Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Weird News

I swear that I am not making this up.

Here's the link.

An Illinois consumer craving seafood who bought a 2-pound bag of shrimp priced at $12.99 a pound expected to pay about $26 for dinner, not $16 for the meal and $10 for some melted ice.

That's one example of an expensive-but-little-noticed rip-off in which seafood shoppers pay for large amounts of ice that are not supposed to be included in the price, according to a group of industry and government officials that conducted inspections in 17 states.

The investigation found many such cases across the country, and the culprit is the coating of ice applied to frozen seafood to preserve quality during storage and distribution. The ice was wrongly included as part of the labeled weight of seafood, according to the National Conference on Weights and Measures, which conducted the investigation. In some instances, the investigation found, ice accounted for up to 40 percent of the product's weight. ...

The investigation was prompted by the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood industry association, over concerns about improper labeling used by some packaging companies.

Coating seafood in ice is a common and legal practice. What isn't legal, Onwiler said, is to include ice in the weight of the seafood. In some cases, investigators found seafood packers were also adding a thicker coat of ice than was necessary in order to add weight to the seafood.

Ah, the wonders of the free market.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What's In It For Me?

I'll be honest. I haven't taken the time to read the 2,000 page health care reform bill. I've had to rely on synopses and analyses from the media and from those organizations directly related to health care issues. I know that there's a lot of misinformation intentionally offered by those who expect to benefit from the distortions and I know there has been some sloppy journalism going on. Still, there have been some sources around I felt I could trust. One of those sources took the time to offer some insight into what the bill has for Medicare beneficiaries.

Dr. Bruce Chernof is president and chief executive of the SCAN Foundation and former director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, and his opinion piece gives Congress credit for setting up the framework for one aspect of health care that did not get much press during the contentious debates: long term care.

Healthcare reform has made seniors, by and large, uneasy. Older Americans heard the words "cuts" and "Medicare" in the same sentence and were more likely to believe healthcare reform would hurt -- not help -- them. Lost in the maelstrom of misinformation, however, is the reality that the newly passed legislation lays the groundwork for greatly improving the full continuum of healthcare services for seniors, includes renovating our nation's nonexistent long-term care system.

...This means creating alternatives to nursing home placement, such as day-service programs, home-care aides, meal programs, senior centers and transportation services. Several provisions in the bill address this aim.

First is the creation of a public, voluntary long-term care insurance program known as the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports program -- CLASS for short. Enrolled individuals who have substantial daily needs would be eligible to receive at least $50 a day (after a five-year vesting period) to be used to defray the costs of services such as home care, family caregiver support, adult day-care or residential care. All actively working adults over 18 could enroll, with the purpose of getting the largest risk pool possible.

Second are programs that will help states expand home and community services so that seniors can avoid placement in a nursing home. A program called Community First Choice provides federal matching dollars for such care. Another increases funding for organizations that help seniors and their families navigate the complex web of our current long-term care services.

Third are impoverishment protections that prevent a healthy husband or wife from being forced to spend all of a couple's shared assets in order to get his or her partner access to community-based services care. Before this legislation, that protection was only available if the person who needed care was in a nursing home.

Dr. Chernof ticks off a few more provisions of special interest to elders, primarily involving tweaking Medicare itself in ways that cut the waste and fraud while improving the training of direct providers in geriatrics, all of which are important. These first three items, however, are crucial parts of what Dr. Chernof refers to as "the health care continuum."

Effective community-based services are an alternative to the far more expensive nursing homes. Many elders in the earlier stages of such conditions as Alzheimer's actually do better living at home than in a nursing home, but the toll on families can be devastating without day care or senior centers to lighten the load. Elders who can't prepare their own meals depend on such services as Meals On Wheels. Elders who need daily medical care, but not around the clock services, benefit from care givers who come in, provide treatment, assess needs, and see that those needs are met.

Dr. Chernof freely admits that the new bill has a long way to go before Congress can claim that elder care has been handled, but at least the framework is now in place upon which a more rational and, yes, less expensive system can be based. As someone who has a year and four months to go for Medicare eligibility and who has several pre-existing conditions, I was somewhat relieved by his recitation of what the bill actually contains.

Now it's back to the fight to get that system refined even further.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Well, Waddaya Know

Oh, those poor insurance companies. They're painted as the villains in the health care debate, when in fact they're just companies with employees trying to provide health care coverage during a time of explosive medical costs. They're trying, really, really trying, but those damned doctors and hospitals are gouging us all.

That's the lament of Patrick Johnston, president of the California Assn. of Health Plans, an organization that lobbies state lawmakers and works with regulators on behalf of California health plans in an opinion piece appearing in today's Los Angeles Times. He maintains that the country has settled on the "wrong whipping boy" when the real villains are health care providers and healthy people who have dropped their insurance coverage because they are unemployed or underemployed.

And we should listen to him because?

Working in the healthcare system, however, I have more insight than many into what is causing those premiums to rise.

He then proceeds to point out that insurance company profits aren't growing nearly as much as other profit driven companies. How sad for the insurance companies. I'd shed a tear or two, but I just can't summon them, especially after reading this article in the NY Times.

It seems that insurance companies believe that the new law doesn't really require them to issue policies which cover children with pre-existing conditions in 2010, which is what the framers of the law intended. Their reading of the law is that such a requirement doesn't kick in until 2014.

The authors of the law say they meant to ban all forms of discrimination against children with pre-existing conditions like asthma, diabetes, birth defects, orthopedic problems, leukemia, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease. The goal, they say, was to provide those youngsters with access to insurance and to a full range of benefits once they are in a health plan.

To insurance companies, the language of the law is not so clear.

Insurers agree that if they provide insurance for a child, they must cover pre-existing conditions. But, they say, the law does not require them to write insurance for the child and it does not guarantee the “availability of coverage” for all until 2014.

William G. Schiffbauer, a lawyer whose clients include employers and insurance companies, said: “The fine print differs from the larger political message. If a company sells insurance, it will have to cover pre-existing conditions for children covered by the policy. But it does not have to sell to somebody with a pre-existing condition. And the insurer could increase premiums to cover the additional cost.”

Nice, eh?

The ink isn't dry on the new law, and already the insurance companies are finding wriggle room, their lawyers gearing up for the challenge. That's one way to ensure profits over the next several years, which is, after all, the whole point of free market capitalism.

Tell me again who the real villains are, Mr. Johnson.

And then, members of Congress, tell me again why a single payer system was never even considered.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Jamie Dedes

Other Mothers' Children

In Near Eastern places once held sacred
The sky is bright with rocket glare and
Other mothers’ children stare unseeing
From shattered hovels, no sweet, wet
Baby kisses from blistered lips with songs unsung
No family portraits to dust and treasure, just bodies
Some other mothers’ children rotting in the dust
Frozen moments of horror framed in blood
Limbs cracked and broken, bellies torn
Faces purpled, hearts stopped
Collateral damage, primary pain

--Jamie Dedes

(Published at Poets Against the War.)

Rogue Elephants

Here's an embarrassing fact: people in other countries know more about how our government works than people in this country know about how other governments operate. That's one of the lessons I've learned by visiting Watching America. Given the bellicosity of the US over the years, I suspect such knowledge is necessary as a matter of survival, but I'm still amazed at the depth of that knowledge and the astuteness of the analyses which accompany it.

This opinion column from Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung provides a classic example. The subject is the GOP response to the passage of the health care reform bill and is titled "Enraged Elephants."

But into the history books will also go the last fourteen months, during which Americans were witness to an unprecedented battle. Compared to the populist propaganda attacks launched by conservatives in and around America’s Tea Party movement, our little verbal skirmishes between coalition partners in the Berlin government look almost like peace talks. Republicans now attack the reforms like a herd of enraged elephants (in line with their party’s mascot) gone off the deep end.

Obama the tyrant, opposing the will of the people; the socialist who wants to turn America into a communist country. There were no comparisons so crude that opponents of health care reform wouldn’t stoop to using to demonize Democrats and their reform initiative. Right up to the actual vote, Republican representatives agitated against it; now that it’s been passed, their opposition continues. At least ten states, some with Democratic governors, now plan to challenge the new law in court.


The shrill Tea Party movement had a lot of success, and representatives got a taste of their displeasure in town hall meetings. But in the end, mobilizing their rage didn’t work. The bill was signed into law and thereby became a huge problem for Republicans: What happens if people start realizing over time that all the sky-is-falling rhetoric used by the conservatives hasn’t come true? What happens if America doesn’t magically change into communist China as promised? What happens if more Americans get healthy and stay that way?


