Friday, February 27, 2009

About Who Gets The Cheque

Politics is a lot like dating. If you made the invitation, if you pick up the tab, s/he thinks s/he's something special; you split it, it's equality; s/he gets it and the world ends. If s/he made it, if s/he picks up the tab, you're chuffed; you split it, it's OK; if you get stuck with it, s/he's a loser you need to drop quickly.

Part of the problem with the stimulus package is that the price tag borders on the unimaginable. Plenty of critics have complained about waste, irrelevant projects and "pork," but Jonah Goldberg seems to have hit the conservative nail on the head: he just doesn't want to pay the bill.
That is, by far, my driving attitude in all of this. I just don't want to pay for it. It's not that I don't want government to do nice things for deserving people in certain circumstances. It's not necessarily that I'm hostile to this group of beneficiaries or that (though I am in fact hostile to some). It's that I think most of Obama's ideas will not work, will be a waste of money and will hurt the economy. And, flatly, I don't want to pay for it.

The difficulty with promoting any public expenditure is that, outside certain universal programmes, it doesn't have the same benefit for everyone. Small-farm subsidies do nothing for urban city dwellers on their face, nor does public transport for the farmers. Programmes for the elderly don't help children directly, and public education does little for seniors. Society as a whole, however, is improved by all those programmes, and more often than not targeting public resources to specific groups with specific needs has benefits far beyond those immediately targeted.

The problem, however, is persuading people that public funds for other people is beneficial for everyone - including themselves. Part of the outrage at the claims Congressman Boehner made about rail projects was at the idea of rich Angelenos getting the fast track to Vegas to go gamble and party. Part of the problem with the gang rehabilitation tattoo-removal programme was about worthless punks and potentially-violent Goths getting all those tribal symbols taken off so they could be just like everyone else again. The list may well be endless given the preconceptions involved.

Identification is at the core of the reactions: with the people who don't get the funds allocated for those programmes, and of the people who the critics imply would. Rich people tired of driving, anti-business tree-huggers, and worthless kids not punished for turning their skins into galleries of "art." That none of the fingers pointed in this way point to actual targets is irrelevant: the picture painted fits with righteous Xtian Conservative views of the decadence of society. And of course good people don't want to reward the decadent, the lazy, or the weak.

So the RWNM makes noise about practical programmes that will help society in terms that make the recipients of the aid look like the less desirable segments of society. By doing so, not only do they make the stimulus look like waste, they make it look like waste deliberately delivered to the least meritorious among us: those that already have everything, and those that have presumably squandered whatever they had through their own (presumed) stupidity.

Thus we get back to the dinner cheque. If you take him/her out once, that's nice of you. If s/he never pays the bill, that's despicable, and a sign that you should find someone else to spend your time with and lavish your attentions upon. The Conservatives want to paint every item in the stimulus as that sort of dinner date, where the folks getting help are the same ones that never pay the bill. It's not only wasteful by their reasoning, it encourages further waste in the future by coddling the worst of us who need to learn discipline - discipline they assume they already have. It's no wonder they don't want to pay for it.

What's Wrong With This Picture?

There's an interesting article in Wired about how the iPhone is just not catching on in Japan. It seems the device just isn't functional enough for the tech-savvy Asian market.

At the bottom, however, there's a set of links. See if you can spot the one that doesn't quite belong:






Hint: there's nothing that gives a peeping tom away like the click of a camera.

This is wrong on so many levels I can't even begin to discuss it. Feel free to leave your thoughts in comments.

H/T to Petulant at Shakesville.

Quote of the Day

The problem with Detroit is that they never really wanted to create a car that people want to drive. It may sound strange to say that, but the truth is they created cars that engineers want to build. But we don’t care about these engineers.
- Dr. Clotaire Rapaille, in a New York Times piece on the impending death of the PT Cruiser.

This, in a nutshell, is a good piece of the problem with Detroit and the Big Three. They haven't built cars people want to drive, whether the flaw is engineering, efficiency or the drive for profits (as with the SUV). The PT Cruiser falls into the same category as the original (Morris) Mini, the Citroen 2CV, the original VW Beetle and a host of others. They were quirky, frequently underpowered, and uninteresting mechanically, but they had character and an appeal the Big Three (particularly GM) seems unable to comprehend and unwilling to attempt.

Sighting

HMS Illustrious in Portsmouth harbour.

Illustrious is an Invincible class VTOL/helicopter carrier, or "through-deck cruiser" as she was sold to the military-averse Wilson and Callahan governments. She carries Sea Harrier VTOL figher-bombers and Sea King helicopters. In 2005 she succeeded Invincible as fleet flagship. She has seen duty in the South Atlantic (relieving Invincible after the Falklands War with Argentina), in the Mediterranean and Adriatic during the Balkans crises of the 1990s and the Afghan and Iraq conflicts of recent years (she was actually on exercises in the Persian Sea on 11 September 2001 and remained on station there for several months to provide support if needed).

There was much talk in USN circles when this class was still in the design phase about whether this sort of smaller, more economical ship might be a better solution than the US CVN. The Nimitz class was beginning to appear and the costs and limitations associated with operating so massive a platform were a serious concern for the Navy. Ships like Illustrious cost a small fraction to build and operate what a US fleet CVN requires, so the appeal was obvious. I recall even seeing a proposal to redesign the Spruance class destroyers on similar lines, though it remained a proposal. This photo shows Illustrious alongside a US Nimitz-class carrier: the difference is particularly striking from this angle.

Illustrious and other ships like her have breathed new life into the RN's air arm and operational scope, and also into the operations of other smaller navies. Spain, Italy, Russia and China have worked with similar designs for fleet air support and ASW missions.

The top photo was shot on my last trip overseas, while visiting the Royal Naval Museum. She was one of many sights I hope to post in coming weeks. And no, she was docked there, not on exhibit, so I didn't get to go aboard.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

It Must Be The Altitude

Four stories out of Colorado (three via Mustang Bobby at Bark Bark Woof Woof) caught my eye today.

The first two are typical wingnut histrionics over Teh Sex and other yukky things. First comes state senator Scott Renfroe:
It all started with Republican Scott Renfroe of Greeley, who got some attention for comments he made Monday about a bill that extends health benefits to same-sex partners of state employees. It's "an abomination according to Scripture," Renfroe said, according to the Colorado Independent, to "[take] sins and [make] them to be legally OK.”

Renfroe -- apparently a magnanimous kind of guy -- was willing to admit that homosexuality isn't the only sin listed in the Bible. "I’m not saying this is the only sin that is out there. Obviously we have sin -- we have murder, we have, we have all sorts of sin, we have adultery, and we don’t make laws making those legal, and we would never think to make murder legal," he said.

I wonder how well Renfroe has read his Leviticus (since that's apparently what he's basing this on), and if so whether he thinks twice when he orders baby back ribs or fried shrimp, or when he shaves, or when he wears a poly/cotton blend shirt, or ...

Up next, Dave Schultheis, who for some reason thinks HIV testing of already pregnant women is somehow supportive of promiscuity:
Sexual promiscuity, we know, causes a lot of problems in our state, one of which, obviously, is the contraction of HIV. And we have other programs that deal with the negative consequences -- we put up part of our high schools where we allow students maybe 13 years old who put their child in a small daycare center there.

We do things continually to remove the negative consequences that take place from poor behavior and unacceptable behavior, quite frankly, and I don’t think that’s the role of this body.

His was the only opposing vote on the matter, by the way. I wonder if it occurs to him that pregnant women have had sex already to become pregnant in the first place, so the damage is, so to speak, already done. And the whole presumption that people should be stuck with the consequences their bad choices (which apparently includes children and/or incurable illnesses) is so hateful, misogynistic and downright unChristian as to turn one's stomach.

The third was the demise of the Rocky Mountain News. This, coupled with the imminent demise of the San Francisco Chronicle, is just one more indication of how badly off both the economy and actual journalism are right now.

The last one, however, is just priceless.

Last week a Denver bus driver, while helping two elderly passengers cross the street at their stop, was hit by a truck. He was badly injured, but the story implies that he is recovering.

The priceless part? His actions were so praiseworthy and commendable that the Colorado State Police took note - and cited him for jaywalking.

