Thursday, June 30, 2011

Back In The News

Massey Energy Company, owner of the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia where 29 miners died in an explosion in April, 2010, is back in the news. Another piece in the puzzle of why this tragedy occurred has fallen into place.

From the New York Times:

Kevin Stricklin, administrator for coal at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, described a dual accounting system practiced by Massey before the deadly explosion, in which safety problems and efforts to fix them were recorded in an internal set of books, out of sight of state inspectors, and off the official books that the law required them to keep. ...

Some of the findings echoed a report issued by an independent team of state investigators this month, which blamed Massey and a culture of impunity for the explosion. But these findings went further, saying that Massey took systematic and premeditated steps to circumvent government inspections.
[Emphasis added]

Pretty tricksy, that keeping of separate sets of books, not to mention reminiscent of the illegal practices of other crooked businesses. By keeping the safety hazards noted by employees and managers of the mine off the official books, government inspectors were kept in the dark about problems and therefore didn't follow up with the mine to make certain the problems had been rectified. Fewer inspections means more coal mined, which means more profits for the company. It's a pretty straightforward equation.

Of course, too often it also means more people dead. In this case, 29 more people dead.

Somebody tell me again why government regulations are bad, and I don't want any of that malarkey about them being "job killers." More is at stake here.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Truthiness: An Update

I am no internet whiz kid, not by a long shot, but occasionally I stumble across a site that astounds me by its relevance and just plain coolness. Politifact is just such a place. It checks the factual truth of statements made by politicians and rates them from "True" all the way down to "Pants On Fire." It's non-partisan, as far as I can tell, finding whoppers on both sides of the aisle. Handy little site, this.

I found a several entries involving Michele Bachman (this is an update, after all), and it appears that Ms. Bachman does seem to have trouble with facts and accuracy. And it involves more than the birthplaces of famous Iowans.

Here's the first of several, chosen because it is just so amazingly wrong:

At one point in the interview, Bachmann criticized President Obama's energy policy, or what she called the lack thereof.

"It’s ironic and sad that the president released all of the oil from the Strategic Oil Reserve because the president doesn’t have an energy policy," she said.

Actually, the government only released 30 million barrels out of a total of 727 million barrels, or about 4 percent. So we rated that False.

Schieffer also asked her about a previous misstatement on oil, that the Obama administration has only issued one new drilling permit in all the time Obama has been in office. We rated that Pants on Fire, the actual number is well over 200.

Now, here's the second:

In an interview on New Hampshire Now on WKXL-AM in Concord, N.H., Bachmann sympathized with the plight of grillmasters everywhere by noting that the price of cook-out items have skyrocketed. And she laid the blame at the feet of President Barack Obama.

"If you threw a barbecue yesterday for the Memorial weekend, it was 29 percent more expensive than last year because Barack Obama's policies have led to groceries going up 29 percent," she said.

Anybody who has bought hamburger lately knows how prices have increased. But did you pay 29 percent more for your Memorial Day meal? And is the president to blame?

Politifact did a whole bunch of investigation on this one and came up with different figures, more accurate ones:

According to last month's CPI survey, the price of ground beef has jumped 13.6 percent since May 2010. Frankfurters have increased by 8 percent; coffee by 16 percent; lettuce by 7.8; tomatoes by 2.4; and ice cream by 5.6 percent. Potatoes, the main ingredient in potato salad, has increased by 15.9 percent since May 2010. (The CPI survey doesn’t measure potato salad). ...

Bachmann says Obama is to blame for a 29 percent increase in Memorial Day barbecues, but she's way off on both counts. Her figure comes from a New York Post article that relied on prices in the expensive New York metro area; national figures show the increase was much lower, about 9.9 percent. And she blames Obama for the increase when experts say he and his policies have little, if any, impact on food prices. We find her claim False.

Like I said, Ms. Bachman, like many politicians, has a little trouble with factual reality, especially when that factual reality interferes with her campaigns. Lots of politicians have that problem, but they're not running for President.

It's a shame more members of our press aren't doing this kind of work. It might not be considered polite in the Village, but at least reporters wouldn't have to apologize for this kind of confrontation. They'd just be doing their jobs.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Oh, My!

I'm always a little nonplussed when I find myself in agreement with conservatives, but I've recovered from the latest incident. It involves a research fellow with the Cato Institute, a free-market libertarian think-tank, and the mission creep of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Julian Sanchez really got it right in his opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times. The FBI is not only reaching to avoid any review of its investigative behavior, it's over-reaching.

Since the attack on 9/11 and the passage of the first Patriot Act, restraints against domestic spying have been loosened to the point where the FBI can wire tap and use other tools to investigate citizens even when there is no indication of illegal activity. Now, the FBI, on its own, has decided to loosen things even more.

Now the FBI says these lax limits on its power are still too cumbersome: The next edition of the bureau's operational manual will give agents leeway to search all those databases with no approval or explanation, without opening an assessment and creating a paper trail.

We've heard the complaint about "cumbersome" record-keeping before. According to a 2010 report from the Office of the Inspector General, FBI analysts refused to use an electronic system that would track demands for sensitive phone and Internet records, on the grounds that entering all that data was too burdensome. In reality, the inspector general found, employees were engaged in "widespread and serious misuse" of domestic spying authorities and sought to avoid oversight and accountability.

As the report noted, the lack of record-keeping means we may never know the full extent of the abuses, or even the true scale of legitimate spying. One thing is clear, however: The more snooping that is done without a paper trail, the less likely it is that abuses will be caught when they occur.
[Emphasis added]

In other words, the FBI will be able to act as it wills with no tracks left for a pesky inspector general. The government can spy on people who express an unpopular opinion and intimidate them into silence or into cooperation in spying on their neighbors. Again, all of this is done without judicial oversight or specific congressional approval.

Much of the growth of the surveillance state over the last decade has slid under the radar precisely because it's been done piecemeal. For example, the USA Patriot Act greatly expanded the FBI's ability to use what are called national security letters to obtain sensitive records without a court order. The letters are akin to subpoenas, demanding information about financial, phone or Internet transactions. When Congress granted this power to the agency, it was limited to "full investigations" based on specific evidence of a crime or security threat. But later the Justice Department quietly changed the rules to permit national security letters to be used in preliminary investigations based on mere suspicion. Within a few years, most of the letters were issued as part of such preliminary investigations. [Emphasis added]

The entire article deserves a full reading because Mr. Sanchez has really nailed. Then, it should be emailed or faxed to members of Congress with the suggestion that they haul some FBI backsides into the appropriate committee rooms for a chat on the rules of the game.

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Monday, June 27, 2011


Now that she's "in", Michele Bachman is beginning to get a sense of just what being a candidate for president is going to involve. Her words are going to be studied to see just how well they match up to her actions, and that means she's going to have to be just a little more careful than she has been to date.

This past weekend illustrates my point. The Los Angeles Times published an article (located here) in which the Tea Party darling was shown to have suckled at the teat of the government sow. Yesterday she was confronted with that article while appearing on a talk show, and her answers, such as they are, were quite revealing.

An examination of her record and finances showed that a counseling clinic run by her husband received nearly $30,000 from Minnesota and the federal government in the last five years. And a family farm in Wisconsin, where she is listed as a partner, received about $260,000 in federal subsidies.

In Bachmann's financial disclosure forms, she reported receiving between $32,503 and $105,000 in income from the farm, at minimum, between 2006 and 2009. ...

"First of all," she said, "the money that went to the clinic was actually training money for employees. The clinic did not get the money. And my husband and I did not get the money either. That's mental health training money that went to employees."