The more Republicans try to demonize the new law in the run-up to the November elections, the more they will come off looking like sore losers. It’s also doubtful that public anger over the law will last that long — especially if the apocalyptic prediction from Republicans that it will spell the end of the United States doesn’t materialize. If the economic picture begins to brighten at all, anger against the Obama administration will be short-lived. Many say conservative opposition will start collapsing as soon as people start seeing their health care situation improving. The stubborn patriots Republicans depicted themselves as could soon start looking like mere naysayers.
[Emphasis added]

I suppose an argument can be made that with only two political parties, following US politics is considerably easier than following the politics and governance of a country with a multiple-party parliamentary system. Still, the two US parties are not exactly monoliths. We have liberal Democrats, Blue Dog Democrats, DLC types, and Southern Democrats. We have social conservatives, economic conservatives, and moderates in the Republican Party. Complicating matters further is the fact that there is a sizable chunk of 'independent' voters with no formal party allegiance, a bloc that both parties turn themselves inside out to woo come election time. One need only look at the sausage-making process on this bill alone to see just how complicated our political landscape can be.

While I think the author of this opinion piece is rather optimistic about the effect the health care reform law will have on the nation, I think his assessment of the foolish response from the Republicans to the bill is right on the money. They've written a check with their mouths that their backsides won't be able to cash. If the economy begins to pick up and the jobless rate falls, a great deal of the anger felt by the more rational elements of the populace will dissipate. Only the fringes will be waving tea bags and indulging in "open carry" actions. The rest of the country will look at them and recoil in disgust. Maybe then David Frum will find a job.

More importantly, maybe then we can get back to the job of designing some real health care reform.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Lee Judge, Kansas City Star (March 26th, 2010) and featured by McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Elephant Seal

(Photograph by Paul Nicklen and published at National Geographic.)

Civil Discourse: Part 2

On Thursday I commented on the delicate position the Republicans found themselves in, having to keep their fringes fired up enough to vote in November but not so fired up that the rest of the country turned away in disgust. I was too kind insofar as I believed that no political party would actually stoop to racist hatred to get elected in these more enlightened times. I obviously still haven't stamped out my naivete.

Derrick Z. Jackson, a columnist for the Boston Globe, has convinced me that not only am I naive, but also that I was just wrong in giving Republicans the benefit of the doubt as he examines the fallout from the health care reform votes. Here's some of what he had to say in his latest offering titled "Hatred as a Political Strategy":

It was Armageddon all right, a battle between selfishness and sharing. Some Americans who believe health care reform represents a heist of “their’’ resources for the undeserving betrayed their underlying feelings as Democratic congressmen were either called the N word or spat upon, a Latino congressman was called a “wetback,’’ and Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank, who is gay, was called the F word.

No Republican had the courage to remind the rabid that America, at other great crossroads, did put government into their lives. The wealth of countless white middle class families today stems from World War II veteran housing bills that too often, we conveniently forget, discriminated against black veterans along with housing segregation. Surely, more than one tea partier has Medicare or uses a VA hospital. Yet most Republicans do anything they can to deflect responsibility for the frenzy. ...

One cannot forget how, in a last gasp before Obama’s election, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said of Obama, “I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America as you and I do.’’ One cannot forget the level of disrespect shown to Obama in the “You lie!’’ outburst by South Carolina Republican Representative Joe Wilson. Wilson has been rewarded for his outburst with the most campaign contributions of anyone in the House, $3.4 million in the 2010 election cycle.

In the final stages of the health care debate, Palin and other Republican leaders resorted to telling their masses to “reload’’ or get ready for the “firing line’’ in November. Republican Congressman Randy Neugebauer had to apologize for shouting “baby killer’’ when anti-abortion Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan gave his support for the health care bill. The Republicans need to find someone with courage to disarm the rhetoric, before someone reloads for real.
[Emphasis added]

When Republican members of Congress and former candidates themselves engage in the violent rhetoric, thereby validating what stands behind the rhetoric (a racist call to action against those who aren't "true-blue Americans"), and then turn around and blame the Democrats for inciting the acts of violence as Newt Gingrich did, then that party is doing more than just patting the tightie-rightie outliers on the head. It is calling for internecine war, the shooting kind.

I don't think a second civil war will have any winners. Instead, the nation will be irretrievably shattered and the Great Experiment will have failed.

Heckuva job, GOP.


Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Poor Posture

I sometimes think that the center-left editorial board of the Los Angeles Times writes its editorials only after it sees how the readers react to a particular news story. Today's edition is a good example of that process.

The subject is the Senate Republican's dog-and-pony show over the past week while the Senate dealt with the reconciliation bill for Health Care Reform. Nearly every nationally-read newspaper contained articles about the process, including the L.A. Times. Today, the editorial board decided that the Republicans didn't behave too well.

...they trotted out more than 40 proposals over the last two days, about half of them aimed at overturning or gutting the measure that President Obama signed into law Wednesday morning. These included amendments to repeal the long-term care provision, cancel the new federal panels that will review healthcare quality and efficiency, and protect the excessive subsidies paid for Medicare Advantage plans. Those proposals had no chance of passing, but at least they were substantive.

The rest were exercises in political posturing. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) offered amendments to protect the gun rights of mentally incapacitated or incompetent veterans and bar sex offenders from obtaining Viagra through federal health programs. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) proposed to let companies deny health benefits to new hires picked up from the unemployment lines. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) called for protecting jobs in the banking industry that would be lost by switching to a less costly federal student loan program. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) wanted to waive a tax on exotic fuels for mobile mammography vans. And Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) proposed to block same-sex marriages in the District of Columbia until residents there could vote on the issue.

Not bad, not bad at all, I must admit. Unfortunately, true to its "center-left" stance, the board then found the bright side of the whole exercise in Republican obstructionism: it could have been worse. The Republicans could have introduced more amendments.

Oh, please.

If the editorial board really intended to show how badly the Republicans behaved (something David Frum lost his job for pointing out), it should have cut to the conclusion:

...Republicans are more interested in a law they can campaign against than one we all have a stake in.

I guess this is LAT's version of "fair and balanced."

Me, I think the Republican's aren't the only ones with poor posture.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Civil Discourse

Apparently elections only matter when Republicans win. That seems to be the message once again, as the GOP continues their weird attempt to derail the half vast health care reform bill by offering such crucial amendments as one which forbids the provision of Viagra to rapists. The Senate Republicans, however, are at least using tactics allowed in the Senate rules. Some of their fellow travelers, however, have dispensed with the niceties of civil discourse, choosing instead the discourse of violent threats and action.

At least two Congressional district offices were vandalized and Representative Louise M. Slaughter, a senior Democrat from New York, received a phone message threatening sniper attacks against lawmakers and their families.

Ms. Slaughter also reported that a brick was thrown through a window of her office in Niagara Falls, and Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Democrat of Arizona, said Monday that her Tucson office was vandalized after the vote.

The Associated Press reported that the authorities in Virginia were investigating a cut propane line to an outdoor grill at the home of a brother of Representative Tom Perriello of Virginia, after the address was mistakenly listed on a Tea Party Web site as the residence of the congressman. Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan and a central figure in the measure’s abortion provisions, reported receiving threatening phone calls.

Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking black lawmaker in the House, said he received an anonymous fax showing the image of a noose.

To be fair, some congressional Republicans have condemned the violence and violent threats, but not without urging their surrogates to save the anger for the ballot box come November. To underscore the point they even have a graphic of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi surrounded by fire on an official web site, justifying the violent image by stating the graphic represents merely the desire to "fire" the Speaker. Real helpful, that.

Republicans find themselves in the position of wanting to keep the fringes angry and active enough to come out and vote in November, but not so outrageous as to frighten and disgust the rest of the faithful away from making the donations and the efforts they need if they are going to garner enough seats to return to power. They will have a tough time in the containment of that energy, however. The fringes aren't listening to them, they're listening to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, the real leaders of the Party right now.

If the situation weren't so dangerous and so corrosive, I would sit back and enjoy the show. But it is, and I can't.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How To Buy An Election

Real estate prices may currently be depressed, but there's one property that at least one person is willing to buy for millions of dollars: the California Governor's Mansion. Meg Whitman, whose personal wealth has been estimated in the billions, has already spent nearly $25 million just in the Republican Primary, and that election is still a couple of months away.

