Friday, November 4, 2011


Mississippi is set to vote in less than a week on a state amendment that would redefine a 'person' as existing "from the moment of fertilization, cloning or functional equivalent thereof". Yes, it includes cloning. It's the latest round of attempts to undermine the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Keep in mind that Roe v. Wade has been 'on the books' so to speak for almost 40 years now, yet has not been overturned.

Proposition 26 is, pardon the pun, the poster child for unintended consequences. It's one of those ideas that sounds interesting in a philosophical discussion about where life begins, but is a disaster waiting to happen if actually applied. The problem is that it opens the door to all sorts of complications that the simple minded folks who drew it up never considered.

Let's for a moment assume that this proposition was passed. We shall also assume, for the purposes of discussion, that it's not struck down immediately after introduction due to Constitutional conflicts, certainly a possibility. Based on the language, "moment of fertilization," could effectively outlaw some common forms of birth control such as the IUD. Some have even claimed that it could effect the Pill. Now there seems to be some disagreement on exactly where the birth control 'cut off' would be, though at least some personhood amendment supporters have expressed their belief and/or hope that it would ban the Pill. That in itself should worry you as it means that at least some of these people will fight to try and ensure it does include the Pill. Don't even think about any kind of birth control for victims of rape. This amendment would all but guarantee that these brutalized women would be forced by the state to carry their attacker's child.

What about a miscarriage or even a stillbirth? Does that trigger a mandatory homicide investigation? Sounds silly, but think about it. We've already had a woman in Mississippi charged with murder following the stillbirth of her baby, and while she did reportedly use cocaine there was no evidence that this had anything to do with the stillbirth.  So as crazy as it sounds, it's not a hypothetical question anymore. What if a woman smokes during pregnancy, could that be grounds for child endangerment charges?

But let's move outside the semi-obvious for a moment. Depending on interpretations this could effect in vitro fertilization and therefore endanger fertility treatments in general. On the same subject, will fertilized eggs be considered legal people? How will that effect inheritance law? Will this become part of census data, where every pregnant woman will need to note the number of fetuses she's carrying as members of the household? If the woman is injured or ill and you have to choose between her life or the life of her baby, will the judicial system step in to defend the rights of the fetus against the mother? What happens if the husband or her family choose to save the woman at the expense of the fetus? Would that be first degree murder now? While some of these examples may seem extreme, that doesn't mean they won't come into play. After all, we Americans have a knack for pushing the envelope in just about every facet of life.

I know we would all love a chart that clearly noted where 'life' starts, but it's not going to happen. It seems like it should be a simple question, but it's not. It's another of those annoying gray areas where everyone can come up with their own answer and make a case that they are right. This is why the abortion debate will not be solved in our lifetime and probably not for centuries, if ever. This "Personhood Amendment," while it may sound reasonable to the anti-abortion faction, is a bureaucratic, social and judicial land mine. Not only will it not clear up the question, it will muddy the waters far worse that they are now. Sometimes it's just as important to know when NOT to do something as it is to know when to do it. This is a good time NOT to do something.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why Occupy

I keep hearing talking heads act dumbfounded by the current Occupy Wall Street protests/sit-ins. Really? Is it truly that much of a mystery?

Some of the nit picking is due to the lack of a simple, easily packaged mission statement that will fit in a headline. After all, that's the only thing most news shows and pundit parades have time for. They want a one sentence description they can wrap their pea brains around so they can then pontificate.

You want to know what it's all about? Try this little exercise. Google (or Bing, if you like) US unemployment statistics for the last few years.  National deficit estimates, mortgage foreclosure statistics and personal bankruptcies for the last year, just as a start. After you've spent a little time with those happy articles, search for US corporate earnings, middle class earnings of the last decade and earnings of the top few percent over the same period. Does anything strike you as strange about all this? Notice a trend?

Well, it sure seems odd to me and the crowds of people meeting for the Occupy Wall Street protests! It's odd that many of the companies who caused the economy to implode, and were then bailed out by American taxpayers, are doing great! Earnings as high or higher than before they mugged the economy and bonuses hitting record levels. Now compare that to the financial status of the bulk of Americans.

What are they protesting? They, and I, are watching as the top tier is slowly sucking dry the real engine of the economy, the middle class. We see a financial system guilty of massive greed and corruption yet, with few exceptions, puttering along as if nothing happened. What are the Occupy protesters looking for? How about Justice for those who don't make 6 or 7 figure salaries? How about making those who do take responsibility for their actions? Or is that too much to ask?

2011-10-30: Matt Taibbi has a good piece on this subject over at Rolling Stone. I encourage you to give it a read.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Dictator for a Day: Campaign Finance

As we drift into the election season I'm feeling that same old, sinking feeling I get every time the talking head parade begins. The feeling got worse after the Supreme Court's inexplicable 'Citizens United' decision a few years ago that all but wiped away any meaningful campaign finance restrictions.

Particularly over the last 30 years, our election system has become increasingly corrupted by money. Money in the hundreds of Millions of dollars floods into groups associated with candidates and political parties. Until recently there were a hodgepodge of campaign finance laws that made at least a valiant attempt to stem the tide of cash that surged into every election. But with one ruling, the now infamous 'Citizens United' decision, the Supreme Court swept most of them away. There are now only a few threadbare restrictions on the Who and How Much of campaign finance. Kind of like patching a dyke with a screen door. There are more than a few avenues and sleights of hand in place to allow anyone or any organization in America to donate without limit.

A great example is Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS. It's a so called 501(C)(4) group that not only can accept unlimited sums of money, but doesn't have to tell anyone where the money comes from. The only ghost of a restriction is that they are not allowed to coordinate with individual candidates, as if that's any functional impediment. GPS and its sister group, which does divulge its donors, spent roughly $71 Million in support of Republicans during the 2010 midterm. About 90% of GPS' total collections for that cycle, according to some sources, came from just a few Billionaires. For the 2012 elections they are setting a goal of $240 Million! That's just for two, supposedly independent, groups. If this kind of money, for the Right or Left, doesn't scare you, then you are not thinking it through to its logical conclusion.

This trend is toxic for a functioning democracy. The more money the wealthy and big corporations spend the more control they gain over the system. Sure we all still get a vote, but big money is gaining more and more control over who the candidates are, what we hear about them and what their policy positions are. Money determines what messages are broadcast into our family rooms and how often we hear it. Even a stupid idea, repeated loudly enough and often enough will start to take hold. There are just too many Americans who are either too naive or too lazy to look past the bullet points. They just let ads, pundits and party loyalty guide them blindly along the path without ever asking themselves if what they are being told even makes sense.

Just look at the 2008 financial debacle, if you don't believe me. Various parts of the United States financial industry destroyed the nation's economy and kicked the legs out from under much of the industrialized world. There isn't really even any debate over this fact anymore, aside from the question of whether it was a case of apathy or ignorance. But having done that, and then being rescued because we were all terrified of what might happen if the big banks actually failed all at once, they used every bit of pressure they could bring to bear to kill or weaken any attempt at true, meaningful reform. Even the financial reform bill that did finally emerge has been beaten and bloodied ceaselessly by Wall Street lobbyists to protect their astoundingly profitable casino. Actually, I should apologize as that's an insult to casinos who, unlike our banks, are required to actually have enough money on hand to cover all their bets. So even a blatantly obvious need to reform the banking system can't stand up to the massed checkbooks of that same industry.

If I was Dictator for a Day, the first thing on my list would be a Constitutional Amendment completely revamping campaign finance. Put simply, the days of big money control of US elections would be over.

First, no group, PAC, union or corporation of any kind could donate to political campaigns. Period. This would include these supposedly independent groups like Crossroads GPS. The only legal way to donate would be from individual citizen contributions.

Second, there would be a cap on individual donations, similar to current standards, with a $2500 per election cycle and $5000 per calendar year limit, adjusted for inflation in odd calendar years. Anyone found in violation of these limits would be guilty of voter fraud, face heavy fines and would be barred from donating to any candidate for at least one election cycle.

