Saturday, December 31, 2005

Take a moment to support two unsung heroes

Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime

On July 9, 2005 two No More Deaths volunteers, Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss, were arrested by the United States Border Patrol while medically evacuating 3 people in distress from the desert near Arivaca, Arizona. Shanti and Daniel go on trial December 20, and are facing charges that could land them in prison for fifteen years.

Join with border activists, humanitarians, faith-based groups, and others who are supporting Shanti and Daniel in saying Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime by posting this message on your Web site, journal, or blog.

Get a copy of this message here.

And, to get an idea of what kind of guy some on the other side of this (including Arnold Schwarzenegger) are holding up as an example, Minuteman founder Chris Simcox, the Tucson Citizen has a pretty good article on what kind of guy he is: paranoid, child abuser (both of his ex wives said pretty much the same thing), bigot, nut.

(credit to Tedski on Rum, Romanism and Rebellion for the link).

Being opposed to monitoring people who have not committed a crime does not contradict supporting it for people who have committed one.

I recently got an email from someone who has been a reader (though infrequent commentor) on 'Deep Thought' since it began. The email asked about three posts in particular: My post from July 7, advocating electronic tracking of high level sex offenders, (follow up on August 3), then about a post I made on October 15, The prison which follows prison (discussing the lack of societal support for convicted felons who leave prison and want to succeed in society), and the post I made this past Thursday about RFID chips along with other statements I have made opposing the right of the government to spy on you. The reader asked whether these three posts taken together were contradictory.

My answer is, 'no, not at all.' First of all, I continue to oppose searches which violate the fourth amendment (such as surveillance without a warrant) and consider it a fundamental Constitutional right to not feel the weight of government snooping in your life.

At the same time, convicted felons surrender many of their Constitutional rights upon conviction. Some of these rights are restored over time, but in other cases they are not. An obvious example is the second amendment. I am in fact a full supporter of the second amendment and completely support the right to buy any make or model of firearm. However, we deny this right to convicted felons, and it is done so because of the increased risk, based on past behavior, that that person in particular is more likely than other people to use a gun to hurt someone else. That is a reasonable restriction. And does it prevent felons from getting guns? No, it does not. But we maintain the right as a civilized society to nevertheless put these sorts of restrictions in place, against those people who have demonstrated that they are capable of committing a crime against someone else. Now, I don't universally support restricting all Constitutional rights for felons, only those that demonstrably could allow them, by abusing it, to harm someone else (since they have already shown a propensity to do so). For example, the right to allow felons to vote is a complete mosaic over the states: Maine and Vermont allow them to vote even while they are in prison. Four southern states never allow them to vote, no matter what the felony was or how long they have been out of prison or off probation without committing a crime. The other 44 states range everywhere in between. Unlike the gun restriction, there is no uniformity in this case, and since it is hard to see how allowing someone to vote would demonstrably harm society, that restriction makes no sense. I don't have a problem with not allowing someone in prison or on probation to vote, but once they have paid their debt to society, this is not a right it makes sense to continue to restrict.

So, we come to the question of tracking devices. Now, as I said above, I consider that we should be able to go through our lives without the government snooping on us. However, in the case of some convicted felons, they are in fact on parole, which depending on its terms, can require regular meetings with a probation officer, detailed accounting of where someone has been and with whom, or other restrictions on privacy. There are also provisions for 'house arrest,' in which case a person's whereabouts can be electronically monitored 24/7 (which is what happened to Martha Stewart). These are both completely warranted sentences given within the criminal justice system, and are a humane and cheaper alternative to longer prison sentences. There is no right to privacy assumed within the criminal justice system, nor should there be.

Now, in the case of sex offenders, they have special laws that pertain to their status as sex offenders. The reason for these laws is very simple-- it has been shown in study after study that sex offenders, especially pedophiles, are unable to change their sexual appetites, and as such will remain a menace to society as long as they are on this earth. Recognizing this to be the case, there are two strategies which we can and should pursue: the first is that while we can't get rid of the compulsion to have inappropriate sex, we can and should treat it with ongoing counseling (no, this is not a waste of money, and even if it were, we have an obligation to ourselves to try). The second is the enforcement side. Right now, sex offenders are required to register. But that is often not enough. Some of them don't register, some of them move (as we saw last year in Florida, where a man was living several miles from where he was registered and murdered a nine year old girl), and in some cases other events happen (for example, right now authorities are hunting over 2000 registered sex offenders who fled the Gulf coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.) Now, the requirement to register already has been upheld in court as a reasonable measure that can be applied to these particular felons. So putting a tracking device (whether it be similar to the one put on Martha Stewart or an RFID chip) on them is not likely to run into constitutional problems. What it would do would be to save many lives. Even if we assume that people like Joseph Edward Duncan III would still have committed their crimes, it would make it much quicker for police to pick up the scent and catch them before they could kill the children they took with them. And ideally, knowing that this was the case, the offender would not commit the crime (very few commit a crime in the belief that they will be caught). If they moved from where they were registered, that would also show up quickly. And in the case of those who simply chose to not register at their new addresses or evacuees, tracking down where they are now would be much easier. And, essentially, it would mean that the penalty for rape or pedophilia would be a sort of 'life on parole.' That is not unreasonable when we consider that for murder, people can receive a sentence of 'life in prison,' and rape and pedophilia are only one step below murder on the crime scale (and no question that they should be), more serious than either armed robbery or assault.

On the third topic here, whatever specific actions we take to make society safer from people who pose a hazard (this category also includes, for example, chronic drunk drivers and career criminals), we do have an obligation to remember that the 'corrections' department is to correct behavior. And no matter what rate of success we have with rehabilitation programs, cutting funding for them, as has been done over and over, is a mistake. We have to try, so that those who genuinely want to reform themselves, have some option other than a return to crime. Failing that, we will continue to cycle the same group of people in and out of jail, as they enter society and are unable to find legal work. If we are not having success with rehab programs, the answer is not to give up and eliminate them, the answer is to study them and find out WHY we are not being successful and WHAT we can do differently to change that outcome.

Taking common sense measures to protect yourself against the potential excesses of someone and working to make things better for that person are not mutually exclusive.

More Troubles Rubles for DeLay

Today, there was another of the almost weekly new reports linking Tom DeLay's fundraising machine to GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Hardly even news anymore, except....

it seems to cross yet another new frontier in the annals of DeLay, Abramoff and their willful brushing aside of campaign finance laws and ethics in DeLay's maniacal quest to create a lasting GOP majority in Congress by whatever means he could.

And WHAT was done?

Tom DeLay apparently benefitted from contributions from a foreign source.

The U.S. Family Network, a public advocacy group that operated in the 1990s with close ties to Rep. Tom DeLay and claimed to be a nationwide grass-roots organization, was funded almost entirely by corporations linked to embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff, according to tax records and former associates of the group.

During its five-year existence, the U.S. Family Network raised $2.5 million but kept its donor list secret. The list, obtained by The Washington Post, shows that $1 million of its revenue came in a single 1998 check from a now-defunct London law firm whose former partners will not identify the money's origins.

Two former associates of Edwin A. Buckham, the congressman's former chief of staff and the organizer of the U.S. Family Network, said Buckham told them the funds came from Russian oil and gas executives. Abramoff had been working closely with two such Russian energy executives on their Washington agenda, and the lobbyist and Buckham had helped organize a 1997 Moscow visit by DeLay.

The former president of the U.S. Family Network said Buckham told him that Russians contributed $1 million to the group in 1998 specifically to influence DeLay's vote on legislation the International Monetary Fund needed to finance a bailout of the collapsing Russian economy.

The article then goes on through more information on the donors to the fund and the help they received from DeLay, and includes this little tidbit:

There is no evidence DeLay received a direct financial benefit, but Buckham's firm employed DeLay's wife, Christine, and paid her a salary of at least $3,200 each month for three of the years the group existed. Richard Cullen, DeLay's attorney, has said that the pay was compensation for lists Christine DeLay supplied to Buckham of lawmakers' favorite charities, and that it was appropriate under House rules and election law...

While DeLay's wife drew a monthly salary from the lobbying firm, she did not work at its offices in the townhouse on Capitol Hill, according to former Buckham associates.

Neither the House nor the Federal Election Commission bars the payment of corporate funds to spouses through consulting firms or political action committees, but the spouses must perform real work for reasonable wages.

He didn't receive a direct financial benefit but they hired his wife for $3,200 per month to pass on some lists (some people drop dead while working for less than that). Sounds like a pretty direct financial benefit to me (I don't mean to presume anything about the financial structure of the DeLay household, but I would think that money paid to his wife would constitute a direct financial benefit to him; My wife has been unable to find permanent employment for three years and it certainly has affected our household income, in the opposite manner from DeLay's).

So the next question is, given that the money was from a foreign source (and was therefore illegal), WHAT was it used FOR? Well, the article also delves into that.