Of course, the CSP also cited the driver of the truck and the other guy who was helping out (even though he wasn't struck), and they're continuing to investigate (apparently whether to cite the two passengers who needed help in the first place), so I suppose evenhandedness here was the rule of the day.

Given stories like these, I just do not understand what it takes to live there.

Suffer The Little Children...*

Yet another story is breaking about the closet sadism inherent in some Xtian circles.
Thayer Learning Center and its successor the Teen Life Skills Center abused children at its "Christian boot camp," hog tying them naked and spraying them with a hose, duct-taping children together overnight, throwing ice water on them as they shivered naked on a concrete floor, putting them in solitary confinement for a month, and forcing a girl to eat her own vomit, one girl's mother claims in Federal Court.

About the only thing I can think of that's appropriate to this incident (and others like it) is from C. S. Lewis:
Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.**


H/T to Petulant at Shakesville.

* from Mark 10:14 "But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God."

** Lewis, C. S., The Last Battle, Penguin Books, 1967, p.149

On Banking, Philanthropy and Excess

ThinkProgress has compiled a concise condemnation of the latest bankers-on-holiday scandal, this time from Northern Trust.
Northern Trust received $1.6 billion in bailout funds and announced in December that it was eliminating 450 jobs because “the macroeconomic environment has been extraordinarily difficult.” But as TMZ reports, that hasn’t stopped the bank from spending “a fortune last week in L.A. hosting a series of lavish parties and concerts with famous singers.”

The article references an ABC News item on the subject:
The Chicago-based Northern Trust bank may have received $1.6 billion in federal bailout funds, but that did not dampen the lavish long weekend featuring a golf tournament and headliner music the bank threw in Los Angeles last week, much of which was caught on tape by the celebrity news outlet TMZ. Critics are up in arms over yet another apparent boondoggle hosted by a bank that received federal bailout funds.

TMZ lists the highlights of the event:
- Wednesday, Northern Trust hosted a fancy dinner at the Ritz followed by a performance by the group Chicago.

- Thursday, Northern Trust rented a private hangar at the Santa Monica Airport for dinner, followed by a performance by Earth, Wind & Fire.

- Saturday, Northern Trust had the entire House of Blues in West Hollywood shut down for its private party. We got the menu -- guests dined on seared salmon and petite Angus filet. Dinner was followed by a performance by none other than Sheryl Crow.

There was also a fabulous cocktail party at the Loews. And how's this for a nice touch: Female guests at the Chicago concert all got trinkets from ... TIFFANY AND CO.

Northern Trust is a well-known - and generally highly-respected - financial institution, which caters to the millionaire set and up. I've dealt with them before, and I know several employees there, so I have an idea of the scale of their investments and the nature of their clientele.

The golf tournament is perhaps defensible. In these days of withering funding for all but the most necessary of expenditures, any effort to support the arts, athletics of any kind or any other obviously philanthropic effort deserves at least a little praise.

The parties, on the other hand, may be what NT's clients have become accustomed, but then again they have also been accustomed to regularly increasing wealth and profit, much of it from real estate. With the property market still tumbling, these same people should be feeling at least a little discomfort, and it reflects poorly on those who should be attending to their investments putting on such an extravagant display with their profits. Clearly somebody is getting fleeced. And while I will not say that any business that can make obscene profits off the obscenely wealthy doesn't deserve some applause, those same obscenely wealthy folks ought to start thinking twice about what's being done with their money and at what cost if those they trust with it can put on such displays.

The doubly offensive component of this particular situation is this: at the same time NT was celebrating with the bigwigs, it was at once taking in substantial Federal bank bailout dollars and laying off 450 of its staff as a cost-cutting measure. NT may protest that it never asked for the funds and only agreed to participate in the financial system stabilisation efforts the Treasury advocated, but that hardly excuses the bank from leveraging decreased personnel overhead to engage in spendthrift entertainment for its clients.

As for the Federal funds NT received, that too is cause for concern. NT is, due to its investment practices and preferred clientele, probably among the financial institutions most insulated from the lending crisis. The funds it received were not, however, intended to stabilise the institution: they were intended to promote lending and backstop the risk involved. NT is showing no inclination to increase its lending, and has instead apparently reserved the funds as a safety net so it can go on treating its preferred clients to the same round of glitz they have come to expect.

The layoffs themselves might make for sound business in some world, but again with employment skyrocketing adding to the problem is counterproductive. It's also hard to deny given the current evidence that those employees might still have their jobs if NT valued their ongoing work as much as it did the impact of and evening with Chicago or Sheryl Crow. And again, those with investments in NT might wonder at the wisdom of those they trust if they think a night of music is worth more than the people they're depending on to keep their investments safe and productive.

The thing that bothers me the most is that NT isn't even abashed at the bad publicity from their reaction to date. They took Federal dollars intended to unfreeze the credit markets (dollars they likely did not need) and used them to bolster their reserves. They let go several hundred staff even as unemployment is skyrocketing, which only worsens the employment outlook, and in spite of their new safety cushion. And they spent millions on entertaining their clientele even after similar excess began bringing intense scrutiny to other similar businesses and even after others in their own field cut back on such spending to bolster their bottom line and public image. Yet their public statements on the matter can be boiled down to "We always do this, we didn't use bailout money to do it, and the folks we let go - well, those were just the costs of doing business in a bad market, so there's really nothing here to discuss." Rarely is this sort of fiscal solipsism so clearly or crassly enunciated.

Each step in the Northern Trust progression shows just how removed from the realities of modern US life the upper financial tier and their support institutions have become. Once again, we have an illustration that the moral obligation to do what's best for the market, without the legal requirement to back that up, gets ignored by the same financial professional cadre that created the crisis in the first place. And once again we see that, for some, the drive to behave as if nothing has changed overrides fiscal responsibility and common sense.

The Net Yield Of Self-Regulated Business

One of the goals of the GOP in recent years has been less government regulation. The theory goes that businesses wouldn't intentionally market a defective product and that an informed worker or consumer can make his/her own decisions on what's best without a public agency providing verification. Regulation adds costs, slows innovation and stifles growth - all so that people can be lazy and not do their own homework.

As with much of the rest of the Conservative thought, this might have been reasonably accurate a century or so ago, when consumer goods were produced domestically and their raw materials more commonly known. Today, though, most consumer goods are produced far from US shores often using components indecipherable to anyone without an advanced degree in chemistry. The US "consumer" is working harder than ever (assuming in the current environment s/he is still employed) and has ever fewer hours to do the necessary research. What research is possible is often limited to the news outlets (disinterested in product safety investigation unless the public bodies take note first), the local library (not always a good resource for the kind of scientific investigation required) and the Web (which is as full of misinformation as it is of industry-funded - and hence biased toward the products - studies). And businesses continue to cut corners to maximise profits without regard to consumer safety, while the regulators responsible for monitoring them sit idly by.

Two cases in the recent news highlight how difficult it is for anyone to do the requisite homework, and how ineffective public regulation (after years of Conservative neglect) has become. The first is an item from North Carolina about a company that produced and shipped contaminated syringes for health care; the second is about an Indian pharmaceutical giant that sold drugs on the US market after falsifying its testing.

In both instances the companies bypassed responsible production methods and took shortcuts with their products. In one the producer knowingly and deliberately falsified its test data to verify its product was safe. And in both cases the authorities were slow to respond.

These cases, had they been left to the "consumer," would have required many hours of investigation, either on the Internet or poring through company records, scientific studies, infection rates and pharmaceutical production procedures, many of which are written in dense business or medical jargon not common to everyday language. The consumers would have been more often than not unable to make the journey to a library or incapable of Internet research, since many of them would already have been in hospital. And the products would have been dispensed by physicians and medical staff who are by definition the local authorities on such things whom the populace is encouraged to trust.

In each case, the company went to some length to conceal its misdeeds. Ranbaxy Laboratories, the generic drug maker, went to the trouble of producing falsified test results. AM2PAT, the syringe maker, relabeled its product, falsified records and rushed its production. Neither of these examples illustrate responsible production or care for the end user of the product.

