Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Manipulated Media

Well, it seems the 64% that perceive that the Administration provides misleading information wasn't far from wrong. News reports are saying that the US military personnel wrote news articles highlighting the good work being done by US and Iraqi troops. They then paid Iraqis to pose as independent journalists and to get those stories published in Iraqi papers. It is a bizarre form of "PR laundering". Apparently they even bribed Iraqi editors with sums as high as $1500 to publish these stories.

The things reported in the articles were true. But it was an underhanded way of handling PR. There are several problems with this. 1) it demeans the very story that they military wants to get out there- the good work that the troops are doing. 2) It demeans the work itself. 3) With information like this, Iraqis will no longer trust their own media (gee, sort of like we question ours) and 4) they will start with new accusations that the Americans are controlling their supposedly free press. In addition, these stories leak into US media. Thus, you ignore policies that are supposed to prevent propaganda-bleed.

The other aspect of this that bugs me is that the Bush Administration has not had the best record with the media anywhere. They paid consultant-reporters to put happy stories in our papers. They sent out infomercials to local stations that resembled news stories. They had stealth journalists in the briefing room, etc. This story breaks on the day that Bush is using the media to make his "war strategy" arguments.

Aside from the ethical issues, the danger comes when an administration, already detached from reality, starts believing in its own propaganda.


One of These Things Is Not Like The Others...

Hi All,

Republicans are fond of saying that to be "conservative" is to be "mainstream." They like to argue that Democrats and "liberals" (by which they mean leftists) in particular are "out of touch." But who is really out of touch? Here are some poll numbers from

When the Harris poll asked people if they thought the Bush administration generally provided accurate information or misleading information to further their own ends, 64% of all respondents said they thought the Bush administration provided misleading information. However, 68% of Republicans think the Bush administration is being accurate. This is compared to 21% of independents who think Bush is being accurate and 7% of Democrats who believe that. Who is "out of touch?"

A recent CBS poll asked people if they though Bush had similar priorities for the country as they did. 65% of respondents said that Bush had different priorities than they did. But 69% of Republicans like Bush's priorities. In contrast only 11% of Democrats and 25% of Independents agree with Bush's priorities. Who is "out of touch?"

I could go on and on. With regard to abortion, 54% of Americans consider themselves pro-choice. Another poll showed that 56% of Americans want the Supreme Court to either make abortions easier to get or keep the status quo. Yet, the Republicans are pushing an anti-choice agenda and calling it "mainstream."

Bush is a big part of this. But Republicans as a group are increasingly detached from political reality in America. Democrats need to take advantage of this. This doesn't mean advocating some sort of massive increase in the welfare state (which would be equally out of touch). It means advocating a pro-choice/status quo position on abortion and developing a plan to get out of Iraq (I like Dr. Strangelove's plan). They should probably also advocate balancing the budget and make a big stink about corruption regarding Halliburton and Cheney's energy policy meeting.


Monday, November 28, 2005

Open Thread

Hope everyone had an enjoyable Thanksgiving.

Topice for discussion: what is the dumbest Supreme Court case ever? I nominate Nix v. Hedden.


What Should We Do About Iraq?

The war in Iraq has become one of the defining issues of American politics. Bush's current policy is to stay in Iraq until either the Iraqi government announces they are ready to take over or all the violence ends. Folly though it may be, Bush's policy sounds simple and strong--and so until the opposition can unite behind a clear, alternative policy on Iraq, Bush will continue to be able to defame his critics as cowards, liars, and opportunists, and to distort their criticism as a call for retreat or as no meaningful alternative at all. Until the Democrats can offer a competing Iraq policy, they will remain critics instead of leaders... and if Bush decides to leave early or otherwise alter his policy, he will just steal his critics' thunder instead of proving them right.

So what should this policy be? Should we set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq? Should it be a phased timetable, or should it be a simple deadline? Should we start now, sometime next year, or later? Should we set quantitative milestones instead of specific dates for a withdrawal? Should we try to bring in the international community in some way that we have not already done?

Much of the debate centers on the question of what would happen if we were to pull out... and what will happen if we do not. If we leave, will all hell break loose? Will the Iraqi government collapse from civil war? Will the insurgents win? Would an American retreat instead strengthen the Iraqi government's legtimacy with its own people? Would the withdrawal of the occupying forces deprive the insurgency of its rallying point... and hence its support? And if we stay, will we eventually stamp out the insurgency, or will our provocative presence merely ensure that the violence never ends? What do The Citizens think?

I'll start off the discussion with my own proposal: we set a clear date of April 10th and call all U.S. forces from Iraq home by that date. (The festive holiday celebrating the birth of Mohammed will be officially observed on the next day--April 11, 2006--so it seems an auspicious time for Iraq to make a new beginning.) Here is my reasoning.

1. I believe the U.S. presence has become an agitating force in Iraq. So long as we are there, the violence will never end and the Iraqi government will never be seen as legitimate by the Iraqi people. In fact, if we stay long enough, we will completely de-legitimize the current government and the insurgency may have time to provide a viable alternative, and there may erupt a real civil war. Continuing the occupation is a dead-end. We cannot fix all that is wrong in Iraq. The Iraqis have to do it themselves.

2. Yes, there probably will be greater violence after we leave. Things probably will get worse before they get better. But I do not believe a full scale civil war will erupt. I believe the Iraqi government will win out. The insurgency is fractured and its ranks swell with foreign nationals. It also resorts to kidnapping, terrorism, and other criminal behavior. While this has given them the ability to continue the fight against us, it has also assured that once the rallying point for their hatred is gone, they will be not be perceived as a viable alternative to the current government. The only real horse to back in Iraq right now is the Iraqi government, and I think most Iraqis will realize that. A steady infusion of cash from the West should seal the deal.

3. Some say we should use milestones instead of a timetable, but I believe using milestones is a mistake because it effectively hands control of our exit strategy to the insurgents. It will also be seen as wishy-washy, since there is always wiggle room with milestones. We will not be believed.

4. Some argue for a phased withdrawal, but I believe that by dragging it out over months, it really would look like a protracted retreat as we suffer mounting losses by our increasingly outnumbered troops. By setting a handover date and sticking to it--instead of just signing the papers and sneaking out of the country a day early like Paul Bremer did--we show that we are not afraid of the insurgents. It is a sign of strength and confidence in the Iraqi government.

5. Full withdrawal by a set date is a clear, simple alternative policy. It has immediate benefits (troops come home!) and enables us to save a lot of money, too.

It's time to take our hands off the bike and let the Iraqi people show that they can ride--we can't be parents forever. It's time to show faith in the democratic process we have set up; it's time to show that we believe the Iraqi government is strong enough and legitimate enough to successfully take on the insurgents. And it's time to show that the U.S. is not going to let car-bombs dicate our policy anymore.

We've kicked out Saddam and set up a democracy, and to say we must stay longer in vain hope of "finishing the job" is entirely the wrong message. Our job is done. It is time to go home.


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

None of Us Are Safe

After three and a half years of being held incommunicado in a naval brig (much of the time in solitary confinement), Mr. Jose Padilla has finally been charged with a crime. Although Bush declared him to be an "enemy combatant," Mr. Padilla was not an armed foreigner taken into custody by American soldiers on the battlefield. Jose Padilla was an unarmed American citizen, arrested without incident on American soil (Chicago) by FBI agents using a court-issued "material witness" warrant.

When pressed by the court, government lawyers had the audacity to say that the entire world was a battlefield in the war against terror. (So basically anyone could be arrested as an enemy combatant!) Back in June, 2002, then-Atty. Gen Ashcroft told us Padilla was trying to build a "dirty bomb." But the indictment they finally brought against him makes no mention of that. The only reason he was finally indicted is that a case brought on Padilla's behalf was about to go before the Supreme Court.

Indeed, the government now argues that the lawsuit brought on Padilla's behalf is irrelevant. Padilla's lawyer, however, says she is stunned that the government would have the audacity to say three and a half years of Kafka-esque incarceration was "irrelevant" to her client... or to the nation. The Supreme Court ducked this case last year--annulling the Second Circuit's ruling against the government on the technicality that it was brought in the wrong jurisdiction--and they may well duck it again now that Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales has given them this way out.

