Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Bin Laden outsmarted us, and Bush still thinks it was 'inadvertent.'

President Bush came out today and said that a taped diatribe by bin Laden "inadvertently" aided his re-election. The tape, which was released a couple of days before the election, attacked Bush for all sorts of things.

Now, I would agree with the President that the tape did help him win re-election. Of course, when our enemy comes out and says that he is angry with our President, there will be people who will vote for the President.

My problem is with the 'inadvertent.' I believe that it was intentional. To begin with, bin Laden is not such a fool. Like him or not, he is an intelligent man who knows what he is doing. Bush's take on this requires that we consider bin Laden a chump, who thinks that we will all do what he asks for, and he is smart enough to know that isn't the case. In fact, bin Laden wanted Bush re-elected for two reasons.

The first is that ever since Bush made the 'dead or alive' speech, Osama has just not been much of a priority. We never committed the same kind of force in the fight against him and his supporters in Afghanistan and Pakistan that we have in Iraq. In fact, once the focus shifted to Iraq, the Afghan war became mostly an afterthought, and it has allowed bin Laden to evade capture, and in fact for his organization to continue to mount attacks worldwide. Osama must have been well aware that John Kerry promised during the campaign to renew the hunt for him, and in any case, he knows by now that what is happening in his part of the world is a second or third priority for Bush, so Bush winning was a matter of personal safety for him. It's possible that Bush may catch him, but less likely than if he was at the top of the priority list.

The second (and real) reason why bin Laden wanted Bush re-elected, is because of his own main objective. Bin Laden has preached repeatedly a continuing Jihad against America and the West. He wants a united Islamic world fighting against the Christian and secular west (and he draws no distinction between the Christian west and the secular west, he sees both as an enemy of Islam). In this regard, Bush's ham handed invasion of Iraq, together with outgrowths of this like Abu Graib and allegations of torture, have been a windfall for bin Laden. In a country where al-Qaeda had little or no influence before we invaded and which was ruled by a dictator who kept a tight lid on anyone who might challenge his rule, a whole new generation of terrorists is being recruited, trained and getting experience fighting (and killing) Americans. It makes it much easier for bin Laden to find an audience that members of his organization can reach. Bush's stubbornness, rigid inflexibility and refusal to work with anyone who doesn't want to do things his way also play right into bin Laden's hands. It is unlikely that Kerry or any other President would be as tone deaf to what is going on in other countries as Bush is, and as such he has been a boon to bin Laden. Of course bin Laden wanted four more years.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The difference between Liberals and Conservatives.

The picture here comes from this article about Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Now, I recognize the fact that 230,000 Louisiana evacuees went to Texas, the largest number of any state outside of Louisiana itself (of course cities like Baton Rouge and Shreveport were, and remain, packed to the gills), although ultimately there were 22 states (including Arizona) that housed Katrina evacuees.

I have to say though that I find the whole picture here offensive. Maybe it's because as I've had occasion to blog on this week, the job is far from finished, and people are still suffering a great deal. Maybe it's because of the failures of the Federal government that have made the ordeal harder on those who lived through it. Maybe it's because even with thousands still missing, the official toll of 1300 in Louisiana is almost certainly way below the actual figure (see this post). It may be that telling residents of a state which has suffered the unprecendented losses that Louisiana has this past year (a graphic in the USA Today last week detailing third quarter income growth contrasted the nation's highest economic growth rate with the 25% drop in average personal income in Louisiana between 2004-2005) and which will soon have to start releasing criminals onto the streets and closing schools just to make ends meet, that 'you owe us,' is selfish to the point of being insulting. But I don't think any of these reasons in and of themselves are why I feel offended. It's because of something which cuts to the core of why I'm a liberal. I don't believe that when giving people a hand, it is right to 'take names.' If they can help you out later, that's great. If not, then it is still great that you were able to help them.

Franklin Roosevelt explained it best while speaking before Congress about the proposed 'Lend Lease' bill on March 11, 1941. Before that, England, then at mortal danger from the Nazi menace (which Roosevelt and a few others could see would not be satisfied until it achieved world domination), was required to purchase armaments on a 'cash and carry' basis-- laid out by isolationsts in Congress (nearly all Republicans, together with some Democrats led by Burton Wheeler), that required England to physically pay or make arrangements to pay for everything they bought, even in an emergency. Of course, with U-Boats sinking enormous amounts of food, armaments and other material, England was, as Churchill himself wrote after the war in his Pulitzer prize winning History of the Second World War, barely hanging on, and had already spent nearly all of their money just to survive. In proposing the new program, in which American factories would produce armament and other war material which would be 'lent' to England, not for pay, but simply to be returned after the war, he said,

"Suppose my neighbor's home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire...I don't say to him before that operation, "Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it."...I don't want $15--I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. "

Exactly. And after World War II was over, the arms were mostly scrapped to produce steel for rebuilding Europe-- which the United States shelled out billions more for, and have never been paid back. But that's OK-- we are lucky that unlike England and the rest of Europe, our territory was largely spared the ravages of war. The Marshall plan was as visionary as Lend Lease-- and like Lend Lease, it was miserly conservatives who were most likely to oppose it.

Now, I am blessed to live in a state, and in an area within that state, that has few natural disasters. Because of this, I am sure that the taxes that I pay that go to disaster relief, won't come back here. Now, I could have one of two reactions to this fact. I could grumble about it and ask my congressman to cut taxes and take it out of disaster relief budgets (as at least one Republican member of the Arizona congressional delegation, Jeff Flake from CD 1 did, standing out as one of ten, all Republicans, voting against even the early Katrina relief bills, instead suggesting that the money would be better spent on tax cuts), or I could be thankful that I live in a place without disasters, feel compassion towards those who are less fortunate in that regard and remember that our nation is called the UNITED States of America. It seems that some have forgotten that somewhere along the way. If Louisiana needs help, I don't mind my taxes going there. If Florida needs help (as they still do from the 2004 round of hurricanes, which was never really paid for), I don't mind my taxes going there. If Mississippi needs help (had the New Orleans levees not failed, we would be reminded as more than an afterthought that 100 miles of Mississippi's coast was annihilated and hundreds killed there by the storm) I don't mind my taxes going there. For that matter, if Texas needs help (say, to pay for the costs of housing Katrina and Rita evacuees) then I don't mind my taxes going there.

Besides, if we want to keep score, I would only ask that Texas pay for the damage done to the economy due to the collapse of Enron, which Texas regulators failed to keep close enough tabs on before it happened.

But I'm not asking for that, even though the Texas utility commission had more control over Enron than Louisiana did over Katrina. Because I believe that the government, when functioning properly, is there to help those who need it, and not send them a bill afterwards. And if there is fault here, it is towards those who for at least the last generation have been doing everything they can to starve, restrict, limit and dismantle the government programs that should serve as a safety net.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

A button can tell the truth, too.

At today's meeting of the Arizona state Democratic party I bought a button for a dollar from one of the tables. It reads, STUPIDITY: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Clearly it was aimed at the Bush administration (i.e. cut taxes and watch the deficit explode once, or stampede people into war against Iraq and get caught in a guerilla war, and now be crying 'wolf' about Iran.)