Some of the U.S. Family Network's revenue was used to pay for radio ads attacking vulnerable Democratic lawmakers in 1999; other funds were used to finance the cash purchase of a townhouse three blocks from DeLay's congressional office. DeLay's associates at the time called it "the Safe House."

DeLay made his own fundraising telephone pitches from the townhouse's second-floor master suite every few weeks, according to two former associates. Other rooms in the townhouse were used by Alexander Strategy Group, Buckham's newly formed lobbying firm, and Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC), DeLay's leadership committee.

It was used for attack ads, and to raise more money.

The only question I have, is how much money did it eventually turn into, and which Congressmen benefitted (because we know where ARMPAC money went-- to GOP Congressmen and Congressional candidates all across the country.)

And keep in mind that Tom DeLay is STILL the Majority Leader (only temporarily suspended) of these same Congressmen.

Funny how a million dollars of foreign money can go so far in America these days.

Then, there is a question of WHO were these Russians?

Three sources familiar with Abramoff's activities on their behalf say that the two Russians -- who knew the head of the Russian energy giant Gazprom and had invested heavily in that firm -- partly wanted just to be seen with a prominent American politician as a way of bolstering their credibility with the Russian government and their safety on Moscow's streets. The Russian oil and gas business at the time had a Wild West character, and its executives worried about extortion and kidnapping threats. The anxieties of Nevskaya and Koulakovsky were not hidden; like many other business people, they traveled in Moscow with guards armed with machine guns.

Tom DeLay's kind of people, living in Tom DeLay's kind of society, in other words.

There is also the question of HOW the donation was to be made.

A former Abramoff associate said the two executives "wanted to contribute to DeLay" and clearly had the resources to do it. At one point, Koulakovsky asked during a dinner in Moscow "what would happen if the DeLays woke up one morning" and found a luxury car in their front driveway, the former associate said. They were told the DeLays "would go to jail and you would go to jail."

The tax form states that the $1 million came by check on June 25, 1998, from "Nations Corp, James & Sarch co." The Washington Post checked with the listed executives of Texas and Florida firms that have names similar to Nations Corp, and they said they had no connection to any such payment.

James & Sarch Co. was dissolved in May 2000, but two former partners said they recalled hearing the names of the Russians at their office. Asked if the firm represented them, former partner Philip McGuirk at first said "it may ring a bell," but later he faxed a statement that he could say no more because confidentiality practices prevent him "from disclosing any information regarding the affairs of a client (or former client)."

Nevskaya said in the e-mail yesterday, however, that "neither Naftasib nor the principals you mentioned have ever been represented by a London law firm that you name as James & Sarch Co." She also said that Naftasib and its principals did not pay $1 million to the firm, and denied knowing about the transaction.

Two former Buckham associates said that he told them years ago not only that the $1 million donation was solicited from Russian oil and gas executives, but also that the initial plan was for the donation to be made via a delivery of cash to be picked up at a Washington area airport.

A Rolls would be too obvious, and cash would be too messy, so hence the check.

And WHY did they want to give money to DeLay?

One of the former associates, a Frederick, Md., pastor named Christopher Geeslin who served as the U.S. Family Network's director or president from 1998 to 2001, said Buckham further told him in 1999 that the payment was meant to influence DeLay's vote in 1998 on legislation that helped make it possible for the IMF to bail out the faltering Russian economy and the wealthy investors there.

"Ed told me, 'This is the way things work in Washington,' " Geeslin said. "He said the Russians wanted to give the money first in cash." Buckham, he said, orchestrated all the group's fundraising and spending and rarely informed the board about the details.

Now, it was meant to 'influence' DeLay's 'vote.' Of course, one of 435 Congressmen is very unlikely to be the single deciding vote, but in DeLay's case, as Majority Leader, his 'vote' was more like his 'House.' I have blogged before on some of the tactics that Tom DeLay has used in the House to make sure that he gets legislation passed that he supports.

And he delivered in this case: (read on):

The IMF funding legislation was a contentious issue in 1998. The Russian stock market fell steeply in April and May, and the government in Moscow announced on June 18 -- just a week before the $1 million check was sent by the London law firm -- that it needed $10 billion to $15 billion in new international loans.

House Republican leaders had expressed opposition through that spring to giving the IMF the money it could use for new bailouts, decrying what they described as previous destabilizing loans to other countries. The IMF and its Western funders, meanwhile, were pressing Moscow, as a condition of any loan, to increase taxes on major domestic oil companies such as Gazprom, which had earlier defaulted on billions of dollars in tax payments.

On Aug. 18, 1998, the Russian government devalued the ruble and defaulted on its treasury bills. But DeLay, appearing on "Fox News Sunday" on Aug. 30 of that year, criticized the IMF financing bill, calling the replenishment of its funds "unfortunate" because the IMF was wrongly insisting on a Russian tax increase. "They are trying to force Russia to raise taxes at a time when they ought to be cutting taxes in order to get a loan from the IMF. That's just outrageous," DeLay said...

In the end, the Russian legislature refused to raise taxes, the IMF agreed to lend the money anyway, and DeLay voted on Sept. 17, 1998, for a foreign aid bill containing new funds to replenish the IMF account. DeLay's spokesman said the lawmaker "makes decisions and sets legislative priorities based on good policy and what is best for his constituents and the country." He added: "Mr. DeLay has very firm beliefs, and he fights very hard for them."

So, the Russians got their legislation to fund the IMF for bailing out the Russian economy while apparently still using their domestic leverage to avoid a tax hike. My only question is this: If 'Mr. DeLay has very firm beliefs, and he fights very hard for them,' then why did the Russian oilmen feel it was necessary to give him a nickel? I mean, if you try for a moment (I know it's a stretch) to put yourself in the shoes of a corrupt Russian oilman, wouldn't you try to bribe people whose help you actually needed? Ergo, they needed his help. It is just a 'coincidence' that he spoke up on their behalf and that members of Mr. DeLay's own party in the house were overridden and forced to vote for a bill they had taken a stance against.

Yeah, a lot like the 'coincidence' we mentioned earlier that the original cover group, after presumably interviewing many qualified candidates, just 'happened' to decide that Christine DeLay was the right person for their position.

Now, there is a question about the fact that the Federal Election Campaign Act prohibits foreign nationals from making any contribution to candidates or parties, but this organization was able to skirt the act.

No legal bar exists to a $1 million donation by a foreign entity to a group such as the U.S. Family Network, according to Marcus Owens, a Washington lawyer who directed the IRS's office of tax-exempt organizations from 1990 to 2000 and who reviewed, at The Post's request, the tax returns filed by the U.S. Family Network.

So that's the secret then. Give it to a 'public interest group,' and it's legal. But certainly unethical. And ultimately that should be illegal as well. But with Tom DeLay writing the laws, that won't happen any time soon.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

What is worse than the spying that we know that George Bush has done? How about what he could be doing.

This is kind of spooky, especially in light of the news we have seen the past few days involving the Bush administration's penchant for circumventing normal legal channels to spy on people.

Bar codes on products are going the way of the horse-drawn carriage, and being replaced so called RFID chips (short for Radio Frequency Identification), which look like small square patches with wires. And scanning the item at the checkout counter is only the first thing they are good for.

To the industry that makes and markets RFID, it's simply the next logical step from bar codes: providing a cheap, easy way to keep products on the shelves, consumers happy and companies making money.

But to many privacy-rights advocates, RFID tags could be the forerunner to nightmare scenarios in which RFID technology is the Trojan horse that brings Big Brother into your home, snooping through your medicine cabinets, fridge and underwear drawer to find out what you do, buy and believe, and, ultimately, what you are.

This small tag has, so far, largely flown under the radar of consumers and the mainstream press. But in early October, privacy-rights advocates Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre published a book, "Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID," that has RFID proponents on the defensive....

And the federal government plans to put RFID tags in passports, prescription medications and perhaps driver's licenses and postage stamps. One day, the "Spychips" authors fear, the tiny tags could be on everything from candy bars to dollar bills, compromising both privacy and personal security.

The wires and microcircuitry in RFID chips allow the movement of the chip, and even its orientation, to be tracked by anyone who has the inclination to do so. And since they are putting these chips in everything from cassette tapes to underwear labels, it is already possible to track every single person. But if the government is successful in integrating it into, for example, driver's licences, then it is safe to say that any kind of personal freedom will be severely restricted.

I won't be around the blogosphere for a couple of days; I get to spend some time in Albuquerque with my kids (well, plus what I'm sure will just be a complete blast of a fun afternoon at the dentist). My wife is insisting that I go as planned, probably because she needs a break. But you see, I chose to tell you that. I also could have not told you that. I value the freedom to tell or not tell. I don't want some government employed spook somewhere punching up my name on a computer and gets a picture perfect view of everything I see, courtesy of some innocuous looking tag on my belt.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Just remember-- Managed Care was the Republican alternative

Yesterday, I had the 'opportunity' to examine America's healthcare system (and don't forget-- we now have the Republican system of 'managed care,' -- HMO's, PPO's, and other 'choices' that they pushed for in 1994 as an alternative to Universal Healthcare) from the inside. My wife had to go the emergency room. We got there at about 12:00 noon. We got out just before 7:00. And the majority of that time was spent in the waiting room (not fun since we had a nine year old with us).