But if they care for the Constitutiona at all, the Supreme Court has got to speak on this matter! If the President can do this to Padilla, none of us are safe, and the protections in the Bill of Rights are meaningless. And given what we now know about Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe, would anyone be surprised if we found out Mr. Padilla was tortured too?


Is this progress?

Vatican may admit 'transitory' gays into priesthood

If you have not had sex with a man for the past three years, you can become a priest! You still have to be a man, of course.

Make your own jokes in the comments.


Intolerance is Next to Godliness in Benedict's Dictionary

NY Times reports that a new Vatican document, whose contents have been slowly leaking to the press, has now been officially released. It bans from the clergy in clear and precise language all those, "who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called 'gay culture.'" [emphasis added]

MSNBC has also reported over the past several months that despite the increasing Catholic flock, the number of Catholic priests has shrunk over 26% since 1980. Following its continuing refusal to ordain women, this new official hostility toward homosexuals (and anyone sympathetic toward gays!) is yet another example of the Catholic church shooting itself in the foot. If they keep this up, there will be nobody left in the seminaries except the really dedicated pedophiles.


Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Marshmallow and Yam

Today, President Bush "pardoned" two turkeys, named "Marshmallow" and "Yam" which will now go to Disneyland to be the "Marshalls" of their Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Does it seem bizarre to anyone else that the President "pardons" two turkeys--but then presumably goes on to eat at least one not-so-lucky bird two days later? Does it make anyone else queasy to see two turkeys "preside" over a parade honoring a holiday during which millions of their fellows will roasted and eaten? And does it sicken anyone else that some farmer, as if to emphasize the digestable destiny of his prize birds, chose to name these two turkeys Marshmallow and Yam?!

I probably would have ignored this silliness if I had not today also received a cheerful, animated e-card from the UCLA alumni association, in which two UCLA bears sit down at a Thanksgiving table with along with their friend--a pilgrim-hatted turkey!--and the misguided fowl lifts up the lid of the main entree to reveal... a football. The bears applaud.

Some people may find all this cute. But to me, the whole affair seems an almost psychotic retreat from reality. Turkeys do not wear pilgrim hats. Turkeys do not celebrate Thanksgiving. Turkeys are not happy and joyful on this day. The doublethink involved in having one's child cheer as an animated or pardoned turkey encourages us to enjoy Thanksgiving feels like yet another egregious example of the culture of deception in which we live.

Now don't get me wrong... Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday and I personally enjoy eating turkey and cranberries and gathering with family and friends. I am a bona fide carnivore--I just don't fool myself. Breastmeat does not fall from the magic Butterball factory in the sky. "Drumsticks" and "wishbones" are euphemisms for thighs and the fused, avian clavicle. And the moistness in the turkey does not come from "juices."

So let us gladly give thanks to nature for her bounty. But if we are so disturbed by the thought of ritually slaughtering so many turkeys that we feel compelled to indulge in these childish deceptions to obscure from our children (and ourselves) what we are doing... perhaps we should not be eating meat at all?


Monday, November 21, 2005

Raucous Times Inside the Beltway

I am not sure where I am going with this post, exactly, but I am fascinated at the transparency of the White House Spin Machine. Talk about sophomoric! And my initial thought is, "what the hell is going on?"

You know, it has been proven that when you put too many rats in a cage, they start to eat each other. That might be a nifty analogy for Washington these days. I thought we had reached the top when Dick Cheney told Senator Leahy to "F%$k off" on the Senate floor. But the events of the last few days seem to top that. Both sides of the aisle are calling each other names.

I think it hit a personal soft spot for Cheney (yes, I am sure he has them) when his old ally, Rep. Murtha stood up in Congress last week to tell everyone that the war needed to come to an end. To add a little perspective, in 2004, Cheney bragged, "One of my strongest allies in Congress when I was secretary of defense was Jack Murtha." That was because when Cheney was chosen as Secretary of Defense, he by his own account didn't "know a blankety-blank thing about defense." ( The Nation )

In a fit of Chenyesque rage, he called Democrats (MSNBC, Nov 17th) “opportunists” who were peddling “cynical and pernicious falsehoods” to gain political advantage while U.S. soldiers died in Iraq." He went on to say, “The president and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory, or their backbone.”

He couldn't possibly be referring to Rep. Murtha because Rep. Murtha is "a good man, a Marine, a patriot -- and he's taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion." ( Dick Cheney Nov 20 in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute) Cheney was at pains to remind people that he never said Murtha was a coward. In point of fact, other than the strong implication above, this is a true. It was the Senator from the great, ah hem, blue state, a hem, of Ohio, Jean Schmidt who called Murtha a "coward".

Bush, aloof and lost as usual, had either a momentary flash of sanity, or a fear of being called out as a hypocrite by the Chinese when he responded to Cheney's outburst with, "People should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Iraq," he said. "I heard somebody say, well, maybe so-and-so is not patriotic because they disagree with my position. I totally reject that thought." Really?

He then countered the whole idea by resorting to the politics of fear, saying, "An immediate withdrawal of our troops from Iraq will only strengthen the terrorists' hand in Iraq and in the broader war on terror." That sounds like a line from Israel. It also sounds like he is calling his opponents "cheese eating surrender monkies". Hummm . . .(This reminds me, the French are preparing to indict Dick Cheney.)

And to wrap it all up neat and tidy, on Sat, while we in California were enjoying the unseasonably warm weather and ignoring the news, the House voted down a GOP resolution to force immediate troop withdrawal. It was an attempt to call the Democrats out. The Democratic response was to vote with the Republicans in order to downplay the resolution's importance!? I hope Jon Stewart has a blast with that one!

I mention all of this because it fascinates me when the spin machine spins out of control. Rummy is going one direction, Cheney another, the President yet another. The rhetoric reminds me of the some of the crazy things that came out of Iraq before the war.No wonder Bush left the country. Even China looked relaxing by comparison. It is demonstrative of the desperation and frustration running through the White House and all of Washington.


Rain of Lies

NY Times now has an article on the use of white phosphorous at Fallujah. Part of the article agrees with Bob's comment (see Rain of Fire I) that many of the pictures shown in the Italian documentary were likely not the result of white phosphorus burns. Independent military experts agree that clothing would have been burnt along with skin; instead, they said the clothing looked "decomposed."

However, the Pentagon now admits it lied about the use of white phosphorous. DoD officials had originally claimed white phosphorus shells were used "very sparingly" in Falluja and were fired "to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters." But faced with eye witness testimony from American Soldiers and other documentary evidence, the Bush administration has had to make a public reversal. On Friday, Pentagon spokesmen admitted that white phosphorus had been used directly against Iraqi insurgents. Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Defense Department spokesman who has been fielding white phosphorus questions, now says, "It's perfectly legitimate to use this stuff against enemy combatants."

Once again, the Bush Administration demonstrates they only will tell the truth when confronted by proof of their lies. Despite their admission last Friday, the Pentagon insists they were careful to avoid hitting any civilians. Oh really? I'm sure the Army did not deliberately take aim at civilians, but the U.S. military has maintained a consistent policy of accepting a lot of "collateral damage" in this fight. Thousands of Iraqis have been killed by American forces so far, and many, many more civilians have been wounded. Given this policy, and given the lies surrounding the Fallujah operations, we have no reason at all to believe any special care was taken to avoid burning civilians.

Cheney today called critics of the war, "dishonest," "reprehensible," "irresponsible," and "revisionist." The man has no shame. His words mean nothing. They are just another torrent in this Presidency's rain of lies.


Saturday, November 19, 2005

New feature

We're starting a new feature on The Citizens: the "Real Conservative" alert. We'll do this whenever someone like Andrew Sullivan or George Will gets all teary-eyed and reminiscent about the good old Reagan GOP days or some such nonsense. Here's today's:

Real conservatives deal with something called "reality." They listen to critics; they worry about worse-case scenarios; they care about long-term consequences of, say, piling up debt or going to war with no real plans for peace; they respect good men like John Murtha. The people running the country right now are not conservatives. They have highjacked that tradition for their own ends. And one day, we will recover it from their hands.