The FDA, the regulatory body responsible for the safety of both products, was (at least according to the news items) apparently trusting of the businesses' processes and statements and inattentive to the actual product. The Ranbaxy case is particularly disturbing, as the FDA noted the discrepancies for three years before taking action:
Since 2006, FDA investigators at the Paonta Sahib plant have turned up reams of laboratory tests that were inaccurate or missing information. In some cases, the company refrigerated samples of drugs that were supposed to be tested after being stored at room temperature or higher to demonstrate their shelf life, [FDA compliance director Deborah] Autor said. Other tests that were supposed to be performed over a period of months to measure whether a drug lost potency over time were taken on the same day or within days.

Investigators also discovered laboratory records signed by employees who were not present when testing took place, she said.

FDA inspectors knew as long as three years ago that Ranbaxy's product was not adequately tested, and the lack of product verification was a conscious business practice. Yet for those three years the FDA remained silent: it took no meaningful action until last September, and even that first (partial) sanction appears to have been inadequate.

Phony medicine has been with society for millenia. Only comparatively recently, though, has the state seen it fit to regulate medicinal products. The scandals associated with patent medicine of the late 19th and early 20th centuries awakened society to the risks associated with many such products. The potentially harmful effects of addiction - such as with early cocaine-infused Coca-Cola - also played a part in this concern. The FDA, an end product of these concerns, has long been tasked with ensuring the safety of such products. These two examples are a fair illustration of what can happen when, starved of funds and obstructed in its mission by Conservative hands-off policies and funding decisions, it fails to do that.

It may be true, as Conservatives claim, that testing and regulation are cumbersome to business. The State, however, is not in the business of promoting industry at the expense of its populace: both domestic producer and consumer need to have adequate protections in order to safeguard society as a whole. And it is clear that business, if left unattended, will protect its shareholders and profits ahead of its customers.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bomb Making

The Washington Post has an unusually long story today on a former Guantanamo inmate who connected with militants in Kuwait on his release and car-bombed an Iraqi police installation.

There are those who would say that such people are naturally inclined to violence. They claim these people were already prepared for such atrocities before being captured and will return to that life after release. It is nearly the last excuse made to keep Gitmo running or to keep the inmates confined.

However, the conditions there are one of the key reasons the GWoT failed. The site, from the reports published to date, is reminiscent of something out of medieval tales of incarceration and punishment, resembling less a normal prison and more something worse than a gulag but not quite at the level of a Nazi concentration camp. The gaolers behaved more like Inquisitors than interrogators, using techniques drawn from a US military programme intended to prepare US servicepeople to resist enemy interrogation techniques - techniques designed to produce propaganda and false intelligence. It is unlikely that any exposed to such treatment would look kindly on their captors on release regardless of their perceptions or intent on capture. The net result of Guantanamo, rather than the capture and confinement of terrorists, seems to be instead the manufacture of enemies of the West in general and the US in particular, achieved through the heavy-handed, brutal and undiluted tactics the interrogators used to achieve their ends and of which the prior [mal]administration either tacitly approved or explicitly prescribed.

The problem with the "detainees" at Guantanamo is what to do with them now. Rehabilitation isn't even on the agenda as yet, and the inmates have been subject to the brutal regimen there for several years. The US up to the present has attempted to rely on the home countries for the inmates released to continue their imprisonment, but as the Post article and others indicates, that is problematic:
Prosecutors filed charges against Ajmi and four other returned detainees in early 2006, fulfilling a promise the Kuwaitis made to the U.S. government. Ajmi was charged with fighting for a foreign army and with damaging Kuwait's relationship with other nations. If convicted, he could have faced up to 20 years in prison.

In some Middle Eastern nations, the five could have been brought before secret courts and detained for years without an open trial. Kuwait, however, abolished its special security court in 1995, to wide praise from the West. Since then, terrorism suspects have been prosecuted in ordinary criminal courts. "We don't have emergency laws anymore that allow the government to simply lock people up," said Ghanim al-Najjar, a professor of political science at Kuwait University.

But prosecutors soon ran into a problem. The U.S. government was not willing to share evidence that conclusively linked Ajmi or any of the four others to terrorist activities. The only U.S. document in Ajmi's court file here is a two-page investigative summary outlining the principal allegations against him: that he went AWOL from the Kuwaiti military and traveled to Afghanistan in 2001, that he received an AK-47 rifle and hand grenades from the Taliban, and that he fought for the Taliban.

The court file does not contain interrogation transcripts, or any data that corroborate U.S. claims that he was a Taliban fighter. It also does not include any records of his misbehavior during his final months at Guantanamo, even though the State Department wanted the Kuwaiti government to try the detainees as a condition of their transfer.

So at the same time the US turns to its allies in the GWoT to take custody of the Guantanamo inmates, it cannot present arguments for their continued incarceration. This is almost certainly due to the necessity of detailing the procedures used to extract information and confessions from the detainees, which by all accounts would not stand scrutiny by any civilian court and could indeed backfire on the US' case.

Yet as the story illustrates, the inmates, if released and left unmonitored, may very well present a real risk both to US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and to their home countries as well. After their treatment, it is arguable that any detainee is now suspect, and that his/her path will now lead to that terrorism the US supposedly sought to prevent whether it did before or not. Any nation receiving a returning Gitmo prisoner would be justified should it view that person as damaged goods. Rehabilitation for former inmates may well be impossible, and would certainly take years and substantial resources to accomplish if it could be achieved.

So the question remains: what to do with the prisoners of the GWoT? They could easily be detained permanently if the goal was simply a safe society; that goal, however, has more in keeping with totalitarianism than with the values usually associated with a free and open democracy as the US still pretends to be. That same course also permits the perpetuation of their mistreatment, and would sully the US' reputation abroad just as it risks subverting US ideals and US law at home. Foisting them back on their home countries in the hope of their continued imprisonment or monitoring is difficult given the US' inability to produce convincing evidence without admitting to atrocities of its own. Rehabilitation apparently has yet to be discussed in the US and is apparently not even being considered by the inmates' home nations. And release without any rehab or control, from at least the Post's example, is risky at best.

At the same time, if the conditions in the prisons used to house and question GWoT detainees are as ugly as described, the US needs accounting of its own if it expects to preserve its ideals as a free and just society. The "few bad apples" assertions of the past no longer suffice for that: the time has come for accountability from those who believed barbaric coercion techniques were appropriate to the preservation of a free, just and humane nation.

The US in particular needs to address the problem of reintegrating the detainees acquitted (either by the US or by their home nations) so that they can return to society without waging war on the West. Whether they were terrorists on their capture, the likelihood that they will be afterward is substantially higher thanks to their treatment, and the US must shoulder much responsibility for that and correct that as much as possible. Without such an effort, all the US will have done with those captured will be to have created even more "ticking time bombs."

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Stupid Americans, Part One

There are few things that get me going like US citizens acting like idiots in public. US travelers have a knack of doing the most self-centered, disrespectful, thoughtless and inconsiderate things imaginable abroad, which is a fairly good indicator of their behaviour at home. So this item from Random Pixels, while truly cringeworthy, comes as no surprise.
Miami Beach city officials were in a reception line for the King and Queen of Spain at the Wine and Food Festival.

Before the event, the city officials were briefed on proper royal etiquette which included what to say and what not to say, and above all the officials were told that under no circumstances were they to touch their Royal Highnesses.

...

Fast forward -- King and Queen moving along reception line greeting city officials when Miami Beach commissioner Jonah Wolfson - dressed in a "raggedy t-shirt and jeans" - reaches out and touches Queen Sofia's arm and asks her, "Hey Queen, can I get a picture?"

A security man quickly intervened and corrected the commissioner, "Please address her as Your Highness or SeƱora."

This is the sort of behaviour that gives US residents a bad name in other countries. Commisioner Wolfson didn't dress properly, didn't pay the least attention to the protocols, and essentially behaved like a crazed fan at a sports event trying to get a photo op with an athlete rather than a responsible representative of local government in the presence of a high-profile international guest (never mind royalty). One understands Shrubisms like the silly nicknames ("Pooty-poot" for example) and the inappropriate physicality (like the manhandling of Chancellor Merkel) in the light of events like this, though it hardly helps the US' global image.

Apparently this wasn't the only unfortunate incident of the event.

What We Get For Our GWoT Dollar

The Washington Post has an illuminating item on the Maryland State Police's misguided efforts at antiterrorism.

Go read it here.

