Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Field Work

The California governor's race has been a weird one this time around, weird and disappointing. While gazillionaire Meg Whitman has been omnipresent on television since she announced her candidacy, Jerry Brown has been practically invisible. She has spent millions of her own money to make certain people see her at least a dozen times a day. Jerry Brown doesn't have millions, either of his own money or from campaign donors, so he's held off on such expenditures. The Republican should be light years ahead at this point, but polls suggest a dead heat. Like I said, it's been a weird campaign season so far.

Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect has been a guest columnist this summer for the Los Angeles Times and in today's column suggests why Jerry Brown has been able to hold his own so far.

...Brown has been no more than intermittently visible this year, husbanding his limited funds for an autumnal media blitz. Meg Whitman, by contrast, has bought into every media market known to humankind. By the normal rules of politics, she should have opened a lead on the late-starting Brown. But by the measure of almost every poll, she hasn't.

Part of the reason for that is California's union movement, which has put up ads and begun its field program earlier than ever this year to counter Whitman's spending advantage. As Seema Mehta reported in Monday's Times, labor has already spent $14 million on advertising and getting its ground game in place.
[Emphasis added]

While the advertising spending is important, more important has been the field work which the unions have done in an attempt to get blue collar workers to the polls for an election which traditionally gets ignored by too many voters.

The conventional wisdom on midterm elections is that turnout is always going to be low. State Democrats, however, are confident they can change that, chiefly because California is home to the most politically potent labor movement in the nation, with a strong record of turning out Latino voters for Democratic candidates and causes. Since the mid-'90s, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the SEIU have excelled at getting Latino voters to the polls. This year, they are funding ads in the Spanish-language media assailing what they term Whitman's "two-faced" position on immigration — her hard-line position during the Republican primary and her more sunny rhetoric since. On this key issue, they assert, she cannot be trusted. They are carrying that message door to door in Latino neighborhoods throughout the state. [Emphasis added]

It's been a rough year for labor all across the nation, with lock-outs, lay-offs, and dismissals even by companies showing profits. It's been particularly rough in California where unemployment continues above 10% statewide. Complicating the picture here has been a Republican governor who has been using and abusing state employees with furloughs, pay cuts, and the threat of federal minimum wages being imposed to extort retirement concessions so that he can balance the budget on their backs rather than raise taxes on the wealthiest of citizens. I would hope that the unions are also taking that message to the blue collar workers of all ethnicities as well.

Now, if we can just wake Jerry Brown up ...

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Less Is More

File this story in the "Be Careful What You Wish For" bin. A politician is running for the US Senate on a platform which promises to reduce the budget deficit by cutting back on pork for his own state.

Joe Miller, the surprise leader in Alaska's unresolved Republican Senate primary, said Sunday that the growing national debt requires a "belt tightening" that should include cutting back on federal dollars that his state receives.

Miller's holds that position, articulated throughout his campaign against incumbent GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, despite Alaska's historic reliance on federal resources, needed to develop the vast territory of the young state.

Now, this sounds terrific in the abstract, especially coming from a candidate whose state became a symbol of wasteful government spending with its "Bridge To Nowhere" a few years back. The late Sen. Ted Stevens was a master at bringing pork home to Alaska, and the current senator, Lisa Murkowski, was rapidly developing those skills during her term. Mr. Miller sounds like he wants to be a reformer in that respect, and one can't help but admire such a stance, at least up to a point.

That said, however, one also should keep in mind just what is going on here. Mr. Miller, backed by the Tea Party and by Sarah Palin, really wants the federal government to butt out completely. His target isn't just bridges which don't connect populated or popular places, it's any federal money which comes with federal strings. That would, of course, include such things as Medicaid, education, highway funds, welfare, job development funds and any other program which the Galtian libertarians eschew.

Oh, I'm sure Mr. Miller doesn't want any cuts in the military expenditures which might remove a base or installation from Alaska. The federal government should, after all, be responsible for the national defense and Alaska, because of its location, is important to the national defense. Any other expenditures, however, should be closed down.

The theory, of course, is that by cutting out the pork, the deficit would disappear and taxes could be cut, leaving Alaskans with more money to spend the way each wants to. Fine. Let's see how that plays out during the next oil field disaster, or the next earthquake, or the next economic implosion.

Now, let's hear from some of the other Red states, those which, like Alaska, get far more dollars from Washington than they send to Washington. Many of the Gulf states won't need all those clean up dollars from the feds. They can clean up the mess themselves and be the better for it.

This is going to be kind of fun to watch.

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Jack Spicer

Thing Language

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.

--Jack Spicer

Best Laid Plans ...

...gang aft agley.

Yesterday, somewhere between 20,000 and 500,000 people journeyed to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, to help Glenn Beck "Restore Honor" to the US. The actual number of participants present depends on who is doing the counting. That said, there were a lot of people gathered to hear Beck and Palin and several other speakers give speeches on the need for religion, or something, in this country. Not too many specifics were presented, no detailed agenda produced. So, on the one hand, Beck and Palin drew a boatload of people, but on the other hand, they didn't appear to issue any marching orders other than it would be nice if the attendees prayed and if they tithed.

The much-hyped event didn't seem to have much significance beyond the fact that it happened, or did it?

Part of me would like to dismiss the whole production as nothing more than "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Yet the gathering was sponsored by and loosely affiliated with the Tea Party movement, even if the day was actually mostly devoid of any overt political rhetoric. Now, rational people may argue over whether the Tea Partiers are any kind of powerful, well-organized movement, but the fact is that they have had an impact on national politics over the past eighteen months.

One of the nice things about visiting Watching America is that one often finds an insight into what is happening in this country which is dramatically under-reported in our national news media. This weekend was no exception. Although written before the "Restore Honor" convocation, an article in Germany's Frankfurter Rundschau looks at just how the Tea Party movement is affecting the Republican party in light of the recent primaries.

America’s conservatives are about to face a fork in the national road. The tea party movement, originally an extremely colorful group of individuals that wanted less government and less public debt than the Obama administration was giving them, has become a gathering point for right-wing populists. The noises coming from that quarter are rough, not only against Muslims or a president they hate so vehemently, but also against any Republican seeking cooperation rather than confrontation. ...

...So far, the Republicans have profited from the energy of the tea party movement.

But wherever polarizing issues are taken to extremes, the limits of the “conservative tidal wave” become apparent. In Florida, tea party darling Marco Rubio split the Republican Party. He was nominated as the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate last Tuesday, but the Republicans still have problems because popular Governor Charlie Crist, a moderate, bolted the party and will run as an independent in November. In Kentucky and Nevada, tea party favorites were also nominated but have since apparently begun frightening centrist voters.

The Palin wing of the party thereby thwarts the Republican Party’s strategy of turning the election into a referendum on Barack Obama. They know that their best chance at the polls has nothing to do with their own strengths but rather is based on dissatisfaction with the current administration.
[Emphasis added]

Unfortunately for both parties, I think the op-ed writer has nailed it. Republicans have been bolting to the right and to the downright wacky in an attempt to keep the Tea Partiers energized enough to actually vote for them. Historically, such movements are short-lived. Even Newt Gingrich lost ground after the Contract With America, although he has conveniently forgotten that part of his personal history. Dissatisfaction with the extremism of the Bush/Cheney administration's interpretation of American Exceptionalism cost the Republicans both the House and the Senate, thereby setting up Obama's victory in 2008.

It is possible that the Tea Partiers have actually given the Democrats a leg up for the 2010 elections, although the party certainly doesn't deserve it. Yes, the 111th Congress and Barack Obama inherited a disastrous mess from the prior administration, one that they all promised to clean up with bold and visionary programs. It was the carry-through that was so dismal.

Yes, we got health care reform, but it was mostly designed by and for the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. And, yes, there was that stimulus package, but it was too little to have any real impact on the people suffering the most under the economic meltdown, the average people who lost their jobs and their homes, and who will still be unemployed and homeless in November. Then, to add to the mess, the White House caved to the yowling on the right over budget deficits, so any further stimulus packages are off the table, and even set up a commission to find ways to save money, thereby putting Social Security on the table.

