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."

Friday, March 30, 2007

Your liberal media

Okay, this is important. Right now, the main page on CNN.com has this huge story (shown here full size):

but this is omitting the important fact that two Republican congressmen are visiting Syria right now. Ms. Perino, your thoughts?

Plus, I hate this attitude of "they're bad, we can't talk to them." Look where it got us with North Korea.

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BAFTA Award for Best Performance in a Short Film?

I watched the Iranian films of the "apologies" of captured hostages Leading Seaman Faye Turney and Royal Marine Rifleman Nathan Thomas Summers, and I could not help thinking these two brave soldiers look like they came right out of central casting. (Think of a more demure Gillian Anderson and more manly John Cusack. And I am impressed at how she manages to make a black headscarf look fashionable, while he manages to make khaki look appealing against a pink floral backdrop.) When this is all over and the British film industry makes the inevitable movie out of this moral outrage, whoever buys the rights to their stories should really let these two play themselves. (And I hope very much they live to do it.)

Already these two brave soldiers are doing a fine job of acting, come to think of it. Both speak their lines clearly, yet their voices and mannerisms reveal much character. Ms. Turney sounds sad and forlorn at times, even as she speaks her script of warm and happy assurances. She never looks at the camera, and the little pause just before she describe her captors as, "nice people" is suggestive. Mr. Summers, the younger of the two, sounds remarkably honest--even bobbing his head from time to time as if to emphasize his sincerity--but you can see how he glances nervously off camera, listens intently to his prompts, and never, ever smiles. They both show calm and reserve, and sound exactly like hostages are supposed to sound. Very British, indeed.

The making of these short films is, of course, a disgusting attempt at propaganda, coerced either physically or psychologically (for all we know, the British hostages may believe they trespassed, as they cannot review the GPS data as the British government has done). As Prime Minister Blair noted, this kind of exploitative video fools no one in the West... but the real audience for the Iranian filmmakers is probably in the Arab world, and non-native English speakers watching the video in translation may not appreciate the subtleties evident in the hostages' performance. I, for one, can't wait to hear what they say--and how they say it--when they finally come home. May that be soon.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

A New Era

Hi Folks,

In most presidential elections there are several types of candidates. There is the well connected candidate with the blessing of smoke filled room set. There is the charismatic type who relies personality and physical appeal. There is the resume candidate who has done pretty much every job BUT President and is obviously qualified for the job.

Look at the Democratic Party today. The candidate that seems tapped by the smoked filled room is a woman. The charismatic candidate with the rock star image is a black man. Finally, the resume candidate who's worked in many important jobs and is the most qualified is Latino.

Of the top four candidates only John Edwards is a white man.

Food for thought.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

How to End a War

My how things have changed. Four years ago, anyone who criticized the Iraq war was considered an enemy of the state, soft on terrorism. As late as six months ago, Bush and Cheney were saying that anyone who publicly disagreed with them on the war was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Howard Dean was widely insulted as a moron for opposing the war in 2003-2004. Jack Murtha was excoriated for demanding withdrawal in 2006. Now, as of this afternoon, both houses of the Congress have voted a date certain to end the war: the House chose August 31, 2008, the Senate chose March 1, 2008. The bills will be reconciled and sent to Bush. Bush's veto is assured, but he also has to veto the war funding attached to them and send it back. Ending the war in less than 18 months is now the express will of the US Congress.

We, the ridiculed anti-war crazies, have become the majority. Elections have consequences, eh?

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Vilsack Endorses Clinton but will it matter?

Hi Gang,

Former Iowa Governor endorsed Clinton the other day and CNN is falling over themselves to make this a big victory for Clinton. But will it really matter?

In 2004, Howard Dean was endorsed by Senator Tom Harkin. Harkin is one of the most popular politicians in Iowa. Dean came in 3rd or 4th as I remember.

Vilsack is no where near as popular as Harkin. My friends in the state tell me that Vilsack is actually quite unpopular among liberal activists. And he's positively despised by the influential faculty members at the University of Iowa. In a state as lightly populated as Iowa, alienating a couple of key constituency groups within the Iowa Democratic base is not a good idea. If Clinton makes too be a show of being close to Vilsack she could see this backfire.

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Bush, Big Oil, Big Auto, Big Ag and Ethanol

So Bush had one of those meetings with the Auto industry big shots and white smoke came out of his ears. He's had a revalation! "Ethanol is the answer!"

We've talked about alternative energy systems on this blog before. Dr. Strangelove informed us for example that to supply our energy needs from ethanol would require dramatically increasing our cultivated land and devoting most of it to fuel instead of food. I forget the exact numbers but they were staggering.

Ethanol is also woefully inefficient. It takes a lot of energy to cultivate, harvest and transport an acre of corn (or any crop) and it takes even more energy to convert it to fuel. Let's face facts folks. We will NEVER combust our way out of our dependence on foreign oil or our environmental problems. At best ethanol merely pollutes less than gas. It's not clean it's cleaner. At best, it would only slow down our rate of damage to the atmosphere not stop or reverse it. And since it is impractical to think of this technology as a full replacement for oil, it wouldn't solve our foreign oil dependence either.

Anyone - Republican or Green or whatever - who tells you that ethanol is anything more than a cash hand out to certain sectors of our economy is just wrong. At best they are also lying to themselves but mostly they are only lying to you.

So if ethanol is such a bad idea why is Bush pushing it? Oil companies make a lot of money from their retail distribution infrastructure. Alternative fuels like ethanol and hydrogen would still require that infrastructure with only a few technological upgrades. Electric cars on the other hand would likely deliver a devastating blow to that infrastructure and retail revenue stream. If you could "gas up" in your own garage why would you need the local gas station???

