Saturday, January 30, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Allow me to weigh in briefly. I would like to be utterly tactless. No person, especially one who is self declared 'person of faith,' is going to lecture me about fantasy and lies." Sullivan reader, on the contention that masturbation is a sin because it "is a distortion or absence of reality. In other words, it is a lie."

Friday, January 29, 2010

More of this, Please

Obama and Congressional Republicans on C-Span, debating issues outlined in the State of the Union speech and elsewhere. Sullivan compiles some reactions. Highlights:

Matthew Yglesias:

Barack Obama is a lot smarter and better-informed than his antagonists. A lot. He very calmly and coolly dismantled them.

To me, personally, it’s not a surprise. I debated policy with Mike Pence once and the guy is a stone-cold idiot. That was a years ago and I’ve been surprised since then to learn that conservatives consider him an unusually sharp policy mind and I take leading rightwingers at their word about that. But it’s the kind of thing that I think most Americans aren’t aware of.

Ezra Klein:

Yesterday, I interviewed David Axelrod and was struck by his inability to explain how the White House would highlight the the difference between disagreement and
obstruction. Today's session, if it becomes a regular event rather than a one-off, provided part of the answer. He'll debate them directly. But that may be tough to do. Republicans are
already spreading the word that they made a mistake allowing cameras into the event. Apparently, transparency sounds better in press releases than it does in practice.
Mike Madden:
The whole thing basically went like [this]: Republican asks obnoxious question rooted in Glenn Beck-ian talking points; Obama swats it away, makes the questioner look silly, and then smiles at the end. It got so bad, in fact, that Fox News cut away from the event before it was over.
Well, duh. I read the transcript of the exchange rather than watch the video. Obama and the Republicans came across as congenial, respectful, and even light-hearted. I think there was a sincere effort to reach out there. I want to see more of these exchanges going on, with different Congressional representatives each time. I want to see far left Democrats mix it up with the President as well. And I want it all on TV. But if Klein is right that the GOP feels they got the short end of that exchange, we can probably predict this was a one-off, not a one-of.

Intervention Needed?

Last month I wrote that Americans have a too-complex life:
We don't want to have to consider the implications of our actions when delaying even a brief moment might mean an interruption to our way of life. This is why Bush told us, right after 9/11 and once the massive airline disruption ended, to go shopping and live our lives normally. Granted there is some therapeutic value to doing just that, but in that single but profound act of denial that something is fundamentally wrong if Muslims want so badly to kill innocent American civilians, I think we set a dangerous pathology on course to cause massive, collective delusion. I think America as a country is suffering from PTSD! But the more we try to deny our malady by ignoring the means to get to the ends, the more polarized our country becomes.

Daniel Larison analyzes the tactics-over-strategy approach of the Republicans:
Republicans have been treating temporary, tactical political victories as if they were far more significant, strategic victories, when, in fact, they have no political strategy worth mentioning. This is how many Republican hawks have approached problems in Iraq and Afghanistan. Especially in Iraq, the strategy has always been unclear, unrealistic or even non-existent, so there is great emphasis on finding tactics that “work” to make a basically incoherent policy seem successful on the surface.

But Andrew sums up the Republicans' delusional actions beautifully:
On every single major issue of the day, they are incoherent. They have no workable plans to insure the uninsured and no practical way to contain healthcare costs; most deny climate change even exists; most seek to prolong wars because ... er, we have to be tough; their response to the massive debt is to defend Medicare and call for tax cuts; their position on civil rights is that gay people need to go to Jesus; their position on terror suspects is to detain them and torture them, violating domestic and international law; their position on immigration is to round up millions and force them to go home.
Like Andrew, I am concerned that there are too many Americans who are resigned to living in a world devoid of contact with reality, so long as they get to shop, play golf, watch ESPN and reality TV, and rail against the "liberal elites" who are driving America straight to hell. They'll elect people to office who reflect their "values" so long as government -- or what's left of it -- stays out of their lives, and fuck anyone who can't make it on his/her own.

I think an international intervention is needed. We need the leaders and citizens of other countries, from Europe to Africa to Asia, to confront America, the (once) Land of the Free and (former) Home of the Brave, the (still) Beautiful land that I love. We need to be told how our actions (and inaction) is killing the planet, killing thousands/millions of people all over the world, and bankrupting other nations. We're addicted to power/oil/Jesus/debt/sex/food, we're killing ourselves, and we need help.

Save us from our selves. Someone please come up with a media solution that puts Fox News out of business. Someone promote and defend a political philosphy that makes modern Republicanism obsolete. Someone show that Jesus was just a Jewish carpenter, and that there is just one God that sees us all equally. And someone figure out a way to make money less important.

Sanity in Kansas

A jury in Wichita deliberated for just over half an hour before convicting Scott Roeder of murdering Dr. George Tiller in the foyer of Tiller's church. Los Angeles Times story here.

Roeder, the only witness called by the defense, said he felt relief after shooting Tiller on May 31.

After the murder, he drove toward Kansas City, stopping for a pizza along the way. Roeder had wanted to claim the crime was justifiable homicide, based on his belief that abortion -- in every case -- is murder. But Sedgwick County Judge Warren Wilbert said he could not claim he acted out of necessity. Abortion rights groups became alarmed when Roeder's attorneys asked the judge to allow the jury to consider convicting Roeder of voluntary manslaughter. At the end of testimony Thursday, Wilbert ruled that the jury could only consider premeditated, first-degree murder.

To paraphrase Louis XIV (or Madame de Pompadour): Après lui, le déluge. Look for anti-choice terrorists to step it up, not back down.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

SOTU Reaction

A reader writes:

It's funny how you interpreted "that's how budgeting works". That comment scared me to death to think that we have a president who had just outlined how he was going to spend like crazy in 2010 (as he did in 2009) with the "promise" to freeze spending in 2011. That scares the hell out of me. That is NOT how budgeting works. It's not how it works in my home or my business. Sure, he'll freeze spending after all the handouts he's been dishing out the last year.
Typical "conservative" reaction. First of all, that is how budgeting works on a government level. You create a budget that takes effect in the following fiscal year. It doesn't work like that in households or small businesses in most cases because we are more agile than any governmental body. We can turn on a dime. In big businesses, like the one I work for, some things can be stopped immediately, like shutting off payroll for a ton of employees, but other things, like strategic moves, are rarely incorporated into a current budget without causing disruption in other places that might not tolerate it.

And it's also typical of non-thinking Republicans to call TARP bailout money a "handout." I'm pretty sure that Obama did not want to bail out those who spent money to help McCain win the White House using money from taxpayers who voted for him. It wasn't good politically; it was necessary. It's just hard for me to fathom how people think that letting AIG or Citi fail would somehow be good economic sense. That's non-thinking; that's uneducated regurgitation of Fox News/Republican National Committee talking points, that make no sense at all, that aren't grounded in anything real.

I just shake my head.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

SOTU Reaction

I watched Obama's speech during dinner (much to the wife's dismay) and finished up after we got the kids to bed and after American Idol (priorities, please!). I was struck by the tone Obama took through much of it, as if to dare the Republicans to call him out. What I heard were a couple of harumphs, some coughs. What I saw -- distinctly -- was John McCain saying "bullshit" or "blaming it on Bush" after one particular comment Obama made, and Joe Lieberman (an Independent in name only) say something like "Here we go, here we go" with a look of utter disdain on his face.

One of my favorite moments was when, after discussing how budget initiatives would take place in 2011, he looked directly at the Republican side of the chamber and said, "That's the way budgeting works." In fact, he did a lot of looking at that side of the room, first to coax a little smile out of them, maybe a chuckle, but he knows that that side of the room is full of people who want nothing better than to send him back to Chicago in 2012. In reality -- that place where Obama lives and that Republicans fear -- Obama has no friends in the other party, and he knows it. What he has is a group of opportunistic nihilists who want to undo and undermine everything he plans to do or has already done. It's that simple. They don't want cooperation or bipartisanship; when they say "cooperation," they mean "do it our way." When they say "bipartisanship," they mean, as John Boehner said this morning on NPR, that the "balance needs to shift" to their side. Well, Obama sure made it clear to Senate Republicans that he won't stand for their nonsense:
If the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.
But enough about the enemy -- let's talk about the Democrats. In particular, the Democrats in the Senate. Sullivan commented: "I've noticed a lot of praise for the House tonight. The subtle message is that the Senate is the place where reform is being killed; and the lobbyists have more of a grip on the Senate." Their cowardice is palpable. In fact, Obama called them out for "running for the hills" since the loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate Seat. As if 59 votes can't get the job done. Ah, but this is where Obama hit guys like Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, and others:
Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants should not be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual Senators.
I was also struck, as others were, by how relaxed Obama seemed, despite the daggers that were being hurled at him by a contemptuous Republican caucus. It's a reminder to those who voted for him (and a wake up call to those who didn't) that we have a serious president who is deeply committed to his job, who puts Americans before his political success, and who doesn't suffer foolishness gladly. And he does all that without getting dirty and without bile. In a way, he's like a political version of Bill Cosby, who can elicit howls of laughter without dropping a single four-letter word on his audience.

