Monday, February 28, 2011

Steve Gets It

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez understands the importance of unions, especially in his life. Because his father was a union man, Steve was able to go college. His father earned a decent living and could put away the money so that his child could get the education he never had. Steve Lopez considered his personal history after being offered an honorary doctorate by the public university he attended, and concluded that his life was enriched because his father always earned a fair wage by being a union member.

Now this might come as a shock to some of Steve's readers because he's had some harsh things to say about the Los Angeles Teachers Union (UTLA). He feels justified in doing so because he feels some of their contracts have been outrageous, especially when it comes pension benefits which become available to teachers at age 59. But, he asserts, he most assuredly is not anti-union. In fact, he implies that the only thing standing between workers and complete disaster is the union model, especially in these times.

I think we need to bring public employee unions and pensions into line with economic reality, as I've written many times. But we don't have to make them extinct. Shouldn't there be one last place to make a middle-class living with decent benefits and none of the risks posed by 401(k)s that are tied to shaky markets?

As my colleague George Skelton brilliantly pointed out last week (he's a San Jose State alum, naturally), inflation-adjusted incomes for the top 10% of Californians have gone up 43% in the last 20 years and 81% for the wealthiest 1%.

Income for the lower 60%, meanwhile, dropped by 12%.

Unions aren't responsible for that consolidation of wealth. If anything, the fact that the rich are getting richer is an argument to organize against the disparity. And to quit dismantling institutions like the state university system that has balanced the playing field for low-income and middle-class students by the millions over the decades.

And as to that honorary doctorate from San Jose State?

I think I'm going to accept.

And in my speech, I'm going to say that I grew up at a time when upward mobility was a realistic objective in California rather than a wild dream.

With no college education of their own, my parents were able, through hard work -- and fair pay for that work -- to take me to the doctor when I was sick, to enroll me in public schools that were adequately funded instead of at the bottom of the national rankings, and to send me to a proud state university system that has prepared great battalions of students for what was once a thriving economy.
[Emphasis added]

Well said, Steve. I wish I could be there to hear you deliver that speech.

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday Poetry: Marge Piercy

(This time for the people of Madison, who have shown the world how it works.)

The Low Road

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

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

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

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

--Marge Piercy

Organizing An Organization

Although I found the right article at Watching America, I could just as easily have got directly to the UK's Guardian, which I frequently do. Still, this article from the "Comment Is Free" column popped right up, and the timing was perfect.

David Karpf wrote the column before yesterday's amazing nationwide rallies, including the big one in Madison (75,000 people at least). I don't think that after seeing the tremendous outpouring of support for the Wisconsin struggle against that state's governor and his union busting drive Mr. Karpf would have changed his essay in the least, nor should he have. His point is even more well-taken.

Like the protests in Cairo, the protests in Madison have depended to a large extent on the internet for messaging, logistics, and overall news. It's worked so far: as many people showed up in Madison as generally attend a football game, which in this country is a very big deal. But in the long run, that probably won't be enough.

But, just as the Egyptian protests were aided by social media, rather than caused by social media, the roots of this fight are really quite different.

Labour unions offer a bedrock structure for large-scale collective action. Governor Walker is attempting to remove that structure. If he succeeds, internet-mediated organisations won't be able to fill in the gap. Groups like can be tremendously effective, particularly in the new media environment. But they can't organise workers in a specific industry or city to improve wages, working conditions and benefits. MoveOn is never going to sit across from management at the negotiating table.

That's where "organising without organisations" reaches its limits: you need to build institutions of power if you're going to confront institutions of power. When the going gets phenomenally difficult, you need courage and commitment to succeed, not just a wifi hotspot.

And that is why this struggle on behalf of the unions is so crucial. That institution has to be protected especially at a time when those who have 99% of the wealth of this country are buying politicians so that they can get that last 1%.

The current outpouring of people power is just the first step. Now unions have to tap that people power for the next battle, whether it is at the voting booth or the streets. More effort needs to be expended in educating the public about unions and why they are so important. More effort needs to be expended in increasing union membership. Less effort needs to be expended on wining and dining the politicians who have allowed the inequities and iniquities to increase.

Move On will turn the people out for you, but only if there is a good reason to do so.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Joel Pett / Lexington Herald-Leader (February 22, 2011) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: Anamalai Dot-frog

(Photograph courtesy S.D. Biju, Lost Frogs/Conservation International and published at National Geographic.)

Meanwhile, In Washington

I thought about filing this in the "Unsurprising News" category, but the fact that the New York Times actually called out the Republicans for their assault on women's rights made that categorization inappropriate. This time the Grey Lady got it right.

Republicans in the House of Representatives are mounting an assault on women’s health and freedom that would deny millions of women access to affordable contraception and life-saving cancer screenings and cut nutritional support for millions of newborn babies in struggling families. And this is just the beginning. ...

The egregious cuts in the House resolution include the elimination of support for Title X, the federal family planning program for low-income women that provides birth control, breast and cervical cancer screenings, and testing for H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases. In the absence of Title X’s preventive care, some women would die. The Guttmacher Institute, a leading authority on reproductive health, says a rise in unintended pregnancies would result in some 400,000 more abortions a year.

Oh, House Republicans will claim that the federal government has no business supporting the killing of innocent preborn babies, but the NYT editorial notes that more is at work here than a concern for the unborn.

Beyond the familiar terrain of abortion or even contraception, House Republicans would inflict harm on low-income women trying to have children or who are already mothers.

Their continuing resolution would cut by 10 percent the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, which serves 9.6 million low-income women, new mothers, and infants each month, and has been linked in studies to higher birth weight and lower infant mortality.

Unborn equals good. Born, eh, not so much. And NYT columnist Charles Blow follows up on this theme.

Republicans need to figure out where they stand on children’s welfare. They can’t be “pro-life” when the “child” is in the womb but indifferent when it’s in the world. ...

It is savagely immoral and profoundly inconsistent to insist that women endure unwanted — and in some cases dangerous — pregnancies for the sake of “unborn children,” then eliminate financing designed to prevent those children from being delivered prematurely, rendering them the most fragile and vulnerable of newborns. How is this humane?
[Emphasis added]

How indeed?

House Republicans see all of this as a two-fer: they get to throw a bone to the Religious Reich, their basest base, and they get to put women, especially poor women, in their place -- the kitchen, barefoot, and pregnant.

Jesus wept.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging

The Grand Strategy

On occasion, the Los Angeles Times amazes me by publishing something that examines an issue with acumen, and then actually comes to what I consider the right conclusion. Today was was one of those days.

In an analysis piece by-lined by Mark Z. Barabak, LAT looks at the fight over public employees' rights to union representation going on in several Midwestern states and finds the real basis for the struggle.

The labor fight blazing in Madison, Wis., and other state capitals is more than a feud over budgets or the rights of government employees. It is a battle that could fundamentally change the practice of politics in this country, with enormous consequences in 2012 and beyond.

By striking at organized labor, a pugnacious group of Republican governors is hitting at the heart of the Democratic Party, which banks heavily on union money and manpower. That explains the resistance from the White House, Democrats in Congress and, most fiercely, their liberal allies from New York to California.

