Saturday, July 30, 2005

In defense of public funding for basic research.

Today astronomers based at the Palomar observatory, run by the California Institute of Technology announced the discovery of what is possibly the tenth planet in our solar system. This marks the first time since the discovery of Pluto in 1930 (at the Lowell observatory in Flagstaff, which I am proud to be a friend of), that a new planet has been discovered in our solar system.

It is also a victory for basic research. There are those who say that any research worth doing will appeal to private donors or for profit corporations, and so the government should not be in the research business.

Yet, when we think of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the past century-- the splitting of the atom, landing a man on the moon, the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, all of these were accomplished with the support of government, not of private industry.

You see, for-profit research is fine as long as there is a profit to be made. But it is not profitable for corporations to search for new planets or land a man on the moon, so if left exclusively to the devices of private companies, these things would simply not have gotten done. And, it is also true (as we have seen with some research in the past on tobacco and on global warming) when a corporation is underwriting the research, they often simply choose not to publish, or otherwise intentionally bias, results that they don't like. It is only in universities and other governmentally funded research institutions that scientists have the full ability to do their job and report the results as they are. For that matter, in my own area of mathematics, there have been a number of discoveries which have increased our understanding of everything from market trends to cartography, but if the research which allowed them had not been funded by the government, they would be contributing to no one's profit for the most basic of reasons-- they would never have been discovered at all, so the practical discoveries they led to would simply have never entered anyone's mind.

Where this is most in the news today, is in the area of stem cell research. President Bush four years ago announced that Federal funding could only be used on about two dozen lines of stem cells that existed at the time (and are contaminated with mouse cells). Conservatives like to argue that 1) the research institutions are free to seek private funds, and 2) the fact that private industry isn't jumping in to fill the funding gap proves that the 'miracle cures' simply don't exist.

Both of these arguments are flawed. In the first case, even if we assume that researchers have the time to go out and appeal to various private donors (time that they would not have to do their jobs, and so would still fall behind government funded researchers), they would have to keep fishing for funding, and in fact this has been happening-- American stem cell researchers have now fallen behind researchers at the University of Seoul and other foreign centers of research. What this means is that the miracle cures will be found, but the trillions of dollars they generate will flow from America to Korea, Japan, Europe or some other place where they don't put science on a lower shelf than ideology. Further, researchers in these countries don't have to worry that if their results displease their sponsor, then the plug may be pulled on their funding (one reason why results that may impact an industry that is paying the researchers have to be considered suspect). For that matter, some 'blue' states like California and New Jersey have stepped in with state funding for embryonic stem cell research while some 'red' states like Indiana have gone so far as to ban it completely. So, if the cures are found in the U.S., the most likely result is that they will enrich progressive states while impoverishing conservative ones, even more than the disparity that already exists.

And in refuting the second argument here, about why for Profit corporations have not jumped in to fill the 'funding gap.': For profit enterprises expect a return in a fairly or at least a reasonably short period of time. But, it often takes years, decades or even centuries between the time when a concept of a potential breakthrough is first proposed, and when that breakthrough has not only become reality, but is thoroughly explored and is ready to apply in some way to market a product. For example, Leonardo described the requirements for powered flight almost three hundred years before the Wright brothers. The splitting of the atom became part of the realm of possibility with the validation of Einstein's theory of relativity in 1905, but was not accomplished until 1945. Space travel to the moon became a concept after Robert Goddard's successful rocketry experiments in the 1930's, but a flight to the moon wasn't accomplished until 1969. People have been searching for a tenth planet since Pluto was discovered seventy five years ago this year. And some concepts ultimately turn out to be dead ends that do not to lead to new discoveries, or to discoveries that increase our knowledge but not our wealth. Private donors simply are not that patient.

In fact, there is plenty of public research done that never does generate a profit. Will anyone make a profit from a cataloguing of native American linguistic groups, especially as some of the speakers die off? Will anyone make a profit from going through rocks a billion years old with a microscope looking for hints about the origins of life? Will anyone make a profit from the discovery today of a planet far beyond our current capabilities to travel to? Of course no one will (certainly no one alive today). But does that mean that it isn't worth doing the research? I believe it is worthwhile. We may not see why at the time, but consider that I saw a show not long ago about how meteorologists living today are using the ship's logs and other records required to be kept by British naval officers during the 1700's and 1800's to develop an understanding of long term climate change. We can thank the foresight of the British policy makers back in the days of Captain Cook for contributing to our abilities now to understand the weather of the planet.

Are we really such a selfish and perverse generation that if we can't have it in the here and now, then we won't do anything to reach that goal? Then again, given the support of people for a tax cut for the wealthy in exchange for the replacement of a record surplus with a record deficit, which our kids and grandkids and great grandkids will pay, maybe we are that selfish a generation. If so, we will be cursed for our indulgence.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Frist Flop

The story all over the news today is about how Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who was maneuvered into his current position with a big assist from the White House in December 2002, and who has since faithfully served as the President's lapdog (the lapdog of a mouthpiece who was selected by five judges after losing an election-- how low can you go?), reversed his course and said he will support a pending bill in the Senate to allow Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Most of the speculation as to why, has centered quite correctly on Sen. Frist's all-but-official White House ambitions for 2008.

Certainly, he does gain some obvious benefits from the switch. He puts himself in line with the feelings of an overwhelming majority of Americans, who support such research because of the potential for cures it carries for everything from spinal cord injuries to Alzheimer's. He will be able to point to this as evidence that he is his 'own man' and not a lackey of a President who has approval ratings in the mid forty percent range and heading south, and who has already achieved 'lame duck' status just six months into his second term.

Also, this does carry some equally obvious risks. He damages his standing with many 'pro-life' conservatives in his own party, a group which, although they are way out of tune with the majority of Americans, dominate Republican primaries. Some people have speculated that he figures that he will still have plenty of time to burnish his pro-life credentials on issues ranging from abortion to euthanasia and is banking that enough of them will forgive him his sins before 2008. Other analysts made the laughable claim that he is a 'man of character' who was willing to accept the fallout in 2008 'to do what he knows, as a former physician, is the right thing.' Of course, given his record on issues relating to healthcare, the thought that he is suddenly 'doing the right thing, come hell or high water,' is ridiculous.

No, I see it another way. Bill Frist is a desperate man. There is nothing that will doom his candidacy faster than if he is seen as weak and ineffective. Yet, that is exactly what he has been. Just in the past couple of months, after he looked like a zealot on the Schiavo case but ultimately could not do anything to back up his tough talk, he has met with failure after failure. it was his job to push John Bolton through the Senate. He failed, and even after being given more time by the President, he failed again. Now President Bush will make a recess appointment, reminding people again of Mr. Frist's failure. Then came the standoff on the 'nuclear option' in which he made arrangement to have bunks delivered to the Senate for an all night session, and when he himself was personally prepared to pull the trigger, and then Sen. McCain (one of his main rivals in the 2008 Republican primaries) met with a group of moderates and worked out a compromise that put the nuclear option back on the shelf, and Sen. Frist was handed a copy of the agreement while they were on their way to the press room.

So now, he was in the position of being the administration's point man on stem cell research, another area where he would be isolated from the opinions of a great majority of Americans, and with the prospect of another losing vote ahead of him (maybe two, because if the President vetoed the bill, which is expected, then it is questionable that Frist could even prevent the veto from being overridden.) So what did this 'man of character' do? Did he go down with the ship? No, this leader in the Senate, this 'man of character' did what he had to do. He abandoned the ship and may as well have yelled, 'every man for himself.' Even more than he needs the votes of conservatives in the future, he needs a win now, and if he has to turn around and run like the wind to catch a moving bandwagon he can jump on, then he will do it.

And Bill Frist wants to run for the Presidency of the United States. Lord Help Us.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Another stab in America's gut from the Bush administration.

This was a sad day.

After heavy lobbying by the Bush administration, the House of Representatives voted 217-215 to pass CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (as an aside, it's funny how conservatives, now that they are in the majority, always manage to let a few Republicans cover their asses, either because of local issues, or because they have a 'conscience' or because a particular bill hits their district harder, but still always have just enough votes to carry the day every time a tough vote comes up).

Now, understand that I'm not against engaging other nations, and I'm not against free trade. I understand that we are part of a global economy, and people who want to pull up the drawbridge and fill the moat are as wrong as they are obsolete.

However, I believe that our government has two obligations that should underpin our trading strategy. The first is to increase or maintain prosperity, and living standards in the United States (for all Americans, not just those who own large amounts of stock in multinational companies). The second is to promote labor, living and environmental standards that are in keeping with those that we expect from our own corporations.