Third, each candidate would be allowed to create or hire ONE company/organization to manage the collection and disbursement of donations. They would all be licensed & renewed yearly. Their donation records would be available under normal Freedom of Information act rules. Anonymous donations would be illegal. Each group would face at least two random audits per election cycle. The audits would check general fiscal operations as well as take random samplings of donation records to confirm they are indeed real adult, US Citizens. Groups in violation of these rules, beyond a tiny margin for legitimate errors, would face draconian financial penalties, immediate cessation of campaign finance operations, a freeze on all funds and lose their license for a minimum of 2 years.

Fourth, candidates could not use their own personal funds for their campaigns. They would only be able to donate as individuals with the same limits.

Fifth, 'gifts' to candidates would be heavily restricted and fully public under Freedom of Information like rules.

I'm sure there are many details that would have to be ironed out or added, but you get the idea. This would go a long way towards leveling the playing field for voters. The wealthiest individuals and companies would no longer be able to simply buy elections. Sure there's no way to completely bolt the door shut, not considering how devious some of these people are. But it would make it much more difficult and if they were caught they would face more than a slap on the wrist. This amendment would also have the added benefit of preventing the waste of hundreds of Millions of dollars that could be put to far better use. Look, we have a big problem with our election system, but it's not yet too corrupt to reform. Unless of course we continue to ignore the problem till election day becomes nothing but a technicality to placate the masses.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Motivational Dysfunction

I have to give Republicans their due. Without a doubt, the GOP is the clear winner when it comes to playing the game of politics. While individual Democrats are skilled, the party as a whole often seems completely out of its depth. Mostly I think that comes from being much less unified than the GOP. The Democrats are far more inclusive of views that fall outside the core party platform, making unified movement challenging at times. A bigger tent, as some like to say.  The Republicans may snipe at each other around primary time, but when dealing with a Democratic challenge, they close ranks like an ancient Greek phalanx!

I don't know how much is follow-the-leader and how much is good old fashioned authoritarian decree, but ever since the Obama Administration took office the GOP has moved as a single entity. They recognized that the economic collapse of 2008 gave them a priceless opportunity to attack the new, popular President from day one. Despite not being sworn into office till after the financial bailout (TARP) had already been passed, the GOP immediately began laying full responsibility for everything related to the economic collapse at Obama's doorstep. Phrasing even TARP related criticism as if it was all Obama's idea and neatly sidestepping their own votes for the Bush era package. This would become the Republican model for everything that has come since.

Despite a stimulus package that economists have repeatedly claimed created or saved upwards of 2.7 million jobs, the GOP to this day continues to deride it as useless. They did this even as a number of them quietly submitted requests for stimulus money for projects they themselves explicitly claimed would create jobs! But publicly the Republicans maintained a solid front in claiming the stimulus did nothing and that this proved that government was powerless to do anything positive, thus making any attempt at passing a second stimulus a political impossibility. From the beginning, the GOP economic recovery plan has consisted of only a single refrain, cut taxes on the 'job creators'. These would be the same 'job creators' who were, and still are, laying off workers not because of high taxes, but because of limited demand. So there they were, proposing policies that would benefit them politically by buddying up to big business while ensuring that the economic status quo remained undisturbed. Put simply, the GOP claimed the President was at fault for the continuing economic trouble while simultaneously blocking any proposal he put forth that might have made a difference. I'd rate the GOP at one out of ten for job performance, but ten out of ten for political finesse!

The problem is that I don't think any of the men with a hand in framing our Constitution ever envisioned a situation where roughly half the legislature would see political advantage in maintaining a recession level economy. But that's where we are! I'm sure there are those who will read this and scream 'partisanship'! But think about it, who would benefit from a recovering economy? Sure the GOP could try and claim some hand in it, but it's pretty widely accepted that voters will judge a President on the state of the economy. If it's booming, he can claim credit, no matter which party controls the House or Senate. If it's a bust, he must also take the blame, no matter who controls the House or Senate. So the GOP has everything to gain and nothing to lose, politically anyway, by maintaining the current state of affairs. They know that if Obama goes into the 2012 election with unemployment at 9%, it will seriously hurt his chances for re-election. And, unfortunately for all those millions of Americans looking for work, this is all about elections. Senate Minority Leader McConnell has explicitly said, on several occasions, that preventing Obama from winning a second term is his primary political goal. I have to give him points for being honest, but this reminds me of a line from the movie Ocean's 11. Rusty is confronting Danny about trying to pull this huge casino heist while simultaneously winning back his ex-wife in the same operation. Rusty asks him, "So what happens if you can't have them both? Which one are you going to choose?" Senator McConnell, the most powerful Republican in the Senate, has clearly stated what his choice would be if forced to pick between improving the economy or defeating President Obama's re-election. The truth is that the GOP, as a whole, has long since made their choice and it's not looking good for the economy.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Past v. Future

I watched a clip featuring Bill Maher from an appearance on the Lawrence O'Donnell show on MSNBC. I find I agree with him far more often than not and this time was no exception. He made a specific statement that struck me. While talking about the debt ceiling negotiations he noted it's stupid to lump the debt limit with budget deals because the debt ceiling is about the past and the budget is about the future. This seems to nail the issue rather well.

Few will argue that our past spending habits as a nation were flawed, to say the least. Too many short-sighted decisions, most of them completely unaccounted for in the budget, have piled up a tremendous amount of national debt. Some expenditures may well have been necessary, but many were not. Put simply, it was just easier to put it on credit than to bother adjusting our budget to pay for it. Don't get me wrong, there are times when you have to do that, but they should not be that common. So now our debt is in the $14 Trillion range and projected budget deficits are still way into the red. This has to not only stop, but we have to put some plans into place to begin paying down the national debt to a more manageable level. But let's be clear, the debt is the past. Debt: "Something, typically money, that is owed or due." Past-tense. The money is spent, the clothes have been worn and the food has been eaten. No amount of whining, moaning or cuts to current spending will change that. If we didn't spend one more penny on new expenditures, we would still owe $14 Trillion. So let's stop fighting about the balance of our current debt. We owe the money and we have to pay it back, honoring our prior commitments. So let's just raise the limit on a clean, no frills bill and move onto the next crisis!

Where the real debate should be taking place is with the federal budget. This is about future spending and has no place in a debt ceiling debate. This is the messy part. It would be nice if we could debate it without all the partisan crap that has brought the sticky gears of Congress to near standstill. We really do have to look at everything, including the military, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, federal agencies and programs. But this needs to be done with a scalpel, not a hatchet. We want the patient to make a full recovery, not require prosthetics and plastic surgery!

We didn't get into this mess in a single decade, so we ain't getting out of it overnight. We need to approach the problem of the national debt and the budget deficits calmly and rationally. All sides must be willing to give a little. That means looking at entitlement programs for any possible savings without cutting benefits, such as raising the retirement age a few years. It means closing stupid loopholes in the tax code that allow highly profitable companies and fund managers to get special breaks that have no purpose other than to make them richer. It means looking at the military budget, especially drawing down the wars and reducing permanent overseas bases. It also means killing the unpaid for Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy.

I admit I'm not optimistic because these days there seem to be so few reasonable people in Congress. Especially after the November 2010 election debacle which ushered in a wave of uber-conservative politicians who seem to be completely out of touch with reality. Look, we've wasted months arguing about this and accomplished nothing. The debate has even managed to fracture the Republican party itself. The Republican Speaker of the House can't even get his own bills passed without days of delayed votes and arm twisting. And worse yet, he wasted all that time and effort on a bill that was never going to pass the Senate! Bottom line, we have to pay our bills, and meet our obligations, so raise the debt limit with no strings. The budget must be addressed, but not like this. Not in the last seconds before the car goes over the cliff. Stop risking a full blown depression for political leverage!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Wrong Problem

America has a bunch of pressing problems. We have unemployment topping 9.2%, the national debt at around $14 Trillion, budget deficits pushing a Trillion per year and an economy that may have climbed out of the hole, but remains prostrate and panting in the dirt. Now one of these problems is key to solving all the others. No, it's not the budget deficits or the debt itself. It's the economy! As long as the economy is immobile we cannot solve any of the others.

