Saturday, February 28, 2009

Listening to how China speaks to the United States ...

... is a good indication of the subtle change in Sino-American relations that is resulting from our increasing indebtedness.


China and the U.S. resumed military-to-military consultations Friday after a five-month suspension over American arms sales to Taiwan, but a top Chinese officer warned the exchanges remain in a "difficult period."

China froze military exchanges in October to register its anger over a $6.5 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan that included advanced weaponry such as Patriot missiles and Apache attack helicopters. China, which claims self-ruled Taiwan is part of its territory, complained that the sale interfered with its internal affairs.

Contacts resumed with talks led by David Sedney, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense, and Maj. Gen. Qian Lihua, the Chinese Defense Ministry's head of foreign affairs.

Qian was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying that contacts would remain tenuous unless the U.S. removes remaining obstacles to improvement.

"China-U.S. military relations still stay at a difficult period. We expect the U.S. side to take concrete measures for the resumption and development of our military ties," it quoted Qian as saying.

Beijing retaliated for the U.S. arms sale by canceling a visit to the U.S. by a senior Chinese general and port calls by naval vessels. It also indefinitely postponed meetings on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Qian offered no timeline for the resumption of those exchanges. The stumbling blocks include weapons sales to Taiwan and U.S. legislative restrictions on bilateral military contacts, according to another officer cited by Xinhua, Rear Admiral Yang Yi of the National Defense University's Institute for Strategic Studies.


Qian emphasised that the two days of talks in Beijing did not mean that the suspended military exchanges—such as more senior-level contacts and disaster relief co-ordination—would automatically resume.

‘Frankly speaking, it will take a long time to restore our military exchanges as not a single obstacle in military ties has been removed so far,’ he said, specifically mentioning arms sales to Taiwan.


"The U.S. practice of throwing stones at others while living in a glass house is a testimony to the double standards and hypocrisy of the United States in dealing with its human rights issues," said the Chinese report.

The U.S. State Department report said detention and harassment of dissidents, petitioners, human rights defenders and defense lawyers rose with high-profile events such as the Beijing Olympic Games in August.

Citing details from U.S. newspapers and international rights groups that Beijing often dismisses as biased, the Chinese report described crowded prisons, racial inequality, poverty and gun violence that it said blighted the U.S. record.

In past decades, China's ruling Communist Party outright dismissed human rights as an alien and subversive idea. But now it is trying to persuade its own citizens and the world that Beijing has successfully advanced rights, especially through economic growth.

Washington should "face its own human rights problems with courage and stop applying double standards to human rights issues," said the Chinese report.

Once again, remember: you dont get to criticize your creditors.

President Obama declares war on lobbyists ... with an army of ... lobbyists

First--to our liberal friends--the good news, via CBS:

(AP) President Barack Obama challenged the nation's vested interests to a legislative duel Saturday, saying he will fight to change health care, energy and education in dramatic ways that will upset the status quo.

"The system we have now might work for the powerful and well-connected interests that have run Washington for far too long," Mr. Obama said in his weekly radio and video address. "But I don't. I work for the American people."

He said his ambitious budget plan, unveiled Thursday, will help millions of Americans, but only if Congress overcomes resistance from deep-pocket lobbies.

"I know these steps won't sit well with the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they're gearing up for a fight," Mr. Obama said, using tough-guy language reminiscent of his predecessor, George W. Bush. "My message to them is this: So am I."

Some analysts say President Obama's proposals are almost radical. But he said all of them were included in his campaign promises. "It is the change the American people voted for in November," he said.

Nonetheless, he said, well-financed interest groups will fight back furiously.

Insurance companies will dislike having "to bid competitively to continue offering Medicare coverage, but that's how we'll help preserve and protect Medicare and lower health care costs," the president said. "I know that banks and big student lenders won't like the idea that we're ending their huge taxpayer subsidies, but that's how we'll save taxpayers nearly $50 billion and make college more affordable. I know that oil and gas companies won't like us ending nearly $30 billion in tax breaks, but that's how we'll help fund a renewable energy economy."

Now, for El Somnabulo ("If that isn’t change we can believe in, El Somnambulo doesn’t know what is"), and jason ("I love it. Republicans and lobbyists on one side, Obama and the people on the other"), and Unstable Isotope ("We’re now seeing the Obama we’ve hoped to see, the change agent"), and all the others, here's the bad news, courtesy of Hot Air:

Eric Holder, attorney general nominee, was registered to lobby until 2004 on behalf of clients including Global Crossing, a bankrupt telecommunications firm [now confirmed].

Tom Vilsack, secretary of agriculture nominee, was registered to lobby as recently as last year on behalf of the National Education Association.

William Lynn, deputy defense secretary nominee, was registered to lobby as recently as last year for defense contractor Raytheon, where he was a top executive.

William Corr, deputy health and human services secretary nominee, was registered to lobby until last year for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a non-profit that pushes to limit tobacco use.

David Hayes, deputy interior secretary nominee, was registered to lobby until 2006 for clients, including the regional utility San Diego Gas & Electric.

Mark Patterson, chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, was registered to lobby as recently as last year for financial giant Goldman Sachs.

Ron Klain, chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, was registered to lobby until 2005 for clients, including the Coalition for Asbestos Resolution, U.S. Airways, Airborne Express and drug-maker ImClone.

Mona Sutphen, deputy White House chief of staff, was registered to lobby for clients, including Angliss International in 2003.

Melody Barnes, domestic policy council director, lobbied in 2003 and 2004 for liberal advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the American Constitution Society and the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Cecilia Munoz, White House director of intergovernmental affairs, was a lobbyist as recently as last year for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group.

Patrick Gaspard, White House political affairs director, was a lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union.

Michael Strautmanis, chief of staff to the president’s assistant for intergovernmental relations, lobbied for the American Association of Justice from 2001 until 2005.

Sort of like why NATO needed all those former Nazis in the 1950s, huh?

But what's truly amazing here is the suspension of disbelief necessary to see this as anything other than Washington DC business as usual.

The oil and gas lobbyists will be replaced by high-speed train lobbyists.

And so on.

But my favorite line of all time has to be: I know that banks and big student lenders won't like the idea that we're ending their huge taxpayer subsidies...

Yeah, no gigantic taxpayer bail-outs for the banking industry, nothing to see folks, time to move on....

Friday, February 27, 2009

Quick Thoughts : Obama's Iraq Speech

I thought it was excellent. He was very specific, and hit all the right notes especially in framing our role vis a vis the Iraqis, at least in the context of the reality that we are there, like it or not.

Obviously the Iraqis have suffered greatly. But in the last analysis it is also true that an immense amount of American blood and treasure was expended for what ultimately is giving Iraq the opportunity to secure for itself a stable lasting constitutional democracy. Whether one supported or opposed the war, this fact is immutable.

Ironically, a war opponent like Obama has far more credibility making firm note of this to the Iraqis than would any of the warmongering interventionists who initiated the Iraq invasion and prolonged our occupation.

I hope the President sticks to his specifics and doesn't get swept into any transient dilatory mire as the deadlines approach. (Dana Garrett echoes this and other sentiments in his own well-balanced review of Obama's address).

Since I am for complete withdrawal from all middle east quagmires, especially Afghanistan (retired Army officer Ralph Peters has interesting comments on this), I can't say I am thrilled with the prospect of esclation of our forces anywhere in the middle east...or in truth, anywhere on Earth. Nonetheless I will take progress on this front wherever we can get it.

This is especially true since the war drums are already beating in Tel Aviv and in neocon bunkers across the U.S. for a showdown with the big enchilada this bunch has always had in their sights : Iran.

Given the (at least historically-) strong influence of these war-happy forces (Pat Buchanan calls them "The War Party" in an excellent column today) Obama is wise to quickly put to rest the question of where we are headed in Iraq and to brightly turn on the light at the end of the tunnel.

He has gone a long way to clearing the air and delineating our policies such that we can at least begin acting with far more discrimination and some level of predictability in our middle east adventurism and its ongoing vestiges.

Now, given that I have found so much Obama rhetoric often totally to contradict his actions, I intend to remain cautious in my optimism. A speech is a speech is a speech. Obama is great at giving them.

Follow-through is a lot tougher, and this will certainly not be as simple a task as steam-rolling the minority party in Congress, for example.

But overall, good show Mr. President.

BREAKING! Oldest "Keep off the grass!" sign found...