This agreement mainly allows companies which are willing to sell goods that are made by what is essentially slave labor (like Wal-Mart) to gain access to a whole new source of sweatshops. It does little to push for better living standards for the workers in these countries, who may be paid as little as 15 cents an hour. The agreement contains no promises of modernization or political or economic reform. President Bush claimed it would 'promote Democracy' in the region. If he is right, then I have two questions: 1) Aren't all of these countries already nominally Democracies? Is he admitting (gasp) that all those new Democracies all over Central America are really still dictatorships after all? and 2) If free trade really pushes people to demand more political freedom (and in fact I think it can, as it did Eastern Europe), then why doesn't he adopt the same policy towards Cuba?

That said, if we sign a free trade agreement with a developing country, then we should recognize that they need us far more than the reverse, and if we really want to push them to modernize then any such agreements should be contingent on their adopting and enforcing minimum wage laws, workplace safety laws and child labor laws that are at least significantly better than what they have now (granted one can't expect them to match us overnight, but we have the right to see a serious and sustained effort to improve the lot of ordinary working people). They should also adopt U.S. environmental standards (oops, forgot, Bush and the environment.... Well, I still think we should expect something in that regard).

Most dangerous to us, though, is it gives corporations wanting to outsource overseas to cut costs a new area to export jobs to. Central America and the Dominican Republic are much closer than Asia, and have governments that are safely run by pro-Washington toadies. This agreement does nothing to protect American jobs, but instead is likely to push more good jobs out of the country.

The bottom line here is that entering into a free trade agreement with the United States is a privilege for a developing country, and we should expect and write into the agreement something tangible in return that will benefit their citizens, not just hand them an agreement which will benefit mainly the wealthy in both countries and do nothing for the great majority of the citizens in either one.

Why can't we use high tech to enforce a restraining order?

Tuesday was a sad day in our little community, and I might add a community which can say with pride has not had a murder or a rape within living memory.

A former neighbor of mine, Ron Tanner, who with his wife had come over to our house after we moved here for a barbecque and with whom we had always maintained cordial relations, recently went through a divorce. We've moved a few blocks away but my daughter and her husband are now living in our old house across the street from them. On Tuesday, he (in violation of a restraining order) forced his way into the house he had once shared with his wife early in the morning, and beat her so badly that after she was taken by ambulance to the local hospital, she had a CAT scan that led to her being 'life flighted' in a helicopter to a hospital in Phoenix, more than two hundred miles from here. He then called and threatened her lawyer, and took off into the badlands with a gun. For the past two days, the police have been searching for him but with no luck to date. My wife said that today while I was at work, they had a bunch of helicopters flying over the hills around town.

This could have been prevented.

Let's begin by pointing out two facts, but two that need to mentioned anyway. First, if a person really wants to hurt or kill another, a restraining order is a piece of paper, and it's hard to imagine someone who is willing to accept the consequences of committing a murder or a serious assault, being deterred because they might also get hit with 'violating a restraining order.' Let's also point out that someone who wants to do this usually has the benefit of surprise and can therefore prevent the victim from making a phone call. And, even though I'm a supporter of gun rights, it's also worth noting that not everyone is better off with a gun, particularly if they can't bring themselves to use it, in which case it is much more likely to be used against them-- and then too, if the person attacking is an intimate partner, the odds are that they would know where the weapons are, and then there's that surprise element again.

Back on July 7, I asked why we use ankle bracelets to keep track of whether Martha Stewart takes a walk around the block, but we don't use them to keep track of dangerous sex offenders.

My question today is, given that they are available, why can't they be used to enforce a restraining order? The concept would be simple. The ankle bracelet could be tuned (as it is now) to set off an alarm at the police station (and possibly at the potential victim's home or on their cell phone) if it is removed or tampered with. If not removed, it could set off the same alarms if it comes within, say, 50 yards of a monitoring device in the home or business of the potential victim.

Sure, there are websites out there that describe how to remove a monitoring device, and there is no such thing as a foolproof plan. But most people would be clueless about how to remove one without triggering the alarm and would probably not have the skill and tools needed even if they did know how, and just as criminals are always getting more and more clever, the manufacturers are not just treading water. They are always improving their devices as well.

And, sure, it wouldn't in itself stop an incident like what happened Tuesday, but it might have given her enough warning to get out of there or at least hide, and also automatically have alerted the police so that he wouldn't have had the time he did with her (which was probably at least half an hour, based on the extent of her injuries).

I'm just saying that in a case like this, I can think of a lot better places the tracking bracelet could be than on Martha. Right now I would feel much less endangered if Martha Stewart came to town than a lot of people here feel right now.

UPDATE: Mr. Tanner turned himself in at the Holbrook police station. His wife is in guarded condition but is expected to survive.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

This just gets more interesting every day

In response to the controversy about John Roberts and the extremist Federalist Society, in which the Bush administration denied that he was a member in response to some initial reports, we find more controversy out today.

Monday a copy of a directory given to members for the year 1997-1998 surfaced that showed Roberts as not merely a member, but in a leadership role in the organization. Roberts himself did not deny membership, but simply said he 'didn't recall' being a member (remember how the right received that when Hillary Clinton used it in describing Rose Law Firm billing policies). So then yesterday, the Federalist Society itself released a statement on the matter by President Eugene B. Meyers. The statement, linked here, not only raises more questions than it answers, but reads like a carefully worded attempt to suggest (without saying) a plausible 'out' but never says that this is the case, and on further scrutiny would require a level of disbelief to even entertain.

The statement reads, in part, Membership is open to anyone who wishes to join, ...and our website lists over 500 individuals who serve as volunteer leaders of our organization

The clear intent is to suggest that perhaps Roberts was a 'volunteer leader' who was not a member (although I went to the Federalist Society's website and did not find any reference to the Washington area Steering committee, of which Roberts is listed as a member in the directory, a document which, unlike the website, is not public and is typically distributed only to members). Of course, aren't all of their leaders 'volunteers' unless they are on salary? Nowhere does it say that they allow nonmembers to become 'volunteer leaders,' and in fact I can't think of any organization that does. Think of an organization-- any organization-- and think about whether they would choose leaders who are not even members. That is patently ridiculous, especially for such a secretive organization as the Federalist Society.

What is more significant is what the statement DOESN'T say. It doesn't say that Mr. Roberts was such a 'volunteer leader,' we are left to assume that. It doesn't deny that Mr. Roberts was a member. Denying that any particular individual is a member IN NO WAY violates the confidentiality of people who are members. Add to this, that since the Federalist Society presumably, being in tune with Mr. Roberts ideologically, wants his path to the nomination to be smooth, it would be to his (and therefore their benefit) to issue such a denial, one has to assume there is no denial BECAUSE HE IS A MEMBER! Think about it. They go to the extraordinary step of releasing a statement about Mr. Roberts and the directory story, but then won't deny that he is a member (at a time when the White House, if you can trust them, are on record as denying it and Mr. Roberts is saying he 'can't recall.')

This story just keeps getting better and better.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The great schism of 2005

Or not. Depends on how you look at it.

Yesterday at the AFL-CIO convention, the Teamsters, together with at least one smaller union, and perhaps as many as five others, left the AFL-CIO and announced that they will be setting up a competing organization.

Pundits were quick to declare that this was a terrible blow the Democratic Party, as a less unified labor movement would somehow damage the ability of individual unions to turn out their members. Conservatives were gleeful at the news.

Methinks they protest too much. Let me say that my grandfather was the president of a union in New York City during the 1930's, and that I was myself involved several years ago with helping to organize a union at a former workplace, and then was elected as a worksite representative (essentially a shop steward). I take pride in the fact that I have never crossed a picket line or purchased a nickel's worth of goods or services made by scabs. I have more than occasionally (and something I hereby pledge to do more often) paid a little more for a product that bore a union label than for a competing item that was cheaper but did not.

I might also add that I have never been a big fan of the Teamsters, and certainly their proclivity towards independence has been at times irritating (such as when they have often endorsed Republicans in the past, including Ronald Reagan). It has certainly been documented that the Teamsters of yore had strong ties to organized crime, in particular through the (presumably) late father of current Teamsters' president James P. Hoffa.

That said, I am relieved at the split and wish the Teamsters well, because fundamentally THEY ARE RIGHT. AFL-CIO boss John Sweeney and other people at the head of that organization seem to have taken a very passive stance, in which they bemoan declining union membership but do very little about it except collect dues and lobby Congress. James Hoffa (who is not your father's Jimmy Hoffa) was elected as a reformer, and has done so effectively. He is also right when he says that unions need to become both more assertive in organizing workers, and also reconnect with Americans and make the case why they should have the protection provided through collective bargaining. These are trying times, and such concerns as spiraling healthcare costs, outsourcing, suddenly insecure pensions and reclassification of workers so that they don't qualify for traditional benefits have hit many people who may have felt secure in their positions just a few years ago. An aggressive labor movement would be able to capitalize on these things, as in fact they have in Arizona behind the leadership of state AFL-CIO director Michael McGrath (just this morning the Arizona Republic carried an article stating that overall union membership in Arizona rose from 113,000 to 145,000 last year and Teamster's membership had risen 30% in Arizona during the same period). Keep in mind that Arizona is a 'right to work' state so no one has to join a union unless they believe it would benefit them to do so, and this makes the rise last year even more in contrast to what is happening elsewhere. Of course, here, there are good relations between the local AFL-CIO and the Teamsters, also in contrast-- success breeds success.

