Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Don't put your faith in Bush, my boy.

A couple of days ago, I blogged on the possibility that George W. Bush might make the right call and call for a withdrawal (with whatever cover he needed) of our troops from Iraq.

Obviously, that optimism was misplaced. Many people in the rest of the GOP might see the need to do that, and even some who have held senior positions in his own White House (I named one last night) but, while his speech did discuss a sudden 'improvement' in the Iraqi forces (which the Slate article I linked to predicted would happen) he said nothing that indicates that we will be out of Iraq any time soon.

I guess we can only hope that the American people have the good sense to elect a Congress that will attach some conditions to any more money they vote for the war, and one of those conditions being a withdrawal plan.

I have come to the conclusion that sitting around and waiting for George W. Bush to make the right call on Iraq is like waiting for the devil to announce that hell is full and is now closed to any new souls.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

When even your guys question you.

Sure, Republicans and the Bush administration will always say that their critics, those who accuse them of fudging the intelligence on Iraq are on the left, or somehow the political opposition.

OK, then how about a member of their own administration, someone who as recently as this past January was in a position of authority in the Bush White House?

In a BBC Interview, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was formerly a top advisor to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, while focusing on the treatment of prisoners also had this to say:

In the BBC interview, Col Wilkerson also developed his views on whether or not pre-war intelligence was deliberately misused by the White House.

He said that he had previously thought only honest mistakes were made.

But recent revelations about doubts in the intelligence community that appear to have been suppressed in the run-up to the war have made him question this view.

Now, this goes along with Wilkerson's coming to grips that some of the information he got, and gave to Powell, was false. I blogged on Wilkerson and Powell on August 19, Trading honor for a pack of lies and September 10,Righties should pay attention to this Republican. I do. In the August 19 post, I quote Wilkerson (and David Kay) as saying,

How did it happen? Wilkerson gives some hints:

"(Powell) came through the door ... and he had in his hands a sheaf of papers, and he said, 'This is what I've got to present at the United Nations according to the White House, and you need to look at it,'...It was anything but an intelligence document. It was, as some people characterized it later, sort of a Chinese menu from which you could pick and choose."

David Kay, who was once the CIA's chief weapons inspector in Iraq, says it even more bluntly: "In fact, Secretary Powell was not told that one of the sources he was given as a source of this information had indeed been flagged by the Defense Intelligence Agency as a liar, a fabricator..."

So, Wilkerson, a former high official in the Bush state department, has gone from thinking it was just bad intel to thinking it was deliberately manipulated, scarcely ten months after he left the administration.

And his former boss is becoming more vocal as well. Powell blasted the White House for smearing Murtha last week.

Now, I've said before that if I were put on a spot and forced to name a Republican who I thought was most qualified to serve as President, it would be Colin Powell. And I'm glad he is starting to speak out, not as beholden to the Bush administration, but as an independent and reasonable voice that we should all listen to.

Some stories, there just isn't much you can say about them.

There are times when something so tragic and stupid happens that it takes my breath away. I would like to find some big political story that goes with this but there really isn't one. Just a really sad story that leaves me shaking my head.

A couple in Miami tried to get their baby daughter to sleep by giving her massive doses of vodka. Her father called 911 after she was unresponsive, but she was prononced dead at the scene.

I can't imagine giving alcohol to a three month old.

Small quantities of alcohol have historically been used to quiet crying babies, but authorities said the amount fed to Makeisha was extreme.

The Broward County Medical Examiner's Office determined that the infant had a blood alcohol level of 0.47 percent. The legal limit for drivers in Florida is 0.08 percent.

Former Medical Examiner Dr. Ronald Wright said that for a baby to ingest that much alcohol would be the equivalent of a 160-pound adult drinking 18 beers.

Now I understand that parenting is a learned, not a born skill, and that some people have never learned how to be parents. It took me quite a few years, and there are some days I still question whether I'm any good at it. But common sense would dictate that this would be at best very risky. Even if the baby survived, it's hard to imagine what kind of effects this would cause on her still developing body.

In fact, the autopsy pinpoints the cause of death:

According to a police report, the final autopsy showed that the child had been fed fatal doses of alcohol shortly before her death and her liver indicated severe buildup of excess fat due to alcohol consumption.

I'd like to be angry at the parents, but this story just drained me to the point that I am just shaking my head, at a loss for words.

Monday, November 28, 2005

It's about time that the White House sets the right course on Iraq-- OUT!

I've always said that George W. Bush was the last one in town to know when he is stubbornly pushing forward on a lost cause. Hence, he was the last one to still be pushing for Social Security Privatization or Harriet Miers, to name a couple of lost causes from earlier this year. But sooner or later he wakes up and gets of the ship before it goes under.

So that is one reason why I really hope the article in Slate today is true:

Brace yourself for a mind-bog of sheer cynicism. The discombobulation begins Wednesday, when President George W. Bush is expected to proclaim, in a major speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, that the Iraqi security forces—which only a few months ago were said to have just one battalion capable of fighting on its own—have suddenly made uncanny progress in combat readiness. Expect soon after (if not during the speech itself) the thing that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have, just this month, denounced as near-treason—a timetable for withdrawal of American troops.

Hey, if it gets us out of there, then that's just fine with me. We don't need to be pouring any more American lives and dollars down this rathole. Even the Pentagon can see that. And if George Bush wants to take credit for whatever happens in Iraq, that is fine with me too. I've always given Richard Nixon credit for getting us out of Vietnam (whatever other transgressions the man may committed, he deserves credit for being the one with the good enough sense to pull the plug on that war.) Now granted, Nixon inherited a war and Bush would be getting us out of a war that he started, but right now that is still good enough for me.

President Bush would declare his mission complete and begin to pull out—this, despite his public pledge to "stay the course" until the insurgents were defeated.

This theory explains Bush's insistence that the Iraqis draft and ratify the constitution on schedule—even though the rush resulted in a seriously flawed document that's more likely to fracture the country than to unite it. For if the pullout can get under way in the opening weeks of 2006, then the war might be nullified as an issue by the time of our own elections.

Well, there are benefits to our political system. Our Founding Fathers were wise enough to schedule national elections every two years so if someone goes too far off the deep end against the will of the public then political pressure will be enough to make them change their direction. Or, as the New York Times put it in discussing the same story,

But in private conversations, American officials are beginning to acknowledge that a judgment about when withdrawals can begin is driven by two political calendars - one in Iraq and one here

Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton knew what they were doing.

UPDATE: Word out today is that the President won't announce a pullout tomorrow, although he will set parameters that will lead to one by next year whether the insurgents are gone or not. Still an improvement and a concession to reality on his part, but not as good as it looked at first.

UPDATE #2 (11/30): The President gave his speech today, and while he did say that American troops would be taken out of cities (the sites of most encounters) he did not say that a withdrawal was forthcoming. My optimism was premature, but I do believe that by next year, political pressure will cause us to begin to get out.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The least of these, my brethren

I read a very good post on Girl on the Blog's blog about a destitute veteran. One of those people who live among us who people ignore, or worse.

I'd also read an article while websurfing earlier today about how some suburban communities and, just today, hospitals are dumping homeless patients into skid row, an area of LA which is rife with drugs, alcoholism and other problems, not the least of which are allegations that hundreds of homeless people, mostly blacks, disappeared during the recent UCLA cadaver scandal and ended up as involuntary cadavers and organ donors. Then, the cadavers that were 'purchased' by UCLA medical school from a trafficer in bodies, were subsequently (and illegally) hacked apart before being used in the medical school for organs to be then sold to local hospitals.

During the "UCLA's Cadaver Scandal" hundreds of homeless persons, mostly Blacks, were mysteriously disappearing from the Los Angeles downtown "Skid Row" area that is not very far from UCLA

In light of this, the behavior of the hospitals, sending patients, some of whom can barely walk, to an area where it was not so long ago that many of them were apparently getting murdered and their organs returned to the hospital as a form of 'payment,' is particularly disturbing.

Now, in the United States, while there were always a few hobos who chose to remain homeless, they were generally single men, and in small numbers. However a myth grew up around them that was used to justify slashing housing funds beginning in the 1980's. It was that ALL homeless were that way 'by choice' (which may have been very nearly true when Federal funds for housing for the destitute peaked in the 1970's.) I've talked to a number of homeless or formerly homeless people myself and I can tell you that very few want to always remain homeless. Further, there are now thousands of homeless children, living with their families on the streets of America. How can a child 'choose' to be homeless? Of course, if I (a homeowner) forced my kids to sleep out in the yard on a piece of cardboard every night, I would quite rightly be accused of child abuse and have my kids collected by CPS. But if we treat kids this way as a society, then it is not considered child abuse. Further, I would consider it beneath what America can stand for if we allow ANY American, adult or child, to live on the street simply because they don't have the means to pay for shelter. There are of course, privately run homeless shelters, but as we are continually reminded, especially at this time of year, there are just plain not enough places in the shelters for all of them. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that in the 1980's we closed down a lot of mental institutions (a flawed alliance between conservatives who didn't want to continue funding them and liberals who thought it was a terrible place to keep people locked up-- even though with the benefit of hindsight, that was a better place for people who had problems that prevented them from functioning in society than simply sending them out into the world to make their way; Darn that Louise Fletcher for doing such a perfect job playing Nurse Ratched). What it does show is that there is more need for this than there are private donations (and I am saying that as a person who has in the past donated to some of these same shelters). The whole myth of people CHOOSING to be homeless is a cop-out. The dehumanizing of homeless people, by chasing them from town to town to town through the use of local ordinances (out of sight, out of mind) only makes this worse. I have no problem with privately operated shelters and nonprofits being PART of the solution, but if it is too big for that then government has to be involved.