... next to 1.5 million-year-old human footprint.

Because Waldo (who remains anonymous for pretty good reasons) can read...

... and apparently many evangelical Christianists cannot. Or simply prefer to lie.

First, the anonymity thing.

We've had a variety of discussions on this topic around the Delaware blogosphere, and the upshot is that a lot of our most valued bloggers (kavips, pandora, liberalgeek, etc.) chose to use internet handles, while others (Tyler Nixon, Matt Matthews, Dana Garrett, John Feroce) do not.

But there is general agreement here that outing an anonymous or pseudononymous blogger is, as BrianShields pointed out:

Outing someone’s pen name in a blogosphere argument is the equivalent of calling an African American the N word in a verbal argument.

Unfortunately, I'm not as refined as Brian, so I will actually use the N-word. Adam Fogle of the Palmetto Scoop has found himself, apparently once too often, the subject of Waldo's wit, and is running around South Carolina's blogosphere shouting, Nigger, nigger, nigger at Waldo and other bloggers who use pen names.

Here's the justification he uses:


It’s no secret that The Palmetto Scoop was an anonymous blog for the first three months of its existence. But then I decided to do the right thing and reveal my name.

After all, it was only fair to the folks of whom I was critical — and those I praised — to have a name to respond to. Plus, since I “outed” myself, I’ve been having a whole lot more fun blogging.

And now I want to help some folks in the South Carolina blogosphere who are desperately clinging to the shadows of anonymity see the light by revealing their real identity.

Many of these individuals have engaged in very nasty, personal and borderline libelous attacks on countless individuals in this state and beyond. In an effort to give their “victims” (I use the term loosely) a chance to fight back, I need your help to find information that leads to finding their identity.

Adam has even developed a tip line and an email you can use to out bloggers.

Waldo has reached number one on his list, and this is the extent of my old friend's crimes (aside from being gay, which is apparently a primary offense in SC):

This person came out of nowhere at some point in the spring of 2008. Not much is known except that they are gay, probably male, hail from Washington State or Oregon and currently live in the Upstate. The mere mention of homosexuals in a negative light is enough for this person to make someone an enemy for life. And like the others on the"Most Wanted" list, that means an onslaught of hateful, cowardly personal attacks with a hefty dose of curse words.

The ironies here abound: most of the information that Adam thinks he has is ... well, I'm not going to tell him, since I've been proud to count Waldo among my best friends for over thirty years. And it's equally tasty that Adam's little let's out the queer so we can throw rocks at him campaign seems to result more from a worry about competition than anything else. According to blognet news, Adam's little effort is the number one political blog and the number one conservative blog in the State, while Waldo is the number two political blog and the number one liberal blog in the State.

Besides, it is always easier to portray yourself as taking the high road than to admit what is manifestly true about Adam Fogle: he can't answer Waldo's arguments on the merit, or write Mencken-like prose to compete with him in the level of invective.

Impotence is a terrible thing, especially in male homophobes.

Oh, and yes, Adam, since I'm straight and therefore enjoy the full measures of society's protections, unlike Waldo, I post under my own name. You can find me right here, but before you start slinging around idiotic charges of libel, you really ought to understand that you--and the people Waldo discusses--are public figures and pretty much open to criticism under than old fragment of the Constitution called the First Amendment.

Second, evangelicals and hate crimes legislation.

I don't like hate crimes legislation. I've said that before. But I like liars even less.

Here's Waldo quoting some evangelicals about the dire consequences of two proposed Federal hate crime bills:

Why should you be fuming and taking action before you even finish reading this? Because these two bills that are going to be sent to President Barack Obama's desk will silence Christians from speaking against homosexuality or teaching our children that it is wrong. You would quite literally be committing a Federal crime and convicted. If these bills get passed, not only will Christians be silenced -- but, the government is scheduled to swoop in with $10 Million dollars to drive a stake right into the heart of Christians by making sure your children hear and are taught everything against Judeo-Christian beliefs.

The two bills that I am talking about are the David Ray Ritcheson Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 (H.R. 262)coupled with the David Ray Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 (H.R. 256). These two bills were just introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee and are expected to be signed by President Barack Obama who has supported this legislation at the state level in the past. These two bills CANNOT get to President Obama's desk! No way Christians! You must act now if you want to continue practicing your Christian faith and teaching it to your children. Sign the petition against Hate Crimes Legislation!

Only, as Waldo points out, these assholes (oops, yes, Adam, I used a curse word) either can't read or outright lie about the content of the bills, which you can find here and here.

Because the only way a Christian could be convicted for trying to tell somebody about the evils of queer buggerers or lesbians with artificially enlarged clitorises would be if you used a firearm, a knife, or a hammer to educate them.

Strangely enough, neither of these bills addresses words as vehicles of hate crimes; in fact, they concentrate on support services for victims.

Note that I borrowed the term Christianists from Waldo and my friends at Delawareliberal. I am a Christian, but there are a lot of folks out there these days for whom religious and political identity have apparently become ... confused.

What was it FDR said, We have nothing to fear but queers themselves, right, Adam?

Maybe we could have the IAEA inspect to insure that nuclear materials have not been diverted for nefarious use...

... inside the United States.

Since the Energy Department claims to have lost track of several hundred thousand pounds of such material.

From NTI:

WASHINGTON -- A number of U.S. institutions with licenses to hold nuclear material reported to the Energy Department in 2004 that the amount of material they held was less than agency records indicated. But rather than investigating the discrepancies, Energy officials wrote off significant quantities of nuclear material from the department's inventory records.

That's just one of the findings of a report released yesterday by Energy Department Inspector General Gregory Friedman that concluded "the department cannot properly account for and effectively manage its nuclear materials maintained by domestic licensees and may be unable to detect lost or stolen material."

Auditors found that Energy could not accurately account for the quantities and locations of nuclear material at 15 out of 40, or 37 percent, of facilities reviewed. The materials written off included 20,580 grams of enriched uranium, 45 grams of plutonium, 5,001 kilograms of normal uranium and 189,139 kilograms of depleted uranium.

"Considering the potential health risks associated with these materials and the potential for misuse should they fall into the wrong hands, the quantities written off were significant," the report says. "Even in small quantities normally held by individual domestic licensees, special nuclear materials such as enriched uranium and plutonium, if not properly handled, potentially pose serious health hazards."

You will recall that I recently reported on the Federal government's huge, unnecessary, and virtually unregulated fleet of 1,400 non-military aircraft.

Anybody beginning to sense a pattern here?

As Tyler would say, Government regulates our lives, but who regulates the government?

And Congress is your friend, until it isn't....

All of a sudden, Democratic congressional leaders can't quite square promises of an Iraq withdrawal by August 2010 that leaves more troops (50,000 plus) there than we will have in Afghanistan:

From WaPo:

President Obama has invited members of Congress to the White House for a meeting later this afternoon to discuss his plans for drawing down troops in Iraq -- a plan that has already drawn stiff criticism from his Democratic allies.

After Speaker Nancy Pelosi complained that the level of troops -- 50,000 -- who would remain in Iraq is too high, other senior Democrats voiced similar concerns on Thursday. Among Democratic leaders, only Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois is defending the new Obama plan, which will take three months longer than he promised and still leave a significant force structure on the ground.

"I'm happy to listen to the secretary of defense and the president, but when they talk about 50,000, that's a little higher number than I had anticipated," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said.

"It has to be done responsibly, we all agree, but 50,000 is more than I would have thought, and we await the justification," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

"I do think we have to look carefully at the numbers that are there and do it as quickly as we can," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) issued a statement saying he was "concerned" about the level of troops that would remain in Iraq.

But what I really love is Dick Durbin's defense of the President:

Durbin defended the plan, saying that it is not easy to to meet Obama's campaign promise of a near complete withdrawal in such a quick timeline without posing a risk to the soldiers that are left behind to help with embassy security and further training of Iraqi security forces. "I think what the administration is trying to do is strike that balance," Durbin said.

Only in 21st Century American political newspeak would a plan leaving the equivalent of three entire US infantry or armored divisions be considered to satisfy a campaign promise to end a war and withdraw from a supposedly sovereign country.

But, hey, it was only a campaign promise....

Taping back together the Constitution requires too much deliberation to start immediately... (2)

The Bush--I mean, the Obama--administration goes to court to preserve telecom immunity.