As to partisan politics, there is no reason why two competing labor organizations can't still provide the same organization to workers as one can. They still have the same local leaders and the 'foot soldiers' in place. The current split does not prevent them from cooperating on a campaign that is in the interest of both. True, the Teamsters are more likely to endorse Republican candidates on occasion, but then if that provides a spur to Republicans to take constructive action on issues affecting workers then the overall goal of an America where more people can afford to raise a family is still attained.

I wish that this split hadn't happened, but I am relieved that the shoe has dropped. Given the 'do-nothing' attitude I have seen from the national AFL-CIO recently about issues that are basic to everyone, and need to be broadcast far from the halls of Congress, I believe it was inevitable, and with that, it may be just the medicine that is needed for the AFL-CIO.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The scientific method unfortunately works

Fifteen to twenty years and more ago, climatologists studying global warming, then a 'theory' made a number of predictions, using both computer and traditional models.

Some predicted a hotter and drier southwest. We can see that today in Arizona, where fires (which have been around for ages) have burned forests, and desert vegetation is growing higher up the mountain. I have myself stood on a mountain covered with cactus and sagebrush, where the charred remains of timber and tree trunks are still visible. In fact, we have had the worst four fires in the history of Arizona the past four years. This year has been a wet year (all climatologists will tell you that in a prolonged drought there may still be one or two wet years, but the trend over the past decade of prolonged drought is clear). And in spite of this year's wetness, the dry forests, full of drought killed trees (and also some weakened by drought and now infested with bark beetles, which like to drill into diseased or weak trees) provide the promise of more record breaking fires to come in the future.

Some predicted more and bigger Atlantic hurricanes. We can see that this year.

In fact, looking at the report from the Nasa observatory during the week just past, we find out on a story about the unusually high number of hurricanes already this year, that July is usually a slow month for Atlantic hurricanes, but it feels like peak season for parts of Florida and the Gulf Coast, and meteorologists say it's because of warmer than normal water temperatures and a strong, larger-than-average high pressure system over the North Atlantic. (ABC)

Others predicted the breakup of the polar ice sheets. And this past year data has come out showing that the West Antarctic ice shelf is now collapsing and may be gone in as little as 250 years (a blink of an eye, geologically speaking). And it is documented that glaciers all over the world have been in decline, recently prompting Austrian officials to go as far as to 'shrink wrap' glaciers to slow melting.

This is exactly what the scientific method is. Look at data, form a hypothesis, then wait and see if the data you collect after forming the hypothesis matches your prediction. Unfortuately, it does.

Yet through it all, conservatives and those who have financial ties to industries that might have to pay a few more dollars to help implement tougher emissions standards and other impediments to global warming, have steadfastly put their hands over their ears and stretched science to the point of breaking.

The most ridiculous example of this came a few years ago when small island nations all over the world began complaining because the rising ocean levels that threaten their very existence. The response of conservatives was nothing short of laughable, creating a theory that had absolutly no scientific basis (and which was in fact laughed to scorn by geologists) that the geological plates that formed the sea floor had suddently all started sinking into the mantle, causing the sea floor to sink under these islands, uniformly all over the world, and thus submerging islands that had been high and dry for millenia, including centuries of habitation and discovery. This was conservatism at its best; When confronted with fact, rather than entertain the notion that they might have been wrong, to instead flail their arms and invent a wild claim, which had not a single shred of science to back it up (and which in fact would require, if true, a complete re-evaluation of the science of plate techtonics and planetary geology).

It is incredible that anyone still believes anything that these people have to say when they open their mouths.

Friday, July 22, 2005

correction on John Roberts

Realdebate, a rightist poster who runs a site called, corrected me on the post I made in the hours after the John Roberts nomination. I read two separate articles, one in the Washington Post and one at Newsmax, that claimed that he was a member of the Federalist society. In fact, as I was directed to this link, this has been widely misreported in the media. Much of the confusion is apparently caused by the fact that the Federalist Society keeps its membership list secret, thus affording them more protection from prying reporters than our White House affords CIA agents.

Here at Deep Thought, we endeavor to only pass on accurate information. As such, I am stating for the record that

John G. Roberts is NOT a member of the Federalist Society, so whatever their positions are, does not apply to him.

UPDATE (7/26/05): Now we have a new piece of information. Apparently the society had a directory for members, published in 1997-1998, which lists John Roberts as a member of the steering committee for the organization's Washington section. So he apparently was not only a member, but served in a leadership role. The Bush administration took the unusual step of denying his membership the other day, but it is hard to deny he was a member at least in 1997-98 if he was actually involved with directing the Washington branch of the society. But that is another example of the kind of misdirection that we have seen coming from this White House for the last five years. We will keep our eyes on this story.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The successes of Liberals in stopping abortion.

Like many who support a woman's right to do as she wishes with her own body, even when I might not agree with what she is doing, I have been accused of being 'pro-abortion.' It is usually said in a way that makes it sound like we are a bunch of pushers, preying on unsuspecting women, trying to get them to 'try our wares' and go to an abortion clinic, presumably one in which we own stock.

In fact, abortion represents a very real tragedy. Nobody ever has sex just so that they or their partner can end up in an abortion clinic. Have you ever met a woman who was happy about getting an abortion? No one I know outside the Chinese government is 'pro-abortion,' and in fact we as liberals would love it if there were no abortions because every child was wanted. But, it is sadly and tragically not so. Yet. But that is the goal that we are aiming for.

Despite what you may hear from conservatives, liberals have not simply sat by and let abortion run rampant in society. Liberals have always championed family planning, safe sex, and sexual education in schools. And you know what, compared to the failure after failure of conservatives who are always trying to push the envelope with laws that cost the state millions in legal fees before being struck down in court (get a hint: Roe V. Wade is the law of the land, and even John Roberts acknowledged as much during his confirmation hearing to get on the DC court of appeals in 2003), liberals have been SUCCESSFUL in reducing abortions.

Here are a few facts: Today, July 21, the Washington Post reported that the abortion rate in the United States is the lowest since 1976. Teen pregnancy rates have also been in decline. The drop in both of these rates began during the Clinton years, and predates the current rush to implement 'abstinence education' as the only sex education option in schools.

What was being done then? Education. Education about safe sex. Education about AIDS. Education about birth control. Education about family planning.

It still is being done in America's schools, despite the best efforts of conservatives to get it out of the schools.

Do I think abstinence is a bad thing? Not at all. I hope my younger daughters listen to me and practice it. My eldest didn't, and got pregnant when she was fifteen. But given that she was not abstinent, I can tell you that I wish she had practiced birth control.

But abstinence-only is a dangerous precedent, because no matter how hard you try, some kids will have sex; That is a story as old as time itself. And it worth noting that the American Society of Pediatricians denounced abstinence only education as ineffective. From the article: “Even though there is great enthusiasm in some circles for abstinence-only interventions, the evidence does not support abstinence-only interventions as the best way to keep young people from unintended pregnancy,” said Dr. Jonathan Klein, chairman of the academy committee that wrote the new recommendations...Teaching abstinence but not birth control makes it more likely that once teenagers initiate sexual activity they will have unsafe sex and contract sexually transmitted diseases, said Dr. S. Paige Hertweck, a pediatric obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of Louisville who provided advice for the report.

In any case, the teen pregnancy and abortion rates were declining well before abstinence had made any headway, and conservative solutions to abortion were pretty much limited to wasting the state's money defending quixotic attempts to circumvent Roe vs. Wade. The only solutions being put forward in a venue where kids would actually access them were liberal solutions. Condoms. Sex Ed. Family Planning.

And, as the evidence has showed quite clearly, they work.

Renewal of the Patriot Act?

How has the so-called ‘Patriot’ act done anything to stop terrorism? How exactly will the government examining what you read at the local library or compiling a trove of your emails stop a terrorist attack?

We already know there are provisions for secret trials and holding people permanently just based on an accusation (remember Jose Padilla, American born US citizen? If they have enough evidence to claim he’s guilty then CHARGE HIM AND TRY HIM!!). Why we need more of this, I don’t know.

And remember a past era, when the Senate, even in the heat of post 9/11, put in a ‘sunset clause’ that set these provisions to expire in four years. Have things really slipped so far in just four years that the only ‘debate’ is how much MORE we need to write into it, and make it ‘permanent’ (something they didn’t have the votes to do right after 9/11 because that was in an age when people still remembered what ‘freedom’ meant)

By 2008 (yes, that is before Bush even leaves office), we will have what is a national I.D. card that has to be renewed at the government’s disgression every five years (remember when even mentioning that was a ‘scare tactic,’ but now they are sliding it in under the guise of standardizing driver’s licenses from state to state), and you will need a passport just to go to Mexico or Canada (terrorists always have their paperwork in order, but it is necessay to protect Pfizer’s right to selectively gouge Americarns).