From the Los Angeles Times:

What should an aspiring candidate for governor do if she has never run a campaign before and wants to nearly double her lead in polls as her party's primary election approaches?

Here is Meg Whitman's answer: Spend $358,439 a day, $14,935 an hour, $249 a minute.

The billionaire former EBay chief has distributed $27.2 million -- almost all of it her own money -- to hundreds of businesses and people in the 76 days between Jan. 1 and March 17, a campaign statement filed with the state Monday shows.

In approximately that time, she built a soaring lead over fellow Republican Steve Poizner and a narrow one over Democrat Jerry Brown in a poll released last week.

Those numbers are staggering, but how they break down suggests that maybe Ms. Whitman just may not be the person to lead a state struggling financially:

Whitman has paid $770,000 to her staff since Jan. 1 and at least $106,443 to private charter airplane companies. ...

Her campaign has been a bonanza for political consultants. She paid 28 individuals or firms more than $2 million for consulting services, according to her disclosure. ...

Whitman has injected $39 million of her own money into her race. She also has raised $1.1 million this year from independent sources, but she paid $531,269 to professional fundraisers, her filing shows -- a high ratio of expenses to fundraising, experts say. ...

Her campaign paid $667,411 to Tokoni Inc., a firm run by former associates at EBay, for Internet, e-mail, website and other services.

While nobody expects a candidate to shop at the .99 Store for the campaign, spending more than a half a million dollars to raise just over one million doesn't seem like much of a bargain. Sure, it's her money and she can spend it anyway she likes as long as it's legal, but is she going to spend tax dollars the same way?

More important, however, are the facts that she can spend that much money out of her personal funds and that it is working, at least at this point. Her Republican opponent, while well-off, doesn't have the kind of personal fortune to tap that Meg Whitman has. Her presumed Democratic opponent, Jerry Brown, doesn't either. Have we finally reached the point that only the wealthiest of Americans can run for political office?

It certainly looks that way, and that scares the hell out of me. I'm not alone in that fear:

Derek Cressman, Western states regional director for Common Cause, a civic group, said wealthy candidates largely have the political arena to themselves.

"I do feel like our elections are now out of striking distance for regular people, and the only way you can run for office is to be personally wealthy yourself or be really well-connected to rich people," he said.
[Emphasis added]

Ms. Whitman justifies the expenditures by noting that people just don't know her and California is a big state, requiring lots of travel and lots of television commercials to introduce herself. Of course people don't know her. She's never run for office before. Hell, she couldn't even be bothered to vote in most elections this past decade and hasn't shown any sense of civic engagement at any level.

Well, if nothing else, she certainly is qualified as the poster child for what is wrong with our election system, one that is in dire need of some correction if democracy is to finally take hold in this country. Reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine and the passage of a public financing of elections bill could conceivably put an end to the purchase of elections, but what do I know. I'm not even a millionaire.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Those Sneaky Democrats

Tucked in the health care reform bill passed Sunday evening by the House of Representatives was a measure not in any way connected to health care access. Those sneaky critters in the House approved a measure to cut out the middlemen (i.e., the banksters) from the federal student loan program.

From the Los Angeles Times:

The federal government is moving toward the most sweeping overhaul of college financial aid in decades.

The House of Representatives voted for the measure as part of its passage of healthcare legislation Sunday.

Under the proposal, private lenders would no longer make federally subsidized student loans. Instead, the government would make all such loans itself, instead of only some as it does now.

Eliminating the middleman would save the government an estimated $61 billion over the next decade. About $36 billion of that would be used to increase so-called Pell grants for lower-income students. The legislation also allocates $2.5 billion to historically black colleges, $2 billion to community colleges and at least $10 billion to reduce the federal deficit.
[Emphasis added]

The savings comes from the service contracts paid the banks for making the federally subsidized and guaranteed loans. I guess some in government are finally learning that outsourcing not only doesn't save the taxpayers, it costs a lot more over the long run (something we're discovering with Medicare Advantage as well).

What is especially gratifying is that the money saved is being poured back into education, with a bit set aside to reduce the federal deficit. What's not to like? Well, the banks certainly don't like it, and lobbied hard to defeat the bill and will continue their efforts this week in the Senate which still has to vote on it. Their argument? They will have to layoff people, thereby increasing unemployment. For those unfortunate enough to face that eventuality I would simply suggest that they consider applying for the same job with the government. It's going to need some folks to process those Pell Grant applications.

We're not home free yet on this bill, however. We still have to get the Senate onboard, which, given the nature of the world's most exclusive country club, may not be a walk in the park. A little pressure from constituents, however, just might help.


Monday, March 22, 2010

It Ain't Over Yet

The unusual Sunday proceedings by the House of Representatives was a long,drawn out affair, but in the end the Democrats prevailed and voted for health care reform. The drama was high throughout the day because it appears that right up to the last moment it wasn't really a given that Speaker Nancy Pelosi had the votes to pass the bill. It was a grim reminder that making legislative sausage is sometimes very difficult and very ugly.

And what did we get after all the high drama? Certainly not an ideal bill, or even one that, as it stands, will help many people. And the reason for that is clear enough to even the center-left editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, although I'm not so certain that this editorial consciously set out what the bill is all about.

The House vote Sunday to send a comprehensive healthcare reform bill to President Obama's desk put the United States on a path toward universal health insurance, a goal that had eluded reformers since then-presidential candidate Teddy Roosevelt called for all workers to have coverage in 1912. It may prove to be the signal accomplishment of Obama's administration, even though the controversy surrounding it threatens to end his party's majority in Congress. Rarely has such a good thing for Americans been perceived by so many as a threat to their livelihood and liberty. [Emphasis added]

The new bill isn't about universal health care access, which is what the nation needs, it's about universal health insurance. The two concepts are not the same, and aren't really connected in this context except tangentially. Under this bill, private, for-profit insurance companies will provide the coverage, but without any firm control over the prices consumers will have to pay, especially for policies covering pre-existing conditions. It will be the insurance industry which will decide what treatment is acceptable for any given condition, with its eyes ever on the bottom line. Anthem Blue Cross will decide whether you get to see a specialist and then decide whether to pay for the treatment recommended. About the only thing the government will do is make certain any federal funding involved in the low-income policies won't be spent on abortions.

The bill is a boon for the money-making insurance industry, but for the consumer, eh, not so much. Still, as the editorial points out, it's a start.

We hope Congress keeps the reform moving forward, not backward. Although the measure attempts to improve the efficiency and quality of care, lawmakers will need to do more to restrain costs and provide more options for low-priced coverage. Nevertheless, the bill takes a big step toward solving the problems threatening the U.S. healthcare system. The path to a sustainable healthcare system is long and complex; Sunday's vote was a good start.

Will this be enough to dilute the call to roust Democrats in November? Maybe. It all depends on whether the economy picks up enough steam to put people back to work. It will also depend on whether the Democrats are strong enough to consider and pass a bill which adds the public option to the mix as the next step. That will at least encourage the liberal wing of the party to roll back their promises to sit this election out as a protest.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Langston Hughes


Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
To stand
On my two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I'm dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow's bread.

Is a strong seed
In a great need.

I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.

Langston Hughes

An Overlooked Anniversary

I found it quite odd that the American media let pass the anniversary of the commencement of the misbegotten and illegal war in Iraq this past week. We're now in the eighth year of the mess, American troops are still there, Americans and Iraqis are still dying, and yet almost nothing to note the anniversary came across my admittedly aging radar screen.

During my weekly visit to Watching America I noticed that most of the rest of the world had ignored the ignominious date as well, most, but not all. Egypt's Addostour was a provided a very interesting and quite honest (perhaps dangerously so) analysis.

And so, the alleged “democratic example” of Iraq is brought about on the skulls of more than one million Iraqis, the total victims over the invasion’s seven years according to statistics.

Strangely enough, the elections of Sunday, March 7th, 2010 are deemed as a real victory for the American scheme in Iraq and an example to be followed by countries of the region. Yet, we need to know which victory is meant here and what this democratic project can be, considering most U.S. regional allies have military inclinations. Why does the U.S. not exert any type of pressure on her allies, even on a formal basis, to force them to adopt democracy? Can democracy be falsely built on the corpses, wounds, culture, security, integrity, and oppression of Iraqi people as well as on the usurpation of their country’s wealth, history and civilization, present and future? I do not know how minds and consciences can be convinced with these lies to the extent of propagating them!