Dumping For Dollars

A Japanese shipping firm has been found guilty of dumping oily sludge into ocean waters in violation of US environmental standards.
Prosecutors say chief engineers falsified an oil record book kept aboard the Balsa-62, a 9,000-gross-ton bulk cargo vessel registered under the flag of Panama. Federal and international law requires ships pass the sludge through filtering equipment aboard the vessel or burn it in the ship's incinerator.

Federal law also requires ships to record every disposal and to make those records available for the U.S. Coast Guard when the vessel is within U.S. waters, prosecutors said.

On Oct. 14, the Balsa-62's former chief engineers pleaded guilty to federal charges, admitting they rigged the ship to bypass pollution controls and discharged the sludge into the ocean.

From June 2007 to February 2008, Francisco Bagatela was the ship's chief engineer. He and other senior engineering officers and crew installed a "magic pipe" to bypass the pollution prevention equipment, according to a plea agreement Bagatela signed.

The pipe consisted of a length of plastic hose with flanges at either end and was used to transfer oily sludge and mixtures from a holding tank through a valve in the side of the ship and overboard.

The firm is facing a $1.75M fine and is submitting to fleetwide monitoring for three years.

What Would You Suggest?

There is growing demand for accountability from the prior [mal]administration. Congress is finally hinting that it may investigate the Bush policies of the past and assess whether charges should be preferred. After the spectacular failures, missteps and overextension of authority and expenditures, something surely needs to be done.

But apparently not everyone thinks that accountability is a valuable component to public service.

David Rivkin and Lee Casey have penned a remarkable opinion (on TBO.com and credited as published in the Washington Post though it does not appear in that publication) claiming that an investigation such as those being considered is harmful to US institutions. Titled "Pouring Acid On Democracy," the article details consequences such as international criminal prosecution for those indicted by the proposed inquiries, and claims that the investigations would be counter to US democratic processes and theory of government.

The article goes to great lengths to imply broadly that the investigations are bad and should not be allowed to proceed. The authors invoke two demons: international prosecution and the legal circus of the special investigation. Yet they make little mention of the causes for public concern here, and their twin terrors have proven remarkably toothless.

The article makes absolutely no mention of what the authors would consider appropriate processes to address the horrific record of the Bush administration. There is no mention of conventional investigation, available legal processes or indeed any remedy of any kind. Apparently the authors think we're all better off simply forgetting the last eight years and moving forward, allowing the precedents set to stand unchallenged.

International criminal proceedings against those found culpable is a clear fear the authors share. Yet the International Criminal Court is at present weak and without solid enforcement, in no small part because of the US' failure to recognize the body and provide it support. The Obama administration and the current Congress seem inclined to change that stance, but at the present there is no means for a US citizen to be brought to ICC justice, and more than a few laws on US books allowing extraordinary intervention in ICC affairs to protect accused US citizens. Even if it were possible, the article makes no allowance for assertion of US jurisdiction or national sovereignty, which would almost certainly be preferred in this case; and as the US would be investigating and prosecuting its own citizens, that would take precedence over ICC proceedings even if such would carry weight in the present domestic climate.

Also, the authors are obsessed with the bogeyman of the Special Prosecutor. Without mentioning the Starr prosecution by name, they recall the specter of the fruitless efforts of that commission to find fault with the Clinton administration, and imply that such an experience is what the US should expect from any such investigation. The Starr investigation, whatever its origins, devolved into a witch hunt: the determination to find something wrong with the Clinton administration overrode the legal aspects and its own moral imperative. Given the apparent wealth of evidence to assail Bush with war crimes, illegal and unconstitutional acts and general incompetence and negligence in perfoming the duties of the various offices, the likelihood that we would see such again is small. And with the only alternative being a discredited Department of Justice still paralyzed by its ideological evisceration of late, alternatives to such a process are at best very hard to find. Again, the authors seem to think that messy processes that threaten to spin out of control are counter to the democratic tradition.

Democracy is many things, including both robust and messy. The US has survived multiple constitutional crises, trials, disagreements and upsets, going back to the Jay court and the concept of judicial review. Rivkin and Casey seem to think that US democracy is too fragile to go through the indignities of investigation, and too weak on the global stage to assert jurisdiction in criminal matters with global implications.

The tone of their opinion suggests they would prefer to forget everything and move forward, and they bring up false examples of nebulous political horrors as proofs for halting the proposed investigations. Yet their examples are toothless: the one is a recourse for states where the offending persons or institutions are not brought to justice by their own nations (and even so are not as yet recognised by the US); the other a blatantly partisan effort, allowed to exceed its mandate out of petty political ambition, and not likely to be repeated.

US democracy does, however, depend on two things: transparency and accountability. For the nation to function properly its workings must be as public as possible, and those in positions of authority must be held responsible for that authority and disciplined if necessary. Rivkin and Casey would deny these two requirements, preferring ignorance and immunity to the real responsibilities of citizens in a democratic nation. The article is the eloquent complaint of the educated bully: the writers are apparently afraid that the mean-spirited bloodthirsty methods of the Right might be used against them now that real crimes are in evidence, and rather than face that they prefer to forget everything and behave as if nothing untoward happened in the last eight years.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Finding A Voice

This New York Times piece is refreshing:

In Latest Plan for Banks, U.S. Could Demand Voting Stake


Part of the reason the UK's bank bailout was so successful was that the Brown government required voting stake in the banks it assisted as part of the package. Paulson's initial financial bailout had no such provisions, and discussions of such in the next US bailout are few and far between. And here we have the Times trumpeting the news that this time the Treasury might take a controlling stake in the banks it bails out.

It is appalling that the US should only be asking for this sort of control now, after nearly a year of unconditional "support" for the banks. This lack of control allowed public largesse to flow to businesses little interested in the reforms and controls necessary to the economy's health. If Washington is at all serious this possible stake should be a required stake going forward: if we're buying out a financial institution we ought to have some say in how it operates, particularly as not having that voice has been catastrophically counterproductive so far.

Stimulating the South

A handful of articles in the news recently have highlighted how careful we need to be with what qualifies for stimulus money.

First, there's the disinterest in public transit funds Florida seems have where the new stimulus package is concerned. The 'blog Jacksonville Transit covers just how much - or rather, how little - Florida has requested for this item.

Second, there's a related item on how developers have pressured Tallahassee to repeal the roadbuilding requirement for new developments. It's a lot easier and cheaper, after all, if the folks building all those new communities don't have to worry about getting access to them.

So far, Florida's reaction to the stimulus seems to be helping build more new spread-out subdivisions while freeing the folks building them from worrying about how the residents will get to work, shopping - pretty much anything but the clubhouses. This of course leaves a cash-strapped state on the hook for all the related infrastructure - roads, sewers, etc. - for all that new construction. This despite the still-plummeting real estate values and the skyrocketing foreclosure rate. What makes it worse is that Florida's House representation, being largely Republican, opposed the stimulus even though their own constituents believe the package is needed.

Never mind that the state is being set up for some absolutely ugly expenditures filling in all those gaps. Never mind that adding to already-barely-controlled urban sprawl is, in the current climate, a bad idea. And never mind that the state's population figures - driven largely by transplants moving here from other states - is leveling off and may actually begin dropping, reducing demand for all those shiny new subdivisions. There's one teensy additional problem: there may not be sufficient natural resources remaining to provide for all those new residents.

Tampa is implementing tighter water restrictions in the face of a drought that is worsening. The report is but one of many in recent months on the problem that now affects most of the state. Water in Florida has always been an issue: now, it seems, the local resources are failing to sustain even the current population.

Florida is already in the middle of a water war with Alabama and Georgia. Georgia wants to turn off the taps to downstream states to keep Atlanta awash with local water, mostly from Lake Lanier, its tributaries and the aquifers in the other states fed by that resource. Instate resources are either drying up or becoming contaminated as salt water from the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico intrudes into local wells.

So just as the resources are beginning to fail locally, and the developments from the last real estate boom are either sitting empty or being foreclosed, the state is looking to stimulus dollars to refuel the housing boom of the last decade. That's right: the same housing boom that helped bring Florida to its knees when the market tanked is being trumpeted as the state's economic salvation. Only this time the local natural resources may run out before the stimulus dollars, and the state will be left to provide all the infrastructure not included in all the new building boom. At the same time, projects that could actually shore up the development from the last boom, restoring its value and marketability, and actually improve the lives of the citizenry, are being virtually ignored.