Maybe I will just leave the country and sneak back in so I can become an undocumented worker. Because right now, they, by virtue of not being ‘in the system’ or the government knowing who they are, don't have some of the concerns the rest of us have.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

John G. Roberts and the Federalist Society

Tonight President Bush made official his decision on whom to nominate to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by Sandra Day O'Connor.

He named John Roberts, whose only judicial experience has been two years on the D.C. appeals court, to which he was appointed by President Bush in June 2003.

Not surprisingly (especially those who were hoping for another woman, or perhaps the first ever Hispanic Justice on the court), Roberts was born into wealth, the son of a Bethlehem Steel executive, and has been pretty much an establishment guy all his life. He worked as a law clerk for William Rehnquist (the same William Rehnquist who for the first time in history did something I liked, and said he doesn't plan to retire yet, thereby forcing Bush's hand and making it clear who his number one choice is). Then he became an assistant to William French Smith, Attorney General in the Reagan administration, and continued to serve throughout the Bush I administration in the Solicitor General's office. Clearly his conservative credentials are in order.

That in itself is not enough to disqualify him, but here is what should:

John G. Roberts is a member of the Federalist Society.

Never heard of them? Well, The Society is chaired by Steven Calabresi and David McIntosh, a former congressman who has strong ties to Newt Gingrich, and voted in Congress to prohibit the enforcement of portions of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The organization also has a Board of Visitors (formerly the Board of Trustees) including Robert Bork, Orrin Hatch (in fact his son, Brent, is now the society's treasurer), Edwin Meese III and former Christian Coalition leader Don Hodel. Another member is Gerald Walpin, who has criticized the Supreme Court's 1966 Miranda decision for permitting "lawlessness" and has endorsed Congress' ability to set aside the ruling.

Scared of their board of trustees? Then try who funds them.
You won't be that surprised to find out that they are another very well funded right wing 'think tank,' receiving funding from, among others, the Koch foundation (Fred Koch was one of the founders of the John Birch Society) and the Scaife foundation (which funded the 'American Spectator's 'Arkansas project' to 'get' Bill Clinton).

On March 28, 2001, the Federalist Society's environmental law practice and their Chicago chapter sponsored a conference in Chicago, entitled 'Rolling Back the New Deal.'

Civil Rights? Well, Charles J. Cooper, who chairs the organization's practice group on civil rights, is a well-known opponent of traditional anti-discrimination efforts. In fact, Cooper co-wrote an opinion while serving in the Reagan Justice Department that federal law did not prevent employers from refusing to hire people with AIDS if those employers cited a "fear of contagion, whether reasonable or not." and Federalist Society member Robert George and attorney Bill Saunders attacked the U.S. Supreme Court's 1996 Romer v. Evans decision on anti-gay discrimination for curbing the ability of a state "to employ its 'police power' to protect public morals" Not surprisingly, the Society has been unalterably hostile to affirmative action and other programs designed to promote diversity.

Judicial temperment? Well, the American Bar Association (ABA), a nonpartisan organization which has always vetted judges in the past, was attacked by the Federalist Society, which launched its 'ABA project in 1996. This recently reached fruition with President' Bush's announcement that he would no longer use ABA ratings in naming judges. In fact, the recommendation to eliminate the ABA role came directly from the White House counsel's office, which is heavily staffed by Federalist Society members.

Tonight, George W. Bush said the position called for "a person who will faithfully apply the Constitution...I have found such a person in Judge John Roberts."
Unfortunately, we cannot expect this from someone in the Federalist Society. Watching what they say and do, it is clear that this is code for someone who supports the rights of states to legislate institutional racism, unequal treatment for women, no right to privacy in your personal life and other anachronisms.

And John Roberts' membership in the Federalist Society is NOT just something he can pass off as 'someone who he was working for.' HE and no one else, chose to join it. And he could quit anytime he found their views on gay rights, affirmative action or other topics unacceptable and did not wish to be associated with them, so we can only assume that his beliefs are in line with his organzation.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The standard slips a little more

George Bush announced today that he would only fire Karl Rove if he is found to have committed a crime.

That is yet another step back.

In 2000, George W. Bush campaigned for the Presidency and pledged to 'restore honor and integrity' to the office. Once he was elected, he told his Senior staff to 'avoid even the appearance' of ethical violations.

Obviously, that was many Halliburtons ago.

However, in a June 10, 2005 news conference, he was asked if he stood by his pledge made last year to fire anyone who was found to be the source of the leak, Bush answered, 'Yes. And that's up to the U.S. attorney to find the facts.'

So now, it is not any longer whether Rove was the source of the leak (that is now known and is common knowledge) but whether he 'committed a crime.'

Even if we ignore the sheer hypocrisy of this, coming from people who spent $50 million and occupied nearly all of 1998 trying to remove President Clinton from office for the 'crime' of lying about sex, it is clear that George Bush will do anything to protect Mr. Rove.

What's more, Matt Cooper says in a piece this week in Time magazine,

Cooper recalled that Rove told him, “I’ve already said too much” after revealing that the wife of the former ambassador apparently was with the CIA.

Hmmm. So, if Mr. Rove 'accidentally' let this slip out in his conversation with Mr. Cooper, then why did he also get on the phone to Judith Miller, Bob Novak and at least three other reporters and let the SAME THING 'slip' out? And in the process do something that Bill Clinton NEVER did-- intentionally damage our intelligence capability, and in time of war at that.

For an administration that was supposed to restore 'honor and integrity' to the office, we have had more scandals, not about the little things, but about big things like national security and the right of Federal agents to break into your home without telling you, than any administration I can remember.

And the irony, is that this whole scandal was completely unnecessary. It was motivated by a personal desire to get 'even.' Period.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

How to reach a consensus on Social Security

One of the most vexing issues we are now dealing with is proposed legislation to overhaul the Social Security system. Most of the proposals involve putting Social Security funds into private accounts-- whether through the mechanism of diverting payroll taxes that would otherwise create the surplus, or through the mechanism of taking them back out of the surplus after they have already been put into it, the process is the same.

While much has been written about the pros and cons of these proposals (and I may in a future post discuss the specifics of them if it looks like they might actually see the light of day), the purpose of this post is to suggest how we could reach a national consensus and be able to take meaningful action.

The first thing to realize is that this is not a situation where we have to push the panic button and do something-- even if it is the wrong thing-- in a few weeks or months. We are still paying in Iraq for the last time we as a nation panicked and rushed into something (even if you support the Iraqi war, it is clear that we rushed in with little or no planning or study about exactly what we were supposed to do after the fall of Baghdad and the overthrow of the Baathist regime, instead playing it like some kind of a board game that ends when you reach the square marked 'home.') With even the Bush administration projecting that the program will run a surplus until 2017 and remain solvent until 2042 under current conditions, it is clear that there is time to formulate a plan which is both grounded in sound fiscal numbers, and is acceptable to a majority of Americans (unlike the proposed privatization schemes which consistently draw the support of less than a third of the public, and barely half the support even of registered Republicans in polls). The recent failure of pension plans by United Airlines and other employers has caused many people who may have considered Social Security as something that we could gamble with, to rethink their positions.

The second thing to realize is that such a plan has been formulated already. The Clinton plan put forward on April 7, 2000, proposed using the then Federal budget surplus to ensure the solvency of the system (as well as not penalizing people who were past retirement age and wanted to earn as much as they could by cutting their Social Security checks; with people living longer and staying healthier, this provision in the Clinton plan made a great deal of sense). Of course, the Bush administration chose to use the surplus on tax cuts (and replaced it with a record deficit) so this option is no longer available, but it certainly suggests that the problem is not beyond finding a solution.

My proposal is this: create a task force, similar to the 9/11 commission to study the problem in depth (but probably with in the range of 50-80 members), hold hearings and make recommendations to Congress. I know what you are thinking, another government panel to study the problem to death (either behind closed doors or in terms no one can understand) and do nothing beyond window dressing. Well, that is not what I am thinking. First, all meetings of this commission should be out in the open, and be televised on C-SPAN, and the procedings published on the internet. Second, it should not be a bunch of government experts. It is fine to include a few experts on the commission, and perhaps others in an advisory role, but most of its members should be ordinary people (and from the length and breadth of America, not just from Washington). Include people who are now receiving Social Security, as well as people of different ages who have been paying into the system for various amounts of time and will eventually retire on it. Make sure the commission is balanced by age, race, gender, occupation, and -- most importantly, tax bracket. Let them hold public meetings to discuss it (in contrast to President Bush's 'town halls' in which only staunch supporters are given tickets to get in to the event). Perhaps, even, they should listen to the public in an even more direct manner. When proposals are floated, let people vote online about whether they like them or not (the success of 'American Idol' shows that voting online and maintaining the integrity of the election is possible). These votes would not be binding but would give the commission an idea of what the public thinks, and the real benefit would be that people would actually feel that they were able to participate in the procedings of the commission. To ensure partisan balance, select equal numbers of registered Democrats, Republicans and proportional numbers of registered independents for the commission. People with an interest in the problem could apply by writing in why they want to be on the commission and then a Democratic panel picked by the Democratic party could pick the Democratic members of the commission based on their submissions and the same for the Republicans on the commission (although anyone currently holding an elected office or with a personal stake in the outcome beyond simply being in the system would be excluded). Or alternatively, the board of trustees of Social Security could pick members of the commission.