Once the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United granting First Amendment rights to corporations and unions with respect to campaign donations, the Republicans have been scurrying to find ways to cut out the union half of the decision. It doesn't take a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon to figure out ways to accomplish this.

"It's very simple. Wealthy individuals and corporations can still give six-, seven-, eight-figure checks to all the candidates, state parties and causes they want to," said Michael Fraioli, a Democratic strategist who works closely with organized labor. "If you take away unions and their ability to organize … you cut at the heart of our financial support."

And the timing was perfect. State budgets have been drenched in red ink because of the economic freefall of 2008. Private sector jobs have dried up and continue shrinking. Tax revenues are way down, yet ongoing costs continue to rise. One sizable chunk of those expenses go to salaries, healthcare and pension benefits for state employees. That makes them an easy target, especially since many of their counterparts in the private sector find themselves without any of those benefits.

And it is no accident that the fight has broken out in states like Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio.

No region of the country has suffered a more devastating loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs or private-sector union positions, which makes the ranks of unionized government employees — with their job security, healthcare and guaranteed pensions — a source of resentment.

The irony, of course, is that those high-paying manufacturing jobs have been lost for the most part by corporate decisions to outsource those jobs to other countries to maximize profits. Government employees didn't cause the problem, but because they weren't directly affected (until at least now), they are resented.

Also ironically, the government employee unions in Wisconsin have already indicated a willingness to return to the bargaining table on the issue of benefits and to accept reductions in all three categories. If budgetary considerations were the real issue, Governor Walker would have accepted the unions' offer, but that wasn't and isn't what this is all about.

The real fight is to destroy unions, all of them. That would give our owners a clear field in 2012 and forever after. Unless, of course, the rest of us beat this whole notion back to the Stone Age, which is where it belongs.

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Once More Into The Breach

It's clear that most people still don't completely understand the issues swirling around Social Security. One of the big reasons for the confusion is that those who intend to kill the program off have flooded the discourse with half-truths and outright lies. That's when the press has to step in and, via a little fact checking and truth telling, counter the misinformation that is pouring out of the blast faxes.

This time the job fell to Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times. While his latest column is a little soft because of its attempt to be "fair and balanced" (McManus operates from the mushy middle), it does clarify some important issues for his readers, and for that we should be grateful.

From 1984 until last year, Social Security collected more in taxes than it paid out in benefits, and that surplus — the Social Security trust fund — has been invested in federal bonds. (Some skeptics deride those as mere IOUs, but they're not much different from 10-year Treasury bills; the federal government has a legal obligation to pay them back.)

But last year, partly because of the recession and partly because a swell of baby boomers is starting to retire, Social Security collected less in taxes than it paid out. That will happen again this year and for every year in the foreseeable future, according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office.

That doesn't mean Social Security is in immediate trouble. The program merely has to redeem some of the IOUs in its $2.5-trillion trust fund. But it's a problem for the federal government, which has to come up with that money from somewhere else — and at this point, that will mean new borrowing.

So, that's the short-term budget issue: Social Security is about to start calling in its markers from the federal government, which will put additional strain on the budget.

OK, that's fair enough. While this "entitlement" (one which all workers have been faithfully paying into since FDR set up the program), does not get directly funded by the federal government, the federal government has been using the trust fund as a source of loans, loans which will soon have to be repaid. That does affect the federal budget, albeit indirectly. Fewer wars and overpriced military equipment is a more direct and ultimately more expensive drag on the budget, but apparently the Pentagon's money is off the table.

And more money is flowing out of the trust fund than is going in, for the very reasons McManus lists. In 30-40 years, the trust fund will be depleted to the extent that benefits will have to be reduced, assuming the economy and joblessness don't improve. That's the long term side of the problem, and one which should be addressed. It is here that McManus gets mushy.

Liberal Democrats revere Social Security as the cornerstone of the social safety net, point out that benefits aren't overly generous (currently less than $13,000 a year on average), and say the problem could largely be solved by eliminating the income ceiling on Social Security taxes. (Currently, the tax is paid only on the first $106,800 a taxpayer earns in a year. Those who make more than that pay no Social Security tax on their additional earnings.)

Conservative Republicans hate the idea of increasing taxes, so they look for other ways to solve the problem — without, however, cutting benefits that retirees are receiving now, since that would be political suicide. Some, like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, have proposed an entirely new system for the next generation based on individual investment accounts instead of one big shared trust fund.

These are most assuredly not equivalent plans. One shores up the system by a common sense approach, one that would work to keep the system intact and available to all. The other is a way to demolish a program which has enabled elders to live in some dignity after their working years are over.

What McManus suggests will be needed is a compromise between the two positions, which is ludicrous. Politics may require the art of compromise, but good governance surely does not.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Unsurprising News

Now, here's a really good reason for why the Patriot Act shouldn't be extended.

The FBI violated the 1st Amendment rights of hundreds of Muslims by using a paid informant to target and monitor several Southern California mosques based solely on religion, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Filed on behalf of three Muslim plaintiffs, the suit accuses the FBI and seven of its employees, including Director Robert Mueller, of paying Irvine resident Craig Monteilh to go undercover, infiltrate mosques and record conversations in order to root out potential terrorists.

Mr. Monteilh, a convicted felon, signed on with the FBI once the government stepped in and had his parole reduced. Later, as evidenced in his own suit against the government, he had second thoughts about his job, which he apparently performed with great vigor.

ACLU lawyer Peter Bibring said members of the Muslim community grew suspicious after Monteilh habitually asked probing and invasive questions about their religious beliefs, political views, loyalties and became “increasing aggressive about denouncing U.S. foreign policy.”

“Ironically, the operation ended when members of the Muslim communities of Southern California reported the informant to the police because of his violent rhetoric and ultimately obtained a restraining order against him,” the lawsuit alleged.

This wasn't a sting operation, it was entrapment, as too many of the FBI's little projects have turned out to be. And that illegal behavior is, at least as far as the FBI is concerned, allowable under the Patriot Act.

Heckuva job, Barack.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Righteously Correct

I admit to being very uncomfortable with terms such as "moral absolute" and "moral relativism." Both have one thing in common: they are summoned as justification for just about anything whenever an argument arises. It was somewhat refreshing, therefore, to read Gregory Rodriguez's attempt to deal with both terms in a rational way in his latest column.

Here's his starting point:

Political fanaticism fosters moral relativism. That's the lesson we should all learn from the gruesome case of Shawna Forde, the Arizona anti-immigrant vigilante who was convicted last week of two counts of first-degree murder.

Prosecutors argued that Forde and two accomplices killed 29-year-old Raul Junior Flores and his 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia, in a botched robbery attempt meant to raise money to fund a splinter group of the anti-immigrant Minuteman movement. ...

...Evidently, Forde's political fixation overrode any belief in the injunction that "thou shalt not kill."

Rodriguez summons other examples of a moral absolute transmuted by fanaticism leading to moral relativism: "enhanced interrogations" being justified in the name of national security; the shooting of abortion doctors being justified in the name of "murdered children-to-be." He even suggests that liberals are just as guilty, but cites Castro and Stalin supporters (which I find a bit of a stretch ... I would have used the Symbionese Liberation Army here).

We seem to be seeing a lot of this kind of deadly shift these days, especially in the US, and Rodriguez cites some authorities as to why this is happening.