But it isn't just the homeless. What of those who may have a roof over their head, thanks to family, or because they have a subsistence level job- just enough to pay for an apartment (though heating it this year may be problematical)? With the last round of budget cuts they may not be there very much longer. Katrina exposed the poverty that is present in many inner cities. People may even be homeowners, of an old house that has been in the family for years, but without decent jobs, that is about all they have. We have to tackle this with a mixture of strategies. And it has to be done on a large scale-- Giving a poor person a sandwich will work on an individual scale, but it will require a significant investment of federal funds to actually solve the underlying problem, and will have to include funds for economic development and employment training (if Republicans really believed their old saw about 'give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach him to fish, feed him for a lifetime' they wouldn't be so quick to cut funds for job training programs.)

There are, of course, people with serious drug problems. We have to rethink our strategy towards drugs, and focus less on prison (where about half of prisoners are there due to drug offenses, and it still runs rampant in society) to more effective solutions-- ranging from simple common sense (like the Oklahoma law that requires that cold tablets that are the precursor to meth be stored in a locked cabinet and signed for in small amounts at a time) to more controversial but perhaps overdue solutions like the legalization of marijuana so we can focus our resources on 1) preventing the manufacture, sale and transport of harder drugs and 2) education towards young people about drugs (and alcohol) as we have with tobacco (and we need to be specific-- every time there is a new drug, those who push it claim it is 'safe,' which is invariably a lie). And we have to include education about alcohol. In my own community (which is a dry town) we don't have a problem with alcoholic vagrants, but drive ten miles or twenty miles away (depends which direction you are going) you will find many, many of them sleeping on sidewalks, panhandling people in parking lots and in convenience stores spending whatever they have panhandled on large bottles of liquor. Now, I don't believe that education in schools about the effects of alcohol, similar to what we do with tobacco, will solve this problem by itself (most of them are adults well out of school anyway) but we have to look at funding alcohol intervention programs and make AA and other programs more readily available. Funding these programs with taxes on marijuana and increased taxes on alcohol would mean that we wouldn't have to go into debt to do it. Additionally, we should look at alcohol abuse (as opposed to use) in homes as seriously as we look at drug abuse, so that children of adult alcoholics are given special attention and counseling to prevent them from continuing the cycle. The rampage yesterday by black men in suits this week at an Oakland liquor store may not be a method I agree with, but their frustration over what alcohol is doing in their community (and it is doing the same to native American communities) has to be addressed. We know that Prohibition won't work, but giving people effective alternatives now and hope for a better future is one of the best weapons we do have.

Another group that we often overlook are former convicts. Now, I have no problem with tough sentencing laws, but once someone has served their sentence, if we continue to punish and make life difficult for them (I blogged on this on October 15) by slashing funding for rehabilitation programs and transition programs, making it difficult for them to obtain employment and denying them their basic rights of citizenship, aren't we in effect pushing them towards the one avenue of making a living--crime-- that they don't need special training or a resume to go back to? The worst that happens to them in that case is that they go back to prison, but since they have food and a roof in prison, it is better in some ways than unemployment.

Now we have by now a great number of those who we seem to ignore as a society. But they are always with us, and a measure in the end of what kind of a society we are is how we treat all of these people.

Any excuse will be good enough, let's get out now.

Today, the President's radio address said that we need to stay in Iraq because of the 2,100 casualties we have sustained. That is the worst reason yet. If they were sent there chasing WMD's that didn't exist, and are now fighting terrorists who wouldn't be there if we hadn't invaded the country, and we have helped Iran establish the fundamentalist Islamic government in Iraq that they fought to create for a decade in the 1980's but failed to create, saying that we need to lose more soldiers because of those who have already died is like sending your horse into quicksand to try and rescue your ox. And as often as the mission has changed, it's hard to know what the 'course' is, but the President insists we have to 'stay it' anyway, whatever it is.

And there is, in fact, some good news from Iraq today. According to breaking news, apparently US forces killed al-Zarqawi's number 2 during a raid in Iraq last month.

Now, this is a good thing. Zarqawi and the rest of his organization are murdering thugs and anytime our soldiers are successful against them, that is a good thing (although, like Patrick McGoohan's character in the 1960's show, 'prisoner,' it seems that we have now captured or killed at least a half dozen 'number 2's' and one wonders how many number 2's we will go through before we get to number 1).

Now, hopefully we will soon get Zarqawi or have an elected government or achieve someother kind of a success so that President Bush can declare victory and GET OUT ! It is accurate to point out that had we not invaded Iraq in the first place, no one would ever have heard of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the organization he put together would not exist at all, nor would all the people they have recruited in Iraq (as I pointed out a few days ago). Our presence there helps them as much as it hinders them, so the sooner the President sees this and finds an excuse to leave (and any excuse is good enough) the better.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Another price for not having a national healthcare plan

Last week, General Motors Corporation announced massive layoffs and restructuring, with its intention to close or significantly downsize seventeen plants (fourteen in the United States) and lay off over 30,000 workers. GM cited a slump in sales combined with the rapidly increasing cost of providing healthcare under a union negotiated contract for employees and their families, as well as the cost of the company pension fund which pays retirees under another union negotiated contract.

Critics on both the right and the left have missed the point though.

Critics on the left have criticized GM for stupid planning. Even as late as this fall, as fuel prices soared and GM sales, particularly of SUV's, fell through the floor, GM executives were talking at trade shows about building bigger SUV's. They can't take a hint from the fact that Toyota sales have skyrocketed during the same time period. Toyota, with some justification, is considered to build more fuel efficient vehicles. Now, this is somewhat of an exaggeration as well, since Toyotas are definitely better than comparable American cars for fuel mileage, but not by a huge amount, and Toyota is still building its own mammoth gas guzzling SUV, the Sequoia. Toyota executives read the changing market much better though and began cutting back on production of the Sequoia last year and produced more of their smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. Toyota also has a well deserved reputation for quality (which I can attest to, having owned two Toyotas which I collectively drove for nearly half a million miles). However, of American cars, GM vehicles hold their own in quality compared to Fords and Chryslers, and again aren't that far below Toyotas. So while these criticisms of GM are justified, there is something more.

Critics on the right are quick to point fingers at the union contracts negotiated between GM and the United Auto Workers (UAW), and claim that the union contracts tied GM's hands, cost it billions of dollars at a time when GM could ill afford the expense, and have forced it to make this decision. And it is true, that under the terms of the contracts, even when they do close the plants, part of the contract says that GM will still continue to pay the laid off workers a large portion of their salaries. And it is true that health care costs have risen as much for GM workers as they have nationally, at a double digit rate of increase yearly for over a decade. At the same time, the UAW is right to point out that they have worked with GM on this problem. In fact, only two weeks ago, UAW workers ratified a contract over health care benefits that involved substantial givebacks (especially in the area of retiree healthcare). The union negotiated this in good faith with the belief it would protect the jobs of workers, and it is hard to believe that GM (which will now benefit from the newly ratified agreement even while it closes the plants) didn't know two weeks ago what they knew one week ago about the financial problems that would lead them to make this week's announcement. Quite plainly, GM knew they were going to shut the plants down anyway and they negotiated this contract in bad faith. Also, the UAW is right to criticize the 'golden parachute' payments given to executives when they are cutting employee benefits. For example, GM's major parts supplier, Delphi, recently declared bankrupcty in order to try and end their employee pension plan and spend the money that has been deposited into it to pay creditors (which worked for United Airlines, so now everyone is trying to do it). But before filing bankrupcty, Delphi found the money to pay some of its top executives millions of dollars in bonuses.

So if the left doesn't have the whole story, and the right doesn't have the whole story, then why IS General Motors in such dire straights, especially compared to foreign auto makers (not just Toyota)? For that matter, Ford is limping along as well, hamstrung in similar ways, and Chrysler has had a mild resurgence, and that only since being absorbed by Daimler-Benz, a German company.

