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."

Tuesday, January 31, 2006



It seems to me clear that the attorney-general lied under oath to the Senate. In his confirmation hearings, he described warrantless wire-tapping of Americans as a "hypothetical situation," when he was fully aware that such wire-tapping was already in place. We impeached a president for perjury about a civil sexual harassment suit. And Gonzales gets to perjure himself in front of the Senate on a basic matter of national security ... and the world yawns?


Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Fate of the Republic

In my (not copious) spare time, I am reading Polybius' history of the Rise of the Roman empire, and a modern account of Roman history in general. What strikes me so much in reading these accounts is the relevance to modern American problems. How do you maintain a republic and an empire? The fragility of a state built primarily on a small oligarchy. The way in which conflation of legislative and executive power leads to tyranny. My reaction to Bush's assertion that the Presidency is bound by no laws in the conduct of war, and the second assertion that we are now in a permanent, universal war, is one of more than just partisan disapproval. The horror is that this is exactly how constitutional republics collapse, when the checks on absolute power are thrown aside for expediency. I am increasingly of the opinion that we are not simply in the throes of cycles of American politics (a la Schlesinger) but are actually witnessing the destruction of our constitutional order. It is not too late. Serious reform is possible. But unless a serious effort is made to reassert the values of our republic, we will find our Congress and judiciary powerless at the hands of a plebiscitary dictatorship.

Democrats need to start talking about the threat that Republicans pose to the whole Madisonian system (this discussion needs to begin amongst the intellectual circles).


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Bush's War on Science

The NY Times reports that NASA's top climate scientist, 63-year old physicist Dr. James E. Hansen of the Goddard Institute, says the Bush administration has tried to muzzle him since he spoke at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco on Dec. 6, 2005, warning that 2005 had been the warmest year on record and calling for immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Dr. Hansen said officials at NASA headquarters and ordered the public affairs staff to review forthcoming lectures, papers, postings, and even to "stand in" for him on any future interviews.

Amazingly, the public affairs office at Goddard has stood up for him. One public affairs officer who personally witnessed the intimidation, Ms. Leslie McCarthy, defended her report of it to a NASA administrator looking into the matter, saying, "Why am I going to go out of my way to make this up and back up Jim Hansen? I don't have a dog is this race." And the Director of Public Affairs for the Goddard Space Center and Institute, Mark Hess, said of Dr Hansen, "The thing that has always struck me about him is I don't think he's political at all. He really is not about concerning himself with whose administration is in charge, whether it's Republicans, Democrats or whatever. He's a pretty down-the-road conservative, independent-minded person."

It's not that Hansen is saying anything new that threatens the Bush Administration--what bothers them is that he's part of the government and, as Ms. McCarthy said, "the inference was that he was disloyal." But as she explained, "I'm a career civil servant and Jim Hansen is a scientist. That's not our job. That's not our mission."

Over the past few years, many concerned scientists have felt compelled to blow the whistle on Republican attempts to squelch the facts, notably about environmental degradation and global warming. It seems even the tobacco industry has a greater respect for the truth. And it's stupid too. If the Republicans knew the first thing about how science operates, they would know that the only sure way to piss of a scientist is to tell him he can't publish.

Bush and Cheney must be impeached.


Friday, January 27, 2006


We do finally have what I've been scouring the internet for: a detailed nonpartisan analysis of the campaign donations from Jack Abramoff's Native American clients. It backs up what it says with data and everything.

I don't think I need to tell you what the conclusions of the report were. But keep this link in mind next time someone tries to feed you a line about this being a bipartisan scandal.

(and if they say that Abramoff personally gave money to Democrats, we still have this link to debunk that)


Good for him.

Chirac falls for 'Canadian PM' radio prank

No, not the fact that he fell for the prank. The part of the article I liked best was this:

When Audette finally revealed himself as a bogus prime minister, Chirac burst out laughing.

"In any case, know that my friendship for Canada and the new conservative government is a real friendship and without reserve," he said.
(My emphasis added).

It's so nice to see a head of state not taking things so seriously all the time.


More funny stuff.

If you haven't been watching "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central, you are really, really missing out. He does O'Reilly better than O'Reilly does. Luckily, you can find most of the video online at his web site. I especially recommend ThreatDown: Unleaded Gas. It's a riot.


Thursday, January 26, 2006

Domestic Spying-Fog of Complexity

The Washington Post reported today that in 2002, Senator Mike DeWine (R of Ohio) introduce a bill that would have lowered the standard for obtaining surveillance warrants for suspected terrorists. The proposed legislation was rejected by the Department of Justice, who said that the current FISA system was working well. For a really in depth report on this check out Media Matters.

In short, the White House has been caught contradicting itself. I has said that it needed to conduct warrantless searches because the FISA Courts would take too long. Then they said that the needed a lower standard than "probable cause" to conduct a search. They were offered a legislative possibility for achieving that, and they said, "no thank you". In light of General Hayden's comments (see previous post) it is refreshing to know that they were aware at all that "probable cause" was required for a warrant.

But to muddy the waters and confuse us all, now they are throwing all sorts of semantic terms at us. In order of importance, there is "probable cause" – the highest standard; "reasonable suspicion"- the lowest standard; and the most recent animal, "reasonable basis"- said to be less rigorous than probable cause but moreso than "reasonable suspicion". I am being wordy on purpose to show how confusing it can be.

It is getting so confusing and technical that the story is being killed. Once the story line gets convoluted and fraught with technicalities, the public interest starts to wane, as does the journalistic interest and accuracy. Do we think this is a new strategy to help kill the story? The Republicans can keep the story simple. Listen to Bush's press conference. "We're fighting terrorism!" People understand that message. They don't get the difference between "reasonable suspicion" and "reasonable basis" and they don't care.


