Friday, June 30, 2006

Conservatives love philanthropy-- until they realize they can't control where the money goes.

You'd think everyone would be thrilled that two of the richest men in the world (in fact, according to the Fortune 500 list, perenially THE two richest men in the world), Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, have joined forces to become great philanthropists, giving away billions to universities, libraries and other institutions around the world. Liberals would be thrilled because of how much money these institutions would receive to further their mission for the common good, conservatives would be thrilled because of the ability to demonstrate how the super rich can give back (in stark contrast to, most notably, the selfish Wal-Mart heirs whose main concern of late has been lobbying Congress to try and get rid of inheritance taxes, presumably to prevent any of their money from ever being used for the common good so they can pass it on to the next generation of plutocrats; it might be noted by the way that Buffett and Gates' father both signed a letter a couple of years ago in favor of keeping the estate tax.) So everyone (at least those not named Walton) should be thrilled, right?

Well, not some anti-abortion priests. Rev. Thomas Euteneuer, a Roman Catholic priest who is president of Human Life International said that

[Buffett] "will be known as the Dr. Mengele of philanthropy unless he repents."

That statement is an absolute outrage. First of all, Dr. Mengele, who carried out hideous 'experiments' on concentration camp prisoners, was anything but a philanthropist. To compare Warren Buffett to Dr. Mengele is an insult to the survivors of his 'experiments' (yes, there are still some out there.) and marginalizes the crimes of one of the last century's most notorious criminals (probably the most evil of Hitler's henchmen to escape justice and die of natural causes.)

Secondly, Rev. Thomas is referring to money that Buffett has given to Planned Parenthood and birth control programs, and also money he donated in the 1990's specifically to fund clinical trials of the 'morning after' pill, RU-486, after misguided anti-abortion advocates thought they had prevented the trials by blocking Federal funding for them after Republicans took over Congress in 1994. They don't seem to have a problem with, for example, Domino's pizza founder Tom Monaghan giving generously to pro-life causes, so why should they be upset that Warren Buffett once chose to spend some of his money to pay for something that the Federal government didn't want to spend taxpayer money on? After all, isn't that the conservative ideal? Well, I guess not if it circumvents their circumvention.

Third, consider what Planned Parenthood is for. The name says it all. They teach family planning, birth control, and where necessary, that the morning after pill be available. All of which actually reduces the number of abortions! So by being angry about it, aren't Rev. Thomas and the others either showing that they haven't thought this all the way through, or else they are in effect admitting that it isn't about abortion at all, but about forcing 'wicked' women to 'pay' for their decision to have sex by becoming pregnant?

It's not just the Rev. Thomas either:

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, wrote a commentary this week holding the Buffetts partially responsible for the approval of RU-486 in 2000.

"Since then, approximately 500,000 American babies have been killed with RU-486," Perkins wrote. "Buffett's billions have the potential to do damage like this on a global scale."

I guess conservatives like philanthropy only as long as they can theorize about how it will replace government programs. But when it replaces the ones they actually wanted to can, then they go nuts.

And conservatives have a problem. Conservative billionaires either keep their money, or like the Wal-Mart heirs, invest it in lobbying big government. Liberal billionaires are mostly the philanthropists, which means that most of the money goes-- that's right, to liberal causes (conservatives who wanted to squeeze the budget reins to choke National Public Radio off the air or into compliance are still ticked off about Joan Kroc's bequest of $200 million in her will, which makes NPR pretty much immune to most of what they can do, at least through the end of the Bush administration.)

I can't wait until the Gates foundation starts upgrading internet access in their local school or library, and they can't shut it down just by pleading that people would rather have a tax cut, nor make funding contingent on a censorship agreement. Can't you hear the outcry already?

Cross-posted at Night Bird's Fountain.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

LCRD Congressional District One candidate forum.

On Thursday night, July 20, the Little Colorado River Democrats (LCRD) will be hosting a forum including all five of the Democratic candidates for Congress in Congressional district 1 (the winner of the nomination will run against Rick Renzi of Virginia, who in 2002 illegally raised and spent millions of dollars to buy a congressional seat in Arizona. The forum will be held at the La Posada in Winslow from 7-9 PM.

The five Democratic candidates are Mike Caccioppoli, Bob Donahue, Susan Friedman (who I could not find any other web site for), Vic McKerlie and Ellen Simon.

As a member of the organization hosting the forum, I am excited about having it in Winslow. Winslow is pretty close to being in the center of the district. And it in many ways is a prototypical small town, with a route 66 and blue collar railroad heritage that in many ways represents the district. Winslow is also just off the reservation and has a sizeable Navajo population that swells during the day as many people come in off of the reservation to shop, work and go to school.

The first district is a district with an 8% (43%-35%) Democratic registration advantage. We made a colossal mistake in failing to organize around a single candidate in 2002, and have suffered ever since. But the potential is there, a lot of people are fed up with Mr. Renzi, especially with his ties to Jack Abramoff. I believe the time may be right to take it back, if we can find the right candidate. I hope it will be one of those attending the forum. Speaking personally, I had been for Jack Jackson, who ran briefly for the seat and who I met several years ago at a state party meeting, and who I really respect; he later dropped out of the race so I am still looking for the right candidate. The only one of the five I have met is Susan Friedman, but I am very much undecided at this point. In that sense, I am also looking forward to helping organize and work at this forum to see if any of the five candidates really stand out as 'yeah, that's the one.' We'll have to keep tuned.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Harry Reid gets an idea-- and it's a good one.

A few days ago I wrote a post in which I criticized those members of Congress who, among other things, voted against stimulating consumer spending with a minimum wage increase while pocketing a nice $3000 plus Congressional pay raise.

Not so fast. Harry Reid has decided that is wrong, and he's doing something about it.

Since the minimum wage remains frozen at $5.15 per hour, where it has been for nine years of benign (or not so benign) neglect, he has said that he intends to prevent the Congressional pay raises from taking effect.

"They can play all the games the want," Reid said derisively of the Republicans who control the chamber. "They can deal with gay marriage, estate tax, flag burning, all these issues and avoid issues like the prices of gasoline, sending your kid to college. But we're going to do everything to stop the congressional pay raise"....

During the past nine years, as Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to increase the minimum wage, members of Congress have voted to give themselves pay raises -- technically "cost of living increases" -- totaling $31,600, or more than $15 an hour for a 40-hour week, 52 weeks a year, according to the Congressional Research Service....

Reid wouldn't spell out the specific tactics he would employ to block the congressional pay raise -- which is triggered each year with the passage of an appropriations bill not by a vote on a stand alone bill to increase pay for members.

But he warned, "I know procedure's around here fairly well."

$31,600 is equal to what three people would earn if they all worked full time at minimum wage for a year, and that only represents the raises that Congress has given itself since the last time they raised the minimum wage.

Seems what Harry Reid is doing is right on target. Don't give the lowest paid workers a raise-- then see what it is like to live with none yourself.

It's about time that somebody came up with and stood behind an idea like that.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Flag Burning Amendment.

It must be an election year, the Republicans are in control of the agenda, and they have nothing substantive to run on. How do I know that?

Well, today, the Senate opened debate on a flag-burning amendment.

Last year, I did a post in which I pointed out that exactly ONE flag was burned in the United States in 2004 protest.

Then last year, according to a site owned by supporters of an amendment, they could only find twelve incidents of 'flag desecration' in the entire country.

Let me say that again. A dozen in the entire country in an entire year, as researched by supporters of the amendment (I'm even giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming that every word they say on that page is accurate.)

And, in all but a couple of the cases that have been solved, the perpetrators were teenagers, drunk or both. If anything, I would question whether the publicity afforded because of the kind of rhetoric we hear may be inciting drunk or rebellious teens to do something that might not have even crossed their mind minus the phony flag-burning 'debate.' Further, in every single one of the twelve cases a crime already on the books was committed, and either the perpetrators were arrested or the case remains open. The crimes included arson, theft, vandalism, incitement to riot, disturbing a public assembly and other unspecified charges (likely including public intoxication) as well as all those relating to flag desecration that the group could come up with that are apparently still being enforced locally (in none of the twelve cases was this the only crime which apparently had been committed.)

And I'd even add one more (maybe): There was an incident in which a group calling itself the 'Islamic Thinkers Society' ripped up a flag in New York and put it on video, mainly it seems for the benefit of people who want to ban flag burning (I wonder if someone over there on the right paid them to deliver the tape just in time for the fourth of July last year, since they had been forced to use old 1960's era stock footage of someone actually destroying a flag). This only shows one thing though. If this incident (which seems remarkably staged-- probably why it wasn't listed in the link above) was in fact genuine then it seems that all the publicity we are giving it is certainly contributing to such incidents as there are.