The great irony is that many observers believe that the global rise in political and religious fanaticism is a reaction against the freedom, choices and moral relativism of modernity.

"Under modern conditions," sociologist Peter Berger has noted, "almost everyone lives in communities in which diversity has taken the place of consensus." Some people react poorly to this "certainty scarcity." They adopt fervent convictions — fundamentalism, if you will — as a coping mechanism.

A coping mechanism which plays out in the demonization of the other, which makes the torturing, even killing of that other justified.

In the only weak part of his column, Rodriguez concludes that the answer to this dilemma is to trust "the heart" to properly guide behavior. I'm not so sure that this works if the heart has never been taught those morals which values community in the midst of diversity. How to teach that kind of morality is the question which we'd better find the answer to.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday Poetry: Margaret Atwood


Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched; if I am
He’ll think of something. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas,
purring like a washboard. Some other tomcat,
not yet a capon, has been spraying our front door,
declaring war. It’s all about sex and territory,
which are what will finish us off
in the long run. Some cat owners around here
should snip a few testicles. If we wise
hominids were sensible, we’d do that too,
or eat our young, like sharks.
But it’s love that does us in. Over and over
again, He shoots, he scores! and famine
crouches in the bedsheets, ambushing the pulsing
eiderdown, and the windchill factor hits
thirty below, and pollution pours
out of our chimneys to keep us warm.
February, month of despair,
with a skewered heart in the centre.
I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries
with a splash of vinegar.
Cat, enough of your greedy whining
and your small pink bumhole.
Off my face! You’re the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here.
Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.


(Thanks to Ms. Fahrenheit for bringing this poem to my attention.)

Greedy Geezers

[Note: Because of some glitch in my computer, I can't find the graphics I've downloaded over the past couple of days. That's why there weren't such features as Friday Cat Blogging, Bonus Critter Blogging, or Sunday Funnies this week. I'll be working to figure this one out so that those features return next week.]

It's been a tumultuous couple of weeks in the Middle East and the Midwest, and I've been as transfixed by those events as most of the rest of my friends have been. Still, there are a lot of other issues which need attending to and it's time to do a little more multitasking. Big on that list is the continuing attempts by our owners and their minions to destroy Social Security and Medicare.

I appreciated the fact that the Los Angeles Times saw fit to publish this opinion piece by Susan Jacoby, who is the author of "Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age." In her essay Ms Jacoby demolishes some of the lies being catapulted by the critics of Social Security and Medicare in order to gin up the intergenerational warfare which will make dismantling one of the finest achievements of the 20th Century possible.

The main lie exposed in the piece is that those now receiving or soon to receive those benefits are a bunch of wealthy and greedy bastards who want to have their cake and eat it. This lie, that of "greedy geezers", whether spoken openly (as former Senator Alan Simpson did) or merely implied, is behind much of the current rhetoric ripping away at one of our best safety nets.

The archetype of the greedy geezer is based partly on a misconception about today's oldest Americans: the World War II generation. The frequently repeated statistic that 75% of all assets are owned by people over 65 is utterly misleading, because those assets are held in a minority of very rich hands. Nearly half of older Americans receive no income — none — from assets such as stocks and savings accounts. Of those who do, half receive less than $2,000 a year.

Three-fourths of those over 65, according to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, have annual incomes, including Social Security, of less than $34,000. Furthermore, household income drops precipitously with every decade, and most of the poor in their 80s and 90s are women, who — unless their husbands possessed vast wealth — are very likely to become poorer when they are widowed.

Those facts are even more dramatically different than the "facts" promulgated by the critics of Social Security for those of the Boomer Generation who are just now entering the program. Most of this generation didn't have the benefit of pension plans provided by their employers. Instead, they had 401ks which were decimated (if not completely wiped out) by the cataclysm of 2008. Many of the earlier generation owned their homes, which was a significant source of post retirement wealth. Many of the Boomers lost their homes in the same cataclysm.

Now, the next generations were just as hard hit by that same cataclysm, plus they are facing the burden of ever more expensive health care. It's no wonder that the younger workers are lapping up the lies. They are as fearful as their elders, and for many of the same reasons.

The post-1935 intergenerational social contract, which depends on the willingness of young workers to pay for the dependent old, may crumble in the next 20 years unless the healthcare needs of young Americans are also addressed. Reworking the contract, and the programs that depend on it, will require aging boomers to recognize the financial stresses of younger workers, and the young to tell mean-spirited public figures like Simpson that Social Security is not a luxury but a permanent responsibility for all Americans of all generations.

And that will happen only when those mean spirited public figures are confronted on their lies each and every time they utter them. It will take many more frank essays like Susan Jacoby's to accomplish that, but it's a very worthy start.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

When Is It Their Turn?

Tim Rutten has a pretty decent column up at the Los Angeles Times, one that I have a pretty hard time faulting, at least in most respects. His thesis is that because of the budget shortfalls most states are facing (and California's is staggering -- over $10 billion) public employee unions would be well advised to be "statesmanlike" and accept cuts in benefits, particularly in pensions, to shore up the declining support of unions as well as to help out their states.

He cites a recent Pew Poll which certainly supports this thesis:

The study also finds that public regard for organized labor generally is at a historic low and that discontent with public sector pensions and benefits is rising. In fact, when Pew asked respondents to rank their budget reduction preferences, the "pension plans of government employees" topped the list by 16 percentage points, ahead of cutting funding for colleges and universities and road and transportation expenditures, which tied for second, 10 percentage points ahead of cuts in healthcare.

Still, like Wisconsin, California is a state in which organized labor continues to enjoy a strong presence and broad support. But, if something like the current meltdown in Madison is to be avoided here, our public employee unions will have to accept rollbacks or find themselves increasingly marginalized. ...

Even so, Pew found, "most Americans think unions have helped to increase unionized employees' salary (53%) and to improve working conditions for all Americans (51%)." The sticking point, however, is that Americans think that unions are just plain awful for business

As the survey concludes: "Those results correlate to a stunning plunge in Americans' attitudes toward unions in just the last three years as the economy plummeted into recession. In 2007, Pew pegged support for unions at 58%. Three years later, it had fallen an astounding 17 points."
[Emphasis added]

You can click on the link to see the Pew numbers Mr. Rutten cites (and I wish the column had included a link to the poll itself), but they do demonstrate that public opinion is that public employee unions have over-reached.

Perhaps that is so, but Rutten also acknowledges indirectly that public employee unions are not the only guilty parties, but it is the unions, the workers, who are being called upon to do the right thing.

Public employee unions can't be faulted for negotiating the best deals possible for their members. Union officers, however, need to recognize that their members' defined pensions stand out in an era when most private workers have been pushed into the equities markets to fund their retirements, as one employer after another has replaced traditional pension plans with risky individual 401(k) plans.

This flight from social responsibility on the part of employers is a national disgrace and, most assuredly, not organized labor's fault. But that won't induce hard-pressed and unorganized working people, whatever the color of their collar, to support benefits for organized public employees they no longer can obtain for themselves.

