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

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Kay Bailey Hutchison to Resign

Texas Politics. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison announced today that she will resign from the Senate in "October/November" of this year to run in March against Gov. Perry (also R) for the governor's spot in Texas. No doubt she will want it as a launching pad for the Presidency in 2012 or 2016.

Why does this matter?
1. Texas has a special election for a Senate seat. So while Perry will appoint a replacement for Hutchison, it will be for just a few months. Probably have the special election along with the 2010 governor's primary. Democrats can choose how much to go after this senate seat. With Democratic resurgence in Texas right now, they may force the GOP to spend a lot of money.
2. Sarah Palin has already endorsed Rick Perry in the expected fight with Hutchison. Note also that McCain and Hutchison hate each other, which is part of why he didn't pick her (far more qualified than Palin) for the ticket. So this sets up a feud between two Republicans - both women - for 2012 and beyond.
3. KBH is a fairly senior senator and the ranking member on the Commerce Committee (chairman J. Rockefeller). Her replacement would be Olympia Snowe, very moderate. This bodes well for climate change legislation.


But Will there be Universal or Portable Coverage?

The health care reform "deals" being struck with conservatives in the House and Senate are starting to get disturbing. If there is no "public option" then lots of people will continue to be uninsured, unable to afford the very high costs of for-profit insurance. The President needs to stop running against the "status quo." He needs to start running against health insurance companies, which are so unpopular. He needs to say "stop protecting insurance companies." He needs to ram the public option down the throat of these southern senators from states where populist politics has always been supreme.

I'm getting worried that the "blue dogs" and the GOP are trying to sabotage the bill, to make sure it includes tax increases but doesn't achieve the goal of universal coverage, or free up the labor market by making it possible for individuals to get health insurance on their own.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Insurance and Risk

The health insurance refom debatemakes it worth revisiting some basic questions about insurance. Insurance is about pooling risk and hedging risk. The individual hedges risk with insurance, by asking someone else to absorb the risk for a fee. The insurer pools risks of this kind. So, for example, I pay $x/year rather than face the small but nonzero of losing my house to fire and having to pay to fix it. The reason individuals get insurance is not so much to rationally hedge risk as to transfer intolerable risks to those who can bear them. That is worth repeating. The reason I pay fire insurance is that I can't afford to fix my house. If it burns down, I am homeless. So I am not weighing the value of insurance payments vs. the cost of fixing the house, I am weighing the insurance versus destitution. See the profit potential there, do you? Because of a lack of capital, the risk *to me* of the house burning down is far greater than the risk *to the insurance company*. It need merely pay $200K to rebuild it (or whatever). I and my family would be homeless.

Health insurance is a tougher bargain. The threat of dying from a car accident without being able to afford treatment is too much to bear. You would obviously pay big profits to insurance companies to avoid that. To avoid the worst effects - people dying on hospital steps untreated because they can't pay - the federal EMTALA law requires that emergency rooms treat patients even without payment. The EMTALA law was the worst thing we ever did in one sense, and the best in another. It was merciful in that it saved a lot of lives, but it also (1) created the most expensive and least-effective health-care delivery system for the uninsured you could imagine by treating all serious ailments at the worst possible time and in the most expensive way and (2) removed the very misery that would have prompted health care reform at an earlier date. I have heard Republicans say just in the past few weeks that "everyone gets treatment today." What they mean is that people who end up in emergency rooms are not turned away. The fact that nobody will change this doesn't seem to enter into their minds.

The other reason to have insurance is to protect others against harms you may cause them that you cannot afford to fix. This is liability insurance. If, as a result of a banana peel I negligently leave on my front stoop, the mail carrier becomes a paraplegic, I cannot afford to compensate her for her injuries. So I have insurance. Health insurance would take care of many costs, but it would not, for example, replace the lost income to her family. Disability insurance would help to easy my burden in that situation, or should. If I don't have the insurance, I will suffer and lose what little money i have, but the mail carrier won't get enough compensation forthe injury. This is why American lawyers then sue others (the maker of the concrete stoop, the banana manufacturer) with "deep pockets" and, oddly, why juries let them collect. Someone's gotta pay, right?

Obviously we start asking the question: who should be buying which insurance? New Zealand has experimented with a generalized social insurance where all such risks are paid for out of a single national pool through taxation. For all the "moral hazard" arguments that can be thrown at it, is it really such a bad idea? You would need far fewer lawyers. That's a start...


Friday, July 24, 2009

Burning Down the House

Famed footballer Kirk Herbstreit is fighting with the IRS over a tax deduction. It seems that he donated his house to the local fire department for the purpose of having them burn it down and "practice" on it. Then he rebuilt a (nicer) house for himself on the same property. The donation was of the structure of the house, not the property, so when it burned away, he was free to rebuild. Fire departments do not care, but the IRS does. The IRS is not so sure that this is really a $300,000 charitable donation (as claimed) or a homeowner who wants to put up a new house pulling a fast one by effectively hiring the fire department to demolish the old house free- not just free, but with a tax benefit! I can see both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, it seems to me that where the purpose of the donation is to secure a larger benefit for oneself (the removal of an unwanted house) the deduction should not be available. I think this for the same reason taht the law requires, when donating to public radio, that you must subtract from your claimed deduction the value of any premiums you received. You all do this, right? If the value of the benefit exceeds the value of the "donation," no deduction is allowed.

On the other hand, the donation is (1) of value to the fire department (2) is the sort of donation to a fire department that the charitable deduction was meant to encourage. Also, it is odd to inquire too deeply into whether a person seeking a deduction for a charitable donation made the donation more to be rid of the item than for the benefit to the donee.

My conclusion, if I were asked, is to deny the deduction. Absent contrary evidence, I think we can presume that the donation of the structure to the fire department would never have been made unless the fire department intended to burn it down. Imagine if the fire department chose to live in it instead - would you have an action against them? While donations can be made for specific purposes, the primary purpose is never so that it benefit the donor. After all, a donation to you for the purpose that you give it back to me is not a donation.

I mention this not only because it is funny, but because I think it's important to note that this is what the law does. It poses these questions. When Sonia Sotomayor said that appellate courts are where policy is made, this is what she was talking about. And for this I want someone who has the ability to think big-picture about these things. I don't want a damned umpire who can't see outside of his small box.


Now You Never Have to Let Go. Literally.

The LA Times reports that two startup companies, Pet Yarn Chic and Critter Knitter Guild, will weave a nice, soft blanket from your pet's fur. (You must collect the fur yourself and send it in.) It is touted as a relic to remember a beloved pet after he or she has passed on. Sadly, this form of memorial probably would not have been feasible for Gidget the Chihuahua, the beloved late spokescritter for Taco Bell.

Prices start at $49.99.


ECHR to the Rescue?

So, in a move of mind-boggling medieval stupidity, Ireland has just outlawed blasphemy. No, this is not an April Fool's joke. Such laws are all over the books in American states too, but they are unenforceable relics of the past. In fact, some are worded so awesomely they are fun. Except for a brief revival period in the anticommunist witch hunts when people tried (largely unsucessfully) to use these statutes to persecute atheistic communists, they haven't been taken seriously since before the Civil War.

I am trying to figure out what in Irish culture or politics would push this law at this time, when they've just gone through defying the Catholic church on everything from abortion to divorce. How is this in keeping with the trend in much of Europe to get religion out of government?

I hope the European Court of Human Rights strikes this down quickly.


Remember the Economy?

Hi Everyone,

Doing my usual morning procrastination web surf, I found this analysis of the stock market by Doug Short. The comparisons in the graphic are interesting. As you can see (click on it to enlarge it), the current stock market collapse was steep and deep. The biggest fall was in Sept-Oct of 2008. The current recovery started around February/March. Guess what happened on March 17? The stimulus package. I'm not suggesting that the stimulus money immediately went out into the economy with big effect. What I am suggesting is that the prospect of that money coming out, encouraged optimism among investors and 1) stopped the precipitous drop in stock prices and 2) sparked what looks like the start of a recovery - or at least the expectation of one by investors.