All this is exactly why we DON'T need a flag burning amendment. There is no epidemic of flag burning in the United States. Twelve cases, up from one the year before is no evidence that this is a problem, and in every case there are already local laws that cover the situation (especially since it seems that the flag burners involved apparently prefer to burn someone else's flag). The way the right would have you hear it, there are avenues practically lined with flag burners, who are creating a serious threat to the security of our nation (and just think of the greenhouse gases emitted). But it just ain't so.

Now consider a document which is practically sacred. The basis of our freedom, which makes America unique among all the nations of the world in being the first, and for a long time, the only, free society on earth. This document has only been amended 27 times in the history of the Republic (in fact only seventeen, as the first ten were included when it was written), and when it was, it was nearly always amended to spell out broad freedoms and rights given to millions of people, in fact an expansion of freedom. The only exception, where any kind of freedom was limited, was the 18th (prohibition)* which also stands as the only amendment that was considered such a massive mistake that within a few years another amendment was passed to repeal it. Now, is our generation's legacy going to be that we will add an amendment not guaranteed to expand anyone's right, but only to silence a handful of kooks?

And I will give credit where credit is due. The Senate's number 2 Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said on ABC's 'This Week'

I think the First Amendment has served us well for over 200 years. I don't think it needs to be altered.

Which in my opinion bodes well, if the Republicans manage to keep control of the Senate (which hopefully won't happen.) Given that Bill Frist is leaving the Senate, and the number 3 man, Rick Santorum, is in serious trouble in his race for re-election (with his conservatism being the biggest strike against him in Pennsylvania), McConnell will almost certainly become the new Minority Leader (or Majority Leader if we don't get to 51). It means that instead of continuing to fight this dragon every year, Democrats may actually have a chance to slay it once for at least the next several years if we can get enough votes this year to scuttle it. Apparently it won't be way up there on McConnell's agenda to bring back again.

Well, maybe not, but in an election year it 1) makes a great diversion from the real issues which face us, and 2) you can always get people on record who have the good sense and guts to vote against it and run some commercials back home which practically show them holding a blowtorch to a flag.

*- some might argue that the 27th amendment, which was actually written by James Monroe and ratified 200 years later, and which limits the ability of Congress to vote pay raises to itself, is a restriction of freedom. It has only been part of the Constitution for a dozen years though, and was completely unnecessary were it not for the failure of the people to vote out Congressmen who voted themselves pay raises after midnight.

cross posted at Night Bird's Fountain.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Kyl campaign invents a position for Jim Pederson on Iraq.

Funny, but even when I know that Jim Pederson disagrees with me on a very important issue, Jon Kyl is doing his best to make Pederson even more appealing to me.

The issue is about the specifics of how to get out of Iraq. I support a timeline for a withdrawal that gives the Iraqi army enough notice that they can assume the duties that we are now carrying out, but nevertheless has a deadline attached to it. Jim Pederson, as he reiterated in a news release today said that he does not support a timeline.

Jon Kyl’s campaign again lied about Jim Pederson’s position on Iraq today to try to deflect attention from revelations about Kyl’s craven partisan behavior when a Democrat was in the White House and U.S. troops were in the field. Clearly, the Kyl campaign is frustrated that Pederson hasn’t taken the position they would like him to take, so they have decided to make one up for him...

Pederson is on record opposing an announced timeline or a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and has said we should finish the job. He would have opposed the Kerry amendment that set a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Reed-Levin amendment does not call for a deadline for the removal of American soldiers.

Now, I personally disagree strongly with Pederson's position on this, but I also know Jim and have talked with him before, and I know that he is an honest guy who is very concerned about the fundamental needs of ordinary people in Arizona, so as important an issue as this is, I continue to believe that he is the best choice the people of this state can have for Senate. One thing for sure-- Jim Pederson is a guy who can be reasoned with, while Jon Kyl, after decades in Washington, can't even be found anymore, let alone reasoned with.

As we've seen time and again from the Kyl campaign however, the truth does not matter. And that is a reflection of Kyl himself-- all about image, and frankly very little to show for his many, many years as Senator, Congressman, lobbyist, congressional staffer, son of a Congressman...

Lobbyists, legislators partying down there in Phoenix.

It appears that the problems with lobbyists don't just happen in Washington, they are going on down in Phoenix just as much. Yesterday, a report came out that indicates that what lobbyists in Phoenix have spent to feed, lodge, entertain and send our legislators places more than doubled in just the past two years, with some legislators getting paid thousands in free food, travel, tickets and other niceties. Considering that we have a part-time legislature that earns $24,000 per year, this adds up to a significant tax-free, off the books 'bonus' for our legislators. You can check on who has been wining and dining your legislator at this link (you may have to scroll all the way to the right to get the links to individual legislators.)

Let's make one thing clear: Lobbyists may be looking for a way around the rules now that Arizona's clean election laws have stymied their ability to outright buy candidates by means of big money donations, but any attempt to use this by Republicans as a reason to get rid of clean elections is like trying to cure a cold with a cold shower followed by standing in an open window. In fact, this could be looked at as proof that the clean elections laws work, and only need to be supplemented by a few more rules on what legislators can accept from lobbyists (I also believe that a full time legislature, paid a full time salary, would be a move in the right direction also, as then legislators wouldn't be tempted to let a lobbyist pick up the tab for lunch.)

What is really disturbing is to read through who has been doing this. For example, quite a few legislators have been given all sorts of free meals and beverages by representatives of pharmaceutical companies like Glaxo-Smith Kline.

Others have been wined and dined by a group calling itself by the appealing sounding name, 'Citizens' Commission on Human Rights.' A check of the group's web site reveals something less appealing. They are affiliated with the Church of Scientology. If you don't know who the Church of Scientology is, they are the group that Tom Cruise belongs to, that was founded by former science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and believes in 'dianetics,' a medicine-free path to good health, and in particular to good mental health (and at a higher level to a release of untapped mental energy). That is the fundamental cornerstone of their belief system, so by necessity they also believe in all sorts of conspiracy plots, mostly involving psychiatrists and the mental health system. By forming CCHR, they have moved beyond the fringe and have tried to get their views accepted by people who make laws, not just in Arizona but around the country. In fact, this is a strange case of where big business and a loony religious cult have come together to shaft the little guy (as represented by a person who has a mental illness and needs affordable treatment that works). For a long time, health insurance companies have not reimbursed mental health providers or reimbursed them at much lower rates than other health care providers. Once their justification for doing so, that mental conditions were in general not diseases but purely were voluntary conditions or conditions which were produced by voluntary actions (such as drug or alcohol abuse), was proven false by biochemical researchers, they had to change their reasoning. In fact, the brain is just like any other organ in the body, subject to disease (as evidenced by chemical imbalance, even in otherwise healthy people) and psychiatrists (my father was one before he died fifteen years ago) are simply trained medical doctors who went to the same medical schools as other doctors, and specialized in the treatment of diseases of this organ. Because scientologists believe as an absolute truth and matter of religious conviction that mental illness is something that can be treated by their own (non-medical) methods, much like the old view of it, the insurance industry, while still taking mental illness less seriously (in terms of payment) than they do other kinds of illnesses, have been able to step back and let the religious cult do their dirty work for them. In fact, I have to wonder why CCHR has been so well funded. I know that Tom Cruise gets a pretty good paycheck and undoubtedly donates quite a bit of it, but the rate that this organization (CCHR) has grown is very suggestive that they may be getting some serious behind the scenes money, and if so.... well I can suggest a conspiracy theory just as well as they can.

Since I haven't had a chance to review all of the legislators, I will only point out a couple here that jump out at me. The first one is of Senator Barbara Leff, who seems to have accepted 'gifts' of food and beverages, travel, lodging, entertainment and flowers (wonder if they ever give those to male legislators) from a wide variety of lobbyists, though lobbyists associated with the legal and medical industries tend to predominate. Remember, it was Senator Leff who successfully scuttled an effort to reduce the methamphetamine problem in our state (and if you live in a rural area like I do, you know how big a problem it is-- if you don't, then I discussed it in the post I did on my Grand Jury experience). The bill Senator Leff stopped, similar to one that cut the number of meth labs by 70% in Oklahoma, would have required that stores which sold cold tablets containing pseudoephedrine, a major component of meth, have them in a locked cabinet near the pharmacy (similar to the way they keep stop smoking patches and pregnancy testing kits.) Apparently, Senator Leff thought that unlocking this cabinet (and asking people who bought more than three boxes at a time to sign for them) would be too odious for the pharmacists-- so we continue to keep products like Nicoderm patches that save lives under lock and key while meth cooks can still walk into a supermarket and clean out the shelves with no questions asked. And look at the numbers: It is a pretty good payback, for a couple of meals and other favors purchased for Barbara Leff by lobbyists from the pharmaceutical industry. Fortunately, a lot of cities have been so outraged by this that they have passed these measures themselves, meaning the investment that the pharmaceutical industry lobbyists made in Senator Leff may not have been so productive as they first thought it would be.