It doesn't take a big look to figure that out. Remember back about fifteen years ago when the complaint was that foreign governments were 'subsidizing' their auto manufacturers? At the time, people were using it as an excuse for everything from tariffs to taking a hard line in union negotiations. Well, it turns out that the 'subsidies' that these people were talking about were 1) the national health care systems in those countries (meaning that employers there don't have to provide health insurance), and 2) the national retirement systems there (unlike Social Security, the retirement systems in many industrialized countries is designed to directly pay retirees 100% of their retirement benefits, meaning there is no corporate pension plan). True, companies make contributions towards both the national health plan and the national retirement plan. But with other countries much more successful with their regulated approach than we have been with our 'laissez-faire' approach to holding down healthcare costs, (as reflected in the link, we spent 15.3% of our GDP on health care in 2003 with a high rate of growth, while countries with national health care systems spend 10% or less with low growth rates) the total in taxes they pay for this is far less than what employers and workers collectively pay in America (plus we still pay taxes for Medicare and Medicaid, to cover a couple of high risk groups which in those countries are just part of the same system as everyone else). Those who exclusively blame either GM management OR the unions (or even both together) are missing the point, that they are fighting over how to allocate costs that their competition, simply put, doesn't have to pay. I read somewhere that health care costs add $1,500 to the price of every new GM vehicle (that may or may not be an accurate number, but the point is made). Manufacturers in other industrialized countries have to deal with unions, too, but negotiations are a lot simpler if health care and retirement aren't even on the table to be negotiated. Plus, they don't have to hire anyone to administer the plans. So, if GM prices its vehicles competitively with other manufacturers who make their vehicles elsewhere, then that is money that comes directly out of their profit margin when they do sell a vehicle.

What this means, is that American corporations are at a competitive disadvantage precisely because we DON'T have a national health care system. And corporate pension plans, as we now see, have become simply sand castles, to be built up and then washed away when a big wave of red ink hits. And until we figure this out, then it is certain that we will continue to lose sales to foreign competitors (to say nothing of jobs; GM and other companies have moved some factories to Canada, Korea and other countries where they get to take advantage of those countries national healthcare systems-- and their American plants took the brunt of GM's announcment last week; No operations outside of North America were impacted, and the impact in Canada was limited to the effects that the Oshawa #1 plant will be reduced from three shifts to two in 2006 and the Oshawa #2 plant will cease production two years later, as well as a parts manufacturer in St. Catherines).

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Things to be Thankful For.

On this Thanksgiving day, it is appropriate to step back from the daily partisan battles and remember some of the things that we can all be thankful for.

I am thankful for this earth. Whatever disagreements we all may have about how we are treating it, or how best to manage its resources, it is a miracle in itself, and I am grateful to live in such a wonderful place.

I am thankful for the United States of America. Although I have been very critical of some of the decisions made by our leaders, let's remember that because of the better nation that the Founding Fathers created, I have that right, and this blog can criticize the government all we want, and still be here. And whatever differences we may have about immigration, we can all be grateful that we still live in a nation where people still want to come to, instead of one they want to leave.

I am thankful for the Constitution of the United States of America. The founding fathers could not have foreseen every possible circumstance of life today, but it remains an inspired document that serves as a strong and firm foundation for our Republic. I am thankful that the founding fathers recognized that changing circumstances would require it to be amended from time to time and included a process for doing that.

I am thankful for the right to choose our leaders. Even when people choose leaders I may not personally agree with, I am grateful for the right to vote, and for the fact that we undergo a peaceful transition of power on a regular basis, and don't need to worry about gunmen battling it out in the street about who will lead what part of the land.

I am thankful that I have the right to go to my church on Sunday, but also that no one forces me to or penalizes me if I don't.

I am thankful for my wife.

I am thankful for my family. I love them all dearly, and I am thankful I don't live in a nation where children are taken away from their parents without cause.

I am thankful that my children (all girls) have the right to attend kindergarten, elementary school and high school.

I am thankful for the internet. This wonderful 'information superhighway' (to cop the term that Al Gore used in 1992) means that no matter how much control a few people get over the broadcast media, no one can competely prevent any story from getting out there.

I am thankful for the American people. Whatever our failings as a people and whatever the failings of our elected leaders, I have found that, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed during his travels through America when it was still a young nation, the American people are collectively the most generous in the world. I have lived in New Mexico, Montana, Texas and Arizona, and I have met some really wonderful people in all of those places.

I am thankful for these gifts and many others I have gotten from God. And, I am grateful that He shares them even with people who don't believe in him.

There are a lot of things to be thankful for.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Jose Padilla charged with conspiracy, aiding terrorists.

So this week, after holding him for three years with no charges being filed, the Government finally filed charges against Jose Padilla (I would say, 'dirty bomb' suspect Jose Padilla, but none of the charges involves conspiring to use a 'dirty bomb,' a conventional bomb surrounded by radioactive materials designed to spread radiation.) The charges were conspiracy to commit murder and other crimes overseas, and providing material support to terrorists and conspiracy. If he is convicted on all counts, he could get life in prison.

Now, if Mr. Padilla is guilty of these charges, then he certainly needs to be put in prison for life.

But the issue regarding Mr. Padilla is not what he may have done or may not have done-- that will come out in court. The issue is that now, three years later, they file charges. The issue is that now that they have set a precedent that a U.S. citizen (as he is) can be held indefinitely with no charges being filed, who will be the next person held indefinitely. And based on what evidence.

I blogged about this on September 9, after Judge Michael Luttig had reversed a lower court decision and allowed the government to continue to hold Padilla indefinitely without filing charges.

At the time, I quoted Mr. Padilla's laywer, who succinctly summed up what the ruling meant:

Padilla's lawyer, Andrew Patel, responded by saying, "It's a matter of how paranoid you are... What it could mean is that the president conceivably could sign a piece of paper when he has hearsay information that somebody has done something he doesn't like and send them to jail — without a hearing (or) a trial."

This also brings up a couple of questions:

1. What happened to the 'dirty bomb' charge, the one which was used to scare everyone into supporting holding Mr. Padilla indefinitely? Apparently, there was not enough evidence to charge him with that one. So, they held him for three years, claiming he was planning something there was not enough evidence to file charges with. If lack of evidence is good enough, then in theory all it becomes necessary to do is to accuse someone of a crime, and then arrest them and hold them for years.

2. Why now? After all, Judge Luttig overturned the lower court ruling and ruled in the administration's favor, so for the moment they don't have to file anything. True, but perhaps that is why now. The precedent has been set, and since Mr. Padilla's lawyer had indicated that he was planning to appeal all the way up to the Supreme Court, which would be problematical (and a Supreme Court decision that went against them would permanently prevent them from doing this), so perhaps George Bush and Alberto Gonzales simply decided to call the game while they are ahead.

And of course, IF it turns out that Mr. Padilla is not guilty of what he is charged with, then the Bush admistration will face some very hard questions.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Hugo Claus in Massachusetts

It looks like people facing high heating bills in the state of Massachusetts will not have to pay so much this winter, courtesy of a humanitarian gesture by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has often been critical of the Bush administration.

Citgo Petroleum Corp., a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company, will supply oil at 40 percent below market prices.

It will be distributed by two nonprofit organizations, Citizens Energy Corp. and the Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance.

The agreement gives President Hugo Chavez's government standing as a provider of heating assistance to poor U.S. residents at a time when U.S. oil companies have been reluctant to do so and Congress has failed to expand aid in response to rising oil prices.

U.S. Rep. William Delahunt of Massachusetts, a Democrat, met with Chavez in August and helped broker the deal.

He said his constituents' needs for heating assistance trump any political points the Chavez administration can score.

If you are poor and are looking at an explosively higher heating bill this winter, then you probably will be happy to pay less, no matter who is helping with the bill. And it isn't even like Chavez won't make money; he is simply cutting out the middleman and selling directly to the two nonprofits who will be distributing the oil, and 40 percent below market price this winter is still comparable to full price last winter.

Chavez proposed offering fuel directly to poor U.S. communities during a visit to Cuba in August.

He has said the aim is to bypass middlemen to reduce costs for the American poor -- a group he argues has been severely neglected by Bush's government.

Chavez has become one of Latin America's most vocal critics of U.S.-style capitalism, which he calls a major cause of poverty.

Keep in mind, that Chavez is the democratically elected leader of his country, and then when a recall election was attempted in the middle of his term, he won that by an overwhelming margin. So, the protestations of Washington that he is essentially a dictator are absolutely false.

The biggest story here is that after five years of the Bush administration, the poor in America are in the position where they need foreign aid just to survive.

Texas executed an innocent man.

An article out today says that Texas apparenly executed an innocent man in 1994.

Ruben Cantu was 17 in 1984 when he was charged with capital murder in the fatal shooting of a man during an attempted robbery in San Antonio. The victim was shot nine times with a rifle before the gunman unloaded more rounds into the only eyewitness.

The eyewitness, Juan Moreno, told the Chronicle that it wasn't Cantu who shot him. Moreno said he identified Cantu as the killer during his 1985 trial because he felt pressured and was afraid of authorities....

Meanwhile, Cantu's co-defendant, David Garza, recently signed a sworn affidavit saying he allowed his friend to be accused, even though Cantu wasn't with him the night of the killing.

Cantu was executed at age 26. He had long professed his innocence.

"Part of me died when he died," said Garza, who was 15 at the time of the murder. "You've got a 17-year-old who went to his grave for something he did not do. Texas murdered an innocent person."

Miriam Ward, forewoman of the jury that convicted Cantu, said the panel's decision was the best they could do based on the information presented during the trial.