It's easy to try and compare the federal government's budget to a business or an individual's finances, but it's also nonsensical to do so because there are significant differences. If you and I get into debt, our main options are to cut our spending or increase our income by getting a better or second job. Or better yet, both. So far so good, but here is where the paths diverge. For you and I, this is pretty much all we need to do, since we are only responsible for ourselves and immediate family. The federal government, however, must balance the needs of the country and the complex interplay of finances, services and policies that affect the entire US economy. Every cut you make ripples outward across the country and sometimes even beyond our borders. Now when the economy is cruising along, these ripples are fairly easily absorbed with minimal shock. But the more fragile the economy the harder it is for the system to ride out the spikes and dips caused by large changes in federal fiscal policy.

The thing that gets lost in the brain bleeding cacophony of the budget fight and debt 'negotiations', and I use that term loosely, is that none of this happens in isolation. It's all connected. When the economy is bad and the unemployment rate is high, as it is now, it's a bad idea to start cutting federal and state jobs like a madman. This only makes the problem worse by reducing the total jobs available and increasing those looking for work. Conservatives like to pretend that government jobs aren't 'real' jobs, but that's just part of the 'government is bad' propaganda they like to spew. These are real people doing real work. So while cutting government programs, and thus public sector jobs, will indeed reduce overhead costs what's forgotten is that this only takes them off the government payroll and puts them on unemployment. This means more people drawing unemployment checks and more people flooding the job market. So really, you're just moving them from one government ledger to another. Their drop in income will lead directly to more bankruptcies and more foreclosures. This also leads to less consumer buying and thus more pressure on companies who are seeing their sales of goods and services continue to slide. Inevitably this leads to more layoffs as companies hunker down to ride out the storm. Oh, and let's not forget that people out of work and not buying equals less tax money being collected, which makes federal and state budgets even worse! It's a very logical and vicious downward spiral that is often completely ignored in the press and on the Sunday talk show circuit. Partly because it's an inconvenient hiccup to the Conservative narrative and partly because it doesn't fit into a one sentence sound byte.

Yes, we have lots of problems and the debt is certainly one of them. But while it is a problem, it is not THE problem. The debt is not going to destroy anything today, tomorrow or next year. However, not getting the economy moving and getting people back to work only makes the debt issue more intractable and increases pressure on future deficits. None of this should be surprising. This is simple economics. Just basic cause & effect that anyone willing to use that ten pound lump on their shoulders should be able to work out. We don't need more anti-abortion laws or any of the hundreds of other things the GOP controlled House has wasted time on this year! What we need is action to resurrect our economy before it stumbles back into the abyss from whence it came!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Is it Time?

On July 5th an Op-Ed appeared in the NY Times, co-written by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) entitled 'Let's Not Linger in Afghanistan'. They put forth an argument that I've heard summed up as 'declare victory and come home.' These Senators are part of a growing, bipartisan movement afoot in Congress, mirroring the sentiments of more and more Americans, that want to see an end to the 10 year war in Afghanistan. In fact it's one of the few truly bipartisan things going on in DC these days. That in and of itself begs for attention.

We invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, less than a month after in fact, and it made sense to do so at the time. The country was run by a regime that actively, and unabashedly supported and sheltered terrorists who attacked the US and other nations. It was the primary base and training ground for Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda network and was the home of Bin Laden himself. When President George W. Bush announced the invasion to the American people, he stated clearly the reasons and goals.

"On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime."

This we accomplished in fairly short order. We destroyed al Qaeda's support and training infrastructure and forced the Taliban leadership from power. Bin Laden and the bulk of the remaining al Qaeda network were pushed into the mountainous area along the Pakistani border. By December Hamid Karzai was selected as Chairman of the Interim Administration. Six months later he was chosen for a two year term as Interim President before winning the first post-Taliban Presidential election in 2004. So by 2004 Afghanistan was installing a democratically elected government. Fast forward to early 2009 and newly elected President Obama announces an increase in Afghan troop levels, now that we are finally drawing down from the non-sensical Iraq war that had distracted us since early 2003. Obama stated that the addition troops were "necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires." Then in December of 2009 President Obama, speaking at the military academy at West Point, announced a surge of some 30,000 additional troops to "bring this war to a successful conclusion." Finally, on May 2nd of this year, Osama Bin Laden was tracked to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and killed in a SEAL team raid, ending a hunt that actually started in the mid '90s. So here we are in mid 2011, and the President announced the beginning of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, which he had promised from the stage at West Point. But the drawdown will be much slower than the buildup, taking a year to return to the Fall 2009 troop levels of around 70,000. A full withdrawal would not occur till 2014!

So, by the current timetable, over thirteen years after it began and about ten years after the Karzai government took power, US troops will finally leave Afghanistan. By then we will have spent the better part of a trillion dollars, and that's only the direct military appropriations! We may never know what the exact number is, once you factor in all the ancillary costs and pallets of cash airlifted into Kabul that nobody seems to really be able to account for. Even more important than the cash are the lives lost. Over 1500 Americans thus far have lost their lives halfway around the world, averaging over 40 a month just this year, but rising month over month. You can add 920 additional deaths for the rest of the allied coalition. According to The Guardian news, you can tack on another 3800+ Afghan civilians, just since 2007, with numbers also continuing to rise. Don't forget, these are only the deaths. Current US wounded totals exceed 11,000! Then there is the strain on our entire military and their families as they return for tour after tour after tour. Many current American soldiers probably have more time 'in country' than our WWII veterans did. This is not a normal existence, with families split apart for 6 months or more at a time. We are wearing these men and women down, inch by inch. Treating them as if they were inexhaustible and ignoring the psychological, as well as physical, toll that some will never, ever recover from.

I'm just not sure what we're even accomplishing anymore. After ten years we still have only been able to really secure the larger cities. The hinterlands are still just about as dangerous as ever and still mostly outside the control of the central government. Just as they have been for centuries. Intelligence reports indicate that there are likely less than a hundred low level al Qaeda still in the country. The biggest single issue, as I see it, is really the Karzai government itself. Institutional corruption has prevented any deep reforms and undercut any real trust with the Afghan people. This is not a problem that can be fixed by yet another tour by the 10th Mountain Division! We have long since reached a point where all we're doing is keeping the various insurgent groups scattered. We can't eradicate them, any more than the British could in the 19th century or Russians in the 20th. I doubt Alexander had any better luck himself when he 'conquered' Afghanistan over 2000 years ago! The Senators' OP-Ed speaks to the problem succinctly when it states:

"Today, despite vast investment in training and equipping Afghan forces, the country's deep-seated instability, rampant corruption and, in some cases, compromised loyalties endure. Extending our commitment of combat troops will not remedy that situation." [emphasis added]

This is where we find ourselves today. We've spent dearly, in lives and treasure, and in the end we are not even the deciding factor in this equation. In many ways we never were. For the last six or seven years all we've really done is act as Karzai's army. But the problem isn't really military in nature, it's governmental. It's institutional. Afghanistan probably hasn't had a firm central government since the fall of the Persian Empire. Outside the main population centers it's still a tribal system that, aside from AK-47s and RPGs, is little changed from when the British occupied the country over 170 years ago. At least in Iraq there was a national governmental structure, despite the sectarian tensions. Afghanistan has none of this and out in the tribal lands, I'll wager, they don't even want it. We invaded to destroy al Qaeda and oust the Taliban. We accomplished most of this in the first year. All we've been doing since 2004 is desperately trying to hold together a corrupt government that most Afghans don't even trust. A government, in fact, that came off looking very shady in the last Presidential election. 

Look, I understand what everyone is worried about. We're all scared that when we pull out the bulk of our troops that the scattered elements of the Taliban will coalesce into a strong enough force to bring down Karzai and return to power. It is a valid concern, but will things be much different between summer 2012 and the end of 2014? Will the Afghan government be any stronger? Any less corrupt? We are dealing with a culture that seems to almost enshrine corruption and cronyism. A nation that has lived on the opium trade for generations. As I've said on more than one occasion, in the end the only people really in a position to 'win' in Afghanistan are the Afghans themselves. Whether we leave in 2012 or 2014, they are the ones who will determine if the new government stands or falls, not America or NATO. 