Before this speech, I felt like he had his eye on the ball, and it was the rest of us who had forgotten why we'd voted for him. And I still feel the same way. I felt so hopeful when I heard him say:
Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved. But I wake up every day knowing that they are nothing compared to the setbacks that families all across this country have faced this year.
This is truly a man who owns his wins and accepts the reality that men -- people -- fuck up.

"Just Give Me the Ball"

Ezra Klein's column today in the Washington Post is worth reading in full, particularly for this telling passage:
Pessimists, however, point to a very different narrative. Obama, they say, has not shown himself a fighter for his policy commitments. His time as a national figure was short, adulatory and unmarred by hard causes or lonely battles. During the primary campaign, he was battered by John Edwards and Hillary Clinton on social policy, surviving mainly on the strength of his personal narrative and his opposition to the war in Iraq. His strategy on health care was to compromise with industry, compromise with Congress, and seek the path of maximal consensus, which has resulted in an ugly bill that doesn't excite supporters and doesn't comfort voters. This is all, they say, part of a pattern of conflict-aversion that the president's supporters have refused to acknowledge.

This is a load of horse shit. First of all, the obvious: a guy runs for President who served less than a full term as a US Senator, who lacked what many believed (especially "real leaders" like Sarah Palin) was solid "executive" experience, and who happens to be a member of an ethnic minority that was persecuted in this country up until about 45 years ago, suffers from "conflict aversion?" That's just insane.

Secondly, Obama has absolutely fought for his policy commitments. In the first year, he has faced a gigantic opposition from the other side against further stimulus, stimulus that has created 1.2 million jobs since being implemented and has staved off an international financial meltdown and a depression. And he has won that fight so far. He has overcome opposition in his own party for a surge of troop strength in Afghanistan, fulfilling a campaign promise to re-focus our war efforts in the place where terrorism is a real problem. This is the low-hanging fruit? Please!

The perception that he is risk-averse is because he's open to making deals with whomever will work with him. This is not, in any world where reason actually resides, a sign of weakness, of a rudderless ship, or of a refusal in the White House to lead. In my eyes, success always comes when one actually detaches from the outcome and trusts that the Universe will deliver the goods. One need only be open to the infinite possibilities of what that success might look like. this is not a cop-out to not fight for your vision; but facts on the ground always require a re-examination of that vision and adjustments to that vision. The opposite of what Obama is doing is perfectly illustrated in Republican's dogged refusal to allow Obama success in any area, or the far left's screams to kill the healthcare bill (and jumping into bed with the likes of Grover Norquist!) rather than allow it to pass without a public option. You want to see risk-averse behavior? Feast your eyes on those two factions, who would actually settle for doing nothing rather than do the hard work of doing something.

Let Them Filibuster -- For Real This Time

A Colorado-based political scientist is worried:
A truly effective filibuster could theoretically shut down the Senate for the rest of the year. Congressional Dems and the Obama administration actually want to get some other stuff passed this year while they still have a (large) majority.Finally, a true filibuster today probably wouldn't involve a whole lot of phone book-reading. ... Today, there are dozens of policy shops and hundreds of conservative writers who could generate days and days of material for filibustering Republicans to read. Fox would likely televise many of the speeches live and portray the filibuster as a great patriotic act. If anything, the Republicans would control the discussion during a
filibuster more than they do now.
Sullivan makes a good point:
Remember the government shut-down? It backfired.
I say let the Republicans knock themselves out. I would hope that someone could force them to grandstand on C-Span, Fox, the network news, etc. In the end it would cost them dearly. Voters may have little confidence that Congress can't get anything done, but it would be another thing entirely to see, live on TV, that members of Congress were basically abdicating their responsibilities to millions of Americans on both sides of our political chasm to whip out their Johnsons and see whose is bigger.

Doofus Dissent of the Day

A Sullivan reader illustrates perfectly what's wrong with "true conservatism" today. Money quote from the reader:
The brazen abuse of a crisis to pursue an ideological agenda instead of resolving the deep fiscal crisis faced by this government is what has caused the severe reaction against Obama. You should be ashamed of yourself for not screaming STOP to this madness.

Oh, you mean the deep fiscal crisis inherited by Obama, but brought about by an utter lack of appreciation for sensible government regulation in the financial sector at the hands of the Bush administration? And, of course, you couldn't be talking about how Bush and Cheney used the crisis of a terrorist attack on American soil, at the hands of Islamist extremists operating in Afghanistan and financed by Saudis, to implement regime change in Iraq, to perform wholesale sweeps of any swarthy male under 30 only to torture hundreds to death in exchange for no material intelligence, to conduct unprecedented searches of private citizens without warrant, and to proclaim that the president is a proto-fascist dictator who can decide for himself when he and all he commands is above the rule of law, could you?

Sullivan's retort:
It is as if the right has become so ideologically calcified they cannot see what is in front of their noses. And so they concoct a fantasy world in which Obama is the leftist spender - rather than what he is, a pragmatic reformer in a desperate situation caused in part by conservatism's ideological over-reach.

Look, the fact is very simple: you cannot cut your way to balance a $1.3 trillion budget deficit when defense and Medicare, the budget's two most sacrosanct elements, are off limits. When we were at war in WWII, FDR and the government got buy-in from all Americans to cut back on essentials and buy war bonds. In other words, they financed the war from taxpayers. Since income taxes were in infancy at the time and since they are now too high as it is, it makes sense to borrow to finance our shortfall at this time. But, as Barlett repeatedly says, at some point we'll have to raise revenue, and the most conservative way to do that is a Value-Added Tax (VAT). Funny that the biggest objections to a VAT are being voiced by Republicans.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Us vs. Them

David Brooks writes a sensible op-ed faulting populism for what's wrong with this country's politics and what will set this country on the wrong track:

[Populists] can’t seem to grasp that a politics based on punishing the elites won’t produce a better-educated work force, more investment, more innovation or any of the other things required for progress and growth.

In fact, this country was built by anti-populists. It was built by people like Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln who rejected the idea that the national economy is fundamentally divided along class lines. They rejected the zero-sum mentality that is at the heart of populism, the belief that economics is a struggle over finite spoils. Instead, they believed in a united national economy — one interlocking system of labor, trade and investment.

Brooks spends an inordinate amount of time bashing populists on the left and not enough time punishing those on the right. In truth, populism, the way it's frequently used in this country, is the politics of opportunism; anytime there's a convenient scapegoat, one group can blame another in order to advance their agenda. For years, it has been nihilistic Republicans who have blamed everything from pacifists, gays, and anti-Christians for the sorry state of American society. In fact, the current crop of GOP senators and congressmen are well-steeped in the persecuted Christian meme, even though they occupied the White House and both houses of Congress for years. This is one of the main reasons I am amazed that any non-Christians can call themselves Republican. Intellectuals on the right (and I use that term very loosely) hide behind populism, knowing it's just a means to their end of permanent conservative power in all levels government. Conspiracy theory? Nuts.

Meanwhile, Democrats aren't immune either. Witness Obama's hit on banks. It has all the trappings of populism ("While we pump billions in aid to keep them from failing, they are paying themselves billions in fat bonus checks. Now it's their turn to pay.") As sensible as Obama's plan is, it nevertheless appeals to a broad base of people who are mad at the big banks, and who are moving their money into small, local banks in protest.

And I've engaged in class warfare myself (see my attack on the ruling Christianist class above and in many other places on my blog). There needs to be someone to blame, right? Well, as Brooks says, "If [populists] continue their random attacks on enterprise and capital, they will only increase the pervasive feeling of uncertainty, which is now the single biggest factor in holding back investment, job creation and growth." Maybe. But populism, used correctly and focused with real data and with the power of reasonable voter anger (not the tea-bagger right, by the way), can be very effective in creating sensible policy (Clinton's welfare reform package, Obama's healthcare reform).

Monday, January 25, 2010

Deja Vu All Over Again...

Obama has been taking serious flak from both right and left. In particular, those on the left who feel he has abandoned the base of the party. Sullivan shows two different complaints about the president: the first from an independent who voted for Obama, and the second from an opponent of FDR's New Deal as anti-working man. The tenor of each is eerily familiar.