Hamas, Sinn Fein, and Prospects for Peace

The first night Gerry Adams dined at the White House, the US terrorism cherry was gone. Sorry for the crude analogy, but crudeness is appropriate here. Get off our high horses. Former terrorists are our partners in Ireland, among other places. Sinn Fein did not renounce violence until years after it came into the government. To mangle Rumsfeld: you make peace with the enemy you have, not the enemy you want. The US and Israel all but dared the Palestinians to vote for Hamas, by making it clear that this would scare the daylights out of both. Now they have done it, and Reuters is reporting that Hamas has an absolute majority in the Palestinian parliament. If we really had wanted Fatah to win, Rice should have said, "We don't really care if they vote for Hamas, because they're ineffective and, frankly, electing Hamas will probably just ensure that Israel gets to extend its security barrier and make more settlements."

So what? Israel elected Sharon in order to have the hardest of hardasses negotiate. Palestinians have done the same. If this means that the Palestinian Authority will have the ability to establish order and make stick any deal they make with Israel, then so be it. Democracy is messy.

I don't mean to say "terrorism, shmerrorism." Obviously, if Hamas continues significant terrorist activities while it is in the government, it just has to be treated as a pariah, but that's a different principle. It's one thing to stick one's nose in the air and say "We don't negotiate with terrorists" meaning, in effect, "we won't talk to anyone who doesn't officially renounce terror." That's foolish. It's quite another to say "we won't talk to anyone actively using terror as a negotiating tactic." That's crucial.

I suspect, however, that Hamas will try a bit of terrorism, get world reaction like I have described, then pull back. Mostly, it will work to solidify its power on the ground, ousting Fatah and seizing power for itself everywhere. This will be an internecine fight for the next 18 months or so. As far as negotiating with Israel, if Hamas can do what Fatah never could - actually deliver on its end of the bargain, i.e., stopping terrorism and establishing order - then Israel will find that it does have a partner, if not a partner for peace.

In short, the election of Hamas is like a breath of fresh air. The cards are finally on the table. Because Hamas has worked hard to build a network of schools, clinics, and other practical charitable organizations, I am cautiously optimistic that it is a well-run and pragmatic group, not true ideologues. If I am wrong, it only means that Israeli settlements will expand and the security barrier will go deeper into the West Bank. The real losers will be the Palestinians themselves. Indeed, if I were a right-wing Israeli, I might secretly welcome my adversary putting on his crazy dress in public.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

NPR's Poor Performance and Republican Spin

I am a bit distraught. Take a look at NPR’s front page this morning. The top e-mailed stories are “Solving the Mystery of Mother-Daughter Speak“, “Kurt Vonnegut Judges Modern Society“, “African Slave Descendents Trace History in Ghana.” All were fluff pieces. The Editor’s picks weren’t much better. “UPN, WB to Form New Network“ , “Frank Deford: The Value of Experience in Athletics“, “Bolivian Leader's Sweater Prompts Fashion Frenzy“. OK, I know next to nothing about the Bolivian Leader, except that his name is Evo Morales and he is reputed to be a carbon copy of Hugo Chavez. So rather than tell us about Morales’ policies, or why Bolivians like him so much, they are telling us about his sweater?!
Then, to top it all off, they have an interview with Matthew Dowd, a Republican strategist (whatever that means) about the Bush administration’s eavesdropping. For kicks, you should all listen . I have a couple of problems with this interview.

The first is that it even took place. This man is an authority on government eavesdropping why? What qualifies him to talk about wire tapping? Nothing, except that he is the guy offered up by the administration this week. I expect more from NPR. But lately, in its attempt to counter accusations that it has a liberal bias, it has accepted these lame people as “experts” rather than sticking to higher standards for its reporting. (I have also notice that since opening their West Coast offices, they have added a lot more fluff pieces. Why? Are we in California undeserving of the dignity of good journalism? RBR, don’t you dare answer that!)

The second problem: the lead into this story was about the President’s visit to the NSA today to deliver a speech defending and promoting his eavesdropping. OK, for starters, you have just told us that you are doing a propaganda piece. Thanks for the warning. But this isn’t the story that you should be running.

The third problem I have is how Dowd spins. Notice how he tries, ever so subtly, to change the story. He says the vast majority of the public supports the President’s measures to protect them from terrorism, and that a vast majority of the public is “on the side of the President” on this. Be he doesn’t offer up actual evidence. So we are to take this on faith.

Then he says the American people think, “Let’s preserve the principles on this, but let’s make sure there isn’t another terrorist attack.” as if the principles aren’t that important.

Inskeep then counters the claim with poll results that show otherwise. 56% believe a search warrant should be required to tap overseas calls and only 42% said warrants aren’t necessary. The spinner responds by suggesting that the wording of the survey questions will get you the results you want. That is probably the only honest statement he makes in the entire interview. And then, listen to how he would re-word the question! He rewords the question with all the buzz words, “terrorism, Al Qaeda, protection, etc. That you have to hear! Loaded, loaded, loaded. And THEN he pulls out the talking points and tries to re-frame the issue. We aren’t listening to just any international phone calls, we are only listening to international phone calls coming INTO the United States.

Then Inskeep implies in a follow up question that this allows the President to talk about the things he is comfortable with- 9/11, War on Terror, etc. rather than the real issues where he isn’t getting high marks from the public. In short, Inskeep accepted the premise of Dowd’s statement and then allowed Dowd to ramble on about god knows what. He ends up making to sense.