It could also apply to levee construction in New Orleans. Many people seem to share Mr. Bush's philosophy, rebuilding directly in the flood area and trusting that divine providence does not send the next Katrina while they are still living there. Further, they are trusting in levees that were inadequate the last time, but are only being funded to be built just as they were before the storm. Al Naomi, a senior project manager for the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of engineers, told US News in June that his proposal entitled, 'Benefits of category 5 Protection: Loss of Life Prevented; Makes evacuation manageable," has yet to be funded-- even for a feasibility study. This is a lot like saying that if the brakes fail on your car and it turns out that there is a defect, they would replace the brakes that failed with an identical set that had the same defect. Maybe I'm missing something, but considering that the Dutch (who also live below sea level) were wise enough to revamp their flood control system with something different after a disastrous 1952 storm, I wonder why we are just building the same levees in the same way that failed already.

The people trying to rebuild everything just as it was, are fools. The effects of global warming on hurricanes aside, simply the law of averages indicates that sooner or later a Katrina size (or bigger) storm will score a direct hit on the city. To gamble that it will be later rather than sooner is indeed a gamble worthy of a fool.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Bush healthcare plan post-Katrina: Don't Get Sick.

In his state of the union speech, President Bush said about one paragraph about Katrina relief and pledged $18 billion to the effort this year. This is about the least he could say, and the money is a fraction of the $70 billion in new tax cuts that are being proposed right now in Congress. Let's be honest; the situation in New Orleans is no more a concern for this administration than it has been since the day they took office.

So we should perhaps not be surprised, though we may be apalled at the present state of health care in New Orleans, especially for the uninsured.

in this flooded city there is only one for the uninsured and it doesn’t treat broken bones....

In the same concrete structure where thousands of fleeing families waited in vain for food and water, they now wait for medical care, dispensed by a skeletal staff of doctors working out of a collection of military tents.

Inside their plastic and canvas walls, the doctors can only offer the most rudimentary care: They can X-ray bones, but not set them. They can draw blood and diagnose an ailment, but not treat it beyond prescribing pills. And with no ER and no capacity to operate, they can’t do much more than stabilize trauma patients before sending them by ambulance elsewhere, often far away.

These tents are all that remain of Charity Hospital, the 270-year-old institution which for generations was the medical epicenter of the city’s uninsured....

“If you have cancer, my advice is move. If you need dialysis, go. Get out of here. If you have any major illness and are uninsured, we cannot possibly accommodate your needs. You will die sooner if you stay here,” said Dr. Peter DeBlieux, the head of emergency services for what remains of Charity Hospital.

This is what you see typically in third world countries, not in America. Conditions like this may have been understandable (though not acceptable) in the days immediately after the disaster, but this is February! SIX MONTHS LATER! And not a dime has even been appropriated to build a hospital that caters to the uninsured here (I guess the next round of the GOP's unending parade of tax cuts is more important.)

What is really amazing to me is how the President bragged in his 2004 state of the union address about how much we were spending to build hospitals in Iraq, but they can't even come up with the money to rebuild one in New Orleans.

President Bush did not cause Katrina (the effects of global warming over the decades notwithstanding). But by turning his back on this situation, it is clear that what we see happening today in New Orleans is the President's vision for health care in America. If you are uninsured and break your arm, well maybe they can write you a prescription for it, and then hope you can at least pay the pharmacy. Does anyone doubt that a new generation of 'snake oil salesmen' and charletans with at best a rudimentary knowledge of medicine treating desperate people on the black market can't be far behind, if it isn't here already?

Officials from the United Arab Emirates tied to bin Laden

The Bush administration continues to claim that the concerns being raised about the acquisition of six major American ports by a state owned company from the United Arab Emirates is a 'tempest in a teapot,' and that the U.A.E. is one of our staunchest allies which can be counted on in the war against terror.

Not according to the September 11 commission, however (you know, that pesky bipartisan investigative team that the Bush administration dragged their heels on appointing until they couldn't avoid it).

WASHINGTON — The United States raised concerns with the United Arab Emirates seven years ago about possible ties between officials in that country and Osama bin Laden, according to a section of the Sept. 11 commission's report that details a possible missed opportunity to kill the al-Qaida leader....

The Sept. 11 commission's report released last year also raised concerns UAE officials were directly associating with bin Laden as recently as 1999.

The report states U.S. intelligence believed that bin Laden was visiting an area in the Afghan desert in February 1999 near a hunting camp used by UAE officials, and that the U.S. military planned a missile strike.

Intelligence from local tribal sources indicated "bin Laden regularly went from his adjacent camp to the larger camp where he visited the Emiratis," the report said.

"National technical intelligence confirmed the location and description of the larger camp and showed the nearby presence of an official aircraft of the United Arab Emirates. But the location of bin Laden's quarters could not be pinned down so precisely," the report said.

The missile attack was never launched, and bin Laden moved on, the report said.

Of course, this was post-African embassy bombings, so if the Emiratis were schmoozing with bin Laden, there was positively no doubt about who he was or what he was about.

Now, it may be that the U.A.E. has changed their ways over the past seven years, and they are willing to not let business stand in the way of the war on terror. Or, it may not be, and it may be President Bush who is willing to not let the war on terror stand in the way of business.

We can see how much effort the administration put into finding any of this information out:

At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, Sen. Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat, asked Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt if he was aware of the 9-11 commission's assertion that the United Arab Emirates represents "a persistent counterterrorism problem"for the United States.

Kimmitt replied that administration figures involved in the decision to approve the deal "looked very carefully" at information from the intelligence community.

"Any time a foreign-government controlled company comes in," Kimmitt said, "the intelligence assessment is of both the country and the company."

"Just raise your hand if anybody talked to the 9-11 commission," Levin told the administration representatives at the witness table. Nobody raised a hand.

But at the very least, he says he didn't know about this deal until recently, so it is unlikely that he knows off the top of his head what the 9/11 commission had to say about bin Laden and the United Arab Emirates. Under the circumstances, how DARE President Bush even pretend to claim that a review of the situation and how it will affect port security is not necessary?

Tucker Carlson should come out here and visit an LDS community before he shoots his mouth off.

Not often that I feel the need to correct a mischaracterization of my religion, but I think I have to do that right now. My religion is that I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (colloquially known as the 'Mormon' church.) It is no secret that most active members of the church vote Republican (although Mo Udall was LDS and former church President David O. McKay was a Democrat, so as one of my friends described it, being Mormon and a Democrat is like a 'recessive gene'-- it runs in families (two other members of the Udall clan, and McKay's grandson have all been elected to Congress as Democrats) and it can pop up where least expected. The Church itself encourages participation in civic affairs, but has had a letter read before every recent election stating that the Church 'does not endorse any political candidate or party,' (although it does take positions-- generally conservative ones-- on some social issues) and emphasizing that church property is not to be used for political purposes.

What prompted me to write on this though is something that came up last night on MSNBC with Tucker Carlson. He was discussing with a representative from the ACLU about Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan's plan to build a 'Catholic town' in Florida (the town would be named Ave Maria, Florida.) I actually have no problem with Monaghan's plan, so long as there is no discrimination in terms of housing or any government services. In other words, if I, not being a Catholic, choose to move to Mr. Monaghan's town, I should be able to move there and all the same governmental services and consideration should be given to me as it would be to a Catholic person (although I disagree with Mr. Monaghan's plan to only allow in pharmacies that don't sell contraception). This was in fact what the discussion was about. So then we come to the following exchange:

HOWARD SIMON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, FLORIDA ACLU: I completely agree. If he wants to build a town and encourage like minded people to come and live there, that‘s fine. We get into problems where he tries to exercise governmental authority. That‘s the issue.