I'm bringing this up because the Republican spokes people are trying to go after Obama because Rahm Emanuel (Obama's chief of staff) said "We rescued the economy." Certainly unemployment is higher than predicted and still high (all of 5 months after the stimulus package passed). But the trend in the stocks looks promising. If the economy as a whole starts to grow, then we'll know they were right.

Now, consider this graphic of the Great Depression. Notice that the recovery did not begin until 1933 (the year FDR took office) after a 4 year free fall during the Hoover administration. Conservative ideologues like to say that the market fixes everything and that government can't do anything but make it worse. But the graphic of GDP growth in the 30s and the graphic comparing the different stock market down turns above, certainly seem to show at least a coincidence between when there is massive, emergency government intervention and when recovery begins. It also makes me shudder at what we'd be facing right now if McCain had won the election. He'd be vetoing stimulus packages and doing exactly what Hoover did - faith based charity drives, bailing out individual banks as they fail on an ad hoc basis, etc. That didn't work during the Hoover administration and I can't think of any reason it would have worked now.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

DADT Update

You may recall that Sen. Kirsten Gillebrand (D-NY) was considering offering an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would have imposed a moratorium on discharging gay and lesbian soldiers as part of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. At the time, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said he would certainly support the amendment if Gillebrand chose to offer it.

Well it seems Gillebrand will not offer it after all. The reason, her office says, is that they just do not have the 60 votes in the Senate required to overcome a Republican filibuster. It would seem that President Obama will have to do some arm-twisting to get DADT repealed. Little wonder he is waiting until after the fight to push through health care reform legislation is over. He needs all his strength for that task.


California Governor in 2010

Let me quote from a candidate's website:

"Fundamental reform is needed. Gavin Newsom is committed to comprehensive budget reform in Sacramento – starting with eliminating the antiquated 2/3 majority vote requirement for budget approval and convening a Constitutional Convention to explore reforms to California’s ballot initiative process. To fix California’s budget crisis, Gavin Newsom believes that all options must be on the table."

Now, I've not been a Newsom supporter before, but this is worth working for. I know what "all options" means. Do you?


Private Health Insurance

RAND COMPARE is an excellent resource for non-partisan analysis of health care reform proposals. Here are some selected findings. (All quotes are taken from the website.)

1. Private health insurance is much less efficient than public health insurance systems.

Estimates indicate that overhead/administrative costs (premiums minus claims payments) make up 14% of total private insurance expenditures, compared with 3–5% of spending in public sector programs such as Medicaid and Medicare. Other sector specific data suggest that the multi-payer system in the United States carries with it significant administrative costs, some of which can be attributed to redundant processes (Davis et al., 2007; Catlin et al., 2007).

2. The US spends much more on health care administration than other countries do for their health care systems. The US spends 7.3% on administration costs, compared to 3.3% for the UK, 2.6% for Canada, and 1.9% for France. Various studies estimate anywhere from $90 - $270 billion dollars in cost savings could be achieved by transitioning to a single-payer system.
Many health sector experts characterize the U.S. health care system as administratively wasteful. Economist Henry Aaron described the system as “ administrative monstrosity, a truly bizarre mélange of thousands of payers with payment systems that differ for no socially beneficial reason, as well as staggeringly complex public systems with mind-boggling administered prices and other rules expressing distinctions that can only be regarded as weird” (Aaron, 2003).

3. Americans spend more time dealing with health finances than health care. Those in public programs get better information and service.
[H]ealth care consumers today spend more time interacting with medical office and health plan staff than they do interacting with physicians... Medicare beneficiaries are more likely to report that they always or usually get the information they need or the customer service they expect.

4. American households spend more money on expenses not covered by insurance than they do for the insurance itself.
In 2003, households spent almost $513 billion on health care. Of that, $230.5 billion (45%) went toward out-of-pocket payments, including co-payments, deductibles, and services not covered by insurance (Cowan, Hartman, 2005). $174 billion went toward premium payments, both for individual insurance, employee shares of employer-sponsored health insurance, and Medicare (Cowan, Hartman, 2005).

5. The poor and the elderly devote a much larger share of their income to medical expenses than others.
Low-income households spend nearly 16% of their income on health care; higher-income households spend 3 to 5 percent. Households headed by individuals age 65 and older spend more than 11% of their income on health care. Households headed by younger persons spend just under 3 percent.

6. The US spends an enormous amount on health care as a society.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services estimate was that health care spending in the United States reached $2.1 trillion in 2006 and projected to reach $2.25 trillion by 2007... Health spending as a share of GDP is expected to grow from its 2007 level of 16.3% to an estimated 19.5% of GDP in 2017 (about $4.3 trillion)... [H]ealth care spending growth is expected to outpace GDP growth by an average of 1.9% points annually.

7. Despite these expenses, the US population is less healthy by several measures than other developed nations.
Comparisons with other Western developed countries provide perspective on U.S. health. In general, members of the U.S. population have shorter life expectancy, shorter healthy life expectancy, and higher infant mortality than the population in other major countries. [figure references omitted]

In my view, these findings frame a big picture. The problem is not just that some people cannot afford insurance. The deeper problem is that the entire private health insurance system is wasteful, fraudulent, and broken.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Great California Budget Sell-out of 2009

Unbelievable. Unbelievable. The details of the CA budget deal are coming out and it's pretty clear that the GOP got everything it wanted, and the Democrats gave away the store. Again. For some reason, the Democrats are unable to hang the blocking minority with the responsibility for blocking the budget. So they give in. The Republicans insisted that any budgetary cuts - whether to disabled people or schools or filling potholes - are better than even a penny of tax increases. And they won. I'm just livid over this. Nobody wants to pay more taxes, but you've got to have priorities. How is it possible that the #1 priority is "no tax increase" and that can take precedence over every other value? At least they cut $1b from the prison budgets, but that will be put back in by the legislature, who will wimp out when the police get all mad, as they are. The $9b cut from education won't raise an eyebrow. After all, CA funds education at the state level but the responsibliity is local, so only the local folks get punished.

And all of this didn't solve the problem. It's $15b in cuts and $9b in accounting gimmicks.

This is a total disaster. If a Democratic majority means nothing - if the Republicans win anyway - I might as well vote Green.

The Democrats should have made their own non-negotiable demand in return: that a constitutional convention be called.


Racism or Just a Cop Being a Control Freak A-Hole?

This story about a Harvard professor getting busted in his own home is going to be presented as an example of racist cops in Cambridge, MA. And it may very well be just that. But from what I've heard about cops from a journalist friend of mine (Bert. Q. Slushbrow who has posted comments on this blog before), this could have happened to a white home owner too. One sure way to get a cop to abuse his authority is to question his authority to do whatever he wants. A lot (not all) of cops are the guys you knew in high school who liked to pick fights and push people around.

So imagine this. A cop responds to a call about a break in. He arrives to meet the home owner, recently returned from a trip to China (so probably tired and grouchy). The home owner starts questioning the cop's reason for being there. The cop now has a choice. A) Apologize to the home owner and go away. or B) Shout back at the home owner and demand that he "respect my authoritah" and escalate the shouting match until he ends up arresting the home owner for some BS charge like disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct (in his own home).

I'm not saying that race didn't play a part here. It probably had something to do with why the police were called in the first place. It may have played a role in why the cop was so unwilling to just shrug and walk away. It may have played a role in why the homeowner in question was so belligerent himself. But I don't think it needed to be racial for this to happen. Many cops are just equal opportunity, control freak, A-holes.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Picture This!

I'm in the mood for something different on this blog. So when I stumbled on this piece from the NYT about design and government policy , I followed it up.

Actually, the piece makes a good point. Design is a powerful policy tool. We all know it, we all forget it. It's worth being reminded about.

