Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dancing To The Beets

Generally, whenever we hear of lobbyists and the special interest groups they represent, we think of Wall Street, banks, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and oil and gas companies. Farmers don't usually come to mind, but it turns out that sugar beet farmers are one of the most successful groups at lobbying Congress and have been for quite some time.

From the Minneapolis Star Tribute:

With roughly 500,000 acres of sugar beets planted across Minnesota and North Dakota, American Crystal Sugar is the nation's largest producer of refined sugar through beet farming. It generates 15 percent of the country's sugar supply.

But much of the cooperative's financial success is cultivated in Washington D.C.

American Crystal Sugar has become one of the country's most powerful lobbying groups, doling out cash contributions to lawmakers at levels approaching big-business groups like the American Bankers Association. And it's all for a single objective: To guarantee tariffs and price supports allow sugar beet farmers to make money, even if it drives the cost of sugar above the global market.

"They're considered one of the strongest lobbies there is," said Larry Graham, president of the National Confectioners Association, a candy-makers group which has fought in vain against the sugar program.

Price supports for beet sugar inflate sugar prices for food makers and restaurants, costs the food industry often passes on to consumers in everything from candy and cakes to cereal and soda pop. Some economists estimate that Americans pay at least $1 billion more for sugar a year than they would in an open market. ...

The sugar industry and its supporters, though, say the sugar program -- unlike most farm subsidies -- involves no government payments and keeps consumer prices stable. "It's a stable industry, and that's what's needed in this country, something stable," Rutherford said.

Yes, stability is nice, but at what cost? Even assuming the candy makers have their own ax to grind and have inflated the cost somewhat, there's a lot of money flowing out of American's pockets paying for the tariffs and price supports. That certainly seems to belie the holy mantra of the "Free Market."

And while I don't begrudge farmers being able to make money for their efforts, I do wonder about some of the side effects of their lobbying efforts:

To protect sugar subsidies, American Crystal's political arm gave $1.16 million to 177 House and Senate candidates in 2011, and spent more than $1 million for lobbying. ...

American Crystal Sugar is especially generous with members of the House Agriculture Committee, which plays a key role in food policy and the five-year farm bills that set out subsidies. In 2011, the cooperative contributed to 37 of the committee's 46 members. More than half of the committee, including chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Peterson, the ranking minority member, received $10,000, the maximum donation allowed in an election cycle.
[Emphasis added]

That's a lot of sweetener flowing in the process, and we're paying for it.


Monday, January 30, 2012


David Horsey's column from Friday notes the nervousness GOP leaders are feeling with respect to the ongoing presidential nomination campaign. So far there have been three winners in the first three contests, but that's not what worries them. What worries them is that one of those winners is Newt Gingrich, a man who appears to be gaining momentum.

After Gingrich, former speaker of the House, hammered the former Massachusetts governor in the South Carolina primary, many Republican members of Congress began to fear for their jobs, or at least for their chance to hold the House and take the Senate in the November election. Gingrich’s negatives are so high and his reputation for erratic behavior so big that they are convinced he could not beat President Obama and would drag down many Republican candidates with him.

Gingrich is not well-liked by many of the people he worked with in Congress. In fact, loathing may better characterize their feelings.
[Emphasis added]

It's long been clear that Republican leaders expected Mitt Romney to have an easy time of it. It's also long been clear that this was the preferred outcome. That's understandable. Almost everyone in the nation suspected Gingrich was simply in the race to promote himself and his books. He'd make a few speeches, a few appearances, and then he'd go away after getting trounced by the main candidate. Apparently we all forgot what happened in 2010: the grassroots on the right was tired of business as usual and turned out to elect people more in line with what the Tea Partiers wanted.

Gingrich might lose in Florida tomorrow, but he's not going away anytime soon, according to his comments on Saturday:

On the weekend before the pivotal Florida primary, Newt Gingrich vowed Saturday to stay in the race for the Republican presidential nomination until the national convention this summer even if he loses Tuesday's vote. ...

..."You just had two national polls that show me ahead," he said. "Why don't you ask Gov. Romney what he will do if he loses" in Florida.

Yes, this is typical Gingrich braggadocio, but he has a point. He's doing just fine right now, and he has access to some pretty deep pockets to help keep his campaign up and running. Citizens United has been a boon to him and will presumably continue to work in his favor. Why should he quit now?

Mitt Romney has had to change his approach to campaigning by turning to attack ads and speeches, which gives Newt an opening to do the same. As a result, the two men are making President Obama's job much easier. The Republican candidates are so busy ripping into each other, pointing out flaws and flip-flops, that they are doing the opposition research for the enemy. And that might very well cost Republicans not only the White House, but also the Senate and House of Representatives.

It's a long time to November, but it might very well be the most fun lefty wonks have had in a long time. I know that I've been enjoying myself, although I've had to cut the butter and salt I've been using on the popcorn for health reasons.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Poetry: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Bird With Two Right Wings

And now our government
a bird with two right wings
flies on from zone to zone
while we go on having our little fun & games
at each election
as if it really mattered who the pilot is
of Air Force One
(They're interchangeable, stupid!)
While this bird with two right wings
flies right on with its corporate flight crew
And this year its the Great Movie Cowboy in the cockpit
And next year its the great Bush pilot
And now its the Chameleon Kid
and he keeps changing the logo on his captains cap
and now its a donkey and now an elephant
and now some kind of donkephant
And now we recognize two of the crew
who took out a contract on America
and one is a certain gringo wretch
who's busy monkeywrenching
crucial parts of the engine
and its life-support systems
and they got a big fat hose
to siphon off the fuel to privatized tanks
And all the while we just sit there
in the passenger seats
without parachutes
listening to all the news that's fit to air
over the one-way PA system
about how the contract on America
is really good for us etcetera
As all the while the plane lumbers on
into its postmodern
manifest destiny

--Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Lee Judge / The Kansas City Star (January 27, 2012) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bonus Critter Blogging: African Grey Parrot

(This photo was snagged from here. This is NOT the picture I wanted to post.

What I wanted to post was a photo of Tlaz's African Grey, Koga, also known as the Kogasaurus. Unfortunately, I couldn't download that photo, but you can check it out by clicking on this link. I think you'll find it worth the effort.

Here's what Tlaz has to say about Koga:

Koga is a subspecies of African grey, called a 'Timneh'. The full species name is Psittacus erithacus timneh. They are smaller and darker grey than the nominate species (which is commonly called a 'Congo'). Timnehs also have maroon tails instead of the bright red ones, and their top beak has a pinkish stripe on it, while the Congo African grey's beak is all black. The different subspecies come from slightly different, though somewhat overlapping, areas of Africa, the Timneh's distribution being more in the northwestern part of the range, and the Congo coming more strictly from throughout the Congo River basin.

Koga had her name when I got her, when she was about 6-7 years old as best as we can tell. It is the Cherokee word for 'crow.' I've had her now for almost 21 years, so she is probably at least 26 years old.

Some Welcome News

Another provision of "Obamacare" is about to kick in. It's not as dramatic as required coverage for pre-existing conditions and the opportunity to cover children over 18 on their parents plan, but it is still a very helpful one. It's also one that didn't get much publicity at the time Congress was considering the bill, although I am sure the lobbyists for pharmaceutical companies were busy trying to scuttle it. Fortunately, they failed.

The provision requires that pharmaceutical and medical device companies report most of the gifts and payments made to doctors. Free samples of medication are excluded from the reporting requirement, but free lunches and free trips to exotic places for "seminars" are not.

From a Los Angeles Times editorial:

The proposed regulations, which are going through a period of public comment, are appropriately strict in ways that would both protect patients and reduce medical costs. The payments and gifts would be available on a searchable public website. Free samples of drugs would be exempt from reporting, but otherwise, anything worth more than $10 total for the year would have to be disclosed. ...