From The Raw Story:

The Obama Justice Department continues to stand behind a Bush era law meant to prevent lawsuits against telecommunications companies accused of illegally sharing private customer information with intelligence agencies.

In a brief filed late Wednesday obtained by Raw Story, the Department of Justice provided its views to Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, after the San Francisco federal judge questioned the constitutionality of the wide-sweeping law and whether it gives the U.S. Attorney General too much power in deciding whether a company is immune from lawsuits after it has shared information with federal agents.

The law was specifically designed to protect companies who participated in government wiretapping programs from legal claims and is one that President Obama supported as a senator when it was approved by Congress last year.

"Electronic communication service providers play an important role in assisting intelligence officials in national security activities. Indeed, the intelligence community cannot obtain the intelligence it needs without assistance from these companies," the Administration's 18-page brief says.

"The committee was concerned that, without retroactive immunity, the private sector might be unwilling to cooperate with lawful government requests in the future without unnecessary court involvement and protracted litigation," it adds.

It continues: "The possible reduction in intelligence that might result from this delay is simply unacceptable for the safety of our nation," directly citing the 2008 findings of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report.

I can see the 60 Minutes interview with Dick Cheney now: It is heartening that, once elected, the Obama administration has validated the measures we found necessary to keep the American people safe, and goddamn the Constitution, anyway.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Reducing the State budget deficit: eight suggestions

Just thinking about this issue like Governor Markell asked everybody to do.

I haven't costed them out, but the least significant would save several millions of dollars:

1. Eliminate the Secretary of Homeland Security position and fold its security responsibilities into the State Police and its disaster responsibilities into DEMA. There is not the slightest bit of evidence that the proliferation of staffs and offices has made us one whit safer or improved interagency coordination.

2. Eliminate the DSTP. Jack promised to do this, anyway.

3. Commute the sentences of non-violent, non-dealing drug offenders, and follow up by decriminalizing at least personal marijuana use.

4. Increase the mandatory replacement age for school buses by three years.

5. Close the Delaware Psychiatric Center and pay the cost to send our patients to the comparable institutions in Pennsylvania, Maryland, or New Jersey.

6. Program EZ Pass on Rt 1 to charge vehicles registered out of state a 15% surcharge over the regular toll rates.

7. Require Delaware institutions of higher education to write off the in-state tuition costs of SEED students as a requirement for receiving State funding, instead of budgeting the money to pay their tuitions.

8. Create an incentive program for early retirement of State employees with more than 25 years of service.

Speaking of Regulating Harmful Conduct, Let's Not Forget Wilful Negligence

Once again, the environmentally-monstrous, union-propped, corporate sockpuppet (currently Valero) Delaware City oil refinery is belching "excess" poisons into Delaware's environment for the umpteenth time in recent memory.

At what point is enough enough??

I hope Governor Markell begins to look at permanently "sunsetting" all state permits for this antiquated pollution-belching nightmare, smack in the middle of the northern half of Delaware.

When it was foisted on a sleepy part of lower New Castle County by J. Paul Getty circa 1953, things were different. Now 1000's of families and individuals live and work within close range of this site.

The potential and real harms to these communities and Delaware's environment have gone on far too long. Clearly the string of corporate owners of the Delaware City refinery are simply not (and have never been) interested in even bare minimum emissions compliance.

This is a clear-cut case where profits are maximized for a few at the expense of directly endangering many people.

Thanks to the horrible Ruth Ann Minner administration these profiteering polluters have gotten away with murder in this century so far.

Alan Muller at Green Delaware has been all over this for at least a decade. It is time policy makers in Delaware pay heed to Alan's prescience about this, and other issues involving reckless environmental damage caused Delaware by legacy polluters.

Please end this, Governor Markell. Clean energy is close enough at hand to begin mapping the light at the end of the tunnel for this industrial blight on Delaware.

'Things could have been a whole lot worse,' DNREC engineer says of refinery's troubles

The News Journal

Problems that triggered a large pollution release at the Valero refinery near Delaware City on Feb. 16 took a turn for the worse Wednesday, prompting a shutdown and major repair notice for one of the plant's larger refining units.

Ravi Rangan, a Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control engineer assigned to the refinery, said Valero had recovered from the original steam and boiler problems that disrupted operations Feb. 16. But the company was unable to resume use of its 50,000-barrel-a-day petroleum coke processing unit and reported a series of pollution "flaring" episodes on Feb. 18, as well as Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Pollutants released from company flares and smokestacks in recent days included sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide and ammonia. DNREC officials have reported fielding a number of complaints about odors after the incident Feb. 16.

"We do have excess emissions. Those excess emissions are under review for possible enforcement action," Rangan said. "There's no question about that, but they did a lot of things correctly, and things could have been a whole lot worse."

Refineries routinely used flares to burn off hydrocarbons or acidic gases when regular systems are interrupted or break down. The Environmental Protection Agency and DNREC barred routine use of flares, however, after complaints that companies needlessly dumped thousands of tons of pollution into the air each hour by flaring instead of preventing or controlling problems.


During the Feb. 16 incident, Valero was required to cut off coker production because it was unable to continue sending waste gases to systems that control carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, soot and other emissions. Some of the hot fluid eventually hardened in the system, however, snarling attempts to restart operations.

Delaware City's coker once ranked as one of the dirtiest refining units nationwide, releasing tens of thousands of tons of irritating sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere yearly, along with soot, nitrogen oxides and other pollutants. New scrubbing systems started operation in 2006 under the terms of a court-approved state and federal order, and DNREC barred the company from routinely bypassing those systems during breakdowns.

EPA records and past accounts of major problems at the refinery show that odors and pollution can wander for miles in any direction.

Once again, actions speak louder than campaign rhetoric...

... or even rhetoric in front of both houses of the US Congress, when the President reassures the American public that we do not torture.

Yeah, and neither did the Bush administration.

Two stories.

First: William Fisher:

While human rights and legal advocacy groups applauded President Barack Obama's decision to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay within a year, many immediately raised another thorny question: "What about Bagram?"

The answer came as a shock. In a brief filing in federal court last week, lawyers from Obama's Department of Justice said they would adopt the same position taken by the George W. Bush administration – that detainees held at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan have no right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts.

The U.S. government is holding more than 600 prisoners at Bagram. Some claim they are victims of "extraordinary rendition" by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), while many more say they have been tortured and abused at the facility just outside Kabul....

A United Nations report last week singled out the Bagram facility for criticism. While the Red Cross was allowed to visit detainees, the report said, the Red Cross findings are kept secret and the U.S. military has denied U.N. requests for similar visits.

"There are reports that some persons have been in detention at Bagram for as long as five years," the report says. "Some ex-detainees allege being subjected to severe torture, even sexual abuse. Ex-detainees also allege that they were held in cages containing between 15 to 20 men and that two detainees died in questionable circumstances while in custody."

And from Reuters:

LONDON (Reuters) - Abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has worsened sharply since President Barack Obama took office as prison guards "get their kicks in" before the camp is closed, according to a lawyer who represents detainees.

Abuses began to pick up in December after Obama was elected, human rights lawyer Ahmed Ghappour told Reuters. He cited beatings, the dislocation of limbs, spraying of pepper spray into closed cells, applying pepper spray to toilet paper and over-forcefeeding detainees who are on hunger strike.

The Pentagon said on Monday that it had received renewed reports of prisoner abuse during a recent review of conditions at Guantanamo, but had concluded that all prisoners were being kept in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

"According to my clients, there has been a ramping up in abuse since President Obama was inaugurated," said Ghappour, a British-American lawyer with Reprieve, a legal charity that represents 31 detainees at Guantanamo.

"If one was to use one's imagination, (one) could say that these traumatized, and for lack of a better word barbaric, guards were just basically trying to get their kicks in right now for fear that they won't be able to later," he said.

"Certainly in my experience there have been many, many more reported incidents of abuse since the inauguration," added Ghappour, who has visited Guantanamo six times since late September and based his comments on his own observations and conversations with both prisoners and guards.

For those of you who argue that a new President deserves some time to deal with issues, I generally agree.

With one big exception.

Torture, abuse, and illegal detention are President Obama's responsibility from day one.

Senator Robert Byrd (!?) challenges centralization of power in the Exeuctive Branch...