It is true that President Bush has a commission on Social Security, but it includes five members from the 250 member Cato Institute, an anti-government thinktank in Washington that has been pushing privatization of Social Security for years). This panel was selected with a specific goal in mind, and met behind closed doors in order to draw up a plan which was recommended to the President first and the American people second (and by the President). That is exactly the opposite of my proposal. Individual members may have an agenda (for example, I suppose that I would have no problem if there is one member from the Cato Institute, as well as representation from a few thinktanks with competing ideas) but the commission as a whole should start with no agenda, should have only a minority of people who have studied the issue before (and those people only because of their base of knowledge) and an effort should be made to ensure that the members of the commission DON'T know each other before the commission gets started.

I believe that an open and frank discussion of the issues would result, and that a consensus could emerge.

We have time to solve this problem. Let's take that time, and do it right.

When Republican policies highlight the failure of other Republican policies.

During the 1990's, when Republicans ruled the roost here in Arizona and pretty much had free reign to do as they pleased, the legislature (backed by then governor Fife Symington, a conservative whose sun was then high in the sky and whose indictment, conviction on fraud charges and later Presidential pardon by Bill Clinton were still in the future) led the nation in the creation of 'charter schools,' publically funded schools that could be set up by persons and organizations who had no ties to the traditional public school system. Supporters of public schools correctly predicted that teacher salaries in Arizona, already low, would drop to the bottom of the country as money was sucked out of public school systems and given to what amounted to private schools funded by the taxpayers.

One of the biggest mistakes the legislature made was to reduce 'paperwork, red tape and bureaucratic regulations' on the charter schools, which supporters claimed would help them to innovate and opponents (who were outgunned) claimed would give them an unfair advantage over public schools. Several well publicized embarrassments later proponents of charter schools were red in the face and had to admit that the lax state oversight and trimming of regulations was a mistake. Some of these embarrassments included the charter school set up by a plumber who pretty much taught no reading or math, just plumbing, the charter schools set up by people who pretty much let school age kids run wild all day and picked up their state check for serving as a baby sitting service, and the charter school where two girls were molested by a registered sex offender who would never have passed the background check public schools were required to give, but managed to waltz right into the charter school since the background check was one of the 'unnecessary' regulations that the legislature 'took off the backs' of charter schools.

So, a few years ago when President Bush signed the NCLB act that mandated the use of standardized tests as a part of the school curriculum, Arizona developed a statewide test, the AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards), which students would be required to pass before earning a High School diploma (they have at least two more chances to take it if they don't pass the first time). At first charter school backers wanted to exempt charter schools from the test. However, with stories like those listed above in the paper, the attitude had shifted towards holding charters to the same standards (and with the same requirements) as public schools. So, charter schools were required to give the same test as the public schools.

So how did they fare? Well, according to today's Arizona Republic charter school students pass at a rate that is only a little worse than those enrolled in public schools on their AIMS scores when the test is given in the lower grades, but by the sophomore year of high school (10th grade) they are below, in fact way below the scores for public schools. In fact, quoting from the linked article,

Test results released this week by the state showed that just 36 percent of charter-school sophomores passed math on the Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards test, compared with 73 percent at traditional schools. About half of the charter-school sophomores passed reading and writing vs. 77 percent at district schools.

This replicates results from previous years in which high school students from charter schools performed way below those in public schools (although in those years all pass rates were lower; Republican schools chief Tom Horne responded to criticism this year by making the test easier for everyone).

Defenders of charter schools claim that the results are unfair because some charter schools cater to students who are academically challenged and have not done well in school in the past. Other defenders point to the high marks achieved by some charter schools who cater to high performers aiming for elite colleges.

Both of these claims are true, but both attempt to explain away a cataclysmic failure by focusing on a few specific schools. There are certainly individual charter schools which cater to both of these categories of students (and there are plenty of students in both of these categories in public schools as well) but there is NO evidence that statewide charter schools serve a particularly different population than public schools statewide (except perhaps more children from Republican families since they are the ones who are so hot to trot on the school choice/private school issues, and certainly some have put their money (well, actually my money) where their mouth is). Further, even if there were some difference in terms of demographics, the difference in success rates on the test is so hugely different from public schools that the only conclusion one can reach is that the great experiment in charter schools is a failure. One theory I have (with no more than a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence, to be sure) is that well meaning parents and others who start charter schools may have the academic background themselves to teach at least the English and math portions of an elementary school curriculum but once the level of studies reaches high school level and includes courses like composition and trigonometry, they frankly lack the skills to understand these topics and therefore to teach them.

Further, conservatives pushing ideas like vouchers and expansion of charters (talk about p**sing into the wind) would have you believe that public schools are a failure. They are not. They never cite declining SAT scores anymore, for good reason. Even adjusting for changes in the scoring implemented a few years ago, the scores have been rising, and were even during the later years of the Clinton administration In my own small rural town, our high school (which last year was among the top five in the state on AIMS) had a 93 percent pass rate among tenth graders on this year's math test and scored very well on the other portions of the test. My eldest daughter just graduated and her class size was 34, one of the largest they have had in awhile. In spite of the low teacher salaries, the teachers in our school district, and according to these results, many, many others in the state, are doing an extraordinary job. And much better than their counterparts at charter schools.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Fire Karl Rove

In 2003, President Bush promised following the Valerie Plame leak that he would fire whoever was responsible for it, if they were in his administration.

Well, now we know.

And the response of the far right has been nothing short of pathetic. These people, who claim to be 'upholding a strong America,' don't seem to care that we have lost a CIA officer, and probably any contacts that she had in other countries (that is a real human loss, but it will probably be years, if ever, before we know who may have been killed overseas for cooperating with the United States). To them, it is about politics and only politics, and anything else, even the law and our own national security, play second fiddle for them. No, instead, they revert to their strong suit-- the politics of personal attacks. Their favorite target is Plame's husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, who they have been angry with ever since he called the President on his lies about Iraqi nuclear weapons. To read their rantings, you would think that Joe Wilson is the focus of all evil in the world.

Not only is he not, but this is a complete smokescreen. Even if we accept for a moment that Joe Wilson is everything the Republicans claim, HE isn't accused of a crime. Right now, Karl Rove is. They may try to shift the focus to Joe Wilson, but the fact is HE ISN'T the one being investigated. Let me say it again. Joe Wilson has been accused of NOTHING illegal. Karl Rove has been accused of treason, pure and simple., and he is the one we need to stay focused on.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Realistic immigration reform

I am glad that the recently proposed Kennedy-McCain immigration bill is being debated as a solution to immigration reform. I have advocated for years ideas similar to some in the bill, but to see it put out in front of the United States Senate shows that we may finally be getting past the immigrant bashing rhetoric and focusing on real solutions.

In 1923, Congress slammed the Golden Door shut. Strict immigration quotas were put into place.

The problem is, that ever since that time, immigration quotas have reflected a wish. A wish on the part of those who believe that America is too small for anyone new to come in, and a wish that they would simply stay out. Of course, this is a pipe dream, and they have not stayed out. As long as there are people who hire illegal immigrants, there will be jobs available. And as long as there are jobs, they will come. Just as Adam Smith would have predicted, the number of immigrants has surged as there have been jobs available. And the difference between the number of legal immigrants allowed and the number of total immigrants who have come as a result of MARKET conditions has added up and accumulated every single year since 1923, until now, at the best estimate (and it is only a guess) there are ten million or more undocumented aliens populating the cities, towns, highways and farms of America.

The only difference has been that instead of legal immigrants who were given both the incentive and the opportunity to shed their 'immigrant status' in favor of 'Americanness' as soon as possible (my own maternal grandparents were among these), and who thus became part of the great American 'melting pot,' the new immigrants, having to hide from the INS and other agencies have found that the easiest way to do this, ironically, is to blend into ever increasing ethnically monotone communities that retain their national identities, and even their nationalism. Sixty, forty or even twenty years ago, the idea that Cinco de Mayo would be a bigger celebration in an American city than the Fourth of July would have been met with incredulity. Yet this has become fairly routine in many cities and towns here in the southwest and elsewhere.