One of my Iraqi colleagues came to work and asked me, "What does 'Click it or Ticket' mean?" That was a really great question because for 2 years, I say that sign on CA freeways and thought it was encouraging the use of cruise control. Click it and don't get a speeding ticket.

Then one day, I took a much closer look at the sign and realized that there was an off picture of a detached seat belt on it. Is it obvious to anyone else? When it takes a native 2 years to figure it out and the poor non-native can't figure it out at all, it's a bad campaign.

I am always impressed when I am France at how clear and consistent the signage it. And I have never had a problem negotiating a European Metro, or even a few of the American ones I have been on. But BART had me all confused. No maps in the stations, no clear markings in the train about where we were stopping and where we were headed. And the intercom system was so bad, I couldn't understand the driver at all. No wonder people prefer a car and GPS.

When you've had good design, you notice bad design even more! And it helps that Europeans have national design standards for roads and signs. Even the ancient Catholic Chruch new the power of images to spread information to the masses.

Recently at work, I have been focusing a lot on design and how to effectively us it in my communications with people. When you work in a place where language barriers are normal, you have to rely on the visual. And you have to be aware about cultural reactions to certain visuals and colors. And I find that more information can be imparted with tables than with text. Visuals offer instantaneous information in an abbreviated fashion. Take some of these covers from the Economist.

Nothing more needs to be said.

Design can also warp a message. We all know that you can present data in ways that exaggerates or downplays the results. See the link in the article to the Republican designed graphic of Health Care Reform. It is meant to scare.


Saturday, July 18, 2009

More on the California Budget

So various sources tell us that California's prison population has either quintupled or septupled (depending how it gets counted, apparently) over the past 20 years. The population has increased by half - i.e., not even doubled. That is the major internal source of economic pressure on the budget (the external source is lack of revenue). True, the $11 billion on prisons is about 10% of the budget, and only half the $24b budget gap. But it's been driving up the budget for years. In 2007, the budget had about $10b for prisons and $12 billion for higher education. Higher education had a $15 billion budget, but had to raise $3 billion from bonds. Prisons got all their money in cash. Apparently, the prison budget in the 2005 budget year was only $7 billion. That's a big increase in just a few years.

While health expenditures at $30b are the second largest single expenditure, they were, for example, raised by just 1% between 2006 and 2007. Prisons went up 6%. (I look at 2006-2007 because those were the last "good years" budgeting-wise).

However, the largest expenditure is on K-12 education, at about $40b. Proposition 98 protects that, unfortunately. Prop 98 requires that 40% of the general fund be spent on schools. This is the other problem. In good years, that means a lot more money. In bad years, that percentage has to go up dramatically or there are serious cuts. Pegging it at 40% of the general fund is an awful idea that makes it impossible to restrain the growth of spending.

But the other issue is tax cuts. That's right. According to the LA Times, about $100 billion in tax cuts have been enacted over the past 15 years. Tax breaks require a simple majority vote; tax increases a 2/3 vote. So various loopholes and tax reductions for special interests have drained the treasury.

And proposition 13 has abeen an unmitigated disaster. According to another report, it has drained revenue from our governments. The year prop 13 was passed, California received about 27% of its total revenue (state and local) from property taxes. That percentage is now 12%. As whole, all states had about 21% of its state/local revenue from property taxes in 1977, the year prop 13 was passed. That percentage nationwide has gone down to 16%. So the nationwide reliance on property taxes has dropped by 5 percentage points of the total, but CA has gone down by 15 percentage points, three times as much. The result has been an increase in the use of the personal income tax, a fickle source of funds. In 1977, all states, including CA, got about 10% of their state and local revenue from income taxes; in CA, that went up to 16%, while the rest of the country crept up to 12%. Note the imbalance: CA lost 15% of its revenue stream in property taxes and made back only 6% of its needs from personal income tax.

So that's it in a nutshell. (1) external to budget: Declining tax revenue from various sources, including tax breaks, so the revenue stream has skewed to unstable income taxes. (2) internal to budget: prop 98 and prisons.

The clear culprit in all of this is (1) the 2/3 budget rule and (2) the ballot propositions 13 and 98 that have monkeyed with the constitution.

This is why we need a constitutional convention to reform the constitution:
1. Establish majority-vote budgets like almost every other state
2. Bar constitutional amendments by initiative except with a 2/3 vote or higher
3. Allow the legislature to repeal any initiative/proposition statute by simple majority vote (now not possible)
4. Outlaw paid signature gathering for propositions. All-volunteer signature gathering was the norm before the 1970s, and the result was very few propositions ever made it to the ballot. The reason we have so many propositions now is that you can just pay money to hire signature gatherers who get it done. This means that instead of representing grass roots efforts, ballot propositions are playthings of rich special interests. I would not outlaw ballot propositions altogether because it is our political tradition in California to be allowed to circumvent the legislature, or to threaten to do so, from time to time. I would prefer to contain this rather than try to outlaw it. Lots of other states have such direct democracy in limited form that is not a serious problem.
5. Reform Prop 13 to make it fair. Nobody should have to pay 10x or 20x more in taxes than their neighbor for the same property, particularly in tract-home neighborhoods where the properties are practically interchangeable. Seriously, people paying $1000/year for properties next to those paying $10K or $15K/year is not uncommon in some areas. You shouldn't be able to pass that tax basis on to your children and grandchildren. Commercial property owners who can charge market rent for their property should be taxed on full market value. It is not fair for business A to be charged 1/10 the taxes of competing business B just because the new business moved in to the next door property 20 years later. The goal of prop 13 was to protect homeowners, particularly those on fixed incomes, from being socked with double-digit % increases in their property taxes as a result of increases in property value that they did not cause and would not benefit from unless they sold the property. The obvious solution is to restrict increases to, say, 5% on an annual basis, allowing for greater reassessment every 7 or 8 years, except for those over 65 years old. Sure, this will cause some unfairness, but it will probably keep neighbors within 50% of each other, which is so much better than now.
6. Abolish prop 98 altogether. There is no excuse for pegging any program's budget to the amount of revenue raised by the state rather than to the programmatic needs!
7. Abolish the "plural executive" and make the Attorney General, Treasurer, Sec of State, Sec of Education, Insurance Comm'ner appointed rather than separately elected. It is ridiculous to have the governor of one party and the heads of his departments of another party. Guess how that affects transparency and openness in government.


"And that's the way it is..."

I used to watch Walter Cronkite every night on the CBS evening news. To this day, whenever I need to watch live news coverage of political events, I still watch CBS. But I rarely watch the TV news programs anymore. There seems so little point to it. Most of the time I end up muting or changing the channel to alleviate the nausea.

There is no journalist working in America today who has earned anywhere near the widespread respect Walter Cronkite had. News is thriving but journalism is dying. Information is plentiful but authorities are scarce. Data is everywhere but the truth is gets buried by it.

America is a fractured polity with its fragments growing ever more isolated. The Left and Right now have their own news networks, their own commentators, their own blogospheres. Pundits are no longer respected for their objectivity, but are rewarded for their unwavering commitment to a particular ideology--the more theatrical their presentation the better.

It was not a simpler age back then, nor was it a better age... But I think perhaps we had a better guide. I am sad tonight. I will miss our "Uncle" Walter.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Justice Ginsburg

So Justice Ginsburg is being pilloried for saying this in response to a question about abortion:

" JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae — in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion."

All the conservoblogs are lit up about this. They are saying that Ginsburg wants to use abortion for eugenics.

But here is the rest of her answer, "Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong."

In other words, Ginsburg is saying, more or less, that she was skeptical of Roe because she thought some of its backers were pushing for eugenics, but she realized it was a misimpression on her part later when a second court decision barred medicaid funding for abortions.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Peculiar Minorities

In college I discovered to my surprise that the gay community and the disabled community there felt a special affinity toward one another. I have seen this elsewhere as well. I did not know why those particular minorities felt they shared a special bond until I realized those two groups are, in the same sort of way, rather peculiar minorities.