Auto manufacturers have a lot invested in the internal combustion engine. Converting them to be ethanol or bio-diesel compatible is less expensive than developing and marketing a new electric car.

The benefit to big agri-industry is obvious. Increasing demand for corn is good for them. I've heard from reliable sources that the price of farm land is spiking right now because of the anticipated boom in the corn market.

Auto+Oil+Ag = Bush's base. We're talking about big money industries with bases in the South and rural Midwest. The auto industry used to be in the Great Lakes but they've been shifting a lot of production to the union-free South for years. Oil is in the South (especially Texas). Rural voters are overwhelmingly Republican - supposedly because of the social issues but also because of the massive ag subsidies Republicans deliver.

So what is the real solution? Electricity! We need to focus on a means to generate massive amounts of electricity cleanly and preferably with a decentralized power grid. We need a viable electric car. Those two things really would be the answer. It would eliminate a huge share of the combusted pollutants we put into the air.

Americans should not settle for anything else!

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Monday, March 26, 2007

A dish best served cold

So, today, Reagan's much-lauded budget advisor, David Stockman, was indicted for securities fraud. Many of us are old enough to remember "Reaganomics" with its magical promise that cutting taxes will increase revenue (economic growth increases revenue if tax rates stay the same, it increases revenue less if tax rates go down, and the connection between lowering tax rates and economic growth is always overstated). Stockman's downfall part of the "sleaze factor" we see at work across the current administration. How sweet it is that the purveyor of the Laffer curve is finally indicted for fraud.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

The Boring Miracle of the EU

That is how Der Spiegel characterized the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome that would ultimately lead to the current European Union. Der Spiegel writes,

[The EU] is a huge, not-always-transparent, somewhat humdrum bureaucracy. Difficult to love. Hard to celebrate. But it's blandness is exactly what makes it the most shockingly successful alliance in Europe's history.
Looking to the future, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for the EU to move toward what she called a, "common European army," and the European Rapid Reaction Force (or whatever it is now--maybe EU Battlegroups?) is supposed to be battle-ready this year. The EU sent its first combined force to Congo in 2006 to help guarante security for the elections there.

But EU still lacks a clear vision, and suffers from fatigue and complexity. The messy proposed EU constitution was torpedoed in 2005 by France (and others), so Merkel and Prodi are pressing for a revised document to be submitted for ratification in 2009. But as Merkel noted this week,
Even in another 50 years there won't be a federal Europe. We will maintain the current diversity of nation states.
A few of The Citizens have expertise in the area of EU politics. How is the state of the EU these days? What will be the future of the EU? And how will that affect the US in years to come?

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Michael McNulty

... used to be my congressman, before I moved. The only time I ever voted for a Republican was when I voted against him, thinking he was too far right for me. Now I see that I am wrong.

McNulty voted against the "Out of Iraq" spending bill because he doesn't think it goes far enough. He wants out now. Good for him! Quite a U-turn from the man who voted to authorize the war.

On the other hand, this bill was the best he was going to get. So in more general terms, what is next for Congress? For the president?

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The French Election - why is Bayrou climbing?

There's an interesting Op-ed in the New York Times today about the upcoming French election, which starts off promising but then goes wrong. The central question is, why is centrist candidate François Bayrou climbing in the polls? The author gives two explanations: the first is that Bayrou is the son of farmers. I don't think this can be overlooked; the French feel a real rapport with "les paysans", which is why agricultural subsidies will never go away in France (sorry, RbR). But he also posits that Bayrou's strength is that he is boring; specifically, that "[t]hey want things to stay the way they have always been." I'm sorry, but I don't buy this at all. It's much more complicated than that.

The two main candidates in the race are Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal. Let's start with Sarkozy. Fairly or not, a lot of people just plain don't like him. He is viewed as manipulative and under-handed. He has a strong anti-immigrant stance, which plays well with a lot of French, but turns off many voters too. Sarkozy is a non-starter for self-identified socialists, who make up a good chunk of the country.

So these people will vote for Royal, right? Not so fast. Many French citizens don't like what socialism has done to France. While there are many people who like the 35-hour work week (and some who want a 32-hour work week!) many are opposed. Small business owners who voted Mitterrand now feel the left has abandoned them, and that the right is helping (although, as I mentioned, Sarkozy is a non-starter). Many people don't like Royal -- some find her smug, some don't like the way she talks (important in a country where they love their language) but I don't think she's the problem. I think years of rule by the left are the problem.

These disillusioned socialists are tending toward Bayrou and they like what they are hearing. He is saying all the right things, but questions remain. Can he be an effective leader? Will he keep his pre-election promises? It's going to be interesting -- stay tuned.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Privatization of Government

This dovetails nicely with Dr. S's last post.

Our entire government is being privatized, from the war in Iraq to critical government services. In my current position, I am experiencing this creeping privatization up close and personal.

When my friends went to Iraq, they saw their jobs being taken over little by little by contractors. They were left with the most dangerous, deadly work. Many of them told me that they understood that somehow their lives were less valuable to their government than those of Halliburton contractors. They were paid a mere $30K a year. The contractors were getting 3 figure salaries.

This is happening through out the US government. More and more services once provided by government from public education to defense are being taken over by private firms on government contracts. My own job is headed that way. I can see it coming. That is the real painful part. You know that you and your colleagues are the best qualified to do the work, but your work is considered less valuable and less reputable to the government than the work of contractors who cost a whole lot more.

At the same time that this is going on, there not real regulatory system in place. As we have said here before, the court system serves as the sole regulator. As demonstrated in the most recent scandal over government prosecutors and in the selection of U.S. Supreme Court judges, they are even trying to dismantle that form of regulation, turning it into partisan politics.