The response by many on the right has been a 'get tough' attitude. Never mind that it is abundantly clear that these immigrants are willing to risk their lives (and scores die every year) in an attempt to make it into America. Somehow they believe that by denying medical care, schooling or other benefits, they can make it so difficult for these people that they won't want to come here. In fact, this approach is doomed to failure since any job in America at all is enough to provide a better standard of living than they would have had in a poverty stricken village in Mexico, central America, China or elsewhere. All this approach achieves is to deter people from getting shots (so that if there is an epidemic we have a pool of people who can serve as a reservoir) or sending their kids to school (so that when these kids grow up they will have no American identity at all, and will live, have their own kids and perhaps (if they were born here and are American citizens) even vote without having a clue what it means to be American.

What to do? Well, the Kennedy-McCain bill is a good start. It recognizes reality, and allows those people who are already here or who are ready to begin a job to simply pay a fine. Even this action will give us a better tab on them than we have now, and will allow them to finally begin the process of Americanization.

Another thing that we need to do is to start prosecuting and jailing those who hire illegal aliens in violation of the law. While the immigrants themselves have little to lose, so jail is not much of a deterent, it is a deterent for a potential employer. The $11 million settlement recently reached with WalMart for hiring illegal workers to clean its stores at night-- some for as little as $2 per night--sends precisely the wrong message. The settlement, which it takes WalMart 19 minutes to ring up at its registers on a typical day, sends the message that you can simply calculate the cost of government fines into the costs of doing business, and if you still come out ahead by hiring illegals, then so be it. Jail time for those responsible would send the right message.

Finally, we need to work to increase wages and living standards in the countries where these immigrants come from to the level that travelling thousands of miles and risking one's life to enter the United States is no longer an appealing alternative. A start would be a commitment not to sign any free trade agreement with a nation unless they have either put in place American Standards on wages, workplace safety and environmental laws, or if they are not there yet, must be committed to making significant progress in these areas.

Saturday, July 09, 2005


Read today's edition of the Arizona Republic, and it's hard to suppose that we are any more secure from a terror attack than we were on September 11.

On the front page, there is an article about how there was a shootout at the airport between the Phoenix police and a car thief. The thing that makes this a concern, however, is that this is the SECOND TIME THIS HAS HAPPENED IN A WEEK! On June 30 there was an incident in which a car thief crashed through a fence (recapped in this article) and drove along the tarmac passing a number of fully loaded jets. Granted, this time the car thief got into the shootout near the front doors of the terminal instead crashing through a fence onto the tarmac, but with the security alert raised to orange, in addition to the incident last week, you'd think that there would be barriers raised that would not allow an armed man to drive a car to the front doors of the terminal. Of course, we know that terrorists have lived in Phoenix in the past, and several of the 9/11 hijackers are known to have lived in the Valley (what those of us in outstate AZ call metro Phoenix) and took flight lessons at the Deer Valley airport. We are lucky that both times these vehicles were driven by ordinary street hoods (and at least in the case of last week's driver, one who was full of drugs), but anything that these losers could do, a terrorist (or a team of terrorists) with a plan and a vehicle full of explosives could do and probably much more effectively. It may have taken us by surprise the first time (shouldn't, but may have) but when pretty much the same thing happens twice in a week, there is a security problem).

What else was in the paper? Well, an article about how even house Republicans (this is a first) are concerned about how the budget for border security at Organ Pipe and other national parks is too low to provide adequate security, especially if terrorists are coming in that way. Of course, they could have noticed that when they cut funding for the national parks in the first place.

Of course the Bush administration's solution is to require passports for Americans coming back from Mexico starting in 2008 (which won't do a thing to stop terrorists, who have always known enough to have their paperwork in order, unless they are studying Spanish and learning to pose as Mexicans, in which case the term 'undocumented' alien means they won't have a passport). This 'security measure' is pretty much exclusively aimed at granny who gets her prescriptions filled in Agua Prieta or Nogales. (Take advantage of fair prices negotiated with the Mexican government by drug companies who selectively gouge Americans, now THAT'S a Security threat as seen by Mr. Bush.)

Turn to the B section? Well, there was a big article on how the Arizona Counterterror Information Center in Phoenix is now a hub for counterterrorism activity. According to the article, since the London bombing they are now on 24 hour duty. However, the night of the bombing, which occurred at 1 o'clock in the morning Arizona time, the center "sat quiet and empty" until five hours later, at which time the staff came to work and determined that there was no local threat or Arizona connection. Now granted, it is probable that there is no specific connection to Arizona when this kind of thing happens, but it is not impossible (as 9/11 shows) and if it was the case that the computers there contained a vital piece of information, or if there was an attack planned here, then FIVE HOURS is plenty of time for someone to escape, or for them to carry out an attack. So now they are on duty 24 hours. I can understand that on what was to that point an ordinary day that they would have been closed at 1:00 in the morning, but not how apparently there was no one on call to get in there and start looking into it right away.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Italy pulls troops from Iraq

We saw during the run up to the Iraq war the friction between George Bush and the leaders of France, Germany and Canada.

However, he was able to name at the time over forty countries who backed him enough to send troops to Iraq (although the 10 person contingent from the Czech Republic and the less than 1000 person contingent from all but four of our 'coalition partners' makes it clear that the US is still doing all the heavy lifting).

The list has since shrunk by almost half, as nation after nation realizes that the United States is stuck in a protracted guerilla war which they want no part of.

What makes the latest defection from the group unique, however, is how it came about.
Italy sets date to pull troops out of Iraq.

Recall that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berluscone stood against overwhelmingly anti-war public opinion in his country and sent troops to Iraq. He continued to stand firm as a member of the coalition when eighteen Italian troops were killed on November 12, 2003 by a truck bomb in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, despite enormous public pressure to get out. The kind of ally that President Bush would stand by, right?

Well, no actually. After leftist Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena who had been held hostage by insurgents was freed, which was widely reported on as it was happening, the vehicle which was carrying her to the airport was fired upon by American soldiers at a checkpoint, wounding her and killing the agent who was escorting her back to the airport.

With this being reported on the internet and in a number of media outlets as it was occuring, the questions could be raised about whether American intelligence is so incompetent that our military knew less than online readers of il manifesto (Sgrena's publisher), or whether we have a weak link somewhere in the chain of command, or even whether Sgrena, who openly writes for a communist newspaper, was on the now disturbingly long list of journalists who have written negative things about how Mr. Bush's war is going, who have been 'caught in the crossfire' in Iraq (funny, but journalists from Faux News or others who only put a happy face on everything seem have a much better rate of survival, but I digress).

All of these questions were asked. In Italy. With Mr. Berluscone taking the heat. You'd think the least our President could do would be to provide him with a fig leaf worth of cover and acknowledge that clearly there was a mistake somewhere in the system.

But he didn't do that. In fact, official statements and press releases pretty much faulted the dead agent and the driver of the car for not slowing down fast enough as they approached the checkpoint (no mention of why they didn't know who it was).

So, George bailed on his friend when his friend was facing the toughest questions he ever had.

It seems like George's list of foreign heads of state he is willing to stand with is pretty much limited to Tony Blair, Ariel Sharon and maybe John Howard.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

On tracking sex offenders

The news came today that there is now evidence that Joseph Edward Duncan III, a level three registered sex offender, was the killer of three people in a trailer, in addition to the crimes which he has already been charged with involving kidnapping and molestation of a child, and very likely the kidnapping, molestation and murder of another. Duncan was supposedly out on bail while facing charges in Minnesota, but he had disappeared.

We have recently seen another case in Florida, where a registered sex offender named John Evander Couey moved away from where he was supposed to be living without the knowledge of the authorities, and proceeded to rape and murder a girl.

Earlier this week, the news came out here in Arizona that we have just about a thousand high level registered sex offenders who are not living where they are registered and whom authorities frankly have no idea how to find.

Most disturbing of all, are Mr. Duncan's own ramblings, in which he describes 'demons' who drive him to do terrible things.

There are some who would describe these writings as part of some cold calculated plan to get him off the hook after he carries out his particular crime in case he gets caught, but that seems to be giving too much credit to a guy who would go to a restaurant late at night, with the victim, just a few miles from where the crimes occurred. No, what he describes as 'demons' are what virtually all sex offenders who have discussed the topic admit: there is no cure. The standard that we hold in society that once someone pays his dues (or, sadly increasingly, her dues) in jail, we should ignore them and let them get on with their lives, may work (and does work) for most crimes, but not for sex offenders, whose sex drive is often only satisfied by the rape, molestation, torture or murder of victims, and then only for a short time after which the same compulsion returns, and another victim is targetted.

What should we do? The answer is as plain as Martha Stewart's wrist. In order to make sure that she does not violate her home arrest, she wears a tracking device. Remove it or try to tamper with it, and an alarm alerts the police instantly. Keep it on, and they have a running record of where the offender is, at what time, and the offender knows it. Why no one has proposed that this piece of equipment be issued to all high level sex offenders is beyond me.