From Politico via h/t Real World Libertarian:

In a letter to Obama on Wednesday, Byrd complained about Obama’s decision to create White House offices on health reform, urban affairs policy, and energy and climate change. Byrd said such positions “can threaten the Constitutional system of checks and balances. At the worst, White House staff have taken direction and control of programmatic areas that are the statutory responsibility of Senate-confirmed officials.” 

While it's rare for Byrd to criticize a president in his own party, Byrd is a stern constitutional scholar who has always stood up for the legislative branch in its role in checking the power of the White House. Byrd no longer holds the powerful Appropriations chairmanship, so his criticism does not carry as much weight these days. Byrd repeatedly clashed with the Bush administration over executive power, and it appears that he's not limiting his criticism to Republican administrations.

Byrd also wants Obama to limit claims of executive privilege while also ensuring that the White House czars don’t have authority over Cabinet officers confirmed by the Senate. …. 

“As presidential assistants and advisers, these White House staffers are not accountable for their actions to the Congress, to cabinet officials, and to virtually anyone but the president,” Byrd wrote. “They rarely testify before congressional committees, and often shield the information and decision-making process behind the assertion of executive privilege. In too many instances, White House staff have been allowed to inhibit openness and transparency, and reduce accountability.” ……

What happens in times of crisis (thank you, Rahm Emmanuel) is not so much that government assumes new powers, because that's pretty much what government does.

What happens is that times of crisis are used as explanations why pragmatism should replace principle because we can suddenly no longer afford the deliberative democratic process.

Never thought I'd be complimenting Senator Byrd (and I'm sure some commenter will tell me I should remember he's a former Klansman, whines a lot, and has been a long-term advocate for increasing government power, as if I didn't know), but when anybody gets it right, they deserve the credit.

Being a lesbian in Hawaii: a narrative too important not to steal

I stole this from Waldo, and you can click through for the earlier sources.

It is the narrative of a lesbian attempting to testify before the State legislature for same-sex marriage:

You know, it gets really tiresome to be called diseased and a pedophile and a rapist and an abomination and a threat to America three dozen times in one day. It infuriates me to hear that yes, heterosexuals have special rights (at least they admitted it finally!) and that is how it should be because The Big Book of Bronze Age Fairy Tales says so. To hear little old ladies screaming that they would rather see their grandchildren commit suicide than "be part of that disgusting, filthy, evil lifestyle", isn't even remotely amusing anymore.

Even better is to, due to the concussion headache beginning to blind me, forget to take off my little green and gold "equality" sticker on the way out of the building, and be followed to the bus stop by a bunch of red shirts with signs. Three 6'5", 200 pound Islander guys with signs saying "Gay marriage is wrong" and "John 3:16" followed the lone little white girl with her laptop case across the street, yelling at me, "Repent!", calling me a bitch and a whore, telling me, "You just need a real man to fuck you straight." Nothing I haven't heard before.

Then one of them said, "We know who you are now, and what you drive. We saw you last Thursday. You better watch yourself, fucking haole bitch." Not one of the 20 people standing around the bus stop said anything to them. I got on the first bus that came along, got off three stops down the street, and caught my right bus a few minutes later. I rode home all alone, with my headphones on, praying no one bothered me. I don't want to ever hear another fake apology from these people saying that they don't actually hate queers, they're just "protecting traditional marriage". It's just the latest lie in their christian hate grab bag.

I'm so glad that we have large people with signs willing to threaten those damn queers.

Time for Rational Regulation of Credit Card Lending Practices

Government has a necessary and legitimate role in regulating and preventing trade practices that are deceptive and/or predatory.

I believe this includes unsecured credit lending to consumers.

Senator Robert Menendez has introduced Senate Bill 392 - Credit Card Reform Act of 2009.

Senator Menendez is a Democrat, and one of the type I would have reason to dismiss out-of-hand, were I driven by rank partisanship.

But I am not and I believe we should all take a close look at Senator Menendez's proposals and, from what I see of them, offer our support (necessarily sidelining the narrow interests of Delaware, vis a vis our resident credit card heavyweights).

Kudos to Senator Menendez for taking action in this arena.

Some of its provisions :

  • Creates Opt-In for Underage Consumers
  • Requires credit card issuers to receive “opt in” approval from young consumers under age 21 before they mail credit card solicitations to these consumers.
  • Prohibits Unilateral Changes in Credit Card Agreements

    Prohibits credit card issuers from changing the terms of the credit card agreement.
  • Prohibits Universal Default
  • Prohibits credit card issuers from increasing a cardholder’s interest rate based on activity unrelated to their credit card agreement – for example, a late payment on another bill or a change in credit score.
  • Ban on Retroactive Rate Increases
  • Prohibits interest rate increases on existing balances.
  • Limits Penalty Interest Rate Increases
  • Limits penalty rate increases to a seven percentage point increase.
  • Limits Late Payment Fees

    Requires issuers to state clearly on a billing statement the postmarked date and the amount of the late payment. Does not allow late fees or other adverse consequences for payments made by the postmarked date.
  • Makes Fees Reasonably Related to Cost

    Requires that any penalty fee, such as a late payment fee or over-the-limit fee not exceed an amount that is reasonably related to the cost that the issuer incurs as a result of the consumer’s action.
  • Requires Verification of Ability to Pay

    Credit card issuers may not offer credit or raise credit limits to consumers unless they determine that the consumer will be able to make the scheduled payments under the terms of the agreement based on their current income, obligations, and employment status. The Federal Reserve would provide the appropriate formula for determining ability to pay.
  • Ban on Deceptive Credit Card Offers

    Stops bait and switch tactics by requiring “pre-approved” offers to be a true, firm offer containing the material terms such as interest rate, fees, and amount of credit; requires such offers to be honored by the issuer.

As opposed to infantile straw man arguments of those inveighing against libertarians, wholesale opposition to government regulation of private activity is not what it means to be a libertarian, at least in my own corner of being a libertarian.

Criminal law is an example of government regulation.

To me government regulation should intervene against or arbitrate direct harms inflicted on individuals by other individuals (especially those doing so in a collective manner).

By harms I mean illegitimate or unjustifiable damages; damages that are not ultimately self-inflicted but rather the result of exploitative, predatory, or violent behavior.

This is a very simplistic breakdown, but it comes down to whether someone's harm can be said a result of actions they took or decisions they made with "eyes wide open", rather than with the wool pulled over them.

All that said, the credit card industry just screams for accountability and anti-predatory regulation.

The differential of resources and motives between massive faceless consumer credit card issuers and the vast swaths of individuals to whom they offer these transactions is so disparate as to have effectively institutionalized predation, specifically on the most financially-vulnerable individuals.

When the "fine print" is not only fine but almost unintelligible even to a half-decent contract attorney (who isn't writing credit card agreements for a living) AND that fine print contains incredibly-punitive, arbitrary, and usurious terms and conditions that turn individual lending into a form of "gotcha" economic servitude, it is time to look at statutory boundaries and baselines on this type of activity.

Now there are always unintended consequences. Will this mean higher rates all around? Will this mean credit becomes unduly constrained? Perhaps.

Should the issue be revisited with regularity and frequency through (historically-absent) congressional oversight of such regulatory action? Absolutely. If it isn't working or is having deleterious effects, it should be corrected.

But with rational, reasonable regulations I doubt we will see the credit card goliaths cut off their noses to spite their faces, by over-reacting to such a targeted measure as proposed by Senator Menendez.

I hope, moving forward, that those who are far more ready than me to make government the omnibus regulator of all human activity will do away with another favorite straw man : that "free markets" mean economic free-for-all. (No one believes that, save perhaps a few anarcho-capitalists.)

If we can dispense with straw men characterizations of ideologies we believe we must somehow some way and any way contradict, we might begin to rationally debate the proper way in which free markets can most broadly reflect the legitimate exercise of economic freedom, restricted only to prevent harm rather than engineer all manner of outcomes, economic social or otherwise.

Rational, fair consumer credit card regulation to facilitate consumer awareness, transparency, and predictability is a goal for which I believe we can, the most of us, reach productive comity.

I welcome it.

O.M.G. - Part 3

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama is sending Congress a budget Thursday that projects the government's deficit for this year will soar to $1.75 trillion...

A senior administration official told The Associated Press that Obama's $3 trillion-plus spending blueprint also asks Congress to raise taxes on the wealthy in 2011 and cut Medicare costs to provide health care for the uninsured.