Now Inskeep tries to trip the guy up by going back to the phone calls. (something he should have done immediately after Dowd provided incorrect information. Better late than never, I guess!) He points out that the Administration insists that is has listened into International phone calls originating inside and outside the country and that they haven’t listened to domestic phone calls without warrants. Listen carefully to the response. Dowd repeats the talking point, “They have listened to the phone calls of suspected terrorists from Al Qaeda coming into the US.” Then he uses the example of a purely domestic phone call, ignoring completely the charge that they were listening to calls originating in the US. And then, he shows his ignorance and bashes the media all at once by saying that from what he has read in the media, any domestic calls that were captured were an accident.

It was truly a poor performance by Inskeep and NPR. It is also an indicator of the Spin to come.


Monday, January 23, 2006

Animal Farm

It really is becoming like Animal Farm around here. We have an exchange with General Hayden, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence and former director of the NSA. Truly scary.

We are whitewashing words off the side of the barn. Just hope you're one of the pigs and not one of the sheep.



Okay. There's been a lot of misinformation spread about Jack Abramoff and his ties with the various political parties. Let's try to clear some of that up here.

  • Who is Jack Abramoff? Let's start at the beginning. Some of you may be completely new to this story, so let's introduce you to this man. The Wikipedia article is a great place to start. We find that he is a lifelong Republican, a former chairman of the College Republican National Committee, who helped support Ronald Reagan and Oliver North. There's plenty more in the article, worth a read if you're wondering more about him.

  • What is this scandal? Once again, Wikipedia is an invaluable source. This bit sums it up nicely:
    The Jack Abramoff lobbying and corruption scandal is a United States political scandal relating to the work performed by political lobbyists Jack Abramoff, Ralph E. Reed, Jr., Grover Norquist and Michael Scanlon on behalf of Indian casino gambling interests. The lobbyists are accused of orchestrating lobbying against their own clients in order to force them to pay for lobbying services.

    In the course of the scheme, the lobbyists are accused of illegally giving gifts and making campaign donations to legislators in return for votes or support of legislation. Politicians implicated include Tom DeLay, Conrad Burns, Tom Harkin and Bob Ney. Repercussions of the investigation caused DeLay to decline to reseek his former position as House leader.
    He bribed public officials to gain influence; perhaps you've heard of this happening before.

  • Who is involved? Let's make this clear right now: this is a Republican scandal. As Howard Dean put it:
    There are no Democrats who took money from Jack Abramoff. Not one. Not one single Democrat. Every person named in this scandal is a Republican, every person under investigation is a Republican, every person indicted is a Republican. This is a Republican finance scandal. There is no evidence that Jack Abramoff ever gave any Democrat any money, and we've looked through all those FEC reports to make sure that's true.
    (Video of the above conversation)

    In case you doubt the good doctor, we have a list of Abramoff's donations.

    But wait, you might say. The Wikipedia article about the scandal says that several Democrats received money from Native American tribes linked to Abramoff! What if Abramoff was directing the tribes to give this money to Democrats? Wouldn't that be just as bad?

    Well, maybe, but the fact is that if he was directing them to give money to Democrats, it doesn't show. We have a Washington Post article in which it is written:
    Under Abramoff's guidance, the four tribes -- Michigan's Saginaw Chippewas, the Agua Caliente of California, the Mississippi Choctaws and the Louisiana Coushattas -- have also become major political donors. They have loosened their traditional ties to the Democratic Party, giving Republicans two-thirds of the $2.9 million they have donated to federal candidates since 2001, records show.

    So the tribes affiliated with him did give money to Democrats (as can be seen in this misleading Washington Post graphic), it was certainly NOT because Abramoff directed them to.

  • Why am I posting all of this? Because there is a lot of misinformation about this case going around. Some highlights include:

    • Deborah Howell saying that Abramoff "had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties." Then, even worse, was her "correction, in which she stated: "A better way to have said it would be that Abramoff 'directed' contributions to both parties."

    • Then we have Kyra Phillips sticking up for Howell, saying that what she wrote was true.

    And of course there are others, but it depresses me to try to find them. Just make sure that if you see something like this, you're not fooled yourself!


The Price of T-Bills in China

The US can keep going into debt because there is a demand for the dollar. However now that there is the Euro, there is a real alternative to the US dollar as the international currency. If the US keeps on with inflationary policies there may be a gradual shift towards the Euro for trade. That would cause an inflationary effect on the US dollar: it would be worth much less and people would want to get rid of it. As of 2004, 44% of US public debt was held by foreign entities (about $1.8 trillion), with 60% of that being held by central banks. Japan and China are the biggest holders. China has obviously been buying US dollars to keep the renminbi pegged low, a situation which cannot be sustained in the long term. Japan is the biggest holder of US dollars, but they have a public debt over 160% of GDP -- way larger relatively than the US -- and my naïve assumption would be that a good way of removing that debt would be to sell the US dollars on the quiet.

Well here's a question. What happens if there is a sudden shift the current balance of demand for US treasury notes and why would that happen? This sort of thing is not without precedent. Back in the 90's central banks decided they no longer required gold stocks as large as they had. I remember Australia was fairly early on the reduction: the Reserve Bank of Australia announce afterwards that they had sold something like $30 billion in gold while the price was high (an obvious reference to my speculation above that Japan may sell their US holdings...). The gold price has only just recovered to "record" level. What if central banks decided that they no longer required as many US dollars for their international reserve?

Another example of how a dramatic shift could happen would be if OPEC decided they wanted to receive payment in Euros. OPEC is Algeria, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela. Saddam Hussein did this prior to the Iraq war. What if the rest -- and what a stable bunch of countries they are -- decided they wanted to shift? Given recent events one would think Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE wouldn't. Iran? Gee, they would need persuading. Nigeria is having problems. Libya could be persuaded given what allies they are. Algeria? Indonesia is seriously thinking of pulling out of OPEC anyway as they are now a net importer of petroleum and cannot meet quotas. Iraq if the US pulls out? (I'm guessing the US cannot afford to pull out even if the cost is high.)

