Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Meet Youssef Megahed and the police state in America

Youssef Megahed was acquitted by a jury on charges of illegal possession and transport of explosives:

Megahed came to the United States from Egypt in 1998 as a legal immigrant when he was 12. His problems started two years ago when, as an engineering student at the University of South Florida, he went on a road trip with a new friend, Ahmed Mohamed.

The men were pulled over on a highway, near Charleston, South Carolina, for speeding.

Police say they searched their vehicle and found PVC pipe with potassium nitrate inside, along with detonator cord inside one of Mohamed's bags.

The government said the materials were "low explosives." Mohamed said they were materials for homemade model rockets.

Youssef Megahed claimed he did not know that the materials were in the car.

A search of Mohamed's laptop computer found research concerning rockets and propellants and how to manufacture them, as well as information about Qassam rockets -- crude rockets used by terrorists in the Middle East, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors also had a video, made and narrated by Mohamed, in which he demonstrates how to outfit a model car with explosives. He posted it on "YouTube."

Mohamed pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists and is serving a 15-year prison sentence.

However, Megahed went to trial and was found not guilty on two charges of possession and transportation of explosives. He was later set free.

"I'm very happy with this," he said, smiling to reporters after his acquittal.

Jurors later said they believed that Megahed did not know the "low explosives" were in the car.

Gary Meringer and the other 11 jurors deliberated for over three days in U.S. district court in Tampa before reaching their unanimous verdict.

But the story did not end here:

Megahed left the courthouse on Friday, April 3, ready to resume his life and his studies. He and his family spent the weekend at the beach at Fort DeSoto, Florida. Three days later, federal agents surrounded him, and his father, Samir, as they left a Wal-mart store near their home in Tampa and he was arrested again.

"They surround us....I'm in shock. They didn't give us a chance to speak to somebody to know what was going on," said Samir Megahed. "I try to open the telephone, but they didn't allow me," he said.

Megahed is now being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, as someone ICE says is "engaged or likely to become engaged in ... terrorist activity" even though he has never been criminally charged with terrorism.

ICE will present an immigration judge with the very same facts that led to Megahed's acquittal in the criminal case. In immigration court, the burden of proof is significantly less.

The evidence, from a search of the computer at his family's home, includes "numerous videos, documents and an Internet search history that supports Islamic extremism, jihad against the United States...," ICE alleged in court documents.

If found guilty, Megahed will be deported.

CNN requested an on-camera interview with Megahed, but ICE would not allow it.

"Because of the national security implications of this case, ICE cannot allow the use of recording devices during in-person interviews with Mr. Megahed," spokesman Richard Rocha said in an e-mail.

How does the State see the situation? In the new world under the Obama administration (currently mooting the issue of indefinite detention of suspects without trial), this is instructive:

This is not the first time the government has gone to immigration court as a last resort after failing to win a criminal prosecution.

"The government doesn't use this a lot, but I think this is an arrow in the quiver that needs to stay because there are those cases where the government needs to do everything in its power to keep us safe, from some of those same individuals," said former U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis.

"In one context, the real question is, are you going to jail for a long period of time. The other context is, are you going to get to live among us," Lewis said.

Some folks, like columnist Howard Wexler, don't have much difficulty with this, because despite the fact that Megahed's finger prints were not found on anything in the vehicle's trunk and that Mohamed (in pleading guilty himself) said Megahed had no knowledge of the materials, we're not real comfortable when people with foreign-sounding names get caught in bad situations:

Megahed, a permanent U.S. resident whose family has lived here 11 years, made one bad judgment, namely, to hang out with Mohamed and to ride with him in his car to South Carolina, where they were arrested during a 2007 traffic stop.

Megahed says he doesn't even know what was in the trunk, and we can't prove any different — after all, none of his prints were on the stuff.

Last, there is no question that the feds are getting two bites at the apple, double jeopardy or not. They seem determined to Get Him. Is this sour grapes? Sure looks like it.

So, why isn't this a slam-dunk for letting him go at once? Because the standards for deportation are different. As hard as I try, I am not entirely comfortable that driving around South Carolina in the middle of the night with a trunk full of weird stuff with a buddy who likes blow-things-up videos was just fun and games.

Let an immigration judge decide.

Let's be clear: the State doesn't appear to have any new evidence beyond that presented at Megahed's trial. Wexler is right: deportation standards are lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt requirement in the original trial. Yet jury foreman Gary Meringer is quite clear that reasonable doubt is not what acquitted Megahed:

"We were all waiting for a shoe to drop, for some kind of a case to be made....so, after two weeks, it seemed to me there was no case, and nothing for us to decide," Meringer said.

"This case never should have seen the light of day in a courtroom."

This is a somewhat tricky issue for lots of Americans, because intellectual consistency can tie you into knots. Remember the Rodney King acquittal back in April 1992, the outrage that followed, and the general rejoicing that the Feds then filed Civil Rights charges against the same officers for the same crime with the same evidence?

I remember taking a lot of crap then because even though I admitted that the second trial was not, in due process terms, double jeopardy, I thought it was inappropriate for each level of the State to keep to get taking shots at the accused with exactly the same evidence until it scores the verdict it wants. Nobody wanted to hear the idea that this was a violation of the intellectual and moral concept of double jeopardy--and in many quarters (including my own classroom) people with whom I made the mistake of discussing the case considered any qualms about an abuse of State prosecutorial power as prima facie evidence of racism....

But now the same process that was--its adherents argued--used to protect the civil rights of Rodney King is being used to deprive Youssef Megahed of his.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Because the government can tell two women and their children that they are not a family ...

... is why it is not always a good idea to rely completely on the State to safeguard your civil liberties.

From Classically Liberal:

Lava Hot Springs Park [Idaho] is a government-owned “recreation” center that announced a family discount. It then told a lesbian couple and their children that they don’t count as a real family and won’t get the discount. The park used state marriage laws as the excuse for that. When they got some flack over the unequal policy they announced that they would solve it by stripping all families of discounts. You should note that they are doing this over a few dollars....

What the local Chamber of Commerce said was that they were asked about their views toward “gay and lesbian visitors” and that the Board of the Chamber unanimously agreed that “we want all to know that we hope this isolated incident won’t dissuade visitors from exploring our community and, indeed, the rest of Idaho. The Lave Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce feels that all are welcome in our community and we look forward to showing them our Idaho hospitality.”

On one hand we have a government-owned park making a same-sex couple and their children feel especially unwelcome while the Chamber of Commerce, that represents 70 businesses in the area, is going out of its way to tell people that they welcome everyone as visitors in their community. I am not the least bit surprised by this.

He follows with a theoretical digression into markets as better protectors of civil liberties than governments, concluding:

In Lava Hot Springs the local businesses don’t want to alienate customers. They want to welcome everyone. The non-profit, state-controlled park doesn’t have to satisfy customers. It doesn’t exist purely on the basis of profit. They have no major incentive to treat people right. They can afford to be legalistic, bureaucratic and stodgy. They can ignore the realities of life since they are government controlled and owned and they don’t have to make a profit. They can treat people like shit, businesses can’t.

What I have never understood is why so many progressives and advocates of diversity believe that state control will make life better for those who suffer discrimination. It isn’t the private community that is refusing to recognize gay couples—it is the state. Only six states have recognized gay marriage. Hundreds of the largest corporations in the United States recognized those relationship years ago. Even when a radical progressive like Barack Obama gets into office he’s happy to screw the gay community around for months, refusing to keep his promises. What Obama won’t do, private businesses have done quietly and with little conflict for years.

I am not agreeing that everything would be all right if all civil liberties protections were market-based, not Constitution-based.

But this does make a strong argument that, especially within the so-called grey areas, trusting the State to interpret those issues is not necessarily a wise decision.

The eliminationist rhetoric of ... Paul Krugman!?

Words mean things. Words have consequences.

If it is dangerous and wrong-headed for rightwings to scream tyranny about the Obama administration's success in pressing its own agenda because such inflammatory rhetoric, well, inflames people...

So how about the word Treason in the mouth of one of the most important national spokesmen for progressive/liberal policies--to wit, Paul Krugman:

So the House passed the Waxman-Markey climate-change bill. In political terms, it was a remarkable achievement.

But 212 representatives voted no. A handful of these no votes came from representatives who considered the bill too weak, but most rejected the bill because they rejected the whole notion that we have to do something about greenhouse gases.