It's time to start bringing the bulk of our troops home, not by the end of 2014, but by the end of 2012. Do it for the troops, who have suffered, bled and died for 10 years already. Do it for the Afghan people who have lived with a foreign army of occupation for a decade, good intentions or no, and must be allowed to choose their own destiny. Do it for our economy, which cannot continue to hemorrhage money in the hundreds of Billions while we lay off teachers and watch our infrastructure crumble. Finally, as President Obama put it in his Afghan policy speech, "America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home." Way past time, if you ask me.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Underrated & Still a Favorite

There are a lot of films that have come and gone with nary a whimper at the box office, while at the same time taking a substantial chunk of the studio's money with it. Some, with very good reviews, some . . . not so much. One of the latter is a guilty pleasure of mine, 'The Adventures of Ford Fairlane'.

This fine film, circa 1990, was directed by Renny Harlin, best known for'Die Hard 2' and 'Cliffhanger'. It starred Andrew 'Dice' Clay, a standup comic of some fame in the late '80s, along with a well known supporting cast including Priscilla Presley, Gilbert Gottfried, Ed O'Neill, Robert Englund and Wayne Newton. Not to mention cameos from rock, rap and R&B artists of the time like Vince Neill, Morris Day, Tone Loc and a few brief moments of Sheila E. Clay plays the title role, obviously based heavily on his iconic standup character. A sort of 'R' rated Fonzi-style detective in Los Angeles who specializes in cases involving the music business. Whereas Clay's 'Dice' persona has more of a belligerent edge, Fairlane is more easy going. He may make semi-insulting comments, but they come off as more playful than outright mean. The movie is done in a narrative style, with Fairlane giving a running commentary which both moves the plot along and provides some amusing observational quips here and there.

After an introduction scene, where you get a glimpse into Fairlane's style and job, the plot begins to take shape. Back at his office, Fairlane gets a message from an old pal, now a radio shock-jock named Johnny Crunch (Gottfried), who hires him to find a young groupie named ZuZu Petals (Maddie Corman), though Crunch is quite vague as to who she is or why he's looking for her. Shortly thereafter Crunch is dead and Fairlane is left with the mystery of why and what ZuZu has to do with it all. His investigation leads him into the company of record exec Julian Grendal (Newton), a socialite named Colleen Sutton (Presley) and drags along Fairlane's long suffering assistant Jazz (Lauren Holly). The pacing is good, with little time to get bored. The plot certainly isn't without its holes, but nothing that will likely pull you out of the story. As you'd expect, most of the cast play it pretty straight, allowing Fairlane to drive the comedy elements. There are exceptions, such as ZuZu, who is played wonderfully as a somewhat ditzy, but endearing music groupie who is as clueless about her importance as Fairlane is. Robert Englund provides an over the top performance as a thug with a British accent who is probably not quite 'all there'. Ed O'Neill plays a bafoonish police inspector with a disco fetish and a Fairlane sized chip on his shoulder.

Is this high-brow? Not even close. The closest comparison that leaps to mind is "The Hangover', though Ford Fairlane isn't as tight or polished, if that's the word for it. The dialog is where it shines. There are a lot of great one liners that make me chuckle even after multiple viewings. One thing that helps is that the film doesn't take itself too seriously. This movie will never endear itself to critics, but if you are just looking for a light hearted, if occasionally raunchy, ride with some laughs, I think 'The Adventures of Ford Fairlane' will fit the bill.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Self Evident

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

As you no doubt know, the preceding quote is from the Declaration of Independence. Our resignation letter from the British Empire, you might say. It speaks of what the American colonies believed were the rights of every citizen. This belief, that "all men are created equal" sits at the heart of the US Constitution. A document that attempts to codify the principles of fairness and equality for all Americans.

So why is it that, after 235 years, we are still struggling to live up to the ideals Thomas Jefferson put to paper all those years ago? In 2011 we are still debating whether particular Americans deserve the same rights as the rest. Should they be treated differently by the law? Do they have the right to do what their neighbors have always been free to do? Should you be payed the same wage as the person sitting next to you who does the same job? These questions, to me at least, are astonishing in that we are even asking them. I'm sure someone reading this is already trying to determine who I'm referring to in each question. But why? Does it matter? I don't recall the Constitution or it's amendments having any asterisks tucked away in the text.

Does it change the answer if I'm referring to an America who is gay as opposed to straight? Does it matter if it's an American man or woman? Does it matter if the American is lighter or darker skinned than me? The Constitution certainly wasn't written to only apply to certain Americans and not others. Each of us can point to someone we know who will eagerly agree that America is the land of equality and that everyone has the right to reach any level of society if they work for it. But if you mention homosexual or muslim, how many of them will get nervous and start looking for the right way to explain how that's different.

Personally I can't even grasp the idea of paying a qualified woman less than a man for the same job. It wouldn't even be an option to weigh! She's qualified, she has X years experience, so let's offer her X salary, based on that criteria. I don't get how someone can actually go out of their way and fight to prevent two gay Americans from marrying. I understand that some would have personal issues with it, perhaps, but to campaign to stop it? It has zero effect on them, so why do they spend their time and money trying to stop two people who love each other from formalizing their relationship as everyone else is allowed to do? Something every OTHER American is allowed to do.

America was built to be a meritocracy. A level playing field. The founders wanted to escape a world where the circumstances of your birth would be the prime determining factor in what you could do or become. They wanted to do away with the aristocracy and a class system that dictated who could do what and who deserved which rights. So they created a government built on these principles of equality and fair play. You can see it in the painstaking way the Constitution lays out the United States government, with careful checks and balances to spread the power. It's inefficient, but it's about as fair as any single document could manage. But leave it to us to screw it up!

How many years after we declared those "self evident" truths till we stopped the practice of owning other people? How long till we gave roughly half our population the right to vote? How long till we finally admitted that the color of your skin did not limit your Constitutional rights? And how much longer before we stop pretending that who a person is intimately attracted to has any bearing whatsoever on their worth or rights? How much longer till, as a nation, we finally stop dictating what makes a 'proper' marriage or a proper American?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

OK for Some

I think what most surprises me about this whole Anthony Weiner sexting scandal is how much press it's generated. There have been a lot of scandals in DC over the last decade, yet I don't recall any scandal since Clinton getting this much attention for this long. Why? Yes, I know, he sent salacious messages and some dirty pics to a few women he met via his Twitter and Facebook feeds. Yes, as a married man, this was wrong. But . . . I still don't see the fuel for this perpetual media machine. I suppose the highly partisan climate of the last three years is part of it. That's obviously behind the vocal, and quite hypocritical calls for Weiner to resign. I say hypocritical because there wasn't, and still isn't, much concern over Senator David Vitter's own scandal involving his frequenting the 'DC Madame'. One report I heard said that there was a record of a call by Vitter from the floor of the Senate during a vote! What makes it worse, in my estimation, is that he's another of those holier-than-though Republicans who constantly talks up the sanctity of marriage. Call me old fashioned, but I think a married, 'family values' Senator frequenting prostitutes is a bit more damning than sending a picture of your privates to a woman you've been flirting with online. Neither will win you any awards, but the latter has the distinct saving grace of not being illegal. And yet, Vitter is still a Senator and none of his Republican colleagues, so enraged by Weiner's indiscretion, have uttered a peep against him. Curious, eh?