...Accordingly, the American plan goes as follows: the U.S. is to paint her Iraqi example as “legitimate” because Iraqis allegedly took part in making it. Then, “dissident allies” will be told that they shall be replaced by this example, already regarded as legitimate by American people, since the dissidents are illegitimate rulers who faked their victory and assumed power via the military coup d’états America backed or overlooked. In other words, the American rule will be “either to do what you are told or we will repeat the Iraqi example whenever and wherever we like!”

...If the U.S. wants to have democratic regimes in the region, all it has to do is to ask her allies of “timeworn” Arab tyrant rulers to let their people live freely and choose their regimes. Thus, these people should understand that their freedom cannot be secured by America or anyone else. They exclusively have the ability and will to restore their freedom; otherwise, they will eternally live under the illusions of American democracy.
[Emphasis added]

That certainly does sound like the America that has evolved over the past century, doesn't it? It also sounds like the American "allies" in that area of the world: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and, yes, Egypt. Brave man, that op-ed writer.

I am still concerned that the Iraq War has fallen into the rabbit hole, however. We hear plenty about the War in Afghanistan (President Obama's "Good War", as if there were such a thing), but very, very little about Iraq. Like the period after the invasion of Iraq when the war in Afghanistan became invisible, nobody much cares about Iraq, nobody but the families of American soldiers stuck there or the Iraqis providing various degrees of hospitality seem to be interested. It's as if the American media and the American public can only concentrate on one war at a time, and then only for brief periods of time until the next shiny key is dangled before them. Right now the key is health care reform. How ironic.

In a comment at Eschaton this morning, the Kenosha Kid provided yet another reason why the press has gone silent on Iraq. He linked to a very intelligent article in the Nation written by Matthew Duss on the Cheney family's open historical revisionism being supported by the media. I haven't checked out the list of guests for tomorrow's bobbleheads, but if neither Liz nor Dick Cheney is listed, I will be surprised.

Here's just a snippet of that article (which you should read, seriously):

It turns out, however, that being disastrously wrong on the most significant foreign policy questions of the era is no barrier to continued influence in American politics. Even though their bong-hit theories about transforming the Middle East at the point of an American gun retain about as much popular appeal as E. coli, the neocons continue to impact US foreign policy debates through an entrenched network of think tanks (the American Enterprise Institute, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Hudson Institute), publications (The Weekly Standard, Commentary, National Review), supportive editorial boards (the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal) and, of course, Fox News.

But, of course, we are too dumb, or too busy trying to put food on the table and providing a roof over our heads for that table to appreciate just what's going on.

Aren't we?

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Mike Luckovich and published March 18,2010 by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Monarch Butterfly

(Photograph by Hope Ryden and published by National Geographic.)

Another I Told You So Moment

Anyone with half a functioning brain knew that building a virtual fence around the US to keep the pesky interlopers from the rest of the world out was not going to work. That didn't stop George W. Bush (who is no doubt still hunting for WMDs) from demanding it and the Republican-led Congress from funding it in 2004. Billions of dollars and six years later, the project hopelessly behind schedule, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has frozen further funding on the project.

The center-left editorial board of the Los Angeles Times also admits that the project maybe wasn't such a good idea.

It turns out the smart fence was kind of a dumb idea after all.

The virtual border wall, a network of sensors, cameras and radar meant to help the Border Patrol nab illegal crossers, has never worked as planned, and according to the Government Accountability Office, even the tests designed to evaluate it are badly flawed. After ordering a reassessment of the project two months ago, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that she would freeze all funding for the 2005 Bush administration initiative until the probe is complete. ...

Bush believed that technology also could be used to secure the border. Hoping to placate Congress, which scoffed at his proposals on comprehensive immigration reform and seemed solely interested in halting the flow of immigrants, Bush called for a virtual fence that by 2011 was supposed to cover nearly the entire 2,000-mile southern border. Roughly $1 billion later, we have two testing sites in the Arizona desert, where drifting sagebrush and wildlife often set off the sensors. The system is so slow that on the rare occasions it does sense a human border crosser, by the time cameras can focus on the area, the lawbreaker is gone.

It would be great if there were a technological solution to illegal immigration. But it would be extraordinarily hard, not to mention expensive, to develop an effective technology that couldn't be speedily defeated by clever human smugglers. And even in the unlikely event that a foolproof fence could be built, it wouldn't address the huge number of immigrants who cross the border legally but then overstay their visas.

In addition to Bush's missile shield, Obama aims to kill his predecessor's misguided mission to put astronauts back on the moon. While he's at it, he should scrap the border fence too, and focus on real-world policies that would not only secure the borders but deal humanely with the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.

Well, duh!

President Obama has promised to look at immigration reform, but only after he gets his health care reform in place. Right now, that looks to be sometime late in his first (and perhaps only) term. In the mean time, he's decided to step up enforcement of immigration policies by rousting the undocumented people here already. See my post from yesterday as to just how stiff and unyielding that policy is.

A proposal for immigration reform has been presented to the White House by two senators, and President Obama has acknowledged it with a luke-warm announcement that the reform is still on his agenda. I'm sure immigration reform supporters from both parties were thrilled with that bit of news.

November is less than ten months away. Something more than a luke-warm response is going to be needed if the Democrats wish to keep their majority in Congress. Anyone with half a functioning brain knows that.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Justice Denied, Times Two

Here's a real nightmare scenario for you:

A mother of four who spent 23 years in prison for setting a deadly fire and was paroled with the help of law students who believed she got an unfair trial was deported Thursday, just hours after she was released.

Rosie Sanchez, 49, was convicted of setting a 1985 fire to a competitor’s business in downtown Los Angeles that killed a man. Prosecutors argued she did it because she needed money, but she maintained her innocence.

Ten years ago, students and staff at the Post-Conviction Justice Project at USC Law School met with her. They came to believe she’d gotten an unfair trial because she had inadequate representation and they spent years working to free her. ...

Thursday, as Sanchez’s family prepared for her arrival, they learned she wouldn’t be coming home to Anaheim. She was picked up from prison by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and was taken to the San Ysidro border crossing before she could see her family.

Sanchez believed she had legal status when she was arrested, her daughter said. But ICE agents determined she did not, said ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice.

“The bottom line is someone who is in the country illegally and has a felony conviction has very few legal avenues available,” Kice said.

Now, the key (apparently) to this outrage is that Ms. Sanchez's conviction was not overturned, even though the judge who presided over the trial felt she was railroaded by the prosecution and had incompetent representation. She was freed because the Parole Board acted favorably on a petition backed by the trial judge, and the governor (a Republican) did not veto the Board's recommendation. She is still a felon.

And that was enough for ICE. It decided (after twenty-three years) that she was not in the country legally and met her at the prison door before her family got there. There was no hearing, no chance for a challenge to her status: they simply drove her to Mexico and dropped her off. That's how the law is written.

The action taken by ICE may be legal, but it is not justice.

For Rosie Sanchez, the decision is bittersweet, her daughter said. “She’s happy because she’s going to be free,” said Rosie Sanchez, the daughter who shares her mother’s name. “But she’s going to be alone.”

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Day Off For Fred

Even though I have friends and family living in Arizona, I still think that state has a skewed vision of America, and not just because of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his thuggery. The state legislature is currently considering a bill which puts anyone brown who speaks with an accent under suspicion:

Here are key provisions of SB 1070 and HB 2632:

-- Would require law enforcement officials to assist in enforcing federal immigration laws.

-- Would make being in the country illegally a trespassing offense in Arizona.

-- Would make it illegal for undocumented workers to seek work in public places.

-- Would make it illegal to stop at a street to pick up and knowingly hire undocumented workers.

-- Would make it illegal to transport or conceal undocumented immigrants.

Turning all state law enforcement personnel into ICE agents isn't sitting well with local police officers for obvious reasons. Dealing with real crime is a full-time and very difficult job which would now become even more difficult if the police lose the confidence and cooperation of the Hispanic community. Even the Washington Post recognizes the viciousness behind the bill offered Republican state lawmakers:

IN ARIZONA, where the official malice directed at immigrants who came to the United States illegally is unsurpassed, Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill that would criminalize every such immigrant just for being in the state. It's the latest attempt to harass, intimidate and hound the state's several hundred thousand undocumented residents.

