Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Martin Espada

Stone Hammered to Gravel

For poet Dennis Brutus, at eighty

The office workers did not know, plodding through 1963
and Marshall Square station in Johannesburg,
that you would dart down the street between them,
thinking the police would never fire into the crowd.
Sargeant Kleingeld did not know, as you escaped
his fumbling hands and the pistol on his hip,
that he would one day be a footnote in the book of your life.

The secret policeman on the corner did not know,
drilling a bullet in your back, that today the slug
would belong in a glass case at the museum of apartheid.
The bystanders did not know, as they watched
the coloured man writhing red on the ground,
that their shoes would skid in blood for years.

The ambulance men did not know,
when they folded the stretcher and refused you a ride
to the white hospital, that they would sit eternally
in Hell’s emergency room, boiling with a disease
that darkens their skin and leaves them screaming for soap.
The guards at Robben Island did not know,
when you hammered stone to gravel with Mandela,
that the South Africa of their fathers
would be stone hammered to gravel by the inmates,
who daydreamed a republic of the ballot
but could not urinate without a guard’s permission.

Did you know?
When the bullet exploded the stars
in the cosmos of your body, did you know
that others would read manifestos by your light?
Did you know, after the white ambulance left,
before the coloured ambulance arrived, if you would live at all, that you would banish the apartheid of the ambulance
with Mandela and a million demonstrators dancing at every funeral?
Did you know, slamming the hammer into the rock’s stoic face,

that a police state is nothing but a boulder
waiting for the alchemy of dust?
Did you know that, forty years later,
college presidents and professors of English
would raise their wine to your name
and wonder what poetry they could write
with a bullet in the back?

What do the people we call prophets know?
Can they conjure the world forty years from now?
Can the poets part the clouds for a vision in the sky
easily as sweeping curtains across the stage?

A beard is not the mark of prophecy
but the history of a man’s face.
No angel shoved you into the crowd;
you ran because the blood racing to your heart
warned a prison grave would swallow you.
No oracle spread a banquet of vindication before you
in visions; you mailed your banned poems
cloaked as letters to your sister-in-law
because the silence of the world
was a storm roaring in your ears.

South Africa knows. Never tell a poet: Don’t say that.
Even as the guards watched you nodding in your cell,
even as you fingered the stitches fresh from the bullet,
the words throbbed inside your skull:
Sirens knuckles boots. Sirens knuckles boots.
Sirens knuckles boots.

Martin Espada

(Found at Poets Against the War.)

The Road To Hell

It took a year, but the Obama adulation has pretty much ended, if the world press reports listed at Watching America are any gauge. Now the rest of the world is engaging in some solid critical assessments, many of which are quite accurate. One such article was somewhat of a mixed bag. The writer didn't get the American congressional system as it is presently constituted quite right, but he did have something very perceptive to say about President Obama.

From Spain's

It is impossible to explain how the dizzying loss of affection on Obama's part was possible without mentioning the key aspects of his politics: his option for a pacifying message in foreign affairs and his determination to carry out health care reform. Many of the Independent voters who supported him in November 2008 have started to abandon him, fearful of a program that moves North American standards to leftist radicalism. The hand extended to those who see it stained with blood has not served to eliminate the threat that free societies face, and the European-style project of Social Security is not as popular in the U.S. as we imagine from this side of the Atlantic. Many leaders like Obama — and Zapatero has shared the sentiment many times — think that good intentions are enough to change reality, when the opposite happens nearly every time. [Emphasis added]

Many of us on the left have been disappointed, even outraged at the White House failure to move its signature project, health care reform, into reality. For a few months we cut the president some slack because he was dealing with an economic crisis the likes of which hadn't been seen since the Great Depression which faced President Roosevelt. But he even screwed that up, pouring billions into banks and insurance companies to save the very entities that caused the crisis, feeling, apparently, that they had learned their lesson and now would become good citizens. As bold as he was with the institutions "too big to fail," he was positively timid when it came to bailing out those who lost their jobs and those who lost their homes.

As a result, when it came to health care reform, real health care reform, the die was cast. He felt it only fair to listen to those who have been cheerfully ripping us off for decades and to only mildly rebuke them, extracting promises from them that they would try to do better if only he would include a mandate requiring each citizen to get health insurance and would take that nonsensical single payer/public option out of the picture.

And then he sat back, speaking softly to Congress about playing nice together so that the reform would make everyone happy and leaving them to do the job, even though most of "them" were on the receiving end of millions of dollars of campaign contributions from the insurance companies and health care providers.

I really believe that he meant well, that his intentions were good, that he believed decent people could and would work together to develop a system that would benefit everyone in the nation. As a graduate of Chicago Politics, he should have known better. Nice words are, well, nice. So is civility. But it takes more. It takes action and hard work. It takes leaning on people and threatening to remove their finger nails one at a time to get any real movement. It takes inviting everyone to the table, but excusing those who chew with their mouths open.

Good intentions are not enough. A willingness to do the heavy lifting to bring those intentions into the real world is required. President Obama didn't show any inclination for that kind of work and he's about to lose his majority in Congress in November of this year and his job in November, 2012 as a consequence. Has he figured that out yet?

His recent speeches seem to indicate a more muscular approach, but unless those words are backed up with real action, it's going to be a long and fruitless three years.

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Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Lee Judge / The Kansas City Star (January 29, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Sheep

(Photograph by Paul Kipping and published at National Geographic. Click on image to enlarge.)

Steak For Them, Thin Soup For Us

President Obama has proposed a freeze on federal spending for the next several years, apparently concerned about the growing federal deficit, or rather, concerned about the GOP's gripes about the growing federal deficit. Almost everything is on the table for that freeze: education, funding for medical and other scientific research, foreign aid, enforcement of environmental regulations, even Social Security and Medicare. What is not on the table, however, is defense spending. The Pentagon and its contractor buddies will still be able to live large, according to a draft copy of the 2011 defense budget.

From Washington Post:

The Obama administration's 2011 defense budget avoids the controversial weapons cuts of last year, according to a draft copy, and continues to shift modest amounts of money to weapons programs such as helicopters, unmanned planes and Special Operations units that are in heavy use Afghanistan and Iraq. ...

Although Obama has proposed a three-year freeze on federal spending, he has exempted the Pentagon from these limits, allowing an increase of about 2 percent when the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are stripped out of the budget. In addition to the more than $700 billion budget, the president will also ask for about $33 billion to pay for the surge of about 30,000 troops into Afghanistan.

Much of the new spending in the 2011 budget will be directed to weapons programs in heavy use in Afghanistan. The budget calls on the Air Force to double the number of MQ-9 Reapers, which are unmanned planes that can carry precision bombs, over the next several years. The extra planes will allow the Air Force to increase from about 37 to 65 the number of long-range, unmanned surveillance aircraft that it can keep airborne during combat missions.

The Army and Marine Corps will get almost $10 billion for helicopters, which have been essential to moving troops across Afghanistan and have been in short supply since the beginning of the war in 2001. The budget also calls for increasing spending for Special Operations forces by about 6 percent, to $6.3 billion. Those forces have played a central role in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, where they have trained indigenous counterterrorism troops.
[Emphasis added]

Secretary of Defense Gates, a hold over from the Bush administration, followed through on his promise to cut unnecessary weapons programs last year, but that was last year and I guess that's the end of it. We won't have the F-22, but the F-35 can stay (and continue to grow way over its initial budget). We'll also have more helicopters and unmanned drones and fancy missiles to use in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and Iraq in our eternal war against terrorists.

Priorities, people! Fighting wars is important, more important than affordable health care and real jobs and education.

This soup needs another rock.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

No, Nothing

I fear President Obama still doesn't get it. The Republicans have absolutely no intention of playing nice, not even after the president asked them to in the politest terms imaginable. The response is clear: "No, nothing." Whether the issue is jobs, the economy, health care, discretionary spending: the GOP continues to refuse each and every proposal put forth by the White House. That tactic extends especially to presidential nominations, as the Los Angeles Times noted in an editorial yesterday.