I really do wonder how much of this is due to the 'ew' factor. Is it mostly because so many are shocked at the whole social networking angle of Weiners scandal? I think some people are just weirded out by the online affair aspect. Would there be as much attention if he had just been caught schtupping a member of his staff? I seriously doubt it. Especially considering how quickly the airwaves went deaf to the John Ensign scandal. Don't recall that? Let me refresh your memory. Senator Ensign only recently resigned from office, and rather suddenly at that. As luck would have it, his last day in office was the day before he was set to testify in front of the Senate Ethics Committee to face questions of not just his infidelities with a married staffer, but also the allegedly illegal ways he went about trying to keep it secret. Including violating lobbying laws to get the husband of the woman he was sleeping with, also a staffer and family friend, a lobbying gig after Ensign canned them both. (That's class, isn't it? Caught sleeping with a staffer so you fire her and her husband!) And let's not forget the roughly $90,000 he talked his wealthy parents into giving to his lover and her husband to sweep the whole thing under the rug. The Ethics Committee had so much evidence that, even after Ensign skipped out of the Senate, they still handed it all off to the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission for consideration of criminal charges. Now, call me partisan, but that's more than just a case of infidelity!

The problem, as I see it, is that we have never had an actual guide to go by when gauging the severity of personal indiscretions by politicians. It's always been a crap shoot. Often the deciding factor had more to do with the persons position, power and friends than what was actually done. My own personal yardstick starts with the most obvious question; were laws broken? Considering that we are talking about the people who draw up laws for the rest of us, it's only fair to expect them to be held to the same rules of conduct as the rest of the nation. Next would come professional ethics, such as the rules of the House and Senate. These I'm a little more flexible on, as some are obviously more trivial than others. But there's no question that getting down and dirty with your lover in your Capital Hill office would edge across the line into unacceptable behavior for a member of Congress. But a 10 minutes phone call from that same office or an email from a private account is more of a gray area. After all, most places of business recognize your right to an occasional few minutes of personal time. That doesn't mean anything goes, but there's more leeway there. It gets extremely gray after that, since much of the outrage seems to boil down to what each individual finds personally offensive and that's the very definition of subjective! What we most need, however, is consistency! Set some rules for behavior. Lay out what is your personal life and what is unarguably a professional matter. Personal mistakes in judgement may not say good things about you, but in the end, they are just that, personal. It's only when you cross the line into professional behavior that it becomes more than just a tabloid sensation.

Probably the biggest issue used to beat up Congressman Weiner is one that is the same for all of these scandals; lying. Once you get past the purely political criticisms and the disgust from those who can't get past the basic idea of sending anatomical pictures over the internet, you are left with this one complaint. For 10 days he stood in front of the cameras and lied about not sending the picture that had just gone public. He always hedged on the question of whether the picture was of him or not, which did stand out as a bit odd at the time. But should we really be surprised that he lied about it? And does a lie about a highly personal matter mean you are generally untrustworthy? Some would certainly hold the line and say that the lie means he can never be trusted again. I disagree. We all lie. Some of us are better than others about it, but we all lie occasionally. The two times we are most likely to lie are to protect someone, either physically or emotionally, and when we are protecting ourselves from personal embarrassment. And the more acute and potentially damaging that embarrassment, the more likely we are to lie. All of us. We may pretend we are pinnacles of virtue, but very few of us can truly claim innocence. And when all is said and done, if there is one place I would expect someone to lie, it's when a room full of reporters asks you if you sent a photo of your obviously happy johnson attempting to escape your underwear. I don't think that means you can never be trusted. I think that makes you human. That lie may be wrong, but it doesn't mean that same person will be any more likely to lie about a policy position than another politician. Believe me, I'd consider a law ejecting elected officials for documented lies! This would also have the added benefit of making term limits redundant by guaranteeing constant turnover in the houses of Congress.

As I write this, reports are trickling out that Congressman Weiner is resigning. On one level, it's certainly his choice what's best for him and his wife. On another level, I'm a bit ticked. I feel like he was forced into this, not because it was a heinous act, but because the nature of it made people uncomfortable and it was politically expedient for the Democrats to sacrifice him. By allowing and in fact enabling Weiner's critics the Democrats have once again capitulated to Republicans and validated their rampant hypocrisy. They could have at least put full pressure on Vitter to do the same! But I suppose Rachel Maddow was right, as she put it in one of her segments, I guess 'it's all right if you're a Republican'.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Privilege or Right?

If there's one thing that everyone can agree on it's that healthcare is expensive. Unfortunately that's about all we can agree on. As I listened to the 2009 - 2010 health reform 'debate' and the many ripples that it spawned I kept coming back to the same question: Is healthcare a right or a privilege? This seems to be the real heart of the matter, at least for those not associated with an insurance or pharmaceutical company. That's really what we're debating isn't it?

On the liberal/progressive side are those who see this as a basic rights issue. They believe that access to medical care should be something all Americans can count on, no matter their financial status. On the conservative end of the spectrum it seems to be viewed as more of a luxury and that access should be something you must work for and earn. Now conservatives won't put it that way exactly, but that's really the unspoken truth behind all the careful prose. They want to sound like they care, but in the end they always seem to rely on going to the Emergency Room as the fallback position. As if that's some sort of cost cutting measure, which it most certainly is not. That just pushes the cost around, out of sight, till it's paid for by all of us in one shape or form.

I'm sure it's obvious where I stand in this debate. For me it comes down to a simple question of whether a person's lifespan and basic health should rest solely on the size of their paycheck. Is a subcontracting carpenter less worthy of a long, healthy life simply because his job doesn't afford him health insurance and he may or may not be able to afford a policy on his own? Is a network administrator's life more important because his job usually provides health insurance? And even if you remove the employer subsidized insurance from the equation, a net admin makes more than most carpenters, so he would be much more likely to be able to afford insurance on his own. Put it this way, the CEO of Goldman Sachs will never want for medical care, no matter what ailment he may suffer from. However a single mom working multiple part time jobs to make ends meet will have difficulty paying for treatment of a simple broken bone, much less something like cancer. So is the CEO more deserving of life than the single mom because he has a high paying job with top of the line health insurance?

We in America like to think we have the best medical care the world has to offer. And, in part, that may be true, based on how many of the world's great and powerful come here for treatment. But it's important to remember that medical care and health care are two completely different things. Medical care is the actual skill of the medical staff, the technology they wield and their ability to apply both to cure a condition or manage it for the best quality of life. Medical care is not concerned with cost, only results. Health care on the other hand is all about cost. Health care is exclusively focused on how much medical care you are allowed by your insurance and/or your personal finances. So America may indeed have stellar medical care, but that doesn't mean all Americans are in a position to actually benefit from it.

And that's where the rubber meets the road on this issue, isn't it? Stop blathering about 'death panels' and socialism. Strip away the histrionics, the hyperbole and the euphemisms and admit what this is really all about! Is a person's life only as valuable as his paycheck?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Who Can You Trust?

Only the most naive would actually believe everything a politician said into a microphone or wrote on paper. It's pretty much axiomatic that even conservatives are liberal when it comes to the truth. But even knowing that, we still tend to assume that, at the core, there is some truth hiding there. We expect hyperbole, but most people, deep down, assume that a given statement is based on fact. We really have to believe that, don't we? Because once you lose even that little fragment of trust, what does that leave you with?

In what has become a huge media and social networking phenomenon, United States Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) stepped beyond hyperbole in a statement from the floor of the US Senate. During the last days of the budget battle, a little over a week ago, the whole budget agreement seemed to come down to the funding of Planned Parenthood. According to one source, federal money accounts for about a third of Planned Parenthood's total funding. It's an odd sticking point for the entire federal budget, since this item makes up a mere sliver of the, already tiny, slice that is discretionary spending. It would be like a married couple, budgeting for the year, in a knock-down drag-out over the purchase of single caramel latte! This is far more about social agendas than budgetary restraint. Not to mention that we already have a regularly invoked provision, the Hyde Amendment, that has restricted Federal funding for abortion services since 1976! It's so inconvenient when these 'facts' disrupt a perfectly good narrative though, isn't it?

Jon Kyl's place in this debate was immortalized when he claimed that abortions made up "well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does." It's, of course, normal for a conservative to wave the red flag of abortion to rile the base, but the percentage he stated raised everyone's eyebrows. Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, put it this way. "I'd love to see that statistic checked by, uh... Anyone!" Apparently many felt this way and when CNN, MSNBC and others contacted Kyl's office to ask where the statistic had come from, the Senator's spokesman informed them that, Kyl's "remark was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, an organization that receives millions in taxpayer dollars, does subsidize abortions." Further investigation turned up the real statistic, which was about 3%. As Stephen Colbert put it very well, Kyl "just rounded up to the nearest 90."