"With a little extra work, a little extra effort, maybe we'd have gotten the right information," Ward said. "The bottom line is, an innocent person was put to death for it. We all have our finger in that."

Sam D. Millsap Jr., then the Bexar County district attorney who decided to charge Cantu with capital murder, told the newspaper he never should have sought the death penalty in a case based on testimony from an eyewitness who identified a suspect only after police showed him Cantu's photo three separate times.

Now, this is not the first time that there is evidence of the execution of an innocent man in the United States. Joseph O'Dell was executed by the state of Virginia for the rape and murder of a woman, even though subsequently, DNA taken from semen in the woman was identified as not being from O'Dell, and the only witness against him, a jailhouse snitched named Steven Tucker, recanted his testimony and signed a sworn affidavit saying that he had made up the whole story of O'Dell's 'confession.' O'Dell, who is buried in Italy as a sort of an international memorial against the death penalty, again stated for the record his innocence immediately before being executed.

Additionally, there is a long list of people who have been sent to death row and later exhonerated. The state of Illinois exhonerated (as opposed to overturned on a technicality) thirteen men, including Anthony Porter, who was at one time only two hours away from execution, who was set free after a class of Northwestern University Law students found and obtained a confession from the real murderer. Others were exhonerated because of DNA or other exculpatory evidence. Since the total population of death row in that state was around 250, this represented about five percent of all death sentences in Illinois (prompting that state's governor to place a moratorium on executions in 2001). Of course, Illinois is the home to a very active group of legal experts who have thorougly examined every case, which other states do not have.

Now, I oppose the death penalty, but not for the same reasons as many death penalty opponents. If it was handled in a foolproof manner, and if it was decided in a way that one's income (and therefore ability to hire a better lawyer) played no part in it, I wouldn't have a problem with it conceptually.

However, That is not the case. We have certainly seen that it is sometimes (and all too often, IMO) given falsely.

Further, in our system of justice, we have seen that a person's ability to pay for better lawyers often has more to do with whether they are found guilty of a crime than the evidence does (and while there are some very fine and dedicated public defenders, it is also true that lawyers who are incompetent, lazy or just plain chronic losers and don't find work at law firms, often end up as public defenders because it is the only job they can get). On one extreme, you have the O.J. Simpsons, the Robert Blakes and the Michael Jacksons, who have a ton of money, and even if convicted won't get the death penalty or probably much jail time at all. On the other extreme, you have destitute people, who get a lawyer not of their choosing, and often an overworked and underpaid public defender. So, not surprisingly, a disproportionate share of death sentences go to poor people. And, not surprisingly, it turns out that some of them are innocent. As we have seen in all too many cases, evidence is withheld, people are coerced (as happened with the eyewitness in this case), and people who have a financial incentive to do so, do whatever it takes to win, even if it is to break the rules. Now, I'm not suggesting that defense attorneys don't do the same thing-- they certainly do, nor that the majority of people on death row shouldn't be there-- in most cases, they are guilty as sin. But I am suggesting that not ALL of those there are guilty, and that there is now evidence that the number of innocents is uncomfortably high.

The criminal justice system is in need of a serious overhaul. And faulty as it is, I don't consider it to be good enough to decide whether to kill people. So, a much better sentence in such a faulty system would be life without parole-- which could then be revoked much more easily if exculpatory evidence comes forward.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Fighting fire with butane

Last week, three suicide bombers blew themselves up in hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing about sixty people. While tragic, this is hardly a new event in the middle east, where suicide bombers seem to strike somewhere on almost a daily basis. What is new, however, is the nationality of the bombers. They were all Iraqi nationals.

Now, in the past, Iraqi nationals have not become terrorists. Of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers, twelve were Saudis, and the other seven were from other middle eastern countries-- but none from Iraq. Other al-Qaeda operations have featured Yemenis, Egyptians and North Africans. Other Islamic terrorists have included Chechens, Palestinians and others-- but Iraqis were conspicuously absent from stories about terrorist attacks in past years.

One reason why in past years there were no international terrorists from Iraq was frankly, Saddam Hussein. His brutal but secular regime cracked down hard on the kind of fundamentalist fanaticism that breeds terrorists.

But this is the new Iraq.

A January CIA report concluded that

"Iraq has replaced Afghanistan" as the training ground for the next generation of 'professionalized' terrorists, according to a report released yesterday by the National Intelligence Council, the CIA director's think tank.

Iraq provides terrorists with "a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills," said David B. Low, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats. "There is even, under the best scenario, over time, the likelihood that some of the jihadists who are not killed there will, in a sense, go home, wherever home is, and will therefore disperse to various other countries."

Since we have about eight times as many troops in Iraq as we do in Afghanistan, it seems that far from stamping out training ground, our army seems to create it. The reason is obvious. We have over 100,000 troops primarily as an occupation force (meaning that they are mostly defending and the terrorists can decide when, where, how and whether to attack). And, now it is clear that Iraq is also a prime recruiting ground.

We have heard and read a great deal about the position the past few days of Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA), a former marine colonel who was decorated in Vietnam and who had supported the war early on. But perhaps we should listen to his words:

Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency, he said, in listing one of his main reasons for the switch.

And let's consider the reason why President Bush himself has said we have to stay there: He says that Iraq has become the main front of the war on terrorism.

He may be right, at that. Certainly, terrorists have been crossing into Iraq. But two things to consider are that 1) It was George Bush, not Osama bin Laden or other terrorists who decided to light that fuse (what did he think-- we were going to send thousands of American troops to invade a muslim country and create a vacuum, and the terrorists wouldn't come?), and 2) with their successes in recruiting and training terrorists (so that, for example, there are plenty who now have enough experience that they could take the place of Zarqawi if he is killed or captured, something that wasn't true two years ago) our army seems to be serving more as fuel for the insurgency than to extinguish it. If, in fact, as conservatives sometimes claim, we attacked Iraq as a part of the war on terrorism, then we have failed spectacularly on that account. We seem to be making more terrorists there than we get rid of.

The Bush policy instead, seems to be like a fire crew arriving at the scene of a fire with a tanker full of butane to spray on it.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

A cut for you, a raise for your Congressman.

Last night, as part of the budget cut package, members of Congress voted themselves a $3,100 pay raise. This will raise their annual salary to over $165,000 per year.

Now, I think the overall pay of a Congressman is fair for the job they are expected to do (although, as I blogged on September 30, one of the most disturbing trends that has developed during the Bush administration is that they are no longer writing legislation, with pre-packaged bills put together by corporate lobbyists now being simply delivered to Capitol Hill and voted on as written.)

However, to include a pay raise for themselves in a package in which they are cutting farm subsidies, student loans (at a time when tuition at universities has shot up by as much as twenty-five percent over the past four years to compensate for other federal and state budget cuts) and other social programs shows how out of touch they are. Obviously, members of Congress rarely have to choose between whether to feed their children dinner or prevent the heat from being turned off, but they have no problem giving this dilemma to others while voting themselves a raise.

And for that matter, the Republican leadership in Congress was willing to make cuts in health care (in the bill that was defeated yesterday), while enjoying the finest healthcare in the world for themselves and their families-- all paid for by the Government. And if Social Security goes bankrupt, well that won't affect them, since they have a separate (and much better) retirement system-- funded by Social Security tax dollars.

For opponents of socialism, they don't seem to have a problem with a miniature socialist system set up for themselves. Of course, opponents of socialism always say that it induces laziness and low quality of work. Well, if you followed the link above to my September 30 post, there is also that-- they get a guaranteed paycheck, universal healthcare, and a very cushy, guaranteed retirement, all for not doing their jobs.

Of Pride and Penitance

On Friday, Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA), one of the most hawkish Democrats, put forward a resolution calling for the redeployment of troops now in Iraq 'as soon as practicable.' In an interview on MSNBC, Rep. Murtha, who has a long record of supporting the Pentagon, said that the continually changing mission and lack of a clear plan has been hurting morale. Rep. Murtha, a former marine colonel who served his country for thirty-seven years, fighting in Korea and in Vietnam while earning a bronze star and two purple hearts, certainly is qualified to know what he is talking about on the issue.

Now, it is entirely possible that many Republicans might disagree with this position. If so, this could have been an opportunity to discuss and come to a conclusion on whether to continue to allow the President to set the course in Iraq or whether Congress should intervene and require an explanation of the mission there.

However, instead of this, Republicans, led by one of the top blowhards in Congress, J.D. Hayworth, R-AZ (who used to be my Congressman until redistricting moved him back down into an exclusively Maricopa county district), chose to demogogue the issue. Instead of voting on Rep. Murtha's proposal as he stated it, they offered a substitute by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-CA, which called for immediate withdrawal (as in immediate, just drop everything and get on an airplane and leave right now). Now, even those who oppose the war can see why this would not be the way to leave, and any redeployment must be done in an orderly manner with Iraqi army units given time to replace American forces and assume their duties. Hence the language in Rep. Murtha's original bill.