Friday, November 18, 2005


We haven't blogged yet on Scott McClellan's response to Murtha's call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, so here it is:

Congressman Murtha is a respected veteran and politician who has a record of supporting a strong America. So it is baffling that he is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party. The eve of an historic democratic election in Iraq is not the time to surrender to the terrorists. After seeing his statement, we remain baffled -- nowhere does he explain how retreating from Iraq makes America safer.
So what does "mak[ing] America safer" mean? To me (and correct me if I'm wrong) it means saving American lives. In other words, McClellan seems to think that if we withdraw from Iraq, more Americans will die than are dying now.

Well, we've had 2,083 casualties in Iraq, and we've been there for 32 months, so that's about 65 Americans killed every month in Iraq. Does anyone honestly think that if we pull out of Iraq, 65 Americans will die each month over here? McClellan says he was "baffled" by Murtha's comments -- I am baffled by how anyone in their right mind can think that more Americans will die if we pull out of Iraq than if we stay.


Vatican Refutes "Intelligent Design" as "Not Science"

The Vatican has just weighed in heavily against "intelligent design." The Vatican Astronomer (chew on that one for a while) said: "Intelligent design isn't science even though it pretends to be. If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science." This was intended as a clarification of Pope Benedict's comment that the universe was created as an "intelligent project" - meaning really that universe was intentional, rather than random. That belief is, of course, not falsifiable, but not at odds with natural science. It posits only why not how, and represents the view, I suspect, of most intelligent religious people.

And this from the people who are preparing a witch-hunt for gays in American seminaries. If even they can see this, it gives me hope. I mean, they pardoned Galileo almost a decade ago...


Boycott Target!

This morning, it was reported that Target has a policy that if a pharmacist does not want to dispense the "Plan B" contraception product, he or she does not have to, and arrangements can be made "at another pharmacy" or, of course, not at all. If a person gets a state license to be a pharmacist, he or she may not pick and choose which prescriptions to fill, or for whom. So a pharmacist lets her friend get Plan B, but blocks it for a young African-American woman claiming a 'religious' belief. That's what we will see. Racism, bigotry, and right-wing politics all rolled into one.

According to NPR, other companies like Costco and KMart permit a pharmacist also to refuse, Plan B, but guarantee that the prescription will nonetheless be immediately filled onsite by someone else. That is acceptable. Target's policy is toadying to the right wing, and I urge everyone to boycott Target until they change their policy. (Here in CA, by the way, the policy is not in force because it is illegal - our legislature has passed a law forbidding a pharmacist not to picking and choosing customers based on alleged religious or other beliefs).


Thursday, November 17, 2005

Things Fall Apart

The NY Times reports that the House of Representatives defeated a Republican $142 billion budget bill 224-209. NY Times it was the first rejection of such a bill since the Republicans took over in 1995. Two dozen Republicans jumped ship to say "no" to the bill's budget cuts and giveaways.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of 6 Senators including Larry E. Craig (R-ID), John E. Sununu (R-NH), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) are threatening to block the renewal of the Patriot Act, saying that the renewal needs to include, "reasonable changes to the original law to protect innocent people from unnecessasry and intrusive government surveillance." And of course Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has been leading the charge to stop the Bush administration's policy of inhumane treatment of prisoners.

All in all, it looks like the Republican bulwark is starting to buckle under its own weight. After the Katrina, Miers, Frist/Delay, and Rove/Libby debacles--not mention the ongoing disaster that is Operation Iraqi Freedom--the Bush administration has lost its aura of invincibility, and can no longer keep the Republicans in lockstep. Is the pendulum swinging? Could there truly be hope for 2006?


FDA Strikes Out . . . Again

Last week, I blogged about the FDA’s failure in dealing with the birth control patch. But it appears that this week, the FDA is under fire for making political rather than medical decisions.

The FDA has refused to allow the over-the-counter sale of Plan B or Morning after pills. Democrats charge that Bush officials interfered with the normal FDA processes and that the final decision was based on political rather than medical expediency. These claims are boosted by a recently released GAO report that makes a similar observation (the GAO can only report, not make charges.). As a Sacramento Bee Editorial said, “That conclusion is disturbing but hardly surprising. It fits into a pattern of behavior by this administration when it is confronted with science that doesn't conform with its political agenda. In repeated instances, from global warming policy to Plan B, science is shoved aside.”

If the charge is true, and I think it is, then we have yet another example of how much Christian conservatives dislike families, especially women and children.

They oppose abortion, but also oppose a way for women to avoid it altogether. They think women are too stupid to know when they can and can’t handle a baby, and they would force her to carry it for 8 months and go through the physical and psychological trauma of having it only to give it away. Either that, or get herself killed in a back alley. In addition, they cut programs that assist the poor, a vast majority of whom are women and a significant portion of that are single mothers.

They don’t care about the child because they would rather it be born and thrown into poorly run, overwrought state social service programs. They wack away at education spending and subsidized medical care that might prevent the child from entering into the same cycle as its parents.

It makes my blood boil. And at no time do these good Christians ever talk about the responsibility that the fathers of these children should bear.

If the FDA acted politically this time, did it also act politically in other cases? Does big Pharma get away with murder? Is it conservative values or huge campaign donations from pharma that are to blame? Is the FDA properly performing the public health mission that it is charged with?


Credit Card Conservatives

I've written about this before, but here is an update. As of November 16, 2005, the total amount of the Federal Debt now exceeds $8 Trillion ($8,063,591,365,642.68). The interest paid on this debt last year (FY05) was over $350 Billion ($352,350,252,507.90), while we addded over $550 Billion ($553,656,965,393.18) to bring the total up to its current value. We owe over $27,000 for every man, woman, and child in this country.

This means 63% of what we borrowed with our national credit card last year just went to pay interest on the old balance. (And this is at an interest rate of only about 4.5%--not the exorbitant rate credit cards charge.) For the same year, the government only took in $1.46 Trillion in regular revenue. So about 25% of the tax dollars we paid to the government just went to paying interest on the public debt! Furthermore, of the half of this debt owned by private investors (about half is owned by the Social Security trust fund) nearly two thirds of it--over $2 Trillion--is now owned by foreign and international investors.

Our public debt is snowballing out of control. At this rate, if we managed to cut half a trillion from the budget (25% of total expenditures!), we'd just break even. If we managed to cut our expenditures in half, we could apply half a trillion to the public debt each year--but it would still take 16 years to do it. Bush/Cheney say not to worry because the deficit is still only a small percent of our GDP. But the GDP is about $12 trillion. So while the annual deficit is only about 4.5% of GDP, the public debit is equal to 2/3 of GDP.

You can examine this nifty chart and see how much better a job Democrats have done in budgeting than Republicans. For at least 45 years, only Clinton managed to balance the budget. And now Schwarzenegger proposes to pay for massive new public works projects by raising $50 billion in new state bonds, thereby doubling California's current indebtedness.

Republicans need to learn that if you want something, you have to pay for it. That means taxes, not borrowing. Will the madness never end?


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Clinton's Remarks on Iraq

It looks like Bill Clinton is trying to set the record straight about Iraq. He made these comment to Arab students in the UAE and got a standing ovation. I am trying to imagine GWB ever speaking to Arabs, or ever getting applauded for anything. Is he testing out Hillary's themes for '08?


Monday, November 14, 2005

The Civic Religion

Since one of the threads here is the discussion of religion in American life, I wanted to bring into that discussion our civil religion.

Some posit that there is an American tradition of a civic religion, which becomes a language for values. Its adherents describe things as "true to our heritage" or "un-American," and having quasi-theological discussions about the sacred constitution and the pantheon of founders. The language of the American military concerns martyrs, ritual, and ceremony. The civic religion has its range of adherents, from flag-waving fundamentalists to those who proclaim "dissent is patriotic." Many secularists actually are believers in this secular religion, without understanding how religious such activity is, in a sociological sense. Most of the people on this blog would be considered adherents.

Theologian Paul Tillich famously defined religion as "a state of being grasped by an ultimate concern." He also said, "Man's whole life, including his sensual life, is spiritual." He meant to say that our commitment to non-rational ideals (or at least ideals to which we are committed for reasons other than the fact that they happen to be rational) is a religious commitment, whether or not it has anything to do with the supernatural. In other wors, the subjective experience of believing that something "really matters" is a religious feeling.