And as I watched the deniers make their arguments, I couldn’t help thinking that I was watching a form of treason — treason against the planet.

He then goes on to recap global warming science before returning to his treason meme:

Given this contempt for hard science, I’m almost reluctant to mention the deniers’ dishonesty on matters economic. But in addition to rejecting climate science, the opponents of the climate bill made a point of misrepresenting the results of studies of the bill’s economic impact, which all suggest that the cost will be relatively low.

Still, is it fair to call climate denial a form of treason? Isn’t it politics as usual?

Yes, it is — and that’s why it’s unforgivable.

Do you remember the days when Bush administration officials claimed that terrorism posed an “existential threat” to America, a threat in whose face normal rules no longer applied? That was hyperbole — but the existential threat from climate change is all too real.

Yet the deniers are choosing, willfully, to ignore that threat, placing future generations of Americans in grave danger, simply because it’s in their political interest to pretend that there’s nothing to worry about. If that’s not betrayal, I don’t know what is.

Here's the problem--if I really have to spell it out: to characterize the dissent of elected representatives from a political agenda (even stupid dissent) as treason is to invoke all the images that go with it: Benedict Arnold and the only crime punishable by death mentioned in the US Constitution.

Krugman is way over the edge here. His historical rhetoric, for at least the past year, has not just been over the top but (given his academic credentials) willfully misleading. Anyone who disagrees with his economic analysis (including other Nobel Laureates in Economics) is not merely wrong, but dishonest.

Now he has equated certain votes by 49% of the US House of Representatives as treason.

This is not mere hyperbole. This is exactly the sort of demonization and eliminationist rhetoric about which our liberal and progressive friends have been warning us will end in violence.

Or else it isn't. On either side.

Jesus said, "Pork is OK, but Fags no way!" (Actual quote)

Of course both Waldo and I are going to hell for this. But at least that means I'll have a drinking buddy with whom I can discuss the French Revolution throughout eternity.

Too large to post here, you MUST visit the flow chart overview on the arguments regarding same-sex marriage.

Warning: if you are drinking coffee it may come out through your nose. Or else you may simply cry.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Not Carter, but LBJ...

A lot of Republicans trotted out the idea (hopefully, I suspect) that in electing Barack Obama America was getting Jimmy Carter's second term.

I'm beginning to think that LBJ might be a more apt comparison (granted that JFK had been assassinated and Dubya only assassinated the legitimacy of his own presidency).

LBJ wanted the Great Society to be his legacy to the United States; instead, he is forever linked to quagmire and failure in Vietnam.

President Obama is today concentrating massive efforts on domestic politics as well (stimulus, cap and trade, health care); but he is also running a very real risk of being linked to a similar quagmire and failure in the Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.

Simon Jenkins of The Guardian:

If good intentions ever paved a road to hell, they are doing so in Afghanistan. History rarely declares when folly turns to disaster, but it does so now. Barack Obama and his amanuensis, Gordon Brown, are uncannily repeating the route taken by American leaders in Vietnam from 1963 to 1975. Galbraith once said that the best thing about the Great Depression was that it warned against another. Does the same apply to Vietnam?

Vietnam began with Kennedy's noble 1963 intervention, to keep the communist menace at bay and thus make the world safe for democracy. That is what George Bush and Tony Blair said of terrorism and Afghanistan. Vietnam escalated as the Diem regime in Saigon failed to contain Vietcong aggression and was deposed with American collusion. By 1965, despite Congress scepticism, American advisers, then planes, then ground forces were deployed. Allies were begged to join but few agreed – and not Britain.

The presence of Americans on Asian soil turned a local insurgency into a regional crusade. Foreign aid rallied to the Vietcong cause to resist what was seen as a neo-imperialist invasion. The hard-pressed Americans resorted to ever more extensive bombing, deep inside neighbouring countries, despite evidence that it was ineffective and politically counterproductive.

No amount of superior firepower could quell a peasant army that came and went by night and could terrorise or merge into the local population. Tales of American atrocities rolled in each month. The army counted success not in territory held but in enemy dead. A desperate attempt to "train and equip" a new Vietnamese army made it as corrupt as it was unreliable. Billions of dollars were wasted. A treaty with the Vietcong in 1973 did little to hide the humiliation of eventual defeat.

Every one of these steps is being re-enacted in Afghanistan. Every sane observer, even serving generals and diplomats, admit that "we are not winning" and show no sign of doing so. The head of the British army, Sir Richard Dannatt, remarked recently on the "mistakes" of Iraq as metaphor for Afghanistan. He has been supported by warnings from his officers on the ground.

It is not going to be sufficient in another year to suggest that President Obama inherited this mess. He campaigned on throwing more troops and more resources into the theater, and he has doubled down at every opportunity.

And what would victory look like, anyway? Al Qaeda and the Taliban have the ability--Long March style--to retreat into Kirghizistan or any of the other 'stans nearby if things get too difficult. Pakistan has all the internal stability of Cambodia in the 1970s, but with nuclear weapons thrown in for good measure if some new Pol Pot were to arise.

This, as events in the region continue to spin out of control, is the stuff that unravels Presidencies.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Your TSA Gestapo: Now profiling based on ... comic book scripts

From SFscope:

Boom! Studios sends word that comics writer Mark Sable was detained by TSA security guards at Los Angeles International Airport this past weekend because he was carrying a script for a new issue of his comic miniseries Unthinkable. Sable was detained while traveling to New York for a debut party at Jim Hanley's Universe today.

The comic series follows members of a government think tank that was tasked with coming up with 9/11-type "unthinkable" terrorist scenarios that now are coming true. (See this article for more on the series.)

Sable wrote of his experiences: "Flying from Los Angeles to New York for a signing at Jim Hanley's Universe Wednesday (May 13th), I was flagged at the gate for 'extra screening'. I was subjected to not one, but two invasive searches of my person and belongings. TSA agents then 'discovered' the script for Unthinkable #3. They sat and read the script while I stood there, without any personal items, identification or ticket, which had all been confiscated.

"The minute I saw the faces of the agents, I knew I was in trouble. The first page of the Unthinkable script mentioned 9/11, terror plots, and the fact that the (fictional) world had become a police state. The TSA agents then proceeded to interrogate me, having a hard time understanding that a comic book could be about anything other than superheroes, let alone that anyone actually wrote scripts for comics.

"I cooperated politely and tried to explain to them the irony of the situation. While Unthinkable blurs the line between fiction and reality, the story is based on a real-life government think tank where a writer was tasked to design worst-case terror scenarios. The fictional story of Unthinkable unfolds when the writer's scenarios come true, and he becomes a suspect in the terrorist attacks.

Explain to me again how Al Qaeda did not win the war on the American way of life.

Let's Be Like Europe: Seriously, this time...

With thanks to Waldo, this is the map of Europe with recognized gay marriage in green and civil unions (or their equivalent) in red:

Friday, June 26, 2009

From ideals to expedience...

President Obama's inaugural:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.

Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.

Six months later [via WaPo]:

The Obama administration, fearing a battle with Congress that could stall plans to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, is drafting an executive order that would reassert presidential authority to incarcerate terrorism suspects indefinitely, according to three senior government officials with knowledge of White House deliberations.

Such an order would embrace claims by former president George W. Bush that certain people can be detained without trial for long periods under the laws of war. Obama advisers are concerned that an order, which would bypass Congress, could place the president on weaker footing before the courts and anger key supporters, the officials said.

Does this really require any additional comment?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why tort reform is not part of the health care package...

... despite the fact that everyone knows it would dramatically reduce medical costs.

Let's see if you can connect the dots.

Dot A: progressive/liberal-philosopher guru (and occasionaly Obama campaign consultant) George Lakoff:

Another multifaceted conservative strategic initiative is "tort reform," which has been made to sound like it is just about capping large damage awards and lawyers' fees. It is really a destruction of the civil justice system's capacity to deter corporations from acts that harm the public, since it is the lawyers' fees that permit the system to function. Moreover, if successful, it will also dry up one of the major sources of campaign finance for progressive candidates, which comes from trial lawyers.

Dot B: presidential campaign contributions 2008 from Lawyers and Lobbyists:

Lawyers & Lobbyists
Obama, Barack $43,440,058
Clinton, Hillary $16,941,277
McCain, John $11,290,948

Dot C: President Obama does not want tort reform as part of the health care package.