Until now, only police departments that have entered into deals with the federal government have been empowered to arrest people on suspicion that they lack proper documentation. The bill, which is expected to clear the legislature in the near future, would broaden that authority and allow such arrests statewide by expanding the definition of trespassing to include the immigrants' mere presence in the state. (In Arizona, misdemeanor trespassing is punishable by up to six months in jail.) It would circumvent the Obama administration's policy of focusing enforcement efforts on undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes and who pose a danger to the community. ...

Inevitably, the bill would mean more arrests based exclusively on factors such as skin color, accent and clothing. That doesn't seem to bother the bill's backers; nor does it bother them that the state's large population of legal U.S. citizens of Hispanic origin is likely to suffer from increased racial profiling if the legislation is enacted. ...

Apparently Republicans (at least in Arizona) are willing to drop the charade they've been playing about reaching out to Hispanic voters, which I think is a very stupid thing to do when the Hispanic population of this country is growing. Those who are citizens, and that sector is also growing, can hardly be happy about the proposed bill and the party sponsoring it because it affects many of their parents and other relatives. It also indirectly affects them as the racial profiling kicks in.

In other words, the Republican party has just handed the Democratic Party a nice gift.

More importantly, however, it isn't hard to see where such a law will lead. I don't want to live in a society where I have to show my "papers" on demand because of my ethnic background or my beliefs. I prefer the ideals of Emma Lazarus:

..."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!"


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Unsurprising News

Confirming the obvious, a report from UCLA's Center for Health Policy Research notes that the number of those Californians without health insurance rose dramatically in 2009, according to the Los Angeles Times. The primary cause, of course, is the increase of the newly unemployed who counted on employer-provided insurance for coverage.

The numbers, however, are staggering:

The number of Californians without health insurance jumped to 8.2 million in 2009, up from 6.4 million in 2007, according to UCLA's Center for Health Policy Research.

Nearly 1 in 4 Californians under age 65 had no health insurance last year, the report found, as soaring unemployment propelled vast numbers of once-covered workers into the ranks of the uninsured.

People who were uninsured for part or all of 2009 accounted for 24.3% of California's population under age 65 -- a dramatic increase from 2007 driven largely by Californians who lost employer-sponsored health insurance, particularly over the last year.
[Emphasis added]

If ever there were a good reason for a single payer system, these numbers provide it. People without insurance, especially those without a job, simply do not go to doctors for routine health problems. Instead, they wait until a condition is out of hand and then go to the nearest emergency room, thereby increasing the cost to local governments and straining ERs' ability to provide services.

But the unemployment rate is not the only cause for the increase in the uninsured. Because of the dire straits in which the state finds itself, Governor Schwarzenegger wants to cut funds for the program that covers poor children, essentially closing the door to new enrollees. The number of uninsured children rose to over 13% in 2009 and will no doubt rise above that this year. Trying to balance the budget on the backs of poor families is deemed more reasonable than raising revenues in this state.

Meanwhile, the Democrats in the 111th Congress dithers, straining mightily to pass a half vast health care bill which doesn't even include a public option.

Hard times, indeed.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Locking The Barn Door, Belatedly

We've been at war in Afghanistan for over eight years, and we are no closer to "winning" that war than we were a year ago when President Obama took office and declared that this war was the good one and he intended to prosecute it vigorously. Gen. McChrystal, the man in charge in Afghanistan, has found his job more difficult, primarily because he isn't exactly "in charge" of all the forces.

From the NY Times:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, has brought most American Special Operations forces under his direct control for the first time, out of concern over continued civilian casualties and disorganization among units in the field. ...

Critics, including Afghan officials, human rights workers and some field commanders of conventional American forces, say that Special Operations forces have been responsible for a large number of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan and operate by their own rules.

Maj. Gen. Zahir Azimi, the chief spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, said that General McChrystal had told Afghan officials he was taking the action because of concern that some American units were not following his orders to make limiting civilian casualties a paramount objective. ...

General McChrystal has made reducing civilian casualties a cornerstone of his new counterinsurgency strategy, and his campaign has had some success: last year, civilian deaths attributed to the United States military were cut by 28 percent, although there were 596 civilian deaths attributed to coalition forces, according to United Nations figures. Afghan and United Nations officials blame Special Operations troops for most of those deaths.
[Emphasis added]

The article described three horrific operations which, because of the outrage among the Afghans, prompted Gen. McChrystal's decision. Still, it's not like the general wasn't aware of the fact that the Special Operations troops have been running amok. His last job was commanding those forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had to have known the way they operate.

Will forcing those troops to report directly to him change things? Will this bring the notion of accountability to them? Probably not.

And this is the "Good War."


Monday, March 15, 2010

An Unusual Defense

Generally, when grocery stores have a glut of a particular foodstuff, say asparagus, they lower the price to move the product out the door. Department stores do the same thing. When a particular line of clothing just isn't selling, the store holds a sale. When oil companies find a drop in sales at the pump, however, they close refineries and push the price per gallon upward, which is what they are doing right now. The "center-left" editorial board of the Los Angeles Times thinks that's just dandy, as they made clear in this editorial.

High gas prices spark more public outrage than price hikes in any other commodity, even food. Although electric car technology is improving, consumers have few transportation alternatives, so it's tough to respond quickly to higher prices by changing behavior. Expensive gas hits low-income people particularly hard and is a key driver of inflation, which hurts everybody. So the anger directed at oil companies is understandable. It's just that the political responses are usually wrongheaded.

Today's problem isn't so much high prices, which have fallen since 2008. It's that actions by oil companies may be preventing them from dropping as much as they should. The combination of the recession and improved fuel efficiency has greatly reduced demand, and major refiners are considering cutbacks, according to a report by Times staff writer Ronald D. White. Some refineries already have been closed, such as a Delaware facility owned by Valero Energy and a New Jersey plant owned by Sunoco. Industry analysts say there is little choice because of excess capacity, but consumer advocates such as Public Citizen and Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog think refiners are just trying to keep the price of gas artificially high by constraining supplies. Some advocates are calling on regulators to probe whether the companies are violating antitrust laws. ...

Every business makes cutbacks when demand for its products or services falls. We could avoid such market responses from oil companies by nationalizing them or subsidizing gasoline, but that hasn't worked well in the countries that have tried it. Rather than getting mad at the oil giants for exhibiting rational behavior, we should focus on being less reliant on them.

Oh, please.

Of course the oil companies are being "rational." They need to keep the quarterly profit high, preferably setting new records each time they file their reports. The only way they can do that is punish the public which is buying less of the product because of improved gas mileage in the smaller cars which they are buying, rather than the gas-guzzling behemoths that once were so popular, by raising the price of gas. The fact that they do so by manipulating the market is still outrageous.

As outrageous as the Times defense of the practice.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Rose Styron


What shall we sing
on the crest of a war
all sense we ride wrong
save the mad boy in power
deaf to the cries
deep in cities and forests
tuned only to praise
from his patriot chorus?
What anthems or lullabies
soon can restore us
after we killed the children?


(Published at Poets Against The War.)

-- Rose Styron

Say What?

Occasionally I come up dry over at Watching America. This was one of those times. I did, however, find one article that showed that other countries sometimes have the same problems with their press as we do. I'm sure that the author of this Le Monde article had good intentions, but his thesis was actually undercut by President Obama about three weeks before the March 4, 2010 publication date.

Where? In the United States, which ironically is the country with the most nuclear reactors in the world (104 to be exact). In 2009, there was an historic swing, shifting the primary source of energy from nuclear reactors to renewable energy sources for electrical, heating and other fuel needs. The types of “renewable energies” that are most prevalent are biomass (wood and bio-ethanol), water, solar and wind power.

In particular, the development of wind power plants over the Atlantic Ocean is a very dynamic process. There are two contributing factors: the multiplication of increasingly large production sites (often with hundreds of wind turbines) and the growing importance of more efficient infrastructure. Furthermore, we also noted a drop in nuclear efficiency due to aging infrastructure.

Thus, this nuclear energy, with its risks and its waste, begins to look like an outdated source of energy, proving that wind power is far from having reached its physical limits. Some American researchers have proven that when wind power plants are constructed in suitable locations, they can provide enough electrical power for more than 23 times the required consumption of a country! On a worldwide scale, wind power would allow us to surpass 40 times our energy needs!