While I cannot fault Mr. Rutten's call for the public sector unions to be open to re-negotiate benefit packages during this difficult time for state and local governments, I do find fault that business is not being asked to do the same. Labor is only one part of the equation. It is hard to ask working people, whether in the public or the private sector, to make sacrifices when bankers and Wall Street thirty-somethings are celebrating huge bonuses after their businesses have been bailed out by taxpayers, unionized or not.

Why is the fiscal health of the business community more important than the fiscal health of the labor community? Why should one element sacrifice and not the other? And why is the public, which is all of us, more concerned about the business half than their own half?

Those are questions which are now being addressed in Madison, Wisconsin. And the answers are going to have an impact on this nation for a very long time.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

The Sound Of One Shoe Dropping

I've long been mystified at the passivity of the middle class as a great deal of their safety net has been shredded. Lost jobs, lost homes, lost pensions: nothing seemed to penetrate their consciousness. Well, that passivity just might be ending, at least in one unlikely place -- Wisconsin.

The new Republican governor of that state, Scott Walker, demanded a bill that would end collective bargaining rights for most public employees (he exempted police, fire fighters, and state troopers). The rationale given by Walker was that healthcare and pension costs were killing state and local budgets. As the state legislature, now controlled by Republicans, met to do the governor's bidding, a goodly amount of hell broke loose in the state's capital, Madison. Union members and their supporters converged on the city. More than 20,000 protesters showed up on Thursday, with a promise of even more due to arrive on Friday. At the same time, 14 key players left the city and the state.

The biggest crowds of the week squeezed into the Capitol on Thursday, shouting down the state Senate president as he tried to start the session. Thousands more gathered outside, their cries echoing off the building's stone walls well into Thursday night. During the day, 15 school districts in the state closed because teachers were at the protests.

Before the expected vote on Walker's proposal, all 14 Democratic senators fled, leaving Republicans one senator short of a quorum. The Senate adjourned without debating the bill.

What is so amazing about the protest, which included not only the affected unions but also sympathizers from unions not affected (many from the private sector), is that a goodly number of the participants in all likelihood actually voted for Walker and the Republicans in the state legislature. It hadn't dawned on them that they were as likely a target for getting screwed as their poorer and darker skinned neighbors. When that realization was forced on them, they finally got the message and then got angry.

If the governor's proposal was really about cutting costs, he would have done what Arnold Schwarzenegger did in California. He would have called each of the unions into his office and negotiated contracts which reduced pension and other benefit costs for new hires. But that apparently isn't Governor Walker's style. He ruled out negotiating with unions right from the start. That's when it became clear that his real intention was to bust unions, especially those representing state workers.

That was obvious to anyone with a brain:

...observers said Walker's proposals went beyond immediate cost savings.

"What's going on in Wisconsin is not simply an attempt to adjust the benefits or co-pays or health plans," said Theda Skocpol, a political science professor at Harvard University. "It's an attempt to bust the unions."

Even President "No Drama" Obama recognized the M.O.:

"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain, generally seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama said. "And I think it's very important for us to understand that public employees, they're our neighbors, they're our friends."

And that's what enraged the hardhats and teachers, the cops and fire fighters, the clerks at the DMV and the truck drivers. This wasn't about saving money. It was about denying them, the middle class, of a pretty basic right.

Welcome to our world, the one in which the sky is blue.

Now, to my friends and relatives in Wisconsin: keep at it. Don't give up. Your cause is just. Don't retreat. Keep showing up and exercising another pretty basic right, one that the Constitution guarantees. You are carrying the banner for all of us.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

There Oughta Be A Law

I learned, via Kevin Drum, that there is a particularly nasty bit of discrimination being used by those employers who are finally doing some hiring: those currently unemployed need not apply.

...there's a growing trend of employers refusing to consider the unemployed for job openings, according to a number of people who testified before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Wednesday. They say that employers are barring the unemployed from job openings, which is particularly unfair to older workers and African Americans because more of them are unemployed.

Yes, the demographics of old and African American are important, but the story is just as angry-making for younger lily-white people as well. The avowed reason for excluding the currently unemployed is that these people have been away and missed a lot of important innovations. They would have to be trained anew.

Say, what?

I hadn't realized that restaurant management was in the throes of installing a revolutionary new paradigm, or that machinists from a year ago missed out on the latest round of earthshaking and complicated new software which would take an experienced worker too much time to learn.

What I suspect is that employers are blaming the workers for being unemployed. It's their fault for being laid-off/terminated by companies downsizing or closing operations because of the horrendous economy. I suspect employers also see the currently unemployed as slackers, people who are just too used to sitting at home watching daytime television while waiting for their unemployment checks.

Shiftless. Ignorant. Subhuman.

Sound familiar? It should.

"Excluding unemployed workers from employment opportunities is unfair to workers, bad for the economy, and potentially violates basic civil rights protections because of the disparate impact on older workers, workers of color, women and others," said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, in her testimony.

Like I said up top: there oughta be law.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Well, Waddya Know!

Michael Hiltzig's latest column provides an interesting way to view corporations' outsourcing: it's not just immoral, it's expensive.

Sure, it's immoral to abandon your loyal American workers in search of cheap labor overseas. But the real problem with outsourcing, if you don't think it through, is that it can wreck your business and cost you a bundle.

Case in point: Boeing Co. and its 787 Dreamliner.

The next-generation airliner is billions of dollars over budget and about three years late; the first paying passengers won't be boarding until this fall, if then. Some of the delay stems from the plane's advances in design, engineering and material, which made it harder to build. A two-month machinists strike in 2008 didn't help.

But much of the blame belongs to the company's quantum leap in farming out the design and manufacture of crucial components to suppliers around the nation and in foreign countries such as Italy, Sweden, China, and South Korea. Boeing's dream was to save money. The reality is that it would have been cheaper to keep a lot of this work in-house.
[Emphasis added]

Obviously the upper management brains were otherwise occupied when Boeing shipped out key engineering and technically advanced manufacturing assignments to contractors with the lowest bids, some of whom didn't even have an engineering department at the time the contracts were awarded. Boeing also didn't set up any kind of oversight with these contractors. The results were disastrous. Parts shipped into the Seattle area assembly point didn't arrive at the right time for the assembly train, and when they did, they didn't fit the specifications and as a result didn't fit the parts to which they were to be joined.

Middle management employees, those who had been down this road before with such former aerospace companies as McDonnell Douglas, tried to warn the suits, but here too those brains were otherwise engaged.

Boeing executives now admit that the company's aggressive outsourcing put it in partnership with suppliers that weren't up to the job. They say Boeing didn't recognize that sending so much work abroad would demand more intensive management from the home plant, not less.

"We gave work to people that had never really done this kind of technology before, and then we didn't provide the oversight that was necessary," Jim Albaugh, the company's commercial aviation chief, told business students at Seattle University last month. "In hindsight, we spent a lot more money in trying to recover than we ever would have spent if we tried to keep many of the key technologies closer to Boeing. The pendulum swung too far."

You think, Mr. Albaugh?

Maybe paying decent wages and providing benefits to the skilled workers you have at home just might have been the right thing to do, even the most prudent. What's the old saying?

Ah, yes: "Penny wise, pound foolish."



Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The center-left editorial board of the Los Angeles Times really lit into House Speaker Boehner today.