As for the farm, she said, it belonged to her father-in-law. "It's not my husband and my farm. And my husband and I have never gotten a penny of money from the farm."

"First of all," the money that trained the employees was money that she and her husband did not have to spend. The government took care of it.

"As for the farm," she was either lying to the Face the Nation interlocutor or she was lying on her financial disclosure forms, forms she presumably signed under penalty of perjury. Unfortunately (and as usual), that wasn't followed up on.

For someone who claims to be prayerfully guided by God, she's wandering into dangerous territory.


Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Poetry: Jesus Of Nazareth

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.

Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

--Jesus of Nazareth

Blessed Are The Poor ...

... for they shall go hungry.

Watching America had plenty of interesting stuff up this weekend, but the article which grabbed me did so because it alerted me to something we haven't heard much about here in the US. It has to do with another instance of the Republican's destruction of the social safety net.

From the U.K.'s Guardian:

With the latest set of proposals, "belt tightening" will have a very literal meaning for millions of Americans as Republicans in Congress have now proposed cutting and radically restructuring the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (Snap) – the programme more commonly known as food stamps – despite record numbers of people presently on the rolls. Without question, these cuts and changes would prove devastating for many of those to whom food stamps represent a last line of defence against hunger. ...

In March 2011, a record 44.5 million Americans received food stamps, which was an 11.1% increase over the year before. Even more illustrative of the profound impact the economic recession has had on poor and working-class Americans is the fact that this represents a 64% increase over the number of recipients in March 2008.
[Emphasis added]

Yes, House Republicans have gone after another program intended to help the poor and are doing so at a time when it is desperately needed. We heard plenty about Paul Ryan's plan to dismantle Medicare, but our press has been curiously silent about this attack on an important program, one that was intended by FDR, first, and LBJ, later, to assist people to even make it to old age.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Republican and House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" budget proposes deep cuts to Snap, and even more fundamental changes to how it is administered:

"[P]rogrammes that subsidise food and housing for low-income Americans remain dysfunctional, and their explosive growth is threatening the overall strength of the safety net."

His plan would turn Snap into a block grant programme in 2015 (along with Medicare, starting 2013), meaning the funds would be delivered to the individual states with only loose stipulations about how they are to be used. The belief is that this improves flexibility and promotes innovation and creativity in the delivery of federal funds. But coupled with Republicans' intention to slash Snap by 20% over the next ten years – or $127bn, as the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates – Ryan's plan could leave millions in danger of going hungry.
[Emphasis added]

Pass me my pitchfork.

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Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Joel Pett / Lexington Herald-Leader (June 23, 2011) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: Ladybug

(Photograph by Darlyne Murawski and published at National Geographic.)

One Reason For The Jobless Recovery

(Click on graph to enlarge)

Now, here's something guaranteed to raise your blood pressure. I know it ruined my day. It's an article from Mother Jones which explains one of the reasons why the unemployment figures in this country are still so high.

Webster's defines speedup as "an employer's demand for accelerated output without increased pay," and it used to be a household word. Bosses would speed up the line to fill a big order, to goose profits, or to punish a restive workforce. Workers recognized it, unions (remember those?) watched for and negotiated over it—and, if necessary, walked out over it.

But now we no longer even acknowledge it—not in blue-collar work, not in white-collar or pink-collar work, not in economics texts, and certainly not in the media (except when journalists gripe about the staff-compacted-job-expanded newsroom). Now the word we use is "productivity," a term insidious in both its usage and creep. The not-so-subtle implication is always: Don't you want to be a productive member of society? Pundits across the political spectrum revel in the fact that US productivity (a.k.a. economic output per hour worked) consistently leads the world. Yes, year after year, Americans wring even more value out of each minute on the job than we did the year before. U-S-A! U-S-A! ...

...increasingly, US workers are also falling prey to what we'll call offloading: cutting jobs and dumping the work onto the remaining staff. Consider a recent Wall Street Journal story about "superjobs," a nifty euphemism for employees doing more than one job's worth of work—more than half of all workers surveyed said their jobs had expanded, usually without a raise or bonus.

In all the chatter about our "jobless recovery," how often does someone explain the simple feat by which this is actually accomplished? US productivity increased twice as fast in 2009 as it had in 2008, and twice as fast again in 2010: workforce down, output up, and voilá! No wonder corporate profits are up 22 percent since 2007, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute. To repeat: Up. Twenty-two. Percent.
[Emphasis added]

That's right, kiddies: each employee is doing the work of 1.25 or 1.50 workers without any increase in pay or benefits. The great speedup has saved companies lots and lots of money, money which gets distributed to the shareholders and the top tier of management. That's what the chart at the top of the post confirms. Why hire more people to do the jobs that need doing when you can frighten the current workers into taking on the additional load lest they their jobs at a time when there just aren't that many jobs available.

Go read the entire article to see the effect this is having on the employed at the production level. Check out the charts provided and linked to. Then take a deep breath so we can figure out what to do about it.


Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging

Weak Tea?

Could the Tea Party be losing some of its cachet? That seems to be the message delivered in a Florida poll noted by the Miami Herald.

Beware, Florida Republicans: The tea party movement that swept you into office in 2010 could cost you the next election.

That’s the takeaway message from Republican pollster and consultant Alex Patton, who conducted a recent survey showing that, by a 2:1 ratio, registered Florida voters said the tea party movement did not represent their views.

The sentiment against the tea party is significantly higher among self-described independent voters, who swing elections in Florida and who looked unfavorably on the tea party by 3-to-1, the poll showed. Only Republican voters favored the tea party movement, with 68 percent in support and less than 20 percent opposed.

That's pretty astounding news, given that the last election occurred just under eight months ago and in that election the Tea Party in its various iterations helped the GOP win state houses and the House of Representatives. It appears that at least some voters, especially those pesky critters known as 'independents,' are having some second thoughts, at least in Florida.

“You’re going to see candidates walk a fine line,” said Tony Fabrizio, pollster for Gov. Rick Scott, who owed much of his success last year to the tea party.

“The tea party of a year ago is different from the tea party of today,” Fabrizio said. “Last year, the tea party was new, fresh and it represented the antigovernment outsider. Now, the brand maybe has a little tarnish.”

Has the Tea Party changed? Not from my vantage point. They continue to hammer on their favorite issues: no taxes, no social programs, no taxes. What has changed, however, are the opinions of a lot of voters who identify with the middle of the political spectrum. Buyer's remorse has set in with a vengeance as those centrists see just what the Tea Party means in practice: the rejection of federal monies for a rail project which would have provided some badly needed jobs for Floridians, a tightening of immigration laws which affects a state with a politically active Cuban population, and deep cuts to programs which most Floridians feel are necessary, such as education. Gov. Scott has delivered on his promises, and the people of Florida are beginning to feel the pinch.

Will that make a difference come November, 2012? Well, if these numbers hold, it just might:

The War Room Logistics poll showed that 46 percent of self-described moderate Republicans viewed the tea party unfavorably, compared with 36 percent who had a favorable opinion. Half of Republicans who sometimes vote for Democrats had an unfavorable view of the tea party, while 32 percent have a favorable opinion.

Overall, 64 percent of self-described moderates and more than half of split-ticket voters viewed the tea party unfavorably.

Republican candidates are going to have to engage in some tricky posturing during primaries and then during the general election.