Gee. This has been a tough one.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"You! You there! The man with the piece of White House stationary with my writing on it! Do you have a question for me?"

Curiously absent at any of the local liberal/progressive blog watering holes is any coverage of the Nico-Pitney-planted-question controversy.

I'm sure cutting on Mark Sanford is a lot more fun, and there's been serious work to do covering the Delaware budget crisis and the death of Thurman Adams, but....

[He said with a sense of assumed whimsy:] You do kind of wonder exactly how they'd explain this one as no big deal.

I think the long piece in the New York Times [which you should read completely] sums it up best:

The problem is not just that Mr. Pitney, for just one day, was afforded a cherished seat in the room or given an airing for his question. And no one is diminishing his work that has drawn accolades for his devoted attention to an issue. Rather, the criticism is that he was cherry-picked, with a call-upon hours and hours beforehand, and handed a status that no one among the so-called elite of the press corps receives on any given day.

While that may indeed be a thorn in the feet of the corps who toil daily, the perception of a favored one who got exceptionally advance notice may send signals — far and wide — as to what lengths the administration will go to stage and control the message the president wants to send.

That is what has gotten lost in all the old vs. new media antagonisms. It’s not about Mr. Pitney’s work or for that matter, the question he asked. It’s about how the administration finagled the position in which he became an actor for the president’s agenda.

My best guess, by the way, is that our local adherents would say it is about time a Democratic President played media/spin hardball the same way the ReThugs do.

But I guess I'd just love to hear them spin it in their own words.

You want the line? Here's the line...

From Bloomberg:

June 24 (Bloomberg) -- A New Jersey man described as an Internet radio talk show host and blogger was arrested for allegedly threatening to kill three U.S. Appeals Court judges in Chicago who earlier this month upheld a law banning handguns.

Hal Turner, 47, of North Bergen was arrested by U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents at his home today, according to a statement issued by Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.

In the days after the judges’ June 2 decision to uphold a lower court’s dismissal of a National Rifle Association lawsuit challenging the ban, Turner posted on his Web site their names, photographs, phone numbers and work addresses, together with a picture of the courthouse delineating stanchions he called “anti-truck bomb barriers,” according to Fitzgerald.

“Let me be the first to say this plainly: These judges deserve to be killed,” Turner allegedly said in one Web site posting, according to Fitzgerald.

“We take threats to federal judges very seriously. Period.” the prosecutor said....

“These judges deserve to be made such an example of as to send a message to the entire judiciary: Obey the Constitution or die,” Turner reportedly wrote on his Internet site, according to a 10-page affidavit by FBI agent John Marsh, appended to the criminal complaint filed against Turner in Chicago federal court.

Simple enough? I thought so.

Before we go converting what's happening in Iran into the American Revolution...

... let's remember that the internal politics of any country always has more to do with them than it does with us.

And--more importantly--let's remember that Iran is one of only a handful of countries in the world where Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the man who approved the 1982 truck bomb attack that killed 282 US Marines in Beirut, could be considered a moderate reformer.

On this one--unlovely as it seems, both Barack Obama and Ron Paul are correct: we can't do a damn thing to influence the outcome in Iran short-term, and we will have to deal with whoever ends up in power.

If you think this is some kind of progressive/liberal foreign policy failure, let me remind you that it was George H. W. Bush who stood by while we had basically the largest military force ever assembled in the history of the planet and watched Saddam Hussein crush the Shi'a and Kurd uprisings in 1991 after the Gulf War.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Never mess with Michael Munger: the kill-shot for birthers

Recognize this scenario?

"...the Certificate of Hawaiian Birth was issued based on ***'s typewritten testimony, rather than on any documentation from witnesses... After receiving a few years of local school, at age thirteen, *** went to live in Honolulu...*** enrolled in Oahu College (now Punahou School) for further studies for one semester, from which he graduated. He was soon sent home to *****, but he returned to Hawaii at least twice, in **** and ****...In ****, his alleged birth in Hawaii was certified. He applied for naturalization and became a citizen of the United States and was issued an American passport...*** attached particular importance to the ideas of Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln...He incorporated these ideas, later in life, in two highly influential books...His ideology remained flexible, however, reflecting his audience as much as his personal convictions...It is an open matter of debate whether this eclecticism reflected a sincere effort to incorporate ideas from the multiple competing schools of thought or was simply opportunistic posturing."

President Obama, right?

Uh, not so much.

It's the Wikipedia entry for Sun Yat-Sen.

If you visit Kids Prefer Cheese, Michael will give you a cookie for the right answer.

The danger of government-by-polling

Unstable Isotope had a good post up a few days back regarding the fact that most polls agree that 72% of the American people want a public option in healthcare. Aside from the fact that you can't get enough information into a single question to move beyond people's preferences for the concept of a public option (which they may or may not endorse when they see the details), I don't dispute the polling.

What interests me is the conclusion drawn by UI at the end:

This is a huge majority of people. I sure hope Democrats can find a spine to get real health care reform. I’m getting a bit tired of the Congress thwarting the will of the people. A public option for health care is not controversial! People are not buying the status quo defenders scare tactics about wait times and protecting the profits of those poor, put-upon health insurance executives.

What I am left wondering is at what polling point the will of the people kicks in.

According to the most recent ABC News/WaPo poll in April, 74% of Americans support stricter immigration controls.

According to the most recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll in May, 66% of Americans support either gay marriage or civil unions.

According to the most recent CBS News/NYT poll this month, 62% of Americans support stricter limitations on abortion or making it completely illegal.

According to the most recent Gallup Poll in March, 59% of Americans support or somewhat support increased use of nuclear power plants to address our energy problems.

Of course, you can often avoid this thorny issue of how much above 50% does a poll have to go before it becomes a magic mandate by simply choosing the poll that fits your pre-existing beliefs.

According to the June 2009 NBC News/WSJ poll, 63% of Americans believe that Affirmative Action is still necessary, while a similarly dated Quinnipiac University poll maintains that 55% of Americans think Affirmative Action should be abolished.

If you select your polling outfit as carefully as polling outfits select their response pools, you can pretty much prove that a majority of the American people believe almost anything.

President Clinton practiced government by triangulation and Speaker Gingrich used only items polling well above 50% in his Contract with America. Both were politically successful with that strategy, but it then raises disquieting issues of exactly why we are supposed to have a republic in the first place.

Do I vote for a candidate because I trust her judgment, or do I vote for a candidate who will always follow the will of the majority?

This is sort of like asking American Christians, do you get to Heaven by being saved [faith] or by living a good life [works]?

To both either/or questions the American answer is usually a resounding YES.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The News Journal channels its inner Libertarian


Delaware cannot afford its government.

t's as simple as that. Few people will deny it -- as long they think the voters can't hear. Certain segments will bluster about doing more for constituents. But the harsh reality is that Delaware's government has grown too large and it costs too much.

And too much of it is ineffective. There are too few benchmarks for performance. So, for a good portion of the time, neither the governor's office nor the Legislature knows who is doing what and why.

The current financial crisis points out more than anything how overextended the situation is. For too many years, Delaware was able to "export" its taxes, pushing the bill on others while politicians built the good life....

The 2.5 percent government employee wage cut, if it actually goes through, is only temporary. They will be back in next year's budget from day one. Leg Hall is praying for a miracle recovery.

In the meantime, the political solution of choice is to raise the personal income tax so high that it will cover all these excessive expenses. In other words, now that the economy is crushing taxpayers, the politicians want to jump on and crush them some more.

It is the time to make real decisions, not just deals. Tell your legislator you want a solution, not just a fix.

Please don't tell our friends, for whom ever-expanding government regardless of the cost represents the salvation of the nation.

Blogger ennui?

I understand the feeling. Blogging is a lot of work, and relatively little pay-back, either in monetary or psychological terms.

Often you know "you done good" by the volume of the abuse hurled in your direction.

Sometimes the posts you've carefully researched draw no comment whatever, while the ones you dash off thoughtlessly garner praise and generate multiple conversations. No way to figure it.

Mike Matthews at Down With Absolutes is apparently giving it up for Twitter, while Dave Burris is shutting down Delaware Politics at the end of the legislative session. I'll miss them both.

Dana Garrett has told me several times that he blogs now primarily out of a sense of obligation rather than a sense of joy, and that he has been on the verge of quitting multiple times.