Humor aside, and there was a lot of that in the days following the Senator's statement, what does this say about even the most basic filament of trust in our elected government? If he had announced that "much of what Planned Parenthood does is abortion" he would have been guilty of hyperbole. Pretty wild hyperbole, but still just exaggeration. But he didn't say that. He used a percentage that was calculated to sound like a fact. I believe that was exactly what it was- a calculated decision to say something that would make those for whom abortion is a trigger issue, gasp in horror. He lied, clearly and with every intention of misleading.

Am I naive to think that blatant lies by politicians should be shocking? Or have we just become so jaded that we are more shocked by truth? This is actually a very important issue. We don't have to believe every word of every statement, but where does it leave us, as a country, when we just assume we are being lied to all the time? Shouldn't we be outraged when it gets to this point? Even the constituency Kyl was pandering to should feel betrayed because he was obviously just manipulating them like pawns on a chess board. Or is manipulation OK as long as it seems, as far we know, to coincide with our individual beliefs?

Personally, I don't want to be lied to by politicians, whether I agree with their aims or not. Truth is the only way a democracy can function. Once lying becomes the norm, that's when the government becomes little more than an authoritarian state where the 'unwashed masses' just do what they are told. When I write something and I'm going to cite an absolute of some kind, such as a cost or percentage, I look it up. I find what seems to be a trustworthy source for the information I plan to quote. I could just make up numbers that fit my narrative, but I can't. It's not because I never lie, ever. It's because I have a certain sense of personal integrity that will not allow me to just make something up. That's what I expect from elected officials, naive though that may sound to some. This isn't pie in the sky idealism! I don't expect them to be paragons of honor and virtue, but at some point, where it really matters, I expect a basic level of personal integrity. You can lie about some personal foible and I may be disappointed, but when the lies affect thousands or millions of people who have put their trust in you, then I have no sympathy to give. It's way over used, but it's also a truism. With great power comes great responsibility. We must demand more from our government. If not, every lie uttered without repercussion adds another crack to the foundation of our democracy. To those who say I'm just gullible or naive to feel this way and that this is not how the world works, I have to ask, how long can a democracy last when the government realizes that it no longer has to tell us the truth at all?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Fracking Stupid

There is a procedure being used in many areas around the US, and the world, called Hydraulic Fracturing. Also referred to as 'fracing' or 'fracking' for short. Put simply, this procedure uses high pressure to pump a liquid, often made up of water and various chemicals, to fracture the underground rock. This creates a high permeability conduit to allow otherwise difficult to access deposits of natural gas or oil to be extracted. It's being used heavily in many parts of the northeast region of the US to access natural gas deposits that would otherwise be difficult to extract.

Now think about this, a high pressure stream of water and various chemicals are injected deep underground to break up the rock strata. Is there anything about this that seems problematic? I know that when I first heard this described my initial thought was, "what about the ground water?" After all, we get much of our drinking water from underground aquifers. If we are pumping chemicals, some of which are known to be hazardous, into the ground and fracturing the surrounding rock, it's inevitable that this will contaminate ground water. There's no way to prevent it. I've seen film of well water emerging from a normal sink faucet that can be ignited by a simple cigarette lighter. Now you might think, that there are federal laws that protect our drinking water. Yes there are. However you might be surprised to know that the G.W.Bush administration and Congress passed legislation in 2005 exempting oil and gas companies from those pesky regulations.

Why are we and others around the world doing something that basic common sense says is blindingly stupid? Borderline suicidal, even? Because energy companies want to make more money. It doesn't matter if it's effective in extracting more natural gas and oil. It doesn't matter if this contributes any tiny bit to our energy independence. If the process is polluting our water supply, and there seems to be evidence beyond just having a functioning brain to indicate that it does, than who the frack cares if it's profitable or provides any energy independence?! It's a simple case of risk/benefit analysis. The risk to lives far outweighs any benefit that may be produced. And if an energy company's profits weren't involved or a politician's donations weren't involved we wouldn't even be having the discussion. You want a picture postcard of what's wrong with our corporate influenced system, then this is it!

Thursday, March 10, 2011


We've all been in the position where we had multiple problems but limited time or resources to address them. So what do you do? You look at your problems and figure out which is the most pressing. The one that absolutely can't be put off. The problem that threatens to overwhelm you if not dealt with as soon as possible. You may have several that at first glance seem equally important but, in almost every case, when you look closely and weigh the facts you will see that one is more of an emergency than the other. It may not be by a lot, but there is a difference. Once this is sorted out, you focus as much as you can on this one problem and resolve it, or at least make enough progress that you can set it aside in favor of a more pressing issue. Put simply, you prioritize.

This is what we all do everyday. We prioritize errands, bills, obligations and all the other things in life we have to address both good and bad. But as often seems to be the case, our elected leaders appear to have forgotten this, whether by intention or incompetence. I think most Americans would agree that the two most pressing problems, on a national level, are the economy, which includes unemployment, and the national debt. Since being swept into office last November on a wave of impatience and discontent, the Republicans have, between inexplicable bouts of anti-abortion and anti-union zeal, screamed to the rafters that we must cut spending. Cut, cut, cut. Now, now, now! They say the government is spending too much and while true this is hardly different from the previous eight years, when they were in charge.  I agree that the debt is a huge problem. One of my early posts from 2004 was about the need to address the problem. Of course then the problem was only dire. It hadn't yet reached the level of obscenity we now face. So I'm fully in agreement that the debt must be faced and a plan set in place to reduce it.

However, one other thing has changed since 2004, when I first waved the red flag on our debt. You may even have noticed it when it occurred. It was when the economy dropped through the floor like a tank on balsa wood. Ring any bells? So here we sit, with unemployment hovering around 9% nationally and far worse in some areas. We've had some marginal growth, but it's been stuttering and uncertain. Foreclosures and bankruptcies are at eye watering levels. In fact, the only people doing well are those who either had lots of money to cushion the fall or the robber barons who parked the tank there in the first place! To top it all off, Republicans, with misguided and grudging Democratic support, ladled another $700 billion to the debt over the next few years so the richest people in the nation wouldn't see a slight tax hike.

This complicates any plan to balance the budget and put even a smudge on the national debt. It's the same old story, when the economy is booming and we could actually afford to reduce the budget and make inroads against the debt without major cuts, everyone wants to spend, spend, spend. As soon as the economy sags, everyone is suddenly calling for the end to NPR funding and home heating oil subsidies for the poor. Aside from the questionable morals of taking aid away from the poor after ensuring the wealthy don't see a tax increase, there is the fact that cuts like these have no real effect on the budget. Most of the cuts I see proposed are all focused on balancing the budget from the tiniest slice of the whole pie, discretionary spending. They ignore the largest percentage made up of Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid & Defense. Why? Because those would require real effort and debate. So much easier to just go for the easy pickings. The stuff you can get the base riled up about, but that won't really make a difference.

Want to deal with the budget? Focus on the economy! The most important thing is to get the economy growing and get millions back to work. That will scale back the bankruptcies, the foreclosures and spending on unemployment benefits. It will also generate revenue that can be used to balance the budget, along with some modest cuts. Remember, the underlying reason for the huge budget problems at the State and Federal levels stem from the recession. Yes, government has spent a lot in the last 3 years, but the reason it did, whether you agreed with the choices or not, was in direct response to economic strife. Propping up huge corporations so they wouldn't collapse and take large chunks of their fiscal neighbors with them. Trying to pump money into the system to keep the economy from flat lining. That's where the majority of our recent deficits came from. So focus on the economy. Get that running on all cylinders again and a significant percentage of the problem will correct itself.  No, it won't solve it, but it will have a far greater and long lasting effect than any discretionary spending cuts. And if you're going to look at cuts, consider EVERYTHING, not just your pet, partisan punching bag. We will never balance the entire budget if we are only willing to make cuts to 15% of it!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Government You Deserve

I'm sure I'm not the only one thinking, "I told you so". As last year's mid-terms approached and the crop of far Right candidates were looking more and more likely to win big, I saw it coming. Everyone should have, but Americans were, as usual, impatient and fickle. Two years of the Obama administration and Democrats in control (Senate excluded, of course) hadn't magically levitated us out of a deep recession yet, so obviously it was time to reverse the gears again. Well America did switch horses in the middle of the race and what a fine mess it's creating.