And it should be noted (especially in the context of what the debate degenerated into), that it was courageous politically of him to come forward and publically declare that he was wrong to have so vocally supported the war at the outset. It would have been much easier for him politically to simply sit back and let others, who perhaps had been against the war early on, lead the fight. But he did not, and it takes a certain amount of character to change your position as publically as he did and admit to having made a mistake.

But the language that was put forward instead essentially was of the 'do you still beat your wife?' tenor. It was designed to gain political points only. And, any congressional Democrat who objects to the war in the future, but voted against the resolution calling for immediate withdrawal as irresponsible, will probably be brought up as having voted for keeping the troops there. There is no in between with these guys (a planned, organized and 'staged withdrawal' not having entered into their lexicon).

That is, unfortunately, how the GOP often operates. Demogogue instead of debate, and use personal attacks to avoid discussing the real issues. The lowlight of the evening came when Rep. Jean Schmidt, the newest Republican in the house, having been elected a month ago in a special election, called Rep. Murtha by name, a 'coward.' Since Rep. Schmidt, a jogger, has probably had to dodge a couple of dogs, I guess she figures that gives her the right to lecture Jack Murtha about courage and cowardice.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Budging the budget.

Credit to Jen at Donkey O.D.

Looks like a mixed verdict.

Yesterday I blogged on the spending and budget cutting bills that were being set up as a platform for more tax cuts.

Today, a solid Democratic party, with no defections, banded together with twenty-two moderate Republicans to defeat a spending bill which included cuts in health, education and social services.

On the other hand, in the wee hours of the morning, the house passed a package of cuts involving farm subsidies, food stamps, medicare and student loans.

From the first article:

Democrats, unanimous in opposing the legislation, said it included the first cut in education funding in a decade and slashed spending for several health care programs. "It betrays our nation's values and its future," said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland. "It is neither compassionate, conservative nor wise."

Still up in the air is a $70 billion tax cut bill. But with the defeat of the house leadership on the first bill, it makes the tax cut bill more problematical.

What is remarkable is that the first vote (which was 224-209 against) represented the first time since Republicans assumed control of Congress in 1995 that their own leadership was unable to gain a majority on a major spending bill. In addition, according to the second article, they had to hold voting open for twenty-five minutes longer than is allowed under house rules until they could twist enough arms to squeak it through by a two vote margin and then close voting at exactly that moment when they were ahead (a congressional rules violation that Tom DeLay has made a routine procedure over the past few years, and which Roy Blunt seems to be following along with).

Sounds like people are getting a bit tired of budget cuts which use the deficit as an excuse, followed by tax cuts which drive the deficit back up again.

Iraq is the reason we won't invade Iran, and why we shouldn't anyway.

Today, Russia's Vladimir Putin became the latest world leader give President Bush a polite, 'no' to the possibility of action against Iran.

Of course, with more and more evidence (and in this case, including direct and open claims by Iran itself to having centrifuges and other potential weapons components dispersed throughout the country) that Iran is working towards the development of nuclear weapons, one might ask why this muted response to the administration?

The answer is clear enough.

First, we right now don't have the military capability to mount an invasion of Iran. Given our inability to control Iraq, and the large number of troops tied up in that effort, it is ludicrous to think that we could begin a war against an opponent with twice the population and three times the land area of Iraq, and which had not been weakened by the 1991 Gulf War, a decade of 'no-fly' zones and much more restrictive sanctions than the token ones that the international community has on Iran. Sure, we could certainly bomb the heck out of them, but that is all. And it is likely that they have made a calculated gamble that they could survive a bombing campaign. We did have the capability to invade and occupy a country like Iran four years ago, but it has been squandered by using it up in a poorly planned war that seems to be going nowhere. American forces no longer have the aura of invincibility that they did a few years ago, and potential enemies like the Iranians know it. So do potential allies.

Second, the Iranians have learned that the way to confront the United States is with bluster and playing chicken. Saddam Hussein tried to weasel his way out, and gave in and let the inspectors back in, and got invaded anyway. The North Koreans have gotten more and more belligerent at every turn, and it's worked in keeping them safe. The lesson has not been lost on Iran.

Third, President Bush made a speech describing Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the 'axis of evil' and subsequently invaded Iraq. Those who think this happened in a vacuum are foolish, and it is not hard to understand that Iran is doing what any nation threatened militarily by a large and powerful opponent has always done-- build a deterrent. And nuclear weapons are a pretty good deterrent, given that no nation armed with them has ever been invaded by another country.

Fourth, given the losses, both in personnel and in their own people's public opinion that some of those governments who supported the Iraqi invasion have suffered as a result (in fact, half of our original 'coalition' of forty-one nations that President Bush alluded to during our original invasion of Iraq, have since abandoned the mission), as well as the ill will that the Bush policy of rigid and inflexible dogma on everything from treatment of prisoners to global warming has fostered all over the world, it is certain that any American invasion of Iran would be a 'go it alone' effort. Other nations might play cheerleader, but that would be the extent of their support.

But some would ask, aren't the Iranians a threat if they get nukes? Didn't Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently call for the complete destruction of Israel?

Sure, they are a threat with (or without) nukes, just as the Soviet Union was a threat during the Cold War. But history teaches us that we can survive a nuclear armed opponent. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't still make an effort to make it as difficult as possible for them to get, but the fact is that 1) the nuclear genie has long since left the station and the idea that we can prevent others from acquiring technology that we developed sixty years ago is naive to the point of being ridiculous, and 2) Iran is in no position politically to start a war even if they do develop nukes. Iran is not a one-man dictatorship. A group of aging mullahs call the shots there (just ask former President Mohammad Khatami, a popularly elected reformer who was frustrated in his reforms by the theocracy at every turn). They have to deal with a population, the majority of which is under thirty, and has no memory of the revolution or of Ayatollah Khomeini. These people are increasingly unhappy with the strictures of an Islamic society and keeping them placated becomes harder and harder even as their numbers grow. So, the mullahs have plenty of problems to confront internally. Of course they have a foreign policy, but no one has suggested that they are actually insane enough to start a nuclear war (remember M.A.D.--mutually assured destruction-- during the Cold War?) Israel has around 200-300 nuclear weapons according to most estimates, and the United States has many times as much, so even if the Iranians develop a few, they can count well enough to know that actually using them would result in the destruction of Iran. A policy of constructive engagement, which eventually brought down the Iron Curtain in a wave of consumerism and desire for freedom, would be a much better path to pursue with Iran.

As to Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, we have to keep in mind the context. Right now, the middle east is in political turmoil. Iran is a major player in middle eastern politics and has benefitted more than anyone else from the ouster of Saddam, but they want to parlay this gain into becoming the single dominant regional power. And one sure fire way to gain political points across the region is to take a hard line against Israel. The real victims of this are the Palestinians, who have at times placed their hopes and dreams on Krushchev, Nasser, Qaddafy, Assad, Saddam, and any number of other tough talking strongmen throwing their weight around in the middle east. Invariably these hopes and dreams are dashed, and they end up worse off for betting on some swaggering savior instead of negotiations with Israel. It seems that Ahmadinejad is playing the same game, and hopefully the Palestinians will not be so gullible this time around. But only a madman would invite a nuclear war, and for all of his hardline rhetoric and the hardline stance of the mullahs, they do not strike me as madmen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Why did we go into Iraq, again?

So, conditions at a detention facility run by the Iraqi Interior Ministry were so bad that the people found there by US forces during Sunday's raid looked like Holocaust survivors.

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Conditions — including the use of torture — at a secret Baghdad detention facility run by the Iraqi Interior ministry were so “horrific” that some of the scores of men held there looked “like Holocaust survivors” when they were found, sources in the Iraqi government told NBC News on Wednesday.

Reporting from Baghdad, NBC News correspondent Mike Boettcher on Wednesday said sources close to the investigation of the facility told him that photos of the detainees show “people covered in welts from torture. They show torture devices. They show men so emaciated they look like Holocaust survivors.”

Iraq’s deputy minister of the interior, in whose headquarters building the secret prison was found by U.S. forces Sunday, told Boettcher that “he had never seen anything like this in his life.”

I guess we now know who is the successor to the Saddam Hussein official who denied that US tanks were in Baghdad when they were driving down the street behind him. It is the current deputy interior minister who claims that he has never seen anything in his life like what was going on inside his own headquarters.

And these are supposed to be the 'good guys,' the democratically elected Iraqi government we installed.

I will commend the American forces for conducting this raid, although it was certainly no secret in Iraq what was happening, and charges that this was happening have been around the internet for months.

True, the people doing the torturing include some who were tortured under Saddam, and some of the victims were those who were torturers then. What this points out though, is something my father (who lived for several years in Syria and Lebanon as a child) could have told them anyway (if he was still around to say it): The middle east is an incredibly complex place that is full of intense personal, family, religious, tribal and ethnic vendettas that in some cases date back literally to the beginning of civilization. The idea that we are somehow going to just make them all get along with each other and live in a peaceful democracy is a pipe dream.

What we do see though is this: 1) there is torture being conducted by the government in Iraq now, just as there was three years ago. 2) there are no WMD's now, just as there were none three years ago. 3) there are terrorists in Iraq now, far more than there were three years ago.