This is why stimulus spending needs to be carefully planned and closely observed. It is also why blanket block grants without constraints in situations like these run the very real risk of doing nothing but line the pockets of the people and businesses least in need of the assistance.

And These Guys Are Trying To Sell Accounting Software

A while back Microsoft laid off part of their workforce. As part of the layoffs they payed the employees severance.

Now, it seems, they want some of it back.
The company is asking some laid-off employees for a portion of their severance back, saying an administrative glitch caused the software maker to pay them too much.

...

The Redmond, Wash.-based software maker is asking former employees for reimbursement, by check or money order, within two weeks, according to a redacted letter posted by the technology blog TechCrunch. [A Microsoft spokesperson] confirmed the letter's authenticity.

Maybe they used Microsoft Accounting Professional for their calculations.

Sweepdog Millionaire

Last night's Oscars were more than just one more installment in the Academy's annual impression of the best in film. It was a coup.

Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing. Seven Oscars for what is essentially a foreign film. It's true that Benjamin Button walked off with the effects awards, and that Sean Penn won Best Actor for Milk and Kate Winslet Best Actress for The Reader, but the show was Slumdog Millionaire's by a mile. In an interesting step, the Academy made a point of recognising a foreign film without actually recognising it as a foreign film: it was not nominated for that award (an interesting side note: Waltz with Bashir, the Israeli effort covering the war in Lebanon which garnered a Golden Globe, six Israeli awards and a handful of critics' circles accolades, was passed over by the Academy for a Japanese film).

For me, Slumdog Millionaire is recognition that the film industry is bigger than Hollywood. "Bollywood," as the Indian film industry is known, is bigger than Hollywood in many ways. It has more stars, it produces more films and its global gross receipts rival Hollywood's numbers.

Somehow, though, the US media - and the Academy - often forget that.

The one thing that worries me is that, by making such a big deal of Slumdog Millionaire, the Academy may believe it's done its duty to foreign film and return to ignoring it for some time. After all, this film is only one of hundreds coming out of Europe, India, Southeast Asia and the Americas (North and South) each year, yet only this one merited consideration for these awards in the Academy's eyes. How many more brilliant efforts were overlooked? How many have been overlooked in the past? There is a global community of performers, directors, and film professionals: if the Academy intends to remain relevant it needs to recognise that with more than a single "Best Foreign Film" award.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Interception

A lot of folks in Tampa thought it might be a good idea to raise some cash by renting out their homes for the Superbowl. At least one outfit they turned to, however, seems to have thought it was a good way to fleece sports fans.
Some people who saw the Super Bowl as an opportunity to make some extra cash by renting out their homes are now trying to get their money back -so far, without much luck.

Steve Melone is one of the residents who hoped the Super Bowl would help them bring in a bit of extra money after he lost his job in September.

"My wife and I saw it as an opportunity to get caught up on our bills," he said.

Melone signed a rental contract with an Arizona-based rental company and sent in a $900 refundable deposit. But shortly afterward, something strange happened.

"The representative was talking to me and then his personal cell phone rang," he said. "He put me on table hold, he put the receiver down, and he answered the phone with a different name."

It turns out his home was never rented, and he can no longer get in touch with the company to get his deposit back.

The article goes on to say that those defrauded by this scheme are seeking redress from an assortment of law-enforcement and regulatory bodies, with a range of results - including the Department of Agriculture's statement that it does not regulate such businesses.

Locally, signs remain for this type of business, promising up to $10,000.00 for such rentals. It sounds like easy money. For at least one out-of-state business, apparently it was.

Taking Care Of Their Own - Or Not

It seems some GOP governors, unhappy with the federal stimulus package, are considering refusing the funds on principle. Somehow they consider this responsible.

The story broke in the Boston Globe:
BATON ROUGE, La. - A half-dozen Republican governors are considering turning down some money from the federal stimulus package, a move opponents say puts conservative ideology ahead of the needs of constituents struggling with foreclosures and unemployment.

Though none has outright rejected the money available for education, healthcare, and infrastructure, the governors of Alaska, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas have all questioned whether the $787 billion bill signed into law this week will help the economy.

Christopher Bean at Slate has the scoop:
"I'm better off not to get it," said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin opposed the stimulus bill because it's "not fair to Alaskans to create expectations about programs that wouldn't be sustainable." Other governors, like Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas, said they were concerned about conditional funding. "My concern is there's going to be commitments attached to it that are a mile long," said Perry. "We need the freedom to pick and choose. And we need the freedom to say 'No thanks.' "

...

Say that all six governors—we're talking Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Alaska, Idaho, and Louisiana—rejected the stimulus outright. They would be saying "no" to a collective 424,000 jobs, according to White House estimates. They'd also be sniffing at a total of $3.8 billion for highways and bridges, $559 million for public transit, and $1.5 billion for education. And that's not including state-specific projects like Louisiana's $460 million for flood protection efforts, which include building locks and dams as well as coastal restoration. All told, they would be rejecting an estimated $69 billion.

You'd have to be crazy to turn down that kind of money, especially when states are so strapped. (Louisiana faces a $1.6 billion budget shortfall next year.) And so many of the GOP governors have backtracked. As much as it might offend them ideologically, they are willing to accept this federal largesse for the greater good of the citizens of [insert state here], who face unprecedented hardship as blah blah blah.

That's not a direct quote. But their rhetoric leaves the distinct impression that it is more than ideology that is driving their about-face.

Steve Benen agrees:
I really doubt it will get to that, even in these six states. We're talking about some genuine ideologues, but no one seriously wants to play Russian Roulette with their own state's economy... That these six are even exploring the possibility out loud, however, is a reminder of just how far gone some GOP contingents really are, and just what some 2012 hopefulls will stoop to in order to patronize the far-right Republican base.

The Anonymous Liberal gets right to the heart of the matter:
First there would be nothing principled about refusing Federal stimulus money. These very same governors routinely accept all sorts of federal money. In fact, if you rank states according to the ratio of federal money received per tax dollar contributed, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alaska are all in the top 4. South Carolina and Idaho are in the top 20 and receive significantly more in federal money than they contribute.

...

Moreover, they are doing so in direct contravention of the interests of their own constituents. These folks are not federal office holders. Their duty is to look after the interests of the people of their respective states, not to police the federal budget. If they were CEOs of a corporation or trustees of organization or trust, this kind of action would be seen as a breach of their fiduciary duties. They would get sued. And rightfully so. By turning down federal stimulus money, they would be inflicting harm on their own citizens.

If federal spending were such a priority for these people, then they ran for the wrong office. If you want to take the message of fiscal minimalism to Washington, don't do it from the governor's mansion - do it from Congress. There are distinct responsibilities that go with each position. A governor has the duty of doing what's best for his/her state with the resources s/he has, regardless of their origin. Posturing like what we see here is irresponsible and harmful to those goals, and if it turns out to be more than posturing the results could be catastrophic.

A week ago we were listening to loons in Congress that, without reading the bill, denounced it as unhelpful - even though their own constituencies benefited from the federal largesse. Now we have states that need that cash planning to turn it down out of federal fiscal responsibility. I'm beginning to wonder exactly what the GOP thinks is the function of public office if its governors take on the federal budget at the expense of their own states' economic health, and its Congresspeople can't even be bothered to learn whether their own constituents will be helped (or harmed) by the legislation that is theirs to pass.

UPDATE: Governor Jindal of Louisiana has confirmed that he's turning down federal stimulus dollars.
Saying that it could lead to a tax increase on state businesses, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced Friday that the state plans to reject as much as $98 million in federal unemployment assistance in the economic stimulus package.
Apparently, Jindal's position is he'd rather limit unemployed assistance now than worry about a possible tax increase on businesses three years from now.

The Politico reports that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) "said he, too, would likely decline funds for broadening access to unemployment insurance." South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) may do the same, but hasn't "made any decisions on any part of the stimulus yet."

...

Jindal & Co. aren't worried about reality -- and they're certainly not worried about the unemployed -- when there's political grandstanding to be done.

