campaigns are too expensive for anyone else. He recalls a phrase common to the earliest campaigns of our nation: "swilling the planters with bumbo." The phrase refers to the candidates' practice of treating voters to rum in order to capture their votes, a very expensive way to campaign.

I was reminded of this phrase when a recent Center for Responsive Politics study of 2009 data found that 261 of the 535 members of Congress were millionaires (this probably understates the actual number because members of Congress aren't required to report their homes as assets). When looking at both houses together, the legislators weighed in with a hefty median income of $911,000. For the Senate alone, median income was an astounding $2.38 million. This is not too shabby when the median household income in America is roughly $50,000.

In other words, politics has increasingly been turned over to the wealthy.

That certainly seems to be the case. Meg Whitman tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to buy her way into the California governor's mansion. Michael Bloomberg (quite successfully) spent even more to retain his position as Mayor of New York City. Both spent millions of their own fortunes in their campaigns. It's pretty hard to compete with that kind of money unless the less wealthy candidate vigorously pursues special interests' donations. The results, Mr. Trees points out, are predictable:

With the modern return of the practice of "swilling the planters with bumbo," though, we now find ourselves in a new age of aristocratic despotism. You need only study income distribution over the last quarter of a century to see that the nation's policies have been slanted overwhelmingly in favor of the rich. Between 1979 and 2004, the after-tax income for the top 1% skyrocketed 176%, according to the Congressional Budget Office. How did the bottom fifth do? They squeezed out a measly 6% gain.

And our owners won't have it any other way.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Bush Lite

I can't recall the last time I saw such over-all anger directed at a Democratic president by liberals. Yes, Clinton infuriated us with his welfare-reform and his fiscal conservatism, but he didn't turn the left off as hard and as wilfully as Barack Obama has, probably because Clinton didn't allow his White House to openly dismiss the left as "fucking retards" or "whiners." But I suspect more is afoot than a bit of disrespectful name-calling and I think Joan Vennochi described what that is quite nicely in her latest column.

From the Oval Office to the basketball court, Obama can’t catch a break. When Bill Clinton bit his lip, he felt our pain. Obama’s stitched lip makes us feel his. If Bush is all hat, no cattle, Obama is a man with neither hat, cattle, nor liberal friends, thanks to his embrace of the same Bush-era policies that he denounced.

The Bush wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are now Obama’s. So are Bush’s wiretapping and detention policies. Obama took airport security beyond the Bush-imposed intrusions that require passengers to take off shoes and belts; in the Obama era, passengers submit to graphic body-imaging machines or full body pat-downs.

The health care reform legislation that conservatives demonize as socialism disappointed liberals because it is so far from it. There’s no public option or single-payer system. Indeed, its roots lie in the blueprint drawn up by a Republican governor of Massachusetts. ObamaCare is pretty close to RomneyCare, and a conceptual outgrowth of Bush’s Medicare reform.

Taxpayer-funded bailouts after Wall Street’s meltdown started under Bush and continued under Obama. Both administrations adhere to the theory that some businesses are “too big to fail’’ and many little guys are too small to save.

I think that pretty much nails it. Everything we despised in George Bush's administration, everything Barack Obama found objectionable while campaigning, has not only been continued but in some cases expanded. The only differences at this point seem to be that Obama doesn't revel in fart jokes or mangle the English language. He's too cool for that.

Ms. Vennochi suggests that we liberals were duped by our hatred of Bush, that we voted for Obama because of a kind of Anybody-But-Bush blindness, and to a certain extent that is probably true. I think that we were duped, and share some blame for the current mess, but not just because of some visceral hatred of Bush. We did, after all, overlook Obama's DLC ties, which should have warned us that we weren't exactly electing a lefty.

What we didn't and probably couldn't know is that the great community organizer was not only not a lefty, he wasn't a fighter. We didn't realize that he would rather sell out the little guy and his base rather than expose the banksters for what they were and slam them into the closest jail. He would rather capitulate to the moneyed interests and their congressional lackeys than fight them to improve the lot of the 98% of us who make our living by working.