So, remind me again... why are we there?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

These budget cuts are not deficit reduction, they are to fund more tax cuts and raise the deficit some more

We have been reading daily about the mighty struggles among the House GOP to figure out a way to cut $50 billion from the budget.

In fact, in light of the looming budget deficit crisis (Today's USA Today, while off on some specifics, was pretty much on target in predicting that our continued growing deficits would sooner or later implode the economy if something isn't done), reigning in spending does make some sense.

However, this is a classical 'bait and switch' routine. The Senate voted to cut $39 billion, and the house is looking at the $50 billion cut, all from social services (thereby targetting in many cases those programs which have already seen deep cuts). Yet none of the cuts involve corporate welfare. NONE. I blogged yesterday on the prescription drug bill which is primarily designed to fatten pharmaceutical companies with our taxes, but as we have seen in the case of, for example, the recent energy bill and 'extras' packed into the anti-terrorism bill, there are many, many companies which are getting pretty full at the public trough. But not a word about cutting any of that.

And what is more, the GOP proposes to follow this sequence of cuts (amounting to about 4% of the projected deficit) with $70 billion in additional tax cuts. You do the math. Obviously cutting a smaller amount that than has nothing to do with the deficit and everything to do with ideology and politics.

Of course, when Clinton was the President and the economy was booming and we had a surplus, Republicans proposed tax cuts as a way to let people share in the wealth. When it was flat, they proposed them to jump start the economy. A few years later, it is in a somewhat volatile recovery (which it was due for anyway) and they are proposing that tax cuts will stabilize the economy. In other words, Republicans have one solution for everything, and they can change their argument to fit whatever the conditions are at the time.

Framing the abortion debate

Last week, former President Carter said that Liberals need to change our approach to abortion. He said that by focusing exclusively on the question of a woman's right to choose, we have essentially ceded the whole argument to the right, and in particular to people who want to ban abortion.

And he is right.

Now I am not in any way discounting the importance of choice. What distinguishes our society from, for example, the Taliban or other Islamic fundamentalist societies, is that people here, and in particular, women, have choices. And the fact is, the worst and most bitter four years in American history were fought over the question of whether a person owned their own body, or if someone else could tell them what to do with it against their will.

However, when we focus exclusively on this and refuse to consider any argument that abortion may be the wrong choice, we essentially are allowing those who want to ban it to define that wrong=ban.
We have also allowed them to define our position as 'pro-abortion,' as if we believe it is a good thing.

And in fact, liberals DO have a plan for fighting abortion. I blogged on this last July. It just doesn't involve banning it. Abortion went down in the 1990's, largely because of the success of sex education, birth control and family planning. I believe that the best way to solve any social ill is through education. As evidence, look at the success we have had (although there is still a long way to go) against the evil of tobacco. We have discouraged young people from smoking, and the national smoking rate is about half of what it was a generation ago. But no one is suggesting banning it.

I had to deal with this in my own family a few years ago. My then fifteen year old daughter became pregnant. We all think that abortion is wrong (for personal and religious reasons) so we all agreed on day one that she wouldn't have one. Now, if she had chosen otherwise, I would have supported her in making that decision, but I am glad she chose not to. And therein is the inherent reality of the situation-- like most Americans, I support keeping it legal, but find it personally troubling and am glad that in the one case where anything I said might have made a difference, the difference was that it did not result in an abortion.

Now, I believe a ban on abortion would be a terrible policy decision, if actually implemented. First, it would not stop abortion any more than abortion was prevented pre-Roe v. Wade. What it would do would be to create a black market. And based on the kinds of people who ran the illegal alcohol trade during prohibition and who run the drug trade today, I think we can reasonably assume that a black market for abortions would 1) create a boom for gangs and organized crime, 2) probably involve unsanitary, dangerous places, possibly in the same places as you find meth labs, and 3) result in the death, disease or permanent injury to many thousands of women (just as it did in the 1960's and earlier).

The fact is, most Americans believe that killing a fetus is wrong, but they don't want to ban it. Because we on the left have focused on the latter and kept our argument focused almost obsessively on a single line of debate, we have allowed the right to seize the initiative on this issue and define it in black and white terms in which they are slowly using the natural discomfort most people feel about abortion to push them towards the idea that it should be illegal.

And ironically, this should be a winnable argument for us. To acknowledge that abortion is a bad thing which we have a plan to fight (see my July post) in no way compromises the choice argument. I can support your legal right to drink, smoke, engage in risky sexual activity, gamble and engage in all manner of what might be considered societal ills, but still work to get rid of them at a societal level by means other than banning them. And so too, with abortion.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A Turkey Stuffed with Prescription Pills.

The President used his radio address this week to urge seniors to sign up for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

The problem is, that the plan, written by representatives of the pharmaceutical industry and delivered to Congress to put the finishing touches only on, and which is a sop to that industry, was written by people who seem to be used to writing a complex series of laws. Seniors in many states have to learn about multi-tier pricing, drug formularies, and then pick through the fine print of as many as thirty competing plans, all while being inundated with commercials, sales pitches and mail from people who want them to choose their particular plan (my mother is one such, and she at least is in full possession of her faculties and still has a sharp mind, which some seniors no longer have).

According to the Arizona Republic the day the President visited El Mirage to plug his plan (August 29, 2005, ironically the day the country was suffering the worst disaster within recent memory while he was at a country club in El Mirage, which he followed up the next day with a trip to a posh resort in San Diego, also to push the drug plan), he will be lucky if even half of eligible seniors even sign up for the plan (as opposed to the original assumption that nearly all would). The number one reason cited for people not signing up: the plan is too confusing.

If I was more conspiratorially minded, I would think that the confusion this is all causing was designed to obscure the fact from the seniors invovled that this is mostly a sop to the pharmaceutical companies, but in fact, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that the people who wrote this were just writing it the same way as if they were writing it to an audience of industry specialists and corporate lawyers, like most of the stuff they write.

And the biggest irony: Some conservatives (notably Republic columnist Robert Robb) have touted the fact that the plan is now considered likely to come in under budget as a measure of its success. Sure. And if you cancelled it completely and no one at all signed up for it, just think of how much more under budget that would be. Only conservatives could take such a resounding failure and spin it into a success.

This bill was a turkey the day it was voted on (which is why Democrats opposed it), it is still a turkey today, and it will be a turkey once it is implemented.

There. Unlike the bill itself, I just described it in short, simple, concise language that leaves no room for confusion.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The President's speech on Iraq.

Today, President Bush went on the rhetorical offensive, suggesting that those who are now insisting that alleged manipulation of prewar intelligence by this administration be investigated, are 1) rewriting history and did not suggest this before the war, and 2) that criticism of the war and how we got into it is damaging to America and is being done purely for political gain.

I would like to respond to both of these charges. In the first case, there were many allegations before the war that the intelligence was faulty or was being either exaggerated or manipulated. While there are numerous examples of this, let the best known one make the case-- whatever one may think of the Plame leak, the fact is, it came in response to Joe Wilson questioning the use of intelligence and charging that it was manipulated in the first place. And he was not a 'lone warrior' in this regard. There were plenty of others. However, this is only a small piece of what is wrong with the President's speech. To wit,

In any case, even if the administration HAD fooled everyone by manipulating intelligence, that would be a complete non-sequitur in terms of the question of whether the growing pile of evidence that it was manipulated should be investigated. To suggest today that because some people may have believed intelligence that was intentionally doctored or at least 'cherry picked' with the goal of producing a pre-determined outcome, that therefore the manipulation of intelligence should not be investigated, would be like deciding that because a bank robber got away during the initial pursuit, the police should not look for him later if they get a tip where he might be hiding. If you did something wrong, then it is still wrong after the fact, whether you were successful at it or not.

And according to the article, it was not long after the President finished speaking before this very question was raised by a Republican-- whose status as a veteran should suggest that he knows what he is talking about.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who is weighing a run for president in 2008, has said he agrees with Democrats who are pressing the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee to move forward with an investigation into whether the administration manipulated intelligence.

“I was probably the main driver on the Republican side because I thought we needed the answers to whether intelligence was misused, intentionally or unintentionally,” Hagel told the Omaha World-Herald in a story published Friday

Which brings us to the second point that the President made in his speech.

“The stakes in the global war on terror are too high and the national interest is too important for politicians to throw out false charges,”

Now, if the charges are false, then come clean and show us they are. As I mentioned before, there is plenty of evidence that they are true-- and it is the right who is in denial.