The other one that stands out is my own Senator, Jake Flake (R-Snowflake) (whose list of lobbyist favors is about twice as long as the list for my two representatives, Bill Konopnicki (R-Safford) and Jack Brown (D-St. Johns), combined !-- he sure is living it up on the lobbyists' tab.) One thing that surprised me here is that (like many others) he let lobbyists from Philip Morris buy him food or beverage, not just once but several times. I have very good reason to believe that Rep. Flake is a non-smoker, and in fact that he belongs to the same church that I do, that preaches rather vigorously against smoking. So what is he doing accepting dinner from tobacco lobbyists? He has the right to, of course-- but since they aren't trying to sell him cigarettes, it seems they are trying to sell him something else. And since they keep coming back to him, it seems they believe it is a good investment of their money. 'nuff said.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

This letter distills down exactly why Ann Coulter is frustrated.

Rarely does a letter in a newspaper cut to the quick as well as one that appeared in today's Arizona Republic (particularly the paragraph just before the end). The writer was responding to a letter earlier in the week in which another writer was attempting to excuse the inexcusable Ann Coulter by comparing her to famed eighteenth century satirist Jonathan Swift. The writer writes here (the link should be, based on past experiences with the Republic, good for about a week, so I will cut and paste the entire letter).

Regarding "Coulter's satire goes unrecognized" (Letters, Sunday):

The letter writer chides syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts for his "ignorance" in "failing to recognize (Ann) Coulter as a satirist, in the mode of Jonathan Swift." Oh? Let us compare and contrast:

Swift is perhaps the finest of all satirists for his deft touch in the use of playfulness and fairy tale to devastating effect (Gulliver's Travels). The irony of A Modest Proposal has seldom been equaled, and is timeless.

Ann Coulter, on the other hand, is beyond shrill, and would never allow nuance or indirection to get in the way of a blunt, even crude, frontal assault ad hominid. Satire is the humor of Swift, never Coulter's unrelieved fury; it is Swift's understatement, never Coulter's bombast.

Largely unnoticed, moreover, is Coulter's propensity for missing her own point. She has lately been on tour to explain her grotesque attack upon the four "9/11 widows" for certain of their political positions. What infuriates Coulter is that these "broads," as she calls them, are in her opinion using their personal tragedies to shield themselves from rebuttal. But here, in one of her many failings, Coulter confuses the message with the messenger.

Rebuttal on the merits of the message - where it belongs - is never out of bounds. Coulter's nature, however, is to claw at the widows personally, and she does so in the only way she knows how, by demeaning the tragedy of 9/11 itself.

No, in Ann Coulter there is nothing in the least Swiftian.

-Robert R. Anderson.

Good for you, Mr. Anderson. I've never met you but if I ever do I'll be sure to thank you personally for writing such a good letter.

That next to last paragraph highlights the quandry of the right. No one has suggested that there is anything wrong with rebutting anything that the 9/11 widows (or others who have spoken out against Bush policy after suffering personal tragedy) say. For example if one of the 9/11 widows (or Cindy Sheehan, or Mary Tillman, or whoever else) quotes a statistic, anyone is welcome to dispute it, challenge it or rebut it with appropriate data. Coulter's frustration (and the frustration on the part of many on the right) is a product of the fact that it is difficult to find a way to attack people like this personally. Personal smears have long been a staple of the right wing attack machine, and Coulter stands out as one who simply is incapable of debating any other way. To ask her to seriously debate issues without resorting to some sort of personal attack is like asking Jay Leno to deliver his monologue without telling any jokes, or asking Mark Cuban not to talk about basketball. Coulter just isn't capable of debating issues seriously, so she has to resort to personal attacks. Maybe the 9/11 widows or the others will force her to actually consider how to debate issues on the issues (or at least expose how vacuous she is, once you take away her attack bludgeon).

Friday, June 23, 2006

Well, it made for good rhetoric anyway.

At the President's 2006 Dinner on Monday, he made (at the end of paragraph 18 of the news release) the following statement:

It is important to have members of the United States Congress who will not wave the white flag of surrender in this war on terror.

Matt Lauer of NBC asked White House consel Dan Bartlett about it on Wednesday and asked him to name ONE member of Congress who had advocated that we 'wave the white flag of surrender.' Bartlett couldn't name one. Because none have.

There are a growing number in Congress who believe, as I do, that there is nothing at all to be gained by our remaining in Iraq, and that sooner or later the country created by colonial powers and made up of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds who have little in common and were only held together forcibly by a dictator, is likely to divide into three smaller countries and that fighting the inevitable is as futile as the attempts a decade ago to try and hold the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia together by force. These members of Congress have not simply suggested that we lay down our weapons and leave, but rather that we set a deadline which would give the Iraqi army, (though fighting a futile cause as it is) time to take over for us (lest anyone think they are serious about this without a deadline, they give their members a week of vacation per month-- something our troops could scarecely dream of-- because they know as long as the Bush policy is in place, when things get tough, the Americans will do all their fighting for them.)

What I see is a plan for withdrawal from being stuck in a civil war that we can stay in until the cows come home without winning, not a surrender. I had hoped that Bush would take the opportunity presented by the death of Zarqawi to announce a withdrawal (declare victory and get out) but apparently he was not willing to do so. This does not involve surrendering to anyone, and it is interesting that when you hear this sort of rhetoric, asking people to name names seems to calm it down right away. They accuse in general, but they can't find a specific individual who fits the accusation.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Nice to see that they have their priorities in order

Congress today voted to pass another estate tax cut. Although the measure falls short of the complete abolition of estate taxes that had been urged by conservatives, led by the Wal-Mart heirs (who apparently feel they were gypped by only receiving in the neighborhood of $20 billion apiece from the estate of their late father), it does actually do one reasonable thing-- increasing the exemption level (the amount of an estate not subject to taxes) up to $5 million for individuals and $10 million for couples. This is reasonable inasmuch as the previous limits of $1 million and $2 million had not been indexed to inflation, and so in fact there had been a handful of cases where successful family businesses or farms that had been subject to the tax were sold. And the new limit won't get rid of this problem in some cases-- for example the O'Malley family had to sell the Dodgers and the Yawkey family had to sell the Red Sox. So I guess if you own a major league baseball team, maybe you should sell it and run for Governor of Texas or something like that. However, the whole 'family run small business or farm' routine is largely a dodge, because in almost all cases the old limit (and certainly the new limit) covers it. If your business has grown to the size where you end up paying substantial estate taxes (like Sam Walton's remaining share of Wal-Mart), then I question whether it is a 'small' business anymore.

They had in fact wanted to eliminate the tax entirely, but were prevented from doing it last year because the vote was to be taken just as the Katrina images were coming out of New Orleans and Americans would have been outraged by a tax cut for dead rich people when the bodies of dead poor people were being collected on sidewalks. And this year, there is an election coming and the Republicans are reading the poll numbers. So, there is only one year there will be no estate taxes at all-- in 2010 due to old legislation passed during the earlier rounds of Bush tax cuts. But it will still be back in 2011 (Wonder, in the event that they don't get a permanent repeal passed, whether in December of 2010 we will see a bunch of billionaires move to Oregon and get themselves declared terminally ill and get lethal injections?) and that is a good thing. With the new limits, any further estate tax cut would be clearly a tax cut aimed at plutocrats (which there are many of in Congress, and many more in Congress who have been wined, dined and given airplane rides by plutocrats). The case can be made that this cut was as well, but luckily it stopped short of going all the way.

What makes this particularly galling is that Congress just this week voted (again) against raising the minimum wage. Of course, taking inflation into account, the minimum wage is less than half of what it was in the 1950's, but they like to continue to argue that somehow it protects 'jobs.' Hmmmm... that is what they said the last time it actually did go up in 1997, and that was followed by an economic boom and the creation of millions of jobs. It's not hard to figure that one out either-- when poor people have more money, they spend more, creating more need to provide the goods and services they buy. In contrast, when rich people have more, they probably don't spend it because they are already spending whatever they want to (isn't that what it means to be rich?). So given the obvious results of the last time we hiked minimum wages, why are the conservatives still making the tired old, and demonstably false, argument that raising them costs jobs?

And one other thing that got lost in the shuffle of all this-- Congress itself quietly accepted a $3,300 pay raise for themselves. That is despite the fact that they have a health care system that should be a model for the nation-- universal coverage that in most cases is free to members of Congress and their families, even as they refuse to do the same for us. And their retirement benefits are among the best in the land too-- yet it was only a year ago that they were talking about cutting your Social Security benefits.

So they pass a tax cut to favor a bunch of rich dead people (and only don't pass a bigger one because they are afraid of the voters), they pocket a nice raise, but they refuse to stimulate the economy with a minimum wage increase.

Isn't it great to see how well their priorities are in place?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

If government is always less efficient than private industry, why didn't private companies build these big, overarching projects?

Good to be back from vacation. If you read my last post, you know that I was gone on vacation.