Whether he is, as some of my conspiracy minded friends have suggested, a Republican plant, or simply too frightened to make enemies, the effect is the same. We voted for someone who would right the ship of state after eight disastrous years. We got Bush Lite.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Dylan Thomas

[For Plantsman. Rest In Peace, my brother.]

Twenty Four Years

Twenty-four years remind the tears of my eyes.
(Bury the dead for fear that they walk to the grave in labour.)
In the groin of the natural doorway I crouched like a tailor
Sewing a shroud for a journey
By the light of the meat-eating sun.
Dressed to die, the sensual strut begun,
With my red veins full of money,
In the final direction of the elementary town
I advance as long as forever is.

Dylan Thomas

Feeble And Pliant

As I've said several times in the past, there are several reasons I go over to Watching America each week. First of all, it's a good bet that I'll find information about the US there that I won't get in any American papers. Equally as important, however, is that those international articles give some indication of just how the US is viewed by friends and not-such-friends around the world on any given issue. It is the latter point that I was drawn to today.

This editorial in the Arab News (Saudi Arabia) assesses the latest state of the US-led peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel as an epic fail.

Washington’s decision that it will no longer attempt to persuade the Israelis to impose a new moratorium on settlement construction in order to restart peace negotiations is an abject and shocking admission of failure. Everyone knew that that the Americans had serious difficulties trying to persuade the Israelis to concede on this vital issue. But there was wide belief that an ingenious diplomatic formula could be devised to enable talks to go ahead. No one imagined that President Barack Obama would simply capitulate to the Israelis. That is what has happened. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to concede on the matter and, rather than try to use the financial and political force the US has to make him change his mind, Obama has thrown in the towel. Never in the history of US-Israeli relations has a US president been so feeble or so pliant. ...

The US response was also critical. It can no longer justify that position. The time has come for the Arab states, through the Arab League that meets in the next couple of days to respond to the American announcement, to formally tell the US that its Middle East policy is a failure. It should also tell it that since it is not prepared to help find a just and workable solution, it has forfeited any right to hinder attempts by others to do so. Washington will not like it, but it has abandoned all semblances of integrity and responsibility in the matter.
[Emphasis added]

The descriptor "feeble and pliant" would apply to this president's domestic efforts as well as his diplomatic ones. Healthcare reform and the recent tax cut extension deals are prime evidence of that. But in the crucial Middle East arena, that approach could be cataclysmic in ways the president apparently has not considered. When Prime Minister Netanyahu refused to impose a moratorium on new settlements, the White House did have options to bring pressure to bear on the recalcitrant leader, chief of which was the ending of matching grants of military weapons. Instead, President Obama blinked. And then he shrugged and turned away, like a crippled old man just spat upon by a local thug.

The editorial calls upon the rest of the world to step in by formally recognizing the Palestine State with all that entails. It also calls upon the Arab League to step up and take the place of the US in the morass the peace talks have become. Since the US has shown such an unwillingness to challenge the current Israeli leadership, it should indeed step down. If it will not lead, then the least it can do is get out of the way.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Tom Toles and published in the Washington Post. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Tube-Nosed Fruit Bat

(Photograph courtesy Piotr Naskrecki, Conservation International, and published at National Geographic

A Long Talk

Instead of just threatening a filibuster, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) delivered, speaking over eight hours from the Senate floor with just a couple of breaks. The subject was the Obama "compromise" with Republicans on extending the Bush tax breaks, which was no compromise at all since it gave the GOP and its masters just about everything in the federal store. Sen. Sanders made his point, repeating himself just in case folks missed key points the first time around.

"It has been a very long day," he said as he concluded his remarks, including a five-hour period in which he spoke without interruption. "I do believe that if the American people stand up … I think we can defeat this proposal. I think we can come up with a better proposal which better reflects the needs of the middle class." ...

"I'm not here to set any great records or to make a spectacle," he said at the start of his effort. "I am simply here today to take as long as I can to explain to the American people the fact that we have got to do a lot better than this agreement provides."

And explain he did. What he had to say resonated with enough of us who watched the live stream on his web site that we crashed it for a period of time. Many of us called his office to urge him on, which meant his staff had quite a long day as well.