Physicians who received research funding and other payments from pharmaceutical companies have sat on advisory boards for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and have recommended drugs made by those companies. A survey published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2010 found that 71% of doctors had accepted food from drug companies, and that doctors who took payments were more likely to prescribe those companies' expensive brand-name medications rather than cheaper generics. ...

The provision does not ban such payments outright, but it does require reporting, which is a very healthy beginning. Even if patients don't flock to the website before making their decisions on a newer drug or a particular device, it's at least available.

In other words, the website will be a force for good even if few patients examine it. Watchdog organizations and news reporters will use it. For many doctors and pharmaceutical companies, the knowledge that their actions will be held up to public light is enough to curb the potentially troubling behavior.

Exactly so.

And the change is long overdue.

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Cat Blogging

"What? I'm busy right now."

Not A Bad Week, All In All

President Obama, now in campaign mode, had a pretty good week, all things considered. His State of the Union address struck a populist note, thereby mollifying some of his base. He's continued that populism as he's toured several states and the messages seem to have been well-received. Even the rather strange incident on the tarmac with Arizona Governor Jan Brewer appears to have worked in his favor, although David Horsey suggests in his latest column that Brewer got in her licks as well. She may have indeed scored points with her conservative constituents, but as Horsey's cartoon illustrates, she did come across as a bit of a harridan to the rest of us.

Horsey does note one important thing about that incident: the days of the imperial presidency are over.

The time is long passed when U.S. presidents could expect much deference from anyone, especially from a member of the opposition party. Between appearances with Jay Leno and Oprah Winfrey and the general nastiness of partisan politics these days, the presidency has lost much of its aura of majesty. Presidents now are more like British prime ministers -- open to confrontation, even during an airport greeting.

I think Horsey is right in that respect, especially during an election year. Will that work against the president? At this point, I doubt it, especially since the Republican candidates for his job are making things ever so much easier for him, as Doyle McManus points out his brief response to last night's GOP debate in Florida:

Gingrich seemed a little hesitant to climb into the ring. Asked about his statement earlier this week that Romney “lives in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island bank accounts,” the former House speaker said the charge didn’t merit repeating in the solemn dignity of a CNN debate.

That gave Romney an opening. “Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations someplace else that they weren’t willing to defend here?” he asked. OK, Gingrich replied, have it your way. “I don’t know of any American president who had a Swiss bank account,” he said.

The winner? There wasn’t one -- not onstage, at least. Rick Santorum turned in a good performance, criticizing both Romney and Gingrich for their past support of government-mandated health insurance, but he’s running a very distant third in Florida. Ron Paul slammed both front-runners, too, but he’s running fourth. The polls in Florida show Romney and Gingrich neck and neck. If anyone won Thursday evening, it may have been Barack Obama.

Like I said, for President Obama it was not a bad week, all in all. Of course, November is still a little over nine months away.

That reminds me: I need to pick up some more popcorn.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

In The Cross-hairs

(Picture found here.)

Yesterday, Arizona Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords made her last appearance at the House of Representatives. According to all accounts, it was an emotional occasion.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords returned to the House floor one final time as her colleagues approved her bipartisan border security bill on the day she officially stepped down from office.

Friends have said the Arizona Democrat has never been one to tackle her goals halfway. It was fitting, then, that she closed out her career with a legislative victory.

The day was bittersweet as emotional colleagues said farewell to the well-liked congresswoman, described by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) as an "extraordinary daughter of this House," who announced she would step down this week to focus on her recovery.

House Speaker Boehner accepted her formal letter of resignation with tears in his eyes, although that in itself in not unusual. The accolades from both sides of the aisle were, however, unusual, especially for this Congress. It's clear that Rep. Giffords was indeed well-liked and well-respected, no mean feat in the bitterly partisan 112th Congress.

Giffords, who suffered massive head injuries in a shooting by a crazed young man, might have been better honored if her colleagues had been so moved by the atrocity that they passed some stronger gun and ammunition laws. Alas, they were obviously not that distraught. After all, that would be tampering with the will of the NRA.

Ironically, on the day that the Giffords appearance was taking place at the nation's capital, another appearance took place in Missouri's:

Just hours before Giffords made her way into the nation's Capitol, an unknown provocateur was stalking the halls of the Missouri Capitol, tagging the doors of lawmakers—most of them Democratic women—with images of rifle crosshairs.

The picture which heads this post shows the stickers in question. The stickers are more than a little reminiscent of the symbol used by Sarah Palin in targeting incumbents up for re-election in 2010.

Palin and other conservatives strongly rejected the notion that their imagery and rhetoric had anything to do with the bloodbath in Arizona a year ago. And no one can know what was truly in the deranged mind of Jared Loughner. But common sense says that when enough targeted political vitriol mixes with enough guns, bad things will eventually happen.

Exactly so, especially when the mood of the entire electorate is sour beyond belief. It's clear that we are in for some hard times.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It Could Happen

President Gingrich?

It could happen, according to David Horsey's latest column.

No matter how much money Mitt Romney spends, money can’t buy him the love of conservatives. His awkward and often tone-deaf performance on the campaign trail has brought him close to becoming an object of ridicule – the kiss of death for any politician.

Rick Santorum’s claim to the hearts and minds of those same conservatives was rejected in South Carolina. And, Monday night during the debate in Florida, his glee at the prospect of war with Iran did not come across as tough, it came across as scary.

And Ron Paul? Well, he performs a great service by injecting an occasional reality check into the debates – as he did on Monday night by knocking down Gingrich’s claim to have willingly and nobly resigned from the speaker’s job in the wake of GOP losses in the 1998 election. But Paul’s anti-war libertarianism will never prevail in the party most enamored of the military industrial complex.

And so there is Gingrich. He has become a contender because he is unusually articulate, spouts lots of intelligent-sounding big ideas and channels the anger of the core Republican electorate. For now, they are overlooking or forgiving his many personal flaws.

Mitt Romney is no longer the "given" in the GOP campaign for the reasons Horsey lists and for one he didn't. After finally giving in and providing his tax returns we learn that Mitt and his wife did in fact pay nearly 15% of his income (all of it apparently from investments)in taxes. The total paid: $3 million, which is more than most Americans earn in a lifetime. When that fully sinks in, no doubt with the help of his Republican opponents and the Obama campaign, a lot of Americans are going to be turned off.

There is a chance, then, that absent a brokered convention, Gingrich will be the Republican nominee. That's a scary thought all by itself.

Does that mean it should be a walk in the park for President Obama?

Not exactly. As Horsey points out, a lot depends on the state of the economy come November. If unemployment and underemployment hasn't eased and if Americans sink further into debt with no hope of ever catching up, they will be in a foul mood. And if President Obama can't pin the failure to grow the economy on an obstructionist Republican party, he will justifiably be held accountable.

Last night's State of the Union address shows that the president is aware of what has to be done. The trick will be to get it done, or at least be seen to have made a valiant effort to do so. That means he has to stop his "get along" approach, and I'm not sure he's capable of doing so.

Needless to say, I would love to be proved wrong.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

They Did What?

Well, slap my face and call me Fanny. The US Supreme Court issued an opinion which both delighted and surprised me in all sorts of ways. Yesterday's opinion came down on the correct side of the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court confronted for the first time the government's growing use of digital technology to monitor Americans and ruled strongly in favor of privacy.

The court said the Constitution generally barred the police from tracking an individual with a GPS device attached to a car unless they were issued a warrant from a judge in advance. But the ruling could limit a host of devices including surveillance cameras and cellphone tracking, legal experts said. ...

Even the justices who most often side with prosecutors rejected the government's view that Americans driving on public streets have waived their right to privacy and can be tracked and monitored at will. At least five justices appeared inclined, in the future, to go considerably beyond the physical intrusion involved in putting a GPS device on a car and rule that almost any long-term monitoring with a technological device could violate an individual's right to privacy.
[Emphasis added]

What is so stunning is that all nine justices agreed that the state clearly violated the Fourth Amendment with the warrantless imposition of a tracking device on the defendant's car. That all nine could agree on anything is something of a surprise; that they would all agree that even defendants in a drug case are entitled to constitutional protections is nothing short of a miracle.