Law professor Dawn Johnsen was nominated by President Obama to head up the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, the office which advises the executive branch on the legality of White House proposals and actions. More than ten months ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to recommend the confirmation, but because Harry Reid didn't then have the magical, mystical 60th vote, the nomination was put on hold. Of course, that was before Arlen Specter switched parties as part of a deal to get him re-elected. Now he's willing to vote for Prof. Johnsen, but, unfortunately, Harry doesn't have the 60th vote again, and Senate Republicans are fully aware of that.

...[Republicans] now say they'll try to delay a second committee vote on Johnsen ... Citing "several incidents affecting our national security" -- including the attempted destruction of an airliner on Christmas Day -- they're again raising questions about "her dedication to aggressive executive action in national security matters." ...

Opposition to Johnsen isn't completely, or even primarily, about national security. Anti-abortion groups oppose the nomination because she served as legal director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League from 1988 to 1993. But whether rooted in nostalgia for Bush terrorism policies or antipathy to her abortion-rights stance, the obstruction of this nomination is and always has been unjustified. The committee should promptly send it to the floor.

The moderate-left editorial board still doesn't get it. The opposition to Prof. Johnsen has nothing to do with her history. The president could have nominated John Yoo, who held that position under President Bush and wrote the legal memos justifying torture, or even Scott Roeder, currently on trial for the murder of a doctor who performed abortions, and the Republican "No, Nothings" would still balk.

And, sadly, the Democrats don't seem to have a clue on how to respond.

Apparently elections don't matter unless the Republicans win.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Merry Prank

The NY Times has an interesting take on the story of the four young men arrested for "interfering" with a senator's telephone system. The article focuses on the journalist background of three of the four men. Those three conservative kids were active in promoting "conservative" college newspapers produced (often with funds from conservative groups) to offset what they perceived as the liberal bias of the establishment campus newspapers. Apparently they took some of the "knowledge" gained from that experience and are now using it to actively further their idea of a conservative agenda.

It is still unclear exactly what Mr. O’Keefe and three other men were doing when they were caught on Monday, charged by federal authorities with fraudulently entering a federal building for the purpose of “interfering” with Senator Landrieu’s phone system. But the episode has raised questions about the nature of the journalism practiced by Mr. O’Keefe, even among his past supporters.

Mr. O’Keefe is a conservative activist who gained fame last year by posing as a pimp and secretly recording members of the community group Acorn giving him advice on how to set up a brothel.

Traditionalist journalists have to be cringing: Mr. O'Keefe, instead of reporting the story, has managed to be the story. To get the story, he manufactured it. This is a little different than Dr. Sanjay Gupta being filmed by his CNN colleagues as he performs emergency surgery on an injured Haitian. Dr. Gupta at least didn't whack the patient over the head so the surgery became necessary. Mr. O'Keefe had his own kind of agenda and his own theories on how to implement that agenda, as noted by one of his former campus colleagues:

“James always said, ‘Journalism is putting a camera in someone’s face until they do something stupid,’ ” said Cain Barry, who worked with Mr. O’Keefe at The Centurion, a conservative publication at Rutgers, until Mr. O’Keefe graduated in 2006...

I believe that is what Sarah Palin would call "Gotcha Journalism," something she accused the mainstream press of indulging in during the 2008 election. Mr. O'Keefe's latest endeavors, however, go even beyond that to setting up the subject so that he or she has to do something, anything, to stop the intrusion. Woodward and Bernstein didn't need to shove a camera down "Deep Throat" to get the biggest story of that decade.

The Times article refers to this as a "prank-filled brand of journalism." I think that an appalling statement, given the illegalities of the Mr. O'Keefe's latest effort. This is entrapment, something cops aren't allowed to do and something journalists shouldn't be allowed to do.

Apparently Mr. O'Keefe doesn't quite get that:

Shortly after news broke of his arrest on charges of trying to tamper with the telephones in Senator Mary L. Landrieu’s district office here, James O’Keefe III posted a brief statement on Twitter: “I am a journalist,” it read. “The truth shall set me free.”

The boy ain't right.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

More Unsurprising News

After years of funding "abstinence only" sex education for teens, the teen pregnancy rate has gone up for the first time in at least ten years. While other factors are certainly involved, the fact that concrete and effective programs to prevent young women from getting pregnant have been hamstrung by the Religious Reich certainly played a major role.

From an article in the Washington Post:

The pregnancy rate among teenage girls in the United States has jumped for the first time in more than a decade, raising alarm that the long campaign to reduce motherhood among adolescents is faltering, according to a report released Tuesday.

The pregnancy rate among 15-to-19-year-olds increased 3 percent between 2005 and 2006 -- the first jump since 1990, according to an analysis of the most recent data collected by the federal government and the nation's leading reproductive-health think tank. ...

Even WaPo acknowledges the trend to deny our kids with solid and reliable education on contraceptive devices such as condoms and the birth control pill plays a significant role, although the other factors are mentioned as if in a nod to the right:

The cause of the increase is the subject of debate. Several experts blamed the increase in teen pregnancies on sex-education programs that focus on encouraging abstinence. Others said the reversal could be due to a variety of factors, including an increase in poverty, an influx of Hispanics and complacency about AIDS, prompting lax use of birth control such as condoms.

Now that's an interesting list, isn't it?

The country had been making remarkable strides in reducing the number of teen mothers by focusing on all kids of prevention options until the no-sexers grabbed control. What is especially disheartening about all this is that with the rise in pregnancy rates among teenage women has come a rise in sexually transmitted disease among both teen sexes, a rise that hasn't been completely tracked because the kids don't have enough knowledge about those diseases to get to a doctor when the first symptoms occur.

The Religious Reich, however, will no doubt continue blaming Eve.

Me, I blame George.


Monday, January 25, 2010

Arnold Plays Barber

This falls into the category of Totally Unsurprising News: Arnold Schwarzenegger targets the unions in his latest cost-cutting moves. From the Los Angeles Times:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has put organized labor squarely in his cross-hairs in 2010, opening a fight that will largely determine the shape of his final year in office.

Schwarzenegger's proposals would cut the size of the union workforce, reduce pay, shrink future pensions and roll back job protections won through collective bargaining.

Among the plans in the governor's budget: privatize prisons, which would strip members from the influential guards union; curtail seniority protections for teachers, a key union-won protection; and reduce the number of sick, disabled and elderly Californians cared for through the state's In-Home Supportive Services program -- almost all union jobs -- while cutting what their caregivers are paid.

Schwarzenegger also wants to permanently lower state workforce salaries by 5% without returning to the bargaining table with public-sector unions. And he would require state workers to chip 5% more into their retirement plans.

"The public sector also has to take a haircut," Schwarzenegger said, arguing his policies would save California billions of dollars, now and in the future.
[Emphasis added]

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Sweeney Todd: now there's a role for the brawny Austrian-born actor.

When he ran during the recall election, he made it quite clear that he intended to roll back the influence of "special interests," by which he meant unions. He's dispensed with the euphemisms his last year in office because his legacy isn't looking too pleasant. He's going to need some help getting back into the GOP tent, and taking aim at the unions looks to be the ticket. Unfortunately, that ticket is going to be financed by us for years to come.

His assertion that this move would save the state billions, "now and in the future," is bogus. By slashing In Home Support Services, the elderly and frail on MediCal (the state's name for Medicaid) will have to move from their own homes directly into nursing homes, a far more expensive proposition for the state. By privatizing prisons, he gets to repay his buddies in the private prison industry all the money they've poured into his campaigns and into the campaigns of ballot measures he favored.

If he really wanted to save the state some money, he would direct the legislature to close some of the tax loopholes his wealthy friends have been enjoying for years. He would shut down some of the well-paying commissions which send California businessmen to exotic locales to "sell California products." But that's not the way Arnold and his friends operate. It's much more pleasant to target the middle and lower classes, people who (when there are jobs) actually work for a living.

I guess we should be used to this, both on the state and federal level, but I think we just might be reaching the tipping point. Good God, I hope so!

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Kenneth Patchen

Let Us Have Madness

Let us have madness openly.
O men Of my generation.
Let us follow
The footsteps of this slaughtered age:
See it trail across Time's dim land
Into the closed house of eternity
With the noise that dying has,
With the face that dead things wear--
nor ever say
We wanted more; we looked to find
An open door, an utter deed of love,
Transforming day's evil darkness;
but We found extended hell and fog Upon the earth,
and within the head
A rotting bog of lean huge graves.