Part of the problem comes when a blog relies primarily on a single author: if you hit a tough patch or lose interest for awhile, then people start checking your site less frequently, and things just sort of cascade down from there.

One of the things I've noticed at Delawareliberal with the expansion of bloggers under the same masthead is that far more posts these days are being generated by what I would call the second or third generation (pandora, cassandra, Delawaredem. Unstable Isotope) than by the old guard (dv, liberalgeek, and jason). It's difficult to maintain the passion for a long time.

I also think that for a lot of political bloggers it is difficult to keep going, win or lose, during non-election years. I note, in a processual sense and not as a criticism, that even at Delawareliberal the unifying theme of most posts tends to be anti-Republican or anti-centrist Democrat rather than specifically pro-anything. Don't get me wrong: there are things they are for, both in a policy and in a political sense, but cheerleading for two new Democratic administrations at the State and National level that are--suddenly, abruptly, and much to everyone's surprise!?--not keeping most of their campaign promises ... is tough.

Being a Libertarian without any real prospect of electing anybody to anything, I suppose, makes it easier to deal with that particular problem: I tend to see the unfortunate continuities between Bush and Obama rather than the chimerical, spin-driven change. [Which is not to say that health care reform won't be a change--massive deficit spending certainly isn't--but I also retain a healthy skepticism that by this fall President Obama will be doing anything more than declaring victory over nominal minor changes in the system. I could well be wrong: that's part of the fun.

But it is not good news when the Delaware blogosphere grows less diverse in terms of ideology and opinion. Within a month we will be down to about half a dozen political blogs that publish regularly to any readership larger than a few dozen people per day. Put it another way: Delawareliberal (quoth jason: Republicans hate America. It really is that simple.) will become an increasingly bloated fish in a dessicating pond.

Delaware Libertarian will remain in the mix for the foreseeable future, if only to point out--like I did this morning--that the people who want to run all our lives love to employ massive double standards in their own analysis.

Besides: writing is an acceptable avocation if you remember to do it in private and wash your hands afterward.

Is this what one might term ... a dialogue ... between the US and our adversaries?

20 June 2009:

LAHORE: US President Barack Obama has told a private Pakistani TV channel in an interview that his administration does not intend to send American troops into Pakistan, the Indian media reported on Saturday.

Obama said any American military aid to Pakistan needed to be used against extremism. “We have in the past supported Pakistan militarily. I think it is important to make sure that military support is directed at extremists and our common enemies,” the US president said.

Obama underlined the need to help Pakistan strengthen its resources to facilitate development, and stressed the importance of turning the bilateral ties beyond just military-to-military cooperation into “something richer”.

He said he was confident Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were safe and secure.

21 June 2009:

10 months ago, the Pakistani government touted the death of top al-Qaeda figure Mustafa Abu al-Yazid in the Bajaur Agency. Today, he gave a notably live interview with al-Jazeera in which he made some chilling comments regarding Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

When asked about the prospect of the US seizing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal during the growing instability, Yazid declared “God willing, the nuclear weapons will not fall into the hands of the Americans and the mujahideen would take them and use them against the Americans.”

Yazid also expressed hope that the Pakistani military would be defeated in its ongoing operation in the Swat Valley, and promised continued “large scale operations” against the United States, though he left open the possibility of a decade-long truce if the US agreed to withdraw from Muslim nations.

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has been a serious issue during the nation’s recent instability. President Obama has conceded that the US is considering “all options” with respect to the arsenal, and there has been considerable speculation the US may try to capture them.

Funny, I believe Al Qaeda more when it says it intends to grab Pakistan's nukes than I believe my own government when it says it doesn't.

Once more into the breach with (faux) selective outrage...

Some of our friends have discovered (ah! the horrors!) that many key Senators and Congresscritters have been the recipients of large campaign donations by the health insurance industry:

But as you listen to the back and forth of the health care discussion, be familiar with the Bought Off and treat their commentary accordingly.

OK, fair enough.

Just be sure you take a look at the health insurance/HMO contributions during the Presidential Election, as reported by Open Secrets, and include President Barack Obama among your list of the "Bought Off":

Health Services/HMOs
Barack Obama (D) $1,262,224
Hillary Clinton (D) $535,849
John McCain (R) $412,918

Here's the contribution totals for Health Professionals

Health Professionals
Barack Obama (D) $11,532,962
John McCain (R) $5,251,019
Hillary Clinton (D) $3,973,797

[And totally for kicks and grins, here are the figures for Commercial Banks]:

Commercial Banks
Barack Obama (D) $3,167,003
John McCain (R) $2,260,697
Hillary Clinton (D) $1,458,941

[Not to mention, Lawyers and lobbyists}:

Lawyers & Lobbyists
Obama, Barack $43,440,058
Clinton, Hillary $16,941,277
McCain, John $11,290,948

Don't think it matters? All throughout the campaign, to the deafness of our liberal friends, I kept pointing out that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain were the three largest recipients of defense industry contributions, and that Obama had surrounded himself with defense industry lobbyists.

What happened?

Despite all promises to the contrary the number two spot at the Pentagon (directly in charge of weapons procurement) was handed over to Raytheon lobbyist William Lynn.

Despite all promises to bring defense spending into line, President Obama submitted a defense budget larger than the previous Bush administration defense budget, but claimed to be cutting major weapons pork ... only to turn a blind eye and sign off on Congress re-instituting most of that same pork in supplemental authorizations, stimulus spending, or as amendments to other bills.

So I am all for the category of The Bought Off as long as you have the intestinal fortitude to admit the category includes The Bought Off Occupant of the White House.

Holding breath waiting. Turning blue.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Where the rule of law meets the war on terror

You gotta love how the NYT starts this story about the FBI's Terror Watch List and firearm purchases:

WASHINGTON — People on the government’s terrorist watch list tried to buy guns nearly 1,000 times in the last five years, and federal authorities cleared the purchases 9 times out of 10 because they had no legal way to stop them, according to a new government report.

In one case, a person on the list was able to buy more than 50 pounds of explosives.

The new statistics, compiled in a report from the Government Accountability Office that is scheduled for public release next week, draw attention to an odd divergence in federal law: people placed on the government’s terrorist watch list can be stopped from getting on a plane or getting a visa, but they cannot be stopped from buying a gun.

Gun purchases must be approved unless federal officials can find some other disqualification of the would-be buyer, like being a felon, an illegal immigrant or a drug addict.

“This is a glaring omission, and it’s a security issue,” Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, the New Jersey Democrat who requested the study, said in an interview.

You see, the supposed problem is that people on the FBI's terror watch list haven't committed any crimes (yet!) and therefore can't be prohibited from exercising their Second Amendment rights, even though the FBI has the unconstitutional ability to keep them from flying or acquiring a visa.

How do you get on the watch list?

You have to be suspected of links to known terrorists. That's it. The government does not have to prove anything, or present evidence to anybody, or even tell you that you are on the list.

There are now over 1,000,000 Americans on the FBI Terror Watch list.

Worse: a Justice Department report in May indicated that at least 24,000 people have been placed on the list by mistake, or through the use of outdated data.

All of those people are already required to undergo a three-day waiting period to see if the government can dig up any incriminating information that can be used under the law to deny them the purchase. Over the past five years, the FBI has been able to do so in 98 cases.

So what Senator Frank Lautenberg wants is the abiity of the US Attorney General to deny firearm sales to American citizens who have committed no crime and have no legal disqualifiers for owning a weapon.

This stinks on so many levels that it is difficult to elucidate them all.

But I'll try:

1) Association with known terrorists is an incredibly loose term (the kind that law enforcement prefers) that generally is focused on people who might frequent the same mosques, have similar mutual acquaintances, or send money to the same charities. If they were actually meeting with terrorists with outstanding warrants, they'd be doing something culpable--but in general they aren't. Instead, they are exercising their First Amendment rights to free association, which is apparently now grounds to violate other constitutionally guaranteed rights.

2) You don't get informed you are on the watch list until you try to fly or obtain a visa or purchase a weapon, and then there's relatively little if anything you can do about it. You cannot take the government to court, and you cannot demand to see the evidence that has condemned you.

3) Senator Lautenberg's intent is to create a completely new category of Americans who can be deprived of their civil rights: the suspected. If we can deny them travel, then why can't we deny them guns? If we can deny them guns, then why can't we deny them driver's licenses? If we can deny them driver's licenses.... This is not an imaginary slippery slope, it is one we've alread slid several feet down.