Pass the popcorn.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011


Michele Bachman isn't Sarah Palin, we've been told. She's serious, more knowledgeable than Palin. She's had more experience on the national stage. She understands complicated issues because she's had to work on them in the House of Representatives.


This sure doesn't look to be much different than a Palin take on world affairs:

Rep. Michele Bachmann’s presidential Twitter account sent out a curious tweet on Monday evening, touting Canada’s lower unemployment rate as a "lesson in economic recovery" and attributing it to the lack of a stimulus program.

Just one problem: Canada did have a stimulus package.

In January 2009, as the U.S. was debating its own stimulus, Canada passed a $40 billion (in Canadian dollars) stimulus package over five years. The Toronto Star reported that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper boasted in April 2009 that Canada was “way ahead” of other countries in using its stimulus funds.

But beyond stimulus dollars, analysts say that Canada has fared better than the U.S. in the wake of the financial crisis because its banks have fared better.

The reason? Regulation. ...

While Bachmann is apparently a fan of Canada, but she’s no fan of banking regulation, as she has been one of the most vocal opponents of the Dodd-Franken bill that passed last year. She has a bill in Congress to repeal it.

And that's from her "hometown" newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, not the usual lamestream media.

Sounds a lot like Ms. Palin to me.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011


There's an interesting article on recall elections in the Los Angeles Times. It notes the sudden increase in the number of recalls being filed successfully and also suggests some of the reasons behind that increase.

Once a political rarity, recall elections are surging in local and state governments. ...

Joshua Spivak, who studies recalls and blogs about them at, said there had been only 20 attempted recalls of state legislators in U.S. history. This year, 10 are already on the ballot. Much of that is because of an unprecedented outbreak of recalls in Wisconsin, where the newly elected Republican governor's proposal to limit the power of unions led to recalls against six Republican state senators who voted for the bill, and three Democrats who left the state to try to stop its passage.

Spivak said he thought recall attempts could increase along the lines of their electoral sibling, ballot initiatives, which once were rare but since the 1970s have been a fixture on election day. Recalls may end up the same way, he said.

"It is growing and it is something that people are seeing as a valuable tool against elected officials," he said, noting that more states are permitting recalls and that even Australia and England might follow suit. "People want more checks on their elected officials."

Indeed, the recall and initiative processes were both introduced last century as a means to hold elected officials more accountable, and to some extent they are being used in that fashion today, but with some decided twists. Back then, both were intended to give citizens a way to redress grievances when those they elected backslid on promises or became just a little too greedy. Now, they've become a double edged sword. Big money and corporations have gotten into the act, buying spots on the ballots for propositions that enhance bottom lines and destroying politicians who have gotten in the way of that goal. And a new industry, professional signature gatherers, has emerged which makes complying with election law easier.

Sadly, there's another reason the recall process has become easier. Most laws regarding qualifying a recall for a special election tie the number of signatures required to a percentage of votes cast in the last election. Because fewer people are actually voting these days, that isn't hard to do. In other words, citizens now want a mulligan because they couldn't be bothered to do their jobs the first time around.

That's a very expensive way to run a democracy.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Target Practice

I had planned to take today off from the internet. I have a cold which has settled in my chest and I've about had it with the weather phenomenon in SoCal known as "June Gloom," in which the skies are cloudy until late in the afternoon. I'm tired of the unending and banal stupidity emanating from Washington DC and most state capitols. I just wanted to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head for what would hopefully be more than three hours of sleep at a time.

I would have done it, too, if my interest in the GOP campaign for 2012 hadn't overcome my indulgent self-pity. There's something about that cast of characters that sucks me in every time. Today's edition comes courtesy of Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, who takes a look at pizza magnate Herman Cain, a political rookie, and his promise to do things a little differently when selecting his cabinet.

On the issue of Muslims serving in public office, every explanation by presidential candidate Herman Cain becomes a complication. In three instances Cain affirmed that Muslims would not be allowed to serve in his Cabinet or administration. “Many of the Muslims,” he explained, “they’re not totally dedicated to this country.” Cain then amended his remarks to say that, while Muslims would be allowed to serve, they should be subject to “extra precautions” not applied to Catholics or Mormons.

Gerson dispenses with this nonsense by going to the source which is supposed to be an authority of some magnitude in the country, the US Constitution:

The Constitution addresses this matter directly. Article VI requires legislative, judicial and executive officials to take a loyalty oath to the Constitution. It continues: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” After Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposed this language at the Constitutional Convention, a delegate to North Carolina’s ratifying convention objected that it would allow “pagans, deists and Mahometans” to seek office. It was ratified anyway — even though many state constitutions at the time contained religious tests. In urging ratification, James Madison dismissed these state restrictions as “less carefully and properly defined” than the federal document. Government service, he argued, should be “open to merit of every description, whether native or adoptive, whether young or old, and without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith."

Gerson is right, of course, but he fails to point out just what is going on here. Cain is clearly waving red meat at the Republican faithful. Muslims! Sharia law! And (of course) 9/11! 9/11! 9/11! The now traditional enemy of all right-thinking (and I do mean RIGHT thinking) Americans.

The problem is that 9/11 happened nearly ten years ago and the boogie man who led the attack is now dead. The real enemy of the people is not the Muslim religion, it is the religion of the latest iteration of capitalists, the Herman Cains, if you will.

What ails America right now is joblessness and poverty in the midst of unparalleled prosperity for those who run the economy game. Businesses which refuse to hire and to pay appropriate wages because of "regulatory uncertainty" are sitting on trillions of dollars worth of cash, some of which is doled out to the CEOs who increase that treasure for the benefit of shareholders. Instead of addressing that crucial issue, Cain and his compatriots are waving shiny keys labeled "Muslim!" at the rest of us, urging us to vote for them so that they can finally do away with the biggest menace to the American Way Of Life.

Sadly, there are many who will buy what Herman Cain and Michele Bachman and Mitt Romney are selling, even as their own private economies go swirling down the bathtub drain along with the federal government.

Now I'll go back to bed.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

The Unitary President: Version 2.0

George W. Bush didn't really have much use for Congress. Under his White House's theory of governance, the executive branch held all the meaningful cards. Congress was just there to rubber stamp his decisions, which, of course, it mostly did.

Barack Obama, who campaigned against such arrogance, has changed his thinking on the issue after getting a taste of the power he now holds under the theory of the Unitary President. Like his predecessor, he's discovered that all he needs is a convenient legal opinion from one of his many staff lawyers and he can do as he pleases.

That became quite clear over the past few weeks with respect to our share of the action to roust the current leader of Libya. He did not seek authorization from Congress to join in the fight, nor, after the 90 days mandated by the War Powers Act of 1973, does he intend to. He made that clear on Saturday.

Needless to say, Congress is not amused.

From the Washington Post:

Unhappiness in Congress was magnified Saturday by a report that Obama ignored some of his legal counselors when he decided last week that the Libya campaign should not be counted as “hostilities.”

That decision allowed him to bypass the 1973 War Powers Resolution, a law that requires presidents to report to Congress on any ongoing military conflict within a limited period of time. After receiving the report, Congress then has to decide whether to authorize the action taken.

Now, there are no US troops officially on the ground there (if you don't count CIA operatives), but there sure are a lot of bombs being dropped by NATO forces. That doesn't seem to matter. Here's the specious argument offered by the White House:

“U.S. military operations [in Libya] are distinct from the kind of ‘hostilities’ contemplated by” the War Powers Resolution, a White House report said.

The logic was that U.S. forces are mainly limited to supply, logistics and intelligence missions — although American drones continue to attack Libyan targets.
[Emphasis added]

I guess what the president is saying is that if there are no pilots in the cockpit, those bombs aren't being dropped with any hostile intent.