I mean to distinguish this activity in America from mere nationalism. Rarely does nationalism become a whole discourse. The American civic religion is so strong because it is just that- an entire national discourse. It is rich with symbolism. Our Rome and Mecca is Washington, a city named after the Father of Our Country, replete with its temples to the deities (Jefferson, Lincoln) and the honored dead. The flag is a near-sacred object. Patriotic events mimic religious fervor. September 11th was an incredible moment of this kind that we all lived through. This makes many Europeans ill.

Yet our liberty, I would argue, has its refuge here in this American religion that posits liberty and democracy as sacred ideals. Our civil war was, in many ways, a religious war between those who saw themselves as true believers and the enemy as heretics. This inspired martyrdom. It still does. Pat Tillman was such a martyr. The Civil Rights movement was also consciously about calling on people to "bear witness," and though led by pastors, its symbol was the flag rather than the cross. And the response was likewise.

As a side note, you can understand what happened in the 1960s as a schism between those who held, with Goldwater, that "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice" and those who opposed such a fundamentlist Americanism. It also split the left between those who Believe in America and those who adhered to the counterculture or to internationalist ideals. GWB is on the Goldwater side of the divide, by the way (his father was not). Separation of church and state has sometimes been interpreted by secularists as the equivalent of the first commandment, "You shall have no other God before the state."

I suggest that Martin Luther King, Jr. is a national hero because he so clearly articulated that there are some things a person must be willing to die for, which included, to him, liberty. Indeed, he is not just a martyr to freedom; to many, he is a "secular" saint.


Sunday, November 13, 2005

A Progressive Approach to Free Markets II

Hi Folks,

Here is another in what I hope will be a series of attempts to debunk myths about the free-market perpetuated by both the right and the left. The first entry was about school vouchers and how applying the "free market" to education in the way usually suggested by the Republicans won't do what they say they want it to do. This entry will address the issue of utilities, especially electricity, and "natural monopolies."

The Republicans argue that electricity is and should always be a "natural monopoly" in which it is most efficient for one company to provide the electricity for everyone. The idea is that since the biggest production cost is wrapped up in building the power plants and the transmission lines, there are such enormous "economies of scale" that competition won't work. As Homer Simpson once said, "Well that will work 'in theory.' And Communism works 'in theory.'"

The flaw in the Republicans' reasoning is two fold. First, they argue that a private monopoly is inherently superior to a government monopoly (thus their preference for private utilities instead of public). But there is little reason to assume a public monopoly is so inferior, especially when one considers that a private monopoly requires either an expensive government regulatory structure to monitor its behavior or an acceptance of abuse by the private monopoly.

Second, the Republicans assume that there is no alternative to the costly, centralized power generation scheme we have now. However, (and Dr. Strangelove will have to fill in the details) the technology exists to shift much of our reliance to solar power at least for residential needs in the parts of the country with the fastest population growth. In other words, the so called "economies of scale" that the natural monopoly theory relies upon are considerably less important now than 30 years ago.

So here is my progressive market based alternative. The government would take over transmission lines completely. Private power companies would be free to build and maintain enormous power plants which would produce most of the power for industrial/commercial use. Residential home owners would be encouraged through tax breaks to put solar collectors on their roofs. Any excess power they produced could be sold back to the government controlled transmission grid and resold. This would seriously reduce the monopolistic grip the current group of private power companies have.

Dr. Strangelove gave us a great comparison of alternative energy sources a while back. I'm wondering if he could reprise that with particular attention to technologies that would enable small scale power production.


Friday, November 11, 2005

The FDA Fails Us Again

NPR and CBS are reporting that the birth control patch that is now used by many women may expose them to Estrogen levels 60% higher than the regular pill. Apparently, the manufacturer has discovered this fact while conducting studies of the patch. And now, the FDA is requiring that the packaging be labeled with warning signs. The NPR report focused on the fact that women would have to weigh the benefits of being able to wear a patch for a week with the increased chance for health troubles. This particular patch increases the possibility of blood clots.

If I were reporting, I would be asking why this product wasn't tested properly BEFORE being sold. It has been on the market for a couple of years now. Why was that not discovered before FDA approval was granted and why is it not being pulled from the market?


Jury of My Peers

Earlier this year, I wanted to volunteer to sit on a local Grand Jury. If accepted, I would have been required to serve for a year. The reason I didn't do it is because it requires about 20 hours a week worth of work. Much of that time would have to be taken as personal time away from my regular job and would require me to be away from my regular job at least 20 hours a month.

It dawned on me that the only people that could do this type of civic work were retired people, unemployed people, or soccer moms, many of whom are conservative and who have agendas. If this anyway to pick a grand jury?

I have also had to exempt myself from regular jury service due to financial hardship. I can't be away from my job for 4 months dealing with a death penalty case. So what does this tell us about the fairness of juries? Does a 30-something defendant stand a chance when his jury is a bunch of gray-haired conservatives? Make the 30-something Black or Latino and then what?

This isn't illuminating to anyone. And it may have even come up before on the blog. But considering that we just had a big grand jury called to deal with Libby and co. I think it has a new relevance. Is conservatism limited to the Supreme Court or to judges? People talk about judges legislating, etc. What about juries? No. Maybe we need to start looking at the system as a whole.



Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Rain of Fire

The Italian state television network Rai broadcast a documentary on Tuesday (11/08/05) accusing the U.S. of using the chemical weapon "white phosphorous" in its November, 2004 assault on Fallujah, Iraq. The Italian documentary also accuses the U.S. military of systematically destroying video and photographic evidence of the massacre.

The U.S. military admits to using white phosphorous shells but claims they were only fired into the air to "illuminate the battlefield." The BBC notes that the U.S. is not a signatory to the international treaty banning the use of white phosphorous shells (Protocol III of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons).

The documentary interviews U.S. soldiers, including former U.S. soldier Jeff Englehart--who was in the Fallujah assault--who confirms he heard orders to use the substance and later saw, "Burned bodies, burned women, burned children... When it makes contact with skin, then it's absolutely irreversible damage, burning flesh to the bone... Phosphorous explodes and forms a cloud. Anyone within a radius of 150 meters is done for."

If you want to see for yourself some of the deeply disturbing pictures of the victims that were shown in the documentary you may click here. You will have to click on "successiva>>" to pass the warning (in Italian) about the graphic nature of the photographs. But please beware: the images of "caramelized skin" are hideous. Even at relatively low resolution, I could not stomach more than a few.

Were these men, women, and children actually killed by white phosphorous, as the documentary claims has been verified by medical personnel? If so, were they victims of "illumination" munitions that fell off course? Could this be a terrible accident that the military has been covering up? Or did we actually use these chemical weapons deliberately?

In the documentary, a biologist in Fallujah says: "A rain of fire fell on the city." If the military is to refute these charges, we need explanations for these pictures, videos and interviews, not just empty denials.


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Chorus of "No"s

Here in California, the voters defeated every ballot proposition: No on all eight of them. This is a massive rebuke of Schwarzenegger. He called this special election, in part because Republicans knew that a special election will have a small, conservative turnout. To boost that, they put an anti-choice measure on the ballot. To no avail. Still NO.

In other national news, right-wingers were rejected at the ballot box, most notably in Virginia, where a frothy red-state bigot named Kilgore went down to the Democrat, Kaine, in the governor's race. Kilgore was running primarily on the strength of (1) his accent, and (2) his kill'em'all'fast death penalty stance. Way to go, Virginia! In Maine, the right-wingnuts put an initiative on the ballot to repeal the law that prohibits discriminating against gays. Yup, the so-called 'christians' wanted the right to fire people just because they were gay. No dice, said Mainers.

Other good news, 25% of Texans are not bigots. More than we might have expected. Sadly, the other 75% voted to ban gay marriage in the state.


With Friends Like These...

On November 8, 2005, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) did something so mind-bogglingly stupid that it is difficult to believe. Apparently trying to "one-up" the Democrats on investigations of leaks of classified material, these two Republican leaders asked House and Senate intelligence committees to, "immediately initiate a joint investigation into the possible release of classified information to the media," concerning the secret CIA prisons story the Washington Post broke--which the Bush administration refuses to confirm or deny.

Oh, so I guess they really do exist, huh?

Does anyone want to guess why these CIA prisons need to be on foreign soil and need to be kept secret? Might this have anything to do with why the White House is so desperate to quash, or at least get a CIA exception to the "no torture, no inhumane treatment" policy that Senator McCain is championing? Could this perhaps be related to the infamous "torture" memos written for Alberto Gonzales? And the Bush administration's unprecedented secrecy in general?