It does highlight a very interesting loophole in the Bill of Rights that needs some attention: along with Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Assembly, Freedom of Association, Freedom of Religion, and Freedom of the Press, what about Freedom of Movement?

Should not the ability to move around freely in America and to access mass transit be a right and not a privilege?

Ah, but if you have taken your shoes off in airports as many times in the past two years as I have, you know the truth: we all travel only on the government's sufferance.

Comment rescue--er, maybe comment kidnapping: Why not Single-payer

Again, cassandra has an interesting post up at Delawareliberal with a lot of interesting nuts and bolts links.

Cassandra herself has a very important point to make following a riff on single-payer as the secular equivalent of the rapture:

Comment @3 is a big example of what is wrong with the single payer arguments as made — lots and lots of claims made for how much better it is, but no discussion on how it would be implemented here. Implementation is the battle and there is a reason Dems took it off the table. The politics does matter.

This comment is spot on, because the politics and the motives do matter.

Here's the comment from that thread I wanted to rescue, or kidnap, from [unfortunately] an anonymous:

Single-payer is nice if you can get it.

Until then, ugly as it is, a public option is more progressive than what we have now, because the haves will be taxed to pay for coverage for the have-nots, who are currently not being covered at all.

Once the taxes get high enough, the haves will rebel and look for cost savings, which will be found by moving to single-payer.

(well, first they will try to cut service or kick the have-nots out to save money, but we won’t let ‘em).

Anonymous [not to be confused with Anonone, who at least has a distinctive persona] is a primary example of what many opponents or skeptics about health care reform fear: that the object of the process is as much to raise taxes on the haves as it is to extend health care to the have nots.

Within the health care debate, unlike the presidential campaign season wherein then-Senator Obama defined those who needed to pay more as families with incomes over $250K, the current plans on the table include taxes on workers with health insurance whose premium value exceeds $13K per year: which is, to cite but one example, any Delaware State employee with a Family Health Plan.

In other words: a school bus driver or cafeteria worker making $18-22K per years is suddenly a have for tax purposes in the progressive health care agenda.

We tend to forget that when we say 50 million Americans do not have health insurance we are also saying that over 250 million Americans do have such coverage, and that those 250 million folks cover an extremely broad range of incomes. It is even true that many who do have health insurance make less money than some who don't.

What I've noticed in the health care debate is what the military tends to call mission creep. First, we were talking about making sure that all Americans had access the health care, which generally meant making sure that the 50 million with no health insurance had at the very least basic access. Then we started expanding this to tinkering with the issue of under-insurance and regulating the profits of the insurance companies. Then we moved into discussing a public option that anyone would be able to take, paid for by the taxpayers but nonetheless somehow on a level playing field with private insurance. Then we had the people talking about the public option as only a stealth pre-cursor of single-payer.

Finally, full circle, we have those who think health care reform is the perfect excuse to ramp up government to address perceived wealth inequities in our country, and to redistribute resources between the have and have nots.

When you reach that point, you're no longer talking primarily about health care any more.

Which is why so many people don't trust so many of the so-called advocates for change.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Does society exist?

No, I'm not going all solipsistic on you, but there was a recent post by cassandra at Delawareliberal quoting David Leonhardt of the NYT that got me thinking....

Which is always dangerous.

[The post, by the way, concerned the issue of rationing health care, and while I disagree with both cassandra's and Leonhardt's take, that can wait for another day. This is about a line in his column that I'm sure he didn't even think twice before using.]

Here's the clip:

Today, I want to try to explain why the case against rationing isn’t really a substantive argument. It’s a clever set of buzzwords that tries to hide the fact that societies must make choices.

Notice the bolded section.

The problem is that, quite literally, societies don't make choices. This is a piece of rhetorical shorthand we use in hindsight to characterize the aggregate choices made by large numbers [or a leadership cadre] of members of a society. Picking this bone is not just nit-picking grammar, because there is an important philosophical point here.

During the 1990s through about 2008 the sales of gas-guzzling SUVs all the way up to Hummers seriously outpaced those of high-mileage sub-compacts.

Did that represent a societal choice to ignore the long-term consequences of short-term cheap oil, or global warming, or living beyond our means? No: those sales represented the individual, aggregate choices of millions of Americans for millions of different reasons, although polling and other research can--in hindsight--pick up some apparent trends.

Another example: since 1948 a disproportionate amount of our Federal budget has been parsed out to a small number of defense contractors, regardless of who the President was, or what party he represented, or even who controlled Congress. Did our society somehow choose to spend more on guns and less on butter? Or were key voting leaders heavily subsidized by the defense industry, the production of weapon systems distributed to key congressional districts, a steady stream of propaganda developed to insure continued funding, and pretty much any information to the contrary declared off-limits for public consumption? What exactly did society choose?

You should always watch out for that buzzword society or one of its synonyms ["the voters" or "the American people"], which are 99.9% of the time used to intimate that a small leadership clique [elected or not] has made binding decisions on behalf of society, which will be used to control the lives of all of us--the ones who dissent, and even the ones who were not aware that such choices were going to be made.

When somebody tells you that societies make choices instead of admitting that leaders make choices and enforce them on the rest of the body politic, they are at best unconsciously attempting to intimate that anybody who disagrees with those choices or that intellectual model of society is selfish and not concerned with the greater good.

At worst, they are consciously attempting to de-legitimize their opposition.

This is how you pad your resume to become a defense industry lobbyist when you retire

From the Christian Science Monitor:

WASHINGTON - A top Air Force general, crossing swords with Pentagon leadership, says a proposed cap on the number of F-22 stealth fighters puts America at "high risk" of compromising military strategy.

In a June 9 letter to a senator, Gen. John Corley, commander of the Air Force's Air Combat Command, wrote: "In my opinion, a fleet of 187 F-22s puts execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near to mid term." General Corley's letter, obtained by the Monitor Thursday, came in response to a query from Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia, where parts of the F-22 Raptor are built.

The 187 cap is the symbolic centerpiece of Defense Secretary Robert Gates's budget request, which aims to rein in defense procurement costs. He has said it is time to wrap up the program to buy the $140 million-a-copy plane.

The Air Force had long disagreed, calling for as many as 381 planes as recently as last year, in apparent defiance of Mr. Gates. The Defense Secretary fired the Air Force's two top leaders last year, largely over the issue.

The new Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton "Norty" Schwartz, is on board with Gates's position, publicly stating his support for ending the program in a newspaper oped in April. "The time has come to move on," General Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley wrote.

But General Corley, in his letter, wrote that "there are no studies" yet to justify the figure of 187. Even 250 F-22s would put the nation at "moderate risk," Corley wrote, citing analysis by his command.

Of course, Genearl Corley also fails to mention that there are no studies justifying the 381 number, either. Nor does the Air Force the F-22 was expected to counter actually still exist.

But look for another 20 F-22s to be added back into the defense budget through various Congressional maneuvers, bringing our total defense spending up to at least a 6-8% increase over last year.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Libertarians and the Left: especially for Dana Garrett and my friends at Delawareliberal

This is from Classically Liberal, as an aside explaining why a Libertarian should be remembering Harvey Milk in a positive light. It is also one of the best short explanations of the similarities and differences between Libertarians and Liberals that I have ever read:

There is a false assumption, a grossly false assumption, that libertarianism is some sort of Right-wing philosophy. I would assert most strongly, it is not. Properly understood libertarianism in its “classical liberal” incarnation was the original Left wing of politics. The Right wished to “conserve” the prevalent social order. Liberals did not. They wished to reform it in many different way including ending the feudal system, abolition of the church/state alliance and ending the government coddling of certain business interests through subsidies, monopolies and protectionism. There was very, very little which classical liberals though worthy of conserving. The advocates of conserving the social order were called conservatives and their method for doing so was the use of State force.

When the socialists arose they embraced many of the goals that true liberals were seeking. But these socialists thought it possible to achieve liberal ends through the use of State force, in other words while adopting liberal goals they clung to conservative means. As the socialist/communist movement evolved certain erroneous premises which they had embraced pushed many into a totalitarian camp. At that point these “Leftists” had ceased seeking even liberal ends and had become full-fledged conservatives preserving the political power structure through coercive means.