Now, I don't begrudge the hospital for the wait, since just like you I would prefer that they do it right rather than quickly, but just a rhetorical question: When arguing against universal healthcare in 1994, didn't Republicans argue that it would produce long waiting lines in hospitals (at least we were in Flagstaff-- there have been reports of people coming into emergency rooms in large cities and waiting fourteen hours to be seen)? So it looks like they've got that one down.

They also argued back then that Universal Healthcare would restrict your choice of doctors and other healthcare providers. Well, speak again-- as one who has been forced to change providers at least once rather than 'go outside the system,' and pay an arm and a leg. And we haven't even gotten to what happens if you need a prescription which is not in the formulary-- a prescription which I need is not covered, so I pay over $80 for a month's supply-- and that's a bargain relative to what some people have to pay, for drugs that cost hundreds of dollars a month. Looks like they nailed 'restricting your choice' down with their system just fine.

Then, there was an argument that a bureaucrat, rather than a doctor, would decide whether to approve a procedure. Hmmm, my wife was denied a procedure (under our old healthcare plan) several years ago, by a bureaucrat, not a doctor, which contributed to her being in the emergency room yesterday. And in other cases, people have been denied care that led directly to their deaths--- so Congress and President Bush, in their infinite wisdom, 'fixed' that problem-- by fixing what few loopholes there were in existing legislation that protects your HMO from the consequences if they make that kind of decision (remember the President preferred a 'Texas plan,' but then never sent a bill to Congress to rectify the problem after the 'Texas plan' was thrown out in court). So, if you are denied coverage, you can appeal their own decision to your HMO (that'll be a fair unbiased review, won't it) and then that is the end of the line. Yes, they've nailed down the worst nightmare scenario under their opposition to Universal Healthcare, we have that today too.

And then, there was the question of cost. I posted some on this here, but the fact is that our healthcare system, far from saving money, is now the most expensive in the world, where we spent 15.3% of our Gross Domestic Product on healthcare in 2003 (the most recent year for which figures are available) and it is increasing at a double digit clip, while countries with Universal Healthcare systems spent substantially less (under 10% in a number of countries, including France and not much over it in places like Canada and Germany) in the same year, with lower rates of growth. So the idea that it would cost more, well you see what happened to that one (just wondering, their governments are not running it to make a profit, while our system is managed by for-profit companies, you don't suppose that might have something to do with why it costs more?)

Oh, yes. And taxes. Well, right now, I pay the full premiums for my wife and kids (my own is paid by my employer). This amounts to about 16% I pay and about 6% my employer pays of my contract (i.e. gross, not counting overtime, which is unpredictable), including health, dental and vision. So overall, that comes out to 22% of my contract (and that doesn't even take into account even a penny of co-pays, deductibles or percentages of payments). You will note above that healthcare costs 15.3% of the GDP of the U.S. and generally about 9-13% in countries, so it is hard to argue that Universal Healthcare would make taxes go up more than what we are already paying (by local standards here, I make more than most people). Very likely the overall combination of taxation, health premiums and other payments to providers would go down, way down for most people.

Finally, there is quality. They have argued that we had the finest healthcare system in the world. And it is true, that IF you can afford it, you can get it here. However, even that is changing-- recently we saw the first face transplant in France. Now, the point isn't that it happened in France, but that it did not happen in America-- it used to be that the first ANYTHING technological was done in America (especially involving medicine). And as far as healthcare for ordinary people-- well, if the system is so bad in places like Canada and western European countries, then why do they live longer than we do? Maybe it's the balmy climate? Or is it that people go to the doctor when they need to, instead of when they can afford to?

Maybe it's time to give another look at Universal Healthcare. Because every argument they bring up, we will have a great response: That is what we have now.

UPDATE: Dorsano over at Night Bird's Fountain put up a great post on The Minnesota Universal Health Care Coalition.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Abraham had two sons.

In all of the posts on Deep Thought, I have at most only made passing reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is the most vexing and intractable conflict in the world, and I don't pretend to have an answer to the myriad of problems facing two nations of millions of people, all fighting over a piece of land the size of Vermont.

To Israelis, it represents their historical homeland. A place that was promised to Abraham for his seed to live there, and they trace their lineage to Abraham through his son, Isaac. A place they were exiled from thousands of years ago, but never gave up hope for a return. A place where generations of hard earned pennies were put aside into a 'tzedakah' box to buy land, and then independence was gained at the price of blood. A place where a dream, ages old, has finally come to reality. A reality that has to be defended every day from people who want to destroy the entire country. They believe their holiest city is Jerusalem, and it is the capital of their country.

To Palestinians, it represents their historical homeland. A place that was promised to Abraham for his seed to live there, and they trace their lineage to Abraham through his son, Ishmael. A place where their ancestors fought with a succession of invaders to defend their land, including the Israelites, as well as the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Abbasids, the Crusaders, the Mongols, the Turks and the British. So now they see the Israelites back again as occupiers. And they will fight for their freedom and independence as they always have. They believe their holiest city is Jerusalem, and it is the capital of their country.

So, you see why this is intractable. Both sides can say, with much justification, that they are right.

Now, today I was reading the news and found this article on Christmas this year in Bethlehem.

BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK - The meticulously followed Christmas ritual dates back to Ottoman times.

Every year on the morning of Dec. 25, the Latin Patriarch and a host of Church dignitaries head southward from Jerusalem via an ancient road to Bethlehem. But this year, the procession will pass through a metal gate topped with rolls of barbed wire, normally closed but opened briefly so as not to impede the tradition.

Flanking the gate are sections of 28-ft. high slabs of concrete that have made the northern approach of Bethlehem into a walled city. Half encircled by Israel's barrier, residents in the city where Jesus was born worry that the obstacle will slow a renewed stream of pilgrims as well as sever Bethlehem's historic link to Jerusalem.

"Going to Jerusalem is now like going to Jordan," complains Ali Jubran, a construction worker from Bethlehem, as he puts finishing touches on a new checkpoint terminal. "If you want to pray [at the mosque], you have to present a passport."

Creeping gradually southward through the West Bank, Israel has completed about half of the 411-mile matrix of concrete wall, electric fence, and patrol roads. Israel says it is necessary to keep suicide bombers from reaching its shopping malls and buses, but a United Nations court ruled in an advisory opinion last year that it violated international law.

On the outskirts of one of Christianity's holiest cities, the barrier snakes through the hills, almost entirely closing off nearby Jerusalem. Israeli security officials have charged that Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem has served as the base for militants who have carried out deadly attacks in Jerusalem....

Back near the entrance of Bethlehem, the neighborhood around Rachel's Tomb - the traditional burial spot of the Old Testament matriarch - has become a ghost town. Once bustling with markets and restaurants, Bethlehem's gateway district has been carved up by a cement wall corridor that allows Jewish worshippers to visit the holy site without being exposed to sniper fire.

Now, I don't like the West Bank wall, but any honest discussion of it has to include the fact that the Palestinians brought it on themselves (as they have brought much misery on themselves). It is hardly reasonable to ask that a nation would simply ignore a steady stream of suicide bombers climbing onto buses in Tel Aviv as they were just three or four years ago and detonating themselves. Proportionate to the population, it would be as if we in the U.S. had a Sept. 11 or Oklahoma City bombing attack every other week. People would demand that the government do something about it, and they would. The wall has cut the rate of uncontrolled (meaning not searched) passage of people into Israel (and corresponding number of suicide attacks) to almost zero, and as that is what it was designed to do, it has been a success in that regard. Had the Palestinians not decided to launch their 'intifada' after the Barak-Arafat peace accord had broken down (a decision that was Arafat's, to go with a lifetime of poor decisions on his part) then today there would be no wall. And until the Palestinian authority takes action to restrain groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, even if it means using force to enforce their rules (like the stated position opposing attacks on Israel), there will always be more radical groups sending more bombers and launching more rocket attacks. Keep in mind that many Palestinians still consider that all of the territory is theirs (see this site, and if necessary click on their map link),, so simply evacuating the West Bank and declaring a Palestinian state would not end attacks on Israel.