That Didn't Take Long

One key difference between Democrats and Republicans is clearly visible on the issue of impeachment of the President. Even the nuttiest, most leftward-leaning Democrat seems to understand that impeachment is a serious process, requiring misdeeds in office of the highest order and involving not just removal from office but criminal proceedings. Republicans seem to think of it as an electoral do-over to oust somebody they just don't like all that much.

So, less than a month into Obama's first term, the far right has started to take up the cry for impeachment. Huffington Post has the story here.

I can recall, when many of us were calling for impeachment of GWB over the war in Iraq, the total mismanagement of disaster relief for the various hurricanes (Katrina included), the myriad signing statements that stated whether the [mal]administration would enforce or even recognize Congressional legislation, the whole domestic spying apparatus and other substantial misdeeds, that many moderate Democrats advised against it. Their reasoning was that seeking the removal of the President (and Vice President, as would have been necessary) would seem petty and vengeful after the Clinton business, and that such tools must be used cautiously. They admonished us that should we proceed with such a step the nation would be plunged into similar proceedings the next time a Democrat was elected President: somehow they believed if they refrained, the opposition would do the same.

Their hesitancy forced us to live through eight years of gross incompetence, blatant partisanship, and wanton disregard for any authority - domestic or international - in pursuit of an agenda even now not entirely clear beyond perpetual US predominance in the globe and Republican predominance in the US, obliteration of any and all opposition, and squandering federal funds and public resources to enrich a scant few. All that while poor policy decisions, infinitesimal oversight efforts and gross overspending laid the foundation for the current economic train wreck and the discrediting of the US on the global stage. Those of us who knew our opposition better tried to remind them that the far right had no such qualms, and would agitate for such for far less cause (as had already been proved) - to no avail.

As it turns out, the far right has not even the slightest hesitation to call for this most serious option, and seems ready to do this on the least plausible and flimsiest of grounds.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sighting

After last week's, this seemed to fit.

The first time I remember crossing the Atlantic, it was on this. She was on her farewell voyages. Recently, digging through the family file morgue, I found the pamphlet printed for the trip, along with the passenger list.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Freeze Warnings

The winter freezes have dealt considerable damage to Florida's agriculture, and there's more cold weather on the way.
According to Bay News 9's partner paper, the St. Petersburg Times, blueberry crops seem to have taken the biggest hit. A state association puts the total loss anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of the state's crop.

Some experts said that, in the end it all may balance out for the farmers, as they predict the price of blueberries to jump.

Winter has never been the friend to Florida's agricultural enterprises: citrus and other fruit crops have been devastated in past years.

Mum loves blueberries, so this year's cold weather is bad news for her as well.

Not Again

David Broder at the Washington Post seems to think that the failure of the GOP to respond favorably to Obama's overtures means that - you guessed it - Obama should continue to reach out to the GOP.
The critics agree that the effort at bipartisanship should end.

I hope Obama isn't listening. It's the worst advice he has received.

It starts from a false premise: that the stimulus bill proves the failure of outreach to Republicans.

...

If Obama writes off the Republicans in advance, he will end up with a watered-down bill -- or nothing.

Broder then goes on to (wisely) praise Senators Collins, Snowe and Specter, and (far less wisely) point to them as examples of how bipartisanship is supposed to work. He goes on to mention other key figures in the country's bipartisan past, like Harry Truman and the Johnson/Dirksen/McCulloch triad. He also points to key figures in the current Congress who he thinks are necessary to particular policy items.

This argument is facile for this reason: the historical examples he cites are powerful figures precisely because they were the exceptions to the rule. They were a handful of persons in a large and otherwise intransigent body who had the foresight and courage to buck the party machinery and accomplish things. Had the Congresspeople Broder recognizes been truly following the bipartisan spirit they would have brought along far larger portions of their own party to at least compromise with their respective administrations. Their failure to do so makes them exceptional - exceptional as as much in not following the norm as in their work and achievements. The bipartisanship Broder promotes in their cases stem, not from the willingness of the majority to reach out to them, but their own courage to stand up to their colleagues and take the bold steps that were required. The current crop of Congressional Republicans has little such courage.

The argument, in the current climate, is flawed for other reasons.

The stimulus vote in the House (his shining example of bipartisan success), following the compromises with the Republicans, was actually closer than that on the original bill. Compromising with the moderate right actually cost Obama's plan votes in the House. The GOP remained a staunch anti-stimulus bloc, and the changes were enough to turn some would-be backers among the Democrats from continuing to support the package. Looking back to the last line I quoted, it seems already that, by not writing off the Republicans, the administration ended up with a watered-down bill anyway - and it lost Obama votes from his own party in the bargain. Constructive engagement of the opposition should result in broader, not narrower, support; in the current atmosphere achieving that broader support through bipartisan approaches does not seem especially likely.

Second, the GOP shows no sign of anything but a hardening of its positions despite the outreach. The three senators Broder lauds are now targets for Republican efforts to replace them with more doctrinaire absolutists simply because they were willing to work with the administration and their Democratic peers. The willingness he sees in the Republicans to negotiate, embodied in these three, is imperiled - not by calls for Obama to abandon his outreach but by the adamant anti-Democratic extremes from among their own ranks. In California, the same logic is already at work: the leadership of the party is being reshuffled simply because the leaders hinted they might be able to work with the majority, and intransigent hard-liners are filling those spaces. The opposition voices Obama would need to continue a bipartisanship approach are quickly being silenced.

Further, as the GOP increasingly takes its marching orders not from the moderates within its ranks but from the shrill right-wing fringe, the opportunities for such landmark achievements dwindle. The House minority leadership has already stated - more than a few times - that they intend to oppose Obama initiatives merely on principle. They have already shown that they have no interest in the details of Democratic proposals so long as the proposals do not originate from their own ranks. The content is immaterial: only the source matters. So far, the opponents of Democratic efforts are making themselves look very stupid, as their claims about the stimulus in particular are so easily disproved. However, the likelihood that they could find something they can denounce where their arguments are less simple to deconstruct is, given the language of most federal legislation, quite high, so it is possible that at some point the tactic might actually work. As the rank-and-file back bench takes its guidance ever more from Limbaugh et al and less from their leadership or even from their own local constituencies, the language becomes more extreme, more confrontational, less reasonable and less willing to compromise on anything. This is not a conducive environment for cross-party solutions.

Some of Broder's candidates for outreach also fall short of the measure of cooperative or amenable. McCain, in particular, is impossible to reach given his recent rhetoric and party-line voting record. None of his other examples have shown the slightest willingness to stray from their party's dogmatic opposition to anything that doesn't equate to tax cuts, expanded military and narrowly-constrained legislated morality. It seems foolhardy to continue to reach out to the opposition when the potential net gain is a mere three Senate votes.

In short, the early approach of the Obama administration to engage the Republicans has proved remarkably unproductive in the grand scheme. The odds of anything resembling successful cooperation grow longer as the GOP solidifies its know-nothing opposition and attacks those few among its ranks willing to listen to the administration and the majority in either house. The far right noise-making machine is trumpeting such intransigence as a victory and calling for more, and so far the back bench (which bipartisan efforts will need) appears to be listening. Had we a less adamant, less doctrinaire opposition party to deal with, bipartisanship would have merit. Without one there is little point in proceeding with such an approach. The outreach is indeed a failure - not of Democrat efforts, but rather of responsible stewardship and conscientious governance on the part of nearly all Republicans in Congress.

It's a pleasant fiction for Broder to imagine that somehow sufficient Congressional GOPers can be swayed to some acceptance of the Democratic policies. In this climate, though, it is definitely a fiction.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Matter Of Control

North Dakota is attempting an end-run around the vindication of women's rights originally assumed assured by Roe v Wade.

Liss and Misty at Shakesville each have masterful takedowns on the item: go read them here and here. Both of them have much more experience, and far more justification, pointing out the sexist narrow-mindedness of such legislation, than I. There is little that I could add to their righteous condemnation of this recent step.

My question is this:

In this age of plummeting state revenues, these idiots have just created a whole new de facto state social programme. Yet these same people are the ones that complain vociferously about state spending, and particularly state spending on social programmes like what the new legislation simply cries out to implement.

The RWNM cries constantly that public expenditure on social programmes is wrong. It is a waste of resources; it encourages bad behaviour; it rewards the least competent, the indolent, the abusers of the system - the unworthy, in short.