This created a crisis within the political Left. Many in the Left still passionately embraced the ends of the classical liberals. They opposed the totalitarianism of the conservative Left yet they were having problems giving up the idea that state power was the best method of achieving liberal goals. Most of modern Leftists, Harvey included, fall into this category. For the libertarian they are as confused as the modern conservative. Neither consistently advocates freedom yet neither consistently wants to undermine it. Whether their premises undermine such freedom is a different matter, but neither does so intentionally, with the exception of the more extreme elements.

Conservatives today want economic liberalism but shy away from social liberalism. Socialists and Progressives want social liberalism, and the results of economic liberalism but cling to State power. So, for the true libertarian, both the Left and the Right share similar flaws and have similar virtues. But many libertarians, who came from the Right, still cling to irrational hatred for the Left. This blinds them to the common ground that libertarians share with our friends on the Left.

Two observations:

1) Harvey Milk may have been a great guy, but he committed the awful post-death sin of allowing Sean Penn to play him.

2) Just in case you still think I am the longest-winded Libertarian you know, the extensive quotation above is only the set-up for the main body.

Read and comment quickly; Eric Dondero will happen by soon to slag me.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Brian Shields SCCORs

Jaunt over to The Mourning Constitution for a first-hand report by Brian on his visit to the latest SCCOR meeting. He breaks it down pretty thoroughly and the whole piece deserves your attention.

Here are the money quotes:

The SCCOR is nowhere near as radical and evil as our friends at Delaware Liberal has made them out to be. They have some crazy ideas that I admit are out there....

Aside from the odd quirk, the SCCOR is, on the surface, exactly as it says it is. It is a political grassroots group who believes that the people are the real power in politics, and are trying to motivate more political involvement. Their views are damn near as Republican as the Republican Party used to be before the crazies took over, and naturally they have a strong GOP contingient.

Thanks, Brian.

What passes for humor and civil rights in South Carolina

There used to be a derogatory saying about South Carolina: Too small to be a state, but too large to be a penal institution. Ironically, despite an abundance of gracious people in many places, Palmetto State politics and the South Carolina blogosphere continues to descend into a racist, homophobic gutter.

The one you've heard about, of course, is GOPer activist Rusy DePass joking about Michelle Obama, gorillas and evolution.

Here's one that might have escaped your attention: Daniel J. Cassidy is a member of the South Carolina Advisory Board to the US Commission on Civil Rights. Here you can find him presenting himself as the watchdog over the proper expenditure of Federal funds for tutoring disadvantaged students. So far, so good, right?

But Cassidy also publishes a blog called Sunlit Uplands, whose subtitle is Faith, Freedom, Defense of the West, Renewal of the Culture.

Let's sample some of Cassiday's blogging choices over the past couple of days, keeping in mind he's a civil-rights official:

There's this post (complete with picture of author Pat Boone) warning Christians that the end times are coming and that the US government has embarked on a conscious policy of religious persecution that includes arresting people for conducting Bible study in the privacy of their own homes:

WARNING: This column is written for, and addressed to, America's Christians only. Well, maybe devout Jews as well, but no one else. People of other faiths, or no particular faith at all, probably won't comprehend the looming danger or see anything to be concerned about.

But this is a three alarm, red alert wake-up call for people who are serious about their Judeo-Christian religion. The end of our religious freedom in America could be at hand.

Or, how about this one, written by Frank Gaffney, on how President Barack Obama--birth certificate or no birth certificate--is America's first Muslim President?

This is not to say, necessarily, that Mr. Obama actually is a Muslim any more than Mr. Clinton actually is black. After his five months in office, and most especially after his just-concluded visit to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, however, a stunning conclusion seems increasingly plausible: The man now happy to have his Islamic-rooted middle name featured prominently has engaged in the most consequential bait-and-switch since Adolf Hitler duped Neville Chamberlain over Czechoslovakia at Munich.

We have this one warning you that queers are seven times more likely to raise queer children (but that this research is being suppressed, and only WorldNet Daily brings you the truth):

A licensed psychologist with both clinical and forensic practice outreaches is warning that it appears children of homosexual couples are seven times more likely to develop "non-heterosexual preferences" than other children, but lawmakers establishing policy often don't know that because the researchers have concealed their discoveries.

Or there's the clever coverage of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's candidacy for the Supreme Court:

No surprise here! Just as they were giddy over the election of Barack Hussein Obama, the Communist Party USA is enthusiastically backing Sonia Sotomayor's nomination for a seat on the United States Supreme Court.

And finally, Daniel pontificates on the need to pass laws making it illegal for Sodomite Trolls (like my good friend Waldo, who is the unnamed blogger who bears the brunt of his anger) to blog anonymously:

The TimesOnline reports today that the British High Court has ruled that "thousands of bloggers who operate behind the cloak of anonymity have no right to keep their identities secret."

We can't wait for such a ruling or legislation in this country. We wonder if the sodomite trolls of the South Carolina blogosphere would have quite so much to say about all the rest of us if they were forced to disclose their real names. It is hard for some not to look at what they write, just as it is hard for some not to look at train wrecks or collisions by the side of the road. One in particular is a living witness to how spiritually and mentally damaging his disordered lifestyle can be. But given that these bottom feeders purport to have such "pride" in their chosen lifestyle, why are they too ashamed to associate their real names with their daily spew of hate?

First reaction: who knew there was still somebody actually using the word Sodomite?

Second reaction: Waldo is apparently scoring some serious points against Mr. Cassidy's credibility (in a Catholic insider joke, Waldo refers to him as Savonarola), or this would not be the third time the erstwhile defender of South Carolina civil rights has taken a run at him (though carefully never mentioning his blog or linking to it).

Third reaction: this is at least the second Fatwah against Waldo by conservative South Carolina bloggers. I reported on an earlier and ongoing attempt by the creature Waldo refers to as Boy Fogle back in February, quoting the little cretin's most wanted section on Waldo:

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.

Waldo observes that one of the nicer points about the Delaware blogosphere is that, mostly, we all continue to link to each other, which is not the case in South Carolina.

While we have had our arguments about anonymous blogging here, the truly disquieting aspects of the new Cassidy witch hunt include (a) the advocacy of legislation to prohibit anonymous blogging and (b) the clear imputation that he seeks to discover Waldo's identity in order to go after him on a whole new level. This is scarey, and should serve as a warning to us all, especially here in Delaware.

But my primary warning would be for Mr. Cassiday, who apparently wants to have it both ways: civil rights and good government crusader by day, reactionary blogger by night, and ready to burn his metaphorical crosses on the virtual lawn of anybody who calls him out.

The rules are simple, Savonarola: don't get into the game (especially under your own name) if you aren't willing to take the hits. And quit whining....

By the way, jerk, I know who Waldo is, and you don't.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Transparency and accountability are good things ... except for me

From the LA Times:

Reporting from Washington -- The Obama administration this week will propose the most significant new regulation of the financial industry since the Great Depression, including a new watchdog agency to look out for consumers' interests.

Under the plan, expected to be released Wednesday, the government would have new powers to seize key companies -- such as insurance giant American International Group Inc. -- whose failure jeopardizes the financial system. Currently, the government's authority to seize companies is mostly limited to banks....

In addition, the administration wants to impose regulation over the market for derivatives -- the murky financial contracts used to hedge risky investments -- including new reporting and disclosure requirements. Institutions that originate loans would be required to retain 5% of the credit risk when the loans are turned into securities.


The Obama administration is fighting to block access to names of visitors to the White House, taking up the Bush administration argument that a president doesn't have to reveal who comes calling to influence policy decisions.

Despite President Barack Obama's pledge to introduce a new era of transparency to Washington, and despite two rulings by a federal judge that the records are public, the Secret Service has denied msnbc.com's request for the names of all White House visitors from Jan. 20 to the present. It also denied a narrower request by the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which sought logs of visits by executives of coal companies.

I will leave you to connect the dots.

Libertarians and smoking bans

Megan McArdle asks an important question:

Henry Farrell's interesting post on smoking bans reminds me of an ongoing question that I have never heard a libertarian answer satisfactorily. Smoking in bars and so forth is dangerous to bystanders who have pulmonary disease (the dangers of secondhand smoke to those who are not already breathing-impaired seem to be largely mythical). It's noxious to some other number of people who do not smoke. The libertarian rejoinder to the smoking bans is that bars could choose not to smoke if people wanted it. But in practice, despite the fact that smokers are a minority, and most people hate it, almost no establishment went non-smoking without government fiat.