At the same time, the vision of a nation that is so petrified that they build a wall around themselves, once used as a matter of sarcasm, is what we see with Israel today (and is now being pushed by some loonies as a method to control illegal immigration along our own southern border). The fence, however, doesn't just go around Israel. It also encloses enclaves of Israeli settlements (most of which were built simply by bulldozing whatever structures west bank Palestinians had on the land with little or no compensation and in some cases literally minutes to get out) which have exacerbated tensions. These settlers are often the most fanatical of zionists, who believe that all of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza should be part of Israel and that all Palestinians should simply leave the country and move somewhere else. One has to question the wisdom of the Israeli government in not only building the settlements (only to later evacuate them at a political price and a waste of money, as we saw recently in Gaza), but in then populating them with the most fanatical of Israelis, those most likely to be involved in tense relations with their Palestinian neighbors (such as Allan Goodman, a settler who in 1982 entered the al-Aqsa mosque during midday prayers and sprayed the crowd with machine gun fire, killing dozens, and inspiring a new terrorist group, the 'al-Aqsa martyrs brigade'.) And the wall has been built on yet more Palestinian land. This has certainly helped feed radical Islamist groups, since people who have been displaced personally by settlements or by the wall are much more likely to become radicalized and take up arms against Israel. When the PLO was founded in 1964 (three years before Israel took over the West Bank, by the way), their main source of recruits were people who had owned land in Israel and been forced off of the land in 1948 (although there are arabs living peacefully inside Israel today, so to some extent it was those who believed that the five arab states then attacking Israel would prevail, and who were then not allowed back in when Israel won that war). Today, one of their main sources of recruits are Palestinians who have, or who know someone who has, been forced off of land in the West Bank. Another source (particularly for Hamas) are Palestinians, especially in Gaza, who have suffered from the periodic border closures which Israel enforced. This meant that some who lived there could not get to their jobs in Israel. And with no money coming in (the Gaza strip is not much bigger than the city of Washington D.C. and is literally packed with people, so the need for money coming in from outside is great), people were hungry, and hungry people with no hope are easy prey for someone with a message.

What we see then, is that the distrust and by now hatred of each side towards the other has caused each side to take actions that only provoke more actions against them by the other side. Then these actions justify and amplify their hatred.

Ultimately, I do see some hope here-- but probably not for many, many years-- and then only if it is backed by enough cash investment, particularly in Palestinian areas, to create a viable economy (for example, the largest employer in the West Bank is Coca-Cola. Their bottling plant in Ramallah employs over 20,000 Palestinians, and pays very good wages by local standards. This is one reason why the Palestinian authority chose Ramallah as their temporary 'capital,'-- it is one of the few success stories there). Only when Palestinians can find something better than Jihadism, can we expect to defeat the Jihadists. And the international community will have to contribute to that future. If Israel saw a Palestinian authority that had both the power and the willpower to crack down on terrorists in their midst (as in put them in prison, just as you or I would go to prison if, for example, we decided to sneak across the border and attack people in Mexico), then they would likely feel secure enough to tear down the wall. The settlements in the West Bank could in theory be evacuated and torn down, but only if the Palestinians not only recognized Israel in word, but also in deed (sites promoting tourism, like the one I linked to, would have to fix their maps.) Palestinian schoolchildren as well as Israeli schoolchildren would have to be taught the boundaries of their respective nations. The practice on the part of Palestinian politicians of speaking about peace while speaking in English while imploring the destruction of Israel while speaking Arabic will have to end. With the long list of people who have been involved with bloody acts, there would also likely have to be something similar to Nelson Mandela's 'truth and reconciliation commission,' where people can confess their crimes, renounce them, and as long as they live by that renunciation not face any consequences. Jerusalem will still be a sticking point. However, if all of the preceding are done, I suspect that something could be arranged (one thought that springs to mind, probably because it would be equally and totally unacceptable to both sides would be to establish a Jewish capital in the new city, which would be entirely under the control of Israel, a Palestinian capital in a portion of the old city, but not all of it, and the area around the Temple mount, the Mosque of Omar and the Wailing Wall an international holy place under the control of the United Nations).

However, with thousands of years of personal, religious, ethnic and national hatred, it will be a long, slow road.

Taking it out of your left hand in order to have it in your right hand.

"The Great City of New Orleans, will be rebuilt." -- President Bush, speaking after Hurricane Katrina.

Facing some pressure to provide another installment of aid for rebuilding the Gulf Coast, which had been stuck on $62 billion (of an estimated $250 billion cost) since the early days after the disaster, Congress ponied up another $29 billion this week. Well, sort of.

Turns out that all except five billion of it came from the FEMA disaster relief fund. This is the fund that has been used to provide housing and pay other expenses for people displaced by the storm. That has never been included as part of the cost of 'rebuilding.'

WASHINGTON - An aid package to help the Gulf Coast rebuild after Hurricane Katrina will be siphoned from a dwindling FEMA disaster fund, leaving agency officials wondering Thursday whether they will need more money to help storm evacuees beyond next spring.

All but $5 billion of the $29 billion aid package, which won final congressional approval Thursday, will come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund. The fund had a $34.7 billion balance last week, meaning FEMA will have about $11 billion left to help move thousands of evacuated families from hotels into homes and for other assistance.

"I think we're going to have enough," FEMA Acting Director R. David Paulison told reporters. "We're watching it very closely."

FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews later said President Bush probably will seek more money from Congress early next year to replenish the relief fund, which is chiefly for immediate aid for disaster victims and state and local governments.

Note that word, 'probably.'

This is a Congress which cut funding for New Orleans levees before the storm (Never forget the prescient words of Jefferson Parish emergency management director Walter Maestri when he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune on June 8, 2004, a full year before Katrina: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."), and as a result of this kind of reckless budget-cutting (and it now turns out that Katrina was a category III, which the levees were supposed to be designed for, so therefore it may well have been a maintenance problem rather than a design problem), managed to LOSE A MAJOR AMERICAN CITY, and yet is STILL trying to wiggle out from having to actually PAY for the damage.

Robbing the refugees with a promise that they will 'probably' get the help they need in the future is not the way to finance reconstruction.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Private contractor not covered by government exemption from lawsuits.

A few weeks ago I put up a post entitled, We live in the age of the corporate mercenary army. The post brought up the topic of private 'contractors' who have been hired by the Defense Department to provide security and carry out other duties in Iraq. Of course, because of the nature of the work, it is not surprising that some of these contractors end up in the thick of the fight. Additionally, many of them are well prepared to do so, having undergone a great deal of military training, in fact in many, if not most cases, having already served in the military.

However, the problems that have beset our military, including inadequate planning, lack of support and inadequate armor have also beset the contractors. In one very well publicized incident in April 2004, four employees of Blackwater Security, essentially a mercenary outfit, were attacked and had their bodies burnt and strung up from a bridge in Fallujah. Iraqi police finally responded to the call, thirty-six hours later.

But it turns out that the story doesn't end there. There is a story out today about a lawsuit filed by the families of the four contractors, which if successful could limit the future use of rental troops in combat zones.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An unprecedented lawsuit stemming from the gruesome killing of four American civilians in Iraq is slowly making its way through the U.S. legal system, closely watched by companies estimated to field up to 100,000 contractors alongside the U.S. military.

Lawyers and military experts say the case highlights legal gray zones, a lack of regulation and little oversight of a booming global industry believed to bring in more than $150 billion annually. Civilian military contractors now perform scores of functions once restricted to regular troops, and a trend toward "privatizing war" has been accelerating steadily.

The suit was brought by the families of four civilian contractors shot last year by Iraqi insurgents, who burned their bodies and hung the charred remains from a bridge across the Euphrates river in the city of Falluja.

The four -- Stephen Helveston, Mike Teague, Jerko Zovko and Wesley Batalona -- worked for Blackwater Security Consulting LLC, one of the companies fielding armed civilians in Iraq under contract with the Pentagon. All four had military experience and signed contracts assuming all risks and waiving their right to sue.

The suit against Blackwater says the company broke explicit terms of its contract with the men by sending them to escort a food convoy in unarmored cars, without heavy machine guns, proper briefings, advance notice or pre-mission reconnaissance, in teams that were understaffed and lacked even a map.

"Sending four men out on the security mission instead of the required six essentially took away the team's ability to defend itself," the suit says. "Not having one driver, one navigator and a rear-gunner with a 180 degree field of fire, the team never had a chance...the insurgents were literally able to walk up behind the vehicles and open fire upon them at close range.'

Note that the suit is not against the government, but against Blackwater. However, if successful, it would make it problematical whether in the future, mercenaries hired by private companies could be sent into combat zones, since the cost of lawsuits that could follow as a result would become prohibitive. Of course the Pentagon is expressly protected by U.S. law from being sued because of deaths resulting from combat, but there is no such law protecting private contractors. The suit in this case challenges the disclaimer the men signed since the company for their part was supposed to provide at least a competent support network.

The bottom line is this: War is expensive, and it needs to be fought by the military. Private contractors have their roles in life, but working in combat zones best left to the military. If we need to expand the size of the active duty military (as John Kerry said we did last year, when he proposed adding two new combat divisions plus support divisions) then we shouldn't try to do it on the cheap.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Clearly something isn't right when the judge overseeing the program resigns in protest

There is already secrecy in intelligence cases. But today, a Judge who oversees secret hearings, resigned in protest over the warrentless searches, fearing that it could taint the work of the secret panel of jurists that he serves on.

A federal judge has resigned from the court that oversees government surveillance in intelligence cases in protest of President Bush's secret authorization of a domestic spying program, according to two sources.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson, one of 11 members of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, sent a letter to Chief Justice John D. Roberts Jr. late Monday notifying him of his resignation without providing an explanation.