I get that the editorialist is suggesting that shifting away from carbon based fuel to renewables, specifically wind power, is a good sign, one that is essential if we are actually going to combat climate change. And the editorialist was at least partially right that during 2009 there was increased awareness on the importance of making that shift here in the US. Unfortunately, because of the economic mess and because of obstructionist Republicans, very little action was taken on the federal level to convert the awareness to action.

The editorialist was certainly right about the fact that because of the risks of meltdowns or accidents and about the fact that we still don't have a reliable plan for nuclear waste disposal, nuclear reactors should be considered an outdated mode for energy production. Unfortunately, as I suggested above, s/he just wasn't up to speed on what has been happening in the US with respect to nuclear energy.

President Obama announced on February 16,2010 that he was going to include nuclear energy in his portfolio of preferred energy sources:

Seeking common ground with Republicans on energy and climate issues, President Obama on Tuesday pledged $8 billion in loan guarantees needed to build the first U.S. nuclear reactors in nearly three decades.

I suspect that the author of the editorial just doesn't fully comprehend American politics right now, especially with respect to President Obama. Frankly, at this point, neither do I, but it's clear that Congress and the president are perfectly willing to sacrifice public safety to get a bill, any kind of bill, passed before 2012 (vide health care reform).

In other words, things haven't changed much in the US, not much at all.

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Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Tom Toles and published in the Washintoon Post. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Giant River Otter

(Photograph by Nicole Duplaix and published at National Geographic. Click on image to enlarge. He's really a distinguished looking critter.)

Things That Make You Go Wow

Connecting home computers via the internet to collect or analyse massive amounts of data on the cheap is not a particularly new idea. More than a decade ago, SETI ("Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence") set up such a system to assist the research program at the University of California Berkely analyse the data received from the Arecibo radio telescope. Thousands of people with home computers signed up and downloaded the software which enabled those computers to crunch the numbers of packets sent to the participating user. The program operated in the background with no appreciable loss of speed while the user surfed the net or hung out in chat rooms. What would have cost the researchers hundreds of thousands of dollars was done virtually for free. This program is still operating.

The concept is a workable one, and there are all sorts of research programs which have such projects. The latest one to catch my eye involves earthquake detection, certainly a timely topic, especially for those of us who live in seismically active areas.

From the Los Angeles Times:

If Elizabeth Cochran allowed herself to dream, the future would look something like this:

Every personal computer would double as a seismic monitor. That MacBook at the coffee house, the one used by the guy pounding out a screenplay? Working to detect ground tremors while its user sips a latte. The aging PC gathering dust in the guest room? Ready to catch the next quake.

If Cochran, an earth scientist at UC Riverside, has her way, every time the ground beneath us shakes, those machines would capture its movement and feed the information to a central computer system, creating a rich -- and inexpensive -- portrait of how and where an earthquake is felt.

Such a network could dramatically boost our understanding of earthquakes -- and bring researchers a step closer to an earthquake early-warning system that could give emergency officials vital seconds of preparation as a catastrophic temblor moved through the region. ...

In the event of a huge quake, the network could potentially give areas miles away from the epicenter a few seconds of warning. Shock waves from a quake move quickly through the ground, but electronic signals are far faster, allowing warnings to outrun temblors.

Such notification might allow emergency officials in Ventura to shut off gas and water lines, stop trains and raise fire station doors immediately after a quake hits in the Salton Sea.

Ms. Cochran, apparently indefatigable, has been traveling all over the state plumping the program with success here in California. The program has reached all parts of the world, including some areas that might be inaccessible for various geographic and/or political reasons.

If you're interested in joining the program, go over to the Quake-Catcher Network to download the software and purchase the hardware (which may be needed if your computer doesn't have an accelerometer) for $50. You can also donate some money to cover the cost of installing the program at schools.

Now this is cool. Way cool.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Sibling Rivalry

The Religious Reich apparently is feeling a little left out. The social conservative wing of the Republican Party has noticed the incredible coverage the fiscally conservative Tea Partiers have gotten over the past year and have decided to take action, according to this L.A. Times article:

For most of a year, the small-government advocates of the "tea party" movement have stolen the spotlight from the Republican Party's veteran performers: the Christian conservatives who have long driven voters to the polls for the GOP.

Now the veterans are stealing the tea partyers lines.

In news releases, mission statements and interviews, prominent social conservatives increasingly are using the small-government rhetoric popular with the tea party activists and long used by economic conservatives -- but with a religious bent. ...

"The reason why social conservatives and economic conservatives can play well together . . . is the guy who wants to go to church all day just wants to be left alone. So does the guy who wants to play with his gun all day, and the guy who wants to make money all day," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. "They don't agree on how to spend their time, but they do agree on their central issue: They want to be left alone."

Left alone, but certainly not left behind, apparently. Like the only child suddenly confronted with a new baby sister, the Religious Reich wants some of the attention. It also wants politicians to remember who knocked on doors and gathered voters for them during the last two decades. The recent CPAC meeting must have given social conservatives a real wake-up call.

Still, social issues took a back seat to talk of constitutional principles and government spending at the podium at last month's Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual showcase of the right.

Of the two likely Republican presidential contenders who spoke at the event, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made virtually no mention of social issues, a noted departure from a past CPAC appearance. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty noted briefly that "God is in charge" while focusing most of his remarks on his work cutting spending in his state.

Does this mean that the two groups will meld seamlessly and unite the GOP in time for the November elections? Not exactly, at least not at this point. The Tea Partiers are enjoying the limelight and the big brotherish Religious Reich wants to put the interlopers in their place if they expect him to play nicely with them, although the big brother has changed the metaphor on the issue:

Ken Blackwell, a research fellow at the Family Research Council who has also been active in the tea party movement in Ohio, is among those who see tea partyers as the "younger siblings" in the movement.

Social conservatives are happy to embrace the economic message and those carrying it under the tea party banner "as long as they don't start advocating against traditional marriage or for abortion," Blackwell said, putting the tea parties in their place.

"The sibling is not now the parent," he said.

Tea party leaders, too, have drawn their lines in the sand.

"We've let things like social issues distract us," said Jenny Beth Martin, a founder of the online umbrella group Tea Party Patriots. Her group does not wade into the issues of abortion or marriage. "You know what's the most important social issue today? Putting food on the table."

This is going to be fun to watch, although it may turn out to be the only fun thing in the run-up to November if a real jobs bill doesn't get produced by Congress.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Half A Loaf

One of my pet peeves with Congress is the use of "earmarks", a process by which a pet project is inserted as an amendment to a bill, usually at the last possible moment before a floor vote, thereby by-passing the usual budgetary procedure. That's how Alaska got that "bridge to nowhere" some years back. The earmark usually benefits some company that made a rather sizable campaign donation to the congress critter offering the amendment. Members of Congress usually defend their earmarks as being a way to bring jobs to their constituents, that's it's within that sanctified practice known as bringing home the pork. I still object to it as a form of no-bid contract.

Apparently House Democrats, feeling the heat of ethics investigations into several members of the caucus, agree that earmarks are trouble, especially during a period of budget deficits.

From the NY Times:

Both parties are seeking to claim the ethical high ground on the issue by racing to rein in a budgeting practice that has become rife with political influence peddling. So far, though, the Senate is not joining in. House Democrats had tried to reach an agreement with their counterparts to ban for-profit earmarks, but the senators balked, Congressional officials said.

Had the ban on for-profit earmarks been in place last year, it would have meant the elimination of about 1,000 awards worth a total of about $1.7 billion, leaders of the House Appropriations Committee said in announcing that, as a matter of policy, they will no longer approve requests for awards to for-profit groups. Many of those earmarks went to military contractors for projects in lawmakers’ home districts.

Under the new restrictions, not-for-profit institutions like schools and colleges, state and local governments, research groups, social service centers and others are still free to receive earmarks. The new restrictions, for example, would still allow the type of award to local governmental agencies that became infamous in 2005 with Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere.” ...

The practice of inserting earmarks into spending bills, once used fairly sparingly by Congress as a way of imposing its budget priorities on the executive branch, has mushroomed, with lobbyists competing for the attention of committee members who control the money. Congress, which can award no-bid contracts at its discretion, doled out nearly $16 billion in awards last fiscal year.
[Emphasis added]

Obviously, the House hasn't gone far enough because it excludes not-for-profit groups. They too should have to go through the winnowing of the budget process. At least it's a start, however. That the Senate won't even go this far isn't surprising, given its tradition as the world's most powerful country club with membership financed by corporate America. As the article points out, this is going to complicate the reconciliation process even further, although we know who will win that battle.