They are different from other minorities because, whatever genetic component there is to being gay or disabled, the nature of the inheritance is more akin to a "recessive" trait, and often one which only manifests later in life. One obvious consequence is that the gay and disabled communities cut across all other minorities: They include men and women of all races and cultures. A less obvious but perhaps more important consequence is that gays and the disabled almost always find themselves minorities even within their own families, and yet thanks to their families the majority of them have enjoyed the socio-economic benefits of being born into the majority.

So on the one hand, then, members of those minorities share a peculiar form of loneliness, and perhaps then a peculiar need to form special communities of their own. Yet on the other hand they do not suffer from the accumulated burden of generations of oppression because there is no continuity between generations. (Another consequence of this lack of shared heritage is that the generational divides within these communities are more pronounced than within others.)

Thus when some African-American leaders dispute the similarity between their civil rights movement and the civil rights movement for gays and lesbians, one must admit they have a point. The accumulated burden of centuries of slavery and oppression, that "peculiar institution" so central to the African-American experience and the legal battles that followed, finds no parallel in the gay civil rights movement. Attempts to draw that parallel are at best misguided, if not downright offensive.

Perhaps then we should look to the struggle to secure the rights of the disabled as an important model from which to draw parallels with the fight for gay rights. In that case the central emotive argument would not be, "We are proud of our differences," but rather, "We are your friends, your parents, and your children." Instead of emphasizing the differences, we must emphasize the sameness.

Likewise, integration into the "mainstream" has been the overriding goal of the disabled, and perhaps that should become a rallying cry for gays and lesbians as well--who must overcome that peculiar sense of isolation that can drive them to band together even more so than other minorities do. The more common, more radical stance has been to eschew the trappings of the mainstream and form separate enclaves, with a brash (and invented) subculture. And I have said before that I believe gay marriage is actually a rather conservative form of social and legal re-integration of gay life back into the family and the larger community.

Of course, many gays and lesbians will fear to equate their struggle with that of the disabled, lest homosexuality be seen as akin to a disability. I admit to a similar concern. But in truth, I believe that unfortunate fear speaks more of the remaining social prejudice against the disabled than anything else.


Apollo 11 Launched 40 Years Ago Today

On July 16th, 1969, The United States of America launched a manned space craft - under the command of native Ohioan, Neil Armstrong - with a mission to fly to the Moon. Upon arrival at the Moon, Armstrong and some guy who isn't from Ohio, got out and actually walked on another world.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A spiritual call to collective action

These words were spoken just recently about the various economic and environmental crises this world faces.

"The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy – that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It's caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being. That [is] heresy...
We are our siblings' keepers and knowers, and we cannot be known without them -- we have no meaning, no true existence in isolation. We shall indeed die as we forget or ignore that reality."

This is as radical an assault on protestant individualism as I have seen in a long time. It is actually a bit shocking in its theological break with most American fundamentalists who assume that salvation is entirely about an individual relationship with God. Moreover, this is a call to everyone to engage in the world. It is a firm statement that changing one's individual behavior is not a sufficient response to the present economic or environmental crises.

This was Bishop (Primate) Katherine Schori's opening address to the 2009 Episcopal General Convention currently taking place in Anaheim. If anyone was wondering whether there is diversity in Christian theology, take a deep breath and read it again.


Race In The Coming No-Majority America

Hi Everyone,

There is a lot of talk these days about the demographic changes going on in the United States these days. The future of America is one in which there is no racial or ethnic majority. There hasn't been an ethnic majority in the United States since its beginnings (despite our reputation as "transplanted Englishmen," Germans, Irish, Africans, Scots and French people etc have always made up large portions of our population - not to mention Native Americans). But racially, this country has long been one in which Europeans comprised well over 80% of the population. That is what is about to change. The day is coming soon when Americans of European heritage will make up less than 50% of the population. The big growth is coming from Asian and Latino immigrants and their descendants. The dominant theme of conversations about this future revolves around the changes "White" people will have to make.

But an exchange yesterday between Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Judge Sotomayor about her infamous "wise Latina" remark (in which she said that a wise Latina would make better judicial decisions than a white male) points out that groups that are now minorities in an America dominated by whites will have to make changes in their attitudes as well. Senator Graham pointed out that if he had come close to suggesting he would make a better Senator than a minority candidate because he was a caucasian male, he'd be - rightly - shredded. I think Senator Graham has a point here. There are statements that if white people say them are clearly and universally regarded as racist that if a Latina/o or African American say them are more often regarded as more or less innocent statements of cultural self-confidence.

The traditionally "political correct" way to respond to Graham's distinction is to say, "Well, white people are in power by virtue of their majority status so of course they can't say things that minorities can." But very soon, that won't be as true as it is now or was 30 years ago. The time is fast coming when people of color will have to more carefully consider the rhetoric they use to express their pride of culture. It's one thing to say "Latinas have wisdom to contribute!" It's quite another to say "Latinas are better than white people."

To be honest, I don't think Sotomayor understood or agreed with Graham's point. I think she deflected the topic with agility and diplomacy. But I think she is very much a product of her generation. I think her attitudes towards conversations about race is very much rooted in traditional political correctness with all its inherent double standards.

I don't think this exchange really disqualifies Sotomayor. Nor do I think her statement from years ago is all that important in of itself. But I think the point Graham was trying to make is an interesting topic for a conversation about race. Think of it as a kind of continuation of the dialogue Obama called for his race speech.


Who Really Hurt the CIA?

This argument from the right (which is being rather easily accepted and passed on as fact by the main stream media) that all these controversies and investigations are "hurting the CIA" really bugs me. No one is asking, "What if the CIA had followed the law in the first place?" No one is asking, "Did Cheney ask himself how his extra legal meddling would effect the CIA in the long run?"

Current CIA director, Leon Panetta, brought this latest story to light. Why? Because he's protecting the integrity of his own chain of command against the practice of White House interference that was established in the Bush-Cheney years! He's doing this to protect the CIA not undermine it! Cheney already undermined it!


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Bastille Day!

Sing a song!

Storm a castle! (but be sure to have fun doing it)

Taunt some Englishmen.

Go to a parade!

Join the Foreign Legion!


Episcopal Church Moves to Fully Embrace all Baptized Persons

The Episcopal Church has a general convention that meets every three years. For the past five conventions, they have tried to pass compromise resolutions to handle the complaints of conservatives that they were being too inclusive of gays while advancing "equal rites" within the church. The unexpected climax of a building confrontation with conservative forces came in 2003 with the ordination of Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire. A handful of congregations and four dioceses (0f 80) bolted from the church. Same thing happened over the ordination of women in the 1970s. Then the other partners in the Anglican Communion overseas in the "developing south" demurred strongly. (Others, like the churches in Scotland and Canada, were supportive of the American church). In 2006, the Episcopal General Convention voted a controversial moratorium on the ordination of gay bishops and on the adoption of formal rites for the blessing of same-sex unions. But it also elected a woman as Presiding Bishop for the first time. It was hoped that the response from the rest of the Anglican communion would be conciliatory. It wasn't. The response was to tell us to get bent. Several of these fellow bishops refused even to take communion with our Presiding Bishop.

So, basically, the American church has finally had it. In keeping with a national spirit of renewal and change, the Episcopal church is voting today to lift the moratorium on ordaining gays to any office and to authorize rites for same sex blessings. It is expected that the Episcopal church will have formally adopted all of these measures by the end of the week. The church is considering a further measure to give priests and bishops wide latitude to respond as they please to any local jurisdiction that authorizes same sex marriages.