Why? Well the benefits to those who make these decisions are vast. For starters, they can unload the government workers who are represented by unions. They face to regulation. They can hand big money contracts over to their friends. A blue ribbon commission is called by the government to do some type of review. The commission makes recommendations. And then, a commissioner will see to it that his company wins the resulting contract. Legal departments say this isn’t a conflict of interest. This is what is happening in my work now. And all information is stove piped by people who are more interested in their own careers than in their department or the mission.

The only area where government is centralizing its power is security and intelligences. THEY ARE CENTRALIZING THE POLICE, PEOPLE. We can only stop it by voting Democrat in 2008. Either that or we have to start reforming and developing modern day unions and alliances to stop this move toward the end of fair and just government.

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Freedom is not free. Nor should it be gratuitous.

I saw the movie 300 last night. I will not review the movie here except to discuss its politics. Sparta was a closed, totalitarian state with a very small ruling class of landowners and a monarchy. Nearly all Spartans were forbidden to engage in trade and free enterprise. Spartan men were impressed into military service for most of their lives. State-sponsored ritual infanticide was practiced. (All this was depicted reasonably well in the film: I am not complaining about historical innaccuracies!) So I was disgusted (though not really surprised) to hear the King and Queen give speeches about how "freedom is not free" and how they were all free men fighting for freedom. Apparently, this is some other meaning of "freedom" of which I was unaware.

I was similarly puzzled when I watched the new Star Wars trilogy. In those films, Queen Amidala gave stirring speeches about how she was fighting for democracy--although the only democracy her people enjoyed was the right to elect an absolute monarch from time to time. (And even so, the position was apparently also hereditary since her daughter was automatically made Princess.) Likewise the powerful Jedi Council--an institution that admitted only a few persons with special blood--also managed to style themselves as protectors of democracy, with straight faces. In fact, the only democratic institution in the Star Wars galaxy is the Imperial Senate: a Senate mind you, with highly disproportional representation and appointed membership.

I am tired of watching movies where people surrender their liberties for freedom, where people torture to protect human rights, and where Kings and Queens are the spokespeople for democracy. We were warned about this kind of doublethink sixty years ago.

"Freedom means the freedom to say two plus two equals four. If that is granted all else follows."
--George Orwell, 1984

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Separation of Powers

George Bush has told Congress that Albert Gonzales and Carl Rove can speak with a few members of Congress in private, but not under oath. He says that if Congress tries to compel Gonzales and Rove to testify under oath, he will invoke separation of powers to prevent it. Gee. Do you think he came up with that all by himself?

1) This is code for "executive privilege", which every president since Nixon has been loathe to use. So we call it something else and no one will notice.

2) This is a man who has destroyed Separation of powers.

3) I think it is really disgusting that this president is talking about partisanship and calling this a fishing expedition. It just shows how stupid, hypocritical, and political it all is.

I hope the Democrats hold firm. There is no point investigating if these people can lie to Congress. It is time for Congress to show just what separation of powers is there for.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What Have We Become? Or Have We Always Been?

It is being reported that South Carolina is considering shaving up to 180 days off of jail sentences if prisoners donate their kidneys or bone marrow.

The funny line in all of this comes from Republican Sen. John Hawkins who is quoted as saying, "We want to make this work, we really do. But I want to make sure no one goes to jail for good intentions." Ironic. That's OK Senator. Just give a kidney, and you're scott free.

Let's talk about the U.S. prison population for a moment, and then revisit this proposal.

For starters, we have the largest prison population in the world with over 2 million people behind bars.* Black males have a 1 in 3 chance of going to jail in this country. Black males are the largest group represented in our prison population.

By some estimates, 650,000 people coming out of the prison system every year. Prisons are big business, a $40 bil. industry. There are counties in this country where prisons are the largest employer. These are largely rural communities who compete for the the prison the way other communities compete for automotive plants. Why?

Beyond employment, it adds to the local population. Prisoners are counted as residents in the community where they are housed. Think about how population statistics are used. They determine voting power-the number of representatives a district gets in state assemblies and at the federal level. So white rural areas can thank their largely black inmates (who can't vote) for their enhanced voting power while the largely black communities who have lost these prisoners see their voting power diminish, thus, disenfranchising black voters.

Population numbers are used for determining funding for various federal social programs. Again, black neighborhoods loose. It is, in effect a population transfer.

We warehouse these people for profit, not for social safety, not to rehabilitate them. And now, South Carolina wants to take these people who are predominately black, who have families who want them home, and you want to say, give us your kidney and we will give you freedom?

This is not how you ease over-crowding in your system. It is not how you rehabilitate a criminal. It is almost as bad as slavery. It is morally repugnant for starters. And it can't possibly be legal. The choice to give an organ is no choice if made under coercion. What are we? China? Russia?

*the source of much of this information can be found at Current TV from "One Nation Under Guard" produced for Seeds of Tolerance by Lucas Krost.

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Supplemental Appropriations

Below is a copy of a letter sent to me by my Congressman. I think it is a good summary of the latest $124 billion dollar supplemental that is going up this week. Congress is trying to exercise some of its rights under the War Powers act and threating to withhold some targeted funds.

I think it is useful to know how your money is being spent. As usual, you will see that there a all sorts of things in this bill that have little to do with war. They are trying to address everything in one go. It is also proof that we are living beyond our means. If you have to pass supplementals, it means you are over-spending on the assigned budget. Somebody better start figuring out how to make more realistic annual budgets.


Congress is currently debating a way out of Iraq. The debate comes with President Bush's request for "supplemental funding" to pay for our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because the Administration did not request sufficient funds for Iraq and Afghanistan last year, the House and Senate must act now on this supplemental funding bill simply to keep our troops equipped and fed.