This should have been a walk-over for the Republicans, even though they did nothing beyond fighting every policy initiative presented and thereby paralyzing Congress. All they had to do was point to the cost of the now-mandatory health insurance to the nation as a whole and to the individual voters as well as point to the unemployment numbers. Now, however, incumbents have had to fight hard to keep their jobs, and the ones who were successful in the primary onslaughts now look like foaming at the mouth crazies.

This election is going to be one for the books, or will, if anyone bothers to show up to vote.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Joel Pett / Lexington Herald-Leader (August 25, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. As always, click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Great White Shark

(Photograph by David Fleetham/Alamy and published at National Geographic. I couldn't let August pass without a shark sighting.)

The Right To Assemble

I was tempted to post something on the Glenn Beck Extravaganza at the Lincoln Memorial today. There was certainly enough material to glean for a post, whether in the traditional media or on the not-so-traditional media (the blogosphere). I decided that I probably wouldn't add much to the discourse, so I'm giving the whole matter a pass, at least for today.

What I will say today, however, is that Mr. Beck and his cohort have every right to hold that festival to "Restore Honor," today and every other day of the year, just as the other demonstration, the more traditional one commemorating Martin Luther King's transcendent speech on the same spot Mr. Beck will be occupying, have a right to assemble nearby. It's guaranteed by our Constitution, and it's one right that gets stronger each time it is exercised.

That said, I want to comment on another assembly, one that has been taking place in the area of Los Angeles known as Century City for the past week or so. The numbers involved are strikingly different: not hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands or even thousands. Less than a hundred union demonstrators representing janitorial workers have been protesting the dismissal of 16 workers. Tim Rutten has a particularly good take on the story.

Over the past week, a drama has been in progress outside two of the city's most expensive office buildings, 2000 Avenue of the Stars and the Century Plaza Tower in Century City.

Two weeks ago, 16 of the janitors who clean the high-rises that are home to some of the world's richest talent agencies, financial service companies and law firms were laid off. Their colleagues walked off the job in sympathy, and other members of SEIU, the union that represents them, have been staging a variety of protests, including a hunger strike that ended Friday. They're demanding that JP Morgan Chase, the $2-trillion bank that owns the buildings and paid out billions in bonuses to its executives last year, hire the 16 back.

The bank shrugs off the situation, pointing out that it contracts with ABM Industries to clean the towers. "The dispute is between a vendor and [its] employees, not Chase," corporate spokesman Gary Kishner wrote in a statement. Meanwhile, the city's news media have handled this story mainly as an exasperated tale of inconvenience and traffic jams for people going to and from work, rather than as a story about 16 people, many of them single mothers, who were tossed out on the street by a profitable company seeking to cut costs. It's hard not to be struck by the contrast between that lack of empathetic generosity and the courageous solidarity shown by their 57 fellow janitors who risked their own jobs in an economy with rampant unemployment. These people make $13.50 an hour; the tenants in that building have blazers on which every button costs three times that. ...

Publicly traded ABM is one of the country's largest maintenance contractors, with annual revenue of $3.5 billion. It earned $855.5 million in the second quarter of this year and paid its stockholders their 177th consecutive quarterly dividend. ABM also has the requisite flashy website that enumerates its corporate principles. Among them is "respecting our employees.... ABM treats everyone justly and fairly. When employees are happy, we know they'll do their best for our customers."
[Emphasis added]

For some reason, the press doesn't seem too impressed by the economic injustice so blatant in the story. Apparently janitors and line workers and clerical workers just don't count. They're fungible, a dime a dozen. Those wearing the expensive suits were inconvenienced, and that's all that matters.

And the fact that ABM has just added to the unemployment ranks of California (which stands at more than 1 in 10 workers) so that the bottom line looks better to the shareholders who have come to expect their dividends as a matter of course is just an irrelevant blip on the whole matter.

Maybe this country really does need to Restore Honor, although I'm reasonably certain that's not what Mr. Beck and the Tea Partiers have in mind. They seem to be more interested in re-sourcing that honor from their idea of the Christian God.

I am reminded of one of the laments from an Old Testament prophet: "How long, o Lord, how long!"

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Dicky Wicked

On Tuesday, I ranted about the horrid decision to grant a preliminary injunction halting federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. Yesterday, the center-left editorial board of the Los Angeles Times issued a more rational response to the federal judge's decision, and mostly got it right.

Every year since 1996, Congress has routinely attached the Dickey-Wicker Amendment to appropriations bills, thus forbidding the federal government from funding "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed." President George W. Bush issued an executive order interpreting this to mean that it was all right to fund research on stem-cell lines that had been created before 2001, but not after. His interpretation was broadened by President Obama, who separated the research into two parts: It would still be illegal to fund the creation of new stem-cell lines, which involves destroying embryos, but the government could award grants to researchers doing work on lines created by privately funded scientists practicing strict ethical standards.

The president's motives were admirable, but as U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled Monday, Obama's order subverted the will of Congress. It takes a logical leap to separate research on stem-cell lines from the creation of those lines, sort of like saying it's OK to do illegal research on monkeys as long as somebody else catches the animals for you. It wasn't enough for Obama to issue an executive order; he also should have pressured Congress to strip out the Dickey-Wicker Amendment — or to codify his interpretation of it.

I am not so certain that Judge Lamberth's decision was all that logical, but even I admit that to some extent his reasoning had merit. Congress has indeed continued to shore up the Dickey-Wicker amendment by sticking it into appropriation bills year after year. It's as if even Democrats are comfortable with the inane theories that a few cells equal a living, breathing person and should be accorded even more rights. Those inane theories, by the way, are not grounded in science but rather in the religious beliefs of some on the far right.

Polls suggest that most Americans are in favor of embryonic stem cell research with reasonable ethical guidelines. The potential rewards for those already-born persons with debilitating diseases are too great to ignore. Yet Congress routinely extends Dickey-Wicker each year, including the last four during which Democrats held the majority.

That can be remedied if the White House and Congress actually pay attention and remove the amendment from the catalogue of stupid and evil laws passed because most people aren't paying attention to what they vote on. It's here that the Los Angeles Time gets it right:

The Justice Department is rightly appealing the injunction. Meanwhile, Congress should get rid of Dickey-Wicker, which polls show is opposed by a majority of Americans.

To get that done, the White House is going to have to exert real pressure, not the polite kind the President seems stuck in, on Congress. It would also help if we also joined the fray and dashed off a few well-chosen words to our Congress Critters demanding the same.

Just do it.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Happy Anniversary

I can't think of too many other women I would choose to help me celebrate the 90th anniversary of the day women won the right to vote than Ellen Goodman. That's why I was both surprised and delighted to find her coming out of "retirement" to write a guest column for her former employer, the Boston Globe. She proves yet again that snark isn't just for breakfast, but it sure is a heckuva fine way to start the day.

Once more we celebrate suffrage by giving out the Equal Rites Awards to those who done their best over the past 12 months to set back the cause of women. ...

...The winners of the Backlash Trailblazer Award are the producers of “Fly Girls,’’ a reality show on flight attendants reminding us of the bad old days when airlines offered “coffee, tea or me” and sold seats with sly ads saying, “Fly Me, I’m Cheryl.” We were going to going to send them a pink slip, but the CW network beat us to it.

Now to the Prize for Marketing Ms.-haps. What day of the month did the men at Apple come up with the name iPad? What more proof that they need more women employees? There’s an app for that.

Yet we know, Sisterhood is (Not Always) Powerful. That citation goes to California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, who trashed her opponent, Senator Barbara Boxer, by saying, “What is that hair? So yesterday.’’ Our citation, suitable for framing, says “Cattiness — so yesterday!”

But Carly’s bad hair day was not as bad as Colorado’s Ken Buck foot-in-mouth wear. He wins the Post-Feminist Booty Prize for telling women to vote for him for US Senate rather than his Republican primary opponent Jane Norton because “I do not wear high heels.’’ He went on to boast that they have real bull [manure] on them. You betcha.
[Emphasis in the original]

Ms. Goodman lists several other awards, all of them richly well-deserved, including one for the Vatican. Check it out.

Ellen, I've missed you. Thanks for dropping by on this very important date.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

That Double-Edged Sword

Tim Rutten has hit it out of the park with his latest column. After noting a Rasmussen Poll which notes that 85% of the respondents are following the mosque-at-ground-zero story closely and opining that part of the reason for the interest is that August is the perfect month for such a controversy (a traditionally slow news month unless there are missing white women or shark attacks), Mr. Rutten raises some very interesting possibilities that the opponents of the Muslim cultural center might not have considered.