In Obama we have a president who has eschewed the nihilism of the past eight years in favor of a reasoned approach to actual governance. In proposing bold legislation for health-care reform, in proposing the closing of Gitmo, in crafting cap-and-trade legislation to combat global warming, Obama has taken the path that to do nothing would harm the country in ways that we can't even imagine at this point. Health care, as it stands, is unsustainable. Killing the legislation, in the way Republicans are hell-bent, is just plain cruel to Americans who are one emergency room visit away from bankruptcy or to small business owners who can't provide health insurance coverage for their employees. Gitmo is a symbol of America's past obsession with 24-style torture techniques, as though every person held in that facility held knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack and needed to be tortured nearly to death in order to get that information; its continued existence is a rallying point for jihadist recruiters all over the world. Closing it will heal relations with the Muslim community everywhere, beyond the healing that happened after Obama's stunning Cairo speech. And cap-and-trade is a practical, down-the-middle approach to global warming that acknowledges the difficulty of a carbon tax while reminding businesses that there has to be some serious commitment to cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions, some serious thinking beyond the asinine simplicity of "Drill Baby, Drill." Obama's commitment to these complex issues is a frank statement that he doesn't really care if he's only a one-term president.

His major flaw, however, is that he has gotten lost in the weeds of these projects. His electrifying campaign speeches are a distant memory, in contrast to the quiet wonk we have seen the past year. He seems content, as Fareed Zakaria puts it, to behave "as the head of the Democratic Party in Congress, working almost entirely with and through that caucus, slicing and dicing policy proposals to cobble together legislative majorities." And I have previously championed this approach. Congress is, after all, the body responsible for actually legislating. But my support of letting the three branches operate as intended doesn't mean I'm content to let Obama abdicate his responsibility to lead. His speech last week in Ohio was a taste of what can be when a president steps up to the microphone or in front of the camera and delivers directly to the people a vision, a commitment, in terms that sustain our confidence and faith in leadership.

In my job, I don't look to the senior executives who run the company to explain to me how to sell mortgages or even what new systems are being put in place to make my job easier. What I expect from them is a broad vision of what's working and not working company-wide and where the company is headed, as well as some nugget of what's in it for me and my family.

So, with Obama's State of the Union speech coming this Wednesday at a most opportune time, I am looking to see how President Obama will outline his vision for the next year, his message to Congress about what he expects from them, and his restated commitment to fight for all Americans, regardless of politics (and with healthcare reform alone, he has done that).

Limbaugh's Conscience Awakens?

Judge for yourself:

I don't enjoy anything. I don't even want to be here. The sadness and regret I feel every waking hour of my life is absolutely unbearable. I am a miserable pig and I do not want to exist.

The irony is that, even if I did die, the hell I would surely be sent to could not possibly be any worse than the bottomless pool of excrement I already paddle around in like some demented, shit-covered walrus. In fact, every time I hear my voice coming through the headphones I nearly gag, and I think, "What the fuck am I doing?" Why would I say that Michael J. Fox is faking his Parkinson's symptoms? Why would I find it funny to play a song called "Barack the Magic Negro"? Why would I tell people not to give aid to Haiti? What the fuck is wrong with me?

One can hope, of course.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Video of the Month

Not suitable for work due to strong language, but hilarious.

Road Runner Funny Clip - Funny blooper videos are here

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Supremes Got it Right

Glenn Greenwald explains why the majority opinion in the Citizens United case was correct. Money quote:
The "rule of law," however, means that if the Constitution or other laws bar X, then X is not allowed regardless of how many good outcomes can be achieved by X. That was true for the "crisis" of Terrorism, and it's just as true for the crisis of corporate influence over our political process. Whatever solutions are to be found for either problem, they cannot be ones that the Constitution explicitly prohibits. That's what "the rule of law" means.
So, for example, this means that just because torture gets us actionable intelligence (and even that is debatable), because it's prohibited under the Constitution via our ratification of the Geneva Conventions means that torture is illegal and never justified under any circumstances.

However, Greenwald's central argument in this post is that none of the nine justices advocated a view that corporations are not persons entitled to free speech, and that how a corporation spends its money on political issues is not speech. On the contrary, even the dissenters in the case did not argue those points. What they argued is that there is a "compelling state interest" in restricting a corporation's free speech rights: namely, the corrupting influence of corporate money, which required regulating how they got to spend their money (which led to the creation of PACs into which corps could direct their money). But that objection, as Greenwald points out, leads to one restricting any type of corporate speech, not just the political or ideological type. Restricting corporate speech because of the corrupting influence of money can lead a state to restrict advertisements for food products that make us fat, since it can also be argued that there's a compelling state interest in fighting obesity. (I am aware that we currently regulate advertisements for cigarettes, but I'm not so certain that such regulations are constitutional. In fact, I'd be a bit surprised if Big Tobacco didn't try now to argue in court that restrictions on their advertising should be lifted.)

The central argument of many people opposed to the Citizens case seems to be that big corporations and their bottomless pit of resources will tip the balance of power toward those who will promise to further the causes of corporations (or cause, meaning profit). Well, maybe. But while the Constitution does not expressly declare that corporations are persons with rights, case law throughout US history does. And corporate speech which advocates political views of any particular slant should not be restricted because the First Amendment prohibits it.

This is not to see that I disagree with the argument that the corrupting influence of money does have an impact on the outcomes of elections. I agree with that. But the law does not allow the state to restrict speech because we think it will create an undesirable result (with some narrow exceptions for violence or even narrower ones for obscenity). I think this should embolden individuals to coalesce more tightly around their common causes and to vote with their wallets. If, for example, a corporation openly argues a political point you abhor, don't patronize that product, organize boycotts against it, write op-eds, post on blogs and other websites, organize rallies in front of their corporate headquarters and invite the media, etc. That's right: the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case should get us off our asses to fight for the causes we champion.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Narrative of the Day

Andrew Sullivan has run a series of posts on the nihilism of the Republican Party, how their opposition to everything put forth by the president seems to be working for now, and how their strategy will, in the end, mean absolutely nothing.

First post here.

Second post here.

Third (and most telling) post here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Quote of the Day

"For a party whose major competitive advantage over the opposition is its credibility in protecting ordinary people from economic insecurity, anything that compromises that credibility is disastrous." Rick Perlstein, writing for the Boston Globe on November 7, 2004, summing up the 2004 presidential election in which the Democrats sold out their role as the "party of the people."

Prescient, no?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Screw Liberal Cynicism and Conservative Nihilism

From Democracy in America at The Economist:
The Massachusetts election is to a large extent a referendum on health-care reform, and health care is a complicated issue. Some on the left, like Jane Hamsher at FireDogLake, have a health-care position voters can understand: it's all the fault of the insurance companies and Big Pharma. That's not true and leads to no workable solution, but it makes progressives happy to hear it. Scott Brown has a health position voters can understand, too: it's all the fault of big government. That's not true and leads to no workable solution, but it makes conservatives happy to hear it. Barack Obama has a different position: it's the result of a set of systemic problems that need to be changed with a combination of government subsidies, regulations and market incentives, and to have a realistic shot at enacting a reform like that you need to get all the political and industry stakeholders involved and craft a compromise that better serves the public but that everyone can sign off on. That message is political poison, and it now has a significant percentage of the American public calling for his head.

Bullshit. I say bullshit to the cynicism of the Left which can't ever admit that government can get in the way of workable solutions to the nation's problems. I also say bullshit to the nihilism of the Right which can't ever believe that markets sometimes need regulation in order to be more efficient or fairer to all Americans. Obama and Congress fashioned an intelligent solution that addressed the issues on both sides of this issue, and as a result, 30 million more Americans will have to buy health insurance that can't be taken away from them. It's an insurer's wet dream and one that they will just as aggressively fight for when some future Republican president decides to dismantle it as too expensive.

Obama was not wrong when he said that Americans can understand and make sense of complicated legislation and policy matters. If there was a reality show on a network, however, that followed two congressional staffers as they dealt with lobbyists, the public, the media and their congressmen, you can bet people would watch.

Anti-Torture = Pro-Terrorists

That's the only explanation I can imagine for why the Obama Justice Department dismisses the accounts of eyewitnesses to the three Guantanamo murders as presenting "no evidence of wrongdoing."

It's a sad and disgusting fact of American politics, thanks to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, that torturing suspects is acceptable in order to prevent an Islamist from even reaching our shores to cause harm to civilians (oh, wait, didn't that just happen?). So it seems that not even torturing prisoners will prevent attempts at terrorism. In fact, it actually aids recruitment for new bodies to be blown up.