The current debate and votes are over the best way to put leverage on the president to get us out of Iraq. The House will take the first floor vote on the bill this week. Because there have been so many conflicting reports about the content of this bill, I wanted to lay out the basics and encourage your response.

Like previous supplemental funding bills this bill includes funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what makes it different from past Iraq funding bills is that it is the first supplemental funding bill with a date certain for troop withdrawal. As drafted, the president has said he would veto the bill.

Bill Title: "U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Health and Iraq Accountability Act."

Summary: The bill contains $95.5 billion for Iraq and includes benchmarks that require U.S. troop withdraw by August 2008 at the latest. In addition the bill contains funds for Afghanistan, veterans health care, domestic homeland security and agriculture disaster assistance, as well as language to raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25 over two years.

Total price tag: $124 billion

Iraq benchmarks:

By July 1st, 2007 the president must certify that Iraq is making meaningful and substantial progress in meeting the following political and military benchmarks:

1. That the Iraqi government is making "substantial progress in delivering necessary Iraqi Security Forces for Baghdad"

2. That the Iraqi government is making substantial progress in meeting its commitment to pursue reconciliation initiatives:

a. Redistribution of oil income

b. Laws to allow local elections

c. Reform the de-Baathification process

d. Allocation of Iraqi revenues for reconstruction

3. That there is a reduction in the level of sectarian violence

If he does not make this certification, troops must begin immediate redeployment and U.S. troop involvement in the Iraq civil war must be completed by December 2007 (180 days).

By October 1st, the president must certify that Iraqis have achieved key benchmarks. If he does not make this second certification, troops must begin immediate redeployment (withdraw) to be completed by March of 2008 (180 days).

If the president makes both certifications, the Administration must start redeploying (withdrawing) the U.S. Military from Iraq by March 1, 2008, and complete the redeployment by August of 2008 (180 days).

Enforcement of benchmarks:

50 % of international economic support and international narcotics and crime funds within the bill shall be withheld until the president makes a certification to Congress.

Troop Readiness and Length of Deployment

1. Troops cannot be sent overseas unless the chief of the military department has certified to Congress that the troops are "fully mission capable"

2. If a U.S. unit is not "fully mission capable" the president must explain why the unit's deployment to Iraq is necessary.

3. Marines cannot be deployed for longer than 210 days

4. Army forces cannot be deployed for longer than 365 days

5. All troops are required to have one year of rest between deployments.

Troops that remain in Iraq after redeployment can only be there to:

1. Protect diplomatic facilitates

2. Serve in diplomatic roles

3. Engage in targeted military actions against al Qaeda

4. Training members of the Iraqi Security Forces.

Non-Iraq related emergency funding items in the bill include:

$1.2 billion to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan,

$4.5 billion dollars to end the disgraceful neglect of troops and veterans, focused on traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder, and improving our military hospitals and veterans hospitals,

$1.4 billion to fully cover the shortfall in funds for the Basic Allowance for Housing for men and women in uniform and their families,

$3.1 billion to fully fund 2007 needs for Base Realignment and Closure,

$2.6 billion to address domestic homeland security needs including aviation, port, container and border security,

$1 billion for pandemic flu preparedness, to begin the purchase of vaccines needed to protect us from a global pandemic.

$2.9 billion of additional funding for Gulf Coast recovery efforts (Hurricane Katrina),

$735 million to eliminate shortfalls in the State Children's Health Insurance Program,

$400 million to partially restore cuts in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP),

$500 million for Wildfire Suppression activities at the Forest Service and Interior Department,

$3.7 billion for an agriculture disaster program, including assistance for California citrus and spinach losses.

Language from a previously passed bill, H.R. 2, to raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25 per hour over two years.


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Politics and Church Politics

In the coming Anglican schism, the big guns are coming out. Those on this blog know that I am an active Episcopalian (even elected to our parish vestry, thus completing my induction into the bourgeoisie), and I have more than a few opinions about what is happening. In post-colonial Africa and Asia, the offspring of the Church of England are pretty much like miniature versions of the Roman Catholic church, where the titular head has unquestioned and unchecked authority. They are also moving that direction spirtually, with anti-women, anti-gay, anti-just-about-everything theology. And they are very angry at the US Episcopal church. The issue du jour is gay people, specifically the demand that Episcopalians stop treating gay people like human beings created in the image of God. This we are unwilling to do. Ergo schism looms.

We are a different sort of polity too. Several framers of the constitution participated in the creation of the Episcopal church, and they result is a bicameral legislature. The House of Deputies consists of laity and parish clergy; the House of Bishops is self explanatory. Bishops are elected for life by their dioceses, and confirmed in their role by a vote of both houses. The details of church governance may be boring, but they are relevant. Imagine if the Roman Catholic church had a legislature. What a dramatic difference in theology and participation we might see. Well, this is our situation.

And, like every legislature, money is an issue. According to the NYTimes article linked to above, the Episcopalians comprise less than 5% of all Anglicans, but foot about a third of the bill for the worldwide Anglican communion, much of which goes to anti-poverty programs and other charitable aims. Two years ago, they demanded we not particpipate in the Anglican Consultative Council (sort of the politburo of the communion) but demanded we increase our contributions by 10% per year over the next several years. Amazingly, the Episcopal church has obliged. Repeatedly, the Episcopal church has also said it has no desire to back out of the charitable obligations it has undertaken.