One of the most distressing things is how rapidly this controversy has shifted from an ostensibly principled objection — the center's backers have a legal and constitutional right to build on the site, but it is "insensitive" to do so — to a blanket objection to Islam in America. Such a slide was entirely predictable, because the minute you impute collective responsibility for 9/11 to U.S. Muslims, generalized expressions of bigotry are rendered licit. Thus, we have organized campaigns opposing the construction of mosques in places as distant from ground zero as Wisconsin, Tennessee and Kentucky. In Santa Clara, a group objects to a mosque adding a minaret, while in Temecula, Pastor Bill Rench argues that his Muslim neighbors ought not be allowed to build a mosque on a site adjoining his Calvary Baptist Church.

Of all the dangerous nonsense being batted about, nothing quite tops a recent piece in the National Review Online in which Nina Shea, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, argues that the mosque has provoked "a heated debate" about the "limits" of religious freedom "in the age of Islamist terrorism." The federal government, she alleges, has a right to "defend itself" against those "promoting radical ideas in the context of Islam." To that end, "shutting down a particular religious establishment — or preventing it from being built — does not constitute barring a religion as a whole.... It could all depend on what the building is used for … [and] the impact of the preaching and instruction that takes place there."

Let's get this straight: The government is going to get into the business of evaluating what's going to be taught in a house of worship before issuing a building permit? Once a mosque, church or synagogue is constructed, government agents are going to enter, monitor the preaching and, if they deem it a threat to somebody's notion of security, shut the place down? (The smoke rising from such an event would issue from the ruin of the 1st Amendment.)
[Emphasis added]

It seems to me that what the Religious Reich has failed to take into consideration is that allowing government to determine what is acceptable in terms of theology, church governance, and worship just might wind up biting them in the backside. Rutten gives a couple of examples, and good ones, but I found another potential for governmental mischief.

A Presbyterian minister is currently being tried in an ecclesiastical court for performing marriage ceremonies for same sex couples during the brief window when they were legal in California, contrary to the denomination's constitution. Presbyterian clergy have been given permission to bless same-sex unions, but they are forbidden to perform ceremonies which mirror those ordained for man-woman couples. While I am saddened by the distinction made by the religion I was raised in, I do not dispute that it has the right to make it.

What happens, however, if Proposition 8 is declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court based on its denial of equal protection to gay couples, thereby making same-sex marriage once again legal in California? Should the state and federal government be able to force the denomination to perform the same marriage ceremony for gay couples as it does for straight couples? Remember the campaign for Prop 8? That was one of the arguments raised by concerned conservative clergy in support of the odious proposition.

The whole idea of the separation of church and state mandated by our founders was to avoid just such a governmental intrusion into the religious sphere. If, however, the door is opened even a little to squash a religion currently in disfavor, the door is open all the way for the government.

The Religious Reich might want to think about that a little.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Horrible Decision

OK, I've calmed down a little. Last night I got the news that stem cell research has once again been kicked in the gut, this time by a federal judge, and I went off like a bottle rocket. I'm still angry, but at least I am calm enough to consider just what this latest bad news means in language acceptable to civil discourse. Well, mostly.

From the Los Angeles Times:

A U.S. district judge on Monday blocked the federal government from funding all research involving human embryonic stem cells on the grounds that it violates a 1996 law intended to prevent the destruction of of human embryos.

The ruling came in the form of a preliminary injunction in a case involving two scientists who challenged the Obama administration's stem cell funding policy, which was designed to expand federal support for the controversial research. ...

The Obama rules allowed the use of stem cell lines derived from frozen embryos no longer needed for fertility treatments that were donated according to strict ethical guidelines. The rules did not allow the National Institutes of Health to pay for the creation of the stem cells themselves — a process involving the dismantling of days-old human embryos that is clearly forbidden by a federal law known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.

The scientists who challenged the guidelines argued that Dickey-Wicker also forbids the use of federal funds for any subsequent research on those stem cells, even if the embryos they came from had been destroyed years before.

The ruling essentially put embryonic stem cell research back to where it was under George W. Bush, that is, essentially at a standstill. We lost eight years of research into the treatment of such conditions as diabetes, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's Disease, and something which affects me personally, Alzheimer's Disease. That delay effectively shuts people of my age out of any benefits from the research, but those in the next generation would certainly have benefited from further research that would be allowable under Barack Obama's plan.

But a federal district court judge ruled that federal funding of such research runs afoul of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment passed by Congress in 1996 as a bone to the Religious Reich. The judge had to use some really specious reasoning to get to that point:

UCLA law professor Russell Korobkin, an expert on stem cell legal issues, said the ruling was "a terrible decision."

By considering all research part of an unbreakable continuum, the decision implies that the Dickey-Wicker Amendment has no limits, which is an unconvincing interpretation, Korobkin said. "It suggests that by conducting research on an acorn a scientist would also be conducting research on an oak tree, because acorns come from oak trees," he said.

The NIH has maintained since 1999 that the Dickey-Wicker Amendment precludes only the derivation of human embryonic stem cells, not their use as an experimental tool. The fact that Congress has not fine-tuned the law since then to explicitly ban funding for the research is evidence that the NIH is correct, Korobkin said.

Well, duh!

Apparently either the government lawyers didn't come up with that argument or didn't present it forcefully enough to Judge Royce C. Lamberth to persuade him to consider the effect of such an injunction on the lives of thousands of people who will now suffer and die as a long term result of his decision.

But here's the real kicker, the plaintiffs in the case have an interest in the outcome which apparently outweighs the interests of those thousands of people:

The case originally included the Christian Medical Assn., an embryo adoption agency called Nightlight Christian Adoptions and other plaintiffs, but courts removed them from the case.

An appeals court allowed the two researchers to proceed on the grounds that the expansion of NIH funding for human embryonic stem cells made it more difficult for them to win grants for their work on other types of stem cells derived from adult tissues.
[Emphasis added]

The two researchers' livelihoods were at stake, and their fame as scientists. Hell, they might even lose out on a Nobel Prize or two if they had to compete with those researchers working on embryonic stem cells.

And so, we are back to square one.

Please allow me one lapse in good taste.

Fucking douche bags.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Over The Top?

It's amazing what a manufactured story can accomplish when the media plays along. The most current example is that of the Muslim cultural center which was going to be built near the site of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Actually, the cultural center may still be built, the hearing process is long over and the requisite permits have been issued, but that didn't stop the extreme right from pouncing on the issue. Words like "mosque" and "sacred ground" are spinning around so fast that editors and producers must be keeping chiropractors specializing in whiplash up late.

The story, which should be a non-story for all sorts of reasons, has given a boost to Republicans running for office who were worried that they didn't sound extreme enough to satisfy the Tea Party activists who claim to be running the show (and who just very well might be). Once such candidate, Rick Lazio, is making the issue the centerpiece of his campaign for governor of New York.

From the New York Times:

At an office complex in the faded industrial town of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., recently, Rick A. Lazio, the former congressman from Long Island who is running for governor, had taken a series of standard jabs against political dysfunction in Albany and sky-high tax rates when he suddenly seemed to gain true traction with the crowd.

The issue was not the economy, or even his rival; it was the planned Muslim community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan. “We do not believe in turning our back on the victims of 9/11,” he said to enthusiastic applause. As the Republican primary for the governor’s race approaches, Mr. Lazio is making his vigorous opposition to the project a centerpiece of his candidacy, assailing it on the campaign trail, testifying against it at public hearings, denouncing it in television commercials and even creating an online petition demanding an investigation into the center and its organizers. “Defend New York,” says the giant headline above the petition on his Web site.

As a dominant New York voice against the center, Mr. Lazio has attracted a burst of public attention to a campaign that had failed to gather much momentum, overshadowed by the money and muscle of his Democratic rival, Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo.

Mr. Lazio has more than Andrew Cuomo on his mind. His opponent in the Republican primary, Carl Paladino, is using even harsher language to describe the "Mosque On Sacred Space." Lazio is trying to keep up so he can get ahead. He may, however, be overplaying the issue, just as he overplayed the issue of then-Senator Hillary Clinton's acceptance of a campaign donation from a Muslim group when he ran against her and lost. Voters were turned off by the last minute robo-calls on the issue. He apparently hasn't learned much since then:

Nevertheless, Mr. Lazio is pushing ahead with the strategy, even breaking what has been, until now, something of an unwritten rule of politics in New York: never to use images of Sept. 11 in campaign advertisements.