Consider for example, Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi politician with the proverbial nine lives, who was the darling of the Bush administration before the war, when they quoted his wild and unsubstantiated claims about weapons of mass destruction. Chalabi, a master manipulator who gave us the claim that he 'had seen biological weapons in Iraq with my own eyes' at a time when he was not even in Iraq, and who was also responsible for the claim that Saddam could deploy WMD and use them against neighboring countries within forty-five minutes, has since been exposed as a first class charletan (and there was plenty of evidence of his character at the time, ignored by the Bush administration in their rush to war). He is on the lam from a Jordanian court conviction for defrauding a bank of $28 million, and was a double agent, working for Tehran while he was on the payroll of the U.S. government, where he told the Iranians that we had cracked their military code. But despite Mr. Chalabi's sordid past of lies, wildly inflated claims and what would be considered treason if he were an American or did not have 'diplomatic immunity' (he of course has schmoozed his way into a position of power in the new Iraqi government, guaranteeing that corruption will certainly have a place in the New Iraq), he was a featured guest this week at a forum at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. So, it seems to be the right which is willing to conveniently forget the false intelligence (myself, I believe that Mr. Chalabi should be declared a 'persona non-grata' and never be allowed on American soil again). And AEI isn't just some obscure conservative group; I had the opportunity to attend an AEI workshop a few years ago on healthcare (I paid my own way, and came with a really, really open mind, honestly-- and left being more convinced than ever that conservatives were more interesting in vilifying liberal policies (in that case Medicare and Medicaid) than in producing practical solutions that would work for Americans with an income level in the five figure range. However, the keynote speaker at lunch was Tom DeLay (then the house minority whip), and I met several other policymakers at the workshop. So, if these people aren't even willing to admit the truth yet about Ahmed Chalabi, then any hope that the right will clean up its own house and admit to any mistakes-- or worse-- is hopelessly misplaced.

With this sort of total denial or excusing anything on the right, I would therefore suggest that it is the OBLIGATION of those of us on the left to INSIST that it be examined. This is too important to allow it to be swept neatly under the rug. If we don't insist on a thorough investigation then we are not doing the job of the proverbial 'loyal opposition.' It would be better for everyone if we could have an honest and complete investigation without the need to shut down the Senate to inch it forward, but since the right refuses to do their job on this, we must do ours and continue to press for a full accounting.

If the charges now being brought forward by war opponents are indeed knowingly false as the President is claiming, then I will be the first one to insist that those who are making them should be made to answer. After all, isn't that what they are alleging themselves? Carry out both investigations at the same time, if you will. But we KNOW that what we expected to find in Iraq, we didn't find (and that what we did find there, a guerilla war, we didn't expect), so I would suggest that it is in fact too important to our country NOT to find out what went wrong with our prewar intelligence and its use. And if intelligence was manipulated in order to lead us into an unnecessary war, then there should be safeguards put in place to prevent it from ever happening again.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Dover, PA vs. Darwin update-- NOT!

Credit to Lizzy at Night Bird's Fountain.

I have been reporting on the ongoing trial involving the teaching of 'Intelligent Design' and the decision to do so made by the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania.

Yesterday, the voters in Dover had their say, and they made it known resoundingly, voting out all eight incumbents who had supported integrating Intelligent Design into the curriculum and replacing them with eight challengers who were opposed to it.

DOVER, Pa. - Voters came down hard Tuesday on school board members who backed a statement on intelligent design being read in biology class, ousting eight Republicans and replacing them with Democrats who want the concept stripped from the science curriculum.

The election unfolded amid a landmark federal trial involving the Dover public schools and the question of whether intelligent design promotes the Bible’s view of creation. Eight Dover families sued, saying it violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Dover itself is rural, Republican and a deeply religious community, so if I.D. had any chance of surviving a ballot test, traditional wisdom suggests that this is the kind of place it would happen. But turn that on its head-- if it can't win a ballot test here, then it probably can't win a ballot test anywhere.

And that is a good thing. I live in a community not so different from Dover-- full of good people, where people go to church on Sunday and study the scriptures in their homes with their kids. And that is where children here learn about God-- at home, and in church. Those are the places where my children are learning about God. But I don't expect them to learn biology in their Sunday school class, and I don't expect them to learn religion in their biology class.

And apparently the overwhelming majority of voters in Dover (who crossed party lines at that, to vote for Democrats) agree with me on that.

UPDATE: Apparently Pat Robertson isn't taking this one lying down. He is so angry at the voters of Dover that he is warning that the wrath of God, in the form of some kind of disaster, may rain down upon Dover, and if it does, not to ask God for help.

"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city," Robertson said on his daily television show broadcast from Virginia, "The 700 Club."

Who does Reverend Pat think he is, anyway, telling people not to pray if there is a disaster? Does he think he is God?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Allan Affeldt IS Mayor of Winslow, Arizona.

It's been a great night for Democrats and progressives across the country. Last Tuesday, as I blogged on that night, Colorado voters got rid of TABOR. That was only the first event in a pretty good week.

Of course, you all know about the wins by Democrats in New Jersey (expected) and Virginia (where just a couple of months ago, the Republican, Kilgore had a significant lead, and this weekend the polls showed the Democrat, Tim Kaine up by maybe a point or two). Then President Bush bumbled into Virginia last night to campaign for Kilgore, which convinced last minute undecideds to break towards Kaine. Polls are polls but this one proved that Bush's approval numbers really are bad news (and Virginia is a state he actually won last year).

In New York, Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg provided the only bright spot of night for the GOP, but his 56-41% victory over Freddie Ferrer, who he outspent 8-1, was less than impressive considering he was up by 30 points in recent polls.

Meanwhile, we got some great news here in Arizona. Last month I blogged on Allan Affeldt for mayor of Winslow. Well, the voters in Winslow (where I don't live but work in every day) agreed with me on that and elected Allan in a recall election to fill the rest of the term of Jim Boles. Mayor Boles had eleven years, and on December 1, it will be Allan's turn to lead the city forward.

Dover, PA vs. Darwin update (IV)

This is an ongoing series of posts. The first three were linked to in the most recent, Dover (PA) vs. Darwin update III

The trial has wrapped up over the issue of 'Intelligent Design' should be taught in the public schools in Dover, Pennsylvania. Federal Judge John E. Jones III said he hopes to issue a ruling in January.

Patrick Gillen, a lawyer for the Dover Area School Board, argued that the concept was intended to call attention to "a new, fledgling science movement."

The policy requires students to hear a statement about intelligent design before ninth-grade biology lessons on evolution.

The statement says Charles Darwin's theory is "not a fact," has inexplicable "gaps," and refers students to a textbook for more information.

In fact, the same argument could and has been made by people who advocate for extraterrestrial origins for life, numerology, ESP and the notion that the whole Apollo program was shot in a Hollywood studio.

UFOlogists always claim that theirs is a 'new, fledgling science movement,' and that their pseudo-science is not published in scientific journals because of academic discrimination.

In fact, it is because they have yet to put forward a paper that tests their hypotheses by designing and conducting a rigorous scientific experiment.

The same is true of Intelligent Design advocates, but with a twist-- unlike advocates of UFO's, ESP, or that the world will end on Tuesday, they have the political power to try and legislate science even when the science itself they are trying to legislate is faulty. This is no different than what happened in the year 1910, when the Indiana Legislature tried to legislate the value of pi (you know, that little number that is about 3.14159...) as being 3.2; They came within one vote but lost when someone pointed out how this would certainly cause bridges to collapse all over the state. The fact that they came within one vote is frightening in itself.

And the fact is, that those who are pushing this legislation are not scientists, nor are those who they are convincing to pass the legislation (in this case a school board directive).

Now, I understand that they believe Intelligent Design to be true. In fact, so do I. But neither my nor their belief constitutes science. In following the scientific method, anyone is free to propose a hypothesis based on whatever evidence they can find, but to prove it requires carefully designed experiments or predictions based on the hypothesis that are verified, and in a manner that can be replicated.

And if Evolution is not taught in schools, who suffers for it? Not the school board members. Probably not the teachers (although I would have a problem personally, as a math instructor, if I was directed by a bunch of politicians what to teach in class and how to word it, and particularly so if I knew it was contrary to the established methods of mathematics). Those who suffer will the the students of Dover, Pennsylvania. This year there is a case (now a lawsuit against the University of California in which private schools that had taught creationism were suddenly confronted with the reality that their curriculum was not considered adequate for admission to the University because of deficiencies in the science curriculum, so their students were categorically not being accepted to any of the campuses of U.C. From what I have read about the case, U.C. has all of the needed documentation (including test data) to very likely win this case, and as such the students in these schools, undoubtedly some of them very bright, will suffer. And it is unlikely that any academically rigorous university in Pennsylvania (such as Penn) won't similarly consider a student who has studied in the Dover school system to be deficient in science. Perhaps this is unfair, but the fact is that universities are looking for the best prepared students they can find to master a tough curriculum that builds on what a student should already know when leaving high school. Watering down the standards to accomodate creationism just isn't part of the agenda (but I guess the good news for these students is that they can still go to Bob Jones University).

Monday, November 07, 2005

Word verification

I have reluctantly had to enable the 'word verification' feature on Deep Thought. This has been necessitated by the number of spam robots that seem to have 'discovered' Deep Thought.

I don't like this feature on other blogs, and think it is a nuisance. However, I have had to spend more and more time scooping up spam from old posts, so the time has come to do this. I do support the first amendment, and as such I have let all posts of a different opinion remain up (except for one instance when filthy language was the trigger). However, I do not consider it an infringement on anyone's free speech rights to get rid of posts left by an automated spamming program that is trying to use my blog to sell something.

In justifying torture, Bush's first victim is logic.