Kenneth Patchen

Democracy Be Damned

I have always been interested in how the US is perceived by other nations. That's the main reason I visit Watching America at least once a week. Sometimes I am amused, sometimes shocked, and sometimes I am embarrassed. This week, however, I was stunned to see just how closely this country is watched. I certainly never expected to find a pretty accurate description of a particular US Senate Rule in an op-ed piece, yet that's I discovered in Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung:

Now, Obama falls one vote short of the needed number, and that places his entire agenda in peril. The notion that a party with a 59 percent majority in the Senate is unable to pass its proposals contradicts the basic principles of democracy.

The result: The minority blackmails the majority more and more now. In 1960, only 8 percent of all legislation was threatened by filibuster; by 1980, that had risen to 27 percent. In practice today, two-thirds of all proposed legislation needs a super-majority for passage, because Republicans threaten to filibuster.
[Emphasis added]

The article nails it beautifully. All the GOP has to do for the next nine months is to escalate its strategy of "No, Nothing," and the 111th Congress as led by the Democrats will go down in history as the biggest waste of oxygen in history. That, of course, does not bode well for the Democrats in November.

Now, one is tempted to conclude that elections have no consequences under the Senate Rules as long as the country is as divided as it is, but that is simply not the case. The Republicans managed to get their way during the last six years of the Clinton administration and the first four years of the Bush administration simply by facing the Democrats down with the threat of the "nuclear option," the repeal of Senate Rule 22. The Democrats aren't that kind of tough. They would prefer to buy the 59th and 60th votes with plum committee chairmanships and promises of campaign assistance. The offending rule should be repealed, but the Democrats have neither the stomach nor the spine for that kind of fight, and the Republicans (because they know that) are aware that they don't even have to fight, just threaten.

Both parties like the Country Club just the way it is, albeit for different reasons. Democracy be damned.

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Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Jim Morin / Miami Herald (January 21, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Seahorse

(Photograph by George Grall and published at National Geographic.)

Better Democrats, Please

Gail Collins has a delightfully snarky column up today on the state of the Democratic party with respect to the upcoming elections. This is the crux of her argument:

...If the Democrats are looking for a wake-up call from Massachusetts, the big rooster in the room is the plethora of underwhelming candidates they are fielding.

She's right.

Let's start with Collins' primary target: Arlen Specter. You remember Arlen, he was a Republican until this year when he switched teams after recognizing that he would be facing a tough primary challenge by a more conservative Republican. Always ready to help out a fellow Senate Country Club member, Harry Reid brokered a deal. Arlen would change parties, thereby giving Harry the 60th vote he needed, and the party and the White House would campaign for him in November. Sweet, eh?

Of course, Harry and the White House didn't bother checking with Pennsylvania voters or with members of that state's Democratic Party. Harry needed that 60th vote to accomplish all the miracles promised during the 2000 election. It didn't matter that Arlen always talked a good fight but never actually followed through when crunch time came. He would be the 60th vote (or the 59th vote if one considers Joe Lieberman, the independent who invented a new party after he lost the Democratic primary in 2008).

After the special election in Massachusetts this past week in which a Republican won Ted Kennedy's seat, Harry has lost that 60th vote, but that won't matter. Democratic leaders and the White House will still campaign for Arlen, which just goes to show that there is at least one promise those folks won't break.

Now that's a shame, because there is a perfectly good real Democrat who is running for Arlen's seat, Congressman Joe Sestak. Mr. Sestak now not only has to fight Arlen, but his own party's leadership. That's a tough road, as we learned when Democratic senators campaigned for Joe Lieberman even after he lost the primary.

It's not just Arlen Specter, however. The party leadership is locking out other progressive candidates in primary races. In California, Jane Harman is up for re-election. Jane, who has been seated on the House Intelligence Committee for what seems like decades, cheerfully went along with all of the illegal domestic intelligence gathering by the Bush administration. Then, one day when she learned that some of her communications had been monitored she was outraged, OUTRAGED. Of course, we haven't heard anything from the good congresswoman on the issue in months, so I guess somebody smoothed those ruffled feathers.

She is being challenged by Marcy Winograd, who has some pretty impressive and realistic ideas for how to meet the problems the nation is facing. Ms. Winograd, however, is not getting any party support. Even the "progressive" caucus has come out for Jane, which I find astounding. Apparently Ms. Winograd is just too progressive for those comfortable incumbents, or the party leaders has made it clear who they want supported. Or both, which is even worse.

Those of us who have been sickened by the last year's performance by Congress and the White House are now facing a choice. We can either sit back, cut off the flow of donations and volunteer hours, stay home in November, and let the Democrats get their faces beaten in, or we can start identifying the "upstarts" and "rebels" and direct our dollars and time to those campaigns. If we defeat a number of the entrenched members of the Republican-Lite brigade, the party leadership just might get a clue.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Timidity Is No Virtue

Pundits and analysts are still spilling ink and electrons about the Democrats loss of Ted Kennedy's "safe" seat in Massachusetts and Democrats are still pointing fingers in all directions about the election. Coakley was a terrible candidate who ran a lackadaisical campaign. The president didn't get involved until it was too late. Key Democratic voters sat at home rather than engage in the electoral process, foolishly assuming a victory. There's probably a little truth in all the blame shoveling, but I think the real reason the seat was lost was that the public is profoundly disappointed in the government and the way it has handled the various crises facing the nation the past year.

Congressional Democrats and the White House, after promising bold and innovative change, didn't deliver even half a loaf to the people who needed it most. Instead, banks and Wall Street firms were bailed out for their failures while hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their jobs each month. The "stimulus package" didn't even tickle, much less stimulate. Health care reform turned out to be a way to give insurance and pharmaceutical companies billions of dollars more and average Americans less.

The Democratic leadership, right up to the White House, was more concerned with a squishy concept of "bipartisanship" and "making nice" so that something, anything, would pass and the party could pat itself on the back and still keep its financial sponsors happy.

Change? It is to laugh.

What is even more infuriating is that the lack of change, the lack of courage to do what needs to be done extends even to constitutional guarantees that have been the central jewels in our claim to exceptionalism. The White House now believes, as did its predecessor, that certain rights do not extend to everyone. Due process should not be accorded to those we have deemed "dangerous."

From the NY Times:

The Obama administration has decided to continue to imprison without trials nearly 50 detainees at the Guantánamo Bay military prison in Cuba because a high-level task force has concluded that they are too difficult to prosecute but too dangerous to release, an administration official said on Thursday.

However, the administration has decided that nearly 40 other detainees should be prosecuted for terrorism or related war crimes. And the remaining prisoners, about 110 men, should be repatriated or transferred to other countries for possible release, the official said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the numbers.
[Emphasis added]

The fifty detainees can't be given even a military commission trial because the evidence against them was obtained in clearly illegal fashion: by torture or by hearsay evidence from those the government can't/won't be produced at trial because either because that information was obtained illegally or because it is highly suspicious and doesn't rise to the level of acceptable evidence.

The government screwed up.

So now these men cannot be accorded the right to a trial on the charges against them . They can only be imprisoned, presumably for life, without ever having the claim that they engaged in a crime tested in a court of law. That's the American concept of justice? Of the rule of law rather than the rule of men?

I cannot accept that Americans are so cowardly that they cannot face those 50 alleged terrorists or hundreds more. If I'm wrong, and we are so terrified that we are willing to trash the Constitution, then we really have become a third-rate nation, one like the Soviets of the gulag era.

If the White House and the congressional Democrats had indeed desired change, both would have boldly asserted that these basic rights can never be forgotten, much less dissolved by fiat. They would have urged Americans to remember the nation's heritage. They would have en-couraged the nation. They would have actually led the nation the way they promised they would and the way they swore to do when taking their oaths of office. Perhaps then the electorate would have been more willing to back the leadership they elected rather than "de-elect" them by staying home on Tuesday.

I doubt, however, that the Democrats have any intention to learn this lesson from Tuesday's special election. All signs point to a further backing down, a more timid approach to the work that must be done if we are to get through these times. And that means the November elections are going to be disastrous for that party.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Equal Opportunity Bribes

I must be losing some of my naivete because the revelation that California state legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle have been accepting "gifts" from lobbyists didn't surprise me in the least. From the Los Angeles Times:

At least 26 state legislators are being fined for failing to disclose that they accepted gifts from lobbying groups.