That makes about as much sense as using the AUMF to invade Afghanistan as a shield for invading Iraq. And the attitude of both presidents appears to me to be identical.

So what can Congress do about it besides kvetch? About the only meaningful thing would be to cut off all funding for those non-hostile US forces engaged in the Libyan battle and hope to do that with a veto-proof majority in both houses. I don't think that's in the cards. There are too many people who enjoy making things explode in other countries currently seated in those august bodies.

All that remains is a sternly worded letter, and we know how that will be greeted.

Some change, eh?

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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Poetry: William Blake

And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

--William Blake

It's Elementary

I suggested yesterday that the Tea Partiers and their friends essentially want to starve the federal government by ending all taxation. That isn't as far-fetched a conclusion as it might seem, as I discovered during my weekly visit to Watching America. One of the major themes this week is the world-wide financial turmoil and the source of much of it.

Most directly on point with the argument I was making yesterday was this opinion piece by Diane Francis in the financial section of Canada's National Post. Ms. Francis notes that the US and Greece have deficit problems for the same reason: the two governments don't collect enough taxes for the programs their citizens insist on.

Essentially, the two are frighteningly similar. The Greeks, with their tear gas and Molotov cocktails, refuse to give up entitlements or pay for them through taxation and are simply a violent version of the havoc that the US Congress is wreaking. But the US anti-taxers do “violence” against people by allowing those making $250,000 a year or more to pay less tax, through Bush loopholes, than does a single parent mother in Baltimore or a soldier in Afghanistan. ...

...The United States sputters in large measure because its politicians have lousy credit ratings which impedes job creation and activity and helps explain the lack of investment, credit or the inability to finance the building of infrastructure through private-public partnerships. American governments are lousy bets because they don’t or cannot collect enough taxes to pay their bills.

I think that states the problems both countries face quite nicely. The Tea Party contingent wants government to quit spending money, yet many showed up at town hall meetings after the passage of the health care reform bill astride their Medicare provided scooters. The GOP wants corporate taxes lowered to stimulate the economy and to create jobs even though that tactic hasn't ever worked and certainly won't this time as the multinationals are outsourcing everything they can to other countries.

Austerity, the new mantra of the tax cutters, takes away the purchasing power of the citizenry, which takes out the need for more employees to build the goods or provide the services that otherwise would have been bought. By starving the beast, the Tea Party contingent would destroy the economic underpinnings of the country it pretends to revere.

Morons. Evil and ignorant morons, every last one of them.


Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Kevin Siers / The Charlotte Observer (June 17, 2011) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: Great Horned Owl

(Photograph by James Galletto, My Shot and published at National Geographic.)

And The Crazy Keeps On Coming

Republicans are a funny lot, and they keep getting funnier by the minute. How else do you explain the news that a conservative PAC in Utah has decided that Orrin Hatch, a senator for 35 years, needs to go because he just isn't conservative enough. Orrin Hatch, the man who has pursed his lips so often that now he doesn't appear to have any lips at all. Well, this news had my eyes spinning like a slot machine.

"The bottom line is Hatch doesn’t represent the state of Utah," Russ Walker, vice president of political and grass-roots campaigns for FreedomWorks PAC, said in a statement. "The state of Utah is far more fiscally conservative than Orrin Hatch is."

That is not a new sentiment. A little more than a year ago, a Salt Lake Tribune poll showed signs of a crack in Hatch's popularity. The poll, which the paper reported in May 2010, found that 51% of respondents said they would elect someone other than Hatch if he were up for reelection that year, while only 35% would support him.

Now, 35 years is a long time, so maybe it is time for Hatch to retire, but forcing him into it because he isn't "fiscally conservative" enough for his state is really reaching. According to the post, Hatch recently scored in the 90+% range in several conservative rankings on the issue. Are his constituents disgusted with the pork he has brought home by virtue of the power of his seniority? He sure hasn't been doling out the dollars to the rest of the country.

So, what's the beef? Apparently that any expenditure by the federal government is suspect because it spends taxpayer dollars. The new breed of Republicans, the Tea Partiers and their ilk, don't like that. In fact, they don't much like the concept of taxpayer dollars itself. If the federal government would just stop spending money then they wouldn't have to pay taxes at all. That apparently is the goal.

Of course, that goal would result in the end of a federal government, of the whole idea of the United States. That strikes me as totally unAmerican and possibly seditious.

We sure are living in weird times.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging

Poor Mitt, Poor Us

I've said for a while now that the GOP presidential nomination is Mitt Romney's to lose. This week it appears that he's working in that direction. His quip about being unemployed is about as tone deaf a comment, no matter how lighthearted, made in a long time. And the fact that he made the comment in a room filled with unemployed people only made it worse.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other Democrats were quick to pounce on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s remark in Tampa on Thursday that he can relate to the jobless because “I’m also unemployed.”

“I’m networking,” Romney reportedly told a small gathering of job seekers. “I have my sight on a particular job.”

The former governor is hardly suffering from his current lack of employment. He doesn't have to worry about losing his home or feeding his family. He can spend his time raising hundreds of thousands of dollars a day to keep his campaign going. He can fly in a private jet, if he chooses, to the next speech or meet-and-greet. He can choose whatever he wants from the menu without worrying about the cost.

It was a stupid, deeply insensitive set of remarks, and the Democrats were only too happy to jump all over them. He deserved what they had to say, but, to be fair, I'm not so certain the Democrats get it either. Their behavior sure hasn't shown that they can relate to the unemployment problem wracking the country. Instead of designing programs which would immediately put people back to work repairing infrastructure and building innovative green energy projects, everyone in Congress and the White House has been busy giving tax breaks to the wealthy and to businesses who are only too happy to spend that money in other countries.

Mitt may remain unemployed, but I can think of a whole lot of others on the government payroll who deserve that prospect come November, 2012.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Oops, There Goes Another Tomahawk Missile

Andrew Malcolm can be a real cranky old bastard, a quality I'm beginning to appreciate in a man even when I don't always agree with him. Malcolm has his full grumpiness on in his latest blog post for the Los Angeles Times, this time over President Obama's latest war, Libya.

The Obama administration is spending almost $9.5 million every single day to blow things up in Libya because the president has determined that is in the country's national interest, this country's national interest, not Libya's.

You may not have noticed the $392,542 flowing out of the national treasury every hour, day and night, since those first $1.5 million Tomahawks flashed from the launch tubes back on March 19.
[Emphasis added]

Although that doesn't look like much money to people in Washington (they tend to think in billions of dollars), spending $9 million a day is pretty significant to the rest of us struggling to keep the lights on in the home we'd like to keep. But there's more to Malcolm's disgust than the money, something even bigger. Something so big that even Washingtonians are getting a little antsy over.

Capitol Hill and many Americans have the notion that Congress is responsible for declaring war. They cite the War Powers Act of 1973, a legislative legacy of the divisive Vietnam War, which was also prosecuted by a Democratic president.

That act, passed by a veto-beating two-thirds majority, sets numerous requirements for any president involving the U.S. military without congressional authorization or a declaration of war: There must be an "attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces."

The president must notify Congress within 48 hours. And the White House has a total of 90 days to prosecute the conflict and withdraw without a declaration of war or legislative authorization.

Sunday is Day 90 of the Libyan war.