It‘s not—Tucker, you‘ve to make a distinction between just encouraging like minded people to come and live in the same place with a town organized on religious principles, in which the religious group is given governmental authority. It‘s that latter that is the problem. And I must say, just...

CARLSON: If that bothers you, I suggest you take a trip to rural Utah, where it‘s the rule, rather than the exception. But I don‘t understand where you get the idea he‘s trying to exercise governmental authority.

One problem. It is not the rule. Just because almost everyone in rural Utah is LDS does not constitute the church having governmental authority. It does not. The civil laws there do not favor members of any particular religion, and the civil authorities do not call church headquarters for tips on how to do their jobs. My wife is from rural Utah, and she can vouch for the fact that there is no legal discrimination. Further, I live in a majority LDS town in rural Arizona (the culture at least in town is not so very different from Utah). However, there is a clear as well as a legal distinction between government entities like the school board, and the church. True, every government official may be a member of the LDS church (which reflects the population there), but that is a far cry from what Mr. Carlson is suggesting (going back to what he was responding to, the statement made by the guest that "in which the religious group is given governmental authority." That is no more true in rural Utah than it is in Chicago or Alabama or Rhode Island.

Now, we do have a case going on in a small community in northern Arizona in which a polygamist cult (which has no contact with the LDS Church) is being investigated for, among other things, taking over and failing to fulfill the constitutional duties associated with local governments, but note that the leader of the cult, Warren Jeffs, is now on the ten most wanted list and their control over a trust fund that was being used to exert authority over the citizens has been revoked and is now under the control of outside auditors (kudos to our Democratic Attorney General, Terry Goddard, for having the guts to take this on, after no one had been willing to risk it politically since the 'Short Creek' raids in the 1950's turned out disastrously). But, to paraphrase Carlson, THAT case is the 'exception, not the rule.'

Now, I've had my disagreements, particularly political ones with people I go to church with. I blogged on one last month when someone I know said something that was out of line regarding Cain and race. But when someone says something that is just plain false, and is not challenged on it on national TV, I feel I have to say something about it here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Just a few questions about the port contract.

The Bush administration is going on about how the government of Dubai will only be running operations at the six ports in question, not be responsible for security.

This leads to several logical questions, however, even if we take what the administration is saying at face value:

1. They will have employees. How can we be sure that no terrorists have infiltrated the shipping company? After all, the 9/11 hijackers were mostly just students with no criminal record until they were 'called upon' to carry out their mission.

2. If there are terrorists who are working for the shipping company, wouldn't it be easy enough for them to learn (as most employees working at any job anywhere do) the loopholes in the system and use those to smuggle in anything from nuclear weapons to more terrorists?

3. We still only inspect 2% of containers coming into U.S. ports. No process is completely random, and terrorists working in the port could probably figure out how we pick containers to inspect, and adjust their plans accordingly.

4. They point out that other foreign companies are running our ports. Why? Our ports should be a matter of vital national security. Funny how at least some conservatives made a big stink about the decision by the Panamanian government to give a Chinese company the contract to run the canal, but they want to defend the Bush administration's right to do the same on what is actually the mainland (proper) territory of the United States. Seems hypocritical to criticize Panama (a foreign country) for doing it and then claiming the right to do it here.

5. Right now, Dubai is a 'stable monarchy.' As we move towards a more unstable world, this becomes more of an oxymoron. Most monarchies in the Middle East are hated by the majority of their citizens, and the likelihood that a nation like Dubai could either be 1) overthrown by an Islamic revolution or 2) experience a less violent, Lebanese shift towards Democracy, is a real one. The second scenario could actually present more of a problem for us if it happens, since in the first case we could easily nullify the contract, but that would be much more difficult politically to do if they formed a Democracy and then elected someone we didn't get along with (think of an arab version of Hugo Chavez controlling what went in and out of our port, and on what schedule.)

6. And what if Dubai has a problem with some nation, and orders their people to refuse to dock ships from that nation. Do we risk getting drawn into some regional conflict that we may not otherwise have any interest in?

And oh, yeah: I assumed that the administration was playing this straight (which would be a first for them.) But if they are, why are they pushing so hard against allowing the GOP Congress to study this?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

And if you had a working outlet, we STILL wouldn't want you watching soap operas.

According to the CNN 360 degree blog, New Orleans city councilman Oliver Thomas wants to require that only people with jobs return to the city.

Thomas says he doesn't want people to "sit around watching soap operas." He also says he hasn't gotten any negative reaction to his comments.

Leaving aside that there is no electricity in the ruined houses in much of the city, so I'm not sure where many of those forced to leave would be watching said soap operas (proving that this is rhetorical from the outset), councilman Thomas obviously can't do much math. More than half of the jobs in the city at the time of Katrina have ceased to exist. And for those which do exist, people with poor job skills will be at the bottom of the list. No matter who gets jobs, if there are more people than jobs, some of the people will be unemployed. That is math, nothing more.

Many conservatives will undoubtedly refrain with 'give 'em hell, Oliver,' or some such statement. It is easier to demogogue, or praise a demogogue, than deal with the large number of people who have nothing to return to, and no jobs.

Monday, February 20, 2006

I May Detest What You Say...-- rejoinder

I can't seem to get away from having to defend free speech, even when the speech itself is appalling.

Two weeks ago, because I support free speech, I posted the infamous 'Mohammed cartoons' despite the fact that, as I made it clear in the post, I disagreed strongly with their message; I did it to protest the fatwa levied against the cartoonists by some fundamentalist clerics. The pictures themselves were obviously being searched for on a lot of search engines, I got about 160 comments on it by the time the thread wrapped down, a record for Deep Thought.

So in today's news,

British Historian David Irving has been sentenced to three years in an Austrian prison for denying that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz.

In fact, Irving was wrong. The gas chambers still stand, and are testimony to the murder of millions-- including members of my own extended family. And, Irving was a liar. He admitted as much during his sentencing hearing;

Irving, handcuffed and wearing a navy blue suit, arrived in court carrying a copy of one of his most controversial books -- "Hitler's War," which challenges the extent of the Holocaust.

"I made a mistake when I said there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz," Irving told the court before his sentencing.

He had faced up to 10 years in prison.

Before the trial began, Irving, 67, told reporters he now acknowledges the Nazis systematically slaughtered Jews during World War II.

"History is like a constantly changing tree," he said.

However, as much as I may detest what David Irving has said in the past, that is not a reason to put him in prison for it. Ridicule him, certainly. Call him a liar and prove it, absolutely. Put his kind of historical revisionism on a shelf along with UFOlogists, flat earthers, people who still deny that smoking causes cancer, unrepentant segregationists, the people who insisted that Galileo was wrong when he said that the earth was the center of the universe, etc. Right now we see people who deny global warming being headed towards that shelf as the climate is already changing just as predicted. But don't put him in prison, because if we put him in prison, then who is safe when the views of their society change, to where perhaps their doctrine (whether it be true or false) is now 'out of line' with society? Far better to have the occasional Holocaust denier out there preaching their particular brand of venom, and dispute it with facts, than to lock them up.