Two associates familiar with his decision said yesterday that Robertson privately expressed deep concern that the warrantless surveillance program authorized by the president in 2001 was legally questionable and may have tainted the FISA court's work.

It isn't just the judge who is concerned about the warrantless wiretaps.

Word of Robertson's resignation came as two Senate Republicans yesterday joined the call for congressional investigations into the National Security Agency's warrantless interception of telephone calls and e-mails to overseas locations by U.S. citizens suspected of links to terrorist groups. They questioned the legality of the operation and the extent to which the White House kept Congress informed.

Sens. Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) echoed concerns raised by Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has promised hearings in the new year.

These three are now joining three Democrats on the committee, in also raising the issue and calling for an investigation.

The whole idea of a warrentless search is absurd. The White House can easily enough arrange for a judge to be on call to authorize a warrant in less than a minute if needs be, and stay within the law. But without a warrant, there is absolutely no safeguard against the process being abused other than the 'good will' of the White House and security agencies. We already know that they monitor every single email sent in the United States, and every single phone call. So, they can in theory spy on anyone anywhere and for any reason. A warrant protects all of us from any abuse of this policy. And right now, given the past abuses which have occurred (for example, I have a friend who apparently ended up on the 'no-Fly' list merely because he has donated money to John Kerry), I'm not convinced that simply the 'good will' of the Bush administration is a very good safeguard.

Dover, PA vs. Darwin update-- CASE CLOSED!

For anyone who has only recently begun reading Deep Thought, this has been an ongoing series of articles, as we followed a the court case, Kitzmiller vs. Dover school board, in which the Dover, Pennsylvania school board had tried to force Biology teachers to teach the so-called theory of Intelligent Design (actually an untested hypothesis) alongside evolution.

Previous posts in this series (chronologically) include:

Has the monkey from the Scopes trial been elected to the school board?
(background post)

Dover, PA vs. Darwin update (about the testimony of Dr. Robert T. Pennock refuting the idea that I.D. qualifies as science, as well as the notes by two reporters who had attended the school board meetings where the decision was made)

Dover, PA vs. Darwin update (II) (about the testimony of Dr. Barbara Forrest about the textbooks chosen for the new curriculum)

Dover, PA vs. Darwin update (III) (about the testimony of Dr. Michael Behe, a proponent of Intelligent Design)

Dover, PA vs. Darwin update (IV) (about the conclusion of the trial). This post includes the phrase, Federal Judge John E. Jones III said he hopes to issue a ruling in January.

Dover, PA vs. Darwin update (NOT) (about all eight of the Republican school board members who had supported the teaching of Intelligent Design being voted out of office by the voters in Dover and replaced by eight Democrats who promised to remove it from the curriculum regardless of the judge's decision).

Well, you will note that Judge Jones had originally promised a decision in January. But, apparently, this case was so clear cut that he didn't even have to take that long. Today, he unequivocably ruled that Intelligent Design is not science and should not be mandated as part of the curriculum in Biology class.

HARRISBURG, Pa. - "Intelligent design" is "a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory" and cannot be mentioned in biology classes in a Pennsylvania public school district, a federal judge said Tuesday, ruling in one of the biggest courtroom clashes on evolution since the 1925 Scopes trial.

Dover Area School Board members violated the Constitution when they ordered that its biology curriculum must include the notion that life on Earth was produced by an unidentified intelligent cause, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III (a Republican who was appointed two years ago by President Bush) said.

“We find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom,” he wrote in his 139-page opinion. “The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy,” Jones wrote, adding that several members repeatedly lied to cover their motives even while professing religious beliefs....

The judge made a point of criticizing the school board members and the "breathtaking inanity" of their decision. “It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy," he wrote.

(I guess their religious beliefs allow for lying.)

And, if its not science, then what is it? Jones has the answer:

The plaintiffs challenging the policy argued that intelligent design amounts to a secular repackaging of creationism, which the courts have already ruled cannot be taught in public schools. The judge agreed.

“We conclude that the religious nature of ID would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child," Jones said.

He makes another astute obervation about the disclaimer that was put into textbooks.

The school board policy, adopted in October 2004, was believed to have been the first of its kind in the nation. It required students to hear a statement about intelligent design before ninth-grade biology lessons on evolution. The statement said Charles Darwin’s theory is “not a fact” and has inexplicable “gaps” and referred students to an intelligent-design textbook, “Of Pandas and People,” for more information.

Jones blasted the disclaimer, saying it "singles out the theory of evolution for special treatment, misrepresents its status in the scientific community, causes students to doubt its validity without scientific justification, presents students with a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory, directs them to consult a creationist text as though it were a science resource and instructs students to forgo scientific inquiry in the public school classroom and instead to seek out religious instruction elsewhere."

Exactly. There are certainly aspects of the Theory of Gravity, the Theory of Relativity, the Theory of valence shell repulsion-- which helps determine how chemical reactions take place, and other scientific theories which have not yet been fully explored or explained. And ongoing inquiry is going on with all of these areas. But no one suggests that just because we don't understand yet why gravity even exists, that we should reject the theory or teach that there could be an alternate theory that would allow for objects to fall upwards. Evolution has actually been held to an even higher standard than other theories, and yet no one has succeeded in disproving it despite the countless attempts to do so by generations of people motivated by misguided religious dogma, ever since Darwin first published his work.

And anticipating the always used reaction of the extreme right when things don't go their way, Jones wrote:

“Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge," Jones wrote. "If so, they will have erred. ... Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. ... The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

Right again. Ruling in favor of continuing to teach Biology as science is hardly activism. It was the school board members who were the 'activists,' in this case, trying to change the curriculum to fit their ideas. And as was previously mentioned, Jones is no liberal activist, but a Republican who was appointed to the position by President Bush.

Eric Rothschild, the lead attorney for the families who challenged the policy, called the ruling “a real vindication for the parents who had the courage to stand up and say there was something wrong in their school district.”

And the new school board has it right:

The board members were replaced by a slate of eight opponents who pledged to remove intelligent design from the science curriculum.

They also will likely drop the old plan now that the judge has ruled, new board president Bernadette Reinking said. “As far as I can tell you, there is no intent to appeal,” she said.

Reinking said the new board will likely move the subject of intelligent design into some undetermined elective social studies class. She said the board will need to talk to its attorney before determining specific actions.

That's fine. Discuss it in a theology class, a philosophy class or a civics class (in fact, the recent history of Dover would make it a great topic for a civics class). But not in a science class.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Why are we given a choice of 'either or?'

Often, when a bill is introduced in Congress that one party doesn't like, but which open opposition without an alternative plan to carries with it a political price, they will rally behind an alternative bill, which affords them cover for voting against the original bill. And occasionally, the alternative includes with it a good idea.

Such is the case with a pair of Senate bills, both of which are sponsored, in fact, by Republicans. S. 471 (sponsored by Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania), seemed to have some momentum moving forward. The bill, called the 'Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act') would rescind President Bush's policy on limited embryonic stem cell research. By this past June 15, it had garnered 41 co-sponsors (of whom 6 were Republicans, so that would have been enough to pass it if all the Democrats came on board-- by June 15, 34 of them in fact had, in addition to Independent Jim Jeffords.)

Republicans however then rallied behind another bill, sponsored by Orrin Hatch of Utah (who is in fact also a co-sponsor of the Specter bill). Its number is Senate Bill S. 1317. Named, the 'Bone Marrow and Cord Blood Therapy and Research Act,' it provide for the collection and maintenance of cord blood units for the treatment of patients and research, and to authorize the Bone Marrow and Cord Blood Cell Transplantation Program to increase the number of transplants for recipients suitable matched to donors of bone marrow and cord blood. It presently is gaining co-sponsors, and as of today it has 34-- eleven Democrats, twenty-three Republicans and Jeffords.

Now, I don't see why the Senate should not consider both of these bills. They both, in separate but not contradictory ways, enhance health care in America. In addition to Senators Hatch and Jeffords, Senators Feinstein, Dodd, Harkin, Durbin, Bayh, Mikulski, Collins, Schumer, Clinton, Reed, and Murray are on board for both. Unfortuately, Hatch and Collins are the only Republicans who are willing to be listed as in support of both bills. But Senators should support both bills. Both support Federal funding for research into techniques that could save many lives. It is mistake to look at one as being a 'substitute' for the other or to play partisan politics with them. In fact, if both pass, then two Republican Senators will be able to point to having been the primary authors of successful bills. So what? If Federal funding is extended to support this research and lives are saved as a result, then who cares who gets credit for that?

Howard Stern

This week, all the talk has been about Howard Stern leaving regular broadcast radio for Sirius radio network. Some people both in and out of power have even proposed censorship of satellite based radio (like Sirius).

Now, I've never been a fan of Stern, or his vulgar, offensive and often patently gross material. I certainly would not want to turn on the radio and have my kids get a blast of Howard Stern.