I have no real objection to pork. Members of Congress are supposed to represent their constituents as well as work for the betterment of the nation. That said, I still think that if a project benefits a district, or a state, or a region it should go through the process, including the debate on its worthiness for the nation as a whole, not surreptitiously inserted into a bill so late in the process that members of Congress and the public it is supposed to serve are unaware of its existence.

But what do I know. I'm neither a congress critter nor a well-financed lobbyist.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why? Because They Can

David Lazarus, business columnist for the Los Angeles Times, pointed out a rather interesting coincidence in his latest offering:

Vikram Pandit, chief executive of Citigroup Inc., thanked taxpayers the other day for coming to his company's rescue with $45 billion in bailout cash.

"Citi owes a large debt of gratitude to American taxpayers," he told lawmakers in Washington. The bailout money, Pandit said, "built a bridge over the crisis to a sound footing on the other side."

And how is Citi expressing its gratitude for that act of taxpayer generosity?

It's slapping a $60 annual fee on many credit cards that previously had no fees and telling customers that if they don't like it, tough patooties. They can pay off any outstanding balance and take their business elsewhere.

Man, if that's Citi when it's grateful, I'd hate to see the company when it's cheesed.

Recent changes in the rules for banks offering credit cards have the banksters scrambling to find ways to keep the profits obscenely high, and this move by Citi is obviously one of the ways chosen. The other credit card issuers will no doubt fall in line with the move (if they haven't already). Is it legal? Apparently so. All that is required is that the issuers advise their customers of the impending change in understandable English (which is, by the way, an improvement).

Now, my first response to reading the lines quoted above was that Citi's credit card holders should just up the card and return it to Citi with a note to place said mutilated card just north of its corporate anus. Ah, but here's the rub:

Linda Sherry, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Consumer Action, said canceling an older card that reflects long-term creditworthiness can indeed have an impact on your credit score.

"You might see your FICO score go down by as much as 100 points," she said.

Consumers are now between a rock and a hard place, especially if they have been diligent in making their payments in order to have the kind of FICO score which would make obtaining a home mortgage possible. A drop in the FICO score caused by a cancelled account may mean a huge jump in the interest rate for that mortgage, or even an outright rejection. A lowered credit rating also affects the interest on loans for lesser purchases (a car, e.g.) and on the interest charged by other credit card issuers, so Citi has a double whammy working.

That said, however, Ms. Sherry still thinks that if people are not currently shopping for a new home or a new car, working to re-establish that creditworthiness over the next year or so after canceling the Citi card just might send the right kind of message.

Maybe the loss of a 10,000 credit card holders in California would grab Mr. Pandit's attention. Losing 100,000 customers nationwide most certainly would.


Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Would Health Care Reform Help You?

[Note: Barbara O'Brien has has posted on health care issues and health care reform for Crooks and Liars, Mahablog, and Alternet. She asked if I might be interested in a guest post. My response was phenominally quick by my standards. I assured her I would be delighted and honored by a post from her. Here is the first of what I hope will be many posts on these issues.]

Many obstacles and stumbling blocks remain in the way of health care reform. The House and Senate bills will have to be merged, and then the House and Senate both will vote on the final bill. We don’t yet know what will be in the final bill, or if the final bill will be passed into law. Passage will be especially difficult in the Senate, where it will need 60 votes to pass. It is still possible that after all this angst, just one grandstanding senator could kill the whole thing.

But just for fun, let’s look at what conventional wisdom says will be in the final bill and see if there is anything in it that will be an immediate benefit to people with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related disease.

It is likely that the final bill will provide additional funding for state high-risk insurance pools. Currently more than 30 states run such pools, which are nonprofit, state-sponsored health insurance plans for people who can’t buy insurance because of pre-existing conditions. The biggest problem with such pools is that, often, the insurance they offer is too expensive for many who might need it. Both the Senate and House bills provide $5 billion in subsidies for state high-risk pools to make the insurance more affordable.

Under the Senate bill, beginning in 2014, private companies would no longer be able to deny coverage to adults with pre-existing conditions, nor could they charge higher premiums for people with pre-existing conditions. Until then, the state high-risk pools could provide some help.

Closing the Medicare Part D coverage gap — also called the “doughnut hole” — is another potential provision that could help some patients with asbestos-related disease. The “doughnut hole” is the gap between the coverage for yearly out-of-pocket expenses provided by Medicare Part D and Medicare’s “catastrophic coverage” threshold.

For example, in 2009 Medicare Part D paid at least 75 percent of what patients paid for prescription drugs up to $2,700. After that, patients must pay for all of their prescription medications until what they have paid exceeds $6,154. At that point, the catastrophic coverage takes over, and Medicare pays for all but 5 percent of the patient’s drug bills. The final health care reform bill probably will provide for paying at least 50 percent of out-of-pocket costs in the doughnut hole.

You may have heard the bills include budget cuts to the Medicare program, and this has been a big concern to many people. Proponents of the bill insist that savings can be found to pay for the cuts, and that people who depend on Medicare won’t face reduced services. But this is a complex issue that I want to address in a later post.

The long-term provisions probably will include many other provisions that would benefit patients with asbestos-related disease, including increased funding for medical research. Although there are many complaints about the bill coming from all parts of the political spectrum, on the whole it would be a huge benefit to many people.

— Barbara O’Brien

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Monday, March 08, 2010

Justice On The Cheap

Some elements of the Republican Party continue to believe that the US Constitution is simply a quaint historical document, one that has no longer has any relevance in 2010. They'd much prefer the philosophy espoused during the last century by such people as Los Angeles Police Chief Ed Davis who, during a wave of airplane hijackings, suggested that the perpetrators be tried right there on the runway and then hanged. To his credit, the feisty lawman mellowed considerably after his retirement from the LAPD, and as a state legislator showed considerably more rationality and compassion. One wonders if the likes of William Kristol and Liz Cheney will take the same route or whether they will they follow in the footsteps of Sen. Joseph McCarty.

The New York Times editorial board wondered the same thing about the Republican Royalists.

In the McCarthy era, demagogues on the right smeared loyal Americans as disloyal and charged that the government was being undermined from within.

In this era, demagogues on the right are smearing loyal Americans as disloyal and charging that the government is being undermined from within.

These voices — often heard on Fox News — are going after Justice Department lawyers who represented Guantánamo detainees when they were in private practice. It is not nearly enough to say that these lawyers did nothing wrong. In fact, they upheld the highest standards of their profession and advanced the cause of democratic justice. The Justice Department is right to stand up to this ugly bullying. ...

It did not take long for the lawyers to become a conservative target, branded the “Gitmo 9” by a group called Keep America Safe, run by Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and William Kristol, a conservative activist (who wrote a Times Op-Ed column in 2008). The group released a video that asks, in sinister tones, “Whose values do they share?” ...

In order to attack the government lawyers, Ms. Cheney and other critics have to twist the role of lawyers in the justice system. In representing Guantánamo detainees, they were in no way advocating for terrorism. They were ensuring that deeply disliked individuals were able to make their case in court, even ones charged with heinous acts — and that the Constitution was defended.
[Emphasis added.]

While it may be more convenient and less expensive to administer Ed Davis's "runway justice," it is certainly not constitutional. All those charged with crimes, no matter how horrific those crimes, are entitled to a vigorous defense because all defendants are presumed innocent until they are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It's one way to ensure justice. The government doesn't get to harass, incarcerate, or kill an unpopular defendant just because he is unpopular or holds unpopular beliefs.

Apparently Ms. Cheney and Mr. Kristol weren't paying attention during their junior high school civics class. Like the playground bully, each seems more bent on advancing an ideology which leads to tyranny, on establishing their bona fides, then in justice itself.

This time the NY Times got it right:

If lawyers who take on controversial causes are demonized with impunity, it will be difficult for unpopular people to get legal representation — and constitutional rights that protect all Americans will be weakened. That is a high price to pay for scoring cheap political points. [Emphasis added]

Exactly so.


Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Jason Sturner

The Pace of Waiting

The sunflowers grow tall
in fields we don’t know,
leaning over the broken bodies

of men younger than the day
of men wiser
than night.