The new budget also plans for additional financial bailouts of up to $750 billion, a senior administration official told NBC News. But the White House believes that as the economy improves it will get roughly $500 billion back, so the expected cost to taxpayers is $250 billion.

The deficit is expected to remain around $1 trillion for the next two years before starting to decline to $533 billion in 2013, according to budget projections.

Obama also will ask for an additional $75 billion to cover the costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through September, the end of the current budget year. That would be on top of the $40 billion already appropriated by Congress, the administration official said.

The administration will also ask for $130 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010 and will budget the costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan at $50 billion annually over the next several years.

Obama's budget proposal would effectively raise income taxes and curb tax deductions on couples making more than $250,000 a year, beginning in 2011...Obama would allow the marginal rate on household incomes above $250,000 to rise from 35 percent to 39.6 percent.

The $1.75 trillion deficit projected for this year would represent 12.3 percent of the gross domestic product, double the previous post-war record of 6 percent in 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president, and the highest level since the deficit totaled 21.5 percent of GDP in 1945, at the end of World War II."

Wars. Federal bloat. Unaccountable deficit spending. Beltway arrogance. Pompous messianic politicians. Lofty rhetoric.

Yes, indeed. The more things "change", the more they stay the same.

Obama thinks a family making $250K is rich. Oh, is that rich. I dare say even low-income people would say the $1M mark defines what is "rich".

Those making low six-figure income may be well-off and fairly secure. But "rich" or "wealthy"? This is just redistributionist class warfarist propagandizing and the subtle demonization of citizens who do not deserve such totally-arbitrary treatment.

In short, Obama plans to have a family, for example, that makes $ 250,000.01 pay $11,500 more to the government per year, indefinitely, beginning in less than 2 years.

In short, why even break the $250K mark? You'll end up with even less than if you just simply made less.

Also, Obama thinks that "credit" is the "lifeblood" of our economy, so it is no surprise he is using the nation's credit card like an overextended mentally-unbalanced consumer going on a berzerk shopping binge.

Where's all the sacrifice come into this no-holds-barred spending extravaganza?

Or does Obama really mean sacrificing the (real) 'lifeblood' of American generations not yet in existence to accommodate his fierce expediency of now?

Here's a thought... let's just eliminate something for once....

...after 9/11, in response to a terrorist threat from a flexible, decentralized, tactically innovative Al Qaeda, the United State responded by creating the largest, most wasteful, lethargic bureaucracy in American history.

Must have had to be there for it to make sense.

Now, the incoming DHS chief is promising a thorough review:

WASHINGTON (AFP) – New US Homeland Security boss Janet Napolitano told lawmakers on Wednesday she had launched a sweeping review of her department, under pressure to reform amid allegations of mismanagement.

Napolitano told the House of Representatives? Homeland Security Committee she had initiated policy reviews in eight areas and would soon report to President Barack Obama about the future of the body, which some have said should be dissolved.
Napolitano said she was "kicking the tires," looking at policies afresh.

"It will not be one of those two-year study jobs," she promised lawmakers.

The Department of Homeland Security was set up six years ago in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, but has struggled to define its role within Washington?s power structures.

Bringing together 22 government agencies, the department has a range of tasks, from preventing terror attacks to dealing with natural disasters.

But it has faced a string of allegations of mismanagement over its role in leading the response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, of duplicating the resources of other government agencies and of bureaucratic waste.

Napolitano on Wednesday stressed the civilian management role of the agency more than her two predecessors -- who had focused on terror threats from the Al-Qaeda network and other groups in their maiden remarks to Congress.

The former Arizona governor, who earned a reputation for sound management while in Phoenix, focused her remarks more on natural disaster recovery, defending infrastructure and administrative reform.

Here's a thought, given that there is absolutely no evidence that the supervisory bureaucracy has either made us safer or more efficient at disaster relief:

Let's dismantle the damn thing, and go back to allowing 22 specialized agencies to do their own jobs....

Of course, people will scream that I'm soft on terrorism (hello, Eric!), but when they do, here's my challenge:

Show me how the existence of DHS, the cumbersome and irrational mechanism for disbursing HS grants to states and localities, the Constitution-shredding Patriot Act, and the Director of National Intelligence has actually made us safer.

Facts and data, please. Spare me the jingoistic rhetoric.

Combatus interruptus: the Iraq withdrawal that won't be a withdrawal

... because we'll still have 50,000 troops on the ground engaging in combat operations:

Just one day after reports came out regarding the Obama Administration’s 19 month withdrawal plan from Iraq, the Pentagon was detailing the enormous number of troops that would remain on the ground after Obama ostensibly fulfills his promise to remove all combat troops, and all the combat they’ll be engaging in.

After the “pullout,” as many as 50,000 troops will remain on the ground, and despite being touted as a withdrawal of combat troops, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell conceded that some would continue to “conduct combat operations,” and Iraq would still be considered a war zone. The rest would be what he described as “enablers.”

For perspective, 50,000 troops would be more than we're going to have fighting in Afghanistan even after the surge....

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Brian Tierney on bankers these days

I like the Michael Smerconish Show, and frankly suspect anybody who doesn't.

This morning he interviewed Brian Tierney, the managing partner of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News (who put up $10m of his own money to keep the papers local).

The interview, which you can hear as a podcast here, is interesting for a number of reasons.

The most interesting is when Tierney talks about banks. The Daily News saw profits drop from $51m to $36m last year, but still turned a profit. The corporation filed for Chapter 11 to restructure its debt. Tierney discusses the representatives from Citigroup and other banks riding down to Philly in their limos to make demands and give him advise that he has to take because they are covenanted creditors, for whose consultations he must pay $300k per month.

Tierney points out the incredible irony of bankers who are on the public dole, and whose stocks have tanked by 90-96% of last year's value coming in to give business advice to a set of newspapers that's still turning a profit.

Worth a listen.

Smerconish, by the way, is not a typical conservative talking head. I frequently disagree with him, especially on foreign policy, but unlike the shouters he's literate, respectful of guests and callers, and actually has points of view that are his own.

Plus, he's funny.

Making Things Clear : The WH Version

This is why it's so difficult to trust the government to investigate itself....

... when the Center for Constitutional Rights points out that the internal miliatry investigation of potential abuses at Gitmo was, essentially, a sham:

A leading human rights organization charges that, contrary to recent U.S. government reports that found prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, being treated humanely, they are in fact "deteriorating at a rapid rate" due to "harsh conditions that continue to this day, despite a few cosmetic changes to their routines."

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) released a report [.pdf] on the current conditions in Camps 5, 6, and Echo following a press conference convened late last week by Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, the vice chief of naval operations. In his own report on conditions at Guantanamo, delivered to the White House, Walsh determined that conditions at the base meet the standards of the Geneva Conventions.

CCR's report, "Conditions of Confinement at Guantanamo: Still in Violation of the Law," disputes that conclusion. It covers conditions at Guantánamo in January and February 2009 and includes new eyewitness accounts from attorneys and detainees.

The authors address what they call the continuing abusive conditions at the prison camp, including conditions of confinement that they say violate U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions, the U.S. Constitution, and international human rights law.

CCR Staff Attorney Pardiss Kebriaei said the Gitmo detainees "are caught in a vicious cycle where their isolation causes psychological damage, which causes them to act out, which brings more abuse and keeps them in isolation. If they are going to be there another year, or even another day, this has to end."

"Detainees at Guantanamo have continued to suffer from solitary confinement, psychological abuse, abusive force-feeding of hunger strikers, religious abuse, and physical abuse and threats of violence from guards and Immediate Reaction Force (IRF) teams," the report charged.

Read the report for yourself.

About last night....

... and trying to digest President Obama's un-SOTU address to Congress.

Here are my initial reactions, for what it's worth:

1) The speech as performance: I honestly did not think it was among his best. Obama impressed me tremendously on the campaign trail, but this one left me a bit flat emotionally. I think that's because as President he felt obligated to touch some bases that he doesn't feel particularly passionate about. I know he was trying for FDR or even Reagan, but it just didn't seem to connect as well as he usually does....

At that, it was better than any speech but one (right after 9/11) that Dubya gave in eight years, and better than a lot of Bubba's early efforts.