Bush and Cheney have been lying about this through their teeth, and now their own party members go and blow their cover?! A child could connect the dots. Investigate the CIA prisons leak? Hell, yeah! I'd love to see what kind of dirt comes out when they go through that laundry. As soon as reporters--or Congress!--gets solid proof of what we've been doing in those dark places, it's double impeachment time.


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Tales of a beleaguered Poll Worker- Part II

Well, I am home in bed with ice cream by 10 pm- a record. My shoulders and back are nowhere near as sore as they were the last time I did this. That is thanks to the ease of the computer voting. It makes reconciling the votes at the end of the evening a breeze and I didn't have to bend over ripping ballots off a sheet all day.

After returning from lunch, we had a busy period. In fact, we had steady voters all day. I am not sure how many voters there were on the roster, but as of close tonight, we had over 500 people who voted on the machines and an additional 400 who came in with absentee ballots or who voted provisionally.

In our county, the absentee ballots that had been sent in by this last weekend were sorted and counted. They will be run through the scanning machines tonight. The computer chips will be reconciled with the paper trail from the machines tonight, the absentees that were turned in today will be gone through within the next day or so and the provisional ballots will be reconciled and dealt with I believe within 10 days of the election. That gives you some idea of how things work here.

I have decided that I like the computers. The biggest concern was that you don't get a receipt to take with you when you leave. The print out is locked into the printer, which is like a big roll of register tape like you see at a cash register. But you don't have a paper receipt when you vote on a regular ballot. All you get is the stub. And most people throw that away. All told, only 12 voters in my precinct opted to vote paper ballot. This option will end soon. The paper trail concern was largely because of what people have heard and learned from Florida and Ohio as well as other parts of the state that use electronic voting. I am told we are working to make paper receipts possible.

Nurse Ratchet loosened up in the afternoon. At one point she was working with a guy over a provisional ballot. When she was said and done, she comes over to me, hands me his business card and tells me all about him. Then she informs me that she was trying to "set me up". I thought it was pretty funny, actually. By that point, we had figured out a system and our rolls and responsibilities were more settled. It takes a while for people to learn to work together. And we had figured out that our respective trainings were not done well. For starters, my training focused on setting up the new machines and knowing how they operate. An hour and a half of that last week, and I was ready to scream. I work with computers, so for me that was no big deal. But for most people, that was a big deal. My Precinct Inspector (Ratchet) had a training that focused almost exclusively on the paper work aspect of things. So no one was on the same page and everyone thought they were the in-house expert. So our county needs to fix its poll worker training. This is important for voters. We as poll workers decide if you vote and if your vote counts because we are the first people you encounter when you get to the polls. So good training is important.

Another common problem we ran into today was with absentee voters. Many voters are listed on our rosters as absentee. But they claim they never received their ballots. In cases like these, they had to vote provisionally. We suspect that many people confuse the ballots with junk mail and toss them away without opening them. So around election time, BE CAREFUL about what you throw away!

And for my readers that remembered my white supremacists voter, the one who showed up with the Confederate flag on his hat and who wanted to make sure blacks and Jews didn't win elections? Mr. Dixie? Well he was back. I determined this time that he is illiterate. He didn't vote for half the stuff on the ballot because he didn't understand it and he said so. And the irony is that our African American poll clerk helped him out this time. And Mr. Dixie was perfectly polite about it. I realized that this man is unfortunate because it is his illiteracy that pushes him to think as he does. It creates insecurity that breeds frustration and then hate. And the only thing that makes him important, in his eyes at least, is that he is male and white. Mr. Dixie can be redeemed if someone would take the time to listen to him respectfully and then talk to him reasonably. My guess is that he gets written off most of the time and thus, he feels inferior. He didn't cause any trouble; he wanted to follow the rules. He showed up to vote. And he has to get credit for that.

I also have to give a big thank you to another character from the last election, my former fellow poll worker and local civil rights attorney. She came into vote around 6pm and did a Starbucks run for is. That was a lifesaver, and probably why I am so wired now! She remembered well how tired we all were by 6 pm the last time around and did us this favor. Random acts of kindness!

All in all, it wasn't a bad day. But the fun, hopeful energy of the Presidential election was not there. This is, after all, a boring special election. And my party girl, civil rights attorney who had me singing "Shake Rattle and Roll" during the last election wasn't there to joke with. But seriously I think we as a state have to really reconsider the idea of referendum voting. The issues are way too complex and the system has been hijacked by special interests. The good part is that I got to see several acquaintances that I hadn't seen in ages and I made a few new friends.

At that is a wrap. Ratchet and I returned all the ballots, printers and papers to the local Court House. And now, this day is done. It has been long and now, I'd like to call it a night.


Make a Monkey out of Kansas

The Kansas Board of Education voted 6-4 today (Nov. 8, 2005) to teach "Intelligent Design" in public school science classes. It was a contentious vote, angering many parents and drawing sharp criticism from the Governor and the National Academies of Science--which had earlier withdrawn its copyrighted material from the proposed new textbooks in protest.

This is not the first time that the Kansas Board of Education has attacked the foundations of science. In 1999, the Board expunged almost all mention of evolution from textbooks, but they reversed themselves in 2001 after voters threw out the board members responsble for that travesty. The Empire Struck Back in 2004 as the anti-science crowd managed to recapture the board. The standards are scheduled to take effect in 2007, so voters have little time to fix the mess.

One thing is certain. Out of the primordial soup of Kansas politics, a new species of creationism has emerged: "Intelligent Design." This new dogma sounds more convincing and has learned better camouflage--a novice in the field could mistake this vicious vermin for a simple appeal to broader perspectives. But closer examination of its lineage easily reveals it to be a full-fledged member of the fundamentalist family, with all the corresponding traits.

A dissenting board member complained that the Board was going to make a "laughinstock" of Kansas again. And I say that's exactly what we should do! Merciless national ridicule and a broad boycott (well, if anyone actually goes there anymore...) is the best thing we all can do to help those poor folks in Kansas win back their school board. Because the fastest way to force a political organism to evolve is to drastically alter its environment. Any biologist could tell you that.

Meanwhile, in good news, voters kicked all eight members of the Dover, Pennsylvania school board out of office and replaced them with challengers who had campaigned against their "Intelligent Design" teaching policy. The ACLU lawsuit against the board ended last week, and the verdict is expected in January.


Tales of a Beleaguered Poll Worker

As you all recall, during the Presidential election, I worked the polls and I kept a journal for the day. I am working the polls again today, and back by popular demand are Tales of the Beleaguered Poll Worker.

Let me start by saying that getting up at 5:15 am in order to be at the polls by 6:15 is NOT my cup of tea. So remember that when you turn up at the polls at 7 am. Remember that to make that happen, some poor non-morning person like me had rise before the sun. And on top of it all, I have to smile at you when you come in.

Is morning, so none of our signs for the outdoors would stick to anything. That was laughs, tromping around in the rain trying to clear the area of all election signs and to get polling place signs up. Then we turned on the nifty new voting machines and things got humming. My county is all touch screens now. You can still opt out and do a paper ballot. This option will end in a couple election cycles.

We are NOT using Debold systems. We actually have a nice system that does render a paper back up copy. Our machines have printers attached and once a person is ready, they can hit a button on the screen to print. They can review the ballot on paper and then hit the official "Cast your Vote" button. We have the print offs locked in the printer so that we can do hand counts should that be necessary. Reception to the machines has been good. People think they are fun. They like them better than the old punch cards. Even elderly folks have had little or no trouble using the machines. Of course, one concern is that they don't walk away with a receipt. But once we explain how things work, the are OK with it. The voting goes fast, and there are fewer lines, less activity, and less worry. My precinct has 5-6 machines, and we have had no problems, except with our Precinct inspector, a.k.a, Nurse Ratchet . Nurse Ratchet is a former Kindergarten teacher and veteran poll worker who asks anyone under 40 if they ere her students and who thinks her authority is undermined by the machines and us.

She is a control freak, threatened by anyone who might actually know something about procedure, overly stressed out, totally lacking in humor, and universally disliked by myself and my two other poll workers. We have managed, however, to over power her while she sits there passively aggressive and seething to herself. My goal is to stay clinically detached and pleasant to all.