The fines are the first penalties revealed as part of a month-old investigation by the state's political watchdog agency into suspicions that 38 state lawmakers -- including Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) -- and 15 staff members failed to make the required disclosures.

The gifts included sports and concert tickets, meals, spa treatments and hotel rooms. The givers included a casino operator, a horse-racing track, a union, a bank and various interest groups. The investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission takes in much of the leadership of the Legislature, according to state records.

In a state with strict term limits, the only people around with a complete knowledge on how the state legislature actually works are the lobbyists. They make it a point to befriend the newly elected and to show them the ropes. They also apparently make available some great concert tickets and dining experiences. A few state legislators got busted for accepting those gifts (including those who by virtue of their experience in state government should know better) and not reporting them, which is the real no-no. Apparently accepting the gifts in and of itself is not bad.

What I did find surprising, however, is the fact that the stiffest fine that can be imposed for such malfeasance is $5,000. In the grand scheme of things, especially in a big state, that's peanuts. I guess the legislative committee which drafted that law didn't want to go overboard. After all, for many of those in the state legislature, their current jobs are just the training grounds for bigger and better future employment, just like the Washington Big Leagues.


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Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Yesterday was an absolute disaster for me in all sorts of ways, and, no, I'm not just talking about the Coakley defeat in Massachusetts. I got drenched twice yesterday moving about the Los Angeles area on public transportation during the hellacious storm (the second in two days). When I finally got home and dried off, I opened the mail and found the announcement that my health insurance premiums went up even higher than I had anticipated and my deductible had increased two days before the start of my annual physical which is required for me to keep my life insurance. I wrote the check to the health insurer and completely wiped out my checking account.

I'm broke. Flat busted.

So I would appreciate a little help from my friends.

If you have some cash to spare, I would appreciate a donation. Just click on the Donate button.

Thanks. The cats and I would be grateful.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Things That Make You Go "Wow!"

One of the many benefits of using public transportation, especially in bad weather, is that the traveler gets a chance to read the newspaper in its entirety. I had that pleasure yesterday and came across an article in the Los Angeles Times' Health section that blew me away. It had to do with the way the brain processes language and has a creditable layperson's review of a recent study on the subject.

At Carnegie Mellon University, Marcel Just and his colleagues have done just that, and have described it in an intriguing article in the journal PLoS One out on Tuesday. Just, a psychology professor and director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon, tried to pinpoint what our brains do when we think of the words that represent commonplace items--building parts such as door, window and chimney, body parts such as arm, leg and eye, different types of tools, vehicles, vegetables, animals or pieces of clothing.

Just and his colleagues put 11 right-handed volunteers into an fMRI machine and had them read a list of 60 commonplace nouns six times over in varying random order, taking a moment to reflect upon each. As the subjects did so, the researchers documented the precise coordinates of the brain's activity in response. They sifted out the brain activity that was common to all the words--say, activation of visual processing areas that play a central role in reading--and looked for patterns of varying brain activation that would reveal regularities in the way we "think" about common things.

Not surprisingly, thinking about a single noun like "truck" or "butterfly" sparked activity in many different places in the brain. That's just more evidence that the brain is a far-flung network of regions and specialized cells that exchange information and coordinate efforts in even the simplest task. But four dominant patterns of brain activation seemed to emerge--clusters of brain activity that were so regular, Just and his colleagues were later able to identify what word a subject was pondering just by looking at its "fMRI activation signature."

Those activation patterns suggested that subjects were sorting commonplace nouns into four lines: things that are manipulated; things that are eaten; things that represent shelter, or an entryway into shelter; and finally, words that are long. Some of the brain regions lighted up when a "manipulation" noun was read were areas that typically activate when we imagine grasping something. When a "shelter" noun was read, brain areas that have been associated in past research with looking at, recognizing and identifying buildings and structures became activated. "Eating" nouns typically energized a region of the brain associated with the coordination and movement of the lower facial muscles.
[Emphasis added]

The brief article provoked several responses from me. The first, and most obvious, one was the reminder of just what a remarkable evolutionary development the brain's ability to process abstract notions was. It's ironic that the study was dealing with concrete terms, nouns -- names for real world items -- but that is an obvious first step. Knowing that more than one part of the brain was activated when the word was read underscores the complexity of the brain and its ability to "cross reference" across the spatial confines of the brain in meaningful ways.

On a more personal level, as a person who was diagnosed last year with the earliest stages of Alzheimer's (no Aricep needed yet), I was comforted in knowing that basic research into how the brain operates is proceeding apace, building at least the start of a road map of the brain and how it functions. Not all of the research is controversial or impinges on someone's religious sensibilities. This kind of research is going to prove important if newer, better treatments for Alzheimer's, dementia, and brain injuries are going to be developed.

Finally, I am cheered that basic scientific research of all sorts is still going on in this country, even after a decade of rule by the know-nothings.

[Note: the scientific article to which the Times article refers is located here.]


Monday, January 18, 2010

Time To Calm Down?

Historian Nancy L. Cohen has an interesting op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times. Her thesis is that the November, 2010 elections won't be anything like the 1994 elections which resulted in congressional control shifting to the Republicans because certain assumptions about the 1994 elections are just not based in fact.

...everyone should take a deep breath: The 2010 midterms will not be a repeat of 1994. Why? Because almost everything we think we know about the 1994 election is wrong.

Let's look at the 1994 election. How was the GOP able to pick up 52 House seats and eight Senate seats to take control of Congress for the first time in over four decades? This was the second year of Bill Clinton's presidency, and his signature initiative -- healthcare reform -- had just failed. Although economists insisted the recession was over, unemployment remained high and wages were stagnant.

According to received wisdom, the Contract with America -- the agenda the GOP ran on -- capitalized on widespread discontent with Clinton and the Democratic Party and articulated a conservative vision that resonated with Americans. Newt Gingrich, soon to be speaker of the House and the putative architect of the rout, boasted, "We have a clear mandate, and we intend to be revolutionaries." Never mind that only 39% of voters showed up for the supposed referendum on the state of the nation. ...

But the contract explanation persists, along with a corollary: that 1994 was the year of the "angry white man." Democrats lost, according to this analysis, because they alienated economically anxious and culturally disaffected voters. The contract had targeted supporters of Ross Perot, the third-party candidate who shook up the presidential race in 1992: overwhelmingly male, independent, distrustful of government and angry about their declining economic and social status. As these populist white men went, so went Congress in 1994 -- to the GOP.
[Emphasis added]

Since not that many voters had any idea of what the "Contract For America" really was, or had even heard about it, and since the voting data shows that white males (angry or not) pretty much voted as they did for reasons other than feeling disaffected by liberal programs, what did cause the dramatic shift?

If the GOP landslide wasn't due to Gingrich's Contract with America, nor to the votes of disaffected, populist white men, what did happen in 1994? A different set of trends altogether: the unexpected rise of the Christian right and the move of white Southerners into the GOP. ...

... In 1988, 61% of white evangelicals had voted; in 1994, 74% did. Christian conservatives made up 33% of all voters in 1994, compared with 18% in 1988.

It was also the year the South went solidly Republican. For the first time since Reconstruction, the majority of senators and representatives elected from the region were members of the GOP. Although anti-Clinton sentiment did burn hottest in the South, the collapse of the Southern Democratic Party had long been in the making. White Southerners began voting Republican in presidential elections in the 1960s, but they still voted Democratic in local and congressional elections.

It's pretty hard to refute Ms. Cohen's analysis of the 1994 election, given the statistics she cites. Nevertheless, I think the Democrats should still be worried. Maybe the Christian and Southern right won't be quite as big a surprise this time around. As she notes, "they are the Republican Party," at least right now. What I think the Democratic Party should be worried about is not "swing voters," but rather Democratic voters.