But wait, there's more: five justices seem willing to extend the ruling to other technological monitoring such as cell phone tracking. This decision didn't go that far, but the various concurring opinions seem to point in that direction should the right cases come along.

What a wonderful way to start the week.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Giggle Fits

I've become staid and proper and politically correct in my old age, but I still was reduced to uncontrolled giggling upon reading this AP news story.

With cameras barred from a high-profile corruption trial, a television station has puppets acting out the sometimes-steamy testimony about hookers, gambling and sexually transmitted diseases. In one scene, a furry hand stuffs cash down the shirt of a puppet prostitute.

"I'm horrified," a laughing anchorwoman said after a segment shown this week on WOIO, a CBS affiliate in Cleveland, where the trial of longtime Democratic power broker Jimmy Dimora is the talk of the town. ...

A talking, buck-toothed squirrel "reporter" provides the play-by-play in an exaggerated, "you won't believe this" tone. A black-robed puppet sits at the judge's bench. And in the jury box, the puppets yawn during the trial.

OK, I admit I was a little embarrassed by my response and I guess I still am. I practiced law for over 30 years and, while the judicial system is far from perfect, my experience has been that it has generally worked, often under difficult circumstances.

Further, I see nothing wrong about barring cameras from the trial courtroom. Television cameras can be very intimidating to witnesses and to jury members, which can impede justice. As long as members of the public, including reporters, have access to the proceedings, there is less of a chance of justice being perverted and more of a chance that the parties will get a fair trial.

So why my giggle fit?

Well, first of all, the humorous take on the proceedings certainly looked familiar. Witnesses often can't get their story straight, judges can be arrogant, jurors do nod off. It happens. A little poke at our foibles certainly does not mean the end of civilization as we know it. Stephen Colbert is demonstrating that right now with respect to our electioneering system.

And it helped to know that this was not the only reportage of the trial done by the television station. A straight news summary was done, and the puppet show came only at the very end of the show. This very serious trial did get serious coverage.

Finally, the fun-poking included the news media: the "buck-toothed squirrel" reporter was a brilliant stroke. I never tried a high-profile case (or even middle-profile one), but when I watched television news regularly I was often appalled at the pompous delivery of some reporters who clearly saw themselves well above the fray and everyone involved in it.

Hmmm...maybe I'm not all that embarrassed after all.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday Poetry: T.S. Eliot

From The Hollow Men


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

--T.S. Eliot

Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Tom Toles and published 1/19/12 at the Washington Post. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Bonus Critter Blogging: Rhesus Monkey

(Photograph by W.E. Garrett and published at National Geographic.)

A New Sitcom?

David Horsey has done it again. He has captured the sense of what the interminable series of debates for the GOP presidential nomination are, both visually and intellectually.

These "debates" are not really debates, but what they really are kept eluding me until Horsey's blog post. He has convinced me that they actually are television shows, scripted by the producer, moderator, and even the candidates. The last debate makes more sense seen in that light.

The appeal of the debates to a surprisingly large audience has to do with far more than civic engagement. They have all the elements of a successful television show: colorful characters, high stakes and comforting familiarity.

For characters, no TV writer could do better than Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain for zaniness. Gingrich himself is a wonderfully pompous know-it-all (haven’t we seen his type on "Downton Abbey"?). And Mitt Romney could walk on to the set of "Mad Men" as a stunt double for Jon Hamm.

Each debate episode has offered the likelihood that one of the characters will be voted off the island. As the losers have been culled, the tension has grown and the remaining actors have gotten better at their game. As was evident Thursday night, each of the four survivors has shown he can steal a scene and command the stage. ...

And the show went on with each person playing his part -- Gingrich, deeply offended that his infidelities were the first topic of discussion (come on, Newt, it's TV!); Ron Paul, like Kramer crashing through Jerry's door, the character who dependably sends the plot in unexpected directions; Rick Santorum, the street fighter in this fight for the South; and Romney, projecting equal portions of Ward Cleaver and Don Draper with just a trace of Gordon Gekko thrown in.

Why, yes. That nails it. Even though the genre is a hodge-podge of all the other currently popular genres, the debates are clearly "made-for-tv." Unfortunately for the voters who take their role seriously, reality tv and the real world are two different things, and this blurring of the lines doesn't really serve the democracy, something Horsey acknowledges left-handedly in his conclusion:

It may be a crazy way to pick a president, but this is must-see TV.


Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday Cat Blogging

(He's still a cutie, and he's still occupying that part of the bed.)


Silly season is in full bloom. I know this always happens in an election year, yet I am always surprised by it. I guess that's just the way Americans like it, although this American is not terribly thrilled by it. I don't like the politics of destruction. Perhaps that's a function of age.

What specifically is gnawing on my last nerve today is the uproar over Newt Gingrich's marital infidelities. Trust me: I am not a fan of this man. His conduct over the years he's been in politics has left me cold, jaded, and more than a little nauseous. Still, I really don't want nor need specific details on his private life, just as I don't want or need his prying into my private life. Therein, I admit, lies a paradox which in a way justifies the current uproar in the GOP campaign for the presidential nomination.

Perhaps Atrios put it best yesterday in his post entitled "Newtered":

I'd like to say it's none of our goddamn business, but Newt made sure that this stuff will be our business for a long long time.

Atrios was referring, of course, to Gingrich's role in the impeachment of President Clinton for getting some extra marital sex in the White House. Ironically, although perhaps not, Gingrich was engaged in a little adultery himself at the same time. And, certainly, karmic justice does seem to be playing out, a sort of "as you sow, so shall you reap" from the universe.

A slight spin on this approach is a bit less vengeful. It points to the hypocrisy of Gingrich and his conservative supporters when it comes to moral matters. Such is the stance taken by the editorial board of the New York Times today:

Multiple marriages and even adultery are not automatic disqualifications for the presidency. If they were, the country would have a very different roster of former presidents and candidates. But when a political party decides that moralizing about personal conduct is as important as public policy, it inevitably makes some of its leaders vulnerable to the worst charges of hypocrisy.

In this political cycle, it is Newt Gingrich who has been unable to escape the toxic combination of infidelity and sermonizing. The stories about his three marriages have been known for years, but every time he seems to have escaped the wrath of Republican voters, they rise again.
[Emphasis added]

It is that last sentence which perhaps is rubbing my last nerve raw: the timing of the issue. We've seen how the media has treated each of the rising stars on the campaign trail. Herman Cain's momentum, for example, was stopped cold by allegations of sexual harassment. It's as if the pundits and wonks can't stand seeing someone doing well on the campaign trail without taking him/her down a peg or two. Even Mitt Romney has received a little of that focus, albeit non-sexual in nature, as details about Bain and about his religion just emerge from the mists of time.

I am not saying that past behavior should be ignored by the media. It is important for voters to know about the candidate and past conduct is fair game, but are all these "revelations" really necessary? Especially just a few days before the vote?

I swear, all of this makes me want to go out and shout at the clouds.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

New Shame

The disastrous economy and now the 2012 elections have pretty much shoved other important news off the radar screen, especially when it comes to Guantanamo Bay. That's unfortunate because there's still a lot going on down in the US Gulag, most of it shameful abuse of America's highest ideals. The latest is noted by Kal Raustiala, professor of law and director of the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA. In an opinion piece written for the Los Angeles Times, Professor Raustiala comments on a devastating change imposed on lawyers for the inmates facing military commission trials.

The order requires all correspondence between the accused and their appointed military lawyers to be reviewed by federal officials.