Could Bush be killing the golden goose?

Check out the wikipedia enteries: US Debt, OPEC.

[The author of this post is "Numbat of Death" (a.k.a. "Koala Boy"). Please aim all arrows accordingly. Dr. S. is merely the blog-administrative messenger. (I will, however, accept blame for choosing the title.)]

[Here is a graph I dug up. I'm appending it to Numbat's post to avoid putting up a post that just has a graph in it... It has the kind of historical view LTG likes. Source is from GAO. I marked it up with arrows.]


Signs of the Upside Down World

An now for something completely different:

Did you all hear that Bin Laden, just like Oprah, recommended a book in his speech and it jumped from 209,000 on's sales list before to No. 30 on the list? See Yahoo News

William Blum's "Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower" was the recommendation. I think he will soon make a guest appearance on Oprah.

Other Bin Laden Suggestions: "Animal Farm", "Secret of Nimh", "Catcher in the Rye", Fahrenheit 451, and of course, Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad", Atlas Shrugged," "Brave New World," "Stranger in a Strange Land," "I'm OK, You... Not So Much," "Live and Let Die","Planet of the Apes" and "Brain Droppings".

Of course, I am joking about the other suggestions.


Friday, January 20, 2006

Force Frappe

French President Jacques Chirac said yesterday in a speech at l'île Longue, the home of the French submarine nuclear force, know as Force Océanique Stratégique or FOST, that if attacked by state-sponsored terrorists, he would consider using nuclear weapons in retaliation. His statement was mild, and did not suggest that France would definitely use nuclear weapons, but his speech was meant to accomplish 4 things in my view:

1. To warn Iran.
2. To let U.S. to know that it is not the only nuclear power calling the shots (no pun intended).
3. To justify the continued existence of a €300 million/year expense (10 % of France’s military budget ) on nuclear arms. France is facing budget deficits that put it outside the EU’s 3% limit. He actually wants to increase spending on the nuclear arsenal in order to modernize it.
4. He wants the French to know that he can talk just as tough as Bush about the threat of terrorism.

His comments came on the heels of the review of French nuclear forces, which is conducted every 5 years.

Don’t blow this off as the French bloviating. France maintains the fourth largest nuclear force in the world, after the United States, China, and Russia. It is said to have approximately 300-350 nuclear missiles and it has long maintained the Force Frappe or Strike Force that consisted of land, sea, and sky nuclear capabilities. This Force, conceived in 1958 under DeGualle, was meant as a deterrent to then Russian aggression. This is now referred to as “force nationale de dissuasion”, loosely translated, “National Force of Deterrence”. Chirac made it clear that there are new dangers that still make such a deterrent relevant. This is not the first time Chirac has stepped out on nuclear weapons. In 1995, he angered many in the international community by conducting nuclear tests in Mururoa despite the NPT. The reasoning then was that the nuclear arsenal was aging, and France needed to make sure it still worked. Whatever.

You can read the original text of Chirac’s speech and you will see that he is using some of the same rhetoric used by the Bush Administration.

Here is a sample:

Pour autant, les dirigeants d'Etats qui auraient recours à des moyens terroristes contre nous, tout comme ceux qui envisageraient d'utiliser, d'une manière ou d'une autre, des armes de destruction massive, doivent comprendre qu'ils s'exposeraient à une réponse ferme et adaptée de notre part. Cette réponse peut être conventionnelle. Elle peut aussi être d'une autre nature.

Translation: The leaders of states who would use terrorist means against us, as well as those who would consider using in one way or another weapons of mass destruction, must understand that they would lay themselves open to a firm and adapted response on our part. This response could be a conventional one. It could also be of a different kind.

Chirac did go on to say that France would continue to support international non-proliferation efforts and would continue to reduce its nuclear arsenal “in compliance with the spirit of the NPT and the principle of strict necessity.”

France no longer maintains land based missiles, having closed those military bases in 1996. But it does maintain air and sea forces. The FOST is composed of a fleet of nuclear ballistic submarines. Initially 6 were built. Three have been decommissioned. There is currently a new one being built and is expected to be operational by 2010. The French Air Force has 60 Mirage planes (according to Wikipedia) that can carry medium range attack missiles. A long-range version is in development as is expected to be operational by 2010.

What does this mean when world leaders are willing to stand up and basically say, hey, we have 'em and we'll use them? Are we headed for a new genre of cold war?


A "Benedict" Arnold?

Gov. Schwarzenegger ruffled a lot of Republican party feathers at the end of November, 2005, when--after Californians resoundingly defeated every one of his right-wing "reform" propositions--Gov. Schwarzenegger hired Susan Kennedy to be his Chief of Staff. Kennedy is a former executive director of the Democratic party, a former Gov. Davis cabinet secretary, an abortion-rights activist, and (perhaps most irritating of all to conservatives) a proud lesbian. Furthermore, two months earlier, Gov. Schwarzenegger's wife Maria Shriver had hired Daniel Zingale to be her chief of staff--another former Davis cabinet secretary, Democratic political activist, and (believe it or not) he's gay too.

On top of all that, Gov. Schwarzenegger in is now calling for a massive state infrastructure investment program of $222 billion over 10 years (over $100 billion in new spending!) including $70 Billion in new bond debt. Some die-hard conservatives have had enough. A group of Republican activists, including a former state party chairman, has called on the Republican party not to endorse Arnold for re-election at its annual meeting in San Jose next month.