I suppose an argument can be made that Sen. Sanders just delayed the inevitable. After all, as the LAT article makes clear, there was no real business scheduled for this particular Friday (as is usually the case because most congress critters are anxious to get home). But he did it anyway, and I think that filibuster may have some long term consequences, at least if we are lucky.

Ironically, one of the consequences is that several Republicans have openly voiced their displeasure with the deal. Sen. DeMint is unhappy with the "compromise," primarily because he discovered a few things in the federal store that his colleagues overlooked, and he wants it all. Sen. McCain tweeted his unhappiness with the deal (but then later indicated he would vote for it -- in typical McCain fashion).

At the same time, however, Sen. Sanders' long day, especially because it generated some excitement among the Democratic base, did give some cover to Democrats who happen to agree that the president gave up too much for too little. This will not be an easy vote, but it just became harder for Harry, and Sen. Reid obviously hates a real fight, especially one originating within his own ranks.

What would be the best consequence, however, would be a Congress who just said "NO!" to a president. We haven't seen that in ten years. The result would be a rebalancing of power, one that throws the "unitary executive" concept out the highest window in Washington DC.

And that would be a good thing.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Look! The Emperor Has No Clothes

I guess I won't have to perform my weekly trek to Watching America. The New York Times did it for me. The "Gray Lady," which is one of the papers publishing the latest round of WikiLeaks, surveyed the major European newspapers for their coverage of the hysterical response of the United States to the leaked diplomatic cables and to Julian Assange.

The summaries provided by the New York Times are concise and quite useful. While some of the European papers point out that the contents of the leaks are fairly harmless and in fact show a diplomatic corps trying to do its job fairly and responsibly, and others note the importance of some secrecy on delicate subjects, many of the cited articles emphasize the heavy-handed hypocrisy of the US government in trying to shut down the flow of information whenever that information might embarrass the government.

Here are just two of those summaries:

For Seumas Milne of The Guardian in London, which like The New York Times has published the latest WikiLeaks trove, the official American reaction “is tipping over toward derangement.” Most of the leaks are of low-level diplomatic cables, he noted, while concluding: “Not much truck with freedom of information, then, in the land of the free.”

John Naughton, writing in the same British paper, deplored the attack on the openness of the Internet and the pressure on companies like Amazon and eBay to evict the WikiLeaks site. “The response has been vicious, coordinated and potentially comprehensive,” he said, and presents a “delicious irony” that “it is now the so-called liberal democracies that are clamoring to shut WikiLeaks down.”
[Note: the NYT provides links to the various articles.]

The New York Times has done a good job in this article, just as it has been doing a good job in presenting the WikiLeaks materials. That "freedom of information" is an integral part of our democracy, and it is imperative that our press promote the free flow of that information.

The story this time is not so much the contents of the WikiLeaks but the horrendous response of the US government. It's absolutely necessary that our press push back, and push back hard to keep the information flowing.

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Thursday, December 09, 2010

Grounds For Cynicism

Michael Hiltzig begins his latest column this way:

Dear California voters:

Are you feeling rooked yet?

Nice hook, eh?

The column has to do with the recent announcement by biotech giant Genentech that it was laying off 840 of its California employees. Now, this announcement wouldn't necessarily be terribly shocking except for its timing: it came just two weeks after the defeat of Proposition 24 on the California ballot, one which Genentech worked hard to defeat:

The latest debate over corporate taxes was tied to Proposition 24 on last month's ballot. The initiative was aimed at repealing three corporate tax breaks quietly enacted during state budget negotiations in 2008 and 2009. Taken together, the breaks will eventually cost the state $1.3 billion a year, according to the California Budget Project.

The opposition to Proposition 24 came from a number of California-based corporations determined to preserve the tax cuts. Genentech was the largest contributor to the No on 24 campaign, at $1.6 million.

The argument was, of course, that denying large corporations such a tax break would lead to cutbacks and layoffs. Well, given the state's current unemployment picture, such an argument was pretty persuasive, except for one thing: Genentech had to have had the layoffs planned before the election. The company intended to cut the jobs regardless of the outcome of the election, but wanted those tax breaks anyway.