My girls did the Arizona Cinderella pageant. I say, ‘did’ rather than ‘compete’ because it is far more than a pageant (if that were all it was, we would not be interested.) It is a youth development program that has really helped mine develop and gain confidence and grow in many, many ways, while at the same time having a lot of fun (and I do mean a LOT of fun—sure leaves dad tired though from all those parties.) Then we went hiking in Yosemite.

All week though little things kept reminding me of the successes of government, and contradicting the claims of those who claim that private industry can do things better. In fact, the great and visionary things often are done not by private industry, but by government. And often private entrepreneurs benefit as a result. Let me list a few examples that occurred to me (in italics, the benefits to private entrepreneurs):

1. The National Parks System. President Theodore Roosevelt had a vision, and he put it together, often over the strenuous objections of those who believed that there were no uses for wilderness other than trapping, logging and mining. Of course, millions of square miles of America—about 98% of it in fact, is outside of these preserves, and so are still available for industrial use, but President Roosevelt’s vision has guaranteed that the beauty of certain places in nature, like Yosemite, will remain for future generations. As an example, my daughters and I were hiking along a stream, and they saw some bright yellow flashes in the sandy mud on the bottom. Having once been an amateur geologist, I can tell the difference between gold and pyrite, and I could tell right away that it was gold (remember where we were too—in the Sierra Nevada, not so far from Sutter’s Mill). Of course, we did not have the equipment to pan for gold, and even if we had, we would not have done so—my daughters understand the need to not take anything from a National Park, and leave it as they found it, so that perhaps one day their kids can see it as they saw it. Many people today make their living working in and around national parks—and tourism is a much larger source of revenue than mining, and unlike mining it is renewable—there will always be more tourists.

2. The electric grid On May 11, 1935, Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Agency. His vision was of a country on a power grid, so that even small places (which then had no electricity) could receive power even if it was from an electric plant several states away. Further, while large cities had electricity, prior to the creation of the grid, there was no way that, for example, surplus electricity generated in, for example, Chicago, could be sent to Detroit if Detroit was running short. With the grid, that happens routinely. Despite aging equipment, electric shortages are today far less common than they were in the 1920’s and 1930’s before the grid was in place. Try doing business in today's world without electricity. Probably impossible for most businesses. And units of energy are routinely bought and sold on the market. Other than abuses in this system, most notably Enron-- which could have been avoided with stricter oversight from Federal and state regulators-- the system has worked pretty well.

3. The Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation. This corporation was also a creation of the Roosevelt administration, as part of the National Housing Act of 1934. In fact, it is not itself a Federal Agency, but a private entity. It however had the implied backing of the Federal government (the only time this was tested was during the Savings and Loan crisis of 1986-1987, when the Federal Government bailed out the FSLIC). The FSLIC underwrites loans that banks make to small businesses and individuals. Want to start a business? Chances are that you will need a bank loan to get started. Without the FSLIC, banks would be on their own to cover bad loans, and so it would be much harder to get that loan (especially given the failure rate of small businesses) and the rates would be much, much higher. With the FSLIC (and ultimately, as 1987 showed, the Federal Government) underwriting your loan, if you have good credit and a sound business plan, you can probably get that loan.

4. The splitting of the atom. A few years ago, a panel of scientists voted this the most important scientific achievement of the twentieth century. And again, it would not have been done without the government. In fact, the Manhattan project was so secret that it was 100% done by the government, and only those private businesses who absolutely had to know that anything at all was being done, knew it. And say what you will about Hiroshima, but let’s not forget that in those days there were people like Hitler and Stalin in the world who, had they developed nukes, would have had no compunction at all about laying waste to entire countries to further their evil plans. Today, nuclear energy provides 21% of the electricity in the United States, and over 90% in countries like France. Of course, it has its drawbacks and may be a dubious benefit, but to claim that the Manhattan Project was somehow a failure or inefficient because it was done by the government instead of private industry is ridiculous.

5. The eradication of smallpox worldwide, and of malaria and polio in America. This was a vision during the 1950’s and 1960’s, and became a reality, thanks to government. There was no profit in going into small, impoverished villages in India to give expensive smallpox vaccines to the children there, so if this was the purview of private industry, it likely never would have been done. But governments from around the world, assisted by some lesser amounts raised by charities, paid to have this done. Unfortunately, the eradication campaigns against polio and malaria ended with those diseases still present in parts of the third world. Today, most people in developed countries have no longer been vaccinated against them anymore so polio and malaria are starting to re-emerge. But that is a result of not doing what was done with smallpox (largely because it was considered too expensive), rather than because of inefficiency. The government was efficient in doing what it wanted done in America. Do I even have to point out how not having smallpox, polio and malaria in America benefits entrepreneurs? Health care costs and productivity benefits aside, not having these deadly diseases in America anymore benefits everybody.

6. The Interstate Highway System. In the 1950’s, President Eisenhower had a vision of an America linked together strategically (remember this was during the Cold War) and commercially by a series of high speed, direct highways linking major commercial and population centers while bypassing smaller ones and replacing the patchwork of two lane highways that then allowed people to drive across the country in about a week. On the interstate, it can be done in half that time. True, it has been devastating to the economy of small towns that used to line many of the two lane highways that are now no longer in use, but ”Anything you’ve got, a trucker brought it”. The impact of the Interstate on commerce and business has been enormous, and well worth not only the initial investment to build it, but the ongoing taxes paid to maintain, improve and expand it. In fact, in most states as well as in the case of the Federal Government, gasoline taxes mostly are earmarked for the construction and maintenance of highways and other roads. Yet, with the high price of gasoline, I’ve heard some people propose getting rid of gasoline taxes. I wonder whether they would complain if this happened and then the roads started to fall apart under them. Some people still expect that they can get something for nothing.

7. The Space Program. In the 1960’s, President Kennedy had a vision. He said that by the end of that decade, America would land a man on the moon. And so it was. But since that date, despite budget cuts in the 1970’s and after that led to a series of failed missions and the space shuttle being relegated to doing eighth grade science experiments, NASA has still had its share of successes, the most spectacular being the Hubble orbiting telescope that has allowed us to peer deep into space, witnessing events billions of light-years away (and so billions of years into the past). Forget liquid crystals and tang. The space program has brought us satellites, allowing communication by cell phones, televisions and now wireless internet instantaneously all over the world—with enormous commercial benefits. We can even use GPS systems to find a lost hiker in Colorado or track a stolen vehicle and lead police to it. And private industry? Well, after finally making it into orbit last year, there are plans to open a private spaceport in Southern New Mexico to take tourists into space at up to $200,000 a pop. In other words, to do what astronauts were doing in the early 1960’s.

8. The Internet. That’s right, this one you are on right now. Of course, as early as the 1970’s, there were small groups of research institutions and government agencies that were linked together via computer, but only for specific sharing of research or information (and these by the way were also generally public institutions.) In 1988, Al Gore wrote and shepherded through Congress the specific piece of legislation, the National High-Performance Computing Act, that established the infrastructure and the process to link universities and research institutions together on a national level via a shared network. Then in 1992, he co-sponsored the Information Infrastructure and Technology Act, which opened the network to private traffic. Also that year, as a candidate for Vice President, Al Gore introduced the term, ‘information superhighway.’ His vision consisted of an international ‘trunk’ which would link potentially billions of individual computers together to participate in a free and open exchange of information. In 1993, Gore, then a member of the Clinton administration, got the administration to implement a tax of a few cents a month on local phone bills to finance the construction of this network.. Within a couple of years, the internet was up and running (though in a form somewhat different from Gore’s original vision) and has grown exponentially since. Let me ask you? Do you even notice the tax on your phone bill? And if you do, would you trade the internet for those few cents a month? The commercial and proven business power of the internet is enormous. Many people earn a very good living strictly online. Of course, many entrepreneurs make money as local points of access (internet service providers). Unfortunately for Gore, he misspoke in the 2000 campaign when he said he 'invented the internet.' In fact, he no more invented the internet than Henry Ford invented the automobile, but like Ford, he deserves credit (which he will likely not get for many years, if ever) for making it available to more than the select few.

9. The Human Genome Project I recently wrote a complete post on this one: May 18, 2006: Human Genome Project Complete; A Triumph for Public Research Funding. Without going through that entire post again, I made the points that 1) Governments (this was an international project though led by the British) had taken the lead in funding this research, though they had and benefited from partnerships with private industry, 2) private industry (Celera) had tried to beat them to the end and failed, in fact given up because the undertaking was so huge, 3) this could be a win-win situation for the government and the drug companies, and most importantly: 4)

the genome, now completed, is free and accessible to anyone who wants to look at it. Suppose for a moment, that a private company had in fact carried out this project and sequenced the entire genome. Do you suppose they would simply open it up to free inspection, and tell potential competitors, 'Here?' They would have guarded it like Colonel Sanders guarded his secret recipe, and if they let any of it out at all, you can be sure that it would have only been in pieces, and at a hefty price. In the long run, research into applications would be limited only to that company, and to those who they chose to give the information to. And to compound matters, competitors, not willing to allow that situation to continue permanently, would have certainly begun their own DNA sequencing project. So, the same research would probably be done half a dozen, a dozen or even more times, resulting in a tremendous waste of academic resources. But now, none of them will have to do that, they can go to the public database of the project, and go get anything and everything they want either for free or for a nominal fee.