Though that effort will almost surely fail, one has to ask... what's up with Arnold? Were there no qualified Republicans he could tap for his chief of staff? Did he make some deal with the Democrats in the legislature, for which this appointment is partial payment? Did he lose a bet? Or could he be positioning himself to run as an Independent--or even a Democrat? Any thoughts?


The Devil's View of Law

In my recent post about the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (Gonzales v. Oregon), I wrote that the decision was a victory for the principle of limited government. Broadly speaking, Justice Kennedy held that the law gave the Attorney General only what authority Congress had intended to grant him, while Justice Scalia took the devil's view that the executive could claim any authority he could read into the text of the legislation, regardless of Congressional intent.

The Justice Department's defense of the President Bush's warrantless wiretaps of American citizens in the U.S. mirrors that same corrosive logic. According to the NY Times,

The research service report found there was no indication that Congress intended to authorize warrantless wiretaps when it gave President Bush the authority to fight Al Qaeda and invade Afghanistan. But the Justice Department did not back away from its position in Thursday's report, saying the type of "signals intelligence" used in the NSA operation clearly falls under the Congressional use-of-force authorization.

The real contest, however, is not a semantic tussle over whether the text or intent of legislation should be controlling. Rather, it is a fight to defend the bedrock principle of the American social contract: that the Constitution is a limited grant of power from the People to their government, not a limited grant of rights to the people from their Government. When so-called "strict constructionists" take the devil's view of our social contract, they leave us terribly vulnerable to abuses like those Nixon and Bush have perpetrated in the name of "national security."


Thursday, January 19, 2006

So Much For Thoughtful Conservatives

The Wall Street Journal used to be a bastion of highly educated, intelligent, principled conservatives (of course their principles more often than not conveniently made them richer but that is beside the point for the moment). Now it has become a print version of FOX News.

Just check out this editorial by Pete Du Pont claiming that Ben Franklin would approve of warrantless wire taps if he were alive today. In it the author repeatedly asserts that because various founding fathers kept secrets in the name of national security (all the examples directly involve more or less conventional military operations), they would have been OK with Bush's warrantless surveilance of US citizens. There are a number of problems with this idiotic line of "reasoning" but I'll concentrate on two of them.

First, Du Pont tries to draw an analogy between covert military operations such as secret military aid from an ally (France) or a secret rescue mission of hostages (held by Tripoli Pirates) and the warrantless surveillance of US citizens residing in the United States. The analogy does not even survive the most superficial examination. Du Pont is claiming that because it is necessary to keep a military operation secret (which was legal then as now), it is therefore unnecessary to abide by current US law, let alone Constitutional limits, regarding search and seizure.

Second, Du Pont chose Ben Franklin of all people as his Founding Father to hijack. Ben Franklin famously said, "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security." Hardly the sentiments of a man who would support George Bush and the Republicans on this NSA thing.

This is just typical of the kind of low grade sophistry to which the Republican Party has sunk.


Long Day's Journey into Night

The $700 million "New Horizons" robotic spacecraft is now safely on its way to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt beyond. Hurled into space by one of the largest rockets ever built, New Horizons will flash pass the moon in just 9 hours, swing by Jupiter in about 13 months... and yet even at those speeds it will only reach Pluto in July, 2015.

Along with a half ton of scientific instruments, New Horizons also carries 11 kilograms of plutonium for power. (The radioisotope thermoelectric generator draws energy from the heat shed by the slow decay of PuO2. It's not a fission reactor.) Yes, Pluto is so far away that we could not even see it until 75 years ago, and now we are sending it a spacecraft--every inch of which incorporates technology that didn't exist back then--on a decade-long journey powered by a fuel named after the little planet itself!

It's amazing what we can do when we try. And in this age when so many of us are concerned only with the here and now, it is nice to remember that we still find the resources for a dedicated group of people do something like this. May the aptly named "New Horizons" help us all look outside of our little Washingtonian enclaves for a few moments to reflect that our universe is wonderful and mysterious beyond our wildest dreams, and our human race has a long journey yet ahead of it to an unknowable future.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Sandra Day is Still in Form

In a surprise 9-0 decision yesterday, the US Supreme Court ruled on New Hampshire's parental consent law. They basically upheld a woman's right to an abortion. It appears that Sandra Day O'Conner was instramental is striking a middle ground.

The main questions that the justices needed to adress were: Did the law create an undue burden to a woman's right to have an abortion? Was the law invalid because it did not include a broad health exception?

What the court basically did was skirt the core issues. They remanded the issue back to the lower court saying that the law did not have be to rejected wholesale, but only those portions of the law that were unconstitutional. they asked the lower-court to re-visit the issue and invalidate only those parts that were unconstitutional.

It appears that the court is trying to de-politicize the issue and to bring it back to a happy medium. The thing that makes this impressive is that despite the addition of Justice Roberts, they still managed to strike a deal that made for a rock solid decision. So it means that not all is lost! Of course, let's hope that once Roberts gets comfirtable, he doesn't loose his reasonablilty.


McCarthyism at UCLA?

Hi All,

I saw this article in the LA Times online. It seems a frustrated alumnus from UCLA (Andrew Jones, a former president of the campus Republicans) has set up a black list of professors he deems too leftist.

If you read the profiles he puts up, you'll see that many of his complaints about these professors revolve around the subjects they study as much as what they say about those subjects. What's more, he also complains about activities and writings they have outside their classrooms or scholarly work (such as signing petitions etc). This leads me to believe that his concern is more about enforcing his own views and squelching dissent generally than about encouraging conservative students to speak openly in class.