The amazing thing is to see and read about the convention. What you are seeing is not trepidation or legislation, but an outpouring of joy and the holy spirit. Compromise has its season. So does action. I hope that the coming generation may find churches to be places of hope and community. This isn't just about gay people. It's about saying to everyone that God loves you just as you are, and that there is nothing you can do, no matter how awful, and no power on earth or beyond it that can separate you from the love of God. For many on this blog that doesn't matter at all, I know. For other people, though, this can matter a lot, particularly those who have been taught from an early age that an angry God despised them, and whose psyches have been warped by this.

[Update: The first resolution about ordaining gay persons was passed by more than 2/3 of the delegates present in the two houses.]


Senator Jeff Sessions and a Sad Day for the Republican Party

Senator Jeff Sessions has repeatedly said that the recent Ricci decision, finding white firemen were discriminated against in New Haven, CT, was the most important civil rights case in a very long time. So, Senator Sessions finally discovered civil rights now that white people might need the laws. Jeff Sessions kept pressing about it, playing to his racist supporters back in Alabama.

Let's get the facts straight about Senator Sessions. He used to be a federal judge, and Reagan tried to elevate him to the appellate court. He was rejected by the Senate, including the negative vote of Alabama Senator Heffrin. Why? Sessions had let his racist stripes be known. He "jokingly" said that Ku Klux Klan was not so bad until he found out that some of them smoked marijuana. Sessions also referred to the NAACP as "un-American" and "Communist-inspired" because it"forced civil rights down the throats of people."

So now he has discovered civil rights? No intelligent person can believe he cares about civil rights. Sotomayor knows who Sessions really is. She must be on some serious meds right now not to lash back. Smart, very smart, to keep it cool.

More amazingly, Sessions is complaining that Sotomayor did not act to overturn precedent when she had a chance. In the next breath, he complains that she is a judicial activist? Ha!

Then he complains that she didn't apply the Adarand case and strict scrutiny in the Ricci case (claiming she "broke a promise" to him). Of course, those cases are not on point. Adarand required a high standard before federal agencies adopt what used to be called minority set-asides, programs to favor minority contracting. Adarand does not concern the Ricci case at all. New Haven was not adopting a policy favoring minorities; it was responding to a case of disparate impact. Simply put, New Haven saw that no African-Americans and only one hispanic passed its test and realized that a case could be made that there was some problem with the test.
For Sessions, if a city adopts an exam that "coincidentally" only white men pass, this strikes him as natural and right. The old racist assumes whites are smarter. Or he wants to find legal ways to discriminate agaisnt negroes. If the city in question had been Birmingham rather than New Haven, maybe the Ricci case would be easier for the media to see properly.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Cheney May Have Been Covering Up Illegal Assassination Ring

Hi Everyone,

In an earlier thread we talked about revelations that Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the CIA to lie to Congress despite being obligated by the laws that established the CIA in the first place to subject itself to Congressional oversight. In that thread Dr S suggested that this wouldn't amount to much because it didn't seem to involve either wiretapping or torture. Well, the Wall Street Journal has a story that suggests it was about something even worse than both...assassination. Even planning such a program has been illegal since 1975. Cheney knew that if he told even the most secretive and sympathetic members of Congress about his plans, they would shut it down. So he ordered the CIA people he was working with to lie about it to Congress. It was a classic coverup. That it never got off the ground will likely prove to be the result of suitably patriotic foot-dragging by right thinking CIA people.

So to sum up:

1) The Vice President (an office with no executive authority at all) inserted himself into the chain of command for the conduct of intelligence and covert operations.
2) The VP used that self appointed authority to order the planning of operations that were illegal - namely assassinations.
3) The VP then ordered CIA officials to lie about his illegal plans in order to prevent them being shut down by the responsible oversight authorities in Congress (this despite the fact that he has no real authority to order anything).

This stinks. I know LTG says that there is some sort of statute of limitations that says that if you don't catch him before he leaves office, a VP is not liable for this kind of stuff but I don't believe him.

I expect that this will hang over his head until after the health care vote then Democrats in Congress will act.


DADT Moratorium?

Rumor has it that Sen. Kirsten Gillebrand (D-NY) may offer an amendment to this year's defense appropriations bill to place an eighteen-month moratorium on enforcing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Gillebrand supports gay marriage and has said her ultimate goal is still to repeal the policy entirely, replacing it with a new policy that would allow gays and lesbians to serve their country openly. There is as yet no indication as to whether this amendment would be adopted.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

What if we had a supreme court confirmation hearing and no one came?

Tomorrow, hearings will begin for Sonia Sotomayor to be SC justice. Scarcely a word about this is in the press. With Roberts and Alito, it was front page news for weeks. Why? Plainly because the confirmation is a foregone conclusion.


Republicans Violated Laws and Constitution For Little Gain

So not only have recent reports shown that Cheney ordered the CIA to violate the law by knowingly giving false and misleading reports to Congress but the round of reports reveals that all that warrantless wire tapping that Republicans swear is the only thing standing between us and a nuclear terrorist attack was not nearly as useful as the Republicans claimed to the agents conducting it.

I think it should be fairly obvious that a democracy should not deviate from its standard constitutional protections unless doing so would yield an ENORMOUS benefit or avoid and ENORMOUS loss AND it is the ONLY option to achieve that. The Bush people failed both tests with this wire tapping. It was neither particularly useful nor was it the only way to achieve the ends for which it was designed. Republicans rushed to the extra-legal wiretapping on the ASSUMPTION that a more authoritarian approach is safer than a democratic approach. The ASSUMPTION was that democracy is a luxury that must be the first thing sacrificed in a crisis. One of the many things they don't realize is that democracy is the end not the means.

LTG made a comment on another thread that the Republican Party is the single greatest threat to American democracy today. I agree. Certainly these reports about Cheney interfering with the CIA and the so-so performance of the extra-legal wire taps prove it.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Cheney Ordered CIA to Lie to Congress

This story in the NY Times may prove to be a real problem for the Bush-Cheney crowd. It sounds like they have hard evidence that Vice President Dick Cheney ordered CIA officials to lie to Congress about the existence and implementation of CIA programs.

Apparently, there was a program, the details of which are still secret except the relevant committees in Congress, that Cheney ordered CIA briefers to conceal and lie about. As a result the committees in Congress that were responsible for overseeing CIA activities were unaware of what the CIA was doing in this program. I've heard rumors/stories on the radio, that this may be a reference to an illegal assassination program whereby CIA teams would travel to foreign countries and assassinate people on their target list. Assassination has been illegal for the CIA since the early 1970s when Congress reacted to CIA abuses in the 50s and 60s.

According to the story, Obama's CIA Director, Leon Panetta, ordered the program shut down as soon as he heard about. Elections have consequences!

Remember a few months ago when Pelosi claimed that the CIA had been lying to Congress - especially the Democrats for years? At the time, Republicans threw a hissy fit about how she was undermining the morale of the CIA and how dare this San Francisco "librul" impugn the honor of these heroes. Well, it turns out she was right all along and - no surprise - it was Cheney who was undermining morale and impugning the honor of the CIA.

I have no idea where this will lead formally. Clearly, has this come out during the Bush administration's time in office, it would be grounds for impeaching the whole lot of them. I suspect that Cheney, at the very least, could be charged with "Contempt of Congress" and possibly a number of federal laws against falsifying or tampering with government reports etc. LTG will probably have a better idea of his legal liabilities here.

Politically, this vindicates Pelosi to some extent. That probably won't help Pelosi's numbers but it probably will hurt the reputation of those Republicans who have been using her as a punching bag - at least among independents.


Some Notes About Africa

I'm watching Obama give a speech to the parliament of Ghana right now. Why is Obama in Africa? Why does Africa matter? As even George W. Bush recognized, Africa is, along with South-Central Asia, the most likely region to see failed states emerge. It is also a region that many know little about. I remember once that Bell Curve and I wrote a trivia quiz for our favorite pub and we had a hand out of map of Africa with the countries' names left blank. We knew it would be challenging for most Americans to fill in those names (of course our friends at the pub did fine for the most part) but the fact that we could reasonably assume people would struggle is telling. Consider the famous report that Sarah Palin thought Africa was a country. She's not the only person who thinks this, although she may be the only one who thought that thought she was qualified to hold high public office despite that level of ignorance. So here are some factoids about Africa.