Nurse Ratchet's biggest obsession, other than making sure the "I voted" stickers are lined up evenly along the edge of the table, is provisional ballots. She acts like issuing a provisional ballot is a crisis waiting to happen. Yet last elections, we issued many of them because we were told that we had to let people vote. But in the last election, there was only one ballot. In this election, the ballots are all different depending on what district you are from. There are different measures on this ballot. It is irritating. And it makes Ratchet edgy. So lesson number one for the county elections board is never let former Kindergarten teachers be poll inspectors. If they are scared of computers, don't let them be poll inspectors. It really goes to their heads. So all morning, it has been a quiet battle to get people their provisional ballots when they need them.

Eric is my fellow poll worker. He is a funny guy, confident, and making us laugh about conflicts with his cancer medications. Julie worked with me before and I found her rude. I still find her rude, but since we are all unified against Nurse Ratchet, I can bear her.

So this is where it stands at lunch. We have had no problems with the machines, a steady stream of voters, and a wicked poll inspector. Stay tuned.


Monday, November 07, 2005

Assimilation à la Française

RBR asked about the difference between integration and assimilation. I think it is important to explore this question in the French context. It is one of the major differences between the French system and our own. And let me open by saying that I respect the French because they have a valid world view that is often discarded as being, "just too French". But that is very unfair. Needless to say, they are facing some serious issues when it comes to defining the fundamental values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Notice that fraternity, that idea of national solidarity, is a founding value for the French. For a brief, broad historical overview, see below .

Integration is the American model. It is the melting pot, salad bowl, model. You can be Whatever-American. You don't sacrifice what you are to become American. Becoming American just enriches that which you are. We talk about multiculturalism and identity, so much so that we claim our diversity as our identity. This is tied to our idea of self-determination and independence. We aren't about fraternity. And in practice, we see equality in terms of justice or treating similarly situated people similarly. We are less Cartesian and more pragmatic in our approach. So we don't think that dogmatic equality is possible. The French do. This doesn't make us better or any less discriminatory than the French. Let's not ignore the huge role that race plays in the US and the deep divisions it creates. But we have a pretty fluid notion of what "American" means. It means you buy into the value system; you agree to the social contract. If you do that, you are in. Your language, your social position, your background are less important.

The French, however, have a strong national identity and a sense of patriotism that can rival that of Americans. They don't have such a fluid attitude about who they are and they aren't keen on acquiring one. In France there is no such thing as Whatever-French. The French notion of equality means sameness. You are accepted to the degree that 1) you look French and 2) the degree to which you act French. This simplifies things a lot because you can nullify differences. You don't have to create policy to deal with the non-French or visible minorities.

You have this attitude because if you are French, you have a pretty good way of life and a pretty long history of either outsiders or societal rifts undoing it. Consider that France has been through countless wars, dictatorship, 2 empires, military occupation, civil war, and 5 Republics. There was a time when the French would wake up in the morning surprised if they had the same government as the day before. The Fifth Republic nearly fell in the last elections. Their salvation (and sometimes their undoing) has always come by being unified against outsiders and having strong leadership.

In America, we ask where you are from so as to learn something interesting. In France you are asked about your family origins, and if they are acceptable, you are in. In America, minorities can and do control a great deal of our politics- whether they be ideological or racial minorities. In France, elites run the show, an idea left over from before 1789.

All of that said, I think the French have valid concerns about how you establish equality and how you maintain a secular state. Being dogmtaic about it ensures that the rights of the whole and the greatest number are protected. And I think this may be wrapped up in some notion of an ideal sized population that can be provided for. We are a nation of minorties wrapped into a sinlge contract. The French are a nation of a majority that is fracturing into minorities.

Many of the concerns I hear in California about immigrants are the same ones I hear in France. They draw away important resources; they refuse to live our way they don't respect our customs, etc. These are concerns based on fear and insecurity. So poverty, exclusion, lack of education are blamed on the immigrant for failing to assimilate rather than on society for failing to allow him entry.

Historical Background

Lets start with decolonization. The French have long maintained a system similar to that of the commonwealth called TOM / DOM.This system allows people from former colonies to enter into France with favorable immigration and visa terms. This was useful for France on two fronts. First, it helped meet labor needs created by the devastation of WWII. Secondly, it kept the world populated with French citizens. But for this to work, total assimilation (Frenchification) had to take place. So no special allowances for foreignness. This was easy, so long as the immigrants came from other European countries. To accomodate these immigrants, "projects" were built in the suburbs of large citys. These quickly turned into over crowded slums that spearated the immigrants from the French and made both assimilation and integration impossible.

With the fall of Algeria in 1962, France began to see the arrival of Muslims. The baby boom, the liberation of woman, and growing economic prosperity ended the need for immigrant labor and increased resentment toward Muslims who suddenly wanted to build mosques in French villages.

So to halt immigration, Pasqua Laws, named after former Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua were enacted in 1993. Under these laws, many legal immigrants found themselves suddenly illegal. And those who had been living in France for several years, and thus were entitled to legal papers, were suddenly faced with deportation. These laws were aimed at a "zero immigration" policy and were supported by the likes of Chirac. At the same time, Le Pen began to gain favor, especially in the South. The Pasqua Laws worked. Between 1991 and 1995, legal immigration was cut in half. By 1996, however, the problems started. In a few cases, refugees and asylum seekers barricaded themselves into churches to avoid deportation and to protest Pasqua Laws. The French Constitutional Court had declared certain provisions of these laws as illegal. And slowly, the tide turned and the laws were loosened or dropped. Immigration started to rise.

Today, the French do not keep statistics on the number or nationality of its immigrants. It does distinguish in its statistics between those born in France, naturalized citizens, and foreigners in general. This category contains children under 18 who were born in France.


Looking Worse in Europe

Hi All,

The riots that started around Paris nearly two weeks ago have spread to several other major cities in France and there are isolated reports of other riots in Brussels, Belgium and in Aarhus, Denmark. Meanwhile the situation in France is also getting more intense. The 12th night of the riots were the worst yet. Many police officers have been wounded by thrown stones, molotov cocktails and even small caliber gunfire.

I won't bore you with too many details as events are moving fairly quickly with this and you all can just link to any of the news links to the right for your details.

The story that has me in shock is that only now are French authorities imposing a curfew. In LA, the national guard was sent in after one weekend in the case of the Watts Riot and after three days in the case of the 1992 "Rodney King" Riot. Anyone out there in the ether know if this slow response in France is similar to the response to the student unrest in France in 1968?

It seems to me that regardless of one's sympathies for the plight of the residents of these ghettos, the state must maintain order and, in this case, that would seem to require a larger show of force than has yet been demonstrated by the French authorities. After order is restored, France will have to start making up for 30+ years of misguided policies and there won't be an easy fix. I heard a former French government official say on the PBS New Hour today that French citizens with Arabic sounding names are 1/8 to 1/10 as likely to be offered a job when they apply for one compared to an applicant with a French sounding name.


A Problem That Should Be Buried

There are over 50,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel in the U.S., and right now this material is housed in temporary storage facilities in over 120 locations (see map) in 40 states.

The most common temporary storage method is immersion in pools of water, for cooling and radiation damping, but within five years, most of these pools will finally be full. The other common method is to seal the waste in thick metal containers stowed in concrete bunkers. These storage facilities are only meant to be temporary however--they will not last for a hundred years, let alone ten thousand. And if attacked by terrorists, any of these sites could cause environmental devastation. Even if we were to shut down every nuclear reactor right now, we would still need a far better solution than what we have.

Scientists have considered putting the waste on the seabed, depositing it under the ice caps, shooting it into space, and other options. The consensus is that the best option is to bury it underground, away from the water table. For that reason, a dozen of the largest nuclear nations (USSR, Britain, France, China, Japan, Germany...) are planning to build large, underground repositories. Ours is going to be at Yucca Mountain.

Environmental groups should be fighting hard for this program, but instead they fight against it as though it were a proposal to create waste rather than deal with the problem of existing waste. Yucca Mountain is behind schedule again--the opening date has slipped from 2010 to 2012--and now once again Congress has moved to reduce the funding by a third (down to $450 million for FY06). In another short-sighted move, Congress also deleted a $10 million House proposal that would have built a few more temporary above-ground waste sites.