Last week, Mr. Lazio released a Web advertisement critical of the mosque featuring rescue workers on Sept. 11 and a television commercial in which he appears before photos of a still-smoldering World Trade Center, questioning where the money for the planned Muslim center will come from, and declaring that Mr. Cuomo, who has defended the rights of the project’s organizers, “is very, very wrong.” ...

Unions representing the city’s firefighters and police officers immediately demanded that Mr. Lazio pull his most recent ad, calling it an affront. Ed Mullins, the head of the city’s police sergeants’ union, called the ads “as irresponsible as they are reprehensible.”
[Emphasis added.]

Will Lazio's over-the-top rhetoric propel him to the Albany State House? Will it put him over the top?

It's hard to tell. Even though 9/11 happened nearly nine years ago, eight of those nine years were spent by the Bush administration working diligently to keep us all terrified that the terrorists were about to return, so terrified that we allowed Bush/Cheney to take away key constitutional rights. If you couple that with the the horrible economy which continues to suck jobs out of the country, the fear just might be enhanced back to the hysterical levels which allowed for the implementation of two totally unjustified wars.

Still, by being so over the top as to use images from 9/11, Lazio just might have made another mistake, the kind which costs him elections.

I certainly hope so.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Bethel Prescott


Gaza child
snow and ashes blow
in an open grave


Veterans Day --
blood-red the poppies
still blooming

--Bethel Prescott

(Found at Poets Against War.)

New And Improved (Sorta...Kinda...)

Election 2012 is more than two years away, but it's already on the minds of a lot of people, especially those of us who have been so gravely disappointed by President Obama's first two years in office. Many of us "professional lefties," also referred to as "fucking retards" by at least one member of the White House staff, had pinned such high hopes on Obama (based, I might add, on his rhetoric during his highly successful campaign) that we were devastated by the corporatist stance of a man we thought was going to deliver us from that evil. Some of us are even combing the current ranks of Democratic luminaries for a potential primary challenger.

Those of us who have tried to look beyond Obama to someone who might actually lead the country instead of "stabilize" it have been chastised with what I consider to be a tired and wholly irrelevant argument. "He may not be all that he promised, but the alternative -- a McCain/Palin administration -- would have been a brazillion times worse." My response to that is two words: Mitt Romney.

Yes, the Mittster.

We haven't heard much about the former governor of Massachusetts, but he has been busily building his campaign for 2012, and I think he will be the GOP's nominee. I know, I know, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have been getting all the attention, all the ink and electrons, but that's because they both are so eminently quotable. I've been guilty of paying attention to them myself, much to my chagrin. But Mitt, who has proven to be a consummate politician, has quietly been positioning himself as the one voice of experience and rationality in the Republican Party. He has, after all, an MBA.

Last week, he wrote a guest op-ed piece for the Boston Globe in which he sketched a brief critique of the Obama response to the Great Recession and in which he offered an alternative plan which would set the nation back on its feet. Well, at least that part of the nation which belongs to the Chamber of Commerce. The "shrink government" meme is still alive and well in Republican circles, so I would imagine his essay was well received.

It's hard to fault the Boston Globe for publishing Romney's screed. First of all, the man is a former governor. Second, however, the paper also quite happily published a response to the op-ed piece, this by regular columnist Joan Vennochi, in which she reminds us that Mr. Romney is quite adept when it comes to positioning himself, and repositioning himself, depending on the prevailing political winds.

Here is just one example Ms. Vennochi gave on Mr. Flip-Flop:

It’s always fun to watch him struggle with his own past.

The last time he ran for president, he was desperate to get voters, especially from the Christian right, to accept his Mormon faith. So, he addressed the subject of religious liberty with exceptional passion. “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,’’ he declared in a major speech at the George H.W. Bush presidential library, that went on to mention his “love’’ for “the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims.’’

Unfortunately for Romney, fellow Republicans are currently ranting about the ground zero mosque. He stayed out of it for awhile, but, of course, gave in to the general hysteria. His spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, put out a statement that Romney opposes the mosque because of “the wishes of the families of the deceased and the potential for extremists to use the mosque for global recruiting and propaganda.’’

Nice, eh? Two flies with one blow. Plus, there's enough red meat for the base-base to get its attention. It's much more effective a statement than President Obama's lame semi-retraction about poor taste.

So that's what I believe our choice in 2012 is going to come down to, and, frankly, I am not looking forward to that election. I'm 64. I am tired of "settling." I was hoping to retire in 49 weeks, but that is looking iffy right now as the Catfood Commission is gearing up to screw us out of the Social Security we've all diligently paid into. I also have nieces and nephews with children of their own. I want a better world, a much better world, for those families, just as my parents wanted a better world for my generation.

I've come to the conclusion that (once again) Barbara Ehrenreich has a better handle on all of this than anything I've seen across the political spectrum:

Alterman acknowledges the problem only tentatively, observing that "one might argue that this [Democratic] faith in government's ability to improve people's lives is misplaced." You betcha. The role of the left should not be to uphold or defend the government, meaning, for now, the corpo-Obama-Geithner-Petraeus state, but to change it, drastically and from the ground up. That may sound overly radical to Alterman, who seems to want "progressives who think of themselves as left of liberal" to abandon even that tiny distinction. But as the Tea Partyers keep reminding us in their nasty and demented ways, these are revolutionary times. [Emphasis added]

I'm in.

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Sunday Funnies

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


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Horseshoe Crabs

(Photograph by Sean Crane and published at National Geographic. Click on image to enlarge. Click on link to learn about horseshoe crabs in New Jersey.)

Jesus Wept

There is a very sad-making article in today's Los Angeles Times. Muslim Americans are cutting back on the celebrations which traditionally end Ramadan because they fear the current Islamaphobia sweeping the US will be amped up by those celebrations.

For nearly a decade, the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno has held a carnival on the Saturday following the end of Ramadan, during a festival that has been called the Muslim equivalent of Christmas. With pony rides, carnival attractions, games and Middle Eastern food, it's a popular event for the community's children.

This year, the center's leaders had a sense of foreboding when they noticed the date on which the carnival would fall: Sept. 11.

This week, after listening to escalating rhetoric over plans for an Islamic community center within blocks of the destroyed World Trade Center site in New York, the Fresno center canceled the carnival.

"We thought it might be misunderstood and create a wave of attacks on our faith and community," said Imam Seyed Ali Ghazvini, the center's religious leader. "It's really just a community celebration that happened to occur on 9/11. …The way some local media outlets are attacking our faith and community created a serious fear among members of this community."

Muslims around the country are expressing similar concerns about the timing of Eid al-Fitr, a three-day festival that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan and is marked by celebration and gift-giving.

How sad that a time for "celebration and gift-giving" has been turned into one of fear because of a calendar date. While I am impressed at the sensitivity of the Muslims who recognize that the date is one which still rocks the emotions of Americans, I am appalled that a nation founded on the principle of religious liberty has reached such a low point in promoting not only that principle but also tolerance for differences.

And so Fresno kids of all faiths will not get their pony rides and will not get a chance to meet with their neighbors of different faiths eager to share their food and their friendship.

And how will the rest of America behave on 9/11? Well, some allegedly Christian yahoos in Florida intend to burn a Koran on that date. Not much sensitivity there, eh?

I am embarrassed by the behavior of those Americans and I am deeply offended by my co-religionists.

And I am ashamed.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Shame On President Obama ...

... And shame on us.

What do the UK, Poland, Lithuania, Spain, Australia, Canada have in common? All have official investigations and/or legal cases pending over their countries' role in the CIA's Bush-era programs of kidnapping and torture. One country is noticeably absent from the list: the US.

And that is a shame.

From McClatchy DC:

Arar's case illustrates what lawyers and human rights groups call a shameful trend: While U.S. courts and the Obama administration have been reluctant or unwilling to pursue the cases, countries that once backed former President George W. Bush's war on terrorism are carrying out their own investigations of the alleged U.S. torture program and the role that their governments played in it.