I'd write this guy off as a harmless crank except for four things. First, he's gotten a lot of money to set up this organization. Second, this is exactly the kind of thing Karl Rove, Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed were doing when they were his age - so I see this as the political version of a serial killer who pulled the wings off flies when he was a kid. Third, what if someone at NSA or the FBI or the White House shows some initiative and uses a list like this to start a warrantless wire tap? Fourth, the LA Times put this guy on the front page and its headline makes it sound like he represents a large and influential group of alumni.

To be honest, black lists like these are part of the reason I have chosen to participate in this blog using a pseudonym. I'm concerned that my exercising my right to express myself politically will make me a target of right wing groups like this one.

That said the main reason I'm using a pseudonym is that I don't want there to be any doubt at all about what I consider to be my scholarly work and what I consider to be more or less idle windbaggery.



Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Elephants in Mouseholes

The Supreme Court's 6-3 decision today in favor of the state of Oregon was a big victory for the idea of limited government... and a small victory for proponents of the right to die. Although the court did not hold that there was a right to die, the court recognized that the issue is a matter of national debate and they kept the door open. That is a model of real judicial restraint.

Justice Kennedy saw the big picture in this case. He wrote that the federal statute delegating to the Attorney General and FDA the power to regulate drugs was about protecting consumers, fighting drug abuse and drug addiction, and outlawing recreational drug use--not physician-assisted suicide. He also wrote that the issue of whether physician-assisted suicide is a legitimate medical practice is a question too big for the attorney general and outside his area of expertise anyhow. Most important, Kennedy wrote,

The idea that Congress gave the Attorney General such broad and unusual authority through an implicit delegation in the CSA’s registration provision is not sustainable.

"Congress, we have held, does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions—-it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes."
[Whitman v. American Trucking Assns., Inc., 531 U. S. 457, 468 (2001)]

"We are confident that Congress could not have intended to delegate a decision of such economic and political significance to an agency in so cryptic a fashion"
[FDA v. Brown & Williamson Trucking Corp, 529 U. S. 120, 160 (2000)].

The importance of the issue of physician-assisted suicide, which has been the subject of an "earnest and profound debate" across the country... makes the oblique form of the claimed delegation all the more suspect.

Scalia, on the other hand, feigns blindness to the real issue at stake. He focused on minutae of text, quoted dictionary definitions, and wrote the court was, "merely presented with a question of statutory interpretation, and not the extent of constitutionally permissible federal power." Scalia treats the law like a linguistic game rather than a matter of common sense. He would let a greedy executive gobble up as much power as it can squeeze into the text until the distended law ruptures. And his presumption always is for the government, never the people.

(It's also interesting that the three dissenters were all Catholic, yet the one remaining Catholic on the court was Justice Kennedy himself. A family squabble, perhaps?)


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Reid Opens Fire

The Alito confirmation will be a bitter defeat for the center and left. However, it is only a set back. The real power in Congress and there the center and left are pressing their advantage! Here is a link to an op ed piece by Senate Minority Leader Harry Ried. He compares De Lay and the Republican lobbying community to the Mafia in Las Vegas in the 1970s. Turns out Ried was on the Nevada gaming commission back then.


Friday, January 13, 2006

Make Love, Not Children?

The population of the United States will break the 300 million mark this year. Every minute about 8 Americans are born, 4 die, and 1 person immigrates to this country (net)--we add about 2.5 million more people in the U.S. every year.

Contrary to popular belief, however, world population growth has begun to decelerate. The greatest annual increase in population was actually back in 1989, at 88,000,000 (this year it is projected to be 74,000,000) and of course the annual percentage growth has fallen commensurately. It is widely predicted that population will crest somewhere around 10 billion sometime in the latter half of this century.

The reason for the deceleration? Reproductive freedoms. The worldwide post-war population boom--from under 2.5 billion in 1945 to 6.5 billion in March of this year--was actually due largely to decreasing death rates rather than a change in reproductive patterns; now, at last, fertility rates have begun to decline. The total fertility rate worldwide has fallen from an average of 5 children per woman in the late 1960s to about 2.5 today--and it is still falling.

The Malthusian disaster predicted for so long may well be averted thanks to family planning, women's rights, contraception, and abortion. But this brave new world has not come without cost. In a world where we no longer rear litters of children but put all our hope and energy in just one or two, it is easy to see why "March of the Penguins" has struck a nerve.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Scalia Standard

Judge Samuel Alito is sufficiently intelligent, educated, and ethical to sit on the Supreme Court. The problem is with his politics. He can dodge questions and claim "open-mindedness" all he wants, but his record betrays him... and the simple fact is that Bush chose Alito because the Far Right didn't think Harriet Miers was conservative enough. The only real question is: how conservative is he?

Merely being conservative is not sufficient disqualification, of course. Most Federal judges are already Republican appointees, therefore presumably conservative, and Bush v. Gore tells you all you need to know about the Supreme Court's politics. Opposition to Roe v. Wade cannot be an automatic disqualifier either, since several Supreme Court justices openly argue it should be overturned. But there is such a thing as being too far outside of the mainstream. That was Judge Robert Bork's problem: he was so unabashedly conservative that he couldn't even keep himself in check for his Senate hearings.

When it comes to a Supreme Court nominee's political views, I would impose the "Scalia" standard. So long as the nominee is less conservative than Scalia, he or she is OK. Justice Clarence Thomas would have failed this test, but Justice John Roberts would have passed. It's a close call, but I think Alito squeaks past the Scalia standard. What do the other Citizens think of the standard, and do you think Alito passes?


Drilling Ban on Alaskan Wildlife Habitat Lifted

I almost thought this was a joke. Then I read it. This isn't ANWAR, but close to it. Just one more pin knocked down.


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Shadow of Brokeback Mountain

A Utah movie theater made headlines this week by abruptly canceling its planned screening of Brokeback Mountain. The theater owner, Larry Miller (also owner of the Utah Jazz) refused to comment on why he did so--but nobody is mystified. And it's a shame, because it's a great film. (And yes, I have seen it.)