The proposed order is a mistake, one that threatens to jeopardize the progress made in reversing Guantanamo's tainted legacy as a legal black hole. It likely violates the 6th Amendment's guarantee of the right to counsel, which has long been understood to permit lawyers to communicate confidentially with their clients.
[Emphasis added]

Imagine: everything discussed by the defendant and his lawyer can now be viewed by the prosecutors. Every detail, every mitigating circumstance, the names of every witness, every possible defense, every theory is wide open and fair game. The whole point of the confidentiality between the lawyer and his client, a frank discussion of the matter, is lost along with any notion of fair play in the proceedings. Up until now, the military defense lawyers have had to labor with one hand tied behind his back. Now both hands are tied.

Woods' order does not simply raise legal concerns, however. By violating the sanctity of attorney-client privilege, it jeopardizes the perception of American military commissions as fair and just, a perception that is crucial if these trials are to succeed.

To see why, consider the fundamental purpose of such trials. Why not simply imprison the suspected terrorists in perpetuity without trial? The chief reason, dating to the landmark Nuremberg tribunal, is the belief that a just and fair trial of even our worst enemies is the best vindication of our nation's values, and the best way to ensure that cycles of revenge are tamped down, individuals are held accountable and the truth emerges.

War-crimes trials have long been tarred by cries of "victor's justice." It is only through scrupulous adherence to fair, neutral and time-honored procedures that we can forcefully refute such criticism.
[Emphasis added]

I am one of the critics Raustiala refers to when it comes to these military commission trials. I believe that they are a coy emulation of justice, mere dog-and-pony shows designed to give the appearance of justice with none of the substance. I believe that this latest move merely confirms my worst suspicions.

And I am deeply ashamed of what this country has become.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Fear Factor

Yes, it's another cartoon from David Horsey, and, once again, it was chosen because the blog post appended to it is a pretty perspicacious analysis of the GOP campaign in South Carolina. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are basing a great deal of their pitches to conservative voters on the fear factor.

Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are reading from the same script as they vie to be the “not Romney” champion of the frightened right. Monday, both candidates roved around this city of deserted beach resorts warning conservative voters that the reelection of Barack Obama would bring an end to America as we have known it. ...

Santorum was up first. He talked about American exceptionalism; about how, in an age of kings and emperors, the founding fathers created a Constitution that declared an individual’s rights were derived from God, not granted by government.

“Any rights a government gives you, they can --” Santorum paused and the tea partiers responded in unison -- “Take away!” ...

When it was Gingrich’s turn, he made precisely the same points. “We are the first country in history to say that power comes from God to each of you personally, and your rights are inalienable,” the ex-speaker of the House said. And, as for pursuing happiness, “Happiness in the 18th century meant wisdom and virtue, not acquisition and hedonism,” he said.

These remarkably similar tutorials on America’s foundational ideas set up the crowd for identical campaign pitches: All that is good and unique about the United States is threatened by Barack Obama. Only a man with unflinching conservative convictions can evict him from the Oval Office. And only if South Carolina’s conservatives unite around one candidate as an alternative to the disturbingly moderate Mitt Romney can Americans be saved from a future of servitude and dependency.

The one point on which Gingrich and Santorum diverged was who that candidate should be.

As the cartoon illustrates, Americans have learned to love being frightened by boogey men, real or not. The seeds of this fear had been carefully tended for decades, but they certainly came into full bloom after 9/11. What else could have provoked the speedy passage of the Patriot Act and the cheerful giving up of centuries old civil rights, including habeas corpus and the Fourth Amendment? Now the perceived threat is from a Kenyan Muslim Socialist President and an octupus government reaching into the pockets of Americans.

Fortunately for Mitt Romney, the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of the current campaign line-up will split the fearful vote, thereby making his job ever so much easier. Horsey's conclusion nails it:

As I was exiting the tea party convention, I got into a conversation with Joe Klein, Time magazine’s veteran political columnist. I said the problem for apocalyptic conservatives is that they love more than one man. Klein corrected me.

“They like more than one,” he said. “Their problem is they don’t love any of them.”
[Emphasis added]

Why, yes. I think that gets it nicely.

[Note: click on the cartoon to enlarge.]

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Divine Right

No, I didn't get the days confused. This isn't a Sunday Funnies post. I included this 'toon by David Horsey and published by the Los Angeles Times because the blog post which went with it was really quite interesting and the cartoon added just the right amount of snark.

Rick Santorum is pulling out all the stops in South Carolina, capitalizing on his conservative religious views in a state known for, well, conservative religious views.

In the race to be the most sincere Christian candidate for president, Rick Santorum looks like the front-runner.

Out on the edge of town here Sunday afternoon, out among the big box stores and strip malls, at a family restaurant called Percy and Willie's, Santorum came by to shake hands and speak to a crowd of diners who had likely spent the morning praising the Lord at one of the area’s many evangelical churches.

"America is a moral enterprise, not an economic enterprise," Santorum declared. The United States is successful not because of its powerful military, its economic system or its form of government, he said; it is successful because of the American people’s faith in God. The news media don’t get it, he said, “and I’m running against a president who doesn’t believe it.” But the good people of South Carolina understand “the obligation we have to lead good, moral and decent lives.”

And he's having some success:

Jamie Thompkins, an attractive, middle-aged teacher from Georgetown, described herself as an ultra, ultra-conservative who is happy to be living in the middle of America’s Bible Belt. Santorum appeals to her, she said, because “he would put God before anything else. He’s going to really rely on God and not rely on what everyone else says.”

Another woman, a local psychologist who, like a lot of people here, didn’t want her name showing up in the media, said religious faith is an extremely important factor in her choice for president. She said she could tell that, with Santorum, it is not just rhetoric: “He talks the talk that we talk.”

What I found amazing about this (as did Horsey) is that both women and all of the other Santorum supporters are aware that Rick is a Catholic, not an evangelical, born-again Protestant. It wasn't all that long ago that the Religious Reich would have had as much trouble with Santorum's and Gingrich's religion as they obviously still do with Mitt Romney's Mormonism. I would have thought that Rick Perry, a bona fide evangelical would get the votes and the imprimatur of the 100 evangelical leaders who decided, after three ballots, to endorse Santorum instead. Maybe things are changing, or maybe, just maybe Rick Perry is seen as too weak to actually get elected in a match with Obama.

Or, and I agree with Horsey on this, the evangelicals still haven't decided on a candidate and all of this hoo-hah is just more evidence of division in the ranks.

...Still, by most reports, Santorum has not sewed up the evangelical vote. And if it stays split, Romney is very likely to come out on top in Saturday’s primary.

If South Carolina is as close as Iowa was, it's going to be a long campaign for the remaining candidates. If Romney cruises to a New Hampshire-like victory, I think the real contest is over.

I'm still going to pick up more popcorn this weekend.

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Monkey Brains At Work

OK, I admit it. I enjoyed this this opinion piece entirely too much. In fact, I roared with laughter at a couple of points, even though I realized that probably was pretty good evidence that I still harbor a wide stripe of sexism. This wonderful little essay was written by Robert M. Sapolsky, who is a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University, and examines the current slate of candidates for the GOP presidential nomination in light of what we know about primates, especially those species which are male dominated.

Now that Michele Bachmann has dropped out of the race for the GOP presidential nomination, we are left with an array of the usual suspects in American politics — namely a bunch of men who seem to spend much of their lives bragging about how tough they are.

We have Rick Perry waxing macho about the number of executions he's overseen in Texas and Rick Santorum threatening to bomb Iran. There's Newt Gingrich proclaiming that the race is going to boil down to being between "Newt and not-Newt." Even the septuagenarian Ron Paul starts his campaign appearances with Darth Vader's theme music, which he uses to emphasize how dangerous he is to Mitt Romney.