Of all the missteps the House Speaker has taken, whether the overuse of "job killer" as a descriptor for each and every White House proposal or the inability to rein in the obfuscation of the members of his party when it comes to the Constitution, LAT's brilliant board chose to nail the Speaker for not insisting more spiritedly that President Obama is a naturally born US citizen and therefor qualified to hold that title.

In an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," Boehner was willing to concede that he believes Obama is both a native-born citizen and a Christian. But, the speaker said, that was because "I'll take him at his word," as if Obama's assurances were the only corroboration of his citizenship and his religion. In fact, a "certificate of live birth" establishes that he was born in Hawaii. As for his religion, Obama's involvement with a Chicago church is well documented.

Even more objectionable was Boehner's response to David Gregory's question about whether, as speaker, "it's your responsibility to speak out against that kind of ignorance?" Boehner responded: "David, it's not my job to tell the American people what to think. The American people have the right to think what they want to think."

Now, Dave Gregory's questions were bad enough, but we've all come to expect that from Sunday Morning Bobbleheads, especially on "Press the Flesh." The LAT editorial went beyond that by republishing the question and answer and then whining about it.

I guess it was a slow Valentine's Day downtown.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Bush Lite

The New York Times asks a pretty good question in one of its editorials today:

The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act is indefensible — officially sanctioned discrimination against one group of Americans imposed during an election year. President Obama seems to know that, or at least he has called on Congress to repeal it. So why do his government’s lawyers continue to defend the act in court?

Why, indeed? Especially why, now?

The law, signed by President Bill Clinton, denies married same-sex couples the federal benefits granted to other married couples, including Social Security survivor payments and the right to file joint tax returns. When December’s repeal of the noxious “don’t ask, don’t tell” law goes into effect, gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans will be able to serve openly in the military but may not be entitled to on-base housing or a spouse’s burial in a national cemetery.

Gays can openly risk their lives in the military, but can't live together on base? Life partners aren't entitled to the same benefits that straight spouses are?

The majority of Americans don't feel terribly threatened by gays, married or unmarried, and most don't ultimately care if gays get the same benefits the rest of the nation is entitled to. Nor should they. Most Americans understand that this discrimination is wrong and is based solely on the fantasies promulgated by the Religious Reich and amplified by the conservative politicians eager for a talking point during election years.

What the Obama Department of Justice should be doing is what any Department of Justice should do: fight discriminatory practices vigorously. Instead, Attorney General Holder is fighting vigorously to keep those practices alive and well.

It's time for that to stop.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday Poetry: William Butler Yeats

Church And State

HERE is fresh matter, poet,
Matter for old age meet;
Might of the Church and the State,
Their mobs put under their feet.
O but heart's wine shall run pure,
Mind's bread grow sweet.
That were a cowardly song,
Wander in dreams no more;
What if the Church and the State
Are the mob that howls at the door!
Wine shall run thick to the end,
Bread taste sour.

--William Butler Yeats

A Little Birdy Told Me

Thanks to Watching America I picked up some rather startling news. The US and NATO may be drawing down troops in Afghanistan in July, but that doesn't mean an end to American forces in Afghanistan is in sight. Far from it.

From Germany's Junge Welt:

The Obama administration is currently talking to their friendly warlords in Kabul about the United States keeping permanent military bases in Afghanistan. “This is the subject of our negotiations,” America’s puppet Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai confirmed on Tuesday. Representatives of the U.S. government are interested in maintaining military units in the country “over the long term,” and the careful parsing of words shows that they hope to avoid alerting sleeping congressional watchdogs by using such terms as “permanent military bases.” But the enormous Pentagon-funded building program in the Hindu Kush that will expand and improve the many installations there leaves little doubt that the United States plans to keep a permanent military presence in the country. ...

An analysis of U.S. military and other government publications, including those published by the military and the Army Corps of Engineers, clearly shows the gigantic construction programs for hundreds of military bases large and small that will ensure a permanent U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. ...
[Emphasis added]

It's bad enough that we are still fighting a war that should never have been engaged in the first place. The excuse originally proffered was that we had to root out the Taliban who had given shelter to Al Qaeda who had attacked the US. Revenge is hardly the best excuse for war, but it was the handiest one available. Nearly ten years later we're still there, primarily because President Obama decided to adopt this one as his war after it had been so woefully neglected once Bush moved into Iraq. That was two years and one super-duper surge ago.

But it's even worse that at a time when the economy still stinks and the fiscal conservatives are busy trying to gut the federal government by wiping out any kind of socially beneficial programs the Pentagon is cheerfully spending billions to build super bases in a country we're supposed to be disengaging from. And they'll probably get away with it. We're not quite through with giving into our imperialist urges.

What really galls me, however, is that I had to learn about these permanent bases from a German newspaper, not an American one. Why, when budget considerations are beginning to ramp up, hasn't an American paper or news program not looked more carefully into the Pentagon budget, one which is supposed to be the biggest in history? Why hasn't any reporter looked into the construction going on in the Hindu Kush and asked a few questions about that construction?

I guess some things are more important than others, things like the war machine and the contractors who feed it.

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Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Jim Morin / Miami Herald (February 7, 2011) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: Arctic Hare

(Photograph by Paul Nicklen and published at National Geographic.

News From Glenn Beckistan

James Rainey, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times took a pretty healthy shot at Fox Rodeo Clown Glenn Beck and didn't miss the target.

We saw all the character traits from one figure looming over the Egypt story: the massive shows of emotion, the sketchy command of others' views, the megalomaniacal refusal to recognize facts on the ground. And, as always, the willingness to say and do anything to command the stage for one more day.

We speak not of Hosni Mubarak, but of that other master of manipulation and misdirection, Glenn Beck.

Why, yes. That pretty much gets it.

It's nice to see a mainstream media outlet note the madness emanating from that slice of the cable spectrum. It's not the earliest shot fired, but it is still an effective one.

Of course, that doesn't mean the end of Glenn Beck's career. He appears, after all, on Fox News Network. Just as importantly, however, he is currently just the loudest and most visible part of Republican's Might Wurlitzer, even if right now he is embarrassing the hell out of the party's regulars, as Media Matters pointed out:

But this is what happens when Republicans build an irresponsible Noise Machine that's designed to offend and designed to attack. What happens is that, in case of emergency, there is no 'off' switch that Bill Kristol and other suddenly concerned Beck critics can reach for. Same goes for Rush Limbaugh who, like Beck, has been mocking Egypt's freedom fighters and who also represents the voice of today's right-wing America.

Make no mistake, Republicans and conservatives have spent years fueling the Noise Machine. They cheered when it Swift Boated John Kerry and spent most of the previous decade portraying Democrats as terrorist sympathizers. And they feed off the Noise Machine's Obama obsession today and its attempt to paint the President of the United States as an illegitimate communist ruler. But with the Egypt idiocy, apparently Beck has finally gone too far for the Bill Kristols of the world. And as Time's Joe Klein reported, "prominent Republicans" have been complaining to Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes about Beck and the "potential" embarrassment he could do to the party. (Hint: It's a bit late to close that barn door.)

All of the pointing and laughing by the traditional media and by media watchdogs won't put an end to Beck's eschatological rantings. But there is something that might, something that might get the attention of his employers, something that's always important to them: the bottom line. And right now, Glenn Beck's bottom line is dropping like a rock:

Despite the continued dominance of Fox News, the fourth most-watched cable channel in Primetime -- that's cable channel not cable news channel -- Glenn Beck's ratings slipped in January.