Now, nobody in Congress seemed too annoyed with the previous administration for invading Iraq which had not attacked us and was not sheltering those who did (the excuse used to attack Afghanistan, which provided a quick Authorization for the Use of Military Force from Congress). That doesn't make President Obama's care free attitude towards generating more military activity any more justifiable. The Constitution is clear about who gets to declare war, and the War Powers Act of 1973 underscores that constitutional mandate. It was wrong when Bush did it, just as it is now.

And we also could use the money right now for some pretty important domestic needs.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Katrina vanden Heuvel has come up with a pretty good idea on reducing the federal deficit. I don't think the Pentagon is going to be real happy, but I don't see that as an insurmountable obstacle.

According to the Pentagon, there are approximately 865 US military bases abroad—over 1,000 if new bases in Iraq and Afghanistan are included. The cost? $102 billion annually—and that doesn’t include the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan bases. ...

The bases—isolated from the host communities and, as [anthropologist Hugh] Gusterson writes, “generating resentment against [their] prostitution, environmental damage, petty crime, and everyday ethnocentrism”—face growing opposition from local citizens. ...

While major peace organizations and other groups focused on human needs are demanding that the military budget be cut in order to fund vital domestic programs, the empire of bases is often overlooked.

“Most people involved in this work have no idea that the US maintains a network of roughly 1,000 foreign military bases,” says Joseph Garson, director of programs for the American Friends Service Committee in New England and editor of The Sun Never Sets: Confronting the Network of U.S. Foreign Military Bases. “Similarly, they have no awareness that the bipartisan budget reduction commission called for cutting the number of US foreign military bases by a third.”

That's a pretty expensive way to keep the empire intact, but I'm not so sure we can afford the bases or even the empire, especially since there's no real proof all of those bases are providing us with any kind of security. I mean, how many bases do we have to have in Germany? Do we need even one?

Vanden Heuvel's conclusion is, as always, right on the mark:

The plain truth is that the staggering resources we spend to support an empire of bases isn’t making us more secure. Instead, they fuel resentment and consume resources desperately needed to invest here at home, as well as targeted development aid that could be used more wisely and efficiently by non-military experts.

Go read the whole post. It's worth it.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Unofficially Officially In

Michele Bachman used last night's GOP candidates' debate to announce that she had filed papers with the feds to become an official candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, but that she would make an official announcement later in the month. She dropped that bit of news in response to a totally unrelated question posed by the debate's moderator. The whole riff pretty much typifies Ms. Bachman's way of doing things, as this lengthy article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune makes clear. It's headline gives it away: "Bachman: Outsider From The Start."

...Bachmann's polarizing journey from the State Capitol to Congress and possibly beyond has been a tale of high drama and conflict. Few Republicans in Congress generate more animosity from Democrats, a point of pride for Bachmann in frequent fundraising pitches that portray her as a top target of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

More significant are the divisions she has sown within her own party, where she is seen as a Tea Party maven all too willing to overshadow GOP leaders in Congress, going so far as to eclipse the official GOP response to President Obama's State of the Union Address in January with one of her own.

"You've got to be willing to take on our party, the other party and then explain it to the people," she told GOP supporters in New Hampshire recently. "I know I can make the case to the American people and win them over to our side." ...

"She very much had a vision, she felt it was the right vision, and she was going to ramrod it through regardless of what anyone else wanted," said Stephens, a longtime Republican who has turned independent.
[Emphasis added]

Her announcement last night put some really interesting twists into the process for the Republicans. First of all, as one of the two divas for the Tea Party, Bachman has stolen some of the other diva's thunder. Sarah Palin has been teasing the press and the rest of the country with respect to her own possible entrance into the fray. Bachman has in effect told Palin that regardless of her decision, Bachman's into the race and ready to go. That should steal Palin's thunder, at least a little bit. Perhaps now the press will get off its "will-she-or-won't she" non-stop coverage of La Palin.

Secondly, the announcement put a little pressure on another Minnesotan candidate: former Governor Tim Pawlenty, who has been struggling to get attention beyond Bill O'Reilly's dismissal of him as "vanilla." Pawlenty and Bachman have a history, one that goes back to when both served in the Minnesota legislature, and it wasn't always pleasant. Pawlenty was too much a good Republican. Their earlier difficulties are bound to resurface as the real race heats up.

Finally, assuming that the race is Mitt Romney's to lose, she is still a potential candidate for the number two slot. She is, after all, someone the Tea Partiers love and it appears that the group will continue to make life uncomfortable for more traditional Republicans. Will the party be willing to make that kind of decision two presidential elections in a row?

It's too early to tell how all of this will pan out, but it sure is fun watching.


Monday, June 13, 2011

Oh, Please

I am always amazed at how low the small-government, anti-regulation folks will stoop to pass their agenda. Today, however, I was shocked to discover that their latest target is the Humane Society. Yes, that's right: the Humane Society, that organization which looks out for abused animals and tries to put a stop to such things as organized dog fighting and the unnecessarily brutal treatment of agricorps' farm animals.

A group has targeted the Humane Society with ads claiming that the organization doesn't fund local shelters, something which the ad claims the organization implies in its literature.

From an editorial in the Los Angeles Times:

One of the current ads features a photo of dogs looking wide-eyed in shock under the caption "SURPRISED to hear the Humane Society of the United States shares only 1 percent of your donations with local pet shelters?" The ad goes on to state that the Humane Society "is NOT your local animal shelter."

The ad is true on both counts. But it's also misleading. The Humane Society has never claimed that its mission is to fund local animal shelters. Among the projects it does fund are legislative campaigns to pass animal protection laws in various states, investigations into animal cruelty (including dogfighting, puppy mills and factory farms), three wildlife rehabilitation centers and two horse sanctuaries, emergency shelter operations in areas hit by disasters and veterinary services in rural areas. In some communities it also has supported low-cost spay and neuter facilities. While some people may mistakenly believe that the Humane Society of the United States does the same job local humane societies do, it should not surprise anyone who has looked at the organization's website that only a small percentage of its money goes to local shelters.

So, who's behind these ads and what's their real gripe? is a project of the nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom, a feisty and unapologetic warrior against what it sees as over-regulation of consumers' habits. In the decade and a half since the organization was founded by Rick Berman — who also runs a for-profit communications company — it has criticized health advocates for calling obesity an epidemic and has gone after Mothers Against Drunk Driving for its support of "needlessly" low drunk-driving thresholds.

Somebody needs to get a life.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sunday Poetry: Gwendolyn Brooks

Sadie and Maud
Maud went to college.
Sadie stayed home.
Sadie scraped life
With a fine toothed comb.

She didn't leave a tangle in
Her comb found every strand.
Sadie was one of the livingest chicks
In all the land.

Sadie bore two babies
Under her maiden name.
Maud and Ma and Papa
Nearly died of shame.

When Sadie said her last so-long
Her girls struck out from home.
(Sadie left as heritage
Her fine-toothed comb.)

Maud, who went to college,
Is a thin brown mouse.
She is living all alone
In this old house.

--Gwendolyn Brooks

A Simple Bloody Truth

If it's Sunday, it's Watching America day. This week's review was a bit tricky, because there really wasn't one overall theme. I didn't have to search long, however, before I found one article containing one sentence that captured my feelings succinctly.

From Germany's Neues Deutschland:

General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke of “a highly successful meeting” of NATO’s 28 ministers of defense. NATO would now be leaner and more flexible in order to better deal with future challenges. Probably true, since coming up with policies much worse and divisive than those in Afghanistan and Libya would be difficult. ...