As any zoologist would instantly recognize, what we have here are a bunch of male primates vying for dominance.
[Emphasis added]

Professor Sapolski zeroes in on one species in particular: the rhesus monkey. He then explains in easily understood terms what studies of those monkey brains show us about the role of the brain in that dominance. That part of the essay is especially engaging because it contains a few surprises. The part of the brain that gets the most workout is not the "beat 'em up" center but the one that understands social connections and interactions. And that is rich with significance.

And there is an instructive lesson here for this presidential season. As the candidates vie to show how tough they are on Iran, the national debt and those suffering polar bears trying to foist the myth of global warming on us, we should think about those high-ranking, bully-boy rhesus monkeys and their large rostral prefrontal cortexes. It's likely that politicians too have developed parts of their brain that could be put to better use than feuding and posturing. Perhaps it's time for humans to demand that our leaders use their brains for more than coordinating the muscles responsible for chest thumping.

From your lips to the remaining candidates' ears, Professor.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday Poetry: C.P. Cavafy

The Glories Of The Ptolemies

I am the son of Lagus, king. The absolute possessor
(with my power and my wealth) of voluptuous delight.
No Macedonian, or barbarian, can be found
my equal, or even to compare with me. The son of Seleucus
is ludicrous with his vulgar luxury.
But if you want more, see, these too are clear.
The city -- the teacher, summit of panhellenism,
in the word, in very art, the wisest.

--C.P. Cavafy

Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Kevin Siers for The Charlotte Observer (January 11, 2012) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Bonus Critter Blogging: Octopus

(Photograph courtesy NERC CHESSO Consortium and published at National Geographic. Click on the link to learn about the rather interesting form of locomotion this critter uses.)

Elder Belle's Blessing: Mike Freeman and Warren Limmer

(Photo by Patrice Carlton and published at National Geographic.)

This award is given from time to time to those individuals or groups who go out of their way to enhance the lives and interests of the elders. The winners in this edition have dedicated themselves to changing the law in the state of Minnesota. At present, elder neglect, even when it results in serious injury or death, is a misdemeanor, which means the perpetrators get a slap on the wrist and a small fine. Freeman and Warren want to make it a felony.

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Caregivers who intentionally neglect the elderly or other vulnerable adults could face felony prosecution for the first time in Minnesota under a legislative proposal unveiled Thursday that would close what proponents say is a gaping hole in state law.

Prosecutors say current misdemeanor penalties don't allow them to properly punish violators, even in extreme cases where months of horrendous treatment ends in serious harm or death.

The paper examined about 50 cases since 2004 where someone was convicted of misdemeanor neglect, including six that resulted in death. That included a mother in Bloomington who died after she was left in squalid conditions in a cold, darkened bedroom by her adult son, who paid a $50 fine and got a year of probation.

"Does this make me sick? You're damn right it does," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, a DFLer who is among those spearheading the effort. "Every one of God's vulnerable adults deserves better, and we're going to do something about it." ...

The bill's chief Senate sponsor, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the legislation is a reasonable proposal that targets the most extreme cases. Limmer, chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said that with a wave of baby boomers set to retire, it's important to confront abuse and neglect.

It's always been important to confront abuse and neglect, and these two gentlemen, who are from opposing parties, by the way, have joined together to stiffen the penalties to a more appropriate level. What is so deplorable is that getting an reasonable bill through is going to be difficult. In the past, such bills failed because of pressure from some interest groups:

It remains uncertain whether the proposal, outlined by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, prosecutors and Gov. Mark Dayton's administration, will face opposition from nursing homes, hospitals and others in the care industry. For years, an influential group in the industry has blocked efforts at the Capitol to criminalize neglect.

If you are a Minnesota resident, please put some pressure on your state legislators to pass this bill. It's needed and needed badly to protect the elders from predators and negligent health care providers.

Kudos to Freeman and Warren for standing up for us.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Cat Blogging

(Photo snagged from Presto Change-o. Click on the link for more great kitty photos. 250,000 visitors should tell you how great that site and its proprietor are!)

Gaming The System

We are seeing the impact of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United play out in the GOP campaigns for the presidential nomination, as the voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and now South Carolina have discovered. The airwaves are filled with commercials purchased not just by the candidates but by Super PACS not directly affiliated with the campaigns. Those spots not only extol one candidate, but attack the others, and while it is fairly obvious who the beneficiary of each ad is, that beneficiary gets to distance himself from the more egregious attacks by noting that it didn't come from his campaign.

One of hallmarks of this new part of electioneering is that most of the time, voters have no idea who actually is behind each ad. The donors supplying the cash for the commercial buys are not listed in the commercial as it takes up viewing space, and that makes the whole process opaque, something that Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, notes in a column she produced for the New York Times.

...the money the candidates raise themselves is only part of the story, and it may not be the most significant part, even with the possibility that the nominees of both parties will forgo public financing for the general election, as President Obama did last time. Every major presidential candidate is being aided by a group now known as a “super PAC” and sometimes by more than one.

Triggered by the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and a couple of lower court decisions, these new groups are allowed to collect unlimited sums of money from individuals, corporations, unions and trade groups — and to use these funds for expenditures that expressly call for the election or defeat of a candidate for federal office.

Not content with just pouring unlimited amounts of money into campaigns, these Super PACs are finding ways around the reporting requirements to keep the names of donors hidden from voters right before the election, something which the Supreme Court clearly did not intend in its decision. Because the Federal Election Commission hasn't actually caught up with the fallout from the decision, Super PACs are playing games with the system as it currently exists:

...Because 2011 was not an election year, super PACs that opted to file quarterly were not required to submit third-quarter disclosures that would have enlightened the public about their funders. However, the 1970s-era Federal Election Campaign Act does require quarterly filers to make special reports just before primaries. So as 2011 came to a close, many super PACs – including all of the candidate-specific ones – told the F.E.C that from now on they’d be filing monthly, rather than quarterly.

Monthly filers aren’t required to make “pre-primary” reports. So the funders behind the groups’ activities in the electoral contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida won’t be known until after the voting is all over. Three super PACs — Our Destiny, which supports Jon Huntsman; the Red, White and Blue Fund, which is backing Rick Santorum; and Endorse Liberty, a booster of Ron Paul — even made this change after the books had closed on the pre-election reporting period.
[Emphasis added]

How convenient.

In other words, unless the FEC changes the rules midstream and quickly, the result of Citizen's United is an increase in opacity. Voters, for whom knowing the identity of key backers might make a difference (i.e., knowing just whom the candidates now owe favors to), are going into the voting booths blind. And unless Congress moves to defang this terrible Supreme Court decision, the fallout will continue through November.

Helluva way to run a democracy.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Speaking In Tongues

I don't often spend time reading Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum, but I am certainly glad I did this morning. Her latest column examines an issue that has long puzzled and troubled me: the apparent clout of the Religious Reich. She was in Israel when the story about the young school girl in an ultra-ultra Orthodox neighborhood who was spat upon and harassed by some of the locals because, even in her long-sleeved blouse and floor-length skirt, her ankles could be seen as she walked. Ms. Daum was clearly appalled by the act of the ultra-ultra Orthodox men, but (and this is key) she was even more appalled by the fact that the rest of Israel allowed them to behave in such a manner.

She then uses that experience as a backdrop to what is happening in this country, and particularly in the GOP campaigns for the presidential nomination, using Rick Santorum's pronouncements on gays, abortion rights, contraception, and even sex outside of baby-making as a prime example of extreme religious zealotry taking over the affairs of a democracy.

...I couldn't help but notice that just as Israel tolerates, and even cooperates in, the extremist behavior of a minority of its population, GOP leaders, especially in election season in the U.S., seem willing to pander to the furthest reaches of the right wing. ...

Why does Santorum persist with his rhetoric? Well, in fairness, he's a conservative (and an intensely literal-minded) Catholic, and he seems to believe most of it personally, even if hardly anyone else does. But zealots in Israel believe it's OK to spit at schoolgirls, even if hardly anyone else does. In both cases, the problem is what happens to democratic principles when such personal beliefs intersect public policy.