While skeptics should remain vigilant to ensure the program stays on track, Yucca Mountain program must go forward. To do otherwise is to invite disaster.


The Torture President is in denial

"We do not torture", says the President. Unbelievable. Does he read the news?

Andrew Sullivan, with whom I do not always agree, has been on top of this torture thing from the beginning and says it right this time. Especially this part: torture is not good for America. In any way.


The New Enemies List

It turns out that ordinary Christians are now on the president's enemies list. It is well known that fundamentalist christians openly support right-wing causes throughout the country. Catholic bishops called for excommunicating John Kerry (that's what denying communion is, boys). Here in CA, fundies, Catholics, and Mormons all openly preached that parishioners must vote YES on proposition 73 (requiring teenage girls to notify parents 48 hours before abortion, even if she is a victim of rape or incest). For all that, the IRS kept mum. Now, it has taken aim at a guest sermon at All Saints' Episcopal church in Pasadena, preaching against war, condemned Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive war as sinful. For that, the IRS is now seeking to strip away its tax-exempt status. Christian churches must not preach peace? During the first month of the Iraq war, the Diocese of Los Angeles put on the cover of its monthly newspaper, "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" Right wing churches can say whatever they like, however -indeed, they are invited to the White House! The IRS does not even move to strip the tax-exempt status from the right-wing churches whose political activism is outrageous, such as those bishops who sought to excommunicate Kerry. This is a blatantly political move, singling out a progressive Christian church for a sermon while turning a blind eye to the active political machinations of right-wing churches who distribute "voting cards" to their members and actually tell them how to vote.

I am absolutely outraged. This is nothing but another IRS enemies list.

As a practicing Episcopalian, I know that, come election time, the church is careful never to tell people how to vote, however much it may discuss the morality or immorality of issues of war, peace, racism, and bigotry. Because all talk about society and morality is inherently political, the question is not whether politics and churches can be separated, but how to cordon off a zone of political activism as beyond the pale. The line has always been drawn at direct advocacy for candidates or propositions at election time on the other. There is a difference between claiming that "abortion is sin" and "It is a sin to vote for a pro-abortion candidate." It may seem like a fine distinction, but you need a "bright line" in order to avoid a chilling effect on free speech. For better or for worse, right wingers have pushed the boundaries farther yet.

Let's call this action what it is. This is an obvious attempt to chill speech in the Episcopal church - prompted in part by those Republicans who hate gays, no doubt (the church's advocacy of gay rights is (sadly) its most well-known theological position).

The good news is that Episcopalians will not shy away from this kind of fight. And if someone is trying to get Christians to shut up, it means that their voices are being heard. Let's just say we've got a model about how far to take a fight for the truth.

I have a proposal. As a policy matter, the IRS should remove tax-exempt "status" for types of organizations (whether religious or charitable or "non-profit") and replace it with a set of deductions for specified not-for-profit activities (e.g., church repair, charitable giving, hosting AA meetings, etc.). Otherwise, all money would be counted and taxed as income. Then a church, or the Red Cross, or any other organization, would be free of restrictions on speech altogether, and free to take political positions.


Sunday, November 06, 2005

Markets and School Choice

Hi Everyone,

With the riots in France (now spreading to other parts of Paris and other cities) starting to look like a kind of widespread uprising, I think it is worth while to open a discussion of market forces and market approaches to policy in general. There are those who argue that markets are always bad, always regressive. There are those who argue that markets are always good. However, I believe that both arguments are based on a poor understanding of what the market is and how individuals and public policy interact with it. My intention (if I can maintain the attention span) is to present a series of posts on this blog that outline my own view of how public policy can be used (and can't be used) in conjunction with market forces to improve people's lives.

I'll start by examining a popular right wing policy based on market forces: school choice/vouchers. Many right wing politicians see this a cure all for the problems of public schools. Their presentation and sales pitch on this idea has been so effective that many people who would normally be on the left, now agree with this right wing proposal. I argue that it is based on a misunderstanding of how people interact with education and the market.

The idea behind school vouchers and school choice policies is that parents would be given money to pay for private schools and/or given the choice to enroll their children in any school they wish. The idea is that parents would take their kids out of the bad schools and put them in the good schools. This would reduce the funding to the bad schools and impose market pressures on the bad schools to improve or close down.

This is based on some critical but rarely discussed assumptions:

1) Parents see schools located in different areas as equally (or nearly equally) desirable if their quality is equal. That is, parents would be willing to move their kids from school to school to gain improvements in quality. This assumption is probably false. Parents have repeatedly expressed their desire (often through violent protest) to keep their children in neighborhood schools rather than bus them out of the area. This desire is not only expressed by middle class whites opposing integration. Neighborhood cohesion is important to many immigrant communities and parents see local schools as an important part of that community cohesion. If the mobility assumption is false the market forces that advocates hope will force bad schools to improve or die will never materialize. And the only effect will be to give public money to those parents most desirous to send their children to private schools. That group of parents is likely to be disproportionately conservative Christians (which explains why the Republican party is so enthusiastic about this plan).

2) The reason bad schools are bad is because of poor management. If the problem with underperforming schools is largely due to poor management, then a market based approach could be a great mechanism for replacing bad managers with good ones (ignoring for the moment my criticism of assumption 1). However, if underperforming schools aren't working because of poor funding and social problems in the students' lives outside the control of the schools' administrators, then the market pressures on the schools will only serve to take away funding from already underfunded schools. At the same time as those schools die off, their students will move to better performing schools but they will take their social problems with them when they move. The result will be a constantly shifting population of "problem students" who will seem to ruin school after school until the underlying social problems are addressed.

Anyone else want to chime in?


Saturday, November 05, 2005

Dark Prince Novak

This maybe an odd question, but why has Novak not been implicated more overtly in the Wilson Affaire? Both Newsweek and the NYT place him firmly in the information flow that went between the White House and the news world, yet he was never called before a grand jury. Some web traffic indicates that he may have been the one to drop the dime on Miller and thus, there was no need to call him to the grand jury.

I guess I bring this up because it really bugs me that the guy who actually revealed the name to the world walks around untouched. And I have listened to and read report after report about this whole affair and he is merely mentioned with no real explanation. He's such a fink.


Friday, November 04, 2005

Right to Privacy

Oooh, I really like this. Brilliant idea. It would take some time to get the wording right, but the end result would be worth it.

I'm going to add to this in an extremely geeky way below the fold...

In mathematics, there is a set of rules, or "axioms", without which one cannot do math at all. These are things that are not up for debate; you accept them, or you are doing something that one cannot call mathematics. One can think of these as being the "laws" of mathematics; the Zermelo-Frankel axioms are sort of our Constitution.

There is, however, one axiom, called the "axiom of choice", that is up for some debate. It cannot be proved from the other axioms; you either take it as an axiom or you reject its validity. In its simplest form, it says that if you present me with a whole bunch of sets, I can pick one element from each. Simple, right? How can anyone disagree with such a harmless thing? Well, it directly leads to the following result, called The Banach-Tarski paradox: we can take a ball of any size, cut it into 5 pieces, and re-assemble the pieces to get two balls, both of equal size to the first. Despite this (and other) paradoxes, the axiom of choice is good in so many ways that the vast majority of mathematicians believe it.

You can probably see where I'm going with this -- the axiom of choice in mathematics seems to me to be intimately related with the right to privacy in politics. (The axiom of choice is conveniently named for this discussion, as the right to privacy is roughly equivalent to a woman's right to choose.) We have a large group of people (the majority, in fact) that believe it exists and a smaller group that believes it doesn't. So why not make it an axiom? It's good in so many ways.


Openness Begins at Home

Today, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled unanimously that former Gov. Howard Dean acted legally in 2003 when he sealed 93 boxes of papers when he left office until 2013. Other VT governors had also sealed some of their records upon leaving office, but never for so long. Judicial Watch had sued for their release.

This is shameful. In a time when the Bush administration shrouds its lies with secrecy, the DNC Chairman should set an example of openness and transparency. Instead, Dean has surrendered to the temptation to avoid potential embarrassment by invoking executive privilege and hiding his paper trail. It does not matter that other politicians have done the same thing: Democrats should hold themselves to a higher standard, starting right now.