And, free speech aside, an even better argument against imprisonment can be summarized in this line:

Irving's lawyer, Elmar Kresbach, said last month the controversial Third Reich historian was getting up to 300 pieces of fan mail a week from supporters around the world

The letters may taper off now that Irving has 'fessed up' (or more likely, he will now get letters full of hate for being a 'sellout,') but the fact is, that the state putting him in jail for something he wrote will in and of itself help prove that he was right to some of the extreme fringe. You could throw everyone who denied the Holocaust in prison tomorrow, and it would not end Holocaust denial. It would instead only be a victory, not for the old Nazis, but for the new ones who would love to be able to limit what we can read, write and speak about.

Instead, we must make it clear what a poisonous doctine it is. But do it in a free society where we can make it clear that even a poisonous doctrine can be expounded in public, so that we can together publically criticize the ignorance that goes with it.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Wonder if Berlusconi appointed any of these judges.

What would it take to get progressives and the great granddaughter of an evil dictator to agree about something?

How about a ruling in an Italian court that a forty something year old man molesting a fourteen year old girl is not as serious a crime if she is not a virgin?

The court ruled in favor of a man in his forties, identified only as Marco T., who forced his 14-year old stepdaughter to have oral sex with him after she refused intercourse.

The man, who has been sentenced to three years and four months in jail, lodged an appeal arguing that the fact that his stepdaughter had had sex with men before should have been taken into consideration during his trial as a mitigating factor.

The supreme court agreed...

"I think we have gone back 50 years," said Maria Gabriella Carnieri Moscatelli, head of the Telefono Rosa association that helps sexually abused women.

"It is inconceivable that such a serious crime that ruins the life of a woman, irrespective of her age, might be considered in a different light depending on whether she is a virgin," she said.

Female politicians from across the political spectrum also strongly condemned the court's decision.

"This is a shameful, devastating ruling," said Alessandra Mussolini, grand-daughter of wartime fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. "The real problem is that there are no women in the supreme court."

Luana Zanella of the Greens opposition party called the court's arguments "abominable".

First of all, abusing a fourteen year old is a crime. Period. And it should be taken seriously no matter who the fourteen year old is or whether she is sexually active or not.

On top of which, this man was her stepfather. It is his household and he is the authority figure. I would think that that betrayal of trust would be a much more damning factor than anything else you could think of.

My last post dealt with how delusional Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is. Apparently though, it does not end with him. One has to wonder what they are spiking their pasta with:

The (Italian) supreme court is no stranger to controversial judgments.

In recent years it has ruled that "an isolated and impulsive" pat on a woman's buttocks at work did not constitute sexual harassment, and returned a verdict that a woman could not have been raped because she was wearing skin-tight jeans.

I made over 250 posts on Deep Thought without ever having occasion to refer to Benito Mussolini. But now I've had to at least refer to him in two consecutive posts, both posts about men who seem to have a warped view about the virtues of Italian manhood. Sounds like I will have to scratch Rome off the list of places I hope I get to visit someday.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Il Duce returns.

How crazy would you have to be as a leader in a Western European Democracy to support George Bush's foray into Iraq?

Pretty daft, apparently. Remember that when Bush went into Iraq, one of his biggest supporters among European allies was prime minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. Berlusconi not only supported the war, but pledged Italian troops to the effort, against the tide of public opinion, and kept them there despite enormous public opposition following the deaths of seventeen who were killed when their base was attacked, and later after the Sgrena shooting incident. Even Berlusconi, however, finally had to pull out of the coalition after it became known that despite Italy's friendly relations with the United States, C.I.A. agents had, without informing Italian police, kidnapped a terror suspect off of a Milan street and flown him to Egypt where he was tortured.

But a couple of stories out in the past few days make it clear what kind of an Italian leader would support George Bush's military adventure in Iraq in the first place.

First, he said that among historical leaders, 'only Napoleon' did more than he, Berlusconi did for his country (apparently he thinks that leading his country into years of continual, and ultimately ruinous warfare is doing something laudible-- that is your first clue). Later Berlusconi said it was a joke, referring to his own short stature (Napoleon was also a small man with an ego to make up for it.)

Apparently though, it was less a joke than an insight. Deciding that Napoleon wasn't great enough, Berlusconi took a leap up the greatness ladder, declaring that "I am the Jesus Christ of politics" during a dinner with supporters. There is absolutely nothing I could add that would more clearly reflect how insane this man is than his own words.

The man is a glory-crazed megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur who should be absolutely anywhere else, other than leading a nation. And his own power to effect change within Italy actually being limited by a Constitution written after WWII providing for a strong parliament especially in terms of domestic policy (let this be a lesson to those who want the executive branch to become too powerful), it is hard to escape the conclusion that his motivation in signing up for the Iraq adventure was to placate his own glorious fantasies through military adventures, and perhaps cover himself with accolades even if bought at the cost of the lives of Italian soldiers.

As a matter of fact, Silvio Berlusconi does remind me of another leader. In fact, another Italian leader. Probably not one he would want to be compared to, but the last Italian leader with an ego problem who thought that militarism was the way to satisfy his almost infinite lust for greatness was, well, you know who that was.

And this is who George Bush and Tony Blair brought on board so they could bolster their claim, especially in western Europe, of having some measure of 'international support.'

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Bush asked for it. We paid for it. It failed.

Today, Homeland Security Chief appeared before the Senate panel investigating Katrina and made the following statement:

“It is completely correct to say that our logistics capability in Katrina was woefully inadequate. I was astonished to see we didn’t have the capability most 21st century corporations have to track the flow of goods and services,”

Yeah, I'll buy that. And we know that many, many mistakes were made, that lack of communication, failure to pay attention to warnings, and lack of planning at both the local and national levels contributed to it.

But here is the problem I have.

Go back to September 11. President Bush within days announced the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. In addition to FEMA, many other Federal agencies were folded into it, in the name of efficiency. The President asked for and Congress pumped billions after billions of dollars into the new agency, all for the purpose of making us safer.

Remember all the training that was supposed to go on, coordinating responses among Federal, State and Local responders? Remember how we were supposed to be ready to respond to a terrorist attack anywhere in America? We certainly spent the money for that.

So, Katrina came. And were we ready? No. Were there communications problems similar to 9/11? Yes. Was there a lack of planning on display? Yes. Was there bureaucratic ineptitude on display? "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie." Did help get where it was needed? No. Were the responders around? No. Were warnings ignored? Absolutely.

And the frightening thing is, that there is no reason to think that this couldn't be a terrorist attack. If terrorists had detonated a nuclear weapon in New Orleans, would the result have been all that much different?

This was the first real test of the system that the President put in place to protect us following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And it failed that test.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Fair and Baloney

Every now and then, when I think I have enough heartburn medicine on hand, I will tune in to Faux News.

So tonight, they are going on and on about how the rest of the media is 'obsessed' with Dick Cheney's hunting accident, instead of reporting 'real' news.

Just keep in mind though, that this is the network that brought you by far the most coverage of Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson and Natalie Holloway.

Something else to think about.

This weekend, I had my wife (who had previously been to the E.R. twice and had three labs drawn) go back to the E.R., have another blood drawing, then after her blood iron had gone from low (10.8) to lower (9.4) to really low (7.4) during three E.R. visits, be admitted to the hospital to receive five pints of transfusion and have an emergency operation, and next week will check into the hospital in Phoenix will have another emergency operation (which they were not willing to perform at the hospital in Winslow because it does not have an intensive care unit.)