In the U.S., we too often grant the noisiest, most threatening zealots too much power to set the agenda. We're complicit in creating the illusion that religious fundamentalism is so rabid and so monolithic that we must appease it in order to keep it from turning against us. What we have in Santorum, who's clearly banking on South Carolina rolling quite a bit holier than New Hampshire, is a man enthralled with that mythic power — and it's making him speak in tongues.
[Emphasis added]


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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Beating The Drums

Well, another primary/caucus down and just 48 to go. The next one is two weeks away so we get a bit of a breather, but not much. It doesn't appear that any candidates will be dropping out of the race for the GOP nomination for president at this point. Instead, the race will get more heated as those remaining hope to stop the Romney juggernaut or at least slow it down. The dueling will continue via campaign speeches and ugly television ads.

New Hampshire did show us that the key issue there, and presumably a major issue in the rest of the country, is that of the economy. That's really no surprise. What is surprising, however, is the emphasis in the campaigns on other, more "red meat" issues. We've seen the remaining candidates trying to out-conservative each other on immigration and that will probably continue. The same is true on defense issues, particularly on what to do about Iran's nuclear ambitions. It is this issue which continues to be inflated by all the candidates but Ron Paul. He's no pacifist, but he doesn't think the country should be spending the treasury down as Policeman For The World.

The rest of the candidates have all promised to stop Iran at all costs, up to and including war. "All options must remain on the table." "We must have a regime change." We will no doubt continue to hear such phrases and more like them. Apparently at least these gentlemen have forgotten the debacle of Iraq and what it cost this country.

Micah Zenko and Emma Welch have an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times which explores this campaign issue and notes that when it comes down to any kind of specific plans, all of the candidates are woefully inarticulate. None of them have any plan in mind, and with good reason. They, like most of the rest of the population haven't any real clue as to just where Iran is in the quest for a nuclear weapon, or even if the quest is real.

First, does the U.S. intelligence community know where every weapons-related nuclear facility is located? As demonstrated by the revelation of a potential hidden uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom in 2009, it is impossible to know whether Iran is concealing other nuclear facilities.

Second, can airstrikes alone eliminate all nuclear facilities? Even Gingrich acknowledged: "The idea that you're going to wage a bombing campaign that accurately takes out all the Iranian nuclear program … is a fantasy."

Last, but certainly not least, have senior leaders in Iran decided to pursue nuclear weapons? Last February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admitted: "We do not know … if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons."

None of this will stop the candidates, however. They will continue with the glib assertions of the need to flex our national muscle at whatever cost without ever detailing just what they would do. Zemko and Welch have a few cogent words of advice for voters and the press at this point:

Initiating a preemptive military strike against Iran to eliminate its suspected nuclear weapons capability would be an enormously significant — and potentially disastrous — foreign policy decision. As the Republican presidential campaign continues, the media and prospective voters must challenge the candidates for greater explanation on this application of military force. In Iraq, the U.S. discovered the enormous costs and consequences of trying to disarm a country through regime change. It is crucial, therefore, that we demand that those running for president clearly articulate a realistic strategy for preventing an Iranian bomb before placing "all options on the table."

Not a bad idea, that.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Things That Make You Go Wow!

I know this is the day of the New Hampshire primary and it is very important because it is the first vote for actual delegates. Of course, in a couple of weeks it will be time for the South Carolina primary. That will be very important because it will be the first vote for actual delegates in the South. And then there will be other primaries and caucuses and they will be very important for other reasons. I've decided to take a break from the process, as important as it is, at least for a day or two, primarily because I came across a story that I think is also very important.

Here's the background to Jeannie Mac Donald's remarkable story in her own words:

I was baptized at Our Lady of Hypochondria Church.

When I get a headache, my mind speeds past simple causes, like "sinus pressure," and goes straight to "inoperable brain tumor." If my leg tingles, it's multiple sclerosis; if my heart hiccups, it's cardiac arrest.

Ah, the pointless trysts with Dr. Google, self-diagnosing ailments I didn't have.

That should sound familiar to all of us, either because we suffer from the same condition ourselves or because we know folks just like Ms. MacDonald. But in this story there is, unfortunately, more to it. A shoe fell rather heavily: Ms. MacDonald was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately the disease was caught early, so the prognosis is good. Still, she required surgery and then a course of radiation therapy.

Let's see — 61/2 weeks of radiation. That's roughly 1,092 hours of worry time. And if worrying was an Olympic sport, I'd be on the Wheaties box.

I had to do something to distract myself.

She decided to take up baking after a casual conversation with one of the people at the hospital giving her the radiation treatment.

Suddenly it hit me: These people eat hospital food every day. While they saved my breast, I could rescue their taste buds from the horrors of lime Jell-O with non-dairy topping that packed more chemicals than antifreeze.

That Monday, I arrived at radiation hauling a three-layer red velvet cake, gussied up with fresh berries. Or, as my family calls it, "crystal meth with cream cheese frosting."

A few days later, I brought a warm-from-the-oven strawberry-rhubarb pie with crumble topping. It was empowering to morph from Frightened Cancer Victim into Aunt Bee delivering a picnic basket to Andy down at the Mayberry sheriff's station.
[Emphasis added]

Empowering, and not just to her:

I got lots of double-takes, sitting in my hospital gown in the waiting room with a cake perched on my lap. Yet I quickly discovered that baking wasn't an escape for me alone. Because they're associated with happy occasions, seeing cakes in such an incongruous setting seemed to transport my fellow oncology patients back in time to childhood kitchens and carefree days before cancer hijacked their lives.

She found a way to get through the horrors of a cancer diagnosis and the horrors of radiation therapy and to assist others through that same horror. A small act? Perhaps, but also an example of something that we too often overlook in humans, all humans: the capacity to not just endure, but to endure and to prevail over seemingly impossible odds and to do so with grace and dignity and just the right amount of humor.

Now, whenever I get to the point of absolute disgust with humanity and its crooked politicians and insane power mongers, I will remember Jeannie MacDonald and her cakes. I will also remember that this fighting spirit is available to us all. That it is just as much a part of us as greed is, as meanspiritedness is, as hatefulness is.

And that should take the edge off.


Monday, January 09, 2012

Granny Bird Award: Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum is the latest winner of the Granny Bird Award, that award given from time to time to those who go out of their way to harm the interests of the elders in this country. The GOP candidate for the 2012 GOP nomination earned this prize in particularly dramatic fashion: by trying to win the duel to see who could gut social security benefits the fastest.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum called Friday for immediate cuts to Social Security benefits, risking the wrath of older voters and countless others who balk at changes to the entitlement program.

"We can't wait 10 years," even though "everybody wants to," Santorum told a crowd while campaigning in New Hampshire and looking to set himself apart from his Republican rivals four days before the New Hampshire primary. ...

This week, he told New Hampshire audiences that Americans over 65 were society's poorest age group in 1937, when Social Security was created. Now that group is the wealthiest, he said.

He also noted that Americans now live much longer, putting far bigger demands on the government retirement program.
[Emphasis added]

Like his confreres, Santorum conveniently overlooks the fact that this program is not paid for by the government, but by money which each worker has deducted from his paycheck. Some of us paid into our accounts for nearly fifty years. It's our money they're talking about.

Further, while the Social Security Trust Fund will need some shoring up, that can be accomplished by simply raising the limit of earned income subject to the payroll tax by 5-10%. That will hardly bust those earning more than $106,000 per year.

Finally, as to the assertion that those over 65 years of age compromise the wealthiest group in the country, well, that's one he pulled out of the south end of his alimentary canal. Most baby boomers I know don't have the benefit of an employer-provided pension to supplement social security, and their 401k accounts have been decimated by the economic upheavals of the past ten years.