Those tax breaks had been passed in 2008 and 2009 as part of the torturous budget process the state went through each year because of the super majority rule the state had. The GOP argued that such a break was necessary to dispel the image that California was business unfriendly, an image that is far from accurate, as Hiltzig points out. The state is right in the middle with respect to corporate taxation with such "friendly" states as Texas and Alaska far ahead of California in the dollars it collects from businesses. The image is underserved, but it's one California businesses just love to foster so that it can get the kind of deals it annually gets from the legislature.

So Genentech got to have its cake and eat it, too. California, on the other hand, lost 840 jobs and will lose $1.6 billion dollars in revenues. Our owners just showed us some real eleven dimensional chess.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Requiescat In Pacem: Elizabeth Edwards

A Refusal To Mourn The Death, By Fire, Of A Child In London

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child's death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

--Dylan Thomas

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Unsurprising News

It's a rare day that the New York Times links to the Washington Post in an editorial, yet that's what I discovered this morning.

The subject is the heavy fund raising done by newly elected Republican members of Congress, you know, those people who campaigned vigorously on the promise that each would personally change Washington if he or she were elected. Well, the first order of business for these freshman congress critters have been to hold fundraisers, inviting those folks from K Street to drop by for a $2,500-$5,000 breakfast with the new champions of populist politicians (yes, an oxymoron, but I couldn't resist).

Here's a tidbit from WaPo:

Dozens of freshmen lawmakers have held receptions at Capitol Hill bistros and corporate townhouses in recent weeks, taking money from K Street lobbyists and other powerbrokers within days of their victories. Newly elected House members have raised at least $2 million since the election, according to preliminary Federal Election Commission records filed last week, and many more contributions have yet to be tallied.

Now, the response from the NYT:

The high-spending campaign that ended in November was odious enough, but there is something even more unsavory about giving to a candidate after the election, when the outcome is known and the link between power and currying favor is even more evident.

Sure looks like business as usual in Washington to me.

Oh, and to you jubilant tea partiers?

Welcome to our world.

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Monday, December 06, 2010

Dumber Than Democrats

OK, I'm over my snit with Blogspot for not letting me post on WikiLeaks yesterday. I thought about titling this post "WikiLeaks," but I really didn't want to wind up spending my morning fussing and fuming the way I did yesterday afternoon. Besides, such a title would be misleading.

What this post is really about is how the California state Republican Party is about to be smacked on the immigration issue. After losing every state office to the Democrats in November and with redistricting ahead, the GOP is now facing an issue it really didn't need: an Arizona-type immigration law. Some xenophobes are preparing an initiative drive for the 2012 ballot which would pretty much mirror the law passed by our neighbors. The problem is that Latinos in California have become a political force, one that will grow as the next two years pass.

An article in the Los Angeles Times notes some of the problems involved for the state's conservatives.

A nascent California ballot measure that seeks to replicate Arizona's controversial crackdown on illegal immigrants is dividing the state's Republicans, with a number of prominent strategists and leaders fearing that it could further harm their party's already fraught relationship with Latinos — the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. ...

Several Republicans said that even the effort to do so has the potential to increase the chasm between the party's candidates and the voting bloc whose record-breaking turnout tilted races in November and delivered a clean Democratic statewide sweep in a year in which Republicans celebrated major victories in the rest of the nation. ...

The article, besides quoting some of the party's heavy hitters on both sides of the issue, cites some pretty interesting numbers:

In November, one in five voters was Latino; 80% of them cast ballots for Democratic Gov.-elect Jerry Brown, while 15% voted for Whitman despite her multimillion-dollar effort to woo them. Their participation, driven by labor unions who used the Arizona immigration law to pull Latinos to the polls, was nearly double what it was in the last gubernatorial contest. And those numbers are expected to grow.

The current Lt. Governor, Abel Maldonado, has suggested that supporting the proposed initiative would be a death knell for the Republican Party in California. He recommends his party leaders take the time to read the obituary and birth notices, an action which would give them a clue as to the direction the California demographics are heading. I doubt they will take his advice.

All of which just goes to show you: sometimes there really are people dumber than Democrats.