This seems like a market failure....

You can explain it, but this doesn't seem like a good market outcome by any measure....

And I think that politically, if not intellectually, the success of smoking bans is a heavy blow to libertarian credibility.

Fair question, and deserves an answer. Several of them.

1) Markets don't care about desireable outcomes. Markets are not sentient beings with goals, agendas, and objectives. Markets are complex, non-linear systems that operate blindly according to inputs and situations, just like evolution. The only way that markets can fail is to go out of existence through inability to adapt to changing conditions. So not only doesn't the market desire, guarantee, or produce specific outcomes on demand, markets are incapable of doing so. The Libertarian argument is that governments attempting to manipulate markets generally produce less desireable outcomes than leaving the market alone....

2) A Libertarian would argue that an across-the-board smoking ban does not represent a success, because it deprives people who smoke of the ability to have a night out in a restaurant, bar or tavern frequented by other people who share the same vice. In the same fashion that across-the-board age requirements for the consumption of alcohol, voting, sexual intercourse, purchasing firearms both empowers people of any age who probably should never drink, cast a ballot, screw, or own a gun, it also lumps in capable 15-17 year olds who would do a much better job at all four, but who are nevertheless regulated as children. There are arguably three categories of customers: those who smoke, those who don't smoke but don't care if others do; and those who don't smoke and are not willing to tolerate anybody else smoking in their area.

[I leave out the employee second-hand smoke issue, because--quite frankly--virtually every job comes with health hazards, voluntary or involuntary. An example: finding a building on my campus two years ago literally overrun with noxious mold that was causing multiple health complaints, I discovered as union rep that--guess what?--there are no State or Federal regulations regarding how much mold in your workplace is too much. OSHA says that science hasn't solved that one yet. We were talking square feet of flaking black mold on walls and floors, but there is no science....]

3) So, from a Libertarian viewpoint, what would be the best way to help secure the property rights of those who don't want to deal with smokers (because of health issues or just because it is a noxious habit) without violating the property rights who have chosen to participate in a legal if often shunned activity?

You could approach the problem the same way we approach liquor sales in restaurants, through allowing businesses to purchase tobacco licenses and advertise themselves as all-smoking restaurants...

You leave it to the discretion of the lowest level of government, wherein the people in the locality would vote on initiatives, town by town, county by county....

Or the opponents of smoking could organize a boycott. If they indeed control the majority of dollars spent at restaurants and bars, then their resolve to withhold their business will eventually affect the business owners.

But that doesn't happen in America much any more--why? Because it's easier to get your legislators to implement restrictive laws than to organize opinion yourself....

Important thread about Delaware higher ed funding and budget cuts at Delawareliberal

Thanks to el Somnabulo for starting the ball rolling on an important issue that, for reasons of conflict of interest, I do not blog very much about here.

Go there, read, participate. It's your money.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Two different views on President Obama, DOMA, and gay rights

With the Obama/Holder DOJ heading to court to defend DOMA, there have been all kinds of responses. Gay rights advocates are outraged, and Obama supporters have been trying to make sense of it all. Two of my favorite female bloggers have different opinions.

First, Pandora at Delawareliberal:

My first reaction to this was pure outrage, and then I read this.

“Rather, here’s the promise he is keeping: He is keeping his promise that he will serve and act as President as if America is a nation of laws, which it is. He is keeping his promise to uphold the law…

I want to address the brief filed in support of the Defense of Marriage Act. That Act preceded Obama. He inherited that law. It was on the books when he came into office, and because it has been challenged, he and his DOJ have an obligation to defend the law if there is a legal basis to defend it.

That’s exactly what I want my President to do.

Then Becky, the Girl in Short Shorts, referenced the same quotation:

Over on the Daily Kos, where they only recently stopped defending the moral decency of John Edwards, there is an unnamed person who claims to be a federal government attorney defending our Barack Obama:

“Here's the promise you claim he is breaking: By defending DOMA in court, he is breaking his promise to fight for gay and lesbian rights. He is breaking a policy promise.

I think that is incorrect.

Rather, here's the promise he is keeping: He is keeping his promise that he will serve and act as President as if America is a nation of laws, which it is. He is keeping his promise to uphold the law.”

Ok, that sounds good, but I have a question....

Would Barack Obama have felt it necessary for his Justice Department to have defended the Fugitive Slave Act?

Of course, Americablog fully destroyed the argument that Presidents are somehow morally and/or constitutionally required to defend laws with which they disagree:

Yeah, you see, that's an outright lie. Fortunately for you, and unfortunately for Justice, Joe and I are both lawyers. We suspected this betrayal was coming, so we read up on the law. In fact, George W. Bush (ACLU et al., v. Norman Y. Mineta - "The U.S. Department of Justice has notified Congress that it will not defend a law prohibiting the display of marijuana policy reform ads in public transit systems."), Bill Clinton (Dickerson v. United States - "Because the Miranda decision is of constitutional dimension, Congress may not legislate a contrary rule unless this Court were to overrule Miranda.... Section 3501 cannot constitutionally authorize the admission of a statement that would be excluded under this Court's Miranda cases."), George HW Bush (Metro Broadcasting v. Federal Communications Commission), and Ronald Reagan (INS v./ Chadha - "Chadha then filed a petition for review of the deportation order in the Court of Appeals, and the INS joined him in arguing that § 244(c)(2) is unconstitutional.") all joined in lawsuits opposing federal laws that they didn't like, laws that they felt were unconstitutional. It is an outright lie to suggest that the DOJ had no choice.

So here's where I come down: sorry, Pandora, I respect your opinion, but I don't buy it.

Gays are the ultimate dispensable constituency: Democrats can mobilize them in election years because the thought of GOP control terrifies them. But since they really have no place else to go, nobody has to keep any of the promises made or implied.

Obama at the AMA: two thoughts

The one thought comes from my misreading of a headline. AOL ran the headline Some doctors boo while Obama is speaking at the AMA, which I misread as Some doctors BLOG while Obama is speaking at the AMA, which led me to wonder, Where the hell did Mike Matthews find a white lab coat?

Later, when I read the article, I had this serious thought. Despite his rhetoric at the AMA, if it becomes necessary to get physicians onboard with a strong public option (the ultimate administration objective), will the President do an about-face on opposing medical malpractice caps? He's already backed off the no taxing existing health care benefits position from last fall, why not this one?

I think of this in the context of Obama as pragmatic politician, who would slip that in to give a couple of moderate Republicans like Snowe or Collins the cover they needed to support the end product.

My major point: don't underestimate this man's political will. Everything is negotiable to him to get to the bottom line.

Some of you will think that is a good thing; others will be appalled.

The political stakes of health care reform...

... are becoming more clear (and yet more murky) as we inch into the summer.

The NYT points out that President Obama is risking more credibility on this reform than President Clinton did--and thus stands to win or lose bigger than Bubba did:

There are reasons to be pessimistic: a history of six decades of failure; a sharp partisan divide; the need to enact tax and cost-control measures that will force some pain before any gain; the inevitable peeling off of various interest groups that have been part of private deliberations; and the inherent difficulty of changing something that is 17 percent of the American economy and of personal concern to most citizens.

Yet failure is an option the Obama White House can ill afford. The president believes reforming health care will be his legacy. Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff and a former top House legislator who will be critical in cutting deals, knows the political consequences might be even more grave than they were in 1994 for President Bill Clinton, whom he also served.

Today the news comes that Senator Joe Lieberman--both a thorn in the side of the administration and a critical Senate vote--will not support the public option:

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said this weekend that he opposes a public option plan for consumers in a healthcare reform plan to emerge from the Senate.

"I don't favor a public option," Lieberman told Bloomberg News in an interview broadcast this weekend. And I don't favor a public option because I think there's plenty of competition in the private insurance market."

Lieberman's decision joins several other centrist Democrats' decision to have publicly refused to back the plan, derided as a "government-run" plan by Republicans.

Centrist Democrats like Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) have also been skittish to back the public option, which is favored by liberal Democrats and the Obama administration. If Republicans are able to pick off enough Democrats, they may be able to muster enough votes to filibuster any legislation that includes the public option.