Because torture is acceptable, it's portrayed as pro-terrorism to deny the use of torture to our intelligence and military communities as they try to defend us.

Still, it's not information we're after when we torture them, according to former national security adviser Steven Hadley, being interviewed by pro-torture blogger Marc Thiessen:
"The interrogation techniques were not to elicit information. So the whole argument that people tell you lies under torture misses the point.” Hadley said the purpose of the techniques was to “bring them to the point where they are willing to cooperate, and once they are willing to cooperate, then the techniques stop and you do all the things the FBI agents say you ought to do to build trust and all the rest."
Oh, well, forget everything I've been saying, then! You're just trying to soften them up, break them down, and make it seem like all is lost before you actually sit down over coffee and Korans and "build trust." Beat the holy shit out of them, stuff rags down their throats and put masks over their faces so they can't cry out, deprive them of sleep for weeks, place them naked in freezing cold, douse them repeatedly with freezing cold water, slam their heads against plywood walls, stuff them into boxes no bigger than a large suitcase, suspend them by their wrists in positions so that if they slump over their arms break, and pour water in their mouths and noses so that they feel like they're drowning, and then do it all over again about 183 times ... and then "build trust." I get it now. And if a couple or three of the worst of the worst are killed in the process, no problem. You'll just say they killed themselves and you'll blame some low-level guards for not being at their posts or just goofing off. Slap them on the wrists. Feed Fox News a bunch of lies that the public is only too eager to believe because heaven knows you can't have the world thinking the US was actually violating an international treaty that was ratified and made the law of the land.

"... [we] found no evidence of wrongdoing." This is factually correct, of course.

Here Comes the Flood

No, I'm not referring to the torrential rainstorms we're having here in California, and I'm not referring to that excellent ballad by Peter Gabriel, published on his first solo album and on Robert Fripp's seminal recording Exposure.

I'm referring to the flood of the media predictors of doom after the Democratic Party loses a seat to a Republican in Massachusetts. From TPM to Andrew Sullivan to Bob Cesca to Glenn Greenwald to Jonathan Chait, everyone is weighing in. Sullivan:

As the more honest conservatives (Greenspan, Posner, Bartlett) have noted, the financial crisis was a clear indicator that we need a more active and vigilant government in regulating the financial sector. And when you look at the results of America's hybrid and dysfunctional healthcare system, it is more than clear that the status quo is unsustainable. Yes, this system has pioneered amazing breakthroughs and a pharmaceutical revolution that has transformed lives. But the cost and inefficiency of this is simply staggering. Look at the graph above. If you think it's great, support the GOP. They don't want to change anything, but a few tweaks.

Greenwald, clobbering David Brooks's myopia:

Here we have one of the most common and manipulative tools of the political class: pretending to care about public opinion only when it's consistent with one's own views (it's "worthy of the profoundest respect"), and disregarding it as the irrelevant bile of the ignorant rabble when it's not.

I remember another policy that was even more unpopular with the "American people" than Obama's health care plan. It was called the Iraq War. Throughout 2006 and 2007, overwhelming majorities of Americans were not only opposed to the war, but favored a quick timetable for withdrawal. So intense was the opposition that the Republicans suffered one of the century's most thorough and humiliating midterm election defeats in 2006.

Cesca makes a good point:

I'm wondering if it's even possible for a president to create long-term sustainable change when electoral impatience is so prevalent.

What we're seeing in Massachusetts is an impatience with the economic recovery. Americans are tired of waiting for things to return to the way they were before the

I remember losing my job as a loan underwriter in 1989 due to the evolving S&L crisis, and the aerospace job implosion in Los Angeles, then the Rodney King beating, the riots over the verdicts, the fires in Malibu, the flooding, and the Northridge earthquake. That downturn lasted about nine years. The next major downturn started happening in 2006, about nine years after it started to recover. It is only just starting to feel like a recovery to me, but the jobs are not materializing. They will, but it's going to be slower this time. I think investors -- and let's face it, investors run the economy -- are a little tired of the volatility and are being more careful about where they put their money. I know I am.

Bottom line, the supermajority didn't accomplish jack shit. I think a Republican in the MA Senate seat until 2012 may derail health care reform as Obama envisioned it, but I know that he's not going to stop negotiating. If the Republicans hold firm, however, he can run in 2012 on a platform of the reformist fighting against the "fat cats" who want to keep things just the way they are (and we ALL know that things cannot keep going the way they are). I like his chances in that kind of climate, especially when he can show he's continued to reach out across the aisle.

But I will say this: if the Democrats in Congress cannot pass meaningful healthcare reform this year, then I will call for efforts to unseat all of them, starting with Reid and Pelosi.

The Rule of Law vs. Political Expediency: Which Side are We On?

I managed to get through Scott Horton's fantastic, must-read article for Harper's. In it, Scott reports on the deaths of three Guantanamo prisoners -- two Saudis, one Yemeni -- that were ruled suicides by everyone, from Gitmo's commend to the Pentagon to the State Department to the Justice Department to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). The US media, led by Fox News, bought the story in total.

However, Scott reports that these deaths, which occurred June 9, 2006, may actually have been homicides. Using information obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, a team of students and faculty at Seton Hall University in New Jersey have pieced together information that completely contradicts the NCIS report. In their report released November 2009, they assert that the official story was full of contradictions that have never been acknowledged and that the reconstruction of the events was not credible. Horton writes:
According to the NCIS, each prisoner had fashioned a noose from torn sheets and T-shirts and tied it to the top of his cell’s eight-foot-high steel-mesh wall. Each prisoner was able somehow to bind his own hands, and, in at least one case, his own feet, then stuff more rags deep down into his own throat. We are then asked to believe that each prisoner, even as he was choking on those rags, climbed up on his washbasin, slipped his head through the noose, tightened it, and leapt from the washbasin to hang until he asphyxiated. The NCIS report also proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously.

Standard operating procedure in this part of Gitmo required guards on duty after midnight to "conduct a visual search" of each cell and detainee every 10 minutes. The NCIS report does not explain how the prisoners were able to hang torn sheets and T-shirts, while shaping extra sheets and pillows on their cots to make it appear that they were asleep when their allotment of linens is also tightly controlled. The report also did not explain how the men managed to hang undetected for more than two hours.

Two guards who were on duty that night came forward to the Seton Hall faculty who led the investigative team. One in particular was Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman. Here's how Horton describes him:
Hickman grew up in Baltimore and joined the Marines in 1983, at the age of nineteen. When I interviewed him in January at his home in Wisconsin, he told me he had been inspired to enlist by Ronald Reagan, “the greatest president we’ve ever had.” He worked in a military intelligence unit and was eventually tapped for Reagan’s Presidential Guard detail, an assignment reserved for model soldiers. When his four years were up, Hickman returned home, where he worked a series of security jobs—prison transport, executive protection, and eventually private investigations. After September 11 he decided to re-enlist, at thirty-seven, this time in the Army National Guard.

Hickman had been promoted to staff sergeant after returning to the States and told Horton that that "with a new administration and new ideas I could actually come forward. It was haunting me."

After coming forward, Hickman through his lawyer met with officials in Obama's Justice Department. Their investigation, Horton writes, appears to have been fairly cursory and they have determined that "the gist of Sergeant Hickman's information could not be confirmed." The Justice investigator who communicated with Hickman's lawyer -- who, it should be noted, served under the Bush Justice Department and had "firsthand knowledge of the Justice Department's role in auditing [torture] techniques" -- would not elaborate on what exactly that "gist" was and would not explain why Hickman's conclusions about what happened could not be supported.

If it is true that the Obama Justice Department erred on the side of politics rather than truth and the rule of law in investigating and handling the deaths of these three men, then in my eyes they, including the president, are as guilty of war crimes as Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Gonzalez and Addington and Yoo and Rice. Until the truth can be officially sanctioned by the government, there is no truth except that which they deem to be truth, via their links to a media that is brazenly more concerned with access to people in power than in challenging the statements and actions of those people in the administration of their official duties.

I find the conclusions of Horton's piece deeply troubling. I do not have access to the inner workings of the Justice Department or even the White House. But it is my hope (dimming, though it may be) that Obama is not content to put all that stuff behind us and just move forward. We may be facing serious economic issues and the winding down of two wars, but none of that matters one little bit if the foundations of our country -- our laws, our treaties, and our commitment to freedom -- are followed. Obama needs to open this whole thing up.

Further comment by Atlantic contributor Megan McArdle here.