Now, I am glad the docs are being so cautious in their approach, but I am sure that these medical bills will add up to quite a lot. Much, much more, in fact than the tax bill for the average Canadian.

Dick Cheney cited; Seems to think that the law is only for the rest of us.

As much as I would love to blog some more on health care after this weekend, I won't. I will blog on another topic that has been in the news, especially with the unfortunate accident that occurred this weekend involving the Vice President. Dick Cheney's hunting trips. You may recall that two years ago, he went hunting with Justice Antonin Scalia just as the Supreme Court was hearing arguments on whether Cheney needed to divulge the names of people who attended secret meetings of his energy task force (the results of which have been seen in the past couple of energy bills which have provided taxpayer funded federal subsidies to energy companies that are already making billions, and other decisions which have greatly benefitted the energy companies.) So clearly the trip this weekend in which he accidentally shot a Bush campaign contributor may or may not have been strictly for pleasure. Cheney has been known in the past to go hunting for a bit more than pleasure, and clearly a millionaire attorney who is a Republican (and has also donated to Senator John Cornyn) has a much better chance of being invited to go hunting with Dick Cheney than anyone you or I know.

Today, though, we learn that Cheney, like many in Washington, seems to think that the law is only for (in the words of Leona Helmsley on the same topic) the 'little people.' Cheney has now been cited for breaking a Texas state law by not buying a $7 stamp required for hunting upland game birds. Of course, had the unfortunate accident not occurred, it is safe to assume that Texas officials would have looked the other way on this one, but now that it is news, they have no choice except to issue the citation. The issue here is pretty basic. The Vice President of the United States should be an example of obeying the law. But clearly our Vice President believes that he is above the law, and that because of his position, he doesn't have to pay the $7 fee to shoot quail (I mean, come on, the guy is worth millions, he can't argue this will break him) that the rest of us would have to pay if we wanted to shoot quail in Texas. And he knows that no one will touch him (except in very unexpected, unusual situations like what happened this weekend) when he does. I wonder, how many other times has he gone hunting and blown off the fee? Of course Republicans will minimize this, saying that the fee is about the same as you'd pay for a Big Mac meal at McDonald's, which is true. But consider that this is the man who has been insisting that the Bush administration operates within the law on matters like domestic wiretapping, and we can see that his definition of 'within the law' is not 'within the law.'

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Can a blog violate open meetings laws?

Every now and then, blogging becomes itself an issue. And so we see what appears to be an obscure story about public servants who maintain blogs (which a number of them do). According to this story, from a small town in Vermont,

NORTH ADAMS — Concerns about how the state's open meeting law applies to such things as posting on Web logs and multiple councilors appearing on cable access programs has prompted City Councilor Clark H. Billings to present a letter to the council asking for the city solicitor's opinion....

However, there has yet to be a ruling on public forums such as television shows and Web logs.

"I got two different opinions at the conference," Billings said. "I think there is potential for this to be interpreted a half dozen ways."

Billings also is questioning how the law applies to such public forums as candidate nights.

"They are public, but they're (sic) not posted," he said. "They also have the potential to have a quorum of sitting councilors present. I can't think of an election year when five councilors aren't running for re-election. They also have the potential for questions to be asked about items before the council. Councilors hear what others are thinking and can make decisions based on each others responses."

The issue then is whether a public official who maintains a weblog is violating the open meetings act because (s)he may be influenced by opinions posted on the blog but knowledge that the blog exists or how to access it may not be in the public domain.

I understand the concern, and I've been an advocate for completely open meetings for years. My own view though is that as blogging becomes more and more common, it will be less noteworthy for public officials to maintain a blog, and as such it will be expected that if a public official has a blog, (s)he will have to list it under 'contact information' on a website or otherwise advertise its existence and web address.

Friday, February 10, 2006

A shell game with energy funding. But it looked good on TV.

In his State of the Union Speech last week, President Bush said,

Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.

The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, more reliable alternative energy sources -- and we are on the threshold of incredible advances.

So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative -- a 22 percent increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas.

To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants; revolutionary solar and wind technologies; and clean, safe nuclear energy.

We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen.

We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips, stalks, or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years.

Now, I gave him the benefit of the doubt, although criticizing his slowness to address this problem. I did wish him success in fixing this problem.

I did post this paragraph though:

Now, I hope that the President is serious about ending our addiction to oil (for greenhouse gas reasons, in addition to other reasons), but let's see if he follows his words with actions.

Of course, it didn't take more than a few hours for the White House to backtrack on the President's comments, in effect saying that he didn't really mean it.

But the real test came this week. In the President's budget. And it fails the sniff test.

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's latest spending plan is unlikely to substantially reduce US oil consumption in the short term because it slashes $100 million from federal programs promoting conservation and falls short of the commitment in last year's energy bill to make vast new investments in renewable and emerging technologies, like hydrogen fuel and solar power.

Despite Bush's ambitious goal of cutting Middle East oil imports by 75 percent within 20 years -- outlined in his State of the Union address a week ago -- the president's budget calls for an 18 percent cut in programs aimed at reducing energy consumption, like financial aid to help needy families better insulate their homes and research to make cars use fuel more efficiently.

Critics say the budget sends a mixed message on energy policy: The president wants to invest in renewable energy but would spend less on it than he promised in the energy bill he signed and would scale down efficiency programs that would more quickly reduce the nation's demand for oil.

Not only is he making cuts in programs that would help him achieve his goal of getting us off of middle eastern oil if he were serious (essentially borrowing from one hand to put it back into energy policy with the other hand), but he won't even keep the commitments that he made when he signed legislation passed last year!

Folks, don't be depressed about this. We know (or should know by now) better than to think that George W. Bush would ever do anything that would cut into the profits of the oil industry. But what it shows is this: We are winning the battle of ideas, especially on energy. So much so that a Republican President, in his biggest prime time speech of the year, has to sound like a Democrat just to get ratings points, even when he knows that he isn't really going to do much about it.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A cut by any other name.

The other day I had a conservative blogger post a comment in which he distinguished between 'slowing the rate of growth' in government programs and a 'budget cut.'

So, now that we are learning more about the President's proposed budget, here are some indisputable cuts:

Targetted for elimination:

" The Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides food packages for some 400,000 low-income seniors.

" A preventive care block grant, which helps states provide preventive healthcare for "underserved populations."

" The TRIO Talent Search program, which helps colleges and universities assist disadvantaged teenagers so they can finish high school and go to college.

Facing serious cuts:

" Section 202 housing for low-income elderly, which would be cut 26 percent below the 2006 level.

" Section 811 housing for low-income people with disabilities, which would face a 50 percent cut.

" A 79 percent cut for Community Oriented Policing Services, which aims to put more police on the streets.

" Child Care and Development Block Grant, which would face more than $1 billion in cuts over five years. CBPP reports that by 2011 the number of children receiving child-care assistance would drop by more than 400,000, compared with the 2005 figure.

You may disagree with these programs, but clearly there are people who are on them now, who won't be in the future. They are the ones the cuts will hurt.

Now, they are claiming that it is to reduce the monstrous Federal budget deficit. It is true that we have a serious problem with the federal deficit (something that Republicans, after passing trillions in tax cuts and additional spending while arguing that the deficit was no big deal, have just recently 'discovered.') However, these cuts are not going, contrary to the spin from the right, to reduce it. That argument could be made, except that $70 billion of additional tax cuts are being pushed at the same time. So in effect, they are cutting housing for poor people so they can pay for more tax cuts for billionaires.