Judges in Great Britain, Spain, Australia, Poland and Lithuania are preparing to hear allegations that their governments helped the CIA run secret prisons on their soil or cooperated in illegal U.S. treatment of terrorism suspects. Spanish prosecutors also have filed criminal charges against six senior Bush administration officials who approved the harsh interrogation methods that detainees say were employed at U.S. military prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and other sites. ...

The trend, although it's slow-moving and involves disparate plaintiffs, forums and legal strategies, could represent the end of a reviled chapter of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, which ensnared hundreds of detainees with the clandestine cooperation of dozens of countries. Now, some of those countries, led by new governments or under pressure from their citizens, are trying to pry open those secrets.

"This is the remarkable thing: Other countries are reckoning with the legacy of the Bush administration's torture program, and meanwhile the United States is not," said Jameel Jaffer, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national security program.

"That's part of why we're so concerned. The Obama administration, rather than investigate the abuses of the last eight years, has increasingly become an obstacle to accountability."
[Emphasis added]

The first excuse used by the Obama administration for not examining the actions of its predecessors was that we needed to "look forward, not backward." That justification soon wore thin as in case after case the Justice Department under President Obama used the same worn out legal argument to stop cases against the government from proceeding: "government secrets." When that strategy came under fire, the emphasis shifted to the bizarre legal theory that under the Authority to Use Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress, that government body ceded not only its own authority to declare war, but the power of the judiciary to examine crimes committed by the government.

That members of the Bush administration subscribed to the Unitary President theory was no surprise. That members of the Obama administration do so as well is absolutely shocking, especially in light of then-candidate Obama's pronouncements and promises on the campaign trail. Shocking and dismaying.

The question then becomes one for the rest of us. What are we going to do about it? If we continue to do nothing, saving our ire for bailed-out banksters and safety-eschewing oil companies, then we deserve the government we have and will continue to have, regardless of the color of the ties worn by its officials. The "New American Century" will be one in which American democracy lost its soul.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Intentionally Stupid

I guess there really is no way to misunderestimate the gullibility of the American electorate, which I guess would also explain our current Congress and White House. Reading a Washington Post article on a Pew poll regarding, among other issues, the President's religion confirms both propositions.

The number of Americans who believe -- wrongly -- that President Obama is a Muslim has increased significantly since his inauguration and now account for nearly 20 percent of the nation's population. ...

The president's religion, like his place of birth, has been the subject of Internet-spread rumors and falsehoods since before he began his presidential campaign, and the poll indicates that those rumors have gained currency since Obama took office. The number of people who now correctly identify Obama as a Christian has dropped to 34 percent, down from nearly half when he took office.
[Emphasis added]

While it's refreshing to see that the Washington Post has explicitly stated that the President is not a Muslim, it is a bit disappointing that the paper blames the Internet for the distribution of the lies surrounding Mr. Obama's religion and birthplace. Yes, the Internet has been a major source of a lot of this garbage, but other sources have been in overdrive as well, as the poll implies:

Among those who say Obama is a Muslim, 60 percent say they learned about his religion from the media, suggesting that their opinions are fueled by misinformation. [Emphasis added]

I would submit that such venues as talk radio and conservative talking heads on the television have played a role as well. I would also suggest that the "misinformation" might actually be intentionally delivered lies, fed to the speaker by those who resent having a Scary Black Man in the White House, or even a Scary Liberal in that sacred space.

What is most appalling about the whole issue, however, is that any elected official's religion is so very important that a poll was designed to check it out. Nowhere in the Constitution is there a requirement that the President or any other elected official must be a Christian in good standing or even have any religion at all. Yet the people at Pew thought the issue worth exploring and the people at WaPo felt compelled to report on it.

What a shame.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Because They Can

The past couple of years we have seen unions pressured to "giveback" benefits and wage scales so that employers could avoid going under. Big corporate losses have had to be trimmed and the usual targets have been not the CEOs with their generous pay schemes, but the line workers who do the actual producing. One company, however, one that is profitable, has decided to take the same approach with their unions. The Mott’s apple juice plant in Williamson, New York wants union concessions on pay and benefits from the union for a very unusual reason: the union did its job in representing its members.

The union movement and many outsiders view the strike as a high-stakes confrontation between a company that wants to cut its labor costs, even as it is earning record profits, and workers who are determined to resist demands for wage and benefit givebacks. ...

The company that owns Mott’s, the beverage conglomerate Dr Pepper Snapple Group, counters that the Mott’s workers are overpaid compared with other production workers in the Rochester area, where blue-collar unemployment is high after years of layoffs at employers like Xerox and Kodak.

Chris Barnes, a company spokesman, said Dr Pepper Snapple was seeking a $1.50-an-hour wage cut, a pension freeze and other concessions to bring the plant’s costs in line with “local and industry standards.”
[Emphasis added]

Got that?

Because unemployment in the region is high, wages are lower, so the union should back off and accept comparable wages. Or something.

Another strange Tea Party, yes?

"Clean cups! Clean cups!"

I swear I am going to take to my bed.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

California Prospects

Here we are, well into August, and the top two candidates for governor still haven't provided voters with any kind of detailed road map for pulling the state out of the swamp. The American Prospect's Harold Meyerson, doing a temporary stint for the Los Angeles Times, has an op-ed piece which offers the candidates a clue as to how bringing the state back could be accomplished.

Both Whitman and Brown understand that loss of manufacturing is a key factor in the state's economic decline, and they have put forth economic plans to address it. But neither of their strategies does enough to restore the state to its onetime industrial preeminence.

Whitman seeks to remedy the problem through classic Republican policies: reducing taxes and regulations on businesses. Some of her targeted tax cuts make sense, like increasing the R&D tax credit and creating a tax credit for factory equipment. But the massive cuts she proposes to state services will only further the decline of California's aging infrastructure and harm a public education system that badly needs improvement.

Brown also favors tax reductions for factory equipment, and outlines other incentives to boost manufacturing. He also commits himself to major infrastructure upgrades, and he singles out the clean-energy sector as the industry the state should do most to help. Unlike Whitman's plan, his clean-energy program has a demand as well as a supply side: By mandating that 33% of the state's electricity come from renewable sources, his plan would create a larger market for the industry it seeks to boost.

Brown's ideas are good as far as they go, but they don't go far enough in one key particular: identifying the revenue sources for the improvement of our infrastructure and the rebirth of our manufacturing. ...

How can the state, in its sadly depleted condition, make that kind of investment now? One possibility might be a state infrastructure bank of the type proposed on a national level by Connecticut Democratic Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro. As DeLauro has sketched it out, such a bank, by committing $25 billion in public funds, could generate close to $600 billion in public-private funds going to build or improve rails, roads, bridges, airports and the like. Another possibility could be a state innovations bank, which could fund some of the clean-energy activities that Brown has proposed, and could help innovative new companies scale up to mass production here rather than go abroad. Former Intel CEO Andy Grove has identified this stateside scaling-up issue as crucial to America's economic future. If California has any of the ingenuity and gumption it used to have, surely the state can play a role in helping innovative companies thrive here.

As Atrios keeps reminding us, "With interest rates this low it's stupid for the government not to borrow absurd amounts of money to spend on things like rebuilding crumbling bridges and redoing water/sewage systems." There's nothing wrong with borrowing the money (except for California's dismal rating from the Wall Street types) or from pounding down the door of the federal government to push Rep. DeLauro's good idea into actual law.

California has pulled itself up in the past (as Mr. Meyerson reminds us), particularly under former Governor Pat Brown (the current candidate's father), whom Mr. Meyerson calls "California's greatest governor." Funding a state bank for the purposes of shoring up our educational system, our infrastructure, and our fledgling energy businesses was talked about in the past, but the idea never took hold. I think the time for that idea to take hold is now.

The trick is getting the candidates to talk in specific terms about such an approach. Neither seems willing to take that risk at this stage, which is unfortunate. California voters are desperate for some kind of answer to the problems we face.

There's still time for such a frank discussion, but November is drawing close. Hopefully Jerry Brown will start campaigning more vigorously by talking in the specific terms the electorate is thirsting for.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Tea For Two Hundred

Immigration reform didn't happen in the 111th Congress, which was a mistake by the Democrats. Admittedly Congress was busy the last two years, what with the economic mess it inherited, and the full court press for health care reform from the White House, but immigration reform should have at least begun wending its way through both houses if only to keep the discourse at a sensible level. It didn't, so the discourse has devolved to a level of irrationality that is going to be difficult to counter during the election season.