We have become a torturing nation. We have become barbarians. We have become lawless. We have given into our baser selves, that side of ourselves whose existence we cannot deny but must do all we can to thwart. According to many Americans, we should go so far as denying anyone who looks Arabic or Muslim the ability to ride in public transportation, and we should go so far as dropping tons of bombs on any country that is even suspected of harboring Islamists. All this will keep us safe (and drunk on crude oil too).

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tales from the Dark Side

Andrew Sullivan has (so far) put up three posts today detailing new information regarding torture used at Gitmo that was profiled in an article for Harper's by Scott Horton. These occurrences are said to have happened in 2006 -- long after Bush and Cheney said that all "enhanced interrogation techniques" had stopped at the facility. But these allegations come in part from a former guard at Gitmo, a model Republican who voted for Reagan and re-enlisted, at age 37, in the National Guard. He won numerous awards for his service at Gitmo as well.

I am going to read the Horton article a little later and will possibly have more comment, but Andrew's views on this subject do mirror my own.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Post 1,010

I wanted to send out a special post when I hit 1,000 posts, but I got busy and forgot. So, to all of you who have been reading my rantings and ravings (and, of course, my laser-sharp political insight), thank you for journeying with me through 1,010 posts (so far). This is totally a labor of love, unlike other bloggers who have set up PayPal accounts to take donations from their readerships. One day it would be nice to be paid to think, but with people like Sarah Palin making millions for being a fucking dolt, I don't think intellect will command too much of a premium these days.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Don't Be So Sure

A Sullivan reader disagrees with Andrew's assessment of the danger of Palin:
She is drawing only the Bushites' adoration. They are the ones that feel she is the future of the party, America and perhaps even God himself. They are a small contingency in a shallow pool. For God's sake they still think Bush was a great

But here are the latest Gallup poll figures on Obama compared to last year at this time:

Jan 2010 Jan 2009
Approve 50% 68%
Disapprove 42% 12%

What this tells me is that Obama's unfavorables, which have increased 350% in the past year, could push more and more toward the right. If there is no alternative other than the GOP, then whoever they field will benefit in 2012. If the GOP experiences the schism that I predict will happen, indies might be able to avoid the GOP and keep Palin at bay. Either way, it doesn't look good for Dems.

What's Behind the Mortgage Modification Program?

This Truthdig article reveals something pretty devastating, though perhaps not too surprising: mortgage customers having trouble making their payments, who need a modification to stave off bankruptcy and perhaps even homelessness, are being denied modifications because the owner(s) of the mortgage might actually lose money.

One customer who applied to her lender for a permanent (as opposed to a trial) loan modification was told she was approved and started making the lower payments. She never got any of the promised paperwork to sign. Some weeks later, while talking to customer service on an unrelated matter, she was told that she'd in fact been denied for the modification, and that late charges had accrued on her short payments.

What follows is the big reveal:
When she complained about the late fees (which were eventually canceled), she was passed to a different employee who told her she was being put back into a trial period. She didn’t understand why. Another representative finally told her that she’d been denied because of a negative “Net Present Value” test. The test is the calculation at the center of the Treasury Department’s program: It determines whether the loan’s owner (sometimes the lender, sometimes a mortgage-backed security’s investors) is likely to make more money modifying the loan or not. A negative result means the servicer has no obligation under the program to modify the loan and is a common reason for denial.

So, if the test reveals that the loan's owner will not make money, it's declined. This program was supposed to help the borrower, not necessarily the lender. I understand mortgage investors not wanting to lose money, but that's contrary to the purpose of the program. I can't imagine the architects of this program, in the Obama administration, telling lenders that they don't have to modify any loan if the modification means they'll lose money. But, what I guess this means is that homeowners will only get relief from their loan payments if they walk away from the loan and the lender forecloses. That's apparently the only time a lender will actually concede a loss.

How the Underwear Bomber Got Through Security

Buzzfeed posts the massive TSA fail.

I'd laugh if I could. But even TSA security officers need Mental Health Breaks. Still, you want a Mental Health Break? Take a break and go to the fucking break room.

Abandon Ship

Andrew Sullivan is being a bit hyperbolic in his assessment of the Fox News takeover of the Republican National Committee, but he is not inaccurate. Now that Fox has Sarah Palin, O'Reilly, Beck, and Hannity, plus frequent guests like Dick and Liz Cheney, along with dutiful "journalists" like Brit Hume and Chris Wallace, Fox has the entire GOP base following him. What they do now that they have consolidated their power is to present their nihilistic vision of American government in an effort to derail it in its entirety. What they plan to replace it with is very close to what Andrew describes:
This new political-media conglomerate endorses a supreme executive unrestrained in his or her conduct of the war against Islam (for that is the real import of the Giuliani complaint), and empowered to seize anyone anywhere and torture them in the name of national security. It is also critically connected to the settlement movement in the West Bank - for Palin's vision of more and more Jewish population expanding outwards in that region is part of the plan for the End-Times. Hence its belief in waging war on Iran.
If there is anyone left in America who calls himself a Republican but doesn't buy into this wacko vision of tea-bagger proto-fascism wrapped up in evangelical Christianism, now would be the time to abandon ship and start that third party. I have maintained all along that the Republican Party would experience a profound schism, and the chips have nearly fallen into place. With Republican gains in the House and Senate in 2010, they will become emboldened to push even further to the right, led by a woman who envisions herself as anointed by God to be the next Esther who has the power of the airwaves to brainwash the faithful and prepare them for the war that is to come in 2012. Anyone who thinks she's done with politics doesn't understand her pathology. She craves, craves, craves power.

A DINO-Sore, cont.

Greenwald on Harold Ford, Jr.'s "cringe-inducing New York Times interview yesterday":
[W]hat made Ford's interview so stomach-turning to read was his willingness to say the exact opposite of what he so stridently said during his unsuccessful run for the Senate in Tennessee just three years ago. He's hardly alone in that regard -- Ford's likely primary opponent, Kirsten Gillibrand, instantaneously transformed from right-wing, lobbyist-serving House Blue Dog Democrat into Good Loyal Doctrinaire Progressive upon being appointed to her Senate seat -- but Ford is particularly unskilled in hiding his soullessness. It's just a reminder that most national politicians are so desperate for the petty perks of power that they're willing to publicly humiliate themselves by making it clear that they believe in nothing and are willing to recite whatever will please those around them and those funding them. It's creepy and ugly and explains a lot about our political class.

Which makes Obama refreshing since he largely has stayed consistent with what he campaigned on in 2008.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A DINO-sore

Harold Ford, Jr., a blue-dog Democrat formerly of Tennessee and MSNBC, currently a vice chairman at much-maligned Bank of America, has moved to New York to take on freshman Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to the seat vacated by Hillary Clinton when she became Obama's SecState.

In his first interview with the NY Times, Ford makes a complete ass of himself. Gawker pounces (their italics):

So, just so we're clear, Harold Ford: you want to run for office in New York. You want people in New York to vote for you. Democrats in New York are the people you are trying to appeal to. And, when asked if you prefer the Giants or the Jets, your answer is that you're better friends with the Tisches than with Woody Johnson, so Giants...? That is an insane answer. That is the answer of a man who has not left his bubble of town cars-to-MSNBC and billionaire Democratic donor friends for six years. Harold: name the quarterbacks, not the owners.


Oh, he also defends banker bonuses, and his job-creation program is "a huge-tax cut bill for business people," and also " we need to lower the corporate tax rate from 35 to 25 percent." And: a capital-gains tax cut! That is my favorite kind of economic stimulus!

Let's see him generate enough enthusiasm now to win the primary. More interviews like this, please!

Ford's carpet-bagger candidacy is a purely political play. He's trying to brand himself as an insurgent, answerable to no one (well, no one except Wall Street).

The GOP's Inexorable March, Cont.

Reading through the comments following Frum's analysis of Palin's debut, I was chilled by this exchange from a reader named balconesfault:

[Frum]: 2) Unlike Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich, Palin is much less well informed and much less mentally nimble than O’Reilly and other Fox hosts. Over time, even her most starry-eyed fans will not be able to postpone noticing this.

[Reader] You’re kidding, right? Although I suspect that the converse may end up being true – Palin will over time develop new soundbites from sitting around listening to those around her (I never got the impression she spent much time watching even Fox in the past), and her supporters will tout those revised soundbites as a sign of “growth and command of issues.” You’ve gotta remember that defending Sarah is like defending Biblical inerrancy – you start with the premise that she’s right, and work from there.

Is this really how Palinites view her? Is he already this messianic? Do her people really view her as the one to "restore" America to its true Christian roots? Or do they now care so little that they're just willing to be entertained by her?

The GOP's Inexorable March Into Intellectual Oblivion

And irrelevance.