Little Ricky is playing us, and is doing so just to get votes. He's earned his award.

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Sunday, January 08, 2012

Sunday Poetry: Bill Mitton

(What need I the waving flags, introduced by the author, Bill Mitton:

I watch the young men carry the coffins of their comrades and once again I feel the weight on my shoulders as I remember doing the self same thing. I prayed through my tears that before I died the madness would stop... I now know the folly of that prayer, because I now realise that whilst there are young men and women who believe that they are immortal, there will be politicians who will barter and trade the young's misconception without the flicker of an eye.)

What need I the waving flags

I watch these old men march
bereted and badged
as I was in years long gone.
Though I understand
and will honour their need.
I will never join them.

I need no marching or medals
to do honour to comrades dead
the metal would lie heavy
upon my aging chest.

I find no honour in gravestones
the faces in my memory
are still happy and young
I would rather they were here
growing old, honoured by
their children’s children.

I need no military band.
I keep alive within my soul
the music of my comrades’ songs
They are my morning reveille
and my twilights taps

What need I the waving flags
of these patronising politicians,
and hindsight’s patriots
when these self same,
cloaked in self interest,
barter and sell the peace
hard bought by young lives,
whilst their casual neglect
of our injured and our widows
do such dishonour to our dead.

What right have I of medals
For I am here, aging still.
I hold in trust the memories of
such youthful, selfless, sacrifice
their smiles will haunt me ever.
For as our young soldiers still do.
I have, in scaring grief, carried home,
brave men upon their shields.

--Bill Mitton

(Found at War Poetry.)

Giving It Up

It was a "three-I's" weekend at Watching America: Iraq, Iran, Iowa. There are some nifty articles from the rest of the world's press, and a visit this weekend took a little longer than usual to choose one for today's post. I went with the third I.

I know I've said this many times before, but it's true: I'm amazed at how closely the rest of the world follows our election process. This article from Spain's Pais has an especially astute reading of the state of the Republican Party in the campaign for a presidential nominee.

The joke of the results in Iowa is that the three candidates who have taken the lead, with very little margin between them, is that each one of them personifies one of the three Republican souls that strive to prevail. The conservatism of Mitt Romney is that of business and money, above all pragmatic and mediating, and it goes without saying, reproaches the extremists of his party. Rick Santorum’s conservatism is particularly moral: He defends traditional values and even reactionaries, and is an activist against gay marriage and abortion. Finally, Ron Paul’s conservatism is more ambiguous, to the point that he can make many progressives enthusiastic: He’s a libertarian, highly individualist, enemy of taxes and public spending, and has no interest whatsoever in U.S. participation in foreign war ventures.

I think that analysis captures the current state nicely. The article also correctly notes the fact that the party faithful (and I use that term intentionally) are not happy with the putative leader in the race, Mitt Romney, so unhappy that they may go with one of the other candidates, proving that the great unwashed are far to the right of the party's leadership. That will have some rather profound consequences.

...The American right is suffering from itself, prepared to give up power before the radicalism of its ideas and values. It is the surest path to the victory of the others.

I'm sure the powers-that-be in the GOP are fully aware of that, which means that a brokered convention is not such a far-fetched possibility after all. Or, and this is also a possibility, it means those powers-that-be are willing to give Obama another four years (he hasn't really hurt them, after all) so as to groom a real winner for 2016.

Under either scenario, however, the election is looming large, if only for the down ticket possibilities. The power of Congress has increased in the last three years even if that power has only been used to obstruct most meaningful legislation. A stunning victory by either party could change everything, regardless of who is sleeping at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

And that means actually voting this time around is very important.


Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Mike Luckovich and published 12/30/11 in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, January 07, 2012

Bonus Critter Blogging: Yeti Crab

(Photograph courtesy NERC CHESSO Consortium and published at National Geographic. Click on the link to learn more about this critter and others found near a heat vent in the Antarctic.)

Some Good News

It's the New Year, one which is an election year, and I've already found some good news. There may be plenty of crazy racists in California, but not as many as the Republicans were counting on.

Opponents of California's Dream Act have failed in a signature-gathering drive aimed at overturning the new law that will permit some undocumented immigrants to receive publicly funded college aid. ...

The effort garnered 447,514 signatures, not the required 504,760 valid voter signatures required to place the matter before voters ...

The Dream Act allows undocumented students who came to the country before age 16 and attended California high schools to apply for public financial aid, including Cal Grants. Those students already are eligible for in-state tuition, and Gov. Jerry Brown also signed a companion measure this year affording them access to private financial aid.

"Going to college is a dream that promises intellectual excitement and creating thinking," Brown said in a prepared statement upon signing the contested bill, Assembly Bill 131, in October. "The Dream Act benefits us all by giving top students a chance to improve their lives and the lives of all of us."
[Emphasis added]

In a state as populous and diverse as California, the right wing couldn't find half a million loonies willing to sign on to the mean-spirited attempt to repeal a decent and compassionate law. Republican legislators, of course, are spinning it a little differently. They promise that the issue won't go away because the state's budget won't allow for such spending. Giving kids a chance for an education is frivolous in their eyes.

Of course, this victory is only half-a-loaf, which while better than no bread at all still doesn't fully solve the problem. Once these students graduate, unless there has been some meaningful immigration reform giving them a shot at citizenship or at least legal residence, they won't be able to secure the jobs which will enrich the state and its citizens.

Such reform has to come at the national level, and it won't come from the 112th Congress during an election year. The various candidates for the Republican nomination have gone out of their way to bash immigrants by trying to outdo each other in cementing our borders against the unwashed hordes trying to sneak in and steal our vital essence. Congressional Republicans have already made it clear that anything that smacks of "amnesty" will not be tolerated, even when that "amnesty" is being extended to kids who were brought here before they were sixteen and had no say in the matter. And congressional Republicans control the House and are gunning to take the Senate in 2012.

That means we are going to have to elect Democrats across the country to Congress so that at least we have a shot at humane reform. We might have to hold our noses at voting for Obama, but there is every reason in the world to vote for decent people down the ticket. That way we might finally get the change we voted for in 2008.

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Friday, January 06, 2012

Friday Cat Blogging

(Thanks to Gimlet for sharing the picture.)

Tea For Three

We haven't heard too much about the Tea Party of late, even during and immediately after the Iowa caucuses. Oh, there were mentions of that movement tagged on to some of the candidates, but nothing really substantive. Doyle McManus, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, had plenty to say in his most recent column, however. He posits that the movement is still alive and kicking.

A year ago, the tea party movement looked like an irresistible wave sweeping through the Republican Party. Anyone who hoped to win this year's GOP presidential nomination, it seemed, would need to embrace tea party activists' stringent demands for smaller government, lower taxes and deep cuts in spending.

But in Tuesday's Iowa caucuses, the three candidates who hewed closest to the tea party line — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich — sank straight to the bottom of the pack. Instead of choosing a rigorous fiscal conservative such as Bachmann, Perry or Gingrich, Iowa Republicans divided most of their votes between Mitt Romney, the tea party's least favorite candidate, and Rick Santorum, a social conservative who voted for big spending and defended congressional earmarks when he was in the Senate. Ron Paul, at third place, was the most successful of the tea party-friendly candidates, but the acerbic libertarian's claim to 22% of Tuesday's caucus votes could well turn out to be his high-water mark for the year.

In national polls too the tea party's allure has been fading. A study in November by the Pew Research Center found that 27% of the public said they disagreed with the tea party, while only 20% said they agreed — a striking reversal from a year earlier, when 27% agreed. The poll's authors said it appeared that voters increasingly blamed the tea party and its champions in Congress for the gridlock in negotiations over the federal budget.

So does this mean the tea party over? Not exactly.

The tea party has changed the political landscape in ways that are likely to last for a while. Every Republican candidate, for example, at least claims now to be a fiscal conservative. Even Romney, whose greatest achievement as a governor was mandatory health insurance, now says he supports a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that would cap spending at 20% of gross domestic product, a deep cut below the current 24%. Santorum goes even further, proposing a spending cap of 18%.