Among the bloody lessons Germany has learned in Afghanistan is that political change can’t be bombed into anyone. Nevertheless, would-be global powers like France and Great Britain just won’t back off. And the United States is no longer in a position, nor is it prepared, to support every global war that comes along.
[Emphasis added]

If only the powers that run the US would finally conclude that bombing people into democracy just doesn't work! It might not stop all the wars, but it would remove one convenient excuse from the laundry list hauled out by the current occupier of the White House whenever he wanted to get his war on.


Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Kevin Siers / The Charlotte Observer (June 7, 2011) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: Hawaiian Monk Seal

(Photograph by Bill Curtsinger and published at National Geographic.)

Political Rookie Mistake?

Most of the press has written off Newt Gingrich's campaign for president now that the old pros of his staff have walked off, and that actually makes me sad. It's not that I wanted the Newt to win, far from it; it's just that I wanted to enjoy what obviously was going to be a non-traditional campaign. I really do hope he doesn't withdraw any time soon, but the pundits tell me he will have to. Here's what three of the political writers at the Washington Post had to say about this week's "implosion":

On one side was an unconventional presidential candidate. He was enthralled with making documentaries to sell his ideas and captivated by the notion that wooing Chinese Americans could be a key to winning Iowa.

On the other side was a team of political operatives shocked by the flamboyance of the candidate’s stumbles, his resistance to their advice and the dire state of his campaign finances. While he was away on a lavish vacation that they had warned him not to take, they drafted a memo raising the possibility of a graceful exit from the race. ...

As the political world is writing him off, the former House speaker continues to insist that he will carry on, that he will even re?invent the whole art and science of campaigning for national office.

“There is a fundamental strategic difference between the traditional consulting community and the kind of campaign I want to run,” Gingrich told reporters camped out Friday at his suburban Virginia house. “We’ll find out over the next year who’s right."

The press and the old school campaign operatives are betting that the Newt won't get very far with his unconventional campaign, primarily because of money, and that too saddens me. Of course, a candidate for president who doesn't have a finance unit in place to raise funds and who doesn't like to work the phones himself for the cash certainly is going to have a problem, especially if said candidate has a penchant for burning through cash in a hurry. Gingrich insisted on private planes to get him home each night rather than commercial flights, and that's expensive, which is not exactly in tune with an image of fiscal conservatism.

Still, there ought to be room in national campaigns for something besides the weak tea and white toast we are always given. Newt has proven that he can get press coverage at the drop of a hat (or a "big idea"), and that's free. It also gives the electorate more than a carefully crafted thirty-second commercial which ultimately tells us nothing of substance.

Apparently no such room exists anymore, at least in the eyes of the pundits and campaign operatives who have made good livings doing it the conventional way. Part of me hopes that on this issue, Newt wins, or at least makes a decent showing. That'll be the best gift he could give the country.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging

For Shame

Here's an ugly statistic for you, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times:

Of the estimated 107,000 homeless veterans in the United States, about 8,200 are in the Los Angeles region, the VA says, citing 2009 figures. More chronically homeless veterans reside in Los Angeles than in any other city. Some sleep on the sidewalks just outside the VA fence.

That there are so many homeless veterans in the nation is astounding. That so many of those homeless vets are located in Los Angeles which has a huge Veteran's Administration campus developed on land originally donated for the purpose of providing housing for veterans is even more shocking. But the story gets even worse.

Contending that the region's population of disabled homeless veterans has reached crisis proportions, a coalition led by the ACLU of Southern California filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging that the federal Department of Veterans Affairs has misused large portions of its West Los Angeles campus and failed to provide adequate housing and treatment for the people it was intended to serve.

"This is the first lawsuit of its kind in the country seeking to end homelessness for U.S. veterans," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU's L.A. office. "In Los Angeles we have a 387-acre parcel deeded in 1888 for the specific purpose of housing a permanent home for U.S. soldiers, and it's now housing rental cars, buses, hotel laundry facilities and state-of-the-art sports facilities for a private school." ...

Rosenbaum said the ACLU would be calling on VA officials, legislators and the White House to launch a congressional investigation into how the sprawling campus has been used. Some of the companies occupying portions of the property under an "enhanced sharing agreement" include Enterprise Rent-a-Car; Tumbleweed Transportation, a charter bus company; Sodexho Marriott, a hotel laundry facility; the UCLA baseball team; and Brentwood School, a private school with state-of-the-art sports facilities on the campus. Such uses limit the amount of land that can be devoted to housing veterans, the lawsuit contends.

VA officials claim that the money from those private rentals funded programs for veterans using its services. Even so, why are there other vacant or underused buildings on the campus which aren't being converted to housing/treatment facilities for homeless vets? Why are those homeless vets sleeping on the sidewalks just outside the facility rather than on beds inside the facility?

The answer, of course, is that the Veteran's Administration is not getting the funding and the mandate it needs to get the job done. Congress and the White House is willing to spend billions on fancy tanks and fighter jets, drones and munitions, but not on the men and women who fight those wars, declared and secret, which just keep on keeping on.


Utterly, completely shameful.

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Thursday, June 09, 2011

And Yet Another War

Iraq. Afghanistan/Pakistan. Libya. Yemen.


Yes. Yemen. We are sending drones and bombing sites in Yemen according to the New York Times.

The Obama administration has intensified the American covert war in Yemen, exploiting a growing power vacuum in the country to strike at militant suspects with armed drones and fighter jets, according to American officials.

The acceleration of the American campaign in recent weeks comes amid a violent conflict in Yemen that has left the government in Sana, a United States ally, struggling to cling to power. Yemeni troops that had been battling militants linked to Al Qaeda in the south have been pulled back to the capital, and American officials see the strikes as one of the few options to keep the militants from consolidating power. ...

The extent of America’s war in Yemen has been among the Obama administration’s most closely guarded secrets, as officials worried that news of unilateral American operations could undermine Mr. Saleh’s tenuous grip on power. Mr. Saleh authorized American missions in Yemen in 2009, but placed limits on their scope and has said publicly that all military operations had been conducted by his own troops.

Run jointly by the Pentagon and the CIA, this secret war isn't so secret anymore. We've been bombing parts of Yemen to weaken Al Qaeda elements there for years, presumably throughout President Obama's first term and probably during President Bush's tenure. And, like our drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we've been hitting innocent civilians as well as the pesky evil-doers, on the taxpayers' dime but without our knowledge and without explicit Senate approval.

Now, with our "ally," Mr. Saleh, another Middle East tyrant about to be deposed and healing from wounds in Saudi Arabia, all restrictions on when and where those strikes take place appear to have disappeared. The action is ramping up.

That AUMF passed by the Senate more than nine years ago certainly has come in handy, eh?

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Sins Of The Father

Well, the US Supreme Court finally got one right. It refused to hear a case challenging a California law. From the Sacramento Bee:

Under AB 540, any individual – regardless of immigration status – who graduates from a California high school after attending for three years qualifies for the same tuition discount offered to California residents. Eight other states have similar laws – Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, New York, Texas, Utah and Washington.

U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Carlsbad – who used to be a lobbyist for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nativist organization that wants to limit even legal immigration – sued to overturn AB 540. He made this an issue leading up to the 2006 special election to Congress to replace Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who had resigned after pleading guilty to bribery.

The state legislature passed the bill overwhelmingly, something exceedingly rare these days in California. The California Supreme Court rejected the reasoning of Bilbray and the other state immigrant-bashers who brought the case, and now even the Roberts' Supreme Court agrees that the law meets Constitutional muster. The law will stand, as it should. It's in the state's best interest for its residents to receive an education.