However, I have been a fan of Stern in his ongoing fight against federal regulators and others who want to censor the airways.

Because of Stern and the highly publicized Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake 'wardrobe malfunction' at the Superbowl two years ago (luckily, in our home we have a rule about not watching TV on Sunday, which saved us a look at 'the nipple,') a bunch of blowhards and demagogues in Congress passed a bill last year to increase FCC fines for local broadcasters for such incidents by a factor of ten! to up to $275,000 per incident. I thought this (called the Decency Enforcement Act) was ridiculous, then and I still do. First of all, we aren't looking at a tidal wave of problems. Stern, as had already been announced before the legislation was passed, already was leaving the broadcast airways because of the pain that the old fines had caused his former syndicates. The Superbowl halftime show, at the time one of the almost extinct 'live' events left on television, is now broadcast with a several second tape delay. In other words, when the few incidents that occur, do occur, the broadcast industry is pretty good at handling it in-house. Increasing the fine by a factor of ten was disproportionate and clearly done for looks, no matter how much this might harm local affiliates (who get hit with the fines but may have had no part in creating the situation). Shame on those members of Congress (and it passed in the Senate 99-1) who chose to 'look tough' or who were so craven about being criticized for (in the typical double speak attack language of the right) 'supporting obscenity on radio and TV' if they dared to oppose the bill on the grounds that the fines as they were two years ago were adequate, and even if they were not, increasing them by as much as they were was a draconian measure.

So now, the same crew that demogogued the issue last year, wants to follow Stern and limit Sirius. I have two problems with this. The first is that customers of Stern now have to pay for the privilege. So the usual stuff about 'what if kids turn it on?' is much more clearly a cover for censorship. The fact that he is allowed to broadcast at all is an irritant from those who want to shut him up, and if they succeed, then they can shut up anyone they want to. The second is that these paragons of 'personal responsibility,' don't want to live by their own rules and tell their kids to turn the radio off, or monitor what they listen to or look up on the internet. We do a good job of monitoring our kids, why can't they do the same, instead of using it to try and impose their personal standards on everyone in the country?

Saturday, December 17, 2005

WTO agreements reached on agricultural products.

According to news reports, a tentative agreement to get rid of export subsidies on agricultural products has been reached at the WTO talks in Hong Kong. According to reports, the United States will end export subsidies on cotton, allowing African nations to compete in cotton sales, while the European Union is likely to phase out agricultural export subsidies between 2010 and 2013. Details remain to be negotiated.

Export subsidies are payments that governments pay to farmers to lower the price which they will charge for a product. And not surprisingly, many farmers both in the U.S. and the EU are likely to be very angry about this agreement. I once saw a bumper sticker that read, 'Crime doesn't pay. And neither does farming.' For American farmers to expect to compete in the global marketplace against farmers from countries where people typically get by on a few hundred dollars per year is ridiculous.

At the same time, people who suggest that we should throw away all the free trade agreements that have been signed, are proposing an unrealistic solution. This kind of neo-isolationism is doomed to failure. The world is today an interconnected economy, and the fact is that as time only moves forward, it will become more so, rather than less so in the future. The problem is that under the present framework, only large multinational corporations, which can now move jobs to the countries where they have the least regulation and can pay the lowest wages, or in the case of agricultural products, they can buy from the most exploited of farmers, benefit. Perhaps throw in some corrupt local or national officials in these countries who will gladly enrich themselves in exchange for making sure that even what laws there are, are not enforced.

What is missing in the WTO talks, and what would make a difference, would be to condition these kinds of agreements on environmental, labor and anti-corruption standards similar to those which exist in developed countries.

In the case of pollution, not only is it true that pollution doesn't stop at the border (the recent benzene spill in China which is now wiping out the Amur river fishing industry in Russia is instructive), but pollution caused by lax standards, industrial accidents or inefficient equipment ultimately hurts all of us. The Kyoto accords were a start towards developing a world standard on pollution, but only a start. Although it was a mistake for the U.S. to skip out on the treaty, the Bush administration's point that countries like China and India were not covered is a valid one. Future agreements must cover all countries, and trade agreements must be conditioned on an agreement to adopt and enforce twenty-first century pollution standards.

Labor standards are also important. Free trade can certainly help poor countries develop. It is, for example, certainly true that African countries will benefit a great deal from the end of U.S. export subsidies. However, without proper labor standards, what we will see is literally a return to the bad old days of sweatshops (as we already do see) in many countries. Unfortunately, many large companies have so conditioned consumers in the U.S. (though with much less success in Europe) to not care if the items they are buying are made in a sweatshop, that it is no longer feasible to look to the conscience of individual consumers to solve the problems. A good example is Nike. Some years ago, it was brought up that a pair of tennis shoes that they sold for $150-200 was made for less than $4.00 total, and the majority of that cost was foam and other materials. The share paid to the workers (in a sweatshop in Vietnam) was less than a dollar per pair. And that is among the high end of sweatshops. In places like Haiti and Indonesia, there are sweatshops in which workers earn eleven cents an hour to make clothes sold with designer labels in American stores. It is no secret that Wal-Mart sells a lot of clothes made in sweatshops, but they have done a good enough job of advertising that they bring in consumers. Leaving aside the issue of how people shopping in places like this forces American textile mills to shut down and declare bankruptcy or move overseas themselves in order to compete, in this case, untrammeled free trade has not improved wages globally (if anything, it is lowering them-- some factories that moved to Mexico or other Latin American countries a few years ago are now closing them and moving to even lower wage countries in Asia and Africa). And workplace safety and child labor laws? Dream on. I have read in what I consider reputable sources examples of children as young as six forced to weave all day at a loom, sometimes suffering life-altering injuries or death, and denied the opportunity to go to school, all for literally pennies per day. And of course, products produced by unskilled laborers who are paid dirt low wages are likely to prove of commensurately low quality. For these reasons, when we sign free trade agreements we must insist on labor laws that at least show substantial and continuing improvement towards matching our own.

Lastly, these agreements have to deal with corruption. If a government is corrupt at any level, then any of the preceding agreements are worthless. Laws which are not enforced are, if anything, worse than no law at all, because even the threat of passing more stringent laws can simply be considered as the need to bribe some official to make sure it is not passed, or if passed is ignored. In third world countries, corruption is a long standing problem. Part of it is because of the low standard of living for everyone, as well as the fact that many of these countries have very low taxes (another feature that draws multinationals)-- local officials get paid such a small salary that an amount of money, say $500, that would not buy much influence in the United States, is easily enough to bribe a local official. National officials are more expensive, but the same principle applies. To deal with this, we have to take a two pronged approach. The first part of the approach is that we must establish certain corruption standards that we tie to agreements: an independent judiciary, a professional police force and investigations office that is paid well enough that they don't have to depend on bribery, and evidence of an ongoing effort to root out and punish (as in prison) corrupt officials. This may still not be enough, however. For one thing, the idea of public service as a path towards personal enrichment is a long standing tradition in some countries. So, I would suggest that if evidence is uncovered of any multinational corporation engaging in bribery of local officials in other countries to skirt these laws, then perhaps there should be a mechanism in place whereby the U.S., Europe and other industrialized nations can sanction whoever offered the bribe by not allowing them to operate (as in sell their products) in these nations for a period of time. Hence I would suggest the following: The second part of the approach is to develop a mechanism to sanction businesspersons and their employers if they get caught paying bribes by not allowing them to operate in industrialized countries. Of course, if any U.S. laws were broken in the process, we can also use the U.S. courts to punish the perpetrators.

The WTO in concept is a good thing. But as long as it is exclusively focused on the macro-economics of trade from a corporate and governmental standpoint and not on the social effects and micro-economic standpoint of trade from the individual viewpoint, I think we should be very careful about signing onto any more trade agreements.

The Presidential candidate of the Graft Party.

We know that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is the target of a Federal investigation for his role in the sale of stock which was supposedly held in a blind trust for him, and which was suddenly sold just before information which Frist and a very small number of other people had, became public and caused the price to plummet.

Today, it turns out that Frist's AIDS Charity, World of Hope, Inc. paid nearly half a million dollars in consulting fees to members of Frist's inner political circle. Additionally, the overwhelming source of funds for the charity were just eighteen major donors-- many of whom needed Frist's help with legislation.

WASHINGTON - Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's AIDS charity paid nearly a half-million dollars in consulting fees to members of his political inner circle, according to tax returns providing the first financial accounting of the presidential hopeful's nonprofit.

The returns for World of Hope Inc., obtained by The Associated Press, also show the charity raised the lion's share of its $4.4 million from just 18 sources. They gave between $97,950 and $267,735 each to help fund Frist's efforts to fight AIDS.

The tax forms, filed nine months after they were first due, do not identify the 18 major donors by name.

Frist's lawyer, Alex Vogel, said Friday that he would not give their names because tax law does not require their public disclosure. Frist's office provided a list of 96 donors who were supportive of the charity, but did not say how much each contributed.