One statistic which Ms. Cohen cites (emphasized above) is that voter turnout in the 1994 election was 39%. Democrats just didn't turn out. There is an even greater danger of that happening in 2010. Liberal Democrats are disappointed, gravely so, over much of what has happened in the last year. Health Care Reform looks like the biggest give-away ever to the insurance and medical provider industry. The banking industry, which was a major cause of our economic disaster, continues to reap the benefits of its flagrantly fraudulent behavior, getting through the hard times via the gracious taxpayer bailouts. Rather than ending the wars, the administration is ramping one of them up and pretty much ignoring the other. And while the Guantanamo Bay prison camp may eventually be closed down, the White House still intends to hold prisoners indefinitely and without charge.

In 2008, those liberals not only poured money into various campaigns, including President Obama's, they stumped for the party, pouring hours into working the phone lines and walking the precincts to get out the vote. There doesn't seem to be that that kind of interest right now, and if there isn't a sea change in the next ten months, it won't be there in November. Turnout may be even less than the deplorable 39% of 1994.

The Democrats will lose more than a few seats and will lose that oh-so-precious 60 vote mark in the Senate. It won't take tea baggers or angry white men. The Democrats will do it to themselves.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Linda Leedy Schneider

Sunset, 2003

Just before the bombing began

The leafless trees
on the far shore
of her frozen lake
stand in rows like
soldiers on review
She remembers a music
man, painter of pictures
whose deferment
ran out-- He left her
that June with a bouquet
of promises
that finally fell lifeless
from their stems.

Again-- the trees
near her lake
cast long dark
toward the East.

Linda Leedy Schneider

Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Tom Toles and published January 15, 2010 in the Washington Post. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: African Elephant

(Photograph by Michael Nichols and published at National Geographic.)

Right Move, Wrong Reason

Sometimes I just want to beat my head against the desk. The physical pain would hopefully distract me from the emotional pain brought on by the brazen crassness of my government. From today's Los Angeles Times:

In an attempt to ensure the flow of remittances to devastated Haiti, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced Friday that the Obama administration would temporarily grant legal status to the tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants who were living in the United States illegally before this week's earthquake.

But Napolitano emphasized that Haitians living in the island nation would not be eligible for temporary protected status, and would be repatriated if they attempted to enter the country, an implicit acknowledgment of the fear, thus far unrealized, that the earthquake could trigger a mass migration of Haitians to U.S. shores.
[Emphasis added]

OK, so we'll let the illegals stay and allow them to find a job in an essentially jobless economy so they can send money back to Haiti for reconstruction so that we don't have to. That should make the illegals happy. It also should make Rush Limbaugh happy. Easy fix, that.

Shades of Barbara Bush!

Fortunately, people in Florida have a more realistic view, as the article points out:

Since the earthquake, the demand for the protected status had been taken up by a swelling chorus of advocates, including Haitian American activists, immigrant rights groups and conservative Cuban American lawmakers in Florida, such as Republican U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart. ...

If Haitians do travel to Florida en masse, officials here say they are ready. They are already familiar with the realities of mass migration. ...

In Miami-Dade County this week, officials held numerous meetings to tweak what is officially called the "Change in Caribbean Government Plan" to provide medical aid, screening and temporary housing to large numbers of Haitians.

The county school district has worked up a plan that would include opening three large refugee acceptance centers and converting a district-owned hospital building to a live-in center for as many as 500 refugee children. Separately, the Archdiocese of Miami has proposed establishing a program to bring large numbers of Haitian orphans to the area.

Apparently Floridians, including Rep. Lincold Diaz-Balart, remember Emma Lazarus and her famous sonnet. Unfortunately, apparently the Obama administration does not. Here's a reminder for them.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

[Note: the linked LAT article is worth visiting for several reasons, not the least of which is the haunting photograph by Carolyn Cole which accompanies it.]


Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

This Time They Got It Right

It isn't often that I agree with the editorial board of theWashington Post, but this is one of those times. The subject is the practice of major pharmaceuticals of paying lesser companies to keep generic drugs off the market. That practice is allowable under existing law and costs US consumers, including the federal government, billions of dollars in higher drug costs.

A LOOPHOLE in existing law allows manufacturers of brand-name drugs to pay competitors to keep cheaper, generic versions off the market. If there's to be health-care reform this year, it ought to close that loophole.

Such "pay-for-delay" schemes cost consumers an average of $3.5 billion a year in potential savings, according to a recent report by the Federal Trade Commission. The federal government also loses by being forced to pay billions for higher-priced medications needed by patients covered under government health insurance programs. ...

...Congress in 1984 passed the Hatch-Waxman Act. It allows a company to market a generic "bio-equivalent" version of a brand-name drug if it does not infringe on the patent or if that patent is deemed invalid. The idea was to promote competition that could reduce drug prices. But it hasn't worked that way -- because brand-name manufacturers have been paying generic drug makers to keep their products off the market.
[Emphasis added]

The brand-name companies may spend an enormous amount of money in research and development, but they also have the protection which patents accord. That should be enough. If the pharmaceuticals want to cut costs, perhaps they should consider cutting back on advertising and marketing, especially the money spent wooing medical care providers to promote the new drugs.

As the editorial points out, the House version of the health care reform bill bans the practice outright. That's the version which should remain in the final bill.

Nicely done, WaPo.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dangerous 8-year-olds

Form over substance: the American Way. That appears to be the way Transportation Security Agency operates. If an individual shares the same name as one who is suspected of being a terrorist bent on single-handedly destroying this nation, he or she is not able to board an airplane without at least a pat-down, even if the traveler is an eight-year-old. An article in the NY Times details the hassle one such child (along with the rest of his family) has to face each time he flies.

It is true that Mikey is not on the federal government’s “no-fly” list, which includes about 2,500 people, less than 10 percent of them from the United States. But his name appears to be among some 13,500 on the larger “selectee” list, which sets off a high level of security screening. ...

For every person on the lists, hundreds of others may get caught up simply because they share the same name; a quick scan through a national phone directory unearthed 1,600 Michael Hickses. Over the past three years, 81,793 frustrated travelers have formally asked that they be struck from the watch list through the Department of Homeland Security; more than 25,000 of their cases are still pending. ...
[Emphasis added]

As the article pointed out, the late Ted Kennedy was faced with the same problem. His case got cleared up swiftly, but he was a powerful and well-known senator. For those who aren't so fortunate, the delays and humiliation continue each and every time they try to fly. Michael Hicks, age 8, knows this only too well. There is, of course, a simple solution, one that the TSA has finally discovered after more than eight years:

Mr. Fotenos, the T.S.A. spokesman, promised improvements in a few months, as the agency’s Secure Flight Program takes full effect. Under the new system, airlines will collect every passenger’s birth date and gender, along with their names. The T.S.A. will cross-check all that with the watch lists. Previously, the airlines cross-checked the lists themselves, using only the names. [Emphasis added]

Well, bravo!


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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Old News

It isn't exactly a startling revelation that the Bush administration was busy planning a war in Iraq a full year before the invasion. What is interesting is the confirmation that then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair was in on the plan for at least that long.

Tony Blair promised George Bush that Britain would support military action by the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein in a series of secret notes written a year before the invasion of Iraq.

The content of the notes was revealed yesterday by Mr Blair’s former spokesman, Alastair Campbell.

The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war was electrified by the appearance of Mr Campbell, who disclosed details of the highly sensitive correspondence in a defiant defence of his former boss.

What is also interesting is that the British have an official inquiry into the Iraq War and that Tony Blair will also be appearing before the inquiry in the coming months.

Of course, the US has no such inquiry. That would be looking backward at a plot that robbed our treasury of $1 trillion, caused the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and left our military in a disastrously weakened state. I guess it just wouldn't be prudent to look carefully at one of the foulest moments in our history so that we can at least try to make certain it never happens again.

It just wouldn't be prudent.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Requiescat In Pacem

I was dismayed to learn this morning that Mary Daly, feminist theologian/philosopher, and all around Amazon, died last week. Here's a snippet from her obituary:

Brilliant, bawdy and cantankerous, Daly was a theologian who came to prominence with the publication of her first book, "The Church and the Second Sex" (1968), a withering critique of the treatment of women in Roman Catholicism that prompted an unsuccessful effort by the Jesuit-run Boston College to fire her. Denied raises and a full professorship, Daly boycotted faculty meetings, dismissing administrators and colleagues as "bore-ocrats" who suffered from "academentia."