That is the end of the quote, but let me be clear (the following italics) about the benefit to private industry: With this research now done and accessible to all, it helps all of the companies looking for the miracle cures for diseases that this promises to open up. They can still compete with each other, but the Genome project is like a card that tells everyone in a game to move ahead ten spaces. The path to the new cures will be shorter and more direct, for everybody. If anything, the ones it really helps the most are the smallest players, the startups and other pharmaceutical companies with limited resources who now have the same background genetic information available as the large manufacturers.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Vacation time-- and a live-wire topic to chew on

I'll be gone for just a bit over a week. My girls are competing in a pageant in Nevada, after which I plan to take them hiking in Yosemite, and maybe fit in a trip to Knott's Berry farm before heading back.

Before leaving, though, I want to address an issue that seems to have come up this week.

It has been the plan of the right to criticize those of us on the left as 'unpatriotic' ever since the early days of the Cold War (after all, I think they reasoned that because communism was an ideology which originally had its roots on the left of the political spectrum, therefore liberals must harbor some sort of secret sympathy for Josef Stalin or something ridiculous like that). Through decades of red baiting the right learned how to win elections with these sorts of things (taught by none other than the master red baiter of them all, Richard Nixon, who got elected to congress by accusing Congressman Jerry Voorhees of being a closet communist.) An example of what they preached went like this: if you wanted the US out of Vietnam, it might have been simply because you couldn't see any rational reason to continue to lose troops fighting an endless war, but the right could (and did) claim that you must actually have some sort of secret line to Hanoi or Moscow and were really working not for peace for America, but for victory for the reds. Later on, Newt Gingrich and a couple of his friends helped set the tone for their attacks against Congress by standing in the well and making speeches that were televised by cable all over the country, actually asking where 'anyone of the Democrat side of he aisle' would stand to dispute their contention that they were all anti-American and wanted to change America into a communist country by doing everything they could to help the Soviet Union defeat America in battle. Of course the house chamber was empty during these speeches, but their audience wasn't other congressmen, it was rubes listening all over the land, and it was great dramatic theatre. And that fit their black and white view of the world perfectly: either you were for every warlike move that America made, or you were actively working for the communists.

One wonders whether some on the right actually miss the days of the Cold War and how easy it was to crucify Liberals as 'anti-American.'

But not to fear, they have a new tool to attack the left as unpatriotic and anti-American. It was on full display this week after Zarqawi was nailed by an American surgical strike. For example, on Fox News' the Big Story, host John Gibson and guest Ed Rollins

suggested that attendees at the "big convention" for the "far-left-wing Daily Kos" weblog were "demoralized" by the death of Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi....

On the June 8 edition of Fox News' The Big Story, host John Gibson suggested that attendees at the "big convention" for the "far-left-wing Daily Kos" weblog -- at which he noted Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean and Sens. Harry Reid (D-NV) and John Kerry (D-MA) were scheduled to speak -- were "demoralized" by the death of Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Republican strategist Ed Rollins agreed, adding: "Well, they'll claim it's a conspiracy theory. That we knew their meeting was going on and that's why we did it [killed Zarqawi now]." Gibson replied: "Well, they are claiming that. They are claiming at this moment that they were saving Zarqawi to kill at an important moment."

As Media Matters For America has noted, MSNBC host Don Imus and CNN political analyst Bill Bennett have also suggested that liberals were saddened by Zarqawi's death.
And we hear that sort of thing from people like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage on a daily basis, pretty much interrupted only by commercial breaks.

Uh, go ahead and read the comments that day on the front page of Kos. An example of one (requoted in the quotes after the Media Matters article) reads like this:

"CHEERS to finding a really evil needle in a really big haystack. U.S. forces rocked terrorist Abu Musab "Dick" al-Zarqawi's world last night when they tossed a thousand pounds of explosive whupass down his gullet. They found his body in the bedroom. And the kitchen. And the den. And the garage. And the neighbor's apartment. And I think I found an eyebrow in my Cocoa Puffs this morning. My only regret: he didn't know what hit him." - Bill in Portland Maine, front page of DailyKos (this was written before we learned that he actually did have a few moments of life left, during which he did learn what hit him.)

As I wrote in my own post about Zarqawi:

And it is a good thing that he is dead. Zarqawi was a murdering monster who won't be mourned by anyone except for a handful of fanatics.

And I don't feel any differently about it today. And it isn't even logical that anyone on the left could feel any sympathy for a guy like Zarqawi even if he wasn't a murderer-- if he or those who think like him ever did succeed, they would create a feudal society where men are absolutely in control and girls have to drop out of school before junior high school so they can get married, where people are forced to pray several times per day and even the smallest moral transgression is punishable by such things as public flogging, amputation, or being stoned to death. Why would any of us Liberals feel sympathy for a guy who wants to create that kind of a society?

What this shows is that regardless of what those of us on the left may feel, the right has decided that they can pull out the old Cold War red baiting gimmick, paint it green (the color of Islam) and go about their old tricks. The truth doesn't matter.

Heck, they may even find some malcontent somewhere on the left who actually does miss Zarqawi. And if they do, expect them to display him or her in front of a fifty-thousand watt searchlight as an example of a 'typical' liberal. Of course if they do find one, he or she won't be any more typical than that church that protests against gay people at soldiers' funerals is typical of conservatives. My only response to that would be to reread my comment from above:

And it is a good thing that he is dead. Zarqawi was a murdering monster who won't be mourned by anyone except for a handful of fanatics.

Nowhere did I say that all the fanatics would be radical Islamicists. But don't presume to assume if you find one that that is what Liberals think, because it isn't true.

cross-posted at Night Bird's Fountain

If you are from Alabama, give yourself a pat on the back...

There are politicians who are serious about solving the public's problems, and politicians who will demogogue any issue in order to get themselves elected.

For example, I was very impressed with the voters of both parties in Alabama this week.

On Tuesday, Republican voters in Alabama renominated incumbent Governor Bob Riley in his race against Judge Roy Moore, while Democratic voters chose Lucy Baxter, a newcomer to statewide races, over former Governor Don Siegelman. Both Moore and Siegelman would have been very poor choices, men who were apparently willing to do whatever it took to get elected.

Moore, you may recall, willingly and knowingly violated his oath of office in not only failing to uphold the decisions made by higher courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court, but himself having a big stone image engraved with the ten commandments placed inside the rotunda of his courthouse (the irony of the fact that his 'weapon of choice' in the culture war was a graven image which contained right there on it a prohibition against graven images was apparently lost on Moore). He then demogogued the issue until the ten commandments were forcibly removed from the building at very nearly the same time as Moore was forcibly removed from his judicial position. That didn't stop his demogoguing though as he went on tour with the stone monument as he ran for Governor. Luckily, Alabama Republicans, despite Riley's reversal on a 'no-new-taxes' pledge he made the last time he ran (once he saw the real state budget, reality trumped ideology) renominated him and by a margin wide enough that perhaps Moore realizes now how he made (shall I say it?) a monumental miscalculation.

On the Democratic side, the issue was Siegelman. As the Democratic governor who lost narrowly to Riley in 2002, and in a Democratic year, Siegelman might have had a chance, had he put the interests of the people of Alabama first. But he did not. First, as some of you may recall, Siegelman refused to concede the election in 2002, despite the fact that the margin, though close, was wide enough that it was certain that he had lost. As long as there is a realistic chance that an election could still turn, it makes sense to withhold a concession. But once it is clear who will take the oath of office, (including in rare cases when the courts have decided it) then to continue to fight it is futile, and to do so only makes most voters consider you to be desperate and classless. That is why Al Gore is listened to today and respected (he in the end realized when it was time to concede and did so with class) while Dino Rossi is a joke. Siegelman made himself a joke by refusing to concede a race that he had clearly lost. But that pales beside what came next. Siegelman was indicted on multiple counts of corruption while in the statehouse. So his concern about losing the election was not for the people of Alabama at all. It was about his 1) losing a reliable source of income, and I don't mean just the Governor's salary, and 2) suddenly no longer being in a position where he could cover up his own misdeeds. During the campaign, Siegelman attended his Federal corruption trial during the day and campaigned at night. He was actually not even trying to win, just to make it into a runoff, where he might be able to tear down his opponent and squeak out a nomination, then try to come up with some rabbit-out-of-the-hat to beat Riley (or Moore, who he must have been hoping would be the Republican nominee). Fortunately Alabama Democrats rejected the whole sad, sick Siegelman spectacle and coalesced around another candidate, giving Baxter the outright majority she needed to avoid a runoff.