The donors included several corporations with frequent business before Congress, such as insurer Blue Cross/Blue Shield, manufacturer 3M, drug maker Eli Lilly and the Goldman Sachs investment firm.

World of Hope gave $3 million it raised to charitable AIDS causes, such as Africare and evangelical Christian groups with ties to Republicans — Franklin Graham's Samaritan Purse and the Rev. Luis Cortes' Esperanza USA, for example.

OK. He accepts millions of dollars from corporations who need his help passing legislation (and based on what's been passed this year and last year, seem to have gotten it). He hands out half a million to his cronies, then turns the rest over to other charities (why not just direct the donations to them originally, if his intent was to help AIDS victims, thereby avoiding any 'consulting' fees taken off the top?) And not just any charities at that, but charities that have ties to the Republican party.

So altruistic, he. And given that his 'inner political circle' will be the same crew that is running things in the White House if he becomes President (won't they? That is true of every President), it is easy to see what kind of administration a Frist administration would be.

I admire people who run charities, as a rule. It's a lot of work and often (if the charity is run correctly) a thankless job. But I expect when I give to a charity, that the money doesn't come with strings (nor does any money they get) and that it will be spent where it is intended. For example, today I fished in my pocket and found my change for the Salvation Army bellringer. Now, I don't agree with some things that the Salvation Army does (in particular their discrimination against gay people). However, I have no problem with giving them the few cents (unlike Bill Frist's top eighteen donors, I don't have millions to spread around) because 1) I'm not expecting anything in return (other than maybe a 'Merry Christmas,') and 2) I have every reason to believe, based on everything I've ever heard about the Salvation Army that very little goes to overhead, none for unneeded 'consultants,' and almost all of it to help the homeless or other worthy endeavors.

One still has to wonder though, about the judgement of those Republicans in the Senate who every day continue to trust Mr. Frist as their Majority Leader.

Friday, December 16, 2005

I hate having to make posts like this, but every so often someone needs to say it.

I had a bit of a bummer just now, but it makes it worth reiterating some of the rules of blog etiquette.

What happened is that I discovered when I went to check on the blog of someone who I have really enjoyed reading, and who has a made a lot of thought-provoking posts, that apparently some loser had gone to the point of finding out about them and contacting them personally. This is out of bounds unless you know the person from outside the blogosphere, or the two of you by mutual agreement decide to correspond by email (and then it is limited to email).

As we have seen in a number of recent cases, blogs have sometimes been abused, even to the point of possibly planning for murder as we saw in the ongoing case of two teenagers in Pennsylvania. And it is certainly true that by posting online you do open up the possibility that some nutcake will take an unhealthy interest in you (a remote risk to be sure, and one I am willing to take) but it is still a sad thing when it happens, and something to be prepared for.

Here are some thoughts I have about this:

Common sense would dictate that posters (whether writing the blog or posting on it) do the following: 1) don't post too much personal information on what is a public record. 2) It's OK to talk about your life, but keep in mind that whatever you say is open to anyone who could wander in off the web. 3) I myself never post pictures of my kids or family, or say what their names are, because of the number of sex predators out there (an unfortunate and tragic, but now more widely publicized side of the internet). In the case I am referring to, apparently someone took an unhealthy and unwarranted interest in the blogger(s) and/or their child. 4) It is best to stay pretty topical. One way I avoid too much personal information is that I remember that this is a political blog. So I post on politics. If it were a sports blog, I would post on sports. If it were a poetry blog, I would post on poetry. 5) Even at that, I was once tracked down by some loser who wanted to argue with me about something I wrote. Luckily, he wasn't a stalker, but be aware that it can happen and think through what you plan to say or do if it does. There was also an incident a couple of years ago on a large blog where I contacted the FBI about a threat that someone posted against the President. That person got very angry about being investigated and made death threats against two of us who had turned him in (I still keep the emails I got during that episode in my mailbox just in case they ever become relevant again). But if someone threatens the President, whoever it is, I have no choice as a citizen except to bring it to the attention of the proper authorities.

Blogging is fun. Blogging is healthy. And the miracle of the internet is that it is no longer possible to completely suppress a news story because there are thousands of bloggers out there to put it out there if no one else does. But like anything else in life, exercise due caution when common sense says to do so.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Novak breaks his silence-- and with a shock.

For months, we have been waiting for conservative columnist Robert Novak to break his silence about the Valerie Plame outing.

You may recall, that Novak was the columnist who finally, after a half dozen other journalists had refused to, published the name of Plame, a CIA agent, in what was clearly an act of political retaliation against her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for his calling into question some of the information that the White House had been using to build its case for the war against Iraq. Of course, we know by now that the claim that Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase yellowcake Uranium from Niger was patently false, so in that regard Wilson has been vindicated.

Novak, however, while testifying before the grand jury about the affair (hint, he never went to jail like Matt Cooper and Judith Miller did, so he must have not done what they did-- that is, refuse to answer the grand jury's questions), has maintained a stony silence in public about the whole matter. When asked directly, he has said that on the advice of legal counsel he would say nothing, and the rest of the time he has gone about his usual venom laced attacks on liberals on every other subject, but avoided any discussion of Plame, Wilson, yellowcake Uranium or the country of Niger the way most people would avoid a rooster known to have the Bird Flu.

This week, however, Novak broke his silence. And what a break it is. This erstwhile paragon of Republican punditry, this attack dog of the right, not only discussed the leak, but pointed a finger-- at none other than President Bush himself.

Novak is quoted in a speech he delivered Tuesday.

Syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, who has repeatedly declined to discuss his role in disclosing the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, said in a speech this week that he is certain President Bush knows who his mystery administration source is.

Novak said Tuesday that the public and press should be asking the president about the official rather than pressing journalists who received the information.

Novak also suggested that the administration official who gave him the information is the same person who mentioned Plame and her CIA role to Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward in the summer of 2003.

"I'm confident the president knows who the source is," Novak told a luncheon audience at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday, according to an account published yesterday in the Raleigh News & Observer. "I'd be amazed if he doesn't."

"So I say, don't bug me. Don't bug Bob Woodward. Bug the president as to whether he should reveal who the source is," Novak said.

Now, keep in mind that President Bush has said the following about the leak:

"If there's a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,..."If the person has violated law, that person will be taken care of." -- Feb. 10, 2004

When asked in June 2004 if he would fire anyone who had leaked Plame's name, the President answered, "Yes. (Houston Chronicle, 7/19/05).

So where is it? Since Scooter Libby is already gone, it seems unlikely that Novak is talking about Libby. So there is someone else, and it all seems to lead back to Karl Rove. In fact, according to the New York Daily News on Oct. 19, 2005, the President reportedly chewed out Rove two years ago about the leak. If Novak is right, then he would have chewed him out about the leak knowing who the source was, so ergo Rove was responsible.

Which leads one to question why Novak would come out with this accusation now. Those of us who have watched Novak trash anyone on the left for years and reached for the barf bag every time he is on TV, have to wonder about why he would jump out of his bunker of silence and point a finger at President Bush.

It might be that darn 'legal advice' again. Novak may have answered the questions of the special prosecutor, but since he took the step of actually being the one to publish the name of the agent, it is certainly possible that he could still face charges, and he may be looking out for number one (certainly plausible since he showed less guts in being willing to squeal to the grand jury and Peter Fitzgerald than either Cooper or Miller; he comes across as someone who can dish out a lot of heat, but has a low tolerance for pain when the heat is turned up on him).

It could be that even Novak is getting disgusted at this administration (though I don't believe that to be the case, having listened to Novak on TV for at least a decade and have never seen him to ever be disgusted at anything Republicans were doing, except maybe for when they have done something that wasn't partisan enough for him).

It might be that he has been advised that it will all come out sooner or later and that he had best tell it when things are starting to pick up for the President in the hopes that it will get lost in the rest of the news.

But for whatever reason, he decided to say something about it this week, and what he said was neither a mea culpa, nor a bold attack on the left. No, it was a 'he is culpable,' and a bold attack on the President.

One person can feel relieved at this though. Dick Cheney. The scrutiny is now moving above him, to the next person up the line.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Achieving 'balance' when the situation just isn't balanced.

If you haven't seen Eric Alterman's column, Think Again, Everybody Doesn't Do It, he writes the following:

The New York Times on Wednesday came a little too close for comfort in this arena in a story about Republicans’ attempts to distance themselves from recently resigned California Rep. Randy Cunningham...

But in the Times' account, reporters John M. Broder and Carl Hulse appear to want to add some "balance" to this story of graft. In order to do this, they channel (and paraphrase) the spirit of "some Republican officials" as saying that "Democrats in Congress were equally guilty of questionable behavior, including lobbyist-paid trips and underreporting of campaign contributions, they acknowledged that Republicans, because they control the White House and Congress, are being held to a higher standard by many voters."

It would be naive to think that one political party has a monopoly on bad actors, but it's obvious that this contention is little more than simple obfuscation, in several respects...