Ms. Daly was a prodigious writer, thinker, and lecturer who moved the radical feminist agenda to the front often enough that people finally began to take the movement as a whole seriously, and she did that by getting people to laugh and to scream in outrage. She could provoke either response effortlessly, she was that good.

Rest in Peace, dear sister and mentor to millions.

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

Monday, January 11, 2010

Rule 22

Someone, Thomas Geoghegan, finally explained just why Senate Rule 22 which requires 60 votes for cloture is not only a bad rule, it probably is unconstitutional. In his New York Times opinion piece he traces the history of the rule, which allows him to pinpoint just why the rule is contrary to the Constitution and the intentions of the founders, and then suggests several ways to roll it back. His characterization of the effects of the rule, moreover, shows just why so little of benefit to the nation as a whole comes out of that august body.

So on the health care bill, as on so many other things, we now have to take what a minority of an inherently unrepresentative body will give us. Forty-one senators from our 21 smallest states — just over 10 percent of our population — can block bills dealing not just with health care but with global warming and hazards that threaten the whole planet. Individual senators now use the filibuster, or the threat of it, as a kind of personal veto, and that power seems to have warped their behavior, encouraging grandstanding and worse.

It turns out that the "nuclear option" threatened by the 109th Congress as led by Republicans might have effectively turned things around, but it is clear that the threat was only that, a threat. Republican senators knew that rolling back Rule 22 would have lessened the power of individual senators of both parties, and nobody wanted to mess with those fiefdoms. Instead, lining up votes by bribery was considered to be a much more "collegial" approach, one that ultimately benefited both the Senate as a whole and the individual senators on the make and on the take, the public weal be damned.

Mr. Geoghegan's carefully reasoned essay should be required reading in civics classes. It also should be passed around the Senate, with a note suggesting that the public just might be ready to force one or more of Mr. Geoghegan's suggested remedies. The subject might not be as sexy as health care reform, but it certainly is one that affects each and every bill that comes out (or doesn't come out) of the Senate.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Langston Hughes

As I Grew Older

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun--
My dream.
And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky--
The wall.
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!

Langston Hughes

Watching Closely

It was kind of a mixed bag over at Watching America, but one thing is certain: people all over the world are still watching President Obama, especially with respect to how he is going to handle the Christmas Day failed terrorist attempt. The Brunei Times had an editorial dealing with that subject, especially as to how that episode might impact closing Guanatanamo Bay.

IT WAS heartening to hear United States President Barack Obama insisting that his plans to close down Guantanamo prison would not be changed because of the failed attempt by a 23-year-old Nigerian to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight carrying 278passengers bound for Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day.

Stopping the transfer of Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo had led to speculation that there may be a change of heart but US officials clarified that the transfer was temporarily put on hold because of the tense situation at that time but that there was no change to the plan to close Guantanamo.

...Notwithstanding the obstacle that has been recently thrown across Obama's path by the Democrats in Congress who had voted against providing money to close Guantánamo, the US president has to work harder to keep his pledge to the American public. Now is the time that he should prod the Democrats and Republicans who had been demanding the closure of Guantánamo for years.

While I am not too sure that there are very many Republicans who have called for the prison camp closure "for years," the editorialist has it right. Mr. Obama really does have to bring some pressure to bear on Congress regarding the transfer of the detainees to American soil where there can be no question as to what legal rights they have under the US Constitution.

What I found particularly interesting is that this small Southeast Asian country would be so concerned about Gitmo. Yes, the country's population is overwhelmingly Muslim (roughly two-thirds), but that only explains part of it. Brunei is not exactly a hot bed of Jihadism. I think the existence of such a gulag offends all reasonable people, regardless of their religious beliefs.

It's unlikely that the White House is monitoring what the Brunei press is writing about, but surely it must know that most of the rest of the world wants that damnable prison camp closed. So do decent people here.


Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Tom Toles, January 7, 2010, and published in the Washington Post. Click on image to enlarge.)

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Cuban Tree Frog

(Photograph by James Snyder and published by National Geographic. Those of you worried about the poor frog can relieve your anxiety by clicking on the link.)

The Perfect Storm

It's been a miserable winter so far for a large part of the country: icy rain followed by snow, lots of snow, almost immediately followed by another round of icy rain followed by snow, lots of snow. Municipal snow removal agencies have been having quite a time of it in trying to keep up, and most are now at the point that they may not be able to do the job at all because they've blown through their budgets two months early.

From the NY Times:

With states and localities facing budget cuts in a time of economic crisis, the early onset of severe storms bringing heavy, wet snow is wreaking havoc on already strained resources and raising concerns about public safety.

“Each snowflake looks like a dollar sign floating down,” said Barbara Whitmore, the town clerk in Genesee, Wis., 30 miles west of Milwaukee. “We are basically now trying to just do hills, curves and intersections rather than entire roads for salting. Everything is plowed but might not get down to bare concrete. People like to see the salt so it gets down to bare concrete, but the cost is too high.”

Many other counties, cities and states across the regions are also feeling the pinch of expensive storm cleanup — rationing of salt, not plowing side roads, canceling public works projects for fear of running out of money to clear the roads.

If the roads don't get plowed, cars, trucks, buses, taxis don't get through. People can't get to work (or get home from work); kids and teachers can't get to school; emergency vehicles (police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks) can't get to emergencies. Local governments, keenly aware of the problem, are trying to do some workarounds, as described above, but that means either more indebtedness (which will be a crushing factor for next season) or the delaying of other necessary improvements (repairing the roadways after an especially brutal winter).

Maybe, just maybe, Congress and the White House should take a brief pause in their obsessions with installing full body scanners at airports (to the tune of $150,000 per machine) and funding more troops to fight more wars in the name of "security" and take some time to find ways to help out the states in this climate and economic emergency in the name of "public safety."

That would be the rational thing to do, but I am not optimistic.


Friday, January 08, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Banksters' Revenge

David Lazarus tossed a whole bunch of furniture at the banking industry in his latest column. Apparently the recent consumer protection legislation drafted to outlaw some of the more egregious practices of the banksters annoyed them. Their response was hardly surprising.

Happy new year. Now pay up.

That's the message from our friends in the banking industry, who are introducing all sorts of fees and changes as a slew of regulations take effect designed to make financial heavyweights friendlier to customers.

From costlier checking accounts to higher credit card fees, banks are scrambling to find ways to compensate for as much as $50 billion in annual revenue that could be lost because of the tougher rules and requirements. ...

... banks are cheesed because lawmakers are showing some uncharacteristic backbone when it comes to consumer protection, and they're turning the screws because, well, they can.

Never mind that just about all the big guys in the banking world are still on their feet primarily because taxpayers stepped in with billions of dollars in bailout cash. That's ancient history.

Now it's all about making up for the money that used to spill into bankers' pockets from arbitrary rate increases and practices such as automatically signing people up for overdraft protection -- and then nailing them with fees whenever a transaction went over the limit.

That's a pretty accurate assessment from where I sit. My own small community bank got involved in some of the shenanigans with respect to imposing over-draft protection. Because it is small, however, a quick phone call advising that I wasn't interested in the service, so they could remove it was all it took. I imagine a lot of other customers who don't read the fine print as obsessively as I do didn't make that call until they started getting hit with $35 over-draft charges imposed on top of the $25 rubber check fee.

But, as Mr. Lazarus points out, there's more in store as a result of the new legislation:

Some new regulations, such as requiring 45 days' notice for any significant credit card changes, were introduced last year. Others, including limits on rate increases and new disclosure requirements, take effect next month.

In response, many banks have been lowering the credit limits of millions of customers and raising rates. They've also been switching fixed-rate cards to variable rates that won't be subject to the new rules and imposing "dormancy fees" for plastic that doesn't get a regular workout.

The banking industry assures us that it's not a matter of revenge, it's just the need to cover their costs. Baloney! It's just a desire to make as much money off the rubes as they did the last few years before the bubble burst, more money, if possible, so that the shareholders stay happy and keep approving those generous salaries and bonuses. Mr. Lazarus spotted that as well:

I love that banks are saying this is merely the free market in action. Where were all those market forces when these guys were making staggeringly reckless investments in mortgage-backed securities, or when their losses started running into the billions of dollars?