Now, instead of sane approaches to protecting our border and finding a way to legitimize undocumented workers who've been here for years, paying taxes and staying out of trouble, we hear talk of the 14th Amendment and "anchor babies." Instead of discussing what to do with employers who increase their bottom line by hiring undocumented workers at lower wages than citizens or documented workers, we have states passing legislation allowing "stop and detain" for no reason other than the mere suspicion that the detainee might be an illegal.

And, of course, we have a couple of hundred right-wing xenophobic zealots holding a tea party at the Arizona border and getting coverage by the New York Times.

Hundreds of Tea Party activists converged on the border fence here in what is typically a desolate area popular with traffickers to rally for conservative political candidates and to denounce what they called lax federal enforcement of immigration laws. The rally brought a significant law enforcement presence as well as numerous private patrols by advocates of a more secure border.

The tea partiers were urged to leave their rifles in their trucks, which was about the only rational suggestion at the event. Apparently the participants complied, because there was no mention of any shooting, accidental or otherwise.

Instead of gunning for the illegals massing at the border, the participants got to listen to the likes of J.D. Hayworth, who is running against John McCain for the senate seat and who claims that Sen. McCain is soft on immigrants. They also got to listen to the entirely-too-famous Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who played the crowd like a professional lounge singer:

“If I had all the national TV here, I’d probably climb the fence to show you how easy it is,” Sheriff Arpaio said from the rally’s stage, a flag with the words “Don’t Tread on Me” flapping behind him.

Apparently the networks didn't get the email invite from the Tea Partiers, or ignored it. Unfortunately, the NY Times did and did not ignore it. Hence the article.

Well, it's not like the White House and Congress don't deserve the hoopla over a few hundred zealots baking in the Arizona sun. They didn't want to touch the issue, so now that issue is rolling all over them.

The problem is that it's also going to roll all over the rest of us, and when the issue finally is forced on the Congress and the White House, it will be drenched in this kind of nonsense. We'll get a bill just like Health Care: inadequate, unfair, and guaranteed to make our owners even wealthier.

I wish we had a real Democratic Party in power. Maybe next time.

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Robert Bly

Call and Answer

Tell me why it is we don¹t lift our voices these days
And cry over what is happening. Have you noticed
The plans are made for Iraq and the ice cap is melting?

I say to myself: "Go on, cry. What¹s the sense
Of being an adult and having no voice? Cry out!
See who will answer! This is Call and Answer!"

We will have to call especially loud to reach
Our angels, who are hard of hearing; they are hiding
In the jugs of silence filled during our wars.

Have we agreed to so many wars that we can¹t
Escape from silence? If we don¹t lift our voices, we allow
Others (who are ourselves) to rob the house.

How come we¹ve listened to the great criers -- Neruda,
Akhmatova, Thoreau, Frederick Douglass -- and now
We¹re silent as sparrows in the little bushes?

Some masters say our life lasts only seven days.
Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet?
Hurry, cry now! Soon Sunday night will come.

-- Robert Bly

A Sweet Deal

I've been neglecting Watching America the last few weeks because our national papers have had plenty to keep my blood pressure up. This week I ambled over, and I'm glad I did. I found an article from Junge Welt which makes it clear that one facet of our economy is booming: the weapons companies.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published a huffy piece outraged that the US government was selling fighter jets and other armaments to Saudi Arabia. What the article didn't make clear was, first, that the George W. Bush administration had been selling armaments to Saudi Arabia, and second, that the material being sold were essentially upgrades to fighter planes sold to that country 30 years ago. The point the WSJ was trying to make is that poor Israel would now be doomed.

Of course, that is certainly not the case, and for several reasons. First, the Israeli government jawboned our government into agreeing that the F-15s being shipped to the Saudis would not be the top of the line, most up to date version of the fighter plane.

Second, and here's the real kicker:

...The planned deliveries, which have already begun, mean a win-win situation for the U.S. armaments industry: according to agreements already long in effect, the United States unconditionally and perpetually guarantees Israeli military superiority in the region. The deals with Arab states, therefore, automatically assure that Israel will receive additional counterbalancing weaponry, a part of which is paid for by American taxpayers. [Emphasis added]

But, wait! there's more!

The WSJ had to have known all of this, but as a favor to the Israeli government and to the armament industries, they proceeded to publish this piece filled with faux outrage, knowing that both the munition boys and the Israelis would win and win big with this bit of puffery:

In reality, it appears the reports were instigated by the WSJ in order to provide Israel justification for its own armaments wishes. Israel had planned to buy 75 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters -- a model already superior to the most modern version of the F-15 -- but, because of the high cost, currently it can only afford 20 of these aircraft. By publicizing the deal, the WSJ could be trying to toss a monkey wrench into the machinery so that Israel gets a larger number of F-35 aircraft, free of charge.

I would call this a win-win situation, except for one thing. Yes, Israel and the captains of that industry both make out like bandits. The taxpayers, however, aren't so lucky. We'll be picking up the tab for a bunch of fighter jets that our own government won't purchase because they are too damned expensive.

So, we're laying off teachers, people are losing their homes, unemployment benefits are running out for hundreds of thousands of people, but we're adding to the armaments of governments in the most volatile part of the planet.

Nope, no change here. I even looked under the refrigerator.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Joe Heller and published in the Green Bay Press Gazette August 7, 2010. Found at cagle.com. Used with permission. Click on image to enlarge. Really...the effect is stunning!)


Saturday, August 14, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Caquetá Titi Monkey

(Photograph courtesy of Javier Garcia, Conservation International, and published by National Geographic .)

Happy Birthday!

Today is the 75th Anniversary of Social Security, one of the most successful and popular government programs ever. The Los Angeles Times went out of its way to note the anniversary by including two separate pieces in its editorial section.

The first is an opinion column written by Peter Dreier and Donald Cohen which takes a look at the history of Social Security and the crazed fear mongering that went on while President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to get the landmark legislation passed. The authors wisely selected a portion of an FDR speech to show just what was being argued at the time:

"A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing," he said in a June 1934 "fireside chat" on the radio. "Sometimes they will call it fascism, sometimes communism, sometimes regimentation, sometimes socialism. But in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical.... I believe that what we are doing today is a necessary fulfillment of what Americans have always been doing — a fulfillment of old and tested American ideals."

Those arguments against the program certainly sound familiar, do they not?

Fortunately, as Dreier and Cohen point out, Roosevelt prevailed. Now, 75 years later we are being deluged with statistics which allegedly point to an imminent meltdown of the Trust Fund unless we undo the very underpinnings of the Social Security Act. I think the writers have captured what our response should be nicely:

America, one of the world's wealthiest nations, can afford to provide an economic cushion for the elderly and the disabled. By making some minor adjustments, Social Security will remain vital and solvent for this and future generations. Economists say that raising the income ceiling on the payroll tax, applying the Social Security tax to nonwage income or adding a modest increase to the payroll tax could add decades to the health of the Social Security trust fund.

In retrospect, it is obvious that Social Security's Depression-era opponents engaged in fear-mongering, not economic reality. Their opposition was based on a free-market fundamentalist ideology that abhorred any attempt to use government to improve Americans' living conditions.

Just as the early battle over Social Security wasn't really about old-age insurance, current fights over public policy are really placeholders for broader concerns. They are about what kind of country we want to be and what values we consider most important. Today, business groups and right-wing zealots oppose healthcare reform, tougher financial regulations, stronger workplace safety laws, policies to limit climate change, higher taxes on the rich and extension of unemployment insurance to the long-term jobless. The issues vary, but the mantra is the same: This policy will kill jobs, undermine the entrepreneurial spirit and destroy freedom.

But the center left editorial board either didn't read this well-written essay or, having read it, didn't get the message. Its editorial simply goes directly to the fear mongering in support of weakening the generational and social contract that has guided the program successfully for 75 years.

While it rejects the proposal to privatize the system (I guess even the editorial board has learned something from "The Great Recession"), the editorial still lists some of the options which apparently the board considers potential answers to the nagging fear that the Trust Fund is about to implode:

The real options for improving the trust fund's solvency include raising the retirement age, which analyst Henry Aaron has likened to an across-the-board benefit cut of more than 6% per added year. The trust fund board's report also said the gap could be closed by immediately and permanently raising payroll taxes by nearly 2% or by cutting benefits by 12%. But the former would deter employers from hiring, sabotaging the economic recovery, and the latter would have the greatest impact on those struggling to stay afloat. ...