Release the papers, Gov. Dean! Surely you do more damage to your party and your reputation by concealing them than you avoid... right?


Molly Ivins

This is an interesting article. Ivins goes off on a left-wing rant about how we should spend more on education and less on the military, but some of her numbers are eye-opening:

Just for starters, is there anyone -- anyone -- who thinks we need more than 1,000 nuclear warheads in order to have a credible nuclear deterrent at this time? By cutting back to 1,000, we can save $13 billion right there.
$13,000,000,000 is a lot of money. If you stacked 13 billion dollar bills one on top of the other, you would get a stack 882 miles high, or about four times the distance from the earth to the moon. (Stupid numbers. See the comments.)

Maybe it is time for the fiscally responsible members of our government to suggest some things like this... but don't hold your breath.


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Unrest in France

Hi All,

For the past several days several French cities have been embroiled in sever rioting. This is not your normal French demonstration of malaise. Rather this is more like France's answer to the Watts or Rodney King riots. The unrest is concentrated in neighborhoods populated mainly by immigrants. Most of those immigrants are from Africa and the Middle East. Poverty is much worse among these communities than in other French communities.

The event which sparked the riots in the first place seems to be the accidental death of two teenage boys who thought they were fleeing the police when they hid in an electrical transformer shed. The people in these communities are reacting to police crack downs with resentment and further rioting.

These are the communities in which Al Qaeda recruits. And while these riots are in France, nearly every country in Europe has similar communities of mostly Muslim immigrants who are excluded from the prosperity all around them. A smaller riot occurred just last week in Birmingham, UK.


Undisclosed Locations and Black Sites

Well the word is out! It isn't the first time we have heard of renditions. Check out today's Washington Post. What Eastern European country do we think it is? I say one of them is Poland. I don't know why. It's a big Eastern European country that has been cooperating with the US. I hate to say it, but Georgia may be another becuase we do have close intelligence ties with the Georgians, US military advisors on the ground, and pleanty of old Soviet installations there. And the chaos there would be a good cover. Any guesses as to the others?

John McCain introduced legislation to insure that all those held by the US would be treated in conformity with Human Rights standards. Cheney and Goss asked to have the CIA exempted. What does this tell you?

I find interesting that there is a tacit understanding that they have to keep these people off of US soil and out of the reach of US courts and thus, US rights and legal restrictions. By seeking legislative exemptions, they are using the system to defeat itself. Who does that remind us of?

As the article says, it is illegal for the government to hold prisoners in such isolation in secret prisons in the United States, which is why the CIA placed them overseas . . .”

I will leave it at there. There is so much to say about such things, I will leave that to my fellow Citizens.


Interstate Politics

Ohio has a new ballot measure like California's, for redistricting. Governor Schwarzenegger just endorsed that measure. In California, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is on television ads endorsing Proposition 77. This is a very curious interstate affair. To the extent that it affects red states (like Ohio) as well as blue states (CA), that helps balance measures. And don't tell me Ohio is not a red state.


A Lesson from Colorado

Anyone who is considering voting for Arnold's spending cap (Prop. 76) next week should see what Colorado voters just did. They voted yesterday to repeal a similar cap, originally enacted back in 1992 to the cheers of conservatives. Coloradans voted to give up their tax cuts worth $3.7 Billion. Democrats were joined by the Republican governor, who said that the ill-advised mandatory cap had pushed the state health, education, and transportation programs into crisis.


Adding Insult to Injury

A minor article in The Washington Post mentions something truly apalling that ought to be a cause for outrage around the nation.

Five hundred prisoners walked free from the U.S. military's Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq yesterday, released in a goodwill gesture to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The detainees were presented with a Koran and $25 on their release, which marked Eid al-Fitr celebrations. Their release was in addition to 1,000 prisoners set free in October at the start of the month of fasting.

All 1,500, who also received traditional white shirts, were released after their cases went before an Iraqi-led review board and were found not to have committed serious or violent crimes, the U.S. military said.

Since these 1,500 Iraqis could not have gone before this "review board" (no judge? no attorneys?) in a single month, let alone a single day, it is clear that hundreds of men and women have been imprisoned long past they were believed to be innocent so they might be released as part of some "goodwill" stunt. Good will? Oh yeah, I'm sure their families felt these gestures were very magananimous of us.

How many months--or years?--had these people been held at Abu Ghraib? For that many innocent Iraqis to be held (and in Abu Ghraib, of all places! Did anyone else think we had shut that place down?) proves that we are simply rounding up thousands of "suspects" like cattle. How many more are being held by U.S. forces? And what lesson do you think Iraqis have learned from all this about American justice?


That's Some Catch, That Catch 21

Senate minority leader, Harry Reid (D-NV) invoked "Rule 21" which cleared the Senate of all cameras and everyone not actually elected to the Senate. He did this to protest footdragging by the Republican leadership on the investigation of the Plame/CIA leak. While a dramatic gesture and one that will embarrass the Republicans greatly, I doubt it will really force any accountability on the White House. The Republican base will be just as energized by this as the Democratic base. So Republicans will be ready to fight this. But at least the Democrats are trying. That could get the vote out in 2006.


America's Left Wing Universities

At Bell Curve's request let's open a discussion of the disproportionately left wing politics of American universities.

I used to thing this was grossly overblown and I still think it's exaggerated. However a few years ago I was involved in an interdisciplinary course on globalization involving an economist, a political scientist, a geographer and a comparative literature professor (sounds like a joke where they all get stranded on a desert island somewhere).

The economist and political scientist clearly had less politicized and more empirical approaches to studying globalization. If a normative political bias could be attributed to them it would be that they were centrist. The geographer was openly Marxist but he tried to use data to support his positions and when data didn't support his predictions he reported it anyway. The comparative literature professor however was beyond the pale. I was shocked at how openly and radically left wing his lectures were. There was complete absence of data of any kind and his lectures never discussed how the world actually is so much as how he thought the world should be.

I looked into the English department and Comparative Literature departments in that university and found that many of their courses were portrayed as courses about politics. As a political scientist I was very uncomfortable about it. Students were taking courses of untrained polemicists and coming out them thinking they actually learned something about political science. I don't have a problem with an English professor having political views. I don't even have that big a problem with them shooting their mouth off in class. But I don't like the false advertising.

Since that experience I've been more open to criticisms from the right that universities are bastions of left wing bias. I now only correct them by saying, "It's not the whole university. It's the humanities, in particular it is post-modernists." There are political scientists who are post-modern but they are (thankfully) becoming fewer and being relegated to those departments that do not train new political scientists.

This isn't to say that people with PhDs in the natural sciences or social sciences aren't more likely to be Democrats. They are (and that so many educated people dislike right wing ideologies should give Republicans pause). But they are less likely to make their political affiliations the foundations of their teaching and research.

A big reason I got involved with this blog (and the main reason I keep my identity obscured), is because as a professional political science educator, I have to keep my personal views separate from my professional research and teaching. I make a great effort to be objective and not preach to my students about my own views (even though I'm often tempted). This blog let's me blow off steam without introducing bias into my teaching. It also allows me to be considerably sloppier in my arguments and evidence than I would be professionally.

OK, that's what I think. What do you all think?


Tuesday, November 01, 2005

What is going on at the Air Force Academy?

OK gang,

This is a little late in coming (the story first broke on Oct 26) because when I heard it, I assumed it was a history retrospective about something that happened 20 or 30 years ago. Last week the head football coach at the US Air Force Academy announced that the reason his team is not successful was that they did not have enough African American players. To make matters worse, he referred to African Americans as "Afro-Americans." (you see why I thought this was a report from some 70's or 80's retrospective?).

There is a big debate out there among sports writers about whether this guy should be fired or not. I'll just suggest that we see this in the context of the overall culture at the Air Force Academy. There is the problem with evangelical conservatives dominating the religious culture of the Academy. Then there was the rape epidemic that broke out there.

So what we have is a US military academy in which violent misogynists and racists are running around being told they are God's chosen warriors in an apocalyptic conflict between good and evil. And oh by the way the people doing the raping and making the racist comments are the "good guys" according to the evangelicals. I've said before that the Religious right is just the Old South rising again. I think this ongoing mess at the Air Force academy is another little piece of evidence in support of my view.