Support it if you want to, but don't try to tell me that these are not cuts.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Bills beat the Bucks.

I promised a few days ago that I would be coming up with a comprehensive post on why a national health care plan that covers 100% of the population would be an improvement over what we have now. I wanted to wait until I had some facts in order. Well, the facts are now in order.

What we have now is a system where about 46 million Americans (a number which in itself represents a 10% increase over what it was just four years ago) lack insurance. This doesn't mean that none of them get sick, or that they don't eventually end up in emergency rooms or elsewhere in the system. What it means is that when they can't pay, the health care providers (hospitals or doctors) make up the loss by charging more for the rest of us. That is why even the pro-employer institute, National Business Group on Health acknowledges that the costs of health care, up 50% in the past five years, has become an unmanageable burden on employers who provide it. So not providing health insurance to so many people ultimately does not save you, if you are one of those lucky enough to have insurance, a dime; it instead only makes you pay it through your employee health insurance, while also hurting your employer.

Moreover, this is squarely hitting the middle class. The poor are largely covered by Medicaid, and when they are not, well there is an old saying that you can't get blood out of a turnip, and one way or another the cost of treating them gets shifted to people who do have insurance, as described in the paragraph above. The wealthy probably have insurance, or maybe they don't, but either way are not paying much more for healthcare than the middle class in actual dollars. In percentages, it is a lot less. Now, overall, health care was costing the U.S. 15.3% of our Gross Domestic Product in 2003 (source: Pear, R. "U.S. Health Care Spending Reaches All-Time High: 15% of GDP." The New York Times, 9 January 2004,) although it is likely higher now, and is projected to continue its double digit annual rate of growth for the foreseeable future if nothing is done.

Now, let's sit back and calmly look at the costs of the present system for the average family (median household income $44,473). The combined cost of healthcare premiums (whether paid by the wage earners in the family or their employers) in 2006 will be $14,500 ( Simmons, H. E. and M. A. Goldberg. Charting the Cost of Inaction. National Coalition on Health Care, May 2003.); this is up significantly from 2004, when we find a combined cost of $12,611 (The annual premium that a health insurer charges an employer for a health plan covering a family of four averaged $9,950, or $829 a month in 2004. Workers contributed $2,661, or 10 percent more than they spent in 2003.-- source: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Employee Health Benefits: 2004 Annual Survey. 2004. 09 September 2004. ) I know that right now, my employer and I combine for about $1250 per month in medical and dental premiums. My employer pays premiums for me and I pay them for my wife and kids. Of course, what my employer pays might as well be money that I pay since if they didn't have to pay it, then they could pay me the same amount of money.

Now, in addition to these, all of the insurers require the payment of deductibles and co-pays. Even if everyone in our average family stays well (a big if) over the course of a year, these things add up. If we assume, say, a total of ten doctor visits per year for the whole family (assume a $10 co-pay), resulting in ten prescriptions (these vary wildly but an average of $20 each is probably reasonable-- in our family prescriptions varied from $4.63 to over $100 this year-- and all told they totaled well over $1000), and a $200 per person deductible for a family of four, we get $100 in co-pays, $200 in prescriptions, and $800 for deductibles, and probably about 20% if you have any ER visits-- if we assume one, this is likely to be a couple of hundred dollars (your share). That adds up to $1300 Not bad, and much less than our own family medical bills last year, but this assumes a very optimistic scenario. If, on the other hand, something catastrophic happens (and people do have accidents when they least expect them) and you have an insurer that like most charges you, say, 20% of the bill, you could easily end up (as we did last year) with thousands of dollars in bills.

Now, conservatives will say, that at least we don't pay taxes for medical care. Ah, but we do. We pay taxes for Medicare and Medicaid. And those go to pay for two relatively higher risk groups, who would be included in any national health care system (thereby allowing both programs to be eliminated in the process). Fiscal 2005 expenditures on the two programs were over $600 billion. I couldn't find a line by line analysis of the President's newest budget proposal (if anyone gives me one I will link it here), but if we assume that the figure for the two programs is very near this, and then consider the President's budget proposal of $2.77 trillion out today, the programs together represent 21.6% of the budget. I found the average U.S. income tax bill from the website of a Republican congressman. It is $9,445. This means that if we multiply the two figures together, our average family pays just over $2,000 for medicare and medicaid.

But that is not all. Between car insurance and homeowners insurance, Americans have to pay additional premiums (I'll estimate this at $50 per month, or $600 per year) for additional medical coverage to cover the cost of medical care for someone who you might accidentally hit with your car, or who your dog bites, even if you are a very safe driver and you don't own a dog.

Now, let's add this up:

$12,611 + $1300 + $2000 + $600 = $16,511 (I am being generous here and using the 2003 figure instead of the projected 2006 figure for premiums; if I use the later figure then we are well over $18,000. Now, divide $16,511 by our "income" of $54423 ($44473 + $9950 since your employer could include in your paycheck what they are now paying in premiums) to get that health care is costing our average family: 30.3%. And this still doesn't include the higher costs you pay because of other businesses who have to charge more for their product in order to foot the bill for health care costs for their employees (for example, if you buy a Ford or GM car, over $1000 of the cost goes directly to pay for health care insurance, which for example, Toyota doesn't have to pay. I blogged on that when when GM announced layoffs and again when Ford announced layoffs.)

Why did I use averages so much? Because an average is a middle. Some are more, some are less. Conservatives can claim that some middle class people pay less than this. That is true. But some also pay more. I know that given our own household structure and expenses, our health care costs this year were more than this. I could use our own situation to model it, but that would be anecdotal, while the averages are statistical.

Now, if we had national health care what would it cost? Well, despite our spending over 15% of our GDP on it, if you read the NYT article referenced above, you will find that other countries were much more successful:

Health care spending accounted for 10.9 percent of the GDP in Switzerland, 10.7 percent in Germany, 9.7 percent in Canada and 9.5 percent in France, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Of course in those countries, healthcare providers (including pharmaceutical companies) have to negotiate their prices (and they make a profit, or they wouldn't operate there) instead of jacking them up to 'sky is the limit' levels as they can and do here.

But let's even assume that we remain at 15% of our GDP. Isn't this a lot cheaper than the 30% you pay now? And I will even give conservatives a bone: Canada mostly finances their system with a 7% national retail sales tax. Now, I don't in general like NRST, since it is a very regressive tax, especially as some Republicans propose to use it to replace the graduated income tax. However, if this was what I needed to quit paying 30% for health care, that would be a good trade off.

And quality? Conservatives are always pointing out how much better our system is. Well, for starters, that isn't true. Check the numbers yourself on the most fundamental measure that there is to consider how good the health care system is, the ultimate 'bottom line:' the people in the countries I mentioned earlier live longer than we do. (if you're looking for the United States, you'll have to scroll all the way down to #48 on the list, just barely above Cuba.) Waiting lines? A problem in Canada, agreed. But then I had a friend who lived here in the U.S. who needed 'immediate' knee replacement surgery, and had to wait six months for it. And not even such a big problem in some other countries.