Palin's debut on Fox was last night. Thankfully, more entertaining stuff was on, like American Idol's season premiere. But some intrepid souls watched, like David Frum, who had this assessment, excerpted nicely by Andrew Sullivan:
The longer she appears on TV, the less she will be “from Alaska” and the more she will be “from Fox.” She’s subsuming her brand into somebody else’s. Not for the first time, one wonders as one looks at the Fox-GOP relationship: who’s working for whom here?

Sullivan's contention is that Fox News's merger with the GOP as its propaganda wing makes the network the premier arbiter of what passes for Republican thought. And this is just what will render the party politically unsustainable. Among any serious people in this country, Fox is a joke, a farce of journalistic practice, and a constant display of the deep division with reality currently inflicting its viewers and those of like mind. And Rupert, the non-American master snake-oil salesman of the 21st century, is laughing all the way to the bank.

Andrew has another take on Palin's Fox gig here. The irony that Palin, who has nothing but contempt for the press, is now free to actually call herself "the press," would be funny if it weren't so threatening, per Andrew. I'm not sure I agree. In putting Palin on the air, Fox is nearly complete with its wall of denial by hitching completely to the leader of the tea party movement. As it plays only to the rabid base of noecons, theocons, birthers, Birchers, and Wal-Mart afficionados, Fox and the GOP shrinks -- maybe not in numbers, but in vision and relevance. It seems their only real idea is that government is so fucked up that perhaps electing enough people on their side who can run it into the ground is the only solution. Sack everything and start over, is that it?

Good luck with that.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Deep Thought

In reading how Sarah Palin believed her selection as veep candidate was in "God's Plan," Sullivan readers voice their opinions. The third selection had this tidbit:
Simply put, nothing short of divine intervention could pull off the miracle of her being named the Veep candidate. ... A person without even a high-school level grasp of history.

Which got me thinking -- I honestly believe that Sarah Palin would make a great contestant on "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" And she would go home with a great big box of parting gifts. And she would go on Facebook and denounce the show as left-wing, elitist, liberal, and out of the mainstream.

Yes, It Has Come to This

Conservative blogger Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs, who lives here in Los Angeles, has found it necessary to relocate to a gated community due to perceived threats against him by readers of his blog. This is because he has publicly "parted ways with the right."

So the right wing nutjobosphere has decided that, if it can't achieve ideological purity by fielding the right right-wing nutjob candidates, they'll just pay a visit to the homes of bloggers they don't like and make them think like they do.

Sounds a little like the Spanish Inquisition.

Monday, January 11, 2010

And Now, For Something Completely Predictable...

... Sarah Palin has joined Fox News as a contributor.

Her quote:
“I am thrilled to be joining the great talent and management team at Fox News. It’s wonderful to be part of a place that so values fair and balanced news.”

My italics. Words fail. This joke of a political figure, the most prominent and influential person in, and the face of, the Republican Party, an unabashed airhead who didn't hold a single press conference while the nominee of her party for Vice President (and to my knowledge has still not held an open press conference), who has cited the bias of the mainstream media as her reasons for banning specific reporters from appearances (all of them freelance bloggers, mind you), now plants her flag at the most popular cable news outlet in the country. As if that isn't mainstream enough for ya.

In light of the fact that Fox News is the propaganda wing of the Republican Party, and the likely source of information for everything Palin knows about the world, it is a match made in Heaven. Part of God's Plan. She'll be making her first appearance this Tuesday on O'Reilly. Be sure to miss it.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Michael Steele, Lying Liar!

TPM reports that RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who is being criticized by his party that his new book is distracting him from his work, now claims that he wrote the book, which is almost entirely focused on 2009 events and in which he refers to himself as RNC chair, was written before be became RNC chair last year.

Is It Really All About Israel?

Glenn Greenwald believes strongly that terrorists are attacking us because of our relationship with Israel. Well, take a look at the poster here for a series of events that the Undie-Bomber was organizing at his U.K. school. It suggests he was thinking about Gitmo and torture, not necessarily our support of the Zionist infidels.

They Are Right Wing Whack Jobs

In the wake of Rudy Giuliani's bald-face lying this morning on Good Morning America that "we had no domestic attacks under [George W.] Bush while [there was] one under Obama," and in the wake of GMA host George Stephanopolous's admission that he made a mistake in not pressing Giuliani on this point, comes this ridiculous piece of excrement from Peggy Noonan about President Obama's first year:
It was not worth it—not worth the town-hall uprisings and the bleeding of centrist support, not worth the rebranding of the president from center-left leader to leftist leader, not worth the proof it provided that the public's concerns and the administration's are not the same, not worth a wasted first year that should have been given to two things and two things only: economic matters and national security.... [Obama] had frittered his attention on issues that were secondary and tertiary—climate change, health care—while al Qaeda moved, and the system stuttered.

Andrew Sullivan smacks her down here. Money quote:
Noonan's column is a fantasy, a dream, a weird incantation of a thesis that is merely how she feels, without any substantive relationship to reality. Well, at least she understand[s] that the GOP is offering nothing - nothing - substantive as an alternative except oil drilling and torture and more bellicose rhetoric toward the rest of the world because that worked out so well under Bush.

Andrew is acknowledging Noonan's warning to the Republican party to stand for something, but she's not particularly optimistic:
I spoke a few weeks ago with a respected Republican congressman who told me with some excitement of a bill he's put forward to address the growth of entitlements and long-term government spending. We only have three or four years to get it right, he said. He made a strong case. I asked if his party was doing anything to get behind the bill, and he got the blanched look people get when they're trying to keep their faces from betraying anything. Not really, he said. Then he shrugged. "They're waiting for the Democrats to destroy themselves."

Noonan is wise to be pessimistic. By simply waiting for Dems to implode, the GOP turn a deaf ear even to their own fanatical base, who want something done NOW. They are even fielding primary candidates who espouse ideological purity. Candidates have to issue public statements that "every word" of the bible is literally true. Incumbents cannot be seen as having any tolerance or support for anything Obama is doing, even though they are privately saying he's doing the right thing. Noonan is clearly on record as having nothing good to say about the current leader of the GOP, Sarah Palin, so even more than being pessimistic, she is more than likely feeling terrified that not only will the GOP not regain the majority in either house of Congress, those who do ascend to Congress will be more polarizing and more paralyzing, and will turn the legislative branch into an even bigger circus than it already is.

Theocracy Watch

In Alabama, there is an unwritten religious test for candidates seeking public office. Andrew Sullivan links to an Alabama blog that reports on a gubernatorial candidate's statement that he believes every word in the bible to be literally true. As Andrew writes, "[T]he GOP's criteria for political office become indistinguishable from a theocracy's."

The candidate, Republican Bradley Byrne, was standing in the produce aisle of a Piggly Wiggly grocery store in New Hope, AL, answering questions about a statement he made in November in which he said, "I believe there are parts of the Bible that are meant to be literally true and parts that are not."


The decision by Piggly Wiggly's corporate parent, Ragland Brothers Retail Cos., Inc., to host Byrne at one of their stores prompted this little bit from someone who read notice of the press conference on the blog: "Just got a call from a person at my Church letting me know about this," said uafan1198. "My family will not be shopping at Ragland Piggly Wiggly stores anymore or anything else they own.... I don't shop at places that think it is OK to stand next to people who don't believe the Bible is all true."

Their world just keeps getting smaller and smaller.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Keeping America's Edge, Part II

In my previous post, I started a detailed reading of Jim Manzi's piece in National Affairs. I got a short note from the author himself yesterday saying he looked forward to more. Well, Mr. Manzi, I've read the rest of the article. I admit to having high hopes for it, since I lean moderate-to-conservative on economic issues. Unfortunately, my reading of it reveals it to be little more than a Republican, anti-Obama screed against practically everything Obama has done to restore social justice and economic opportunity for those left behind by every other president since Reagan. Manzi substitutes socially democratic "Europe" for Obama, implying that this is where Obama wants to take us.

The problems I have with the piece stem from Manzi's assumption that what Reagan did to stimulate growth in our economy was inherently good and was not fraught with political and social upheaval. He may have succeeded based on his definition of success, but it was his embrace of supply-side economics that set on the course of massive deficit spending we have today. By cutting marginal tax rates he allowed the richest segments of our society to keep more of what they earned. I don't fault that, per se, but the assumption that it was somehow going to be pumped back into innovation and eventually "trickle down" to help the middle and lower income strata was just a self-serving myth that the corporate media put out there as readily as it does other right wing myths today. You see, the rich in general don't think it's at all in their interest to redistribute their own wealth to help the poor and middle classes. If that were the case, then the massive growth in the economy should not have resulted in such a massive explosion in the deficit (well, I am purposely omitting the huge military build-up Reagan implemented simultaneously to put the Soviet Union out of the superpower business, which was also a huge failure -- more on that later).