2) The issues within the speech: not surprisingly, little focus on foreign affairs, but I didn't really expect one. The real question is whether the three themes of education, health care, and energy will actually be the touchstones of his administration or disappear like Whip Inflation Now. I'm not thinking in terms of the particulars of any plan Obama might have (I'll probably disagree with him on many if not most of the details), but on the larger general perception of whether he is reacting to events or imposing his will on them. That's in large measure why FDR and Reagan were perceived as successful, when LBJ--despite all of his genuine accomplishment--wasn't. Obama's first big act was to respond to an economic crisis forced on him by circumstances; most of his foreign policy choices over the next year are likely to be reactive rather than pro-active. I think the intent of this speech was to lay out his agenda as opposed to his reactions to situations.

His three signature issues are traditional political issues; the question here will be what he proposes that is new, and the extent to which he can control the narrative (God, I hate writing that) on each of those issues for the next year. Clinton essentially handed the GOP the Congress in 1994 by losing the narrative on health care; that's the political challenge for Obama.

Of the three, I thought his rhetoric on health care was weakest in terms of emotional connection, that his words on education were effective but not necessarily memorable, and that his performance on energy was the best of the lot. But in all of that I don't think--though I may certainly be proven wrong--I heard a really effective battle cry. The line about dropping out being contextualized as giving up on your country was a pretty good sound bite, but I have to wonder seriously if drop-outs give a rat's butt about giving up on their country. I think it was pitched to the wrong audience.

All that being said, as a politician I give the President full points on two issues: he wasn't the first African-American President in front of Congress last night. He was just the President. And that's to the good.

Second point; he obviously understands the need for people to see him out front, in charge, and talking about the issues. He's so far evidenced a politician's innate understanding of the bully pulpit.

Here's the question that bedeviled Bubba for eight years, however: Will he know when it's time to shut up?

A good sign from the administration on weapons acquisition...

... is the appointment of Harvard Professor Ashton Carter as the Pentagon's chief weapons purchaser, as a counterbalance to Raytheon lobbyist William Lynn.

From Stars & Stripes:

President Barack Obama has nominated Harvard professor Ashton Carter, a leading authority on arms control and a longtime academic, to serve as the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, the White House announced Monday.

The choice of Carter to run the office that oversees hundreds of billions of dollars for new weapons and research — and is the focus of intense lobbying by defense firms, retired generals, and members of Congress — sparked concern within the defense industry and parts of the Pentagon bureaucracy when it was first rumored last month, the Boston Globe reported in its Tuesday editions.

But that may be exactly what Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wanted, the Globe noted.

Unlike most of his predecessors, Carter has no professional ties to America’s arms makers or manufacturing industry, nor has he spent his career in procurement, according to the report. Instead, from his perch at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Carter has been criticizing the Pentagon for buying too much armament it does not need.

Advocates told the Globe that Carter was chosen because of his combination of technical expertise and knowledge of defense strategy. He served in a senior Pentagon policy post from 1993 to 1996. But as a relative outsider, the Globe wrote, the 54-year-old Carter should be better positioned to make what Gates has said will be "difficult choices."

"He is not being brought in to help the defense industry thrive," Loren Thompson, president of the Lexington Institution think tank told the paper. "He is being brought in to decide what we need and what we can do without."

Credit where credit is due: this is an excellent move.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Robert Reich, like Paul Krugman, is neither an historian nor an expert in foreign affairs...

... which explains his bizarre take on getting out of the recession.

In a piece actually criticizing President Obama for promising to cut the deficit, Reich gives us his full take on borrowing your way to prosperity:

We're in a deepening recession, in case you hadn't noticed. The biggest challenge is to ramp up aggregate demand. Yes, we have to borrow lots from the Chinese and Japanese to do this, and, yes, it's costly in terms of additional interest payments to them. But there's no choice. In fact, if the slump gets worse -- and I have every reason to fear it will because that's the direction we're heading in as fast as you can imagine -- we'll probably have to have a second stimulus. And if the second isn't enough, a third. And so on. FDR's biggest mistake was doing too little until World War II. (No one should interpret this as a recommendation for more military spending -- I'm just saying Obama will probably have to think and do much bigger than the $787 billion stimulus so far.)

Can we continue to borrow and borrow and borrow? Yes, but eventually we'll have to pay higher interest rates to continue to attract global savings, mostly from the Chinese and Japanese. But that's not anytime soon. The Chinese and Japanese are not going to yank their money out of Treasury bills because the slump is worldwide and T-bills are about the best and safest place to park savings. Besides, the Chinese don't want the dollar to plunge. They'd be stuck with a lot of paper worth far less than they got it for, and their exports would be in even worse shape than now....

As to the economics, remember that when it comes to deficits and debt, the real issues over the long term are (1) the ratio of debt to GDP (we're still under 50 percent, which ain't bad, considering all the spending that's been going on; at the end of World War II it was substantially above 120 percent). And (2) whether and when we're back to growing the GDP, which is the most reliable way of improving the ratio.

Let's just take two rather ridiculous pieces of this post:

1) The idea that continuous borrowing from the Chinese has no consequences other than high interest rates because the Chinese have no better place to put their money than Treasuries and they need our export market. This works only if you see China exclusively as an abstract country with money to lend and products to sell. The reality: China is our major world competitor over this century for oil, for market share in the automobile and technology markets, and for political dominance in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. As I noted yesterday, Secretary Clinton's visit to China already demonstrates the cost of our borrowing from the wizened old men in Bejing: she was not allowed to raise human rights issues in any vigorous manner. Why? You don't get to criticize your creditors.

2) The post World War Two recovery fantasy--which also seems to have deluded Paul Krugman. Let's point out those things about post 1945 recovery that we already mentioned last month:

(1) The relatively complete devastation of all other major industrial bases on the planet, to include Japan, Russia, Germany, France, Italy, and even Great Britain, which left the US with a virtual monopoly on heavy industrial production for at least a decade, and a hegemonic position for most of another decade.

(2) The complete absence of developing world economic competition with American (and then European) markets. World War Two ends with most colonial empires in disarray, but it takes decades after formal independence for nations like India, Indonesia, Korea, or Malaysia to become competitors for low-income factory/sweat-shop work.

(3) Low oil prices caused the American/British domination of most oil supply areas and the relative lack of competition for oil products.

(4) The fact that the Federal government engaged in almost no real social spending compared to today--or even the 1960s. The absence of government social spending and the incredibly low national spending on education (especially pre-Brown v Board of Education) meant that the government could make that 8-10% investment in Cold War spending without causing taxes to go up unduly.

(5) The fact that the GI Bill not only allowed millions of white American men to go to college, but also set back most of the gains in the workplace made by women during the World War Two era by excluding them from this benefit.

(6) The fact that high union membership (and therefore the success of collective bargaining) was a byproduct of the heavy industrial model of the economy, which placed its premium on a (relatively) small number of employers who are looking for a workforce with an 8th Grade education, and possess no motivation to become better educated....

(7) The complete absence of a number of modern externalities, like environmental regulations....

What continues to amaze me is that people fawn over economists like Krugman and Reich despite their almost complete historical and political ignorance....

But they do. They even consider them thoughtful.

Where's My Bailout??

Yes, there are hunting weapons designed for small people--including children...

I learned to shoot with one in the Boy Scouts at age eleven.

Now, of course, it has become a major political issue in light of the recent killing of a pregnant woman, allegedly by her 11-year-old stepson-to-be.

From Alphecca:

Advocacy groups often make themselves look ridiculous by going to extremes in what they criticize. PETA is a perfect example. The Brady Bunch is another.

What has the Brady Bunch (with the help of ABC News) pissing their collective pants right now is that some firearm manufacturers offer smaller versions of their rifles and shotguns.

Let me set the stage. There was a tragic story of an 11-year-old boy killing his father’s girlfriend last week. Understand that this post is not intended to make light of that.

What I AM ridiculing is the reaction by Paul Helmke of the Brady Bunch upon learning that the boy used a youth-sized shotgun he’d gotten as a Christmas gift. From ABC News:

“To specifically market a gun designed for a kid is outrageous,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun control group. “To have a gun specially designed for junior, we’re talking about a lethal weapon here, you’re not talking about a toy anymore.”

No. Guns are not toys. Neither are hunting knives, power tools, kiddie ATVs, and hundreds of other items that parents sometime choose to purchase for their children as they are growing up, hopefully to teach responsibility.

That this time there was mental illness, parental irresponsibility, or any other of a number of factors involved is not an excuse to demand (as will be demanded) that a practice that has literally helped millions of children throughout American history become responsible handlers and owners of firearms be made illegal.