Further, conservatives fall into the trap of assuming that single payor (as in the Canadian system) is the only type of national health care system that there is. But that is not true. I have a friend from Australia, and she explained that there they have a two tier system-- the government can and will cover everyone, no questions asked, but they do have a private system complete with insurance companies and if you don't want to wait your turn in the government system, then you can hire a private doctor to treat you more quickly. And some people do. But there, as in Canada or in the United States, the system is prioritized. If you enter the ER during a heart attack, no one will tell you to take a number or make an appointment. You will be treated immediately.

Just that in the United States, unlike Canada or Australia, if you had one heart attack, then be sure you stay calm and take an aspirin before you open the bill from the hospital, or you may have another one.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The New Republican Leader-- Sounding Like the Old Republican Leader.

Well, now we have seen John Boehner's first comments on privately funded travel for congressmen. And he said 'Keep it.'

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The new Republican leader in the House of Representatives backed more stringent disclosure rules for lawmakers and lobbyists Sunday, but criticized measures such as a ban on privately paid travel proposed by other GOP leaders....

"Sunlight is the best disinfectant," the Ohio congressman told NBC's "Meet the Press."

Uh, we already know that leaders of Congress have gone on all these junkets, paid for by lobbyists, corporations and others who want to influence them. That is what is at the center of the current scandal swirling around several members of Congress.

This may be why Boehner is reluctant to change the travel plans:

Boehner has taken trips valued at more than $157,000 since 2000, paid for by nonprofit trade organizations and think tanks, according to Federal Election Commission records compiled by the online research group Political Moneyline.

He told "Fox News Sunday" that the trips -- which include visits to Scotland, Belgium and Spain -- are necessary to keep lawmakers informed on the issues before them.

Hmmm. Scotland. Wonder if he went golfing with Bob Ney and Jack Abramoff. What's it about Scotland, anyway? Maybe it's the whiskey? Or maybe they really have found something in Loch Ness, and it's so hush-hush that they have to bring all those Congressmen there to see it?

These guys just don't get it, do they?

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Coretta Scott King has earned the honors that Martin never got.

Thousands of mourners filed past the casket containing the body of Coretta Scott King today in Atlanta.

The bronze casket carrying the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was carried through the streets of Atlanta on a horse-drawn carriage before being ushered into the Capitol by an honor guard of the Georgia State Patrol. The crowd outside cheered and threw roses as the casket went by.

A lone bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" as Gov. Sonny Perdue and his wife, Mary, escorted the casket into the statehouse, a sharp contrast to the official snub afforded Martin Luther King Jr. nearly four decades ago by segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox.

The wounds of 1968 may be a long time healing, but this scene shows how far we have come (although it is an irony that Republican Perdue won the Georgia governorship by campaigning to restore the old state flag which incorporated the Confederate battle flag, so in some ways we haven't come as far as we should have.)

It is true that lacking a firm knowledge of when Dr. King would have died of natural causes had not an assassin cut his life short at the age of 39, the death of his widow is the closest we can come to the kind of closure that we will never completely get. And it is certainly true that her casket lying in state in the Georgia statehouse is an honor that he deserved but never received.

It would be a mistake though to suggest that she is simply a 'fill in' for her husband. That would be false, in fact. After her husband's death, Coretta Scott King spoke out often and eloquently about what he had fought for. She spoke both about those things which have been accomplished and those things which remain to be accomplished. She fought to get him recognized as a leader, recognition which finally came when his birthday was declared a national holiday. Mrs. King delivered the 'State of the Dream' speech every year, both summarizing the successes that had been made in that year and detailing the challenges that lay ahead. And all of this she did while also raising children who were 12, 10, 7 and 5 when their father was murdered.

It may be true that had she not married Dr. King, the world might not know who Coretta Scott King was. But it may still have known, for she possessed a strength of character which would likely have been recognized anywhere. And the accolades that she is receiving this week are hers, not Martin's. She has earned them for a lifetime of standing up for what is right. With the benefit of the past 38 years to look over, it is clear that Martin Luther King believed in attaining the highest standards of character. Just look at who he married.

Friday, February 03, 2006

I may detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it-- Voltaire.

If you want a closer look at them individually, you can do that at this site (hat tip to indyvoter).

Now, I find these cartoons, which first were published in a Danish newspaper last week and caricature the prophet Mohammed, pretty disgusting. Even though I am not a Muslim, I can understand why they are so angry at cartoons depicting, among others, Mohammed wearing a turbin which is shaped like a bomb. And that cartoon certainly does nothing to fight the image that all muslims are terrorists, or that Islam itself is a violent religion, which in general is not true. And they are not even good cartoons; they look kind of goofy and not very well drawn. So why am I publishing them on Deep Thought, where I have in the past been outspoken against prejudice and stereotyping?

I'm publishing them because as a defender of free speech, I feel an obligation to publish them. I'm publishing them because once a death sentence was issued by a bunch of fanatics, it became the right thing for defenders of freedom to do. I'm publishing them in solidarity with the people throughout Europe who have been threatened with death for publishing them. A fatwa, or declaration that those who publish these should be killed, has been issued. I find this kind of thing to be repulsive in the extreme. And so I believe that the best way to fight it is to publish them as far and wide as possible. Make it clear that a handful of cartoons that probably would not have made it far from the lunch counter in Copenhagen, absent the fatwa, have now been seen by people all over the world. In their rage, they defeat themselves.

I believe in freedom of speech, even for speech I deplore.

NOTE: Bloggers on the right have taken the lead in this here in the U.S.; Now, granted, it may be easier for someone who actually agrees with the point of the cartoons to post them, but if there is anything we should be able to agree with them on, it is free speech.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Hate crime statistics

A couple of days ago I put up a post on race relations, and got quite a variety of comments. Some people said that things are getting better, while others pointed out (as the post did) that racial tensions are still with us.

Then there were two incidents reported in the national media over the last couple of days that brought the specific matter of hate crimes to light. In the first, a woman who was apparently mentally disturbed, and who was a self-described racist, went on a shooting rampage at a mail processing facility in Goleta, California, killing at least seven people (including a former neighbor) before taking her own life. News reports out tonight suggest that race may well have been a motive, as she did not fire at the white security guard or other white employees but selectively shot minorities. Three of her victims reportedly are black, one Filipino, one Hispanic and one of undetermined race. In the second crime, a teenager entered a gay bar in Massachusetts with a hatchet and attacked several patrons. When the hatchet was wrestled away from him, he pulled out a handgun and began shooting. Luckily, it appears that while several people were injured, some seriously, no one was killed in that incident.

Because of the discussion on the previous board and the news items from the past two days, I decided to examine FBI hate crime statistics to learn what was right and what was baloney. I compared the 2004 statistics (the most recent available) and 2000 statistics (which is on pdf, you will need to scroll down to page 11 to find the table comparable to the 2004 statistics. You can in fact access the FBI report for any year from 1995 to 2004 by linking from this page.

I learned four things:

1) the people who are saying that things are getting better slowly do have a point, although the emphasis is on the word, 'slowly'. The total number of hate crimes declined from 8,063 incidents in 2000 to 7,649 in 2004. Now, this is much too slow, IMO, and the quicker we can reach the neighborhood of zero, the better, but things are slowly getting better.