A lot.

Year over year he posted the biggest loss of any cable news show averaging 1.8 million viewers, down 39% from January 2010. In 25-54 demo he dropped 48%, to 397,000.

Becks ratings have been struggling all month. And by struggling we mean he as been consistently below the 2 million total viewers mark. A first. ...

But it's probably also worth noting, just in the context of this January, that the month was dominated by hard news, in the form of the Giffords shooting.

Glenn Beck is many things but he is not hard news (nor does he generally attempt to be). And considering the nature of the news, perhaps it's not entirely surprising that viewers were clicking away for a while. Sometimes it's nice to be told the world is not ending.

And in the news business, which, alas, has become a business in this country, those numbers are damning.

There is a limit, and it appears that Glenn Beck may finally be reaching that limit.

One can only hope.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging


The Los Angeles Times took a rather snide shot in one of its opinion blogs at the Washington Post.

On February 8, 2011, WaPo announced a little "experiment" which was designed to make it easier for on-line readers to point out errors in an article:

Registered site users can suggest corrections and ideas for future coverage by clicking on the links and filling out a Google form describing the problem they spot or idea they propose. Editors will review the user posts frequently during the day, and make corrections in print and online where stories turn out to be wrong.

OK, that sounds like a reasonably good idea, at least in theory. The Los Angeles Times, however, identified a rather serious flaw in this little experiment:

What the Post's new feature also does is encourage readers to report corrections in a private forum that's behind an opaque wall rather than on a comments board that's visible to all.

In other words, it looked to LAT that WaPo had found a way to bury corrections.

Of course, and as the comments to the WaPo post pointed out, if reporters and editors were doing their job properly, such a mechanism wouldn't be necessary. But even given the potential for simple human error, hiding the suggested corrections away from the public doesn't say much for WaPo's journalistic integrity.

It was only an experiment, and a short-lived one at that. I went to the WaPo article announcing the experiment (the link is above) and discovered that the link to the form for posting the correction is dead. I went to another WaPo story published today, and no such link exists.

I'd like to think that the people at the Washington Post had good intentions but just didn't think their little experiment through, but that isn't possible. The paper has been online too long not to realize the implications of a wall. The paper's readers sure did.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

And They're Off!

With the opening of the Conservative Political Action Conference today comes the opening of the 2012 campaign, at least for Republicans. Doyle McManus' latest column takes a look at the conference and at the invited speakers and offers some clues as to the front runners for the GOP's presidential nomination to challenge President Obama.

There are really only two spots on the GOP ballot. One is reserved for Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who won nine primaries in 2008. The other is for someone who isn't Mitt Romney — someone like Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee or Tim Pawlenty.

Romney has been running for the nomination the old-fashioned way. He has raised more money than any other hopeful ($6.3 million for his political action committee during the last two years). He spent most of last year collecting IOUs as he helped Republican candidates across the country win House and Senate seats. He's the solid front-runner in polls in New Hampshire, the first primary election state.

Romney, a "Reagan Conservative" (whatever that means today), should be the presumptive nominee, but this isn't, as McManus points out, your father's Republican Party. Tea Party ideologues have stepped to the spotlight and they aren't likely to yield it to a man who instituted Massachusetts's healthcare plan while governor and who thought TARP was a pretty good idea. That's why Palin, Huckabee, and Pawlenty have a shot, as do several other Republicans including Newt Gingrich.

In polling so far, Republican voters have consistently listed four potential candidates as their top choices, in slightly varying orders: Romney, Palin, Huckabee and Gingrich. But that's no prediction of where things will end up either. The same question four years ago yielded a clear front-runner for the 2008 nomination, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and he didn't win anywhere.

Still, those polls do reveal one interesting factor: Of the four best-known candidates, Romney and Huckabee appear acceptable to almost all Republicans — but Palin and Gingrich both gather relatively high "unfavorable" ratings, meaning they'd face a tougher sales job.

What about Tim Pawlenty? Well, he's presented himself as both a fiscal and a social conservative. Unfortunately, the man has the "charisma" of a banana slug.

And that's where CPAC comes in. The conference is a showcase. While the winner of the strawpoll held there is no shoe-in for the nomination (Romney won it four years ago), the candidates will be given an opportunity to shine or to bomb. That might explain those candidates who won't be at the conference because of "scheduling conflicts" (Palin and Huckabee).

Even without Palin and Huckabee, however, this is going to be fun to watch as the candidates present try to make their early bones by trying to out-right the others.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Two Mints In One

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) opens its three day bash this weekend, thereby signaling the opening of the 2012 election campaign for Republicans. It's quite interesting to see who's attending and who's not.

The three-day gathering of the Conservative Political Action Committee, which begins Thursday with more than 10,000 activists expected to convene in Washington, effectively rings the opening bell for the Republican presidential nominating contest. ...

The event, which has been held every winter for nearly four decades, is seen as such a command performance this year that Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and John Thune are among those who accepted invitations. Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee have both declined, citing scheduling conflicts.

It's also interesting who's boycotting and why.

The Conservative Political Action Conference also is opening against a backdrop of controversy over whether a gay Republican group should have been allowed to help sponsor the event. The Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation are among the organizations boycotting the conference because GOProud, the gay group, is participating.

The disagreement highlights the tensions among various conservative factions and raises questions about the balance between the social and fiscal priorities of Republicans that has already become part of the debate in early-voting states like Iowa, where the state’s precinct caucuses are scheduled to open the nominating contest next Feb. 6.

The mantra for Republicans in the current Congress is "fiscal conservatism." That's what they think got them elected and, by golly, they're going to ride with it. Still, even they must sense the tension from their basest base, so they've gotten tricksie with their latest proposals, especially in the House (which they control). Yes, it's about the fiscal policy, but it's also about the social. They've found a way to combine them.

One bill, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” would eliminate tax breaks for private employers who provide health coverage if their plans offer abortion services, and would forbid women who use a flexible spending plan to use pre-tax dollars for abortions. Those restrictions would go well beyond current law prohibiting the use of federal money for abortion services. ...

Another bill, sponsored by Mr. Pitts, addresses the health care overhaul head-on by prohibiting Americans who receive insurance through state exchanges from purchasing abortion coverage, even with their own money. ...

The GOP has decided to run hard to the right, and they're going to do so on the backs of women. Now that's a really interesting choice. The question is, what are the Democrats going to do about it?



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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Interesting ... And Welcome News

The biggest assault on the Bill of Rights in my memory came with the Patriot Act in its several iterations. Passed by the security uber alles folks who also brought us the Iraq War, the Patriot Act authorized the US government to spy on its citizens with no real oversight. Key provisions are due to expire shortly, and the push is on in the Republican-led House to extend those provision indefinitely.

Some members of the 112th Congress are objecting to such extensions, and I was both surprised and pleased at where the opposition is coming from.

But as the Republican-led House prepares to vote Tuesday for a short-term extension of provisions expiring at the end of this month, some rank-and-file Republicans are signaling they will resist efforts later this year to make the law permanent.