To illustrate my point, here's this section from the Manzi piece (my italics):
Growing inequality was a price we paid for the economic growth needed to recover from the '70s slump and to retain our global position.

Rising inequality would have been easier to swallow had it been merely a statistical artifact of rapid growth in prosperity that substantially benefited the middle class and maintained social mobility. But this was not the case. Over the same period in which inequality has grown, wages have been stagnating for large swaths of the middle class, and income mobility has been declining.

This is my point. The "price we paid for the economic growth" was that there was little to no benefit for those who lacked the financial, political, or social connections necessary to be successful. What they did get, instead, was a deregulated financial market that gave banks the opportunity to issue credit cards to people who hadn't had them before. The explosion in consumer indebtedness during that time was the financial Big Bang; personal debt, and the resulting defaults and bankruptcies, have been expanding ever since.

Another snippet:
So economic inequality is likely to cause problems with social ­cohesion — but far more important, it is a symptom of our deeper ­problem. As the unsustainable high tide of post-war American dominance has slowly ebbed, many — perhaps most — of our country's workers appear unable to compete internationally at the level required to maintain anything like their current standard of living. And a shrinking elite portion of the American population, itself a shrinking fraction of the world ­population, cannot indefinitely maintain our global position.

This is because the Reagan/Bush economic policies, embraced by Clinton who needed Republican support to govern, for the most part paid mere lip service to social cohesion as it redistributed wealth upward, not downward as "trickle-down economics" promised. This was the Big Lie of the Reaganomics era.

Manzi continues with a warning about the current administration's move toward Social Democracy, laying out statistics that point to huge sums being spent on social programs ("this will be a dramatic material shift -- not a merely symbolic gesture").

Well, not to be snarky about it, but DUH! The huge amounts of social spending Obama is undertaking is because the country needs to stop the bleeding. Too many Americans have fallen through the cracks over the past eight years. In fact, his own statement about the rise in inequality between upper and lower income levels justifies Obama's actions to right the American ship that has been listing starboard for years. The government must be the safety net for the neediest among us; unfortunately, the neediest among us has grown to the point where it feels very much like we're converting into a welfare state. If Obama believes for a minute that this is more than a temporary fix, I'd be surprised to hear it.

Manzi also seems to imply that government intervention in the automotive, financial, mortgage, insurance, and healthcare sectors has been a bad thing. Indeed, he suggests that, moving forward, high-risk tiers of financial activities must "unsparingly" be allowed to fail if circumstances mandate failure. I won't debate that, in an environment where markets are doing what they're supposed to be doing, letting the market fix itself is ideal. The problem was, with deregulation and increased global interconnectedness of the finance industry, the market was not doing what it was supposed to be doing; it was not behaving normally. The government, therefore, was not only the best solution, it was the ONLY solution. By selecting CEOs and putting caps on executive compensation, the government was replacing those who has essentially fucked things up for more than eight years. This was something that I believe the government weighed very carefully, as the political implications were dangerous. It's a huge gamble, in fact; if GM, AIG, B of A, Citigroup, and the rest do not bounce back relatively quickly, then the huge amounts of bailout money will hang around Obama's neck like a 10-ton albatross.

The logical result of Obama's government intervention and increased spending, plus energy and healthcare reforms, Manzi argues, will be coupled with higher taxes to create a European-style social democracy. Taxes are necessary; there simply will be no other way to pay for all of this spending. I agree, and I'm not against it. Particularly if the tax is heavily weighted on a Value Added Tax (VAT) to get the debt under control. California needs this too if it is going to survive. But, Manzi worries, it will cost us dearly in global dominance. Again... duh. Bitter pill, ain't it? But this is what we get when we spend beyond our means and let corporate greed run amok (and write our laws).

Manzi shows his true colors, however, in this passage:
[W]e must unwind some recent errors that fail to take account of [America's] circumstances. Most obviously, government ownership of industrial assets is almost a guarantee that the painful decisions required for international competitiveness will not be made. When it comes to the auto industry, for instance, we need to take the loss and move on. As soon as possible, the government should announce a structured program to sell off the equity it holds in GM. Similarly, the federal government should relinquish direct control of banks and insurance companies. Moreover, one virtue of the slow rollout of spending under the stimulus bill is that most of it can be stopped — and should be. Any programs that have been temporarily increased under the terms of the law should be forced back down to pre-stimulus levels, and attempts to make the increases permanent should be resisted in the absence of a sustainable fiscal regime. Avoiding economically extravagant cap-and-trade legislation and, to the extent possible, a government takeover of health insurance would also help us avoid unforced errors.

Well, what's more than "almost a guarantee" is that, left unaided, the industrial assets would have collapsed and pulled the economy into a depression. Obama shows no indication that he will stifle innovation and growth in these industries, but is merely implementing the necessary levels of control to encourage responsible growth. But what really bugs me here is: to whom does Manzi think the government ought to sell its stakes in GM, AIG, and the banks? To the same private equity/hedge fund firms that screwed things up before? No thank you! The level of government spending might, in the opinion of the Congressional Budget Office, be unsustainable, but equally so is turning over trillions of dollars of government investments to private hands before those private hands have been taught how to be responsible citizens again. Finally, "economically extravagant cap-and-trade legislation" and "government takeover of health insurance" (not happening, by the way) are tired and inaccurate Republican talking points. I thought Manzi was above that.

Manzi wants to fix these so-called problems and balance innovation with social cohesion by adopting a "modernized version of a New Deal-era innovation." He proposes tiers of financial activities: the more high-risk, the more unregulated, and "almost any non-coercive transaction should be legally permitted." I agree with this, but this cannot be determined (at least at first) by the market. The market would almost always err on the side of complete openness and would vigorously argue for government non-intrusion. That would be like forgetting the lessons of the past two years, and I would say that such openness should be gradually implemented under strict government supervision to ensure compliance and responsible corporate activity. And I agree that the high-risk tiers whould be allowed to fail if they are open to any investor with minimal restrictions. The trick will be to get them to minimize the interconnectedness across multiple sectors of the economy. This will put restrictions on conglomerates and inhibit monopolization of industries.

The emphasis Manzi places on privatizing education as a solution to our problems is fortunate; it is his best idea. School choice, which is a political hot potato right now, could force schools to be better educators so they can get higher test scores and more funding. Right now, for example, the Los Angeles Unified School District has a large magnet school program. Parents can shop schools for their children that suit their academic needs best and position children for better opportunities in secondary schools and college. Schools go all out during the fall to attract students to their programs, and the demand far outstrips the supply of available slots. However, funding for the magnet programs is guaranteed to be better than for the neighborhood schools, by virtue of the benefits of the magnet program alone. The problem with the program is its mandate that the programs be populated primary by minorities, about 60-70%. On a recent trip to a local magnet program for our son Max, Lisa and I noticed that the students in the program were nearly 95% minority. When I brought this imbalance up with another parent, she said she had applied to that program because it nearly assured her white child's admission into the program. Still, admission was based on a lottery system, but because the school had to increase white enrollment to 30%-40%, the lottery would probably be weighted against minority applicants (this time, until perhaps the enrollment was weighted too much in the other direction). I suppose this is the most practical way to handle school competition in a diverse society, but I long for a more merit-based system.

Immigration reform is another solution. We can attract the best of the best with some major shifts in our attitudes about immigration. Huge shifts, in fact! But first we must "re-establish control over our southern border," according to Manzi. Another indication that he's less than post-partisan. We should implement reforms even though the border remains uncomfortably porous and do better at enforcing the laws we currently have.

I think Manzi is definitely onto something and I applaud his very nuanced approach to the problems we face. By avoiding partisan talking points, however, he'll be more convincing to non-conservative readers. Chait takes him to task, as I pointed out yesterday. One of his readers posted a response that I thought was particularly cogent:
How do you know this drop in productivity was due to adopting the welfare state? That’s just a huge assumption. Why couldn’t it be the industrialization of countries with pools of cheap labor?

And if you are comparing the US to Europe it seems to me that, even if the drop was tied to adding a welfare state, that Europe comes out ahead. They equal our global productivity AND they have a welfare state. Or to look at it another way, we spend all this money to ensure global dominance, the main purpose of which is to promote our economic interests—but we can only equal Europe in output, who spend way less on global dominance.

This is a fascinating debate, and I'm glad to have read Manzi's piece. I encourage others to do the same. The problems we face are monumental and no single political party (or school of thought) is going to have a monopoly on the answers. Debate should be healthy, intelligent, and most of all, civil. Either that, or resign ourselves to ever-increasing hostility on both sides.