Another reason we shouldn't be doing nation-building ...

... is that we're apparently not very good at it.

From Reuters:

SANG-I-KHEL, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The United States' decision to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan will mean little to the people of northern Sang-i-Khel village whose fight is not against Taliban insurgents but against hunger.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered 17,000 additional U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan to tackle an intensifying insurgency across the south and east of the country.

Yet in the relatively peaceful north, Afghans face a different struggle. Severe drought and soaring food prices have left hundreds of thousands of people facing a daily battle to survive the winter.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says some 280,000 Afghans in the north of the country are suffering from the drought, the worst in a decade, and are unable to meet their basic food needs.

But the US, curiously enough, is sending most of its aid to the parts of the country where people are not starving:

While Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, dependent on billions of dollars in foreign aid every year, poverty varies by region. Some areas are much better off than others.

Southern Helmand province, where more than two-thirds of the country's illicit opium is produced and where the insurgency is strongest, is among the top three richest provinces by most indicators, according to a 2008 report by the United Nations.

Helmand has the highest rate of car ownership in the entire country.

Yet southern provinces such as Helmand get most of the aid despite their relative affluence and their role as the center of Afghanistan's estimated $3 billion illicit drugs trade industry.

The U.S. international development agency (USAID) is by far the biggest aid donor in Afghanistan and has pumped millions of dollars into Helmand. If Helmand were a country it would be the fifth largest recipient of USAID funding.

Helmand was pledged $403 per person in aid between 2007-2008 compared to $153 in Balkh, aid agencies said. Neighboring Sari-i-Pol and Kunduz provinces fared much worse with $53 and $55 per person.

This, apparently, is how we support the Karzai government...

And this is why we're suddenly surprised that the Afghans are not flocking to our standards?

One of those curiosities of life in the power elite...

... is that you never know when, like our new Homeland Security Czar, you may have to come face to face with your old policy positions:

As governor of Arizona, Janet Napolitano was no fan of the Real ID program that sets federal standards for state-issued driver's licenses which will be required in the future to board airplanes.

Now that she is Homeland Security secretary and overseeing the department that governs the contentious law, Miss Napolitano says she wants to examine "realistic options" with the officials who must put the program into action - the nation's governors.

Specifically, Miss Napolitano said she is looking at Washington state's modified version of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative program. The Pacific state issues security-enhanced driver's licenses that are accepted for crossing into the state from Canada.

In addition to Arizona, more than a dozen states have passed legislation prohibiting the implementation of the Real ID program, and similar legislation passed by the Virginia House and Senate last week is awaiting Gov. Tim Kaine's signature.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Two kick-butt economic posts that point out all the things Paul Krugman, Mark Zandi, and Timothy Geithner aren't talking about

The first is from Scientific American publisher Jeffrey Sachs [h/t Kids Prefer Cheese]:

"Most important, we should stop panicking. One of the reasons we got into this mess was the Fed’s exaggerated fear in 2002 and 2003 that the U.S. was following Japan into a decade of stagnation caused by deflation (falling prices). To avoid a deflation the Fed created a bubble. Now the bubble has burst, and we’ve ended up with the deflation we feared! Panics end badly, even panics of policy; more moderate policies will be safer in the medium term.

There is little reason to fear a decade of stagnation, much less a depression. The U.S. economy is technologically dynamic and highly flexible. The world economy has tremendous growth potential if we don’t end up in financial and trade conflict, and if the central banks ensure adequate liquidity to avoid panicky runs on banks, businesses and sovereign borrowers. We should understand that the Great Depression itself resulted from a horrendous run on the U.S. banking system in an era without deposit insurance, and when the Fed and Congress did not understand the critical role of a lender of last resort. Moreover, the Gold Standard of the 1930s, which we long ago abandoned, acted like a kind of straightjacket on monetary policies.

In short, although the sharp downturn will unavoidably last another year or even two, we will not need zero interest rates and mega-deficits to avoid a depression or even to bring about a recovery. In fact, the long-term, sustainable recovery will be accelerated by a policy framework in which the budget credibly returns to balance over several years, the government meets its critical responsibilities in social services, infrastructure and regulation, and the Fed avoids dangerous swings in interest rates that actually contribute to the booms and busts we seek to avoid."

And then--of all places--Al Jazeera manages to discuss the long-term history of the current economic meltdown without degenerating into partisan references and blaming everything on Ronald Reagan and libertarian economic policies. An excerpt:

This massively unbalanced mechanism was not only rooted in the financial sector but the manufacturing and service industries as well.

Richard Wolff, a University of Massachusetts economist, says the crisis "grows out of the relation of wages to profits across the economy. It has profound social roots in America's households and families and political roots in government policies".

Since the 1820s, the US economy has experienced steady gains in productivity.

This led not only to steadily increasing profits for corporations but also to rising working class wages and, with it, consumption levels.

As wages and consumption rose, the "Protestant ethic" that had helped to generate capitalism's unprecedented economic power was discarded in favour of an ethic of commodity consumption.

People's identities were now increasingly defined by what they consumed rather than their religious beliefs or social actions.

The size of one's home, car and flat-screen TV, or the price of one's clothes, mobile phones and holidays became of paramount importance.

This economic ideology - based on the possibility, and desirability, of limitless growth - created an ethos of rampant materialism and individualism.

The economic dynamics that supported this ideology changed radically in the 1970s when neo-liberal globalisation introduced structural changes to existing financial systems.

Rapid development in computer, communications and transportation technologies fuelled an economic productivity which led to unprecedented growth in corporate profits.

Meanwhile, this process weakened the ability of workers to maintain wage growth at a rate comparable to productivity and profits.

In fact, around 1970 real wages for most non-management workers stopped increasing, and have stayed flat, and even declined, since then.

Wolff explains that rather than fight against the erosion of their incomes, working and middle class Americans began to work even longer hours, and then take on second and even third jobs, in order to continue to consume apace with the upper classes.

I don't personally subscribe to every jot and tittle in these two posts, but they are specifically notable for providing economic interpretations that don't depend on the overly simplistic ahistorical analysis that somehow won Paul Krugman a Nobel Prize for essentially calling anybody with different political beliefs than his a racist.

Mat Marshall is getting a tatoo...

... or, at least he will be if he loses his argument with me over at Down With Absolutes.

Mat wants proof in a naturalistic sense that god exists, and--not to put too fine a point on it--he wants it by or before March 7. Apparently the apocalypse occurs the next day and he doesn't want to miss the Rapture.

If you satisfy him that god exists, he gets the tatoo of your choice in the location of your choice.

So many of my good friends and readers here are confirmed atheists and agnostics that I thought you might have some fun reading (or even commenting upon) my attempts to get Mat decorated...

All good fun, but worth thinking about.

Does Anyone Else Find It Truly Bizarre...

...that with Barack Obama's signature barely dry on the largest single deficit spending measure in world history that he now proclaims he will "halve" the federal deficit in 4 years?

Economist Jeffrey Miron from that right-wing, conservative, wingnut talking points bastion Harvard University said he suspects the proposal to halve the $1.3 trillion deficit is "wildly optimistic."

(To say the least, Professor Miron. Obama-Reid-Pelosi are just getting warmed up with their forcible statist redistribution of economic resources in America).

I guess for those of the twisted ideology that can justify almost-instantaneously escalating deficit spending beyond what almost any human being can even conceive, to then spin right around and state the intention of "halving" this very same deficit probably seems rational and believable.

Nevertheless, no need to let reality get in the way of phony media posturing and staged dog-and-pony events posing as real action.

Modeling himself after the Democrat party's long-standing playbook (see : Minner, Ruth Ann, Gov.), Obama is convening a "study group/task force/commission", or "summit" as it is being touted, so he can at least pretend he now gives a shit about "fiscal responsibility".

Mind you, once more, Obama just blew the doors off the national debt, to the tune of $1.3 trillion for just this year, on top of the existing $10,000,000,000,000.00 national debt.

Not 30 days into office Obama already walked the walk of epic fiscal irresponsibility, taking our country over the cliff with him.

Now he wants to talk a bunch of talk about being measured or responsible or attentive to deficit spending.

He can gather all the yammering heads and policy sycophants he wants for a deficit focus group and it means a tinker's goddamn really.

Like all of Obama's phony, now-shattered campaign rhetoric that misled so many to believe he would be different....that he would do the right is all just talk.