As I said earlier, the NY Times article is no accident. Talk is rising that we should not be asked to pay for those who will not sit at a table with us (several primates - no monkey jokes, please - refused to take communion with our primate, because of her gender and support of ordaining gays and lesbians and solemnizing their relationships). Nobody wants to use the money as a club to curb their behavior, but we do have to make it clear that we will not continue to support them financially if they turn their backs on us. There comes a time when the affections of Christian fellowship must give way to remonstrating with one who has gone astray. Preaching hatred for gays and second-class status for women is just plain wrong. It is offensive.

To quote the Episcopal News Service
"The “low point” of the Primates’ Meeting came, Jefferts Schori said, when one primate equated homosexuality with pedophilia and another said he couldn’t see why the Anglican Communion should study homosexuality if it doesn’t need to study murder." That's who we are dealing with. This is not a Christian attitude. And it's not about North versus South. In fact, Bishop Desmond Tutu has helped lead South Africa to a very different place. The issue is one of values. Do you struggle with the gospel's tough message of love and truth, or just cave in to popular traditional prejudice? Fundamentalists always do the latter. There is a reason the African churches are growing so fast - they have sacrificed the gospel for comfortable prejudice and tradition. The easy way. The gate is wide and the way is easy, that leadeth to perdition.

They have given the Episcopal Church until September 30, 2007 to "repent" and change our views. Nuts to that. Those who say such hateful things about gay people are the ones who need to repent. When I get my chance to vote on these matters - and I will - it will be to say no. And no to paying one thin dime to anyone who refuses even to sit at the table with us as brothers and sisters. I wish it would not come to that.

I know many Citizens are atheists and cannot imagine why this all matters to any intelligent person. Well, this is what I have to say. Religion is not just a personal matter. Prayer is private, but worship is corporate. Being a Christian means more than just liking what Jesus had to say about loving your neighbor; it means actually trying to live together, with a community, in a community. It means trying to have a common life together. Personal spirituality is the easy way out, lighting a candle, quiet meditation, whatever thing you want to do. It's not messy. Other voices do not intrude. Sartre, I believe, remarked that Hell is other people. Perhaps, but that is our world. Community means politics. There is no way around it.

This is not so different from why most of us on this blog are passionate about politics in the United States. We're contending with one another over our values and identity as a nation.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Insitutions, Partisan Politics and Oversight

Going back to the earliest days of this blog, I have occasionally gotten into arguments with people about the supposedly spinelessness of the Democratic party. It is something of a cliche now to refer to the Democrats as spineless. A major reason given for this assertion is their impotence with regard to Congressional oversight roles during the Bush administrations many inept failures.

However, I've consistently argued that the Democrats were at a serious institutional disadvantage because they were in the minority. They could not determine the schedule or agenda of hearings. They could not summon executive branch officials to testify without GOP cooperation and even cooperation from the White House. These limits pretty much prevented any sort of effective oversight because the Republicans would not cooperate in their own political embarrassment.

Things are different now. The Democrats have majorities in both houses. The current unfolding scandal of the US Attorney firings is about to present us with an example of what the Democrats will do when those institutional limitations are gone. They have already proved much more aggressive. Information about high level involvement in the firings is coming out very quickly in response to Congressional investigation. Hearings are about to be called that could reveal direct, political involvement in the firings of Karl Rove and even Bush himself.

This sort of thing is why institutions and elections matter. We are about to watch democracy reassert itself! Enjoy!

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Reform the FHA?

You know, you have to love politics. A bunch of people over the last 7 years have gotten themselves in to a financial mess because they took mortgage loans that they had to have known they couldn’t afford at the time. And now that they are in distress, our presidential candidates Clinton and Dodd, want to told hearings to see what Congress can do to help. I don't have all the facts, but off the top of my head, I see 3 major problems with this.

1) Dodd and Clinton want to reform the FHA to give low-income people lower interest rates and to allow FHA to offer larger loans in more expensive areas. Define lower income? It is a curse to be middle class because you get no help, pay the bills for everyone else, and can’t afford to own your own home much less subsidize one for someone else.

2) The FHA is only one side of a large systemic problem. I don’t see how reforming the FHA will address the bigger problem. Banks had huge incentives to make irresponsible loans to begin with. Wall Street investors are driving banks and private lenders to make larger loans at higher risk. Wall Street then bundles and buys these loans, taking on the risk while making money off them. In addtion to this, the large loans granted by banks increase the money supply and help drive housing prices higher. It’s a vicious cycle.

3) Buying a home is a big deal and it isn’t done lightly. So if people didn’t know what they were getting into when they accepted their interest only loans, then they had to have been stupid or desperate. I don’t think that government should be too quick to float in and save them from themselves. I haven't tried buying a home, but I know that sweet deals that give you 6% for 2 years and then increase aren't really a smart way to go. That said, the government bails out businesses all the time. So why not individuals?

Some of our Citizens have recently bought homes. I would be curious about your thoughts on the matter.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Over the Lips, Through the Gums . . .

Watch out stomach, here it comes.

This is a rather comical a report from NPR. What do we learn? That from the President's perspective, international travel maybe a bi@#ch, but you can't beat the food!

Last year while in Germany, he told the international press corps that the highlight of his presidency was the roasting and eating of a pig. (I linked to the Google page with the highlighting do you could see all the "pig" references). And who could forget the mouth full of food while he told Tony Blair that the "Syrians just needed to stop this s#&t", while, I am sure, spitting crumbs all over Tony's tie.

I know that this is his technique for sounding folksy, and getting out of press conferences so he can go party but it gets old and is somewhat embarrassing. Please, Mr. President, you are embarrassing enough as it is. He is the stereotypical ugly American.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Closed Doors and Open Tents

There is an interesting wrinkle in California's primary, very likely to be moved up to February 5, 2008. The Republican primary will be closed to registered Republicans only, whereas the Democrats will allow registered independents to vote in their primary.