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Sunday, December 05, 2010


Blogspot still won't publish the post, so with the help of a good friend, we worked around blogspot. I know the print is tiny, but if you click on each section, it will, hopefully, enlarge.

There's something foul afoot.


Sunday Poetry: ee cummings

pity this busy monster, manunkind

pity this busy monster, manunkind,

not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim (death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness
--- electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange; lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
A world of made
is not a world of born --- pity poor flesh

and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

a hopeless case if --- listen: there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go

--ee cummings

Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Rex Babin / Sacramento Bee (December 3, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, December 04, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Red Fox

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

A Welcome Sight ...

... but a little late.

Senate Democrats showed a little spine yesterday regarding extending the tax cuts to the wealthy, but as this article points out, it's probably too late to make a difference.

... after days of internal debate, and as liberal outside groups began stepping up advertising and outreach efforts nationwide, Democratic lawmakers returned Friday to a common-man narrative, trying to shake off the listlessness of their midterm election rout last month.

Their efforts came as the unemployment rate crept up to 9.8% and a presidential commission said dramatic action was needed to avoid a crisis of government debt. To contemplate $700 billion in tax breaks for wealthy people under such circumstances, Democrats said, should lead conservative activists who fueled the midterm election results to "take up pitchforks."

It was nice to see that the message was delivered by a group heavily weighted with the more conservative Dems: Dianne Feinstein, Claire McCaskill, Chuck Shumer, and Robert Menendez, but it would have been even nicer if this posture had been taken three months ago when it might have made a difference. Right now, the White House is "negotiating" with Republicans on the issue, which means the GOP is going to get what it wants: an extension of the tax cuts for the wealthy.

Still, it shows that the Democrats are learning some pretty important lessons, among them taking their positions directly to the American public in a forthright manner rather than sitting back and whining about the lack of votes. It may be too late this time around, but come January, it might be a tactic that will put a little pressure on Republicans and on the White House.

And that's what needs to happen if the Democrats are going to make a decent showing in 2012. It's also what needs to happen if the nation is going to be pulled out of its current morass.

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Friday, December 03, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Really Lame

The lame-duck 111th Congress will end with none of the high hopes and bravado with which it began two years ago. With the Democrats in charge of both the White House and the Congress, the horrid economy, it was hoped, would be healed by real pump-priming, returning people to work. Universal health care access was a real possibility. Ending the unconstitutional policies of warrantless wiretapping and domestic spying was on the horizon. Heady days, those first ones.

Well, all that hope and all that change just didn't pan out. The president was more for making nice to the people who brought on the disasters of the past eight years than for leading the nation out of the swamp he inherited. The Senate Majority leader was constantly counting votes rather than forcing the opposition into votes which would spotlight its true nature. In other words, nothing of any real value to the 98% of the country who didn't own multiple homes and yachts got accomplished. As a result, the Democrats got whupped soundly November 2.

Buoyed by the victory, the Republicans have made it clear that absolutely nothing will get accomplished these last few days of the lame duck session.

Among congressional Republicans, confidence levels are so high that they are barreling over what might be considered standard political traps. As they fight to preserve tax cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers, for instance, they are prepared to let unemployment insurance benefits run out for 2 million jobless Americans unless offsetting spending cuts can be found.

Republican Senate leaders on Wednesday threatened to derail a bill that had previously received bipartisan backing — a food-safety measure — on the grounds that nothing should move until a deal on tax cuts is reached.

I think it safe to assume that the 112th Congress will present us with more intransigence and less accomplishment than the 111th. The economy will remain stagnant for most of us, and states will continue to face horrible choices in trying to balance their budgets. The already frayed safety nets will finally rip all the way through, exposing not only the vulnerable but also the near-vulnerable to misery. And then, when the 2012 elections roll around, the Democrats will be punished even further, losing the White House and the Senate.

Heckuva job, Barack.

Heckuva job, Harry.

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Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Uncertainty Principle

In his latest column, Michael Hiltzig has taken a good look at the real reasons businesses aren't hiring, and he concludes that it is definitely not because of uncertainty over regulations and taxation. That may come as a surprise to some folks because of the constant drumming over the issue by the Chamber of Commerce and other business oriented groups anxious to keep CEO salaries high and shareholders happy.