Republicans retook control of the House and promised that Jobs were the top priority. So what did they do with their first bills? A symbolic 'repeal' of Health Reform, which had no chance of passing the Senate or being signed by the President. Followed by . . . wait for it, two bills focused on abortion. And not just the usual conservative anti-abortion style legislation. No, they decided that the best way to restrict abortions was to try and redefine what 'rape' actually meant! They actually tried to do it by making a distinction between 'rape' and 'forcible rape'! Let me quote from the New Oxford American Dictionary: Rape (noun)"forcing another person to have sexual intercourse with [them] without their consent and against their will, esp. by the threat or use of violence against them." I'm pretty sure that would be 'forcible rape'. I'm sure if one of these Republicans had a friend or family member who was raped, they would consider that 'forcible'. Welcome to the Republican controlled House, where we redefine the English language to fit our social policies!

Remember those promises newly minted Speaker Boehner and his colleagues made to 'fix' the House when they took over? Such as citing Constitutional precedent in all bills? Promise broken from day one. Promise to cut $100 Billion from the budget in their first year? Reality finally sets in and that number is dropping fast. Promise Broken. A promise to institute an 'Open Rules' process on all legislation so there would be debate and a chance to propose amendments? Promise broken day one. It took them over a month before they finally got around to keeping this promise, but I wouldn't hold my breath on it being repeated after that.

What about State governments? A wave of Republican Governors were voted into office. Well, in Wisconsin we have Governor Scott Walker who has decided to address a budget shortfall by slashing public worker pay and benefits. But that's just the semi-normal part of the legislation. Another part of the proposed bill would strip many unions of their collective bargaining rights. A move that has zero budgetary effect, but certainly a large political effect. Rachel Maddow put it well on a recent show where she noted that Wisconsin is not in tough budgetary straits. Or they weren't until Governor Walker gave away about $140 Million in business tax incentives immediately after taking office. A number that is eerily close, oddly enough, to the current state shortfall. So while Governor Walker is attempting to make this a budgetary crises, what this really is about is politics. Union busting, not to save money, but as a direct attack on organizations who generally support Democratic candidates. Think this is just my misinterpretation? Then why did Gov. Walker exempt local police, firefighters and state troopers from his labor union attacks? Oddly enough, these are the three groups who supported his election campaign. I'm sure that's just a coincidence though, right?

So welcome, America, to your newly elected conservative government! I just hope you weren't actually counting on them to help with the jobs crisis or the economy. After all, why work to address the 9% unemployment rate and quickly widening wage gap when you have the chance to redefine rape and strip unions of their bargaining rights? Welcome America, not to the government you wanted, but rather to the government you deserve!

Update: If you would like a good followup to the Wisconsin story, I suggest this.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Joy of Dictators

The current demonstrations in Egypt, hot on the heels of the ones that brought down Tunisia's government, put a glaring spotlight on America's foreign relations split personality. The US has always talked boldly about the need for more democracy around the world. It's a long running theme in our public persona. But this democratic fervor is at odds with our long history of supporting authoritarian regimes.

Don't get me wrong, compared with some of America's other past and present 'allies', Egypt is tame. After all, they are the only Arab nation to have formally accepted Israel's right to exist, signed a peace treaty with them and have maintained diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. Compared to many other regional powers, Egypt is fairly moderate. But the fact remains that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has held power for nearly 30 years behind the fiction of elections that always awarded him victory by absurd margins. You'd think these authoritarian regimes would learn after a while. If they really want to keep the illusion that they are being re-elected repeatedly, at least keep the numbers realistic. Any margin over about 60% is pretty much a guarantee of corruption yet Mubarak 'won' consistently with margins of 80% or more. Might as well drop the pretense and exchange the title 'President' for 'Dictator'. He could at least claim the high ground on honesty.

The root of the problem is that as much as America likes Democracies in theory, we find them rather problematic to deal with in practice. A great example of this was in the build up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The US requested that Turkey let us move a large contingent of troops through their country to enable an advance into Iraq from the north. This tidy plan came apart, however, when Turkey's democratic government voted to deny the request forcing a delay as these troops were diverted to the Gulf. You see, the problem with a democracy is that it's not always predictable. Just look at the US Congress if you doubt that. But a dictatorship! Now that's a government deals are made of! There's nothing more efficient in foreign policy than to be able to sit down in a single office that can encompass the entire ruling government. Only in an authoritarian regime can the word of a few, or even just one, official guarantee the nation's lock-step agreement.

This is why the initial US response to the popular demonstrations in Egypt was so neutral. Ideologically we are strongly attracted to the Egyptian's calls for reform and a representative government. On the other hand we would lose a reasonably friendly partner with which we have a long history. Not to mention that any new government would be a rather chancy roll of the dice. What kind of government would replace Mubarak? Would they be more fundamentalist? Would they be friendly to America or not? We still have vivid memories from the late 70's when the US backed Shah of Iran was overthrown in a popular revolution and it didn't turn out too well for us as a nation or for the Americans held hostage for 444 days.

But this is what happens when we take the easy route and throw our support behind strong-arm regimes while turning a blind eye to their iron handed rule. Another outcome of this convenient arrangement is when a one time ally becomes an enemy. Anyone remember that in the early 80's we were buddies with a gentleman by the name of Saddam Hussein? Another one that didn't turn out so well. Personally I think it's time to stop taking the easy road when it comes to international relations because, just as in most things, easy often carries a rather steep price tag when all is said and done.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Farce Continues

Am I the only one who wonders why the Republicans in the House, who were so gung-ho to rein in spending, are continuing to waste their time and our money in pursuit of the meaningless and the trivial? Only a few days ago the House passed a piece of legislation called "Repealing of the Job Killing Health Care Law". Subtle, eh? Also in the House, Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), newly minted Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, is making threats to start endless investigations into the Obama Administration. Not for any specific abuses, as far as I can tell, but more in the realm of a touchdown dance now that the GOP has retaken control of the House of Representatives.  Both are pointless, petty and completely out of touch with the real problems facing the country and more of a demonstration of political gamesmanship than anything else.

As far as health reform repeal is concerned, let's all remember that it is functionally impossible for Republicans to repeal health reform at this time. Maybe if they win the Presidency or the Senate in 2012 it would be feasible, but not now. They can pass any idiotic notion they want in the House and no doubt this item is only the first, but it will then go to the other side of the Capital and vanish from sight. The Senate will never debate it, much less pass it. And even if it were passed, the President will veto it and an override would require the support of two-thirds of both houses, which will not happen. Not to mention the question of why you would want to in the first place. It's not perfect and parts of it will be debated and challenged, but it includes a lot of good things. It's also true that the Congressional Budget Office and other non-aligned groups have consistently said that this law will save money over the next decade. I realize the GOP had to go through the formalities for those supporters too ignorant of how the government functions to realize what an empty promise repeal actually was, but the gesture has been made, now let's move on!

Then we have the oft voiced threat to hold a long series of vague and pointless House investigations of the Obama Administration. Really? So we went through 8 years of the Bush Administration redefining torture in such a way to make it legal, had the rendition of suspects to secret locations outside the reach of our laws and the maintenance of an offshore gulag. Then Obama tries to do exactly what he was elected to do and this is a problem. It is as transparent a political game as you are likely to see. And in DC that's saying something. But it's only the opening salvo of the newly GOP controlled House as they pursue their most important agenda item for the next couple years; prevent Obama from winning reelection in 2012. I do not exaggerate. Senate Minority Leader McConnell actually told a conservative gathering last year that preventing Obama from winning a second term was their top priority. He actually said that, even as we deal with rampant unemployment, economic desolation and a rising national debt. It is comforting to know that our elected officials continue to be focused on the future. Not America's, unfortunately, but certainly that of the GOP. To say this behavior angers me would be like saying that Hurricane Katrina got a few people wet.