2) the traditional targets of hate crimes: blacks, Jews and gays still are way out in front of all other targets. There are about 3 times as many incidents in which blacks are targetted because they are black, as there are incidents in which whites are targets because they are white. Jews in 2004 were the victims of religiously motivated hate crimes in 69% of incidents (down from 75% though in 2000, largely due to the increase in hate crimes targetting muslims-- more on that in observation 3). Gay people were the targets in 1,147 of 1,197 crimes in which sexual orientation was an issue. Bisexuals were targets in 17 of the crimes (which I suspect were nearly all also committed by heterosexuals but I have no proof of that) and heterosexuals were the targets in 33 incidents in 2004. What this means is that Pat Robertson's claim from a few years ago that gangs of homosexuals were going out and beating up straight people notwithstanding, for every such incident there are more than thirty incidents involving gay people being targetted due to their sexual orientation. Collectively, blacks, Jews and gays, who together are less than 20% of the population, were the targets in well over half of all hate crimes.

3) What is in the news and heated rhetoric makes a difference. The most obvious example is Islamic people. In 2000, there were 28 incidents where muslims were targetted, while in 2004, this had jumped to 156 incidents (nearly six times as many). And this was three years after 9/11, when incidents targetting muslims spiked off the charts. Of course the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and terrorist incidents around the world may have played into this, but honestly, even if someone is fully of the belief that radical Islam is the biggest threat we've ever faced, how does beating up a muslim man in Pittsburgh do anything to advance America's military situation? Another area where rhetoric seems to have played a role is in attacks against immigrants. Despite the overall decline in hate crimes, incidents targetting people based on their national origin are up. I suspect that rhetoric targetting immigrants has played a role in this.

4) Hate crimes against the disabled have jumped by over 50%. That makes me wonder if, slight improvements in the rates of other hate crimes aside, we are becoming a more mean-spirited society (what kind of scummy human being attacks disabled people out of hatred, anyway?)

Another thing that this post makes clear is that hate crimes laws are still needed. Just consider this: without hate crimes legislation, someone who paints a swastika on a synagogue or Satanic symbols on a church is only guilty of graffitti vandalism, even though the clear intent is to harrass and intimidate. And these numbers are still high enough that we need to be sending a clearer message as a society that you are free to have your opinion, even if it is to hate others, but as soon as you take action and commit a crime because of that, then that is absolutely not acceptable.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Just remember-- this is what Republicans are all about.

The White House and Republicans may have backed off of President Bush's promise to cut mideast oil imports (hat tip to Dorsano for that) just the day after he made it (why did he say it, then?) but they made good on one of his priorities: Today the House passed a budget bill that includes cuts in medicaid and student loans. The vote on passage was 216-214 (funny how Republicans always manage to pass this kind of stuff by just the margin they need, while a few of their more vulnerable members get to vote against it.)

Of course, this makes a lot of sense since cuts in other sources of government funding for universities have resulted in sharply higher tuition. Apparently the intent of these Republicans really is to create a plutocracy-- make a four year college degree (which is required for most leadership positions) the exclusive purview of the wealthy. Sure there are scholarships, but the number of scholarships available is far less than the number of students who are accepted at American universities and colleges every year. The net effect will be to lock out middle class families if they don't have a genius or a basketball star in the home.

An analysis of the December 18 budget reconciliation agreement is linked to here. The reason for the re-vote (this is the same bill that was passed on Dec. 19) is because of technical differences between the House and Senate bills (nothing substantive however.) According to the analysis, which I blogged originally on Dec. 19 on CRFA (same bill, so I am revisiting the analysis I made then)

Cuts in Medicaid will require higher co-payments and lower benefits to poor people on the program. Now, I realize that everyone in America, even if they have insurance, are now seeing higher co-payments and lower benefits. And in that context, it is worth noting that the 'managed care' plans we have now ARE the Republican answer to the Democratic proposal for Universal Heathcare in 1994. However, the failure of the GOP model should not mean that we will now penalize the poorest of Americans, in one of the few programs where people CAN avoid having to worry about changing their doctor or being turned away for healthcare due to lack of coverage.

Higher benefit cuts in the area of 'asset protection' for middle class people who want nursing home care than were in either the original House bill or the original Senate bill. 'Asset protection' allows people to have something left they can pass on to their families even if they need long term health care.

For example, one provision of the House bill that appears to have been retained in the conference report would penalize many non-affluent individuals who make modest gifts to relatives or contributions to charity, and then experience an unexpected decline in their health several years later that causes them to need long-term care. So, if for example, your parents gave you some money last year, or made a donation to Hurricane Katrina relief or tsunami relief, and then in a few years they get sick and need nursing home care, they will be asked to give that same money to the nursing home, or what is spent on their care will decline commensurately. This makes clear that the people who are always going on about how bad inheritance taxes are (they prefer to use the term, 'death tax') want to make sure that if you are middle class and have a lingering disease, no you won't have anything to pass on-- the nursing home will get it all (and it makes it clear that the position of the Bush administration opposing the Oregon voluntary euthanasia law is actually quite sinister-- it almost seems as though it is their INTENT to make sure that every penny that can be stolen from the middle class and redistributed to corporate interests is taken-- even if it means forcing terminal patients to suffer for years until every penny they have ever earned is snatched away by health care providers.)

The conference agreement includes Medicaid reductions in this area of $2.4 billion over five years and $6.4 billion over ten years (higher than the $2.2 billion over five years and $5.8 billion over ten years in the House-passed bill). The Senate’s more targeted and carefully designed provisions in this area would have produced savings of $335 million over five years and $890 million over ten years.

There were some winners in the budget bill, however:

The conference report’s health care provisions also move toward the House bill in another respect: they cater to powerful special interests — in particular, the pharmaceutical and managed care industries — at the expense of low-income beneficiaries...

The conference report also protects Medicare managed care plans. It drops a Senate provision that would have eliminated a wasteful $10 billion slush fund to encourage participation in Medicare by regional Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs). The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) — the official, independent advisory body to Congress on Medicare payment policy — recommended this summer, in a nearly unanimous vote, that this fund be eliminated because it is unnecessary and unwarranted and provides an unfair competitive advantage to PPOs over traditional Medicare fee-for-service and other managed care plans such as Medicare HMOs. Nevertheless, the conference agreement leaves this fund fully intact.

This is the provision by which PPO's are paid to be willing to accept other government money that comes via Medicare. A payment to be willing to get paid. But this remains intact.

Partially gutting another provision to curb overpayments to managed care plans: There is near-universal agreement among analysts that the current Medicare payment structure provides excessive payments to managed care plans, and the Administration announced earlier this year that it would act administratively to eliminate a feature of the payment formula that is responsible for a significant volume of excessive payments... it appears that the conference agreement is written so the part of the Medicare payment formula that would be reformed would revert to its current, problematic status after five years, and after that time, managed care plans would again receive the overpayments this provision is supposed to curb.

Outright overpayment to some healthcare providers, and they can't even permanently eliminate that. I wonder if there is also a line in there somewhere for continuing to fund fraud.

Other cuts included in the bill include cuts in child support enforcement (obviously lobbying for the votes of deadbeat parents), welfare-to-work programs (I guess because they have been so successful, they no longer have enough 'welfare queens' to beat up on so they need to create a new generation of them to support right-wing rhetoric), child care funding, SSI disability payments, and foster care funding.

Maybe that is why the House leadership was forced to change the rules and release, let members study and vote on this monster in four and a half hours on the morning of Dec. 19, between 1:12 AM and 5:43 AM (which might also explain why this time around there were so many more Republican 'no' votes-- some of them actually have had time to read the bill.)
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