Soldiers inhaling
the light of sunset;
a reveille to the angels.

These men chivalrous,
sanguine; anxious to make proud
their transfigured fathers.

Unaware, it would seem,
of the world’s way of forgetting
and not forgiving.

These men... a man, dreaming
in black and blue. Wondering if the
blood, the pain, is a gift for his god.

Hoping invisible hands
will gather all his relevant pieces
and let his hour be peaceful.

That those he loves most
will conquer this distance
sit alongside him,
and carry him home.

Jason Sturner

(Published at Poets Against the War.)

Some Advice From The Dominican Republic

My weekly trip to Watching America was a fairly brief one because I found just the right article after only a few seconds. I mean, who could pass by this headline: "The Dangerous Rise of American Right-Wing Populism"?

The op-ed column, written by Fernando Álvarez Bogaert for the Dominican Republic's Hoy, doesn't really dwell much on the Tea Party beyond noting that it is a symptom of what ails America. What fascinated me, however, was the advice Mr. Álvarez Bogaert had for President Obama and the 111th Congress after the rocky first year of the current administration.

As a result of the economic downturn, the effects of the crisis and the extravagant aid to the bankers, average American citizens became incensed with a sense of righteous indignation. This provoked a dangerous political vacuum that has already manifested itself with the emergence of the right-wing populist Tea Party movement, named after the Boston Tea Party of 1773 in which Americans threw shipments of tea into Boston Harbor to protest a tax increase by the British Empire. This action marked the beginning of American independence. ...

From June, 2009, to February, 2010, the approval ratings for Democrats versus Republicans fell from +17 percent to +2 percent.

Although there are only eight months left before the congressional elections, this position could be improved for the Democrats, because even though Obama’s approval rating has descended from 63 percent to 49 percent in the last six months, 31 percent of Americans still blame Bush for the crisis, 23 percent blame the bankers, 13 percent Congress and only 8 percent Obama.

In our opinion, what should President Obama do?

Concentrate completely on the economy and the creation of jobs.

Confront the Republicans for being the cause of the crisis and their total obstructionism.

Ask the Senate to modify the rules that govern Congress, specifically the filibuster, which ends up requiring 60 percent of the senators to discuss and pass a law. So far this procedure has only been used in less than 20 percent of bills brought to the floor, usually for the discussion of complex and important laws (example: the Civil Rights Act in 1968). Currently, Republicans are using this virtually all the time, completely paralyzing any Senate action.

Sound familiar? It should, because that's the same advice liberals have been screaming for the past six months. Maybe the White House will listen if the advice is written in Spanish. I certainly hope so, because if President Obama doesn't finally get it, his second year is going to be an even bigger disaster.

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Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Tom Toles and published March 3,2010 in the Washington Post. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, March 06, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Malay Tapir

(Photo by Ken Bohn and published at National Geographic.)

Walking Backwards

Once again, labor is expected to bear the load in saving a rapidly failing enterprise. We saw that in Detroit, where UAW workers were forced to make concessions, including wages and retirement benefits, before the US government would step in and bail out the automakers. No such concessions, however, were required of bank executives before their employers received TARP monies. The people who brought us the economic disaster, after all, had contracts. So did the assembly line workers at GM, but apparently that was different.

The latest failing enterprise of note is the City of Los Angeles, which is facing a nearly half-billion dollar budget deficit for this year and an even larger one next year. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has already promised to lay off 4,000 city employees (see my post here), even though the move will adversely affect the providing of services such as open libraries. The mayor isn't finished, however. He wants the city's union workers to agree to a 10% pay cut so that the sacrifice can be shared.

Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten thinks this is a terrific idea. Now Tim Rutten is a bright enough man, but I've found that his columns fall into two categories: those that show a grasp of the issue and those that suggests he suffers from cranio-rectal inversion. This column falls into the latter category.

As mayoral Chief of Staff Jeff Carr puts it, "It's simply a math problem: There's a $485-million deficit, and no matter what some people say, there's just not that much bureaucracy or waste to cut. So, to close the gap, you need to make massive layoffs, draconian cuts in services or get significant concessions from labor -- or some combination of those things." ...

Not long ago, Villaraigosa told a group of business leaders that he saw "no scenario where the city survives without layoffs or some concessions by the city unions." In that and other conversations, he said he would ask the unions to take pay cuts of between 5% and 10% in the coming year. "We can minimize layoffs if employees agree to a cut," he said. ...

What's required is a labor coalition, including police officers and firefighters, willing to put voluntary wage concessions on the table. If that were to occur, Carr said Friday, the mayor's team would begin rewriting the proposed budget and demanding similar concessions from elected officials and nonunionized staff.
[Emphasis added]

Tim Rutten is just fine with that. In fact, he thinks that's a smashing idea because California has been so good to unions. Evidence of that is in the fact that California is one of the few states in which union membership is on the rise. What he doesn't seem to understand is that the unions have increased their membership because the state has been such fertile ground. Workers have joined unions because no one in the government sector was looking out for their interests.

Now the City of Los Angeles wants the unions to step up and voluntarily be the first to sacrifice so that maybe elected officials and department heads will be guilted into making a similar sacrifice. Union members are being asked to walk backwards, away from their union contracts. The problem with that is walking backwards makes it easier to get stabbed in the back, something Mr. Rutten doesn't seem to understand.

I wonder how Mr. Rutten breathes with his head located where it is in this column.

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Friday, March 05, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Domestic Terrorism

Once again I had to go to a foreign newspaper to get information on this country. This time the article is from England's The Guardian. The article is a summary of a report on right wing extremist groups prepared by the Southern Poverty Law Center, so I went to the primary source.

The radical right caught fire last year, as broad-based populist anger at political, demographic and economic changes in America ignited an explosion of new extremist groups and activism across the nation.

Hate groups stayed at record levels — almost 1,000 — despite the total collapse of the second largest neo-Nazi group in America. Furious anti-immigrant vigilante groups soared by nearly 80%, adding some 136 new groups during 2009. And, most remarkably of all, so-called "Patriot" groups — militias and other organizations that see the federal government as part of a plot to impose “one-world government” on liberty-loving Americans — came roaring back after years out of the limelight.

The anger seething across the American political landscape — over racial changes in the population, soaring public debt and the terrible economy, the bailouts of bankers and other elites, and an array of initiatives by the relatively liberal Obama Administration that are seen as "socialist" or even "fascist" — goes beyond the radical right. The "tea parties" and similar groups that have sprung up in recent months cannot fairly be considered extremist groups, but they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism.
[Emphasis added]

I suppose there are several reasons why I didn't see much on this latest report from SPLC. First, the growth of these groups detailed in the report isn't exactly breaking news. We've seen still photos and videos of the "patriotic groups" on the front pages and across the internet, nearly all of which show men (mostly) proudly wearing their sidearms or hoisting rifles and shotguns. No paper of record or television news site, however, mention the increase in potential for violence by the numbers. That's why the SPLC report is so useful.

Second, and even more revealing, is the fact that at least one news group, Fox, has been openly promoting the Tea Partiers and their events. While I agree that tagging the Tea Party with the label "extremist" is unfair, many of their ideas and ideals come from extremist rhetoric:

As the movement has exploded, so has the reach of its ideas, aided and abetted by commentators and politicians in the ostensible mainstream. While in the 1990s, the movement got good reviews from a few lawmakers and talk-radio hosts, some of its central ideas today are being plugged by people with far larger audiences like FOX News’ Glenn Beck and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn). Beck, for instance, re-popularized a key Patriot conspiracy theory — the charge that FEMA is secretly running concentration camps — before finally “debunking” it.

Last year also experienced levels of cross-pollination between different sectors of the radical right not seen in years. Nativist activists increasingly adopted the ideas of the Patriots; racist rants against Obama and others coursed through the Patriot movement; and conspiracy theories involving the government appeared in all kinds of right-wing venues. A good example is the upcoming Second Amendment March in Washington, D.C. The website promoting the march is topped by a picture of a colonial militiaman, and key supporters include Larry Pratt, a long-time militia enthusiast with connections to white supremacists, and Richard Mack, a conspiracy-mongering former sheriff associated with the Patriot group Oath Keepers.
[Emphasis added]

I don't know which disturbs me more: the fact that these groups are on the rise and cooperating with each other, or the fact that we have lost an objective media which would inform the public on just what is happening in this country.

I do know this, however: we are in for some dangerous times.

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