Now we have a mandate from the state of North Dakota to provide exactly what the RWNM claims to oppose: public scrutiny of what until now has been a very private situation. If "personhood" begins at conception, then all manner of potential crimes suddenly face the expectant. How does the State intend to fend off these offenses without implementing monitoring and enforcement regimens?

The simple answer is that the drafters of this legislation haven't thought that far; that this is simply a shaming mechanism to oppress the sexually active (particularly the sexually active woman) and maintain an outmoded and impractical notion of civic order. Prevention is not the goal. Rather, the intent is the exploitation of those caught in the newly legal web of impropriety in order to maintain their concepts of an ordered society.

There is, however, a possible, more complex answer. The parties behind the new law actually want this agenda pursued by the State. It is in keeping with the support of the now-vast Homeland Security apparatus and enhanced intelligence gathering: these efforts create a new observation state to intimidate dissent and encourage political and social orthodoxy.

The continued infiltration and eavesdropping on peaceful groups in the name of anti-terror efforts is harmonious with this new law. Through their invocation of national security, the intelligence agencies, DHS and local police forces enabled the observation of any group deemed "Unamerican:" groups so targeted included the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), antiwar activist groups and social equality advocates. By expanding the definition of "Unamerican" to include unintended pregnancy, the same groups that seek to re-form society to their perceived norms get one more weapon in their arsenal. And if doing so expands the public sphere that is a small price to pay, since now that expansion will fall under law enforcement and not social engineering.

If this sounds like a stretch, consider this: the same advocates of Amendment 2 in Florida and Proposition 8 in California, after assuring voters that these measures were not intended to strip rights from anyone, have commenced campaigns in both states to annul or revoke any benefits - public or private - for unmarried couples of any sexual persuasion under the provisions of the new laws, and are turning a blind eye to the rise in hate crimes that are accompanying their passage. Likewise, similar efforts as the North Dakota law have been used to run family planning out of other states and have encouraged practicing gynecologists to leave for less restrictive communities. And the national brouhaha that was the Terri Schaivo case proved that the Conservatives will eagerly engage whatever public bodies it deems necessary - along with all their attendant machinery - to achieve their goals. None of these are the actions of a group that values a hands-off public policy.

Of course, opposition to these moves is strong, so the likelihood of their success is low. But by pursuing these lines, those behind this push have made their goals clear: creation of a society aligned along their moral standards and criminalisation of any variation from those standards. These are not the values of a democracy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Jumping The (Pool) Shark

... or, You Keep Using That Word, Part Two.

Apparently, a couple weeks back, a 'blogger penned a snarky little piece of satire stating that the administration was planning to replace the armed services oath's language swearing fealty to the Constitution with language swearing fealty to the President.

It was labeled satire. The byline was of a non-existent journalist. And the rest of the site is similarly smartly irreverent. It was clearly humour.

Some, apparently, either didn't get it, or didn't want to.
The label got left off and his bogus story was quickly copied and pasted on blogs, zapped around the country through chain e-mails, and discussed in YouTube commentaries. Many people didn't bother to verify it and responded with comments of outrage.

...

Some blogs were eventually corrected, or people posted comments that said the article was a fake, but others still carry the fake article. Brent Johnson, a radio host who posted the item on his Voice of Freedom blog, said he posted it without verifying it because "This is one of those stories where, if it is true, is so, so serious. It’s the kind of thing people need to know about in the chance it is true."

Before long the Digg website, YouTube, the Tree of Liberty 'blog, and various right-wing personalities had fallen for the fake story, trumpeting it in that "end of the world" tone as if it were true.

It's apparent from the article that more than a few still do not believe the article was not genuine.

I'm continually amazed that people who have shown a remarkable affinity to fascist governmental forms would be so quick to use the label of fascism as if it were a bad thing. Own your bias: don't be shy. When Communists, Immigrants and Unworthy Ethnic and Social Minorities are threatening your way of life, call them out in just those terms. It may not be as palatable to the rest of us, but it'll be far more accurate.

Crime And Punishment

Some of my professors, when covering the Middle Ages and the birth of Islam, applauded Muslim jurisprudence for its moderation. One key example was punishment for theives: under Sharia a convicted thief lost his/her right hand as punishment. In a time when Europe was hanging people for the same offense, on the surface this seems humane. However, one item that wasn't covered all that well is that in Islam the left hand is "unclean:" anything done with it is deemed evil, and eating with it poisons the soul. A faithful Muslim thief, without the support of family or charity (unlikely given the offense), would starve to death rather than risk damnation, and a thief who fed himself would be shunned by society as sinful and unrepentant.

In this context, the local flap over Nick Bollea's ability to drive has similar undertones. Bollea, son of wrestling star Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea, has a history of poor driving, including a spectacular crash in August 2007 that left his passenger John Graziano permanently disabled. Bollea entered a no contest plea and was sentenced to eight months in jail (he was released early for good behavior), five years of probation, 500 community service hours and suspension of his driving privileges. He's also facing civil action from Graziano's family.

In light of this, the hearing last month by the Bureau of Administrative Reviews to grant Bollea a hardship license is getting a lot of press here. DMV hearing officer Cindy Van Dunk was reluctantly persuaded to issue the license to Bollea after hearing his need for transportation for his new job. The decision is getting a lot of heat, at present from Bay News 9.

A "hardship license" in Florida allows someone who would ordinarily not qualify for driving privileges to get to work, school, church or medical services, but no more. There's also a strict work-only variant. It's not clear which version Bollea was granted.

Certainly Bollea is hardly a responsible driver from his prior actions. The job he cites as reason for the license - with a recording label - will likely put him on the streets at hours not unlike those where his prior accidents occurred. And Bollea has since then moved to California, which does not recognize the Florida document, rendering the decision effectively moot.

But consider this for a moment: regardless of all these things, depriving someone of driving privileges in a community with a bare skeleton of public transportation denies that person nearly all opportunities for employment. Transit in Tampa Bay is geared far more to getting residents to shopping than it is getting commuters to work. Many businesses are some distance from bus routes, and residential communities do not have ready links to commercial districts. Distances between bedroom communities and businesses make commute by foot or bicycle practically impossible. Unless one is content as cashier at a corner market or gas station, opportunity for those without cars is basically nonexistent.

I looked recently at commuting to work on the bus: staying within Tampa, and within the HARTLine service region, it would take me two hours at least, and two or three buses, to travel twelve miles across roads I could navigate on my own in twenty minutes. Much of that commute time would be spent waiting at the local mall for the bus traveling the next leg of the commute: a location five miles out of the way. It would also cost me $90 a month for a bus pass, versus at most half that in gas. Connections between Tampa and St. Petersburg are even worse: the only regular link is Greyhound, which runs only four times a day and requires a separate ticket, and HART and PSTA (Pinellas County's transit authority) do not accept each other's passes either.

Working in Southwest Florida virtually requires one to have personal transportation of some sort, and with the distances involved the automobile is the only practical solution. Denying anyone the right to drive essentially deprives that person of employment even as it makes the roads safer for the rest of us.

I'm hardly sympathetic to Nick Bollea. He is an irresponsible brat who deserved his punishment. However, his case highlights a problem here: public transit is not a viable option for anyone who has either a preference or a need for it, which makes suspension of driving privileges for any length of time effectively an inability to work. The suspended driver in this case is left little better off than the one-handed convicted thief in medieval Arabia.

The State / Federal Disconnect

It seems the GOP is behind Obama - at least in the governors' mansions:
Across the country, from California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger to Florida’s Charlie Crist and New England’s Jim Douglas in Vermont and M. Jodi Rell in Connecticut, Republican governors showed in the stimulus debate that they could be allies with Mr. Obama even as Congressional Republicans spurned him.

Maybe it's all those balanced budget requirements that makes the difference. Maybe it's being closer to the ground - to the populace - that causes the connection. And maybe it's actually running a state and not being able to indulge in pointless posturing that does it. Whatever it is, obviously running a state makes for a more pragmatic - more conservative - approach to such issues than merely sitting in Congress.