It's way past time for the conservatives to stop acting like Obama is some far left radical. I use the term 'act' literally, as most of these people know full well that this President is the most centrist, pragmatic Chief Executive we've seen in over 30 years. He has consistently taken conservative ideas and incorporated them into his policy proposals. Consistently he's been open to GOP suggestions. Consistently he has irritated the more progressive wing of his party for not taking up the charge on many liberal causes, such as gay marriage. Yet he has consistently been portrayed among conservative politicians and talking heads as an out of control, frothing liberal. Why? Because a centrist, popular Democrat is a GOP nightmare. They didn't know what to do with him when he was elected. The last thing they wanted was to help him and thereby hurt their chances of beating him in 2012, so they did the only thing they could . . . they made things up. They began a narrative that was a lie. It was obvious to most of us who actually looked at the policies and ignored the rhetoric, but many have bought into it and that is a tragedy. It's depressing to imagine all that could have been done, if only America were more important than politics. It's also depressing that so many Americans actually believe the drivel being spouted to by those who have no reason whatsoever to cooperate with this Administration. That's how they won back the House. Some Americans are so shortsighted and impatient that they couldn't even give Obama his full term before throwing up their hands in frustration. Guess it's true, in a Democracy you do get the government you deserve.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Civilizing Literature One Word at a Time

Some may have heard that a scholar, Alan Gribben, is working on publishing a new version of Mark Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn' & 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' in a single volume. I say version rather than edition, because it will have a few editorial changes. Specifically editing out the words "ni**er" and "injun". As you can tell by my carefully placed asterisks, the "N" word is not a word for polite conversation. The fact that these books included the term, along with the conversationally truncated word for 'indian', many times and thus have been disappearing from school reading lists is an excellent example of trying to hide reality from our kids.

I would add my voice to those who find the idea of retroactively 'cleaning up' past literary works a very bad idea. This is exceedingly stupid, no matter how eminent the scholar doing the work or how sound they think their reasoning is. Taking out words we find offensive is censorship, no matter the rationale. I don't think we want to teach students that censorship is OK as long as it's for a good cause. 

Gribben stated, from his Auburn University office that:

"This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind. Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century."

So it's alright to change the author's work to make it fit current social standards? Really? I was pretty sure that was all but the exact definition of censorship. How many living authors, do you think, would put up with having a celebrated work of theirs altered for delicate sensibilities? This strikes me as the same sort of simple minded drivel as draping clothing over semi-nude statuary. A professorship doesn't always equal level headed thinking, unfortunately.

Those books were written in a particular time and place and the language reflects that. How many other works are now going to be considered for this treatment? I'm sure many see it as a minor thing since it's just a couple of distasteful words, but where does it end? This is the proverbial 'slippery slope'. It doesn't matter how good your intentions are, once you start doing this, someone will find another example to be purged, then another, then another. All for the Greater Good. All with the best intentions.

We cannot and should not child-proof the world to make everything in written history palatable for today's standards. Trying to do so is disrespectful of the authors and disrespectful of your student's intelligence. Don't change the words, teach your students why these words were used and teach them about the historical context. These words are an opportunity to enlighten your students.  A teacher's job is not to keep everyone happy and comfortable, it's to teach!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Oath to CSPAN Ruled Non-Binding

In an astounding moment in the GOP's first day on the job after taking control of the House of Representatives, two Congressmen somehow managed to skip the official swearing in. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), a returning member, and Mike Fitzpatrick (R- Pennsylvania) a new arrival apparently decided that it was more important to be down the hall at a Fitzpatrick fundraiser/gathering than attending to the most basic of Constitutional duties, being sworn into office. In a leap of illogic that is particularly astounding for a veteran House member like Sessions, they 'took their oath' to CSPAN. Literally standing in front of a TV running the televised swearing in ceremony! No, really! Then proceeded to go about their business casting votes that, since they were not officially sworn in, were no legal. This of course caused a problem when it all came out and both geniuses had cast a number of votes that were meaningless. Oh, and did I mention that Sessions is on the House Rules Committee? Or that if the gathering actually met the definition of a 'fundraiser' than Fitzpatrick violated House rules again for hosting it in the Capital building?

In my opinion they should both have been barred from voting for 30 days, then have to go through a formal swearing in on the floor in front of the entire House of Representatives. A little public humiliation might do them both a world of good.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Lame Duck, Better than No Duck at All

A surprisingly productive 'Lame Duck' session of Congress has come to an end. It's been called the most productive Lame Duck session ever, though I can't speak to that myself. But it's without a doubt the most productive this Congress has been over the last year. That is the sad part. After a year of near absolute stone walling on even the most vanilla bills and nominations, it's astonishing how fast things can be passed under threat of being forced to work over the holidays. Democrats certainly have their issues, but I must say that the way the GOP crumbles like overcooked ginger snaps every Christmas is both pathetic and endlessly amusing. So much for integrity and sticking by your values.

"I will not compromise!" (Generic GOP Senator)

"We will stay and work through the holidays till we get this settled!" (Dem Majority Leader)

"Hey, look at the time! Let's ink this deal!" (Generic GOP Senator)

To add to the fun, there are a number of GOP Congresspersons really ticked off at how well they were played this Holiday season. This includes the ever amusing and often nonsensical Representatives Steve King (R-Iowa) and Michele Bachmann (R- Min). Seeing as they are deeply offended by pretty much anything that doesn't originate from their own spokesman, I generally ignore them both. A shame voters in their states failed to do the same. The general sentiment is that Democrats didn't play fair by actually trying to legislate after the mid-terms. How dare they continue to work till closing time! The GOP has this weird idea that Congressional work should stop the instant the elections are certified. I'm sure they wouldn't feel that way if the November results were reversed, but hypocrisy is a respected tradition for Republicans, so no surprise there. Democrats do it as well, but rarely with the same style and commitement. What is interesting is that at least one Republican House member, Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kansas), has 'tweeted' her intention to re-introduce a motion to dismantle the Lame Duck altogether. In other words Congress would adjourn for the elections and not reconvene till January, thus giving us two months without a functioning Congress. Sorry, I meant to say sitting Congress. It hasn't really functioned consistently for several years now.

Talk about 'taking my ball and going home'! It's these stupid things that have wasted way too much political time lately. Ideas that are pointless and only matter to specific people or parties at this specific moment in time. I might, I stress might, understand if the Dems had rushed through a bunch of controversial bills in December over the unified opposition of Republicans, but they didn't. Remember the Dems only really controlled the House. The Senate, while having a Dem majority, has that wonderful filibuster rule that allows the minority to pretty much prevent anything they don't like from even being discussed. This has been invoked at least 136 times during the now ended session of Congress. More than doubling its use from any previous session. But the real kicker is that these bills that passed were only controversial politically. Polls showed Americans firmly behind them all and even most Republicans would admit that they supported them in principle. But they blocked them out of pure political calculation.

- Tax Cut Bill to extend the current tax rates for a further 2 years. Passed with 37 Republican votes. Not surprising considering it was made up heavily of pro-Republican tax provisions, many of which will grow the deficit significantly over the next few years. Typical of Republican 'fiscal responsibility'.

- 'New START' Treaty to renew the US-Russian nuclear inspection and arms reduction agreement. Passed with 13 Republican votes.

- 9/11 First Responder bill to provide healthcare assistance to those who developed serious illnesses as a direct result of their weeks and months breathing in toxic dust at the ground zero World Trade Center site. Incidentally this bill was fully paid for yet seemed to have been nearly killed by Republican obstruction till a last surge, led by Jon Stewart of the Daily Show among others, shamed Congress into action. In the end it garnered Yes votes from ALL Republican Senators.

- Bill to Repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell', which had been fought tooth and nail despite as much as 70% public support and the support of the President, Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Passed with 8 Republican votes.