Seventh Sister asked me to put up this stub post so she could write about this in detail. You might wish to withhold any commentary until she blogs her comments.


How I'm adored

Baby on Board is no excuse

Apparently, a woman in the carpool lane claimed it was legitimate because she was pregnant. This case went to court, where one would expect to hear the same old "is a fetus a person" stuff. But no, the judge seems to have sidestepped the issue, by

applying a "common sense" definition in which an individual is someone who occupies a "separate and distinct" space in a vehicle.
Thanks to this judge for using some common sense! Can you imagine a woman being charged two seats in a movie theater just because she's pregnant?

This is where the "letter of the law" theory of judicicizing (ya like that one?) breaks down. One wonders how "Strip Search" Alito would have argued.


Monday, January 09, 2006

The Rule of Law

Judge Alito said in his opening statement on Monday, "There is nothing that is more important for our republic than the rule of law."

Really? What about liberty or justice?

I want a Supreme Court justice who knows that defending the former and giving the latter are the most important parts of his (or her) duty, and that the "rule of law" has long been used as an excuse to deny both. I want a Supreme Court justice who understands his job is not to parse the words of dead men but to breathe life into the document they gave to us--who understands, as Justice Kennedy wrote, that the Supreme Court's, "obligation is to define liberty for all." I want a Supreme Court justice who understands that our Constitution merely illuminates our rights and does not grant them; I want a Supreme Court justice who understands that the highest law is not what is writ in stone but what is carried in our hearts and our history.

How ironic it is that "Rule" and "Law" refer to the powers of the Executive and Legislative branches respectively. I want a Supreme Court justice who will guard our Constitution against them. Alito's choice of "most important" reveals him to be a patriarch in his soul.


Very, Very Disastrous

The news out of Iran is bad. The German Foreign Minister called it, "very, very disastrous." Defying the international community, Iran is reopening their uranium enrichment complexes (closed over a year ago). Like North Korea, they are breaking an international agreement not to proceed with their nuclear activities--an agreement which promised them a package of economic benefits.

We've tried diplomacy. We've tried bribes. We'll probably try economic sanctions. But I doubt anything will work. Is there anything short of military action that we can do to prevent Iran or North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons? And might such an option be a worse option than reconciling ourselves to dealing with rogue nuclear states?

Maybe we will just have to go back to deterrence. How about we establish a new treaty with one simple rule: if you nuke anyone else for any reason whatsoever (except in fulfilling your treaty obligations) then every other nuclear state will be compelled by treaty to drop a nuke on you. Mandatory massive retaliation.

Yeah, yeah, I know--it would never get ratified by anyone, and it is kind of immoral--but I think we need to start thinking of some alternative approach, because as far as I can see, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty is dead.


Sunday, January 08, 2006

Is Bart Simpson Smarter Than Bush?

This week's Simpsons episode began with Bart writing "I am not smarter than the President" over and over again on the chalk board. I put this question to the Citizens and friends: Is Bart Simpson smarter than Bush? In your answers it would be really fun to include evidence from the show of Bart's superior or inferior intelligence.


Saturday, January 07, 2006

Democrats Getting Tough?

Are Demcoracts getting tougher? It seems that the Democrats smell blood and are moving in for the kill. In the Saturday radio response to Bush's weekly radio address, the Democrats attacked the Republican party, rather than Ambramoff and "a few bad apples," as the root of the corruption problem in Washington.

This is exactly what the Democrats need to do. They need to make the 2006 election be about Abramoff and Haliburton and no-bid contracts in Iraq and post-Katrina.


Majority Support for Warrants

Hi Folks,

The first poll that directly asks if Bush should be required to get a warrant to conduct wire taps is in. The good news is that a majority of 56% think that Bush needs a warrant. The bad news is that this corresponds very closely to the levels of overall support for Bush reported in the same poll.

It seems that about 40% of the population will do support just about anything Bush says.


De Lay Officially Resigns

Hi All,

Good news! Tom De Lay has officially resigned his position as House Majority Leader. This is an indication of his own expectations for the future. He does not expect his legal problems to go away soon - despite his bluster before the cameras! What does he expect Jack Ambramoff to say to prosecutors I wonder?

Who is next?


Friday, January 06, 2006

How Much Do We Spend on Defense?

RxR may be underestimating the extent of the U.S. military budget... its size is not merely an artifact of a large economy. We are responsible for over 40% of all worldwide military expenditures, and we spend a considerably larger share of our GDP on the military than the next biggest spender (China) and the world as a whole. Here are the figures.

(1) U.S. spent $420-450 on military in 2005 (depending on how you count it--the supplemental Iraq funding was not included in the Pentagon's figures.) This represents 3.6-3.8% of US GDP, $11.75 trillion.

(2) China, the next biggest spender, spent about $31-38 billion. This is 1.9 - 2.3% of PRC GDP, $1.65 trillion. (China claims only about $30 billion, but RAND estimates $31-38 billion as the true figure.) We spend many times what China spends (see NOTE below), and a per capita comparison would be even more startling, since we have only about 1/4 of the population.

[NOTE: one must be careful with foreign GDPs and expenditures. I have used the current currency exchange rate (CCER) for military expenditures and for GDP values above. If you use the purchasing power parity (PPP) values, China's military budget equals $135-165 billion out of a PPP GDP of $7.25 trillion. By this calculation, we "merely" spend 3 times what the Chinese do, rather than 10-12 times (we get the same GDP percentage however). The CIA factbook gives $67.5 billion for military expenditures (RAND sometimes lists $69 billion) but these figures are based on combining the PPP and CCER rates by some formula (for a fair comparison to GDP, one would have to compute China's GDP in the same way). By this more nuanced reckoning, we spend 6 times as much as China does.]