This isn't about market forces. This is about good-old-fashioned greed, and the need to keep shareholders placated as the banking industry tries to adjust to a new era of transparency and scrutiny.

I hope Sen. Chris Dodd gets emailed this article (wink-wink). Now that he doesn't have to worry about re-election, he just might get serious in pushing through a legislative package that addresses the greed and fraudulent practices of an industry the taxpayers just spend hundreds of billions of dollars to bail-out.


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

More Sunshine, Please

Candidate Barack Obama proclaimed that there were too many secrets in Washington and promised to change that. Recently, President Barack Obama took a step to do just that by changing the rules on classified information. Unfortunately, according to Jon Wiener, it was a baby step. From the Los Angeles Times:

...Last week, Obama announced he was replacing Bush's executive order on classified documents with a new one designed to reduce secrecy. Obama's policies are a distinct improvement, but they don't really solve the underlying problem.

The basic idea is a simple one. As Obama said in the order: "Our democratic principles require that the American people be informed of the activities of their government." Officials rely on secrecy to avoid being held responsible for their failures and to conceal illegality and misconduct -- waterboarding of suspected terrorists, for example. If practices like waterboarding are a good idea, the details of why, when, how and who should be knowable and defendable in public debate. That's the principle behind the Freedom of Information Act, which permits "any person" to request government documents.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the president's order doesn't go far enough to stop the delaying tactics of the various agencies when it comes to declassifying millions of documents, some more than 50 years old. The even worse news is that President Obama has extended the secrecy rules in his own administration. The excuse is the perennial one: the president, the vice-president, and now those commissions appointed by the president need to be able to meet and confer in an atmosphere of frankness which would be impossible if every word were reported to the public. It wouldn't be prudent. That's how the last administration got away with its disastrous energy policy. It's also the way the administration got away with adding kidnapping and torture to its arsenal of weapons.

Mr. Wiener quite properly suggests that more must be done if we are to remain a viable democracy. Here are a couple of his suggestions:

To start, all documents more than 25 years old should be automatically declassified. Cold War secrets are irrelevant in today's world. We don't need to spend taxpayer dollars going through these documents page by page. (In fact, a Department of Defense task force concluded that "perhaps 90%" of technical and scientific information could be safely revealed within five years of classification.)

Then we need a requirement that declassification rules serve the public's right to know. Without such a directive, it will be much easier for the Obama administration to continue to keep secret aspects of Bush-era national security policy. Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project, has a list: "The CIA is still withholding documents about its rendition, detention and interrogation program. The Justice Department is still withholding the legal memos that supplied the basis for the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program. The Defense Department is still withholding the interrogation directives used by special forces in Afghanistan." We need this information if we are to avoid repeating abuses from the past and to evaluate the wisdom of government policy in the present.

From you lips, Mr. Wiener. From your lips ...

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Much Ado

I'm not sure why, but nothing in the news today provoked any kind of response from me. I may be tired, or, after the long siege of the last twelve months on issues ranging from health care reform to the war in Afghanistan, the day-to-day stuff just doesn't look all that interesting. I admit that to view life in that respect is dangerous, that what appears drab and uninteresting at the start might evolve into something major, but at this point I just don't have the energy to suss that kind of thing out.

Take, for instance, the news that a southern Democrat has defected to the GOP. Parker Griffith of Alabama found that the "liberal" ideas on health care were just too antithetical to his mind set, so he defected. His staff thought it a big deal, enough of a deal that all but the congressman's scheduler quit, according to the NY Times.

All but one of the Washington staffers for Rep. Parker Griffith resigned on Monday in protest of the Alabama congressman's decision to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party.

In a sharply worded statement, Griffith's former chief of staff, Sharon Wheeler, called the freshman congressman's switch a ''mistake'' that goes against the interests of his district, which relies heavily on federal funding for defense and aerospace jobs. ...

Wheeler said Griffith made a ''well-intentioned but misguided'' decision. She said he abandoned the legacy of conservative Democratic leadership in the north Alabama district, which includes Huntsville.
[Emphasis added]

Now, Mr. Griffith has been voting pretty much with the Republicans since he was sworn in, so his loss isn't really a huge one for the Democrats. While the party leadership was happy to tout "the numbers" when it came to the House Majority, what really counts is the legislation that gets passed and Mr. Griffith was no help there. Further, I'm pretty sure Mr. Griffith's voting record isn't exactly what President Obama had in mind in his quest for "bipartisanship".

What did intrigue me, however, was that part of his former chief of staff's comments bolded above, the "conservative Democratic leadership" phrase. It is possible that what we are seeing in this defection is another seed of a movement towards a multiple party system, one in which both parties are fractured into smaller parties that are more representative of the ideologies currently in play.

After all, what does a liberal Democrat have in common with Mr. Griffith? Certainly not the ideals of Franklin D. Roosevelt or the earlier George Wallace. And really, as big a pain as the two senators from Maine have been in the health care debate, they certainly don't share the ideology of someone like Sarah Palin.

There are a lot of possibilities, given the more contentious issues currently in play, but social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, Blue Dogs, liberals, and DLC-types might all be happier in their own enclaves, forming coalitions around issues that interest each sector. It might make for a more responsive Congress. It certainly would make for more interesting elections.

But then, today I'm tired of most of it. Maybe tomorrow I'll have a different view.


Monday, January 04, 2010

On The Payroll

The Boston Globe has done a fine job in detailing the financial ties between medical providers (doctors and hospitals) and pharmaceutical companies. It's latest effort shows that the coverage is having an effect.

High-ranking physicians and executives at Partners HealthCare, which includes Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals, can no longer receive stock or unlimited fees for sitting on the boards of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, under new rules that took effect Friday.

Partners estimates that the policy affects roughly 25 vice presidents, clinical department heads, and other top executives who are directors for some of the nation’s leading drug companies. The rules limit their pay to $500 an hour, or $5,000 for a typical 10-hour day attending a board meeting; the rules ban executives and high-level physicians outright from taking company stock as compensation. ...

The hospital network’s new conflict-of-interest policy also bans doctors from traveling the country as paid members of drug company "speaker’s bureaus."

The article describes one executive at Partners HealthCare who has received over $700,000 in pay from Pfizer for sitting on its board since joining that pharmaceutical's Board of Directors in 2006, most of it in stock. That means that as a director he has a fiduciary duty to the shareholders (of which he is one) to make sure the company's bottom line is healthy and continues to grow. One way to do that, of course, is to make certain drugs from Pfizer get used at his "day job" at Partners HealthCare. He claims that he doesn't do that but does admit the "perception" is there.

Of course it is.

It makes you wonder why Partners HealthCare didn't just outright ban the practice. That company has taken the position that because it operates teaching hospitals it is helpful to know just what is going with the pharmaceutical companies in terms of their financial stability and to provide scientific and medical guidance to them. That excuse doesn't pass the odor test.

At least a start has been made in curbing the pharmaceuticals' practice of buying doctors and hospitals. I can't help but think that the strong reporting by the Globe and other papers doing their job is responsible for the start to some measure, and for that I am grateful.

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Sunday, January 03, 2010

Sunday Poetry: ee cummings

as freedom is a breakfastfood

as freedom is a breakfastfood
or truth can live with right and wrong
or molehills are from mountains made
-long enough and just so long
will being pay the rent of seem
and genius please the talentgang
and water most encourage flame

as hatracks into peachtrees grow
or hopes dance best on bald men's hair
and every finger is a toe
and any courage is a fear
-long enough and just so long
will the impure think all things pure
and hornets wail by children stung

or as the seeing are the blind
and robins never welcome spring
nor flatfolk prove their world is round
nor dingsters die at break of dong
and common's rare and millstones float
-long enough and just so long
tomorrow will not be too late

worms are the words but joy's the voice
down shall go which and up come who
breasts will be breasts and thighs will be thighs
deeds cannot dream what dreams can do
-time is a tree (this life one leaf)
but love is the sky and i am for you
just so long and long enough

ee cummings


My brief visit to Watching America yesterday showed that the rest of the world's press has all sorts of New Year's resolutions for President Obama to embrace. For the most part, those articles contained sound advice, the kind I wish our president would consider. One, however, had some pretty sharp edges to go along with the advice, and deservedly so. Matthew Harwood's offering in the "Comment Is Free" section of the UK's Guardian considers the importance of the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and the way it should be done.