But the Tea Party is still around. Perry and Bachmann may not have benefited much, but probably for reasons unrelated to Tea Party interests: Perry was a stumbler in the debates and Bachmann was, well, just too crazy. Tea Party voters then had to decide among the remaining viable candidates and that meant the votes got divided among those candidates, leaving Romney with an embarrassingly slim victory.

According to the "entrance poll" sponsored by news organizations, about a third of those who voted in the GOP caucus pronounced themselves "strong supporters" of the tea party; of those, 30% said they voted for Santorum, 17% for Gingrich and 16% for Paul.

That fragmentation will continue, but it also looks like that support will keep Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul in the race for a while. The Tea Party is most certainly not dead. In fact, I anticipate that adherents will play at least some role in the 2012 general election, even if not as dramatic a role as it played in 2010.

And speaking of that 2010 election and the Tea Party candidates who made their way into the 112th Congress, the Center for Responsive Politics has issued a report which takes a look at the net worth of our congress critters, including the Tea Party beneficiaries.

The median average net worth of a member of the House Tea Party Caucus was $1.8 million in 2010. (Financial disclosure forms require lawmakers to value their assets and liabilities only in ranges, so it's impossible to know exactly how wealthy a particular elected official is. However, it's possible to calculate an average net worth for each member of Congress.)

That's significantly higher than the comparable number for the median House member: $755,000. It's also more than 130 percent above the $774,280 average net worth of the median, non-Tea Party Caucus House Republican.

Furthermore, the caucus, a group of 60 House members founded by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), includes 33 millionaires and six members worth more than $20 million, according to the Center's research. That means a member of the group is more likely to be a millionaire than the average Republican who isn't in the caucus.
[Emphasis added]

That report raised both of my eyebrows. I suspect, however, that such findings wouldn't bother our Tea Party brethren one bit.

A shame, that.

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Thursday, January 05, 2012

On Targets

OK, Iowa's over. I had anticipated more of a shakeout among the lesser candidates, but only Michele Bachmann has called it quits. Rick Perry thought about it, and then decided to stay in the race. Apparently Texas doesn't need his presence right now and he has access to money, so he's keeping on keeping on. Newt Gingrich didn't fare too well either, but the pugnacious one is ready for the next battles. After all, the largest newspaper in New Hampshire endorsed him weeks ago and he figures to do better in South Carolina.

Ron Paul made it into the top tier of candidates with his strong third place finish. He also expects to do well in New Hampshire because of his libertarianism, although I doubt he will do nearly as well in South Carolina, the two states that will vote in January. At that point I think he will be forced to consider a third party candidacy.

That leaves Rick Santorum, who almost took Iowa. Some wags have suggested that Santorum did well because it was his turn to be "not Mitt" and the timing was perfect for a victory in Iowa. He won't be as lucky in New Hampshire for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he's now in the spotlight (or the headlights) and will now get the attention that Bachmann, Cain, Perry, and Gingrich got after their surges. That attention, Jon Healey opines, will not be kind.

The Iowa Republican caucuses Tuesday produced one clear loser: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who failed to crack double digits despite campaigning intensively. The winner isn't so clear, given how few votes separated Mitt Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). But Romney's showing was expected and Santorum's was not -- at least not until a few days ago, when surveys confirmed his meteoric ascendancy.

That means Santorum comes out of Iowa with momentum, credibility and new-found attention. But it also means he'll have a huge target on his back.

The Iowa caucuses demonstrated how effectively rival campaigns and independent, well-heeled "super PACs" can sour the public on a candidate. Just look at former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who went from hero to zero (OK, low double digits) in about a week. ...

...it's hard to predict the kind of attacks Santorum will draw, or whether he'll fade as quickly as Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Gingrich did once they drew the media's (and their rivals') withering glare.
[Emphasis added]

It's that last comment that bears a little examination: the role of the media in all of this. Santorum was pretty much ignored by the media until the last couple of days of the Iowa campaign, a fact that Santorum lamented throughout the campaign. Now, with a near win, he's a target for "the media's withering glare."

There is, I suppose, nothing wrong with not paying attention to a candidate everyone considers to be from the fringe. Nor is there anything wrong with paying attention once that fringe candidate has some success. What is distasteful, however, is how that "withering glare" is focused, what provides the ammunition about to be discharged. If the coverage goes back to Santorum's past record as a senator from Pennsylvania, that's appropriate. If the coverage parses each of his statements during the remainder of the campaign, that's appropriate as well.

What's inappropriate, however, is letting the candidate's opposition do the press's job for them. Simply reciting the outrageous claims of a television ad run by a super PAC doesn't qualify for anything beyond giving that super PAC more bang for its buck. Noting the jabs issued by the opponent, in this case Mitt Romney, without comment has the same effect. Yet this is exactly what much of the coverage has consisted of as each "not Mitt" was taken down and cast aside. It's as if the press is who's making the selection of the nominee in collusion with that nominee.

And that is bad, very bad, for a democracy.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2012


OK, Iowa is over for another four years. I'll let the dust settle and comment on the outcome another day. Suffice it to say that the results weren't exactly earthshaking.

What does come to mind this morning is that one of the themes injected into the last few weeks of the Republican campaigns was the the peskiness of the federal judiciary. Newt Gingrich took the extreme position that as president he would simply ignore any decisions he disagreed with and might even be open to having judges and justices arrested for more egregious displays of judicial activism. Given the current nature of the Supreme Court, it's hard to imagine Newt being terribly dismayed by any decisions emanating from that august body. Still, it's a meme popular with conservatives so it's not surprising he would trot it out.

Sadly, it's also not an entirely frivolous concern. Appointments to the federal bench are for a life time. The only way to remove a judge or justice is by impeachment, which is exceedingly rare and very time consuming. And while judges at the trial and appellate levels are governed by ethics rules, the justices at the US Supreme Court are not bound by those rules. That anomaly is coming into play at the present time with respect to the challenge of the healthcare reform law.

Conservatives want Justice Kagan to recuse herself because she was the Solicitor General when the law was being hammered out. Liberals want Justice Thomas to recuse himself because his wife heads a lobbyist group which wants the law stricken. There is no way to force either justice to do so under the current state of the law.

Chief Justice Roberts doesn't see that as a problem. He has stated that he has the utmost confidence that members of his court will always do the right thing when it comes to ethical considerations. His confidence may be well-placed, but that is hardly comforting, something the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times noted a couple of days ago. The editorial does point to one way to ensure that Supreme Court justices at least think seriously about the issue:

A federal statute states that any "justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned." The problem is that each justice decides for himself or herself whether to recuse, usually without explanation. A rare exception was a detailed statement issued by Justice Antonin Scalia in 2004 after he refused to disqualify himself in a case involving then-Vice President Dick Cheney, whom Scalia had accompanied on a duck-hunting excursion.

Legislation introduced by Rep. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) would require a justice who recused himself in a case to provide the reason. If a justice rejected a petition that he withdraw, the reason for that decision also would have to be made public, and that decision could be appealed to a panel of retired justices and senior judges. Finally, Murphy's bill would require the justices to abide by the Code of Judicial Conduct, which they presently consult but are not bound by. Congress should not interfere with the decisions of the court, but judicial ethics are a fit subject for legislation, which would be unnecessary if the court acted on its own.

The decision to participate in — or withdraw from — a controversial case is a weighty one, especially on the Supreme Court, where one recusal creates the possibility of a 4-4 tie. But when a justice complies with, or rejects, a serious request to withdraw from a case, the public deserves an explanation.

Rep. Murphy's bill is hardly an attempt to "rein in" the court and should pass constitutional muster. The problem will be getting passage of the bill, especially during an election year. And that's a shame.

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