In no state was the choice as clearly this week between candidates who had their own self-interest in mind, and candidates who took the term, 'public servant' seriously. And Alabama voters-- of both parties-- made the right decision.

...But not if you are from Oklahoma or South Carolina.

Politicians in South Carolina and Oklahoma also made news this week. They became the fourth and fifth states (the first three are Louisiana, Montana and Florida) to pass laws calling for the death penalty for people convicted of certain particularly heinous sex crimes.

OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma (AP) -- Oklahoma on Friday became the fifth state to allow the death penalty for certain sex crimes, although legal scholars questioned the constitutionality of the new state law.

Under the measure signed by Gov. Brad Henry, anyone convicted twice for rape, sodomy or lewd molestation involving children under 14 can face the death penalty.

Right now, there is one person on death row for a sex crime, a man on death row in Louisiana for raping an eight year old girl in 2003.

What could be more pleasing and more just, than to execute child molesters, right? Well, no actually. I know, it's tough to make any argument against doing something to a child molester, but I will make it here.

Begin with the gut reaction. Yes, what child molesters have done is horrible. And we have to protect our children ahead of any other consideration (one reason I recently added the Code Amber Alert ticker at the top of my screen). But is executing them the answer? It is true, after all, that child molesters are that way by nature, and that they can't be truly 'cured,' even if they want to be (there is ample scientific as well as criminal evidence to back that up.) However, let me make some points why executing them is not the answer.

Start with a bald fact that I have to state anyway and which overshadows the rest of the discussion: It won't hold up in court. That is pretty much conceded by nearly all legal scholars. No one has been executed for a crime other than murder in the U.S. since the Rosenbergs were executed for a 1950 conviction for treason, for giving nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. No one has been executed for a sex crime in the U.S. since the early part of the last century (and then child molestation wasn't even an issue, and the people executed were invariably black men convicted rightly or wrongly or raping white women.) So the courts will virtually certainly strike this down as 'cruel and unusual punishment' not proportional to the crime, and what is really infuriating is that the politicians know it better than anyone, but they are doing this to be popular. It will certainly cost millions in legal fees for their states before the courts throw this one out. Further, the death penalty itself is something of a home for political demogogues; even if every person on death row today were lined up and shot tomorrow morning, it would scarcely make a dent in the prison population, which would be back at today's level within a few weeks.

A second reason this is a bad idea is because of the number of people who have gone to death row for murder but have since been exonerated (I'm not talking about the thousands who have been taken off due to technicalities here either, but of the 123 in 25 states who have been actually exonerated and found to have not committed the crime they went to death row for.) Given the significantly high number of people already sent to death row for murder and who then are exonerated, to expand the number of people without fixing the system first is like discovering you have a natural gas leak and then immediately turning the furnace up.

A third reason this is a bad idea is that given that sexual predators don't seem able to change their sexual orientation, it opens up the door to when anyone with what (who decides?) is an 'abnormal' sexual orientation could face the same thing. I know, someone will say I'm being paranoid, but with people like Michael Savage on the radio publically advocating the death of homosexuals, am I really all that paranoid? What about people who are found guilty of raping an adult? OK, what about people who are found guilty of attempted rape or molestation? OK, what about peole who are found guilty of exposing themselves or flashing other people? What about people found guilty of prostitution (or of soliciting prostitutes, or of pimping?) Not that I would advocate any of these things, but I certainly don't see how the death penalty applies, or where 100% of people would agree to draw the line.

A fourth reason is given in the article:

David Brook, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, said the measure might actually put a child rape victim's life at risk.

"The last message you want to give an offender who has the life of a child in his hands is you might as well kill the child because he's already got the death penalty," said Brook, who runs the Virginia Capital Case Clearing House, which assists lawyers in death penalty cases. "This is a very stupid message."
Some child molesters already kill their victims in order to minimize their chances of being caught. But most do not. Do we really want to increase the percentage who do kill them? The only way one could argue against this is if you don't believe that the death penalty would ever be a deterrent, and if you believe that, then what exactly is it good for?

'nuff said about that.

So what should we do, given the need to protect our children from these monsters?

I wrote a post about that a few months ago. The main cogent points I made then (and still propose) are:

1. People convicted of child molestation or rape should serve their full term in prison.

2. Ideally, if we are serious about keeping them away from children, we should create an institution (similar to the old mental institutions but more humane) which would offer more freedom than a prison (freedom on the grounds, freedom to have visits from family members regularly, and perhaps some supervised group activities on the outside) but would remain secure (of course, it being better than a prison, prison would still remain as the place to send someone who committed a crime inside.)

3. Until we can implement such a plan, put on tracking devices similar to the one Martha Stewart wore (which of course she never should have had to wear, but it does make sense for sex offenders.)

But one thing we don't need is spineless politicians who give mobs what they want even when they know very well that it won't fly in court, and will accomplish nothing.

Friday, June 09, 2006

You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie-- at stopping the buck.

In a story out today, we learn the real reason why President Bush thought that Michael Brown was doing a 'heckuva job' after Katrina.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The former emergency management chief who quit amid widespread criticism over his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina said he received an e-mail before his resignation stating President Bush was glad to see the Oval Office had dodged most of the criticism....

The e-mail stated that Bush was relieved that Brown -- and not Bush or Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff -- was bearing the brunt of the flak over the government's handling of Katrina.

Yup, be glad that someone else further down the chain is taking the heat. That's leadership for you. I guess George Bush is no Harry Truman.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Zarqawi Dead. Now, will Bush take the opportunity to get out?

Yesterday, an American airstrike in Baqouba, Iraq, killed al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

And it is a good thing that he is dead. Zarqawi was a murdering monster who won't be mourned by anyone except for a handful of fanatics. It is also a good thing that they captured computer hard drives in the house that contain lists of al-Qaeda members in Iraq including where they are, and maybe including information about how they are getting into Iraq, and about al-Qaeda in other countries (killing all the people in the house without damaging the computer-- now that's precision bombing.) Of course this 'fixes' a mistake that the President made before the war in Iraq even began.

The second news story that heaves more burdens on the president comes from an NBC News broadcast by Jim Miklaszewski on March 2. Apparently, Bush had three opportunities, long before the war, to destroy a terrorist camp in northern Iraq run by Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al-Qaida associate who recently cut off the head of Nicholas Berg. But the White House decided not to carry out the attack because, as the story puts it:

[T]he administration feared [that] destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.

All of which should make it abundantly clear, if it ever was not, that the reason the President wanted to invade Iraq had nothing to do with Zarqawi or al-Qaeda (the terrorist camp noted, as I have pointed out many times, was in fact behind Kurdish lines, a long way from anywhere that Saddam's army controlled.) However, today's news is at least something of an erasure of the big error that the administration committed in not going after Zarqawi when they had the opportunity to do so before the war.

The question becomes whether our President will take the opportunity that this presents and take the opportunity to announce a withdrawal from Iraq. What is left as soon as we (as I'm sure we are doing now) take action on the information contained in the computer drive is essentially a sectarian war between Shias (who pretty much control the government) and Sunnis (who are primarily the insurgents). For us to remain in the middle of that is pointless, so this will be a great opportunity to leave.

Some conservatives have also objected to leaving Iraq because they claim that if we announced a withdrawal, there would be some who claimed we were 'chased' out by terrorists. But if we announced it this week, that claim would ring hollow, if anyone tried to make it. So, this is the ideal time for President Bush to declare victory with the end of Zarqawi, and announce a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.

UPDATE: It turns out that Zarqawi was actually barely alive but died shortly after the bombing (not significant). Also, in case any of you encounter a conservative who listened to Rush this morning, he 'took on' this whole argument by creating a couple of straw men, together with at least one outright matter of speculation stated as truth, and one important omission of information. He claims that we on the left are contradicting our position that 'there were no terrorists in Iraq pre-invasion.' No, it has been public knowlege that the Ansar al-Islam camp existed. Rush then said that Saddam's agents were up there working with Zarqawi. In fact, there is no evidence at all that this is true. Rush also omitted the fact that the camp was in Kurdish occupied Iraq, so Saddam had nothing to do with it (couldn't have, even if he wanted to). It was in a part of Iraq that he had no control over whatsoever. Further, the argument that we on the left are contradicting ourselves is a strawman (if you're not familiar with debate terms, it is rephrasing something differently and with a different meaning, in order to set up a rebuttal). What we have pointed out is that unlike pre-invasion Iraq, when al-Qaeda (except for a few individual members like Zarqawi, and their camp in Kurdish occupied Iraq) didn't exist there, since we invaded, they have flooded into the country to fight us. Hopefully this will make a dent in that, but ultimately al-Qaeda entered Iraq in large numbers for one reason: to kill Americans. Clearly Limbaugh is worried that the truth on this will get out, which is why he is so desperate to rebut it that he has resorted to cheap debate tricks (then again, it's not the first time I've heard him resort to them.)

Monday, June 05, 2006

Latin American elections demonstrate the failure of free market conservatism.