Meanwhile, as Nancy reports at Delaware Way, Americans are far from having reached a consensus on supporting such reform:

Rasmussen reports ~ 41% Favor Government Health Insurance Plan, 44% Opposed

Most voters also oppose making health insurance mandatory for all Americans.

Still, two-thirds (65%) believe that every single American should have access to quality health care. Twenty-two percent (22%) disagree, and 12% are not sure.

Does the President have the political muscle and the popular support to push through significant rather than cosmetic changes in the American health care system [which is a completely separate question from whether such reform should succeed]?

We seem to be right at the tipping point, and given the stakes don't be surprised if both President Obama and the GOPers keep ratcheting up the political rhetoric through the summer--usually at the expense of real discussion of what should be done.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The revenge of Immanuel Velikovsky...

The original great catastrophist who believed that much of the mythology of ancient history could be explained by an exceptionally active solar system in which the Earth was once the satellite of a proto-Saturn, and that the inner planets had experienced repeated close encounters must be smiling somewhere....

... as astronomers have recently used computer simulations to prove that the solar system may not be the staid place it has been portrayed on those wall charts in my elementary classroom:

Our solar system has a potentially violent future. New computer simulations reveal a slight chance that a disruption of planetary orbits could lead to a collision of Earth with Mercury, Mars or Venus in the next few billion years.

Despite its diminutive size, Mercury poses the greatest risk to the solar system's order. Results of the computer model show a roughly 1 percent chance that the elongation of Mercury's orbit will increase to the point where the planet's path around the sun crosses that of Venus. That's when planetary pandemonium would ensue, the researchers find, and Mercury could be ejected from the solar system, or collide with the sun or a neighboring planet, such as Earth.

Yes, it's the far future, and the astronomers indicate that this class of results appeared in less than 1% of their program runs, but...

After the harsh reception to his theories given by the scientific establishment...

You can bet that at Kronia, Aeon, The Velikovskian, and SF author [and libertarian] James P. Hogan will all be celebrating soon.

The first step: the Federal government decides how much health care you are entitled to have

Paying for universal health care was always the (ahem, with apologies to the GOP) the elephant in the room.

Here are the three options thus far on the table, according to the SF Chronicle:

Rep. Pete Stark, a leading congressional author of health reform legislation, called Thursday for a 2 percent income tax surcharge to pay for the health insurance program he predicted Congress and President Obama would enact later this year....

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that also is drafting health reform legislation, has endorsed a new tax on employees for some health insurance benefits that exceed the value of the basic plan offered to federal employees, currently about $13,000 a year for a family of four.

Obama has proposed paying for universal health care coverage by reducing tax deductions for upper-income taxpayers.

The one that catches my eye here--and which has been getting pimped in the press with sufficient regularity over the past few days to suggest it is the front runner--is the Baucus plan for taxing your existing health care benefits.

Notice what Senator Baucus is proposing: the new tax will kick in for employees at the point at which their benefits exceed about $13,000 annually, which is described as the value of the basic plan offered to federal employees.

Correct me if I am wrong, but the basic plan in this context generally means the cheapest plan, the one with the fewest actual benefits, and usually the highest co-pays.

So what Senator Baucus is suggesting is that the baseline for universal health care will be the cost of the worst plan that the Feds offer their own employees, and that everything above that will be essentially considered a taxable luxury.

This also means, to take the example of Delaware state employees, that every employee with a family health plan will come under this tax.

The worst Delaware state employee family options are First State Basic ($14,360.16) AETNA HMO ($15,539.44/year) and BlueCare HMO ($15,401.28). The best plan is the Comprehensive PPO plan ($16,677.60).

I need to say this again: the proposed standard is that you are only entitled to health care worth the worst Federal plan, and anything better will be considered a taxable luxury.

The other irony about the Baucus plan, coming from the Democrats--the party of the progressives--is that this is a profoundly regressive tax. Again, consider Delaware's state employees and realize that Senator Baucus plans to tax a school cafeteria worker with a $20K income and a DE family health plan exactly the same amount as he plans to tax dear old Lonnie George.

And, as has been noted repeatedly throughout the media for the past several days, President Obama is ready to reverse his own campaign promises of no tax increases for families making less than $250K and no taxing of health care benefits in order to accommodate the idea of taxing the poorest people now receiving health insurance to pay for the uninsured.

An expected piece of hypocrisy from Senator Nancy Cook ...

... regarding the JFC and the Delaware budget.

Of the proposed 2.5% State employee pay cut that the Joint Finance Committee is now pushing, Senator Cook says, according to the WNJ:

The only alternative to a pay cut, Cook said, would be layoffs -- something she is dead-set against. The JFC discussed furloughs, she said, but ruled them out because they couldn't come up with a way to do it fairly.

Two issues:

1) Several months ago, Governor Jack Markell warned us that the only alternative to an 8% across-the-board State employee paycut was ... layoffs. Now, suddenly, 2.5% is the magic number. Which means that Senator Cook is ... suggesting that the Governor was lying about the 8% being necessary, or what? And why, exactly, should we believe Senator Cook now when suddenly instead of $92 million, $29 million is the magic number?

2) The JFC--in what is supposed to be its last secret session ever (holding my breath and waiting for the court challenge in the off-season)--ruled out furloughs because they couldn't figure out how to do them fairly. Of course, if they had invited the State employees' unions to present proposals for doing furloughs fairly, they might have gotten an answer. But that would have meant actually opening up the deliberative process not just to transparency, but also to public participation.

Or they could have just asked DuPont. Dozens if not hundreds of DuPont employees were told they were receiving furloughs, given the total number of days they had to take, and allowed to work out their schedules on a department by department basis.

Why are furloughs the superior answer, Senator Cook, even if they might actually require (God forbid!) a little thought and work?

Because furloughs are not theft.

The State of Delaware made contracts will the unions representing all these employees. The contracts were promises to pay. Based on the surety of those contracts the employees went out and applied for mortgages and auto loans. Now the State is in the unilateral process of demanding the same work for less pay than it promised. If the State instead were to go with furloughs, employees would be paid the same rate for the time they work, and--instead of the paycheck--would be given back their time.

My next door neighbor is on furlough from DuPont just about every other Friday. Yesterday he used the time to replace some of the siding near the roof of his garage, a task he hadn't been able to accomplish for several months. So he didn't get paid, but he didn't get screwed out of both his money and his time.

It is the essence of hypocrisy for State legislators like Senator Cook to rehash the old line that this particular pay cut represents the only way to avoid lay-offs, when the number she is citing is completely different than the one the Governor cited to kick off the whole process.

It is worse than hypocrisy to admit that lay-offs are not on the table because our legislators are too damn lazy or too damn stupid to work out an equitable program and too jealous of their fleeting vestiges of secrecy to ask for assistance.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Let's tax health care benefits, but let's not tell anybody until after the next election...

... is what seems to be the message in what certainly has not shaped up as a banner day in the Obama administration.

From AP:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Legislation to be outlined next week in the Senate Finance Committee will likely include a new tax on workers with the costliest employer-provided health coverage, officials said Friday, but with implementation delayed until 2013 to minimize any political fallout.

Officials familiar with internal deliberations said the leading option under consideration by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the committee chairman, would mean higher taxes for workers whose family coverage costs $15,000 a year or more in premiums paid by employer and employee combined.

The provision could generate hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade to help pay the $1 trillion or more the Obama administration has estimated is necessary under its plan to extend health care to millions of Americans who lack it. Cuts in projected Medicare and Medicaid spending are expected to make up much of the rest.

Officials cautioned that details of the proposal could change in the days before Baucus unveils his long-awaited outline. The Finance Committee and several other panels are expected to draft legislation this month, and Democratic leaders have vowed to pass bills in both houses before Congress begins its annual August break. Their objective is to forge a final compromise this fall.

President Barack Obama campaigned against taxing health benefits in last year's campaign, attacking Republican Sen. John McCain in television advertising when McCain proposed it.

But now, Baucus has told reporters, the president appears open to the idea. Another Democratic senator who attended a recent meeting with Obama said the president did not object when the issue was raised, saying he preferred an alternative he outlined last winter. A 2013 effective date would allow Obama to run for re-election before its impact is felt.

Yeah. Doing good for the country without any thought of personal gain.

Anybody remember this one:

I can make a firm pledge, under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.--Barack Obama

I guess technically that creating an entirely new tax is not a tax increase, is it?

Yeah, we'll go with that.