At first glance, it seems reasonable to conclude the Obama administration did its best in 2009 to restore the US constitution's bill of rights when handling suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay imprisoned by the Bush administration.

First and most importantly, President Obama made torture once again illegal. The administration then decided to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators in federal court in Manhattan, just streets away from where the World Trade Centre once stood. The Obama administration also announced the transfer of some detainees from Gitmo to a remote Illinois prison to make good his promise to close the controversial prison camps. (When this will actually happen, however, depends on Congress and security upgrades.) And on Saturday, the administration further signaled its confidence in the US justice system by charging the alleged terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as an ordinary criminal in his attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day.

But these controversial and politically unpopular moves only look good from a rule of law standpoint if an observer studiously ignores the darker side of the Obama administration's approach to the detainees still languishing at Guantánamo Bay. Until these legal inconsistencies are corrected, the Obama administration's efforts to restore the rule of law will be one giant sleight-of-hand. One more glaring example that "hope" has been drowned in Obama's political moat this new year.
[Emphasis added]

Mr. Harwood points out that the federal trials of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators and of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab are being held in civilian courts because they are slam dunks. Enough evidence exists outside the tainted garbage dredged up by torture and lying third parties that convictions are assured. Most of the rest of the detainees will still have their cases heard by military commissions. President Obama did a little tweaking of that law in October, but the bulk of the system is still rife with abuse. For example, hearsay will be allowed, which means the defendants will not be able to cross-examine their accusers. That hearsay testimony will be admitted as "fact."

Mr. Harwood is even more caustic about the trumpeted transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Illinois:

Another misconception about the Obama administration's return to the rule of law is its plan to purchase the Thomson Correctional Centre in rural Illinois to shutter Guantánamo. Certainly the location will change, but the horror-show will continue. As Amnesty International put it, "The only thing that President Obama is doing with this announcement is changing the zip code of Guantánamo." That's because the detainees transferred from Gitmo to Thomson, who have not been charged with any crime, will either face trial before military commissions or will continue to be detained indefinitely. What's monstrous about this is that it's reasonable to assume that at least some of the estimated 100 detainees to be transferred have done nothing wrong. [Emphasis added}

Precisely. Less than a quarter of the remaining detainees were captured by the US directly on the battlefield. The rest were handed over by others who received bounties. The overwhelming majority of those sent to Gitmo had done nothing wrong, had not plotted against the US, had not engaged in terrorist activities. They were captured and sent there because of family feuds or because they were easy marks for the bounty hunters. Yet many of them are still rotting away in Cuba. Soon, they will have a change of scenery, but that's about it.

And those who are assumed to be terrorists, with the tainted proof coming from torture, may never even get a military commission trial. They will simply be held indefinitely. So much for restoring the rule of law.

So here's Mr. Harwood's proposed New Year's Resolution for President Obama:

So here's a New Year's resolution for President Obama if he wants to restore US adherence to the rule of law, respect human rights, and close Guantánamo for good: either charge the remaining 198 detainees with a crime or release them. Anything less shows that political concerns cynically trump Obama's own sworn oath to preserve the constitution.

That would be the kind of change, promised during the campaign, that I would be grateful for.

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Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Jim Morin / The Miami Herald (Jan. 1, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on the image to enlarge.)


Saturday, January 02, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Gorillas

(Photograph by Michael Nichols and published at National Geographic.)

Silly, Silly Stuff

Once again, the US has slipped into "Don't just sit there, do something ... anything" mode. A deranged jihadist attempts to blow up a jetliner with chemicals smuggled in his groin area ("Holy genitals, Batman!"), so the TSA is scurrying around inventing new rules which will do nothing for security but will inconvenience every single passenger traveling by air. David H. Steinberg, a local screenwriter vacationing in Aruba with his family for the holidays, ran smack into some of those rules as the Steinbergs returned home. Here's his take on the new rules:

Onboard, we learned of more new TSA rules (for flights to the U.S. originating abroad). All electronic devices would have to be turned off an hour before landing instead of just on descent. And no one could have a pillow or blanket on their person during the last hour of the flight. Seriously. Cut to my daughter screaming bloody murder as the flight attendant yanks the pillow from under her head. Seriously.

I get that the threat of terrorism is real. But if these hastily thrown-together rules are how we respond to new threats, then something is seriously wrong with us (or at least the TSA). If two X-rays, a bomb-sniffing dog, a frisk and a bag search can't detect the next terror attack, then how is turning off the DVD player an hour early and grabbing pillows from sleeping children going to help? Keep in mind that the new rules only apply to the last hour of the flight (presumably because Friday's particular lunatic decided to set off his bomb only on descent). Won't the no-pillow policy just cause Al Qaeda to issue orders to detonate at T minus 1:01?

We all know that we have to take off our shoes at security because some other lunatic tried to blow up his shoes. These rules, created in response to the latest terror plots, inconvenience us all and waste time and money as more and more resources are allotted to enforcing them. But we tolerate it because it's a small price to pay for security.

But what if the rule has no bearing on security? What if the rule is just, well, silly? Something cooked up by some TSA paper pusher aimed at stopping the last attack, not anticipating the next one. How long are we going to tolerate increasingly preposterous and obviously useless rules in the name of security? When the TSA recommends you arrive at the airport three hours before a flight? Four hours? What if it takes six hours to get from the curb to the plane because next year's lunatic tries to break the plane's window with his bare skull and so the TSA decides every man, woman and child needs to be outfitted with padded headgear?
[Emphasis added]

It now appears that the crotch bomber should have been on the "no-fly list," but wasn't, presumably because the various security agencies of this country still aren't sharing information. That shows how reliable that list is even if all the names that are on the list and shouldn't be were removed (an impossibility, it seems). Even if the list were a reasonable reflection of reality, however, our efforts still are locked into treating symptoms rather than the underlying disorder.

The US continues the policies that got us into this mess. We still invade countries and level them because we don't like the way their cultures operate. We prop up vicious dictatorships so we can have access to their natural resources and then send our mega-corporations in to destroy the environment and communities as they pump the oil and gas and mine the minerals for which we pay a pittance. Is it any wonder that whole areas of the world are pissed off at us, so pissed off that they are willing to blow themselves up along with everyone else in the vicinity? Apparently these considerations are irrelevant, not to mention unbelievably dangerous.

So, I think we can expect that we will continue to remove our shoes before flying, be patted down and scanned and herded from check point to check point, all in the name of national security, as if that will make a difference.

It really is silly.


Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year, Happy New Life

I had considered taking today off, knowing that I would get very little sleep the night of December 31 (and I got almost none), but then I read Ellen Goodman's farewell post in the Boston Globe, and I realized that I would have to at least acknowledge one of the best opinion columnists in the country. Ms. Goodman's career lasted over 40 years and she helped us consider some of the most amazing times in our nation's history. From Viet Nam, through the civil rights and the feminist movements, to 9/11 and the consequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. From President Johnson to President George W. Bush and finally to President Obama. I sometimes disagreed with her conclusions, but I always knew she reached her conclusions honestly, and I always respected what she had to say.

Her brave exit speech (she's retiring) didn't directly address those momentous times and her many opinions, though. Instead she reflected on what I can only describe as the fluid nature of time. I appreciated that because it's something I've been considering more and more. Ms. Goodman and I are about the same age, and I think such reflections are a hallmark of elderhood. I've noticed that just as I recover from the New Year's Eve party I'm handed an income tax form to sign, after which some kind soul wishes me a happy birthday (August 6, and I prefer chocolate). Just as I mark another year on the planet, I find myself pricing Thanksgiving turkeys and accepting Christmas gifts and invitations to New Year's Eve parties. It's hard to believe that there was a time in my life when summer vacation seemed endless, ruthlessly so, and I yearned to be back in school where at least I didn't have to amuse myself all the time, and yet I remember that time keenly.

That's what a good writer does, whether she's a novelist, a poet, or a columnist: she gives us a chance to step back and consider, to try to make some sense of the world and the life we are living in that world. It's what Ellen Goodman did so well and what she did in her last column for the Globe. Go read it. You'll see what I mean.

So, best wishes to you, Ms. Goodman.

And thanks.