In the Peruvian election today, Socialist candidate (and former President) Alan Garcia was, despite allegations of corruption, leading Ollanta Humala, a protege of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The story is not, despite how some on the right might spin it, that the leftist wave sweeping over Latin America is running out of steam. Quite conversely, the fact that the choice in the end was between two different brands of socialists points out emphatically how powerful it is. Conservative candidates couldn't even muster the support to make it into the final round of balloting.

This follows socialists being elected in Bolivia and Chile, as well as making big gains or taking control of the parliamentary bodies in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.
The only large South American country where they have not done well is Colombia, where there is still an open insurgency being fought. Heck, in Venezuela, things have moved so far to the left that not only is Chavez a prohibitive favorite to win another term later this year, but the most serious opponent he has is a guy who is even farther to the left than he is.

Central America has had much the same story. Earlier this year a socialist came very close to winning the Presidency in Costa Rica, traditionally the most conservative country in the region. And in Nicaragua, former Sandanista leader and Reagan administration bogeyman Daniel Ortega has a good chance to reclaim his old job in elections later this year. Even in Mexico, polls had showed Socialist Manuel López Obrador in the lead earlier this year. Since then, his two opponents have hired American political consultants to begin running an American style negative smear campaign against López Obrador (a style not before seen in Mexico) and current President Vicente Fox, no friend of Obrador's, made an adroit move in inviting rebel leader Subcommante Marcos to go on a speaking tour of Mexico. Marcos' line is that all three candidates are the same so voters shold boycott the election (Fox believes, probably correctly, that anyone who heeds Marcos' call for a boycott would otherwise be more likely to vote for Obrador than either of the other candidates.) Despite all this, recent polls have shown Obrador tied for first with PAN candidate Felipe Calderón.

So what is going on? It would be easy to blame George Bush, and some bloggers have done that, pointing out that Latin Americans are almost unanimous in their dislike of the U.S. leader. But let's be honest-- if we do that then we give ourselves entirely too much credit. Though relations with the U.S. are certainly an issue in any Latin American election, they are not what the vote is likely to depend on. Those issues tend to be the same as they are here-- economic.

So why would Latin American voters choose socialism?

Simple. Look at the model that Latin America has struggled under for years. The very wealthy, who have controlled the government and suppressed dissent-- by force if necessary, have had a very nice world of low taxes, a government which outside of the military does very little, little regulation (none at all if you grease the right palm), and a relatively small middle class, mostly consisting of professionals to service the needs of the wealthy elite. On the other end of the scale, you have the impoverished masses, for whom low taxes mean little, and who get the brunt of the lack of government services while still living in a capitalist society where they have to pay for everything they can't afford. Those who are in competition with each other for jobs, where labor standards are almost nonexistent, and they can be hired at whatever price the market will bear. Legally they have always had every opportunity to achieve, just they have to be the one in a hundred who through a combination of skill, hard work and good fortune, manages to break out of the slum. Meanwhile businesses, both multinational and domestic, can run up huge profits and pay very little in taxes. In other words, pretty much a conservative Utopia.

What has changed to produce this revolution at the ballot box? Well, the first of these conditions-- that the wealthy suppress dissent by force. Maybe not 100%, but by and large that has changed. Yes, we do now have democracy throughout almost all of Latin America. And what has been the opinion of the voters about their old system? That for most people, living in that kind of society sucks. So bad that they are electing socialists all over the place who pledge to raise taxes, increase services and have the government provide basic necessities to all.

People in Latin American don't have to experiment with conservatism. They've been living under it for generations. And now that they aren't staring down the barrel of a gun, we can see what they really think about it.

Cross posted at Night Bird's Fountain

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Homeland Security cuts highlight why we need to rethink the paradigm.

The biggest news locally has been about how Phoenix and Arizona (despite having the nation's largest nuclear plant and a 400 mile long international border which as we have been reminded continually lately, is porous) will suffer deep cuts-- as much as 60%-- from Homeland Security funding. Other cities, including New York will also suffer significant cuts, up to 40%. These cuts are to be offset by increases in funding to cities like Los Angeles and a number of cities in the south, which are more susceptible to natural disasters. Atlanta, the home of the Center for Disease Control, is getting quite a bit of new money.

Of course, we should be spending more time preparing for natural disasters, as last year's horrible events showed. The disastrous consequences of putting FEMA under the Homeland Security umbrella, admitted widely even by those who have supported it last year, have not been fixed (apparently this is another case where ideology, which was behind the demotion and downsizing of FEMA, trumps common sense even in the face of demonstrated failure).

But the real problem is this: Congress and the President are looking at it as a zero-sum game. Given the need to increase preparation for combatting natural disasters, the increases in funding to places like Los Angeles and the south make sense. However, it is not like we are less at risk for terrorism than we were last year. If anything, our failure to catch bin Laden, and the continuing anti-American fervor in the Middle East which we feed daily in Iraq, makes us more vulnerable to terrorism. What we see here is the classic military mistake of redeploying to fight last year's war. Only this time the redeployment is in terms of government resources, rather than military assets. Corporate America sometimes is guilty of the same sort of thinking, looking at the short term exigencies instead of the long term requirements. I suspect that this is the sort of thinking that is pervading our government here.

This is a product of the dominant paradigm that exists today in government: the urge to 'hold the line on spending' while cutting taxes further and downsizing government at all costs. Leave aside the enormous deficits that this type of thinking has plunged us into, as well as the trillions of dollars in corporate welfare that have made a joke out of the whole 'hold the line on spending' routine (and as we well know by now, Republicans can allow the wasteful spending of government funds much better than any Democrat ever did); The 'all costs' have proven phenomenal. I blogged yesterday about Iraq, and made the point (as I've made before) that the 'Rumsfeld doctrine,' that we could fight a war on the cheap with a smaller (meaning lest costly) force, has in fact cost us far more since ignoring Eric Shinseki's advice about how to handle the early stages of the occupation directly contributed to the development of the insurgency and the situation we find ourselves stuck in today. The budget cuts which were made in New Orleans flood levee protection (over a period which precedes the Bush administration, to be sure) are by now well documented, and one can only hope that the kind of fiscal recklessness that we have seen balloon the deficit to historic proportions won't lead to the ruin of our entire economy.

What we need is a new paradigm in Washington. A paradigm that where a need is identified, we put together the necessary resources to deal with it, without borrowing from other places where the resources are also needed. Where wasteful spending is identified, we should obviously get rid of it, and we should audit spending regularly to make sure that it is being done with as little waste as possible. However, if it is necessary to increase the available resources to deal with an emergency or potential emergency then we should not hesitate to do so. And yes, we have to pay for it. Keep in mind that we had a surplus only six years ago, and that that surplus was wiped out (even before 9/11) by the Bush tax cuts. The good news is that in order for the unprecedented trillions of dollars in cuts to get passed, even the conservatives who then controlled Congress had to put sunset clauses on them, as the amount of the cuts was breathtaking (and yes, the deficits that have occurred since have collectively taken our breath away). What we have to do is demand a government that is accountable, but is adequately funded so that we can put more money where it is needed without taking it away from other places where it is also needed. Then we have to have a tax structure to pay for it, which should be the case after the sunset clauses end over the next few years. We will need to hold the feet of Congress to the fire over this though, especially since there will be people who will intentionally have short memories and claim that the expiration of the tax cuts at the sunset date is the equivalent of 'raising taxes.' Nothing of the sort, in fact to suggest it is would be disingenuous, but you can be sure that is what they will claim.

So in summary, we have a choice between a government that is perenially being starved and as such is ineffective, as we have now, or one that is a tool of the citizens and is accountable, adequately funded (without running a deficit) and effective.

Friday, June 02, 2006

99.99% of our soldiers are not accused of anything.

All day long it seems we have been hearing more and more of a drumbeat about American soldiers accused of atrocities in Iraq. In one case that we heard about today, all the allegations were investigated and determined to be false, while the investigation continues into the Haditha incident that started all of this, and which a preliminary report out last Wednesday concluded that the underlying allegations were true. Then today we hear that a pregnant woman and her cousin were shot to death on the way to the maternity ward to deliver her baby.

To begin with, I would like to state for the record that all allegations must be fully investigated, and if it is determined that anyone (including those in a position of responsibility for making sure that events are reported accurately) is found to be involved in atrocities, then they should be tried and subject to the full degree of punishment that their actions warrant. And as readers of this blog are aware, I have been consistently opposed to George Bush's war in Iraq, believing that we were railroaded into it by means of cherry picked intelligence reports, that the mission our troops were supposed to carry out has changed as often as the White House has decided it would be politically convenient to redefine it, that the war has been poorly planned from day one, and that the incompetent leadership at the top (meaning from Don Rumsfeld on up) has continued to screw things up at every opportunity and that the price for their ineptitude has been and is continuing every day to be paid in blood.