California's registration statistics show a large number of independent voters in the state--43% Democrat, 34% Republican, 19% Independent, 4% other. I will leave it to the political scientists on the blog to comment on the potential impact of the semi-open vs. closed primaries for the two major parties in the upcoming Presidential contest.

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such a lonely word.

Representative Pete Stark (D-CA) has become the first U.S. congressman (also the highest-ranking official) to publicly state that he does not believe in a god. Said Stark, who has served in Congress since 1973, "I am a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being." He rejected the label "atheist" however.

Stark is surely not the first non-believer in Congress, just the first to acknowledge his views publicly. Regardless of one's beliefs, everyone should applaud Rep. Stark for his honesty.

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Did I say "No?" I meant "Yes."

Story #1: The eight fired U.S. attorneys were removed for "poor performance," not politics. In fact, the Justice Department actually was trying to do those attorneys a favor by not discussing why they were fired. There was certainly no involvement with the White House or members of Congress. Everyone was notified appropriately. This whole story is an "overblown personnel matter." It is just a cheap, Democratic political stunt.

Story #2: The White House was directly involved in drawing up the list of people to fire. Bush had personally complained to Gonzales that certain "voter fraud" cases were not being pursued aggressively enough by these attorneys: these involved elections the Republicans had lost. Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson personally contacted an attorney directly to try to push one such case along. Gonzales' chief aide, Sampson, corresponded extensively with White House counsel Miers: Sampson has now "resigned." Gonzales admits "mistakes were made" and neither the appointees nor Congress were notified appropriately.

I can't wait to hear Story #3.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Carbon, not conservation

The flak over high power consumption at Al Gore's Tennessee mansion illustrates a problem with the general public's understanding of global warming... and it might also show how to make progress. I think the trouble is that three similar but distinct messages are blurred in the public's mind.

In this age of bling, McMansions, conspicuous consumption, and disposable everything, there is also a strong countervailing ideal of frugality. It is an old New England ethic, part of America's legacy from the puritans. For the sake of our souls, responsible community leaders exhort us to change our lifestyle. Waste not, want not.

Separately, there is an strong environmental movement that urges limited human impact on the environment. This means less strip-mining of resources, less clear-cutting of timber, less pollution in the air, and less waste in the garbage dumps. For the sake of our environment, responsible community leaders exhort us to change our lifestyle. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Separate from both of these is the movement to fight global warming. A scientific consensus has emerged that human activities are heating up the planet, with disastrous consequences to come. For this reason, responsible scientists urge us to reduce carbon emissions. But it's not about "living right" or protecting wildlife refuges: it's about saving the planet from global climate change. It is easy--but wrong--to conflate the effort to fight global warming with the environmental/ethical exhortations to conserve.

Gore's mansion is a case in point. From the point of view of global climate policy, Gore has made the right choice. By investing in carbon offsets and green energy sources, Gore has found a better way to reduce his personal contribution to the world's carbon emissions than simple conservation. It's economics 101: trading carbon credits allows a society to cut and offset emissions with the least cost to the economy.

I think a lot of people get turned off by all the judgment and smugness that come along with the environmental/ethical conservation crusade. If we want people across the political spectrum to join the fight against global warming, we need to help them understand that it's not about giving up the SUV, eating only organic foods, or flushing only once a day: it's about finding the best way for our economy to reduce carbon emissions. There are many ways cut carbon without conservation like investing in clean fuels, adding better emissions controls on factories, and even planting new forests. Let's stay on message.

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What's with Dubai?

Hi Everyone,

Remember when the Bush Administration got a black eye over their deal to approve the transfer of a number of port facilities to a company based in Dubai (one of the United Arab Emirates)? Well, Halliburton is trying a different approach. One our largest defense contractors is moving their headquarters to Dubai after they already have the contracts. The AP story is posted here.

Interesting move. Are they, as they say, moving to be closer to their clients? Or are they moving to be "off shore" to limit their accountability to American regulations now that they are in the hands of Democrats? Is this a sign that Halliburton et al expect a Democratic victory in 2008?

All wild speculation aside, this is a move that deserves our special attention.

Any of you heard anything credible?

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Alberto Must Go

Democrats are calling for the removal of Alberto Gonzales. And how! He is as dangerous as we feared he would be. A NYT editorial on Sunday called for Gonzales' removal stating, "More than anyone in the administration, except perhaps Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr. Gonzales symbolizes Mr. Bush’s disdain for the separation of powers, civil liberties and the rule of law."

With him must go the legislative tools that have allowed him and his ilk to gut the U.S. Constitution. One example, as if justifying torture and illegal incarceration weren't example enough, that is Operation Falcon that has integrated local, state, and federal authorities for the purpose of rounding up gang bangers, sex offenders, and drug dealers who've violated their parole. Thus far 30,000 people have been rounded up. Most are petty offenders, not terrorists.

The man has to go before we become a total police state.

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Waiting for Bayrou

Jacques Chirac has declined to run for a third term as France's President. This isn’t a surprise. He was only elected the second time when the French were spooked by the first round finish of Jean Marie Le Pen.

This means that the race is down to Sarkozy, who has announced that he wants to get tough on immigrants and open an immigration department; Royale, who is seen her favorables decline the more “socialist” she gets. She may be a bit too leftist, even for the French. And Fran├žois Bayrou, whoc claims he is a "third way " candidate. He is running as a centrist and is offering himself openly as an alternative to the two front-runners. I say watch him closely. Forty-Five percent of French voters are undecided. That means there is a lot of room for things to happen between now and voting day in April. With Chirac clearly out of the running, Bayrou may pick up some of those voters who were waiting on Chirac. Although, polls didn’t put Chirac very high up to begin with.