(3) The world as a whole spent about $1.035 trillion (CCER) on the military in 2004. This represents about 2.5% of the CCER GWP (Gross World Product), $43.9 trillion. (The PPP GWP is more like $55 trillion, but the percentage is the same regardless of whether one uses PPP or CCER figures.)

(4) By way of comparison, we are actually less dominant in economic areas. For example, the U.S. consumed about 23% of the world's energy production in 2005, and U.S. CCER GDP is about 28% of the CCER GWP (and U.S. PPP GDP is about 21% of the CCER GWP).

[Sources: military figures from CIA World Factbook, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Yearkbook 2005, and a recent RAND study. Economic figures from IMF World Economic Outlook database. Energy and petroleum consumption figures from U.S. Dep't of Energy report.]


Religious Reactionaries are a Global Problem

Hi Folks,

This blog has concentrated mainly on American politics. However from time to time we mention political events in the brave world beyond our shores.

Europeans often think Americans are excessively religious, prudish and conservative. Well, it turns out Europe has its share of Christian Fundamentalists too. Slovakia, which recently joined the EU, has signed a treaty with the Vatican that allows Slovak medical care professionals to refuse abortion or even fertility treatments to women if those services conflict with the religious views of the health care professional in question.

There is a similar controversy here in the USA regarding pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions of which they disapprove on ideological/religious grounds. The article mentions similar treaties with a number of other EU member states but they don't go as far as the Slovak treaty.



Thursday, January 05, 2006

More Graphs

Here's the 1900-1940 active duty data LTG asked about (data/graph courtesy of USWest.)


Christian Jihadi Spouts Off

I just saw on CNN that Pat Robertson has said that Ariel Sharon's latest (probably fatal) stroke is divine retribution for Sharon having "divided God's land."

Bush will try to distance himself from Robertson's comments as will many Republicans. But let's be clear. The Republican party as an organization is totally dependent on people who think Pat Robertson is a misunderstood genius. That and Jack Abramoff's dirty money.

I refuse to become so cynical that I think it is normal for so many Americans to be OK with the Robertsons and Abramoffs of the world. Surely there will be an accounting!


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Military-Industrial Complex

This post is inspired by USWest's table. It's a profile of U.S. military spending and personnel over the past 50 years. The dark/light gray are the financial plots, following the left axis; the red is the active duty plot on the right axis. (Click on the graph to enlarge.)

One can clearly see the Vietnam war, and one can also make out the Reagan era. But broadly speaking, the trend appears to be that spending slowly grows while the number of troops slowly dwindles. That capital should be replacing labor ought to surprise no one in the industrial age. Defense acquisition programs are becoming increasingly expensive as the systems acquired become increasingly elaborate.

Under Rumsfeld, we officially have moved from a "threat-based" acquistion system to a "capabilities-based" acquisition system. In other words, we used to justify a military purchase by naming the national security threat it was designed to counteract; now, we merely name the military capability we wish to have and explain why that would be nifty. We are no longer building systems to defend us against threats... we are the threat. We are building the military force that others will have to defend against.

With the $100+ Billion Future Combat System (FCS) plus allied programs, the U.S. is designing an information-age military without equal. We are intent of taking advantage of our remarkable sole-superpower status to make breathtaking military acquisitions that would under any other circumstances ignite an arms race. But we are not in a race with anyone. Our goal instead is to get so far ahead that nobody will be able to catch us. (Facing the so-called "asymmetric" threats, like terrorism, is another matter entirely, however. Some suspect the increasing prevalence of asymmetric warfare at a time when we are masters of "symmetric" warfare is not coincidental.)

The FCS will continue the trend of extending a soldier's "productivity" to include the first direct replacements of soldiers with robotics equipment. First surveillance, then reconnaissance, then weaponry, then decisionmaking. Under appropriate rules of engagement, the new systems will not require a human to give a kill order; he will only be able to override one.

[Note: checking today, I see my original post somehow got severely truncated. I've just added back in one paragraph... the rest (which I can't remember exactly) will have to wait for another post, I suppose!]


Bush Circumvents Torture Ban

Well, true to form, Bush has retained the right to authorize harsh interrogation tactics. He signed McCain's law with one hand and signed the exemption with the other. Do we see a pattern?


Sunday, January 01, 2006

Minaret- The Remix

I have mentioned this before, but back in the heady days of 9/11, the U.S. government tried to hire John Poindexter of Iran Contra fame to head up a little office called the Pentagon Information Awareness Office. It was sponsored through DARPA and was meant to gather electronic intelligence. As part of this little program, Poindexter was to manage the creation of a little centralized database called the Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS) - you gotta hand it to these guys, they are clever about naming things. TIPS would be a database that contained all the commercial and private information about citizens and suspects.

Convicted felon Poindexter was quite qualified for this job as the head of a government contractor, Synteck Technologies. Synteck (notice it is spelled with a "k" like "Amerika"- how appropriate) had developed a handy little surveillance system called Genoa for DARPA. In effect, it was like military grade information harvesting program combined with peer-to-peer file sharing capabilities, as sort of Google for sifting through electronic intelligence.

The whole IAO was supposedly killed when word got out. Well, none of us following the story at the time ever believed that the plan was dead. In fact, as all crooked governments will do, they will simply find another way to skin the cat. It looks as if they have succeeded. Today's Washington Post reports that the DIA and the NSA have been working together with the CIA and FBI to gather and share the fruits of illegal surveillance. It's just like the Minaret system from the protesting 1970s. I swear we are caught in perpetual reruns of "That 70's Show".