Chalk one up for the good guys.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Grinding Axes

There's a weird little editorial in today's Los Angeles Times today, one that momentarily had me scratching my head. It has to do with the Transportation Safety Administration and some Republican attacks on the federal agency which came into being after 9/11.

Now, I'm not much of a cheerleader for the TSA. I think the screening being done on passengers is unnecessarily intrusive and violates the privacy rights of the traveling public. Like most measures taken in the aftermath of 9/11, the creation of the TSA was an over-reaction which keeps doubling down. That said, if we still have much to fear from Al Qaeda and other terrorists and if said terrorists intend to keep using jumbo jets to ram into buildings, then I suppose we probably should have a way to keep swarthy young men with box cutters off passenger airliners.

So, what's the deal? Why is the GOP being mean to the Transportation Safety Administration? Simple, the Republicans want to privatize the system of checking passengers for pointy objects and explosive-laced underwear. They want to return to the pre-9/11 system.

Before 9/11, airport security was handled by private contractors, whose performance was considered suspect by aviation experts long before they allowed 19 hijackers with knives and box cutters to board planes that fateful day. The TSA was created two months later to give the government more oversight, but some GOP lawmakers have been grumbling ever since — and the grumbling has turned to action in the wake of two decisions by new TSA chief John S. Pistole.

In January, Pistole decided to limit a program that allows airports to opt out of federal protection and instead contract with private security companies; the 16 airports already in the program could continue, but no others could join without demonstrating "clear and substantial advantages." In response, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, vowed an investigation of the program. A week later, Pistole annoyed GOP lawmakers even more by announcing that TSA screeners would be granted collective bargaining rights.
[Emphasis added]

Ah...there we go! TSA screeners would be allowed to unionize. We can't be having that. Better we should have private drones with no rights viewing our private parts. It's cheaper and the government needs to cut spending.

...House Republicans took out their ire on the TSA by cutting $270 million from its 2012 budget in a homeland security bill approved last week; if that's approved by the Senate, the agency would have to lay off 10% of its screeners. The bill also would take away collective bargaining rights for TSA workers. Cutting screeners would mean longer lines. And GOP fears over the extremely limited rights being granted to the TSA workforce — they can't bargain on such matters as compensation or security procedures, only such picayune issues as shifts and transfers — are overblown.

Lewis Carroll would really love this tea party, clean cups and all.


Monday, June 06, 2011

Michael Gets It

Once again, Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzig proves that he has a firmer grip on reality than most Republicans. His latest column takes a look at the Ryan Medicare proposal, finds it morally bankrupt, and offers some alternatives to reining in healthcare costs.

His first blast is aimed at Ryan's tying Medicare costs to deficit cutting. Hiltzig points out that Medicare didn't cause the deficit. That was caused by fighting two wars off-budget and giving tax cuts to the wealthy. He also admits, however, that Medicare does need to pare expenditures, just like all healthcare programs.

Medicare's ills are entwined with our national system of healthcare — how it's used and how it's distributed. You're not going to make a dent in the problem unless you change the underlying system. Ryan's approach doesn't lay a finger on that system, except to magnify its inefficiencies and expense. ...

...In fact, plenty of research points to ways to extract excess costs from the healthcare system and to alter its embedded incentives to reward efficient and effective care rather than just lots of care.

Some of these methods were enacted last year as part of healthcare reform, much of which Rep. Ryan proposes to repeal. The healthcare act reduced payments for Medicare Advantage plans, HMO-like plans that have turned into lavish giveaways to health insurers. The act will save $136 billion over 10 years by trimming those government handouts to insurers, according to a CBO projection. Ryan would put insurers in the saddle. ...

The medical and drug lobbies have beaten down numerous other cost-cutting proposals over the years. Medicare could save $24 billion to $60 billion a year in drug costs, according to various estimates, if it were permitted to negotiate prices directly with drug companies for its Part D pharmaceutical benefit. Pressure from Big Pharma killed any hope of that when the drug benefit was enacted in 2003.

The indispensable key to bringing down healthcare costs, and therefore Medicare costs, is to alter the incentives driving both insurance pricing and doctor and hospital behavior. One idea is known as competitive bidding, which would require health plans to bid to provide a minimum menu of Medicare benefits; the government subsidy for Medicare members would be pegged to the cheapest bid. Members who chose a more expensive company would pay the difference out of their own pockets, a requirement that proponents say would force insurers to truly compete on price and quality of care.

More fundamentally, what may be needed to change the cost profile of American medicine is a reorientation of care at the end of life from extending one's years at all costs to improving the quality of those years. That means less institutionalization, more home healthcare, a more rational appraisal of heroically aggressive therapies. It doesn't mean rationing or "death panels," but change in the name of humaneness and dignity.

Those are just a few of the things people interested in actually saving Medicare should be looking at. Michael Hiltzig managed to do so in one column. Surely Congress could do likewise, but it won't unless more people speak out with their voices and their votes.

One way to get some movement in the proper direction might be to simply email Hiltzig's column to the congress critters. Let them know you're paying attention and you expect them to do likewise.

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Sunday, June 05, 2011

Sunday Poetry: ee cummings

i sing of Olaf glad and big

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelovéd colonel (trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but-though an host of overjoyed
noncoms (first knocking on the head
him) do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments-
Olaf (being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds, without getting annoyed
"I will not kiss your fucking flag"

straightaway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but-though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation's blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skillfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat-
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
"there is some shit I will not eat"

our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died

Christ (of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you

--ee cummings

Running Hard To Lose

It wasn't hard to select an article from those provided by Watching America this week. How could I pass one by that opened with this sentence: "The Republican Party is working hard to fall from grace in record time." The article, from Belgium's De Morgen, provides a pretty good assessment of where America is at this point in the election cycle.

Pointing to the GOP's determination to privatize Medicare at all costs, the article makes it clear that the American electorate is not in the mood to have the last bit of their tattered security blanked shredded any further.

A lot of this has to do with Medicare, the popular public health insurance for retired people. Still drunk on their victory in November, the Republicans decided to launch their proposition to privatize Medicare. Basically, elderly people would receive checks with which they could buy health insurance on the private market. These checks would not cover all costs though, and since the value of the checks does not increase with the duration of their lives, retired people will gradually have to pay larger amounts out of pocket even if it means giving up their last dime, because if you are old and sick enough (which we will all be one day), you do not have a choice anymore. It will be pay or die.

The Americans have had a rough siege the past five years. Barack Obama promised to make it better and was elected. He didn't make it better, so the public turned to the GOP, who promised to make it better, electing a Republican majority in the House. The problem is that the GOP's idea of making it better is to make it better for the already-haves, not the losing-what-little-they-haves. The recent special election in New York shows how well that worked.

Meanwhile, Americans are angry and getting angrier:

The Americans are right to be angry. Company profits are once again off the charts, and CEO's are collecting bonuses as if there never had been a “Great Recession,” but the common people keep suffering. Unemployment is stagnant at nine percent. Add the number of people who are forced to work part-time because they fail to find a full-time job, and you end up with a number that constantly balances just underneath a terrifying twenty percent. Tens of thousands of people are still losing their houses every month, and millions of others see the value of their properties drop.

Here's the hard part, however, something which the article doesn't take into consideration. The Republicans may be screwing things up royally, but the Democrats aren't doing anything productive beyond pointing and laughing at the GOP with that election looming a mere seventeen freakin' months away. There have been no proposals to get people back to work under a WPA type program. There have been no bills introduced to rework mortgages so that people could actually stay in their homes. There have been no meaningful investigations of the banksters who caused most of this economic turmoil, much less any prosecutions. Apparently it wouldn't be prudent. After all, there's campaign money to rustle up.