Aside from the lack of attribution, or even the number of "officials" who have said this, the Times repeats the claim that Democrats in Congress are "equally as guilty" as Republicans of "questionable behavior." But as Broder and Hulse well know, even if this were so, the number of investigations and indictments handed down against Republicans recently far outweighs those against Democrats.

Now, I have no problem with saying that any Democrat who claims to represent me in local, state or national office who is indicted by any state or Federal court, should step aside from his or her post. I will even contact them and tell them so, speaking as a Democratic activist, when they are indicted. I have zero tolerance for anyone who looks at public office as a way to benefit themselves through bribery or any other form of graft or corruption.

However, to go to some unnamed Republicans and let them take a swipe and Democrats just to make sure that their story on Cunningham was 'balanced' is in fact unbalanced. Cunningham's attorney would have done more to insure balance (note that the Republicans they went to didn't even try to defend Randy, they just said that Democrats are 'just as guilty.') Well, maybe in the era of Rostenkowski, they might have been right (and Rostenkowski went right where he deserved to go-- to prison). But today, that just isn't true. It is Democrats who have instead been pushing for campaign finance and other ethical reforms. It is Democrats who refused to take their seats on the House Ethics committee until Tom DeLay jettisoned his 'reforms' that were designed to de-tooth the committee. That alone should tell you something, since the House Ethics committee is the only non-partisan committee in the House-- with equal numbers from each party, and charged with investigating all ethics violations by house members.

Maybe it means that Republicans under DeLay are in fact just where Rostenkowski and several other Democrats were a dozen years ago. They've been running the show long enough that they think they are lords and rulers over the people who elected them in the first place.

Alterman finishes his column this way:

I know, I know. Imagine how bad it would be if the MSM were not dominated by a liberal conspiracy. But you know guys, to quote the great Steven Colbert, sometimes the facts are just liberally biased.

This is one of those cases.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Brother, can you spare a dime? NO!!

It looks like they will be having Mardi Gras this year in New Orleans. But some people won't be celebrating. People who have been stuck in hotel rooms for months, and whose homes are in no condition to be inhabited, for example.

NEW ORLEANS - Some Hurricane Katrina refugees stuck in hotel rooms and unfamiliar surroundings across the United States are in no mood to party, and they are decrying the city's plans to hold a Mardi Gras celebration in February.

"This is not the time for fun. This is the time to put people's lives back on track," said Lillie Antoine, a 51-year-old refugee stuck in Tulsa, Okla.

City officials announced last month that New Orleans would hold an abbreviated Mardi Gras celebration. Civic boosters say the festivities can help revitalize New Orleans' economy, lift morale and show the world that the city is on its way back.

In addition to scaling the two-week Carnival season to eight days, the cash-strapped city is seeking corporate sponsors for the first time to pay for police overtime and the cleanup along the parade routes and the French Quarter.

Some storm refugees and black organizations say the party preparations are insensitive to the plight of so many displaced New Orleanians.

"I just think it sends the wrong message to have a celebration when people are not back in their houses," said Ernest Johnson, the Louisiana president of the
National Association for Colored People.

At a protest Monday of a few Katrina refugees in Atlanta, where the New Orleans Saints were playing, ChiQuita Simms said reconstruction should take precedence over partying.

"I'm not against Mardi Gras," said Simms, who has been living in an Atlanta hotel with her 14-year-old son. "I'm against their priorities." She added: "What you can do is guarantee me in two months you're going have a Mardi Gras, but you can't guarantee life will be back on?"

Before Katrina struck, the 2005 festivities were going to be one of the most exuberant parties in this party city's history — the 150th anniversary of Carnival parades in New Orleans. Mardi Gras falls on Feb. 28.

The dispute boiled over Saturday at a town hall meeting in Atlanta when Mayor Ray Nagin came under fire from an angry and raucous crowd of refugees for approving a Mardi Gras. Nagin then told the crowd that he had actually been against celebrating Mardi Gras but that tourism leaders forced his hand.

His comments stunned Carnival supporters back in New Orleans.

"He's like John Kerry — he was for it and then he was against it," bemoaned Ed Muniz, the captain of Endymion, one of the city's biggest and most glamorous parades.

Ernest Collins, the city's arts and entertainment director, said that the mayor made his Atlanta comments "in the heat of the moment" and that Nagin knows how important the celebration is.

But three days after the Atlanta meeting, Nagin suggested that during Carnival, hotels should put aside about a quarter of their rooms and an unspecified share of their profits to help bring people back. Hotel and tourism industry leaders were flabbergasted by the suggestion, and accused Nagin of "politicizing" Mardi Gras.

Flabbergasted? Now, I can understand the importance of Mardi Gras to the cultural and municipal heritage of the city, so I believe that resisting the calls to cancel the whole thing is the right decision. But aren't the people more important to a city than any of that? And I don't think that putting aside one quarter of the motel rooms and a portion (which doesn't necessarily even have to be that large) of their profits (a good chunk of which, incidentally would come back on their taxes) would be an unreasonable sacrifice to ask of those who are fortunate enough to 1) be there and 2) be in a position to actually make some money right now, in order to help those of their fellow citizens who have lost everything as a result of the awful events of earlier this year. The extraordinary events of this year in New Orleans are unprecedented, but this latest shows that the 'community leaders' are less interested in making a sacrifice that they could afford (remember, this is only a proposal that they help out with at least a token share of the PROFITS) to help with restoring the community than they are with making sure that they get theirs.

But if those folks are 'flabbergasted' at the thought, then on second thought, maybe it would be wiser to simply cancel the whole thing and spend the money needed to stage it directly on rebuilding and resettlement. Then see if next year they are happy with almost all of their profits.

If you didn't hear it on Rush, it must not be true.

I recently joined another blogging team at The Coalition for a Republican Free America. Of course I am continuing to maintain Deep Thought as well as continuing to be part of the team at Night Bird's Fountain. Now I had planned to simply put up a post about it, but a Republican poster there really gave me a much better topic to post on. I had put up a post on global warming, and in the discussions, it had come up that I had mentioned that sea levels are rising and will continue to rise by anywhere from 1-4 feet in the next century. So, the commentor wrote

you have no facts to back you up just emotional, irrational fears of "seas rising 4 feet" that you regurgitate from greenpeace or wherever you get that crap.

Now, as anyone who has read this blog is aware, I don't make claims like this without being able to back them up (and if I make a mistake I will so acknowledge, as here and here). So, I linked to a couple of government sites (one from NASA and one from EPA) that would constitute evidence (although there are literally hundreds of scientifically supported sites that I could have gone to-- and no, I'm not counting Greenpeace.) But it was very revealing as to what people on the right are thinking and their mindset. They have been brainwashed to the extent that they simply deny even what is reported in virtually every scientific and even government sites on the topic (and when NASA under the Bush administration acknowledges that sea levels are rising at a pace that can be considered rapid in geological terms, that should pretty much end the debate right there). In other words, instead of even bothering with real information anymore, they parrot what they have been told by Rush, Faux News, etc. and others who have an agenda which includes omitting anything that would contradict their ideology (and in fact, on this point in particular, to admit that there was a serious problem, it would be the mother of all flip flops).

Further, since they have not been told the truth about this, they instead follow the strategy of attacking the messenger anytime someone says anything to that effect (probably because they have seen Hannity do it).

Well... at least I know not to invest in any beachfront property, especially in low lying, flat areas.

Monday, December 12, 2005

But sir, it's one of the most important pieces of paper ever written upon.

Credit to Barbi over at Night Bird's Fountain for bringing this to my attention.

Turns out that we saw, during a White House debate on the Patriot Act, what President Bush really thinks about the Constitution that he is sworn to defend.

According to Capitol Hill Blue columnist Doug Thompson, Bush at a meeting last month on the Patriot Act got angry and said when told that some of the things he wanted to do might run afoul of the Constitution, "It's just a goddamn piece of paper."

The relevant text from the article is here:

Last month, Republican Congressional leaders filed into the Oval Office to meet with President George W. Bush and talk about renewing the controversial USA Patriot Act.

Several provisions of the act, passed in the shell shocked period immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, caused enough anger that liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union had joined forces with prominent conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and Bob Barr to oppose renewal.

GOP leaders told Bush that his hardcore push to renew the more onerous provisions of the act could further alienate conservatives still mad at the President from his botched attempt to nominate White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

“I don’t give a goddamn,” Bush retorted. “I’m the President and the Commander-in-Chief. Do it my way.”

“Mr. President,” one aide in the meeting said. “There is a valid case that the provisions in this law undermine the Constitution.”

“Stop throwing the Constitution in my face,” Bush screamed back. “It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!”

I’ve talked to three people present for the meeting that day and they all confirm that the President of the United States called the Constitution “a goddamned piece of paper.”

You may be a liberal. You may be a conservative. But if you believe that President Bush was correct in believing that he could do as he wishes simply because he is the leader and not be constrained by 'the piece of paper' upon which our Republic is built, then it could not be said that you are a friend or defender of our country.
Flag Counter