"There need to be sunsets on the bill after that in order to have adequate accountability and oversight," said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas). "Until sunsets come up, it is often difficult to get the answers we need to do necessary oversight to avoid abuses."
[Emphasis added]


Yes, especially those affiliated with or intimidated by the Tea Party. If you stop to think about it, that stance actually makes sense. It is consistent with the Tea Partiers' belief that the federal government is too intrusive in the lives of its citizens. When it comes to essentially warrantless surveillance, I have to agree with them.

Although I would have preferred they go all the way and repeal the Patriot Act entirely, at least it's a start, and a welcome one.

This is bipartisanship I can live with.

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Monday, February 07, 2011

End Around

A New York Times editorial brings some good news this morning. Because Congress won't do its job, the Obama administration is going to do the job for the cowards on the Hill when it comes to mine safety.

Congress vowed to change things after the Upper Big Branch explosion, and then gave in, again, to Big Coal. The executive proposals would make it much harder for mine owners to game the violations process with extended appeals that let them keep operating and risking miners’ lives. A 34-year-old law providing for mine shutdowns has never been applied in the category of the worst offenders — a blight on industry and political appointees who shirked their oversight responsibilities.

Under the new regulations, the Mine Safety and Health Administration would be empowered to shut down a mine with a record of chronic safety violations — instead of waiting years for litigation to play out. Massey’s record was horrendous, and it was allowed to keep working dangerous mines like Upper Big Branch.

It's been ten months since 29 miners died at the Upper Big Branch mine owned by Massey Energy. Congress has done nothing to change the way mining companies do business when it comes to safety in their mines. Mining companies cited for violations continue in "business as usual" mode because they are allowed to do so via the lengthy and outmoded appeals process currently in place.

Giving the Mining Safety and Health Administration the regulatory power to shut down mines with horrific safety records is the right step to take. When it is more expensive to operate unsafely than safely, mining companies might get the message. This is one area where regulating business is necessary. That's the kind of real regulatory reform the country needs.


Sunday, February 06, 2011

Sunday Poetry: Marge Piercy

(This time for the people of Egypt, who has shown the world how it works.)

The Low Road

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

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

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

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

--Marge Piercy

Just A Campaign Issue

My visit to Watching America was another interesting one. A great number of the articles dealt with Washington's stance on the Egyptian turmoil, which is pretty much what I expected. The article which really grabbed my attention, however, was on an entirely different issue, immigration.

From La Tribuna (Honduras):

In President Barack Obama’s address on the state of the nation, two issues are of particular interest to us. The first is his announcement of a tour of three Latin American countries: “This March, I will travel to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador to forge new alliances across the Americas.” ...

The other issue relates to immigration reform. In a speech that was vague, providing no clear details, focusing on how Americans must commit “to win the future,” he again insisted on immigration reform and the so-called Dream Act, aimed at the legalization of many of young people who wish to pursue college or enlist in the military. ... As for immigration reform, which was promised to Hispanics during his campaign and is the reason why he won the favor of the Hispanic minority, he has not been able to attain one iota of an agreement. ...

Well, the issue of immigration reform has been politicized, linked to election campaigns, one way or another, to the extent that undocumented Hispanics in the United States are victims of more hostility every day. Several states have introduced legislation or are in the process of criminalizing their stay, making them the focus of racial discrimination. The immigration problem — especially now that drug violence has intensified in the border areas with Mexico — was treated as a political issue in the last legislative election campaign. One side demonizes immigrants, while the other seeks to placate Hispanic voters. ...

March is less than a month away, and I doubt very much that the crisis in Egypt will be fully resolved by that time, which means that the president is going to be faced with a very practical dilemma. If he postpones the trip, it will be seen by our Latin American neighbors as another snub as once again the US demonstrates the Middle East is a far more important region than Latin America. If he makes the trip but cannot come up with some practical solutions beyond the vague "I'm for immigration reform which has a human face" mantra which has been recycled from his campaign speeches time and again, then the trip will be seen merely as another attempt at "free trade" which benefits the US but does nothing for the rest of the hemisphere.

But the article makes an even more basic point about US relations with Latin America. The only time the most visible issue between the US and its neighbors is ever addressed is during election campaigns. The rest of the time it is either ignored (as it essentially was during the first two years of the Obama administration) or merely the staple of pre-campaign posturing (see my post here).

The temptation is to cut the president some slack because he has to deal with a congress that has been reluctant to face the immigration issue squarely, especially given the other pressing issues the past two years (a sunk economy and the concomitant joblessness).

But the president is not only the nation's leader, he is also his party's leader, and Congress was under Democratic control until January. He chose not to lead on this issue. Now, with the Republicans hold on the House it will be even more difficult to get a sane and humane immigration reform bill passed. Yet that is exactly what he needs to do. He needs to actually lead, not just look for a mealy-mouthed consensus.

And he needs to do that while dealing with all of the other issues on his plate, including Egypt. He has to walk and chew gum at the same time. Surely that is the least we can expect from our president.


Sunday Funnies

(Political cartoon by Tom Toles and published 2/4/2011 by the Washington Post. Click on image to enlarge.)

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: Giant Isopod

(Photograph by David Schrichte/ and published at National Geographic.

Pander Bears

Senators Vitter and Graham (R-the South) have proposed a bill to repeal the 14th Amendment which grants citizenship to those born in the United States, regardless of the citizenship of their parents. Hector Tobar, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, thinks this is a terrible idea. The son of Guatemalans who "overstayed" their tourist visas takes it personally, as well he should. But his objections are based on more than personal interest. As he points out, we are a nation of immigrants, starting with the very first arrivals from Europe.

By now, the idea of the U.S. as a country of immigrants is so deeply ingrained that the Vitter-Rand constitutional amendment has no chance of passage. Many conservative leaders think it's a bad idea, including Mike Huckabee and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

Unfortunately, the recent history of the U.S. is filled with such divisive legislative crusades, from Proposition 187 in California in 1994 to last year's SB 1070 in Arizona, both of which were defanged by federal judges.

So why stir up a national debate with proposals that have little or no chance of becoming enforceable laws?

Because it's easier to scare people and make them angry than it is to fix anything.
[Emphasis added]

Neither senator apparently cares about the real immigration issues. All they are concerned with is establishing their bones with the latest iteration of their party's basest base. Keep the Tea Partiers all riled up and they'll keep turning out each election cycle. Huckleberry and Diaper Dave are just doing their part.

And that's unfortunate. We really do need to tackle the difficult issue of immigration, but the dog-and-pony-show approach is just impeding the real work that needs to be done. Hector Tobar knows this.

I happen to believe our immigration policy is a mess that needs fixing. The current free-for-all of illegal crossing and off-the-books hiring demeans and exploits immigrants and undermines the rule of law. Its chief beneficiaries are stingy employers and criminal smugglers.

But proposing radical legislation that attempts to overturn sacred American precepts of justice and compassion while playing on misguided fears isn't going to get us anywhere. And it leaves millions of people with immigrant roots feeling insulted.

Given the changing demographics of this nation of immigrants, that insult could be devastating for the Republican Party in the future. Apparently that doesn't matter to Lindsay and Vitter. They're too busy drinking the tea.