That said, I have received a number of disturbing correspondences in my mailbox, in which the tone ranges from a smug sense of self-righteous indignation, to outright glee about all these reports. Most disturbing is the overall thread that seems to be running through them that what is happening in these incidents is typical of what is happening in Iraq and that somehow most or all of our troops are in some way involved.

I would like to say that any such suggestion that this is typical, is a lie. In fact, it is a damnable lie. I have had friends and family who have been deployed to Iraq, and I know friends, family or comrades in arms of at least four of the Americans who have died in Iraq. And what we have been hearing on the news is absolutely not what our army has been doing there.

Let's begin with numbers. Over half a million Americans have served in Iraq since the start of the war (in fact, that number is a bit dated.) It's not surprising that if there were a few such incidents, once one came out and started the ball rolling, we would hear about others, but even if they are all true (and as one of the stories out today shows, they may very well be mostly not true), it would involve at most a few hundred individuals. If you took any group of over a half million Americans (the population of a good sized city), the chances are that you would find a few bad apples, or at least a few who under a great deal of stress might become bad apples. The number of Americans who now stand accused of these actions is about fifty total, which represents less than 0.01% of all the Americans who have been deployed to Iraq since the start of the war. Any number greater than zero is of course unacceptable, but realistically, this is a very small number and the rest of our troops should not be judged by the actions of one out of ten thousand (because that is what this number represents), but rather by their own record of selfless commitment and sacrifice.

That isn't to make an excuse for them. But just as classroom teachers, who put in a great deal of dedication and effort for not very much pay, should not be judged because of the occasional child molester who is found in a school, or police officers, who do a dangerous job, also for not very much pay, should not be judged because of an occasional rogue cop, our military men and women in uniform, who do a job that is at least as dangerous as any police officer's, and which requires at least as much dedication as any teacher, and also for not enough money, should not be judged because of the actions of a few. The few should face justice, absolutely, if they did what is alleged. Then we must focus on the larger problems at hand, starting with how as a nation to extricate ourselves from this whole bloody mess we are in.

Let's also consider the situation. As I've said, it's a situation they are in due to the incompetence of George Bush and Don Rumsfeld, but it is also a daily struggle with life and death. In fact, I believe that the soldiers who shot the two women today, though it is a tragedy and will certainly be perceived very badly in Iraq, will be cleared. The reason why is that while the women were in a hurry to get to the hospital (for obvious reasons), they failed to stop at a checkpoint. Why does this matter? Because in Iraq there have been many hundreds of suicide car bombings. A device to read brain waves has not been invented yet, so it is impossible for a soldier to know whether the car running the checkpoint is trying to get to the maternity ward, or has a trunk packed with a thousand pounds of high explosives headed for either the soldiers themselves, or for a civilian target later on. And several of these car bombs have been driven by women. It would be wonderful if our soldiers could always make the right call, but sometimes they have been blown up by bombers who they did not shoot. I thank God I'm not in their shoes, but to blame the soldiers is disingenuous. To blame those whose decisions have brought about this situation three years after what was supposed to be a weeks long war, is fair.

As I've blogged before, the root of this problem is not anything that the soldiers themselves (many of whom are nineteen and twenty year olds who would be turned away as too young if they wanted to buy a beer) have done, but Don Rumsfeld's decision to ignore Eric Shinseki's advice about having needing four hundred thousand soldiers pre-invasion to prevent an insurgency (and then make a public example of Shinseki to prevent any other general from giving him similar advice). So now we have the insurgency that Shinseki sought to prevent from getting started. Under the circumstances, I believe that our soldiers have done everything we have asked of them remarkably well. But rightly or wrongly, the few soldiers involved in the events we've been hearing about will more and more become the face of Americans for the people who live there (and don't blame American media for that, they have their own media and other communications networks, and the religious ones-- which is most of them-- still consider us infidels, lest we forget that). The battle is not even for hearts and minds anymore, even many of the Iraqis who supported us now consider us to be part of the problem. The thing that would endear us the most to Iraqis anymore would be a withdrawal announcement.

Like a person who sticks their hands into a beehive and continues to get stung with or without the honey, we have to as a nation recognize that it is time to get out. What we could possibly accomplish at this point is hard to see. Iraq has a government up and running, but it is fighting anti-government insurgents, just like in dozens of other conflicts around the globe. The number of foreign terrorists in Iraq is small, and anymore, our presence their feeds their recruiting and training effort as much as it damages it. We are pouring more lives and money after the lives and money we have already poured in there, and even if we stayed there for a decade or more, I doubt if things would change very much.

And to the 99.99% of American servicemen and women who have served in Iraq without violating the Geneva convention, I would only add that we must recognize them as the heroes they are. No matter in what circumstances they come home from Iraq, we must remember that they did their best, and it was on our behalf.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Maginot Lie.

Remember the Maginot Line? The 'impregnable' wall of fortresses that the French built all along their border with Germany following World War One, at a cost of billions of francs, with the single goal of stopping a German invasion at the border, should there ever be another, after the end of the 'Great War'? The wall was designed to be able to fight World War One-- largely a static war with great masses of men engaged in futile efforts to take heavily fortified positions, and with tremendous losses on each side-- again. Marshal Foch was one of the few Frenchmen who had anything right after the end of World War One, when he said that the treaty of Versailles, which levied enormous damage payments upon a Germany already bled dry by the war, was 'not peace, but a twenty year truce.'

Of course, when World War II came, the Germans simply went around the Maginot Line.

Today, in the United States, the influx of immigrants-- people coming into the United States in search of work, in many cases, illegally-- has been likened to an 'invasion.' Personally, I reject this comparison. An invasion is an organized military action taken with the explicit goal of gaining territory or overthrowing or forcing some action upon the government of the country being invaded. There is no way that this flow of people looking for work meets that definition.

So, there are those who propose to build a wall along the border. Some proposals envision a wall only in some areas with heavy border patrol concentration along the rest of the border, while other scenarios envision a wall along the entire 2,000 mile long border from the Pacific coast of San Diego (where there is already a seven mile wall) to South Padre Island along the south Texas coast.

If this wall is built, will it stop illegal immigration? No, of course it won't, and even its supporters acknowlege that nothing is 100% effective but argue that it would change the millions who have been crossing illegally to perhaps dozens or at most hundreds per year, as they would have to climb, blast, dig, hang-glide or otherwise find a way over, under or through the wall.

But will it? Only if you have the one dimensional imagination of the French planners who assumed that any German invasion would come directly across the border.

Consider this:

The 9/11 commission, mostly concerned with the possibility that terrorists could sneak into the country hidden in cargo containers, or perhaps that they could smuggle in explosives, weapons or maybe even something more sinister, noted that only 2% of the millions of cargo containers entering our ports are inspected. They recommended inspecting 100% of the containers.

To date, the Bush administration has done absolutely nothing meaningful about this recommendation, and the inspection rate remains at 2%.

Very few of the thousands of Chinese and other Asians here illegally came across the Mexican border. In fact, one of the main ways they get in is-- yup, hidden in those very same cargo containers that the Bush administration doesn't think is worth spending the money to inspect, and which aren't even on the radar screen of anti-immigration groups.

There are also many millions of cargo containers that are shipped from Latin American ports to the United States (particularly if your target market is the eastern United States, driving cargo up through Mexico and the central U.S. is not as economically feasible as shipping it.) If we built that wall, who honestly believes that undocumented immigrants from Latin America wouldn't start hiding out in shipping containers?

For that matter, there are may ways to come through the border we have now. Every day millions of private vehicles, railroad cars and trucks cross the border and it's not practical to inspect every one of them. Smuggling in trucks is already quite common, and a border wall will do nothing to prevent this mode of transportation into the U.S.

So what should we do? The answer is complex. First, we have to realize that the 'legal' immigration numbers are unrealistically low and a guest worker program has to reflect realistic numbers, not what Congress has been deciding it should be (a fraction of what the labor market requires.) Second, we should demand that there be no more 'Wal-Mart' solutions (the world's largest retailer reached a negotiated agreement with the government a couple of years ago to 'donate' $11 million to anti-illegal immigration programs while not admitting guilt for the hiring of undocumented workers by subcontractors who all ran the night cleaning crews and which occurred simultaneously in more than twenty states). Instead, how about serious prison time for executives and employers who are found to either by intent, or by intentional negligence, have hired or have authorized the hiring of undocumented immigrants. Once a few have gone to prison, you wouldn't have much more hiring of undocumented immigrants, and with no jobs available, their incentive to come would be gone, and the word that the well had run dry would get back very quickly.

In fact, Republicans and conservatives are trapped by their own dogma on this one. There is a way to end illegal immigration, but it involves targetting employers which they are loathe to do. So they prefer to target the individual workers. But no matter how difficult we make it for workers to get here, or how difficult we try to make life for them once they are here, for someone who has little or nothing before heading north, this is not much of a deterrent (since a job here under any circumstances is still an improvement over what they have now.) So they propose quixotic solutions like a wall, which is doomed to fail.
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