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has outlined several less draconian approaches. These include trimming the automatic cost-of-living adjustments, which some analysts believe overcompensate for inflation; tweaking benefit formulas to replace a smaller percentage of high-income workers' wages; and basing an individual's benefits on a longer work history, which would reduce benefits for some workers by factoring more of the years they spent working for lower wages. Another alternative is raising the amount of wages subject to the payroll tax above the current cap of $106,800. Unless the taxes on those wages translated into higher benefits for the people who paid them, however, the change would make Social Security look less like insurance and more like a transfer of wealth.

And God forbid we engage in any kind of transfer of wealth! That would be communistic, or fascistic, or something.

While I am grateful that the editorial board has tossed the privatization plan on the dung heap where it belongs, I am disappointed that it has also apparently tossed the raising of the cap on payroll taxes in the same direction. I am even more disappointed that it does so using the same tired arguments from 75 years ago.

At least the Los Angeles Times noticed the anniversary, and engaged in some discourse on the issues facing the system. Sometimes half a loaf is better than none at all.


Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Our Very Own Taliban

I am always amazed at the selective memory some folks have when it comes to their junior high school civics class. They remember the part about "majority rules" when it comes to elections, but, especially when it suits them, they conveniently forget the US Constitution's admonitions on equal protection for all citizens. It's happening again.

What was once a moral argument has morphed into a debate over the democratic process and the propriety of judges overturning laws approved by voters. It raises one of the oldest conflicts in the nation — the tension between "majority rule" and a Constitution designed to protect the rights of individuals against the majority.

"I thought the people voted on it," said Russell Wade, 72, who was watching children body-boarding in the waves below Huntington Beach Pier this week. "I guess it doesn't matter as long as certain groups don't like what the voters decide. The people voted on it and it should be left alone. Period."

Of course, the "morality" is still there, and is certainly not hidden by the "majority rules" argument, as Mr. Wade makes clear:

But Wade, who has been married for 52 years to his high school sweetheart, believes there are laws that trump those made by man.

"I'm a Christian and marriage is, like the Bible says, a union of a man and a woman," he said. "I'll stick with what the Lord says. No matter what any court says, I have to live by a higher law."

Now, I don't mind if Mr. Wade decides to live by "a higher law." I would fight to keep him from being forced to marry a man against his will. However, that's not what he's talking about, I'm certain. What he wants is to impose his version of "a higher law" on all of the rest of us. And that I do mind.

In fact, to a great extent Mr. Wade's version of a higher law reminds me a great deal of the Taliban's version of a higher law. Women suspected of unbecoming behavior (like getting an education or peeping out from behind a full veil) are punished severely, even horribly disfigured, as a recent Time cover reminded us. Christians suspected of proselytizing (by handing out food stuffs to the poor) are summarily executed, usually in soccer stadiums to which the local citizenry are "invited."

No, thank you, Mr. Wade. I prefer our constitutionally guaranteed equal protection before the law to your sanctimonious bibliolatry.

Oh, and while your riffing through the Old Testament for a rebuttal argument, let me direct you to the New Testament short verse which comes to mind in dealing with people who, like you, prefer a doctrine of hate to one of love:

Jesus wept.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bought And Paid For

Yesterday I posted on the sweet gigs the CEOs of some of the largest health insurers have managed. Noam Levey, who wrote the Los Angeles Times article my post was based on has another article up today on health insurers and how they operate.

Regulating health insurance premiums is still left up to the states even under the new and marvelous Health Care Reform Act. That's another battle we lost, although it wasn't much of a battle. It was one of those predetermined issues, like that of a single payer system or even a public option, both of which were never really on the table. As a result, insurance companies can essentially charge whatever they want for health insurance in most states because insurance commissioners have no authority to challenge the rates.

As Americans struggle with double-digit hikes in their health insurance bills, millions are coming up against a hard reality: The state regulators who are supposed to protect them can often do little to control what insurers are charging.

In many states, it is the insurance industry that largely controls the regulatory process, funneling money to key state lawmakers and squelching efforts to expand government oversight of premiums, a review of state regulations and campaign donations shows. ...

Since 2003, insurance companies and health maintenance organizations have given more than $42 million in state-level campaign contributions, often targeting lawmakers who sit on the committees that decide how much power regulators will have, according to campaign finance data analyzed by the Tribune Washington bureau and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
[Emphasis added]

The key to controlling the unconscionable rate hikes many of us have seen in the past two years (and can count on for the foreseeable future)would involve giving state insurance regulators "prior approval" authority, that is, the authority to approve or deny premium hikes before they actually take effect. In states such as Oregon, which has prior approval authority, 20 out of 71 proposed hikes were blocked. Unfortunately, only 19 states give their regulators such authority. In states like California, bills to give the insurance commissions this basic tool never get out of committee because those committee members are in the industry's hip pocket, bought and paid for.

The new Health Care law requires that everyone buy health insurance. It does not require that the health insurance be affordable. That was left to the states. I foresee a problem here, and I am not much of a visionary.

Some change, eh?

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sweet Gigs

Feeling a financially pinched because of no job, or fewer hours, or lowered pay? A lot of people are. A lot, but not all. Some folks are making out quite nicely, thank you.

Among the lucky class are the CEOs of some major insurance companies. They're doing just fine.

The top executives at the nation's five largest for-profit health insurance companies pulled in nearly $200 million in compensation last year — while their businesses prepared to hit ratepayers with double-digit premium increases, according to a new analysis conducted by healthcare activists.

The leaders of Cigna Corp., Humana Inc., UnitedHealth Group and WellPoint Inc. each in effect received raises in 2009, the report concluded, based on an analysis of company reports filed with the Security and Exchange Commission.

The pay of those CEO are justified by their Boards and by the CEOs themselves by pointing to the successes of the corporations in doing what the corporations are supposed to do: expand market-share, hit targets, make money. Lots of money.

Last year was highly profitable for most of the country's big publicly traded insurers. In the first two quarters of this year, profits for many insurers have continued to soar more than 20%.

Aetna's net income jumped more than 40% in the second quarter of 2010 compared with a year earlier. Indianapolis-based WellPoint recorded a 51% increase in its profit in the first quarter compared with the same period in 2009.

It's quite clear those companies are doing quite well, apparently because of the brilliant leadership of their CEOs. That's why they get the big bucks. Those leaders knew just how to get those profits in the door. In the case of insurance companies, specifically these insurance companies, rate hikes helped do the trick. After all, health care has gotten expensive. The cost of providing that health care has to be covered somehow.

So, if you're lucky enough to have employer provided health insurance, your boss has to shell out more money for that benefit, lessening the pool for other benefits (wages, for example). If you have a private policy, you have to cut back on other expenses (food, for example).

Unregulated capitalism at its finest.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hurry Up, Please. It's Time

While the Catfood Commission is busy finding ways to save the government money, perhaps its members could look into the way pharmaceutical companies have been ripping off consumers, including the federal government. That might provide some impetus in getting legislation passed by Congress ending what a New York Times editorial calls "Pay For Delay".

Legislation that would end a devious tactic used by some pharmaceutical companies to delay the introduction of cheaper generic drugs squeaked by a Senate panel recently. Its prospects for ultimate passage remain cloudy unless Senate Democratic leaders aggressively seize the opportunity to save billions of dollars for the federal budget and hard-pressed consumers.

The underhanded tactic, known as pay for delay, occurs when a generic drug company tries to bring its product to market by challenging the patents on a brand-name drug. Rather than engage in a costly and unpredictable court battle, the brand-name manufacturer sometimes pays the challenger substantial compensation to delay marketing its drug, and the generic company often welcomes the easy, risk-free money.

Sweet deal: both parties to the litigation win, and win big. Who loses, of course, is the consumer. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that such deals cost the public $3.5 billion per year.

The House has already passed legislation which would end the practice of Pay For Delay. The Senate hasn't really done much with it, as the editorial noted. Both proposals would end the practice by creating a presumption that such deals are unlawful, which would require both parties to come up with evidence that the deal is a real one, and not just collusion and price fixing by the industry.