Sarkozy scares me because is sounding too much like Le Pen. A son of immigrants, I find it disingenuous of him to rail against immigrants so fervently. That said, France has always had an anti-immigrant streak, especially now that they are predominantly Muslim, and Sarkozy is playing to that.

Royale is hitting all the socialist buttons, but I don’t think the French want to go back to the days of Mitterrand where the government does it all. The 35 hour work week isn't liked by everyone, the power of employees unions (who are now less popular than they once were) is wearing thin, and the French are much more capitalistic at heart than they like to admit.

Thus, Bayrou. He is been around forever, ran for President in 2002, and he is quoted as saying, “"I am a democrat. I am a Clintonian. I am a man of the 'third way.”

In a recent IHT article , Bayrou said that if he could vote in the U.S. elections in 2008, he’d hope to vote for Al Gore. I am not sure if that tells us very much about his own political beliefs, but it is an interesting statement to come so bluntly from a presidential candidate.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

This is not Luke Skywalker

This opinion piece by Jonathan Chaitt is worth reading. Trying to assuage the worries of his fellow conservatives, Sen. Lindsey Graham said of his friend Sen. John McCain: "This is not Luke Skywalker here. This is a totally different campaign." As Chaitt notes,

[Graham's] choice of metaphor is one of those windows into the fundamental cultural gap that separates hard-core conservatives from the rest of humanity. To most people... [it] would be seen as an unmitigated insult. In the world of the GOP elite, though, it's a form of praise: No, no, don't worry, McCain's with the empire now.
So I was just thinking, maybe the Democrats should think of Hillary as Princess Leia. Yes, she thinks she's a queen and sometimes acts like a bitch, but deep down you know she's on your side. Alas, I fear Barack Obama will be this campaign's Wedge Antilles: that skinny kid with the funny name, always popular with the dedicated fans, but who never quite made it.

OK, I'll stop now.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

America Can Win This One

I love it. The NY Times reports the latest Republican talking point: that the Democrats are trying to "micromanage" the war. No, they are trying to manage the war, something Bush and the Republicans have been unable to do in five years. Republicans also complain that the Democrats are trying to "interfere" with the President's "ability" to conduct the war successfully. And it's a hard charge to refute: how does one show one is not interfering with an ability that does not exist?

The Democrats need to keep embarrassing the hell out of the Republican party. They need to keep hammering the Republicans in Congress with resolution after resolution, forcing them to go on record opposing all reasonable attempts to manage Bush's failures in Iraq, until their political survival instincts finally kick in and they do what is right: end this madness and bring our troops home. Already the Republicans are fracturing and the Bush presidency is weak as a pile of mush. So keep going, Reid and Pelosi! This is a war America can win.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Outrage! Outrage! Outrage!

I am so angry I can barely contain myself. Newt Gingrich, who mercilessly pursued the impeachment of Bill Clinton for getting it on with an intern just admitted that he was having an extramarital affair at the very same time! Un-f***ing-believable! All this total BS about restoring "honor and dignity" to the White House!? I guarantee you all 100% that if he had come clean at the time, Clinton would never have been impeached. Never. All this phony sh*t about Monica, Monica, Monica (note: I censor the words just to prevent them from being blocked by some of your machines - I think they're appropriate for political discourse, particularly now).

And I thought the religious right were just self-righteous sex-obsessed puritanical assholes. Hypocrites too. Damn! Hang him!

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Good Good Good

Democrats seek 2008 Iraq troop withdrawal

This is not some extreme liberal introducing this. This is the Senate leadership agreeing on something (if you haven't been following closely, the House is split between blue dogs and liberals over what to do). Of course, it probably won't pass and will definitely be vetoed, but it's still worth it. Go to the article and read the details.

Are we really going to get out of Iraq? Really?

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When Perjury Matters

Lewis "Scooter" Libby, senior aide to VP Cheney, was convicted this week of perjury and obstruction of justice. Unlike Clinton, who was accused of such things in trying to cover up a tawdry affair that was nobody's business anyway, this was a serious matter.

Why does it matte? Libby - under the clear direction of Rove and Cheney, tried to destroy the life of a woman, Valerie Plame, and her husband James Wilson. Cheney, the real instigator behind this, is a true believer. He genuinely believes, as did Libby no doubt, that in opposing the Iraq war and exposing the Bush administration's lies, Ambassador Wilson was disloyal, traitorous, endangering the country, and affirmatively helping Al Qaeda. When Bush said, "if you're not with us, you're against us" he meant it about all Americans. For Bush, Cheney, and these right wing Republicans, all those who oppose the Bush Administration and the war - Nancy Pelosi, Cindy Sheehan, Jon Stewart - are necessarily helping Al Qaeda. We, the citizens of this country, are its enemies. And, as Goldwater said, "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." It's okay, as Nixon believed, to "ratfuck" your political enemies when, obviously, your political enemies are also enemies of the state. Karl Rove is, frankly, a mediocre practitioner of that philosophy, not the great guru he is made out to be by those who tuned into US politics yesterday. That is the modern GOP. Anyone who denies that (like Arnie) hasn't been paying attention.

They do not understand how opposition can ever be loyal. They do not understand the rule of law or representative democracy. No doubt they will try to fire Fitzgerald the way they have already hacked through the US attorneys offices for disloyal elements. They decided to "get" Wilson by hurting his wife, even though she also happened to be on the front line of US intelligence operations. That is more than just criminal. Cheney should be impeached for this also.