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Friday, February 04, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging

Still life with fruit, flowers and eventual mayhem

Helpful Advice

Yeah, right, this is going to help states out when it comes to Medicaid expenses.

On Thursday, in a move that reflected both the changing political landscape and the still-troubled economy, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius sent a letter to governors suggesting a range of cuts, including removal of some people from the program. ...

The Obama administration is suggesting that governors could cut optional health benefits that many Medicaid programs offer, such as physical therapy, dental care, eyeglasses and even some prescription drugs.

States could also require beneficiaries to pay more for some of these services.

After all, the people using Medicaid (MediCal in California) are poor. They probably don't vote. And besides, they are entitled to the same things that rich people are, the best medical care money can buy. If they don't have the money, well, they get what they deserve, which ain't much.

Besides, glasses, fillings for cavities, physical therapy after injuries, medicine, these are just frills, luxuries, if you will. Surely they can eat cake without the icing.

It is to die for.

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Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Caution Light Is On

Doyle McManus has a rather odd column posted this morning on the Obama administration's response to the turmoil in Egypt. On the one hand, he seems to be decrying the slow response of the White House to the events unfolding in Cairo, but at the same time he notes that American intervention in "bringing democracy" to other nations hasn't really worked out that well (as in Iraq and Afghanistan), so the caution is understandable.

In Egypt and elsewhere, the United States has tried to promote democracy and preserve stability at the same time, but when the two goals conflict — as they often do, at least in the short run — Washington has usually opted for stability first.

Even now, with Egypt in tumult, the Obama administration is trying to preserve whatever stability it can. The premier U.S. ally in the Middle East, Israel, is frantic at the prospect of an Egypt ruled by populists or Islamists who might turn hostile after three decades of peace. There is also the question of what message U.S. support for the demonstrators would send to its other allies in the region, most of which aren't shining examples of democracy. Kings in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, military strongmen in Yemen and Algeria want to know whether they are next, and whether their alliances with Washington will mean anything in the crunch. ...

In fact, the administration is still pursuing stability in Egypt rather than democracy at any cost. It has allied itself directly with the Egyptian military, not with ElBaradei or anyone else in the opposition. It's still aiming for an essentially conservative goal, an "orderly transition" to democracy overseen by the armed forces, which want to keep their privileges — and have no appetite for war with Israel, U.S. officials believe.

Implicit in this part of the argument is the historical policies of previous administrations. Stability at all costs, especially in the oil-rich countries (the Middle East and Latin America) has always been a goal, which in the past was frequently tied to anti-communism fervor. For Obama to suddenly withdraw all support from a dictator we've been propping up for decades would seem capricious and quite probably weak.

The old model is wearing thin, as we've discovered the past ten years: it hasn't bought us any real friends and has raised more than a few enemies. But going into another country with bombs and tanks to pull a dictator from his hidey-hole hasn't exactly been too productive either. I think this is the place where Barack Obama's caution begins to make a little sense.

While the US cannot forever shield despots for the sake of stability, it also cannot unilaterally determine what is best for another nation's citizens. McManus finally concludes essentially the same thing:

So it's fitting that the Obama administration is spending so much time being modest about its power to determine Egypt's future. It may be a useful argument, in that it shields the United States from bearing full responsibility for the outcome. But as Henry A. Kissinger used to say, it has the added advantage of being true.

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

That's Entertainment

I'm not sure where this article appears in the print edition of the Los Angeles Times, but it's filed away in the "Entertainment" section of the electronic edition, which I think is a pretty sad commentary on the policies of a major US newspaper. The story is about the extraordinary role of Al Jazeera in its coverage in the Middle East, specifically the unrest in Egypt.

Although available in fewer than 3 million American homes, the network's bright orange banner and signature flame-shaped icon have burned themselves into international consciousness during the last week as people bend over their laptops and smart phones to watch Al Jazeera's superlative coverage of the protests first in Tunisia and now in Egypt. ...

Some news outlets have remarked on the role of catalyst that Al Jazeera has played in events, but the network is also doing sentry duty. Watching, it's impossible not to believe that the knowledge of all the cameras, and the world's eyes, have held the police back after early images of beatings and shootings fed anger in Egypt and throughout the world. Likewise, the protesters seem quite aware of the response, both nationally and internationally, to their actions, which may explain why the looting that occurred last week appears to have died down as well. On Tuesday, a giant screen was erected in Tahrir Square; it was showing Al Jazeera.

"Thank you for having this live," one Egyptian actor told an Al Jazeera reporter. "No other networks can do this."
[Emphasis added]

The sniping by "some news outlets" is unseemly, just as unseemly as filing this article in "Entertainment". Al Jazeera is doing what the press has traditionally done, what it is supposed to do. Yes, because of its nature and location, it had more resources available when events began unfolding. It was there right from the start. It took days for the rest of the world's press to arrive, and in the mean time, the world's press relied on the young network for visual and verbal reporting.

How it covered those events was the extraordinary part: with images and interviews of not only protesters but also Egyptian leaders. Glib statements from the government were challenged with thoughtful follow-up questions rather than silence as those statements were being duly transcribed. Scenes of the mostly peaceful protests were balanced with scenes of early looting. Nothing was considered too politically incorrect to display or to analyze. And when the Egyptian government closed the Cairo bureau, the reporters were not scared off: they continued to do their job.

Al Jazeera took the rest of the world's press to school. I think we should take the rest of the world's press, especially the US members, behind the woodshed.


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Facts Don't Matter

To hear Republicans tell it, southwest border towns are being plagued by violent drug and people smugglers. Decapitated bodies are regularly found on the US side of the border. Arizona and Texas ranchers live in daily terror of the murderous traffickers. It's just not safe. Several GOP candidates won their elections by pointing all of this out.

The facts, however, tell a different story.

In a speech in El Paso, Napolitano cited FBI statistics showing that violent crime rates in Southwest border counties are down 30% over the last two decades and are "among the lowest in the nation."

Napolitano's effort to change the public perception of danger follows a heated campaign season last fall that saw candidates in border states frequently emphasizing the effects of illegal immigration on their communities.

And it's not just the administration noting the falsity of the Republican assertions on the battles at the border.

Angela Kelley, an immigration policy expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington, argued that there was a "pretty big disconnect" between the public perception about safety along the border and what the statistics showed.

"When you have politicians stirring the pot and turning up the heat on people's emotions and fear levels, you don't have a constructive debate on what to do," she said.

But she added: "Facts matter, but only to a point … because it is what citizens believe that defines the debate and sets the agenda in Washington. We can't be tone deaf to what the public believes."

Yes, if you tell the lie often enough, it begins to sound like the truth (cf, Stephen Colbert's "truthiness"). The problem is that truthiness soon winds up being quite expensive. One look at the Department of Homeland Security budget makes that clear.

Truthiness, however, has other costs. Normally good natured people start harassing their neighbors because of their ethnicity or skin color and force their state to legalize that harassment. Tourists stay away from lovely towns for fear that the criminals will rob, rape, or decapitate them. In times of emergency, a state's National Guard can't assist because they've been assigned border duty.

And that's why Janet Napolitano's speech was important and why more government officials need to speak out, citing the facts loudly and clearly. Maybe that will pierce the fog of the convenient lies.

Well, until the next election.

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