So, what's the hold up in the Senate? The usual one. PHRMA lobbyists have engaged in a frenzy of activity (and presumably campaign donations). Consequently, senators don't seem to have much interest in a bill that would save billions. Apparently the Senate Democratic leadership is still hoarding its precious dry powder reserves.

I guess the incumbents still haven't figured out just why the public is so angry at them. I also guess that the Democrats have decided that we'll vote for them anyway because, hey!, where are we going to go?

What they haven't figured out is that maybe we won't go anywhere. Maybe we'll just stay home, especially on that first Tuesday in November.


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Monday, August 09, 2010

Another Lock Out

The squeeze if being put on more workers, this time at a uranium processing plant in Superman's home town. When the union refused a contract which would lower the pension rates of new workers and would reduce medical benefits for retirees, Honeywell, operator of the plant, simply locked them out. The union had committed the unpardonable corporate sin of thinking that their health was too important to negotiate away, especially given the nature of the work-place exposure.

...Many workers believe that the plant contributed to their fellow employees’ illnesses, which is a central reason the union is refusing to accept the plant operator’s plan to reduce pensions for newly hired workers and health benefits for retirees.

On June 28, Honeywell, the plant operator, locked out its 220 union employees after negotiations stalled, accusing the union of refusing to give the company 24 hours’ notice of a strike. The union has picketed ever since.

“We deal with hydrofluoric acid,” said Darrell Lillie, president of United Steelworkers Local 7-669, which represents the union workers. “We make fluorine. This is bad stuff. The least we feel like we could have is good medical benefits when we retire.”

This plant in Metropolis, Illinois, has a history of safety problems, so much so that the federal government has had to keep a close watch on the unit. While the company claims that it has cooperated fully with all government investigations and that the rate of cancer among workers and residents of the area is no higher than the rest of the state, the workers aren't willing to take any chances. Given the nature of the work, it isn't hard to understand why.

Here's the kicker, however. The plant is still operating without the trained workers, relying on salaried personnel and scabs:

With the union workers locked out, 152 salaried Honeywell employees have been running the plant and 203 contract workers were brought in from a Louisiana company to help.

“They’re trying to bring in old recruits who have been retired and train them to run the plant,” said Jerry Baird, whose restaurant, Diamond Lil’s, has been hauling barbecue, lemonade and ice to the picket line. “If they remember everything, it’ll probably run. If they don’t, they’ll probably kill us all.”
[Emphasis added]

Cold comfort, that.


Sunday, August 08, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Ralph Angel

Afterward, We May Want to Know What Happened

Amazing. We're all still here,
and everybody's talking at once.
But each moment works against us—we can't
hear everything—and gets us through the hour
in buses and taxis, airplanes
carving the sky, the slow shade of a cloud
that creeps through an open market with promises of
nighttime striking a deal with the daylight.

No. We can't see everything,
but when did looking convince us?
Now we don't want these flowers,
and we curse the vendor for showing them.
It's all regret, the fish on the ice,
the baskets of potatoes and green beans, all
regret, until regret too

is demolished. From the dust and rabble
steel skeletons stand in the grandeur of distance
and glass skin. And today, again,
we've hurried to Century City, but we arrive
forever early, unable to live up to our destination—
neither shades nor galoshes, but
the myth of afternoon.

Perhaps that's enough. Perhaps
it's all true. These designs of ourselves, and the wind,
somewhere else. Among corporate towers
and modular dunes, among vacant, dazzling plazas
we're all just here, and each voice
is a tiny fissure in the earth's veneer.
And each voice calls to us, calls in the spirit of
a beggar with something to give.

from Anxious Latitude

-- Ralph Angel

(Found at Poets Against War.)

Michael Does The Math

OK, I admit that I have a bias when it comes to essays written by Michael Hiltzig, a business columnist for the Los Angeles Times. As far as I'm concerned, he's always right on the money. He's one of those columnists like Paul Krugman of the New York Times who does his homework and puts out the information accurately. Both men must drive the oligarchs, our owners, batshit-foaming-at-the mouth crazy because if people start paying attention to what Hiltzig and Krugman have to say the gig is up for the super-rich.

Mr. Hiltzig's latest column is yet another example of why I hold him in such high esteem. He has actually taken the time to read the annual report on Social Security, done the math, and has come up conclusions which match reality rather than the wishful thinking of the powerful.

The annual report of the Social Security Trustees is the sort of rich compendium of facts and analysis that has something for everybody, like the Bible.

In recent years, during which conservatives have intensified their efforts to destroy one of the few U.S. government programs that actually works as intended, the report's publication has become an occasion for hand-wringing and crocodile tears over the (supposedly) parlous state of the system's finances.

This year's report, which came out Thursday, is no exception. Within minutes of its release, some analysts were claiming that it projected a "shortfall" for Social Security this year of $41 billion. ...

The old age and disability trust funds, which hold the system's surplus, grew in 2009 by $122 billion, to $2.5 trillion. The program paid out $675 billion to 53 million beneficiaries — men, women and children — with administrative costs of 0.9% of expenditures. For all you privatization advocates out there, you'd be lucky to find a retirement and insurance plan of this complexity with an administrative fee less than five or 10 times that ratio.

This year and next, the program's costs will exceed its take from the payroll tax and income tax on benefits. That's an artifact of the recession, and it's expected to reverse from 2012 through 2014. The difference is covered by the program's other income source — interest on the Treasury bonds in the Social Security trust fund.

And therein lies the basis for the pseudo-angst of the rich and powerful. That interest payment mechanism just might mean that we're going to have to revisit the taxation scheme, something that chills the souls of the oligarchs (assuming they have any). What is so remarkable about the column, however, is that Mr. Hiltzig lays out in elegant yet understandable prose how that works:

The truth is that there are two separate tax programs at work here — the payroll tax and the income tax — and they affect Americans in different ways. The first pays for Social Security and the second for the rest of the federal budget.

Most Americans pay more payroll tax than income tax. Not until you pull in $200,000 or more, which puts you among roughly the top 5% of income-earners, are you likely to pay more in income tax than payroll tax. One reason is that the income taxed for Social Security is capped — this year, at $106,800. (My payroll and income tax figures come from the Brookings Institution, and the income distribution statistics come from the U.S. Census Bureau.)

Since 1983, the money from all payroll taxpayers has been building up the Social Security surplus, swelling the trust fund. What's happened to the money? It's been borrowed by the federal government and spent on federal programs — housing, stimulus, war and a big income tax cut for the richest Americans, enacted under President George W. Bush in 2001.

In other words, money from the taxpayers at the lower end of the income scale has been spent to help out those at the higher end. That transfer — that loan, to characterize it accurately — is represented by the Treasury bonds held by the trust fund.
[Emphasis added]

In other words, the rich have been borrowing from the less rich and suddenly their debt is going to have to be paid, probably by raising their taxes back to where they were eight years ago, if not to where they ought to be. Is it any wonder that the private-jet-owning class is beginning to squeal?

The fact of the matter is that even with the shortfall of the next two years, the Social Security Trust Fund is not in any immediate danger, no matter what such oligarchs as Pete Peterson and some of the members of the Catfood Commission have been saying. The Trust Fund is solvent and will continue to be able to pay out benefits for the next several decades.

If we want to extend the viability of the Trust Fund, we needn't rush into reducing benefits or extending the retirement age. What we ought to do is raise or remove the ceiling on payroll taxes being paid into Social Security and Medicare, something Mr. Hiltzig thinks is a better approach. In the mean time we ought to cut off all the crap being trickled down on those of us who actually work for a living and pay into the fund. We need to call bullshit every time someone calls Social Security or Medicare an "entitlement". Neither are: they are both insurance policies that we've paid premiums on, some of us for over 45 years. And we also need to point out that neither, not Social Security nor Medicare, contribute to the national debt.

In short, if the new trustees report gets examined wisely and responsibly, it should put an end to all the current talk about raising the retirement age or cutting benefits. Social Security doesn't contribute a dime to the federal deficit, and in these days of market stagnation and cutbacks in pensions, it has never been more important to millions of Americans. The Pete Petersons of the world should find themselves a different target.

Preach it, Brother!

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Jim Morin / Miami Herald (August 4, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, August 07, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Galapagos Tortoise

(Photograph by Tim Laman and published at National Geographic.