Of the 229 countries that the CIA World Fact Book has profiles for, 18 of the 20 poorest countries in the world are in sub-saharan Africa. One of the others is Afghanistan and the other is a semi-sovereign territory of New Zealand. Many of the countries in Sub-saharan Africa have economies that depend on the export of a single commodity or natural resource (oil, gold, diamonds, coffee, peanuts, etc). Many of the countries in Sub-saharan Africa have experienced violent ethnic conflict or civil wars recently. Millions of people have been killed or displaced in wars that are either going on now or only recently finished. Basic infrastructure that we take for granted (like roads, a power grid and clean water) are absent in much of the continent. The internet is slow to take root in this region. Decent access to the internet is critical not only for communication but investment too. Capital transactions these days are all computerized. Many of these countries languish under massive debt problems. There are also problems with establishing a consistent legal structure in many of these countries. As if this wasn't enough, there is also a widespread problem with malaria and HIV-AIDS.

But there are success stories too. And Ghana is one of them. Despite not being particularly rich, Ghana has established itself as a relatively stable democracy with a bright future. Botswana is doing even better.

Obama's speech focussed on how Africans need to and can solve their own problems. One of best lines in the speech (one that got a lot of applause) was "Africa doesn't strong men, it needs strong institutions." To help that, Obama promised directly western aid to help build the institutions that a stable democracy and economy need. Let's hope it works out for Africa.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Cutting out the Middle Man

President Obama is pushing a plan through Congress to change the way the Federal government handles student loans. Instead of merely providing subsidies to private financial institutions to encourage them to lend to students, as is the current practice, Obama proposes that the Federal government simply offer loans directly to students.

The CBO estimates this change would save $87 Billion over the next 10 years. Naturally, the banks are furious. They are crying "socialism" and "takeover," which appears to be the usual response whenever the government attempts to wean private institutions off the public teat--in this case one that has been remarkably nourishing. It appears the House Education Committee is now on board. We shall see.


Fox News... Making Racism Cute

I saw this video link on Daily Kos. They are talking about how a study about senile dementia in Sweden and Finland doesn't apply here because "Swedes have pure genes" and Americans "marry other species." First, of all I can tell you, as a Scandinavian American, that cross ethnic marriage is good not bad for genetic problems. Scandinavians have some of the highest rates of birth defects in the world despite excellent health care and environmental protection....why? "Pure genes." My father's family is Danish. They are also rather inbred. His family is part of a network of families that have been marrying into each other for generations - they even married each other back in Denmark before they came over so this cousins marrying cousins thing has probably been going for a 1000 years or more. Anyway, he always said he married my mother for her "genes" (she's of appropriately multi-ethnic American heritage - sorry - multi-species). I suspect he was also talking about how she looked in jeans but that's another story.

This kind of pseudo-intellectual style combined with matter of fact statements of the most mind blowing ignorance is what is wrong with the American conservative movement. These are Palin's people. Her "real America" if you will. These are the people who go to "Tea Parties" and get angry about big city Ivy League types like Obama. It makes me sick just to think of it. How do we confront this problem?


Thursday, July 09, 2009

Republicans, Politicized Sex and Money

Republicans are attracted to sex like a moth to flame. On the one hand, many of them want the state to pressure people to have sex only under the circumstances with the kinds of partners of whom they approve. They want to politicize one of the most personal and intimate behaviors human beings engage in. They see no division between religion, identity, morality, economic policy and law in general. Granted there are obvious intersections. But they blur these things so much that they begin to insist on this law on moral grounds and that economic policy on religious grounds. They see sex with disapproved partners and under disapproved circumstances as "un-American." They see religion, particularly the Christian religion, as equivalent with American identity and they use both to justify a range of self serving economic ideologies with stark distributional implications.

In the context of this particular combination of world views, theologies, and ideologies, it should really surprise us that many of these same Republican politicians a) can't keep their pants zipped and b) make sex scandals worse by engaging in cover-ups, blackmail and bribery. If you remember the John Ensign (R-NV) scandal from back pre-Palin, pre-Jackson, and even pre-Sanford then you may not be surprised to learn that money and cover up are emerging as pieces of this scandal too. Ensign's parents paid his mistress nearly a hundred thousand dollars in hush money. We've also just heard that Tom Colburn (R-OK) knew about the affair and encouraged Ensign to end it quietly and quickly. Colburn is now claiming "doctor-patient" privilege and refusing further comment. You see, Colburn is an MD and while he is not Ensign's regular doctor, he feels that doctor-patient privilege covers this kind of thing. One wonders if he knew about the payments of hush money.

What is also coming out is that Ensign, Colburn and Sanford were all members of a secretive and cultish Christian group of powerful politicians called "The Family" - mostly Republican but with a couple Democrats. This organization has a house on C Street in Washington D.C. which they use to provide below market rate housing to several members of Congress. They push both a religious and rightwing-corporatist economic agenda in which large corporations benefit from state support at the expense of potential competition. They have a small chapel in the building and so have listed the building as a "church" for tax purposes. Religion, money, politics, sex....

What we have here is a small group of right wing politicians belonging to a secretive political organization masquerading as a church. These men, push a right wing political agenda while themselves engaging in self-destructive secret lives themselves. This is not my father's Republican party.


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

DOMA Finally Challenged by Massachusetts

So we are finally getting a real federal court challenge to DOMA by Massachusetts. On behalf of its 16,000 married gay couples, Mass. is asking what purpose the federal government has in denying them equal rights with other persons validly married under state law. The case has all the earmarks of a winner. It's the right plaintiff and the right argument. Why do I say this? Because the challenge being brought in California to Prop 8 is based on an equal protection argument that says "all persons have the right to marry." That is politically more difficult and requires a bigger ruling. The Mass. challenge, by contrast, is an equal protection argument for already-married persons. The Court can rule more easily that nothing requires a state or the federal government to marry two persons of the same sex to each other, BUT that where a person is legally married in a state to another person of the same sex, the feds, at least, must afford such persons equal treatment with other married persons. I expect Justice Kennedy will write a majority opinion striking down at least that much of DOMA.


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Christian Approach to Politics?

I saw this on Daily Kos. The flier referenced in this story is horrific. It depicts Judge Satomayor as a monster with a rotting skull.

It's interesting that this movement is getting even more angry and hostile even as a long line of social conservative politicians and fundamentalist preachers get busted for fraud, drug use, adultery, etc etc.

"Yes Jesus loves me (and hates you)."


Throwing Stones

So the Vatican has released a new "encyclical" - a document written in Latin meant for instruction - about finances and the economic order. It makes sweeping calls for changes in how the world economy is run. The best take I can get on it is that it is somewhat muddled. It bemoans systems that put "profits over people," but seems to call for ethical self-regulation rather than, um, actual change. It also takes a lot of pot shots at the finance/credit system that collapsed last Fall. The question I have is not answered: how does the Vatican invest its money, and was it engaged in the financial drama of the last few years? Is your money doing something different? We don't really know. (Estimates of Vatican finances are very hard to come up with. The Vatican financial statements now published regularly show investments of about $500m, but this appears to be just the balance sheets of Vatican city itself, not the whole enterprise.).

I get tired of anyone who says that our economic problem is that we all need to act more ethically. That's undoubtedly true, but it's not a solution. If you want to improve economic behavior, the correct mechanisms are regulation and realignment of incentives, not exhortation.