Until the American public curses both parties and starts making some stiff-necked demands backed up by pitch forks and torches, I see no real change on the horizon.

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Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Tom Toles and published June 1, 2011 in the Washington Post. Click on image to enlarge).


Saturday, June 04, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: Draco Lizard

(Photograph by Premaphotos, Alamy and published at National Geographic. Click on the link to learn more about these flying lizards.)

Somebody Needs His Diaper Changed

Extortion is such an ugly word, but it's the right one for what Sen. David Vitter (Moron, Louisiana) is pulling right now.

From an editorial in the New York Times:

It sounded like a simple bit of noncontroversial Senate routine: raising the salary of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to the level of his cabinet peers. Then, with all the finesse of a shakedown artist, Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, declared that he will keep a legislative hold on the $19,600-a-year raise until Mr. Salazar has his department approve more deepwater drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I cannot possibly give my assent,” the senator wrote to Mr. Salazar. Far from any concern about laws against quid pro quo Washington deals, Mr. Vitter vowed in a press release to keep his “boot on the neck” of the department until his drilling demands are met.

In the wake of the gulf oil spill disaster, the senator wants to regenerate industry jobs, and he is demanding an approval rate of at least six drilling permits per month. Most of the 15 approved since the oil spill, he contends, amount to reissuings.

Apparently the inestimable senator was dissatisfied with the job BP did last year so he wants a do-over. He wants the Gulf completely destroyed.

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Friday, June 03, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging

Bad News

Robert Reich's op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times takes a look at the unemployment figures and he doesn't much like the picture. Nor should we.

You'd think the American public would be demanding government action: a new WPA for the long-term unemployed, a second stimulus to make up for the shortfall in purchasing power, stronger safety nets. But we're not hearing much clamor for any of this. One reason is that those who remain unemployed have little or no political clout.

Who are they?

Women who lost their jobs are having a harder time getting back to work than men. Men took a bigger hit during the recession because industries that employ lots of men — manufacturing, transportation and construction — got whacked early in the downturn. Construction is still in the doldrums, but manufacturing and transportation have picked up, so men are starting to be rehired.

Women, on the other hand, don't often work construction. Most are found in service industries, and they haven't been invited back yet.

And it's not just women sitting on the sidelines: African Americans, the young, and those unemployed for longer than six months are also stuck there.

That apparently doesn't bother Congress and the White House. If there is even a minimal uptick in the employment figures, especially among white males, it's as if the overall picture has suddenly turned rosy. Industries with overseas operations are making money "over there", so they're happy. What's the problem?

The problem is that the bulk of Americans are struggling because no one in Washington is willing to do that which would actually improve the picture. Given the current obsession with deficit reduction and debt ceilings, that's not likely to change unless those who have been locked out somehow get the message out.

We're in campaign mode right now. Maybe now's the time to start hollering.

Go read Reich's column for the ammunition you'll need.


Thursday, June 02, 2011

Not So Fast

Whenever the Obama administration makes a quick and hard decision, I get suspicious. It's not something that happens every day with this soft and easy White House. That's why the news contained in this article had my blood pressure up this morning.

Calling the global war on drugs a costly failure, a group of high-profile world leaders is urging the Obama administration and other governments to end "the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but do no harm to others."

A report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and past presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, recommends that governments try new ways of legalizing and regulating drugs, especially marijuana, as a way to deny profits to drug cartels.

The recommendation was swiftly dismissed by the Obama administration and the government of Mexico, which are allied in a violent 4 1/2 -year-old crackdown on cartels that has killed more than 38,000 people in Mexico.
[Emphasis added]

Like the Global War On Terror, this White House loves itself some Global War on Drugs, especially those coming from Mexico. The fact that neither has been particularly effective, and the latter has resulted in thousands of deaths without slowing the traffic one bit, doesn't seem to bother this White House, just as it didn't the last one. Keeping that war going is all that apparently matters.

Instead, President Obama would rather add a few dollars to the budget for drug prevention and will offer some verbal support to drug courts at the state level, while he funnels millions of dollars into military assistance to the president of Mexico to defeat the drug cartels in that country. At the same time, his Attorney General has decided to start harassing states in this country with medical marijuana provisions.

Zero tolerance, no matter how wrongheaded it is (and it usually is, no matter what the subject) is the justification usually given, but the report addresses that as well.

The new report said the world's approach to limiting drugs, crafted 50 years ago when the United Nations adopted its "Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs," has failed to cut the supply or use of drugs. The report, citing figures from the world body, said global marijuana consumption rose more than 8% and cocaine use 27% between 1998 and 2008.

The group cited a U.N. estimate that 250 million people worldwide use illegal drugs, concluding, "We simply cannot treat them all as criminals."

More treatment options for addicts are needed, the report said. And it argued that arresting and incarcerating "tens of millions" of drug-producing farmers, couriers and street dealers have not answered economic needs that push many people into the trade.

The assessment cited studies of nations, such as Portugal and Australia, that found decriminalizing the use and possession of at least some drugs has not led significantly to greater use.

It doesn't matter to the current White House. It's got a war going on. It doesn't have time to listen.



Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Back At It

Thank heavens for Michael Hiltzik and the Los Angeles Times. California's health insurers are back to fighting any proposal which might interfere with what they consider their untouchable right to raise premiums at any moment for any reason. After all, they've bought that right via campaign contributions to state legislators. Their latest tactics, blatant untruths, however, have raised Hiltzig's eyebrows:

Here's how badly the state's health insurance companies want to kill a bill in the Legislature giving state officials the power to put the kibosh on excessive premium increases.

Not content to fight the measure on the merits, they've mustered bogus facts and figures against it and tried to convince the public that a measure allowing regulators to limit premium increases will actually cost people money. ...

The bill in question is AB 52, introduced by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles). It would prevent health insurance premium increases from going into effect without the prior approval of the commissioner of insurance or the director of the Department of Managed Health Care, who share jurisdiction over health insurers.

The bill would give insurance regulators the same prior-approval authority they were given over auto and homeowner policies by Proposition 103 in 1988. Under current law, California health insurance regulators can't reject a rate increase even if they think it's unreasonable — they can only try to jawbone the insurance company or shame it with a public objection. ...

The California Assn. of Health Plans maintains that the bill won't do anything to address the underlying drivers of healthcare costs, which it says are charges by drug companies, device manufacturers, and doctors and hospitals. The response by the other side is that even if that were so, prior approval will help ensure that insurance companies calculate and project those costs accurately and reasonably. That's something that insurers haven't been doing too well lately. Last year both Aetna and Anthem backed away from huge rate hikes after independent actuaries found glaring mathematical errors in their rate filings.

But even beyond the mathematical "lapses" which killed one round of premium hikes, there is evidence that the increases we keep getting from the health insurers are bogus and unnecessary, chief of which is the continuing profitability of the insurance companies themselves even before the proposed increases.

And the new bill has some good history behind it. The California electorate gave similar authority to the insurance regulators of auto and home insurers in 1988. Those insurers haven't exactly gone broke and pulled out of the state. In fact, those insurers are still making healthy profits and the market is still working competitively.

Now it's up to the state legislature to finally pass a bill that does the same thing for health insurance. The question, as always, is whether state legislators are more interested in serving their constituents than their campaign donors.

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