As the article indicates, this situation is hardly new. GOP governors have long opposed the excesses of party dogma when Washington tried to enforce political orthodoxy. The Contract With America faced stiff opposition when it came to curtailing domestic programmes, and much of that came from the party's own state leaders. Yet for whatever reason the GOP leadership and its punditry continue to push the same tired mantras of lower domestic spending, reduced taxes and other cure-alls, even in the face of opposition from the people who, without those efforts, might actually be on board with them to accomplish meaningful party objectives. It almost looks like a generational issue: the grown-up state leaders versus the spoiled children sent away to Capitol Hill.

Why I'm Not A Republican, Part Three

Andrew Sullivan puts it in a nutshell:
The Republican party is not, at this point in time, a conservative party... It's a fundamentalist religious party.

Not So "With Us" After All

From the New York Times:
The [Pakistani] government announced Monday that it would accept a system of Islamic law in the Swat valley and agreed to a truce, effectively conceding the area as a Taliban sanctuary and suspending a faltering effort by the army to crush the insurgents.

The concessions to the militants, who now control about 70 percent of the region just 100 miles from the capital, were criticized by Pakistani analysts as a capitulation by a government desperate to stop Taliban abuses and a military embarrassed at losing ground after more than a year of intermittent fighting. About 3,000 Taliban militants have kept 12,000 government troops at bay and terrorized the local population with floggings and the burning of schools.

The accord came less than a week before the first official visit to Washington of the Pakistani army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to meet Obama administration officials and discuss how Pakistan could improve its tactics against what the American military is now calling an industrial-strength insurgency there of Al Qaeda and the Taliban militants.


Pakistani officials are calling this a strategy to calm the region, hoping that with less violence a more peaceful solution can be reached. They're not doing their constituents any favors in the process, though:
In legislative elections a year ago, the people of Swat, a region that is about the size of Delaware and has 1.3 million residents, voted overwhelmingly for the secular Awami National Party. Since then, the Taliban have singled out elected politicians with suicide bomb attacks and chased virtually all of them from the valley. Several hundred thousand residents have also fled the fighting.

Trying to make sense of the political morass that is Pakistan is difficult at best.

When the GWoT was first announced, I was surprised at the [mal]administration's readiness to accept help from Pakistan. The country has never been particularly stable, with tribalism and reactionary Islamic sects controlling much of the hinterlands and an intelligence agency reviled in much of the world. For a while Musharraf seemed able to navigate the minefield of Pakistani culture and politics well enough, but his methods in the northwest and his unwillingness to yield to a (moderate, civilian) opposition eventually made his government unpopular enough to force his ouster. Now the civilian authorities in Islamabad seem to be making Chamberlain's bargain with the Taliban and the tribalists.

Perhaps Warehousing Is The New Growth Industry

Unsold goods are piling up, and the sudden thrift among the populace means that inventories are rising. Business is feeling the pinch of combined overproduction and reduced demand, and is facing both a glut of product and nobody to buy it.

The Washington Post has a thorough, if bleak, breakdown on the problem, and some stark predictions if demand can't be generated soon.

In the meantime, with cars, televisions, toys and apparel piling up, maybe investing in warehouses to store all the excess consumables might well be profitable. The stuff has to go somewhere.

UPDATE: It seems that sweatshops are still paying well enough.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Ghost Of Christmas Past

Amid all the hoopla over banks' bonuses, this story stands out as the act of one person - Leonard Abess Jr., former chairman of City National Bancshares - in the financial services industry who understands how such things are supposed to work.
"It didn't feel right getting the money myself ... Those people who joined me and stayed with me at the bank with no promise of equity - I always thought someday I'm going to surprise them."

So in early November, all 399 workers on staff - tellers, clerks, bookkeepers - and 72 former employees received bonuses based on years of service. That month, Spanish bank Caja Madrid paid $927 million for an 83 percent stake in the company.

The bonuses came directly from the sale of City National to Caja Madrid, out of Abess' profit. In his words, "I sure as heck don't need (the money)." Some long-serving employess received over $100,000; many received five-figure sums. In addition to the bonuses, the bank is offering them high-rate certificates of deposit in which to deposit the funds.

Too often we hear of "merit" bonuses paid to the top executives of financial firms whose greed fueled the current crisis: modern-day tales echoing themes from Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield. Here at last we have a tale of one banker who gets it right in true A Christmas Carol style - and makes sure his people get treated right as well.

Quote Of The Day

"But they're going to have to pay for it, as well."
- William Brown, the special agent in charge of the DEA's aviation division, on why the DEA spent $123,000.00 to charter a private plane for the DEA chief for travel to Colombia last year, and whether it would have been more cost-effective to borrow a plane from another agency.


The excursion is catching quite a bit of heat these days, and it isn't pleasing everyone:
Government watchdogs, however, question whether the trip could have been rescheduled or whether Leonhart could've taken a commercial flight.

Steve Ellis, the vice president of the nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that although the flight consumed a small fraction of the DEA's budget, the charter raised a red flag, especially because the agency paid an outside company to arrange it.

"It looks bad," Ellis said. "Clearly, the DEA or any federal agency should be watching their budgets more closely in these difficult times."

Read the whole thing here.

Of Mice And Trains

How are we expected to give any credence whatsoever to Republicans opposing the stimulus package - or any part of it - when they don't seem to have the least clue what actually is in the package in the first place?

Conservative lawmakers, pundits and talking heads have all gone off the deep end denouncing the excesses of the new bill. Yet their chief targets aren't even in the package.

$30 million for salt marsh mice? Not there. A high speed rail corridor between Los Angeles and Las Vegas? Also absent. No high speed rail project for Ohio? There are two.

Republican credibility falls even lower as key figures indicate they are so opposed to stimulus in principle that they don't even know what's actually in the bill. This is the behaviour of the spoiled child: too busy crying to pay attention to what s/he's actually crying about.

What You Get When You Don't Ask For Anything

The GOP is going nuts about two facets of the stimulus package.

First, quite naturally, they are condemning the bill as not stimulus but spending. This ancient canard is both refuted by most reputable economists and the predictable output from a group that sees tax cuts as the solution for everything.

Second - and far more telling - is this: GOP lawmakers are (accurately or not) condemning the spending in the stimulus because it will not help their constituents.

Most of us learned long ago that if you're not part of any given process then whatever input you might have had is not incorporated in the end result of that process. This is true of family, business and government: if you do not take a meaningful part in the process then you do not get your concerns addressed.

Somehow the GOP hasn't learned that particular lesson. It might have to do with all the Beltway reporting that insisted that the Obama team listen to the GOP when it came to drafting the legislation: the party leadership obviously thought that meant that they could still write the bill and the administration would rubber-stamp it as usual rather than actually provide a reasoned alternative to their demonstrably ineffective policies.

When, instead, the administration paid more attention to a more aggressive policy that actually involved the government spending money, the GOP collectively balked. Instead of working with the authors to ensure that the benefits accrued to their constituents as well as those of their Democratic colleagues, the GOP denounced the entire package and refused to cooperate. The near-universal GOP rejection of the resulting legislation as a whole translated into non-participation in the allocation of projects and funding for the people they represent.

In addition, infrastructure from the national perspective is created and maintained to provide for as many citizens as possible: there is arithmetic for cost/benefit in these proceedings. Providing for the common good as a whole frequently means that certain segments of society will not see meaningful benefit: that does not mean that such provision is not valuable.

Last, infrastructure of any kind isn't something that can be installed simultaneously across the nation: it has to start somewhere. Boehner's dismissal of the (mythical) Los-Angeles-to-Las-Vegas corridor is disingenuous for both the lack of that particular leg in the high speed rail proposal and for the ignorance of how such projects develop. Any practical rail link between Southern California and the Northeast would almost certainly include lines through Ohio - just perhaps not initially. Rail projects generally start from major hubs (Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta and New Orleans spring to mind) or from major terminus points (San Diego, Miami, Portland ME and Seattle) and expand outward from there. In either case Ohio falls slightly behind the key sites to begin the work.

Ignoring for a moment Boehner's ignorance of the project (Ohio has two corridors planned while the LA-LV line isn't in the current proposal), the idea that one can denounce a plan as unhelpful to one's own community after point-blank refusing to participate in the planning in order to rectify that is both dishonest and irresponsible. Democracy, whether direct or representative, is a participatory construct. If you don't participate, you don't obtain the results you want. If the GOP intends to continue its obstructionist behaviour it has no business damning the resultant legislation for not providing for voters whose interests they were ostensibly elected to protect.