Monday, July 06, 2009

Moscow Nights

Despite the enormous amount of domestic news that could be reported, the day's headlines were consumed with Barack Obama's visit to the Kremlin. Today he met with President Medvedyev - tomorrow, Prime Minister Putin. So far, it is a qualified success. An agreement has been reached that should allow for a follow-on treaty to the START treaty for about a 30% reduction in nuclear missiles and warheads. More remarkably, Russia has decided to be downright magnanimous when it comes to opening its airspace to US troop flights to Afghanistan. Apparently the expectation was that they might permit some supply shipments, not open up the skies to troops and do so basically free of charge. Compare this to France's behavior at times and you see thisis not a small thing. Obama and Medvedyev had significant discussions about missile defense and Iran. One gets the sense that Obama communicated to him that the issue for us is mostly Iran, not Russia, and that if Russia can help us deal with Iran, well, we have a deficit anyway. Nobody will cop to this of course, but it looks like we will probably stall on missile defense if Russia helps out with Iran.

What does all this mean? I would have told you fifteen years ago that what Russia's leaders want more than anything else is respect. They want to be astride the world stage as the old Soviet leaders were. They don't want to be treated as the losers in the Cold War. They don't want to be publicly reprimanded like schoolchildren for backsliding on democracy, even if they deserve it. Well, Russia got some of this today. It will get more tomorrow. Perhaps Barack Obama figured out what so few people ever do in such negotiations - that stuff is free. In return, Russia gets to make "gestures of friendship" rather than "concessions."

This is good for strategic cooperation on big things. The problem of the "near abroad" - what Russia calls its newly independent neighbors - remains. There is a lot of unfinished business from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. I am hopeful that Russia will not engage in a repeat of the Georgia war stunt if it begins to realize other ways to get the respect it craves. It may continue to behave badly, of course, but I suspect we will not see some of the fearmongering on all sides we saw last summer.

I am also hopeful about Obama's rhetoric about Medvedyev turning the page somewhat from Putin. This is unlikely to be true in that Putin still calls most of the shots, but it is a convenient excuse for Putin to alter his policies without having to admit to doing so. Just as President Obama can break from Bush without making it look like the USA is giving concessions to the Russians.

All in all, this was probably the most important US-Russian meeting in a dozen years. Both sides are taking the opportunity to replace some areas of confrontation with cooperation.


Is This Palin's Other Shoe Dropping?

I just found this story on Huffington Post. In it Geoffrey Dunn claims that a conservative watch dog type from Palin's home town has filed a complaint with Alaskan authorities contending that Palin has been claiming travel/hotel per diems from the state and cashing them even though she was only traveling to her own home. The story quotes a series of technical details to this alleged violation. The story also mentions a series of state and federal tax penalties that have recently been imposed on Palin.

I don't think it's unreasonable to think that Palin got wind of this new complaint last week (the accuser is a fellow conservative from her home town).

We'll see if this proves to be just another web rumor or an actual story.


Meanwhile Back in China

BBC is reporting widespread violence in Xinjiang province in western China. This is the province with the Uyghurs and oil. The people who live here are not the same ethnicity as the dominant groups of Han Chinese who live in the more populated eastern coastal areas. Xinjiang is populated largely (there has certainly been significant Han migration to the region over the years) by various Turkic groups like the Uyghurs.


Robert McNamara is Dead

Robert McNamara is dead. McNamara, born in Oakland, CA, will be largely known (and reviled) for his role in the US war in Vietnam (he was secretary of defense for JFK and LBJ). McNamara was also on the staff for Curtis Le May during the bombing of civilian targets in Japan during World War II.

But McNamara was a complicated villain. He did good things too. When he was an executive at Ford, he pushed for making seat belts standard for safety reasons. By the time he was tapped to be Secretary of Defense for JFK, he was President of Ford and one of the highest paid executives in the world. After leaving the Johnson administration, he was the director of the World Bank, an IGO dedicated to the alleviation of world poverty, for years. Before World War II, McNamara was one of the youngest professors of economics at Harvard.

Basically, this is a man that - regardless of what you think of him - achieved three or four things any one of which would make him the most interesting person in the room to talk to in almost any room you can think of. He's also recently famous for the documentary, Fog of War. It is a long interview about the morality and rationality of war and decision making. It's really fascinating and thought provoking and I strongly encourage you all to watch it.


Sunday, July 05, 2009

Thinking about Sarah Palin (Again)

Sarah Palin's cover story for her resignation simply makes no sense. I don't know why she or anyone thought it would. A person who serves only one term is a "lame duck" unless they intend to or can run again? So every termed-out politician is a lame duck? Really? It is revealing if she thinks so, or thinks that it makes sense to say so. The purpose of serving is to be able to run again... fascinating. Why exactly is she resigning at this random point in time? Nothing she has said is plausible. The reason must be something else.

Is it that she intends to run for President? I hear this, but I can't believe it. How could it hurt her to finish her term of Governor of Alaska in 2010- to complete her only political job besides Mayor of Wasilla - if she intends to run for president two full years later? Even in Iowa, presidential politics won't really start until after the 2010 midterms. And it's not like running Alaska is that a hard a job, really. It's got fewer inhabitants than San Francisco and no real budgetary problems. Don't buy it that she's doing it to run for President. Makes no sense.

Run for Senator in 2010? Well, that could be true. There's no love lost between her and Lisa Murkowski. The Alaska primary appears to be in August 2010. Perhaps Sarah Palin is waiting for Lisa Murkowski to put her foot in it (she has leaned to the center during her career) and use that as an excuse to challenge her. Then she could run for President in 2016 from the Senate seat - or rather, she could resign her "lame duck" senate seat in 2014 and run... Still, it seems odd not to run for the Senate post from a better seat, say, from the Governor's mansion? Why let another ambitious Alaskan get that seat (Parnell- see below).

Is the idea to put Parnell in the Governor's seat? Parnell tried to take on Don Young in an intra-primary challenge. Don Young is Alaska's only representative in the H of R. He almost lost in the 2008 election to a Democrat, so he is vulnerable. Why tie down Parnell? So he can't run for Senate or Rep? But if he wanted to, why not as incumbent Governor? I don't see it.

I don't see, in other words, any damned decent political reason for Sarah Palin to resign. The only thing that makes sense is scandal. I just wonder if, when Todd Palin asked his wife whether she was going to abort or carry the down's syndrome child, she didn't respond, "What do you care- it's not yours..."


Palin Whines Some More and Threatens Law Suits

Palin is now upset that other politicians get to quit their jobs for the good of the country but she doesn't. She claims its a double standard. Saying she was answering a "higher calling," Palin claims that her resignation is "about country." She is blaming the "main stream media" for the generally confused and/or negative response to her latest stunt. She's even got her lawyer seemingly threatening legal action against a blogger for blogging about rumors about the real reason Palin is resigning from elected, high office so suddenly and with little in the way of coherent explanation.

If she isn't about to quit politics entirely, this resignation makes no sense to me at all. If her political instincts are so bad that she thought that leaving office with a year and a half left in her first term would do anything to improve her image as a flakey light weight, then her instincts are terrible. The resignation and subsequent rambling and flailing about by Palin herself is so bizarre as to make it nearly impossible for her to recover anything like a serious reputation among any but her most ardent supporters.

If she is about to quit politics entirely then why is she still fighting with the press? All they are reporting is that people are confused about her resignation. If they are, it is only because Palin has not given anything like a coherent explanation for her motives. If there are rumors about corruption it is only because she and her husband, self appointed working class heros, live in a 3500 sq ft house valued at over a half a million dollars built on the salary of a small town mayor and guy who bounces from temporary job to temporary job - sometimes a fisherman, sometimes an oil field worker, sometimes a construction worker. This palatial life-style was built up while raising five kids. It's natural that there will be rumors even if it is all above board. If it is all above board, release the financial statements and have done with it. Why keep lashing out???

I must say though, that I think Sarah Palin is barely qualified (by dint of her erratic and arrogant personality) to be president of my neighborhood association, let alone mayor of my town or governor of my state. So when she says she is resigning for the good of Alaska and the good of the country, I can absolutely agree with her that her quitting is good for the community.