This is not an infringement on civil liberties if it is included as part of the sentence, just as probation can be, but this becomes a continuously monitored probation. This is not any more a violation of rights than the device that some jurisdictions have mandated be connected to the ignition of a DUI offender's car. Blow into the device, and if your breath has too much alcohol in it, then you can't start your car. The purpose would be the same-- to protect the public, and so long as the sex offender doesn't commit a crime, the law could easily enough say that the data would be destroyed after a period of time (maybe keep it up to one year back).

I just know I find Joseph Edward Duncan to be a lot more frightening than Martha Stewart, so whatever technology they are using to keep tabs on her, they should use it to keep tabs on people like him.

London Bombings and security

The bombings today were truly despicable, and I am glad to stand with the rest of the civilized world in condemnation of such a horrible action.

The people who plan and carry out these kinds of things deserve to die, preferably by being blown up by a smart bomb launched in our war on terror, a war which they started.

We must also analyze this bombing on many levels and see what we can learn in order to prevent such events in the future.

The first lesson is that we will never completely stop terror attacks, but we can try to minimize their effects. Security in the United Kingdom was as high as it's been, with the G-8 summit happening on British soil. Clearly this wasn't secure enough. And, the United States is no more secure. Last week (on June 30) a man stole a truck in Phoenix, drove it through a wrought iron fence, and onto the tarmac at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, right past several packed passenger planes and through another fence before he had to stop. Now, this guy was just some two bit loser whose only goal was to get away from police with his stolen truck, but it was obvious from the picture of him cruising along the runway right in front of the terminal that he could easily enough have driven right up next to several jets and the implications for terrorism are unmistakeable. Four years after 9/11, we still don't even come close to inspecting all of the containers that come into the country, and it seems as if provisions which the Bush administration is putting into place (like American citizens needing a passport to enter the country from Canada or Mexico starting in 2008) are more aimed at preventing people from leaving the country to buy prescription drugs than they are about stopping terrorists, who invariably have all of their paperwork in order.

A second lesson is that it is a mistake to give terrorists respite. We had Osama bin Laden on the run, then President Bush made the decision to put that on the back burner and focus on Iraq, and clearly al-Qaeda has regrouped to the point that today's attack was possible.

All in all, we have done a credible job of preventing these kinds of attacks, if not an outstanding one. And one has to wonder if al-Qaeda's failure to launch this attack ahead of the British election (as they did before the Spanish election) and having to postpone it until the G-8 may have been caused by at least some level of interference with their operations by British or American agents or military forces.

However, we are doing a job only of treating the SYMPTOM, which is terrorism, and not the disease itself. That consists of a long history of both British and American involvement in propping up anachronistic feudal monarchies and other repressive governments across the middle east. Osama bin Laden himself said that his original motivation for declaring war on the United States was the continued presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. And what exactly has having them there gained us? Forcing even our servicewomen into burqas? Our 'friends' executing terror suspects in attacks like the Khobar Towers before the FBI can even get there to interview them?

President Bush, in his inaugural speech this year, said that he intends to push Democracy. Leaving aside his obvious failure to support the democratically elected governments in Venezuela (where we supported a failed coup), Haiti (where we supported a successful coup) and Pakistan (where we have given our blessing to Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew a democratically elected government to take dictatorial power), the real test will be how hard he pushes it in places like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Yet it is in these countries where it is most needed. Without it, there will continue to be an almost endless number of dispossessed young people, who are easy to recruit into terror organizations. And why do we do it? Because we can't afford not to. In a Faustian deal, we have to have Saudi oil, so they can pretty much say and do anything to us that they want to.

We should indeed aggressively go after the cancer that is terrorism, but we shoud also make some lifestyle changes (without which the cancer will return and return again) , everything from driving more fuel efficient cars to pushing for political reform in some of these monarchies.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Zap Albert rumored to be named to the Supreme Court

It was only this past January when anyone who cared at all about human rights, about human decency cried out loud at the thought that the man who wrote the memo justifying torture and who described the Geneva convention as 'quaint,' would become the Attorney General of the United States.

Remember the fight over his confirmation to that post, despite the fact that it is due to end in four years?

And since then, he has stood firmly for expanding the rights of federal police at the expense of your rights, pretty much no surprise to those of us who were horrified to see him confirmed. Just about two weeks ago, on June 21, he made a speech expressing support for strict mandatory sentencing laws, including for nonviolent drug offenders, a position way out of tune with the majority of people in America, who prefer to save prison space for violent felons, and also at odds with the positions taken by the American Bar Association, the U.S. Sentencing Commission and all 11 circuit courts.

So why is he suddenly being hailed as a 'moderate?'

Certainly there are those on the right who would prefer a more hardline conservative, since he actually recognized, while upholding a Texas statute on parental notification of minors wanting an abortion, that in some cases there could be abuse or worse awaiting some of them at home so there had to be some limited exemptions in the law.

This rare flash of common sense (in contrast to Priscilla Owen, apparently) hardly qualifies him as a 'moderate.' If he is viewed as such, it is only because the Bush administration has brought out worse and worse nightmares as time goes on. And we can only imagine what kind of hideous vampire lies at the bottom of their vault.

However the philosophy that we as Democrats should somehow be happy if the President picks Alberto Gonzales for a lifetime appointment to decide the fate of millions because 'it could be worse' does not hold water. There is always something worse that can be imagined for purposes of comparison (Karl Rove on the SC?) but dare we imagine not something worse, but something BETTER than Zap Albert?

We should hold out for a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States who, for one thing, is independent-- truly independent, and does not simply produce written opinions that simply justify what this administration has already determined to do.

Although as Democrats we are the minority party in the United States Senate, we should demand that the President seek at least the advice of the Senate. This is not out of line with what has been done in the past. Who do you suppose recommended the name of Ruth Bader Ginsberg to Bill Clinton? The answer may surprise many: Orrin Hatch.

When the vacancy on the court opened up, Clinton, not wanting to go against the will of the people or of the Senate, bypassed such names as Lawrence Tribe and Mario Cuomo, who would be sure to spark a divisive confirmation fight, and instead went to Hatch, then an archconservative and the leader of the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, and asked him about left leaning judges who Hatch felt were qualified and would not risk a divisive floor fight. The vote on Ginsberg was 87-9 in the Senate.

Bush has the opportunity to do the same. Of course he is a conservative and will choose a conservative justice. We know that. But he has the opportunity to ask the advice of Democrats as to whether they can name some conservatives who are qualified and who can be confirmed in a bi-partisan manner.

I hope he does.

And for those who still think that we will be dodging a bullet if we end up with Zap Albert, just ask yourself if you would feel comfortable with him casting the deciding vote on whether police or federal agents can torture you.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

I'm proud of my county, and I want to restore the image that I'm proud of

Last year, my cousin's daughter and her French class went on a trip to Europe. They were in Belgium, France and Italy. They were told not to speak any English on the trip, but only French and Spanish (my cousin lives in L.A. and most of the kids at her daughter's school speak Spanish on a daily basis). Why were they told this? Was it a graded activity? Was it to help them understand their trip better? Sadly, the answer is no. They were told this because so many people there are angry at America that they were told that they should pretend to be something else in order to avoid trouble.

Now, I've never felt that I had to hide my nationality. I've always felt, even on those rare occasions when I was outside of the United States, that I should never have to pretend I wasn't an American. I've always felt that I was proud of the fact and if I am in a conversation with someone from another country, I've always felt the right (and sometimes the inclination) to brag just a bit about our country.

Are you proud of your country? I am. As we went through this Independence Day holiday, I was once again reminded of what we can do if we want to.

The flawlessly executed mission planned and launched years ago by NASA, in which a probe impacted with a comet over a hundred million miles from earth, showed what we can do. It showed the world the kind of thing we can be proud of.

There is another picture though. And it's not pretty.

This week the President of the United States is meeting with other world leaders at the G-8 summit. And before it even started, the President had to again explain his decision not to sign on to the Kyoto treaty. That isn't a good sign when you have to defend a decision that you made four years ago.

Perhaps the flood of scientific data showing that Global Warming is not any longer imminent, but is already under way, forced the President's hand. But instead of forcing him into finally making the right decision, it forced him to defend his wrong one.

Hmmm.... Doesn't that sound like what he does when discussing Iraq? Or when discussing why his tax cuts that were supposed to create an economic boom, have instead only created a deficit bigger than the hole that was blasted into Tempel 1?

And you can argue all you want about how the treatment of Detainees at Gitmo or Abu Graib wasn't technically (by someone's definition anyway) torture, or how Saddam was worse, or whatever you want to say, but is a bunch of frat boys making adult men stand around naked, or of urinating on someone's holy scriptures, the picture that we want to project of the United States? And it almost goes without need to remind you that he has nominated for the position of Ambassador to the United Nations a man who has openly declared his contempt for the United Nations. Can you name any country in the world where we would send an ambassador who has declared his contempt for that country?