Joe Lieberman, Persona Non Grata In CT

In the wake of the fractious Senate debates on health care, during which Joe Lieberman held the vote hostage because of the public option and Medicare expansion, Democratic polling unit Public Policy Polling has issued the results of a poll that show Lieberman's job approval rating has fallen to 25%, with a whopping 67% disapproval rating. There isn't a single group -- Dem, Repub, or Indy -- in which a majority of respondents favor Lieberman.

Republicans hold a 39% approval rating of Joe, which shows that even if he were formally to join the GOP, he'd probably not get the GOP nomination.

If Joe had any brains at all -- and it's very apparent that he doesn't -- he'd follow Christopher Dodd out the door and give the residents of Connecticut a fresh start with new Senators.

That Idiot Palin, Again

Shannyn Moore fisks Palin's latest Facebook rant. Money quote:
Hey, Sar, remember the Shoe Bomber? His name might not have sounded so…well, Islamic to you; Richard Reid. Only three months after 9/11 he tried to blow up a plane. YIKES! He was tried in criminal court by the Bush administration and is sitting in an American super-max prison for life. Judge William Young explained to him during the trial, “You are not an enemy combatant, you are a terrorist’ … ‘You are not a soldier in any army, you are a terrorist. To call you a soldier gives you far too much stature.” I’ll save you the google…Judge Young was appointed by President Reagan. What the judge got, and you fail to, is clear. If you treat them like “soldiers” you honor them as such…treat them like the criminals they are, then throw away the key.

Israel's Actions Incite Terrorist to Attack America

Greenwald is a brilliant thinker, and I agree with his positions much of the time. But today's piece in which he connects the dots between Al Qaeda, Israeli actions against the Palestinians, and attacks on the U.S., is incredibly biased. His central argument:

If it is taboo to discuss how America's actions in the Middle East cause Terrorism -- and it generally is -- that taboo is far stronger still when it comes to specifically discussing how our blind, endless enabling of Israeli actions fuels Terrorism directed at the U.S.

Taken at face value, Glenn is saying that because terrorists so frequently cite Israeli military actions against the Palestinians and its other Arab neighbors as reasons why they decide to attack America (and, of course, Israel), then the U.S. should take a hard look at our Israel policy.

Glenn's failure here is that terrorists and their state-sponsors -- including our supposed ally Yemen, whose own president has called for the opening of camps in his country to train fighters against Israel in Gaza -- are using Israel's actions as cover for what they really believe. It's not as if Israel, if they'd just put down their guns, stop crossing the border into Gaza, stop the settlements in Judea and Samaria and East Jerusalem, and unilaterally declare a non-aggression pact with their Muslim neighbors, would then get to live in peace on the land granted to them by the U.N. in 1948. To Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East, the very existence of a Jewish country on land that they believe to be Palestine is a direct affront to their worldview. Therefore, they simply want Israel to disappear, and they would attack and attack and attack, a war without end, until they achieved their objectives. Glenn mistakenly thinks that the Arabs' objectives are political; they are not. They are genocidal.

This is not to take away anything from Glenn's criticism of Israel's political and military policies. Israel, in continuing to build settlements in Judea and Samaria, undermine any possibility of peace. But, it must be said, the unofficial Likud position is that peace is impossible with people who want to exterminate them, and if it's war they want, it's war they get.

Greenwald redeems himself in his final paragraph:

Again, these facts do not, standing alone, prove that we ought to change these policies. The mere fact that Islamic radicals object to what we do does not prove we should stop, as there may be net benefits to those actions or they may be morally justifiable. But at the very least, rational discussions require that these costs and benefits be weighed, and that can only happen if we acknowledge the costs.

He's right, of course. The trouble begins, however, when we take those rational discussions to national leaders whose citizens still harbor a millenia-old hatred of Jews.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Keeping America's Edge, Part I

That's the title of conservative writer Jim Manzi's latest piece in National Affairs, where he explores the "challenge of coming to terms with America's place in the global economic order."

It's a very long manifesto on how to reform conservatism, and I'm just getting started with it, but from what I've read so far, Manzi breaks the massive problem down into three realities: free-market capitalism vs. Americans' aversion to risk/change; dramatically increasing global competition; and a behavioral/social disparity between America's upper and lower income strata. He argues that we must have rapid innovations in business and technology in order to compete against "those who do not share America's values" (i.e., China), which requires us to have unfettered markets and "fewer restrictions on behavior." But, he also argues that this kind of pedal-to-the-metal thinking undermines the social cohesion needed to produce the kinds of people needed to manage the unfettered free markets we need. So, then, government needs to step in and regulate the free markets to create balance. The trick here is to acknowledge that both free and regulated markets are interdependent, and there's no avoiding the conflicts.

Still, as Thomas Frank and others who have profiled the deep divisions that exist in our society point out, these deep divisions are the great obstacle to a satisfactory solution. The conventional wisdom, not without some measure of accuracy, is that the conservatives favor innovation over social cohesion and liberals favor cohesion over innovation. Of course, politics ensures that there is spill over from both sides to the other. You won't find many Republican congressmen, for example, failing to argue for preserving jobs in their district that would be lost due to innovation or globalization. Similarly, Democrats would quickly help a corporation seeking to bring an innovative, technologically advanced operation to their districts if it meant new, sustainable employment for their voters.

It would be great if any federal regulation could moderate innovation while cushioning the blow of such innovation on middle- and lower-class Americans, who tend to bear the biggest burden from both innovation and stagnation. But we also have to consider the global market and rapidly developing economies like China and India, so we can't be soft on growth if we want to keep up.

Now, Jonathan Chait over at The New Republic pokes big holes in Manzi's piece, which has been getting a lot of praise. In fact, rather than champion the Reagan-era style of conservatism, Manzi seems to support the opposite: social democracy, most successfully exemplified in western Europe. Using some updated statistics, Chait points out that per-capita GDP in the US and western Europe are at near parity since 1980. Chait notes that an email he received from Kevin Drum at Mother Jones argues that Europe's social democracies rank higher than the U.S. in GDP per hour worked. Given the fact that western European workers are afforded shorter work weeks, longer vacations, paid parental leaves, and single-payer healthcare, they actually achieve their success with happier, less stressed out workers (although Americans generally have more opportunities for work and get paid more).

More later as I dive deeper into Manzi's piece.

Controversy Brewing at C-Span

Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg is fuming about a recent C-Span program the other day during which the grossly anti-Semitic comments of a caller were not challenged by the host, who has since referred any questions about his inaction to his producer. Still, the partial transcript Goldberg ran on his piece was chilling. The caller's comments were disgusting, to be sure, and Scanlan's failure to respond revealing about not only his inadequacy as a journalist but his tacit agreement with the caller's sentiments.

However, it's the comments of Michael Scheuer, who used to head the CIA's "failed bin Laden unit," that reveal the most to me (my italics):

Scheuer: ... One of the big things we have not been able to discuss for the past 30 years is the Israelis. Whether we want to be involved in fighting Israel's wars in the future is something that Americans should be able to talk about. They may vote yes. They may want to see their kids killed in Iraq or Yemen or somewhere else to defend Israel. But the question is: we need to talk about it. Ultimately Israel is a country that is of no particular worth the United States.

Scanlan: You mean strategically?

Scheuer: Strategically. They have no resources we need. Their manpower is minimal. Their association with us is a negative for the United States. Now that's a fact. What you want to do about that fact is entirely different. But for anyone to stand up in the United States and say that support for Israel doesn't hurt us in the Muslim world is to just defy reality.

Now I'm actually in agreement that anyone who thinks our support for Israel puts us on our heels in the Muslim world is in denial. All one has to do is see the gross imbalance of resolutions against Israel in the UN while Muslim countries that abuse their citizens (Sudan) get seats on the Human Rights Council. However, to assert that Israel has no strategic value to the U.S. is mind-boggling. Resources? How about some of the best military intelligence in the world? How about some of the best technological minds in the world? How about a democracy in a world of monarchies, theocracies, and dictatorships? No value? And this guy was a leader at the CIA?

I certainly don't think Israel can do no wrong. In fact, their insistence on continuing settlements in Judea-Samaria is intentionally provocative. There are other places for these people to go. But they are a strategic partner, albeit a hot-headed one. What Rovian politics has done, however, is turn support for Israel into an issue in every primary and general election. At this point, I think it's safe to say that every presidential candidate and every president and congressional leader does support Israel's right to exist and will defend it vigorously. So let's just drop it as a political issue, OK, AIPAC? Go home and celebrate Shabbat with your families.