...The idea seems to be that Washington's will-they-or-won't-they dithering over extending the Bush tax cuts, the advent of healthcare reform, financial reform, etc., etc., etc., has unsettled the business landscape so horribly that decision makers are huddled under duvets, gnawing their knuckles in fear and bewilderment.

This argument raises a number of important questions. The first is: When did American business leaders turn into such wusses? This nation spent three decades facing the threat of nuclear annihilation from the Soviet Union. That was uncertainty, and it hovered over the most prosperous period in our history. Now CEOs are crabbing about not knowing if their top marginal federal income tax rate will stay at 35% or rise all the way to 39.6.

The Chamber of Commerce, in other words, has an agenda, one that does not quite fit the consensual reality most of us live in. The real reason for the lack of hiring is actually quite easy to suss out, and it's one that makes perfect sense. The cure for it is going to be difficult, but it also is easy to suss out.

One wonders where the chamber gets the idea that uncertainty about taxes and regulation is such a big deal for business. If you listen to what actual business owners are saying, what's mainly holding back hiring and expansion isn't regulatory "uncertainty," but lack of demand.

For more than a year, the monthly small-business economic trends survey of the National Federation of Independent Business has listed "poor sales" as business' single biggest problem. In the most recent survey, that factor was listed by 30% of respondents, swamping "taxes" (20%) and "government requirements and red tape" (17%). ... might want to spur demand by extending unemployment coverage, enacting more stimulus and not needlessly scaring people about their Social Security retirement, which only provokes them to cut back on spending now. You might also want to avoid imposing a government wage freeze at this particular moment, as President Obama has just proposed.
[Emphasis added]

In other words, the government is taking exactly the wrong approach. This administration has chosen to drink the Chamber of Commerce koolaid rather than get serious about the business of reducing unemployment.

Some change, eh?

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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Bringin' On The Hate

Tim Rutten nailed it again, and his timing is perfect. While the Defense Department, administration, and Congress continue to dither over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Mr. Rutten came to the defense of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and, by extension, to the gay and lesbian community.

Last week, the law center added the Family Research Council to its list of more than 930 active hate groups, citing the anti-gay rhetoric of its leaders and researchers, which have included calls to re-criminalize consensual sex between individuals of the same gender. The Southern Poverty Law Center defines a hate group as one with "beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics."

The Family Research Council, which is essentially an extension of the Religious Reich and one of the more influential conservative groups in Washington, was infuriated by the inclusion on that list. Howls of protest about the attack on "protected speech" emanated from the group and its supporters. Yet this group has been doing more than just talking or preaching in church, as Rutten points out in graphic detail.

...Over the years, it has published statistical compendiums purporting to quantify the "evils" of homosexuality. One of its pamphlets is entitled, "Dark Obsession: The Tragedy and Threat of the Homosexual Lifestyle." At various times, its spokesmen have spuriously alleged that the gay rights movement's goal "is to go after children" and that child molestation is more likely to occur in households with gay parents. Last week, one of its senior fellows, Peter Sprigg, told reporters on a conference call concerning repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that "homosexuals in the military are three times more likely to commit sexual assaults than heterosexuals are relative to their numbers."

In other words, this powerful lobbying group has been trying to affect public policy by their religious beliefs and shabby "scholarship." By targeting homosexuals in this fashion, the group deserves to be on the list, even if the group is essentially a church based organization.

Rutten concludes, and rightly so, that while the group is entitled to its religious beliefs, it is not entitled to impose those beliefs on the rest of us by government action:

So long as even the most objectionable religious dogma stays under the church roof, it's a constitutionally protected view. People's religious beliefs — even when noxious — are a private matter. Our churches are free to order their internal affairs as they will — to set the terms of sacramental marriage as they see fit, to discriminate in the selection of their clergy, to racially segregate their membership or to separate the sexes in their schools or places of worship.

However, when a group sets out to impose its views on the rest of society by lobbying for public policies or laws, it can no longer claim special protections or an exemption from the norms of civil discourse simply because its views are formed by religious beliefs. This is precisely the dodge the Family Research Council has been running.

Beautifully stated, Mr. Rutten.

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