Saturday, July 04, 2009

Rumors About Palin Zeroing In On Something

Hi Everyone,

So I found this story on Chicago's Fox affiliate website. If you don't trust Fox reporting (who can blame you) here is a story from left-of-center Mark Blumenthal that says basically the same thing. In it, they raise two items.

First, that the motive for Palin's sudden resignation is that she is about to be accused of an making an illegal deal with an Alaska construction company in which her large home was built using their materials (for free) in exchange for then Mayor Palin granting the company the contract for the over sized sports complex that wrecked Wasilla's finances. This story has been around for a while. Indeed, it was one of the first series of negative stories about Palin way back in August of 2008.

The second item they raise is that there are rumors coming out now that Palin has told her close friends that she is dropping out of politics entirely.

Dr. S. I agree with you about politics most of the time and even when I don't I respect your positions (even if I can come off a bit dismissive rhetorically). That said, I do think the time may be coming when you will have to concede that McCain's appointment of Palin as his running mate was not visionary, bold, or a "hail Mary" but rather a desperate, ill considered and irresponsible decision by an ambitious man with poor judgement and a mediocre mind. She is about to be shown to be, at best, a thin skinned prima donna who can't stand the heat on the national political scene (compare her response to press criticism to Obama's response to the Rev. Wright scandal). At worst, she is a hypocritical, corrupt and not very bright local politician who rose a level or two beyond that of her competence because of her looks and public speaking appeal.


Biden Gets It Right

So CNN is running a small story today that I think is worth mentioning on the 4th of July. While presiding over a citizenship ceremony for a group of soldiers who are naturalizing today (it is actually quite common for immigrants to use the military as a path to citizenship), Biden said, "As corny as it sounds, damn I'm proud to be an American. Thanks for choosing us. You are why America is strong."

Biden said this to a group of military people naturalizing after years of serving in the Army or Marines etc. But the same sentiment is appropriate for any immigrant. It is fitting to think about immigrants on the 4th of July. Where would the United States be today without immigrants like Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, John Paul Jones, and eight (out of 56) signers of the declaration of independence.


Friday, July 03, 2009

Big Scandal in Alaska

No, I don't know what the scandal is yet, but for Sarah Palin to resign so unexpectedly, something has got to be up. Talking Points Memo has the full coverage.

Until then, what is the scandal about? Any guesses?


Lessons from the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primaries

It has been over a year now since the most expensive and perhaps the closest Democratic primary season in history. Last weekend a Democratic party committee met to consider changes for future contests. So I guess it was on my brain again. As best as I can write it, here are the lessons I would draw from the 2008 campaign.

1. Our view of legitimacy has definitely changed. A century ago it was considered perfectly legitimate for the delegates to the quadrennial convention to select the party's nominee. That authority has now passed entirely to the voters. To be considered legitimate, the party's nominee must be chosen in a fair contest by the voters alone. Anything else will damage the party and the nominee.

2. Our view of what constitutes a fair contest is refreshingly flexible. We are comfortable with primaries, caucuses, and hybrids--and these contests may be open or closed. We are comfortable having different systems in different states. The polls may be open for different hours, or on different days, and the states may vote at any time in any order. The state delegation may be winner-take-all, or proportional to the statewide vote, or to the county-wide vote, or anywhere in between. We accept formulas for state representation at the national level that are not necessarily proportional to state population or state party membership.

3. Nevertheless, three attributes are essential to a fair and legitimate contest: the election rules must be fixed reasonably well beforehand, the formulas for allocating delegates must provide for reasonably equal representation for all voters across all states, and the entire system must be implemented in an effective and transparent manner. For example, it is sensible to postpone an election due to inclement weather, but the rules for doing so must be understood in advance, the rescheduling process must be handled in the open, and there must be adequate funding and personnel to handle the changes.

4. I use the word "reasonably" because we all understand the need for a little wiggle room here and there, but the litmus test for any election rule is very simple: If the election ultimately comes down to that rule, would the American public consider the outcome fair? Two much-discussed aspects of the current Democratic primary process fail this simple litmus test: (a) Superdelegates, uncommitted delegates, unpledged delgates, etc.; and (b) reducing, eliminating, or augmenting a state's voting rights as a punishment or reward. If Hillary had won because the superdelegates all lined up behind her to overrule the pledged delegates, or if Obama had won solely because Florida's delegates were disqualified, that would have been a nightmare.

5. To the extent that the rules for a contest are considered fair and clear, that contest may be very close but still satisfyingly decisive. Michael Phelps can legitimately win a gold medal by a millisecond because the rules are exceptionally fair and clear in his sport. Likewise, Obama may not have won hands-down but he unquestionably came in first. The rules were just barely good enough to avoid a Florida 2000 or Minnesota 2008 situation. The big lesson is this: we need to improve the rules so the outcome will remain clear even when the race is much closer. Because someday it will be... And given how close elections are getting to be these days, that "someday" may be sooner than we think.


Thursday, July 02, 2009

Why Republicans Don't Get The Sanford Problem

So I've been hearing a number of Republicans, Lindsey Graham and to a lesser extent Bill Bennet for example, who have said that Governor Mark Sanford's political career is only salvageable if he reconciles with his wife. This implies the real problem is the infidelity. It's not. There are two problems here. First, there is this politicized moralizing. It's asinine. No one can really live the way these Christian Politicians say they want. Second, there is fraud. Sanford has been accused of using public monies to finance his trysts with Evita or whatever her name is. And now he's refusing to turn over his travel records (three guesses why). But the Republicans are mainly upset about the sexual infidelity.

This is an interesting difference between Republican voters and Democratic voters. Democratic voters are forgiving of Democrats who get caught with their pants down but not those who get caught in financial scandals. Republicans think that a little shady financial dealing on the side is the next thing to civil disobedience but are ruthlessly unforgiving about sex scandals. If the only the Democrats had against the Republican leadership in 2006 was Henry Hyde's real estate deals, it would only have been a marginal thing and might not have had much national impact. But the pages sex scandal was a nuclear torpedo below the water line for Republicans because it demoralized the base and kept them home in 2006 - leading directly to the HUGE win for Democrats that year.


Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Individual Environmentalism and Climate Change

So I got to wondering how much excess carbon was created by my daughter's diapers. Lots of websites will try to frighten you about the nonbiodegradable nature of disposable diapers, but they don't say much in specifics. There's all this desire to have cloth diapers and lots of ecotastic websites touting their virtues, or more specifically the virtues of those who choose to use them.

I finally found an answer on a website for Nature Babycare diapers that says that your child produces a half ton of diapers for every year of life. I presume this figure is a good goalpost to use because it is meant to scare you into buying their diapers - it is highly unlikely that it is an understatement. So even four years of diapers is two tons of material. Now, two tons of sh*t seems like a lot, but you have to think in terms of carbon offsets. The carbon offset credit you can buy at many places is about $100 for 5 tons of carbon. Even assuming that the diapers are all carbon (if only...) that doesn't seem like such a big deal. Balanced against the sanitation benefit and convenience, disposable diapers seem like a great bang-for-the-buck. In fact, I would wager that there are few disposable products that have such a favorable cost-benefit environmental balance as disposable diapers.

The bigger problem is that so many diapers fill up landfills and are not biodegradable. But here's the hitch: NOTHING really biodegrades in landfills, where the atmosphere is anaerobic. According to the goverment website I linked to, landfills are normally designed to be nonreactive, to prevent stinky rotting which is what biodegrading consists of unless you have a nice compost pile. And our garbage isn't so nice. So even biodegradable products, when thrown away, normally compost, i.e., won't biodegrade if thrown away.

So this all led me to think about green myths. We know that a lot of recycled material that you put in your green bin is actually just thrown away by the municpality, not recycled. I get the sense that big business has encouraged all kinds of hippy-dippy green-ness and individual feel-good recycling to distract us from the real problems: massive agricultural and industrial pollution. The individual consumer takes the blame. Clever. Not so clever.