The more I see, the more it seems to me Obama has mastered spending like a drunken George Bush and spinning like a caffeinated Bill Cinton on a sugar high.

Change indeed.

From Our Continuing Series : "They're Baaaaack...."

"Too big to fail" corporate crack whore AIG is back for more.

(The first $150,000,000,000.00 the American taxpayers gave it wasn't enough apparently).

Gosh, who could have ever predicted that the federal government's "money for nothing, stimulus for free" bonanza of the last 6 months would result in these bloated corporate junkies (the lucky ones who were "allowed" to survive) coming back for more.

I suppose the taxpayers can just "absorb" AIG's $60BN expected loss.

Obama's mortgage "plan" has us "absorbing" up to $200BN in losses each for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

Why stop anywhere?

Wait...Is that Barack I see riding in on a stimulunicorn?

CNBC reports company expected to report $60 billion loss, largest ever

updated 3:18 p.m. ET, Mon., Feb. 23, 2009

AIG is in discussions with the government about securing additional funds so it can keep operating after next Monday when it will report the largest loss in U.S. corporate history, sources told CNBC Monday.

CNBC's David Faber said sources close to the company told him the loss will be near $60 billion due to writedowns on a variety of assets including commercial real estate.

He said that massive loss is likely to spur downgrades in the firm's insurance and credit ratings that will force AIG to raise collateral it does not have. Faber added that if AIG's book value falls below a certain level, it will trigger default in some of its debt instruments, according to people familiar with the situation.

The Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department have already provided AIG assistance of over $150 billion. AIG officials have not offered comment, Faber said.

CNBC said talks are focused on how the company can swap some of the debt held by the government for equity in AIG. Faber said the problem is that the government's ownership stake cannot exceed its current 79.9 percent, leaving officials to try and find a creative way to transfer value to the U.S. in exchange for AIG reducing its debt so that it can then borrow more from the government to meet its collateral calls.

AIG has borrowed roughly $40 billion from a $60 billion credit facility provided it by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. If it can find a way to pay that down by swapping equity, it hopes to take it back up to a level that will allow it to meet its collateral and capital calls, Faber said.

Officials at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York have not returned calls.

[What poetic irony. They may as well take it off the hook.]

AIG's board is scheduled to meet this Sunday night in hopes of hammering out an agreement with the government, CNBC reported.

Because Hillary Clinton is many things, but stupid ain't one of them...

Human rights groups couldn't wait to give the new Secretary of State a boatload of criticism over her down-playing of human-rights issues with China:


BEIJING, Feb. 20 -- Human rights violations by China cannot block the possibility of significant cooperation between Washington and Beijing on the global economic crisis, climate change and security threats such as North Korea's nuclear program, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday.

"We pretty much know what they are going to say" on human rights issues such as greater freedoms for Tibet, Clinton told reporters traveling with her on a tour of Asia. "We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere" with dialogue on other crucial topics.

Clinton's remarks elicited sharp condemnation from Amnesty International, which has urged her to move human rights near the top of the U.S.-China agenda. The organization accused Clinton of saying "that human rights will not be a priority in her diplomatic engagement with China" and urged her to "publicly declare that human rights are central to U.S.-China relations before she leaves Beijing."

And even our military leaders are scratching their heads over the State Department's announcement (apparently without forewarning the Pentagon) of a resumption of high-level bilateral military talks, as well the US blind eye turned toward China-Pakistan joint military maneuvers.

But here's the simple fact of the matter: President Barack Obama's massive stimulus package can only be funded through massive inflation or massive Chinese loans, or some combination of both. And the wizened old men who run China know that. They are essentially embarking on their own version of the Marshall Plan to help rebuild America because they need the export market. In the end they will become our silent partner, our largest creditor.

And you don't publicly criticize your largest creditor, especially when those old men possess the power to collapse the US economy by pulling hundreds of billions out of T-bills overnight.

Listen carefully to this interchange:

BEIJING -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chinese officials say they will expand high-level talks on economic issues to include troubling security matters as well.

The two nations also agreed Saturday to cooperate in stabilizing the global economy and combating climate change, putting aside long-standing concerns about human rights.

With the export-heavy Chinese economy reeling from the U.S. downturn, Clinton sought in meetings with Premier Wen Jiabao and other top Chinese government leaders to reassure Beijing that its massive holdings of U.S. Treasury notes and other government debt would remain a good investment.

"I appreciate greatly the Chinese government's continuing confidence in United States treasuries. I think that's a well-grounded confidence," Clinton told reporters at a joint news conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

"We have every reason to believe that the United States and China will recover, and together we will help lead the world recovery," she said....

Yang said China wants its foreign exchange reserves - the world's largest at $1.95 trillion - invested safely, with good value and liquidity. He said future decisions on using them would be based on those principles, but added that China wanted to continue work with the U.S.

"I want to emphasize here that the facts speak louder than words. The fact is that China and the United States have conducted good cooperation, and we are ready to continue to talk with the U.S. side," Yang said.

Ask yourself as you read this dialogue, who sounds like the senior partner and who sounds like the supplicant here.

The new reality of the post-Meltdown world: those who have cash liquidity, which the US doesn't, are in a better position than ever to call the shots.

Which means that human rights issues are off the table for the foreseeable future, possibly longer.

Which means that we have now seen the first signs that our financial instability at home is having a distinct dis-empowering affect on our foreign policy.

Note that this visit also finds Secretary Clinton essentially acknowledging an expanding Chinese sphere of influence:

U.S. discussions with China also included Myanmar, ruled by a military junta that has thumbed its nose at United Nations efforts to introduce greater democracy. China’s state-run oil companies including China National Petroleum Corp. have been criticized by the U.S. and European countries for sourcing fuel from Sudan, Iran and Myanmar, which face international sanctions. CNPC is in talks to import oil and gas from Myanmar by 2011.

China's foreign policy is one that many American observers would do well to examine. Without utilizing but a tiny fraction of the military forces or foreign bases that are the corporately driven lynch-pin of American interventionism, China has been quietly investing in Africa and the Middle East for the past two decades, sewing up deals on energy security that will take the world's third largest economy well into the middle of this century.

This is a longish excerpt, but tremendously import:

DAKAR (Reuters) - Chinese businessmen are taking a long-term view and pursuing strategic expansion in Africa even though China's multiplying investments on the continent have lost some luster in the global downturn.

Beijing and Chinese companies have pledged tens of billions of dollars to Africa in loans and investments mostly to secure raw materials for the world's fastest-growing large economy.

That long-term interest remains intact, despite a worldwide economic slump that has hit China's exports to the rich world and a sharp decline in Africa's mineral shipments to China.

China-Africa trade has surged by an average 30 percent a year this decade, soaring to nearly $107 billion in 2008.

"China is in Africa for the long term, and strategically," said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso who teaches at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.

"They will not veer from this, in my view," he said.

Far from retreating, many Chinese businessmen are hunting for bargains.

Chinese and Indian firms have expressed interest in taking over Zambia's top cobalt producer Luanshya Copper Mines since it halted operations in December, Zambian state media reported.

South Africa's Standard Bank, itself 20 percent owned by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), said last month it was advising Chinese mining clients on buying opportunities in Africa and elsewhere.

"They are looking at 2009 and saying 'This is a time we see as a very big buying opportunity. We've got the backing from government, we've got the financial means'," Thys Terblanche, the bank's head of mining and metals investment banking, told Reuters.

Beyond mining, Chinese state companies are pushing ahead with strategic energy sector investments and infrastructure; private outfits are continuing to expand in technology areas.

"Some developed Western countries hit by the financial crisis are reducing their investment in Africa. Objectively, this is a powerful opportunity for Chinese businesses to expand their investment and market share in Africa," Cui Yongqian, a former Chinese ambassador to the Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, told a China-Africa trade forum this month.

Trade with Angola, China's biggest source of African crude oil, reached $25.3 billion in 2007 and Beijing has offered Luanda $5 billion in oil-backed loans.

Shenzhen-based Huawei Technologies, China's biggest telecoms equipment maker, is pushing south from its established stamping ground in North Africa.

It's time to finally get our heads around the difference between the US and China, which is--in a foreign policy and economic sense--that these old men come from a culture with a history of planning by generations and centuries, and we operate out of a paradigm that places a premium on mid-term Congressional elections in two years.