In defending his request that the CIA be granted an exemption from the proposed McCain amendment banning the use of torture by American security agencies, President Bush today said that we do not torture terror suspects.

The President's diminishing credibility aside, just apply simple logic here: If we don't torture (and there is no question that we did not do it prior to the 'Gonzalez memo') then why is the administration fighting tooth and nail to prevent the Senate from passing an amendment saying the CIA can't do something the President says they aren't doing anyway?

And why all the coy deceptions then? Why did the Bush administration go so far as to use former Soviet torture camps in eastern Europe to hide the alleged activities that he denies are happening from western eyes? Of course, one has to wonder what the locals in places like Hungary and Romania think about that-- apparently no change from the way the place used to be, just the star is a different color.

And the proposed amendment is hardly a radical plan-- it simply reaffirms that we will abide by the procedures that have been in the army field manual.

As for the argument that has been put forward by proponents of torture, 'look who we're fighting,' I would simply point out that in the nearly century since the United States was a signatory to the Geneva Convention which expressly prohibits the use of torture (and which Zap Albert defined as 'quaint' when he rewrote the rules on torture) we have fought and beaten enemies much more dangerous, deadly and equally as ruthless and fanatical as al-Qaeda, including Nazism, Imperial Japan, and Soviet Communism without the need to change our rules on torture. Are proponents of using it now simply saying that the threat from al-Qaeda is more imminent than the threat we faced from these enemies?

Saturday, November 05, 2005

I told you so, in 2001. Now we are stuck with a bad law that is being abused.

Remember the claims made by supporters of the 'Patriot Act' when it was first pushed through Congress, who claimed that people opposed to the act were paranoid, because it was only intended to make it easier for our government to spy on suspected terrorists? They claimed that if someone was not a terrorist or suspected of some tie to terrorists, there was nothing to worry about.

Well, as many suspected, an investigation by the Washington Post now confirms that those were empty words designed to get through a bill about government control of individuals under the guise of fighting terrorists.

The FBI came calling in Windsor, Conn., this summer with a document marked for delivery by hand. On Matianuk Avenue, across from the tennis courts, two special agents found their man. They gave George Christian the letter, which warned him to tell no one, ever, what it said.

Under the shield and stars of the FBI crest, the letter directed Christian to surrender "all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person" who used a specific computer at a library branch some distance away. Christian, who manages digital records for three dozen Connecticut libraries, said in an affidavit that he configures his system for privacy. But the vendors of the software he operates said their databases can reveal the Web sites that visitors browse, the e-mail accounts they open and the books they borrow....

The Connecticut case affords a rare glimpse of an exponentially growing practice of domestic surveillance under the USA Patriot Act, which marked its fourth anniversary on Oct. 26. "National security letters," created in the 1970s for espionage and terrorism investigations, originated as narrow exceptions in consumer privacy law, enabling the FBI to review in secret the customer records of suspected foreign agents. The Patriot Act, and Bush administration guidelines for its use, transformed those letters by permitting clandestine scrutiny of U.S. residents and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies.

The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources, a hundredfold increase over historic norms. The letters -- one of which can be used to sweep up the records of many people -- are extending the bureau's reach as never before into the telephone calls, correspondence and financial lives of ordinary Americans.

So apparently, now you do not have to be a terrorist, or have anything at all to do with terrorism, but simply be an ordinary American citizen, and the FBI now has the authority to use surveillance methods that should be reserved only for spies and terrorists.

There are many dangers here. First and foremost, it involves the government making it their business to know everyone's private business. As long as there is no reason to suspect that you or I are doing something illegal (and such a search once 'probable cause' has been established has always been allowed), what we do, who we talk to, what we spend our money on, and other details like this are not the government's business.

Second, there is certainly a potential here for the FBI to learn information that could be used for personal or political blackmail, thereby allowing the agency to potentially compromise people who the FBI might find it useful to either manipulate, force out of the picture, or gain complete control over. There is no guarantee that this information won't be used in this manner, and the fact that it is being collected at all makes one think it very well may be (after all, what other use is there for keeping track of internet, phone and bank records for people with no connection to terrorism? And if they have no plans to use this information, why do they want it?)

I do also have to say this (just something I've observed, but I've heard it from enough conservatives that I'm pretty sure a lot of them think this way): As long as Bill Clinton was the President, they railed against increased Federal power (for example, opposing the terrorism bill that was passed after the OKC bombing-- and they were right, most of what was in that bill really didn't make us any safer, it just gave the government more tools to pry into your life.) But somehow, they 'trust' the Bush government to not do what the Washington Post is now reporting it is doing.

And at that, even if they WERE right to 'trust in Bush,' the stupidity and short-sightedness that pervades these conservatives who support giving Bush carte blanche to impose more and more loose interpretations on more and more laws like this is truly amazing. These expansive new laws and policies will be there to be used and abused by every single President in the future. And at least a few of them are sure to be scoundrels, if our history is any guide.

We should take the war on terror seriously, but we already had (pre-Patriot act) the authority to investigate, conduct surveillance and otherwise collect evidence against those who we had reason to believe are spies, terrorists or otherwise a threat. But the chance that if our government collects a mountain of evidence on everybody, out of all of this information, some profile somewhere will just suggest 'terrorist,' so we will suddenly catch them, is vanishingly small, but the surrender of freedom we gave up is huge, and permanent.

And, don't just limit it to the surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act. The government now has, under this adminstration, the right to 1: conduct secret tribunals, including those which can sentence to death, 2: the right to torture suspects, and 3: the right to detain a U.S. citizen (not yet officially accused 'dirty bomber' Jose Padilla) indefinitely without filing any charges.

Secret surveillance of ordinary citizens. Indefinite detentions, torture, and secret tribunals that are empowered to sentence people to death. Wasn't this what we were supposed to be 'better than' during the Cold War? Josef Stalin has to be laughing at us from hell.

those who would trade freedom for security deserve neither freedom nor security.

-- Thomas Jefferson

Friday, November 04, 2005

I guess if you scratch the mayor's car, it's concrete overshoes for sure.

I don't like graffiti. Almost all of it is ugly, certainly detracts from whatever it is on, and often is vulgar, gang-related, or otherwise offensive.

And I believe that graffiti vandals should be forced to clean up their own and other people's graffiti. It is a community service level crime.

I can even agree with those who suggest that it is worth sending a young person to jail for in some cases, particularly if it is not a first offense, or if it is a particularly egregious case (for example, suggesting a gang-related 'hit' on someone, or is covered by hate crimes laws such as painting swastikas on a synagogue).

But have someone cut off your thumb?

And what if the person suggesting this is the elected mayor of a major American city?

“In the old days in France, they had beheadings of people who commit heinous crimes,” Mayor Oscar Goodman said Wednesday on the TV show “Nevada Newsmakers.”

Goodman said the city has a beautiful highway landscaping project and “these punks come along and deface it.

“I’m saying maybe you put them on TV and cut off a thumb,” the mayor said. “That may be the right thing to do.”

Goodman also suggested whippings should be brought back for children who get into trouble.

Oh, yeah, that's just what I want, for my kids to turn on the TV and watch someone's thumb getting cut off.

Hint to mayor Goodman: There was a reason why the French got rid of the guillotine in 1981. First, it was very bloody and not befitting a civilized nation. Second, it was ineffective as a deterrent. Third, it became just as much a symbol of a part of their past that France wanted to forget as, well, Bugsy Siegel and his associates are a part of a past that Las Vegas wants to forget (or did, until they found out that there is still some money to be made by featuring Bugsy in a museum display at the Tropicana.

But even if one thought that a medieval punishment like cutting off an offenders thumb had any place in the twenty-first century, is it really justified for graffiti vandalism for crying out loud!?

If the mayor and the city of Las Vegas really thinks that graffiti vandalism is their top concern, then I have a better idea. Get the crews out immediately to clean it up. Graffiti loves company. Let one 'tag' stay up, then others will follow. Have it down in a few hours, then pretty soon the 'punks' mayor Goodman is complaining about will figure out that it just isn't worth their cash and their effort to put it up, when it is gone the next time they drive by there. And, when you catch them, put them on that clean up team. And make sure that they spend a lot more time at it than they spent putting up the original graffiti. Say, 100 hours for the first offense, then thirty days in jail with work detail on cleaning up graffiti for subsequent offenses (and there are days in Las Vegas when you absolutely DON'T want to be working outdoors, trust me on that one). And heck, put other work crew prisoners on the clean up team also. Before long, graffiti taggers will be the most unpopular people in jail because it will make so much more hot outdoor work for everyone else to do.

But leave their thumbs on.

As for myself, I and my wife enjoyed spending the first and last nights of our honeymoon in Las Vegas thirteen years ago. We have been back a couple of times since with our kids as tourists. We enjoyed going to Las Vegas as a tourist for a couple of days last summer. We saw the 'Titanic' exhibit at the Tropicana, and saw Dirk Arthur, a master magician. We took a gondola ride at the Venetian.

But as long as they have an elected mayor whose methods make one think that the mafia is still calling the shots in Vegas, I for one will choose to not spend my money there.
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