Bush is even worse. He also thinks that Jesus is on his side, and that criticizing Bush is blasphemy and sin. The problem is that these people lost their moral compass years ago. I'm a values voter: the GOP has lost any sense of real values. The 2006 elections may just have saved the republic from these men, but it is high time we all got past the idea that current Republican leaders just have honest differences of opinion with Democrats, and blather on about bipartisanship. They are not honest. They are intellectually dishonest and craven. And they must be politically defeated.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Seven Percent

Yesterday, primary municipal elections were held in Los Angeles, and turnout was abysmal. In a city of 4 million inhabitants, most City Council members were elected with a total of less than 4,000 votes. Only 1,200 voters took advantage of early voting opportunities and absentee ballots were still outnumbered by those cast in person. Here's how yesterday's turnout fits in with the general trend for primary municipal elections in Los Angeles County:

1999: 16%
2003: 13%
2007: 7%

At this rate, nobody will vote at all in 2015. Runoffs for 3 positions will be held on May 15... lord only knows what the turnout will be.

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And next up, how about pink triangles?

The New York Times reports that Ohio is likely to pass a law requiring convicted sex offenders to put special, fluorescent green license plates on their cars. They might as well make them wear sandwich boards that read, "I am about to rape your child. Please kill me." And like the requirement to publicly identify where they live, this scarlet letter would also last for life. (An actual scarlet letter will soon be on the agenda, no doubt.)

The main argument for such restrictions is not punishment but prevention. As those convicted of drunk driving often are kept away from cars, so we want to keep convicted sex offenders away from children. (And similarly, in Ohio as in many states, those convicted of drunk driving must put special red license plates on their cars to warn their fellow drivers.) In the case of convicted sex offenders, however, one really must weigh the alleged benefit to the safety of neighborhood children against the potential for incited violence against the branded criminal.

And there is also the slumbering issue of justice. With each passing year (or at least, each election cycle) lawmakers increase the punishment for convicted sex offenders... and indeed, for all felonies. The prison population in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1980, and we now have the largest prison population in the world, both in absolute terms (over 2 million) and per capita (0.7%) . (For more, see a 2003 report by the British Home Office.) The U.S. now beats Russia and China hands down, though, to be fair, China executes several thousand more than we do each year, which does cut down the incarceration numbers a bit.

Has the U.S. truly become such a crime-ridden hellhole that we must imprison more people than anywhere else in the world, at a greater rate than at any time in history? If so, the policy is a self-evident failure anyway. Or have we just lost all sense of proportion, all sense of when the punishment fits the crime? Will political expedience continue to trump justice? Or is there still a point where we can say enough is enough?

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Lies: Revealed and Suspected

Hi Everyone,

I've been lax in my contributions lately and for that I apologize. I've been very busy with work etc.

Anyway, two related items to discuss today. First, the jury is in and Scooter Libby is guilty on four out of five counts. The interesting thing that is coming out now is that a juror is saying that while they did think that Libby willfully obstructed justice, they felt he was acting on behalf of (and implicitly at the behest of) others, that he was a "fall guy" - by which we are left to suspect Karl Rove or even Cheney and Bush themselves. You can see this discussion on CNN.COM. So much for the lies we can now count as revealed.

The second story is about suspected lies. You may have been following the story about the series of US Attorneys who were fired abruptly just before the 2006 Congressional elections. Well, it's coming out bit by bit that they were fired because they either dared to prosecute the likes of Duke Cunningham (a now infamous Republican) or refused to rush through indictments of Democratic state assembly reps in time for the election. GOP Senator Demonici (R-NM) seems to have been one who delivered the "offer they couldn't refuse" in at least one of the cases. The most striking parallel with the Libby/Plame case is that one of the fired US Attorneys is now saying that they were all intimidated and ordered not to talk to the press about their dismissal. If they did, the White House/Justice Department threatened to reveal embarassing details of their records to the press. Sound familiar??? Sounds exactly like what they did to Wilson and Plame to me! You can read about it on CNN.COM here.

This administration has a pattern of abuse of office, threats and intimidation. And all that combined with a disregard for their own responsibilities (see Abu Gharib, Katrina, and now Walter Reed). I'm aware that impeaching these people is probably not worth it at this point. There is so little time left and impeachment and removal from office would take so long that I just don't see the point either politically or pragmatically. But as a liberty and constitution loving America, I hunger for some accountability at some point!

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Time for biology class... Everyone step outside for moment.

In a 4-3 decision in favor of several Christian schools, the CA Supreme Court has ruled that the state may issue tax-exempt bonds to religious schools for repairs and construction if the facilities in question will be used to teach non-religious subjects (e.g. math) similar to the standard academic curriculum. Does this ruling strike anyone else as idiotic?

First, no matter what they promise now, these facilities will sooner or later be used for religious purposes. Everyone knows it. Possession is 9/10 of the law. It's not like they're going to have a "Christ-Free Zone" sign at the doorway. And no doubt the walls will be plastered with religious paraphernalia. (First math lesson, 3 = 1 ?)

Second, since religious activities are mandatory at these schools, it is not possible for students to use these facilities without also receiving religious instruction. No Buddhists, Jews, or atheists will be enjoying these facilities.

Third, a dollar is a dollar. By subsidizing the secular activities at a school, the state frees up funds for the religious activities. The state does not require that any of the savings from the tax-free nature of the bonds be passed on to the parents in the form of lower tuition. The dissent noted that this would just make the state a "fundraiser" for this kind of school. The end result is a more attractive religious school that can now afford field trips to the Holy Land.

Fourth, how finely can one really slice it? Could the state give a school 40% tax-free bonds if it the school said that 40% of the time religion was not being explicitly taught? Can one even separate the two? If Christian parents send their children to private Christian schools because they deplore the "secular" atmosphere of public schools, surely it is obvious that there will be a pervasive "Christian" atmosphere at Christian schools? I mean, isn't that the point of having a Christian school?

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