This kind of 'my way or the highway' attitude hasn't endeared the President to Democrats in Congress or the rest of us out here in the country, but it is much worse in the world. Leaders of sovereign nations and their citizens presume that the President of the United States speaks for us. Of course if you are reading this, there is a good chance that you don't feel that what he is saying speaks for you, but that is the perception in the rest of the world.
If Mr. Bush's arrogance hasn't turned the whole planet against us by the time we get someone else in office, we may have a chance to return to the level of prestige that we once held in the world, but it will be a long, long road up.

On nuclear proliferation and Iran

I have talked to a number of Republican friends of mine who say that they believe we will have to invade Iran soon because they are developing nuclear weapons and we can’t let them have them. I ask them one question: “Why?” It is clear at first that their paradigm has not even entertained such a question and that they simply assume that we cannot allow it. The responses I get generally fall into three categories: 1. Iran is an implacable enemy of the United States. 2. The leaders of Iran are a bunch of fanatics who would probably use a nuclear weapon, either against the United States or against Israel, if they had one, and 3. Iran is a known supporter of terrorism, and they can’t be trusted not to give a nuclear weapon to people who certainly would use it.

I- Let’s examine these assumptions more clearly:

1. It is true that since the revolutionary overthrow of the American backed regime of the Shah in 1979 and the hostage crisis that same year, relations between Iran and the United States have never warmed above a deep freeze. However, the same could be said of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union or China during the height of the Cold War, and yet neither of these two countries ever used nuclear weapons against the United States or anyone else. Clearly it is in America’s interest for Iran not to develop a nuclear weapon, but history teaches us that we can survive having an enemy which has nuclear weapons.

2. The leadership in Iran is a complex structure, with a conservative hierarchy of aging mullahs running the show, but a parliament and a President which have at times in the past challenged the mullahs (although right now the mullahs have apparently rigged the election to prevent any legal political challenges). In Iran today, over 60% of the population is under 30—people with no memory of the Shah and who took no part in the revolution but have instead come to resent the strictures of an Islamic society. As the years pass, this number will grow. The revolutionary rhetoric of Ayatollah Khomeini is as dead to them as the rhetoric of Lenin is to Russians. And like the Russians, Iran’s internationalist revolutionary fervor (where they actively tried to incite Islamic revolution in neighboring countries) seems to have passed with the aging of that generation, bled dry by the Iran-Iraq war. The mullahs have their hands full just maintaining internal control, and it is hard to see why they would start a nuclear war which would devastate their country and destroy what hold they still have. Both the United States and Israel possess enough nuclear weapons to destroy Iran, so such an attack would be suicidal. The leader of the mullahs, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, is a hard liner to be sure, but has never been described as insane or suicidal. It is true that the Iranians did use some chemical weapons during the war with Iraq, but that was in response to repeated use of the same by Saddam. Given that they, like Saddam, had them in the 1980’s, it is a fact that they never used them against Israel, so there is precedent for the idea that they wouldn’t use nukes. The most likely reason why they want nuclear weapons, especially given recent American actions in the region, is as a deterrent in case we actually invade and try to conquer Iran. The best example we can give of an attack attributed to the mullahs in recent times against the United States, the Khobar towers bombing, was carried out using conventional weapons, apparently as payback for the United States’ support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and the accidental shooting down of a commercial airliner over Iranian waters during an undeclared war in 1987. We should not excuse the Khobar towers bombing, but it certainly does not suggest that the Iranian regime is looking to fight a nuclear war. And, finally, the mullahs running Iran aren’t a one-man dictatorship. So, even if one of them did want to destroy the country to make a point, it is hard to see how it could happen.

3. Iran does have ties to terrorists, like many of our ‘friends’ in the region including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Heck, we have ourselves in the past supported many of the same terrorists, including Osama bin Laden. We should certainly fight against these terrorists, and maintain sanctions and if necessary take other conventional action against Iran if needed, but let’s keep in mind that Iran is not generally a supporter of many of the Sunni groups (who consider Shiite and Persian Iran a heretical branch of Islam), and the best way to prevent them from supporting terrorists is to work to enlist their help in the war against terrorism. For that matter, the Soviet Union at times supported numerous terrorist groups, ranging from the Red Brigades in Italy and the Japanese Red Army to the early days of the P.L.O. However, at no time did they ever give any of these terrorists nuclear weapons. The Iranians have never given Hezbollah or other terrorists they support chemical weapons, long range missiles or other weapons which would be a clear escalation of the low level Cold War style terrorist campaigns they are waging, so why would they be stupid enough to give them nukes?

II- So, what should we do?

1. Begin by realizing that the line in the sand we drew fifty or sixty years ago has been washed away by the rising tide. The idea that technology which we developed sixty years ago (including the enrichment of Uranium) is somehow ‘too hard’ for rogue states to get is laughable. What we need is a new line in the sand. One that history teaches would set a great precedent and be obeyed. One that really does make our overwhelming military might a ‘big stick’ which we can put to a good use, really is unilateral, and yet makes no overt threats toward anyone or takes sides before the fact. How about a nuclear version of the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ that focuses not on the development of nuclear weapons, but rather makes it plain that any nation which uses them in war will be at war with the United States and can expect a ‘regime change?’. How can a country avoid this? Simple, build your nukes, fight your wars, but DON’T USE THE NUKES IN THE WARS. Is this fail-safe? No. And where we can make it as difficult as possible for other countries to get nukes, we should still do so. But instead of invoking a now routinely violated line that countries should not build nukes (which Pakistan, India and North Korea have already made a joke out of), we have a better chance of making a new line stick, and I suspect it is a line which, despite its unilateralism, would be welcomed by the world. The beauty is that such a direct statement does not make any distinction between nations, either based on current or future alliances or rivalries. And in case a terrorist group blows up a nuke, develop the intelligence (which we already pretty much have) that can analyze the results and determine where the bomb came from. Uranium from different sources has different types of impurities so it would not be that hard to determine.

2. Work with countries that have nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants and other nuclear installations to secure the nuclear material, because this is where terrorists are most likely to get it. John Kerry proposed to secure the nuclear material in the former Soviet Union in four years. This is realistic. The Bush administration expects it to take nine years longer. We also need to hasten the rate at which we inspect every container entering the United States by ship. Right now, we inspect a random sample of 2% (meaning that if a terrorist places a weapon on any given container, there is a 98% chance that the container won’t be inspected). This is four years since 9/11 and Congress has refused to adequately fund this, but we must fund it. Traditional Republican budget cuts and failure to make tax investments just aren’t an option when talking about nuclear safety and terrorism. Cooperate with all nations, friendly or not, to work on ways to prevent an accidental firing of a nuclear weapon.

3. Revamp our foreign policy. It is clear to many that the Bush administration’s inclusion of Iran and North Korea in the ‘axis of evil,’ rather than deterring nuclear ambitions, have had the opposite effect, especially in light of the Iraq war. On the other hand, we have approximately the same chilly relationship with Cuba as we have with all of these countries (including Cuban support of terrorist groups like FARC), but since we have not threatened to actually invade Cuba, they have had no inducement to research nuclear weapons. Going back to the Soviet Union, it fell because of a policy of ‘constructive engagement.’ People saw our freedom, and wanted it for themselves. If anything, the survival of Cuba and North Korea, almost alone among old line anti-capitalist Marxist states (recall that China and Vietnam have had the foresight to develop private enterprise) is indicative that failure to engage the people of these nations strengthens the regime instead of undermining it. I pointed out in I-2 that Iran has a similar internal structure, where young people want change and the old line revolutionaries want to preserve the status quo. Engage the people who will be the future, and a future of freedom will arrive one day, and the people will earn it themselves, and treasure it all the more. If we instead invade their country because of our dispute with its leaders, we should have learned from Iraq that we won’t be universally welcome and the price will be paid in the lives of our soldiers.

Welcome to the Institute of Deep Thinking.

And what, pray tell, do we do here? Easy enough, we think. We write. We exchange ideas.
We do what we can to survive the next 1,295 days. We plan for the future, a future better than what we have now.

A future in which people respect each other, help each other, and in which we as a society have the moral fiber to refuse to just allow any one of us to 'slip through the cracks.'

A future in which the United States of America is once again the leader of the world, not because of threats, force and intimidation, but because of achievement, generosity and leadership.

A future in which every member of our society has the same opportunity to succeed, a society in which each person can and does achieve his or her potential, and a society in which no young person ever has to feel that their situation is hopeless or that they will never reach their goals.

A future without racism, sexism, homophobia or any other form of prejudice, and a future in which the lingering effects of these evils have been scrubbed from or society, like an unneeded wart.

A future in which we make the necessary tax investments in schools so that our children will truly be able to bring a better future.

A future in which no one who is sick or injured will be denied health care because they cannot afford to pay.

We are not Republicans here, nor are we the kind of Democrats who fight with Republicans over the crumbs of a shrinking pool of bad ideas. We have our own ideas. Big, Bold, Brash, Bright Ideas!
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