Monday, December 31, 2012

Ezra Klein writes

Today’s Republican Party thinks the key problem America faces is out-of-control entitlement spending. But cutting entitlement spending is unpopular and the GOP’s coalition relies heavily on seniors. And so they don’t want to propose entitlement cuts. If possible, they’d even like to attack President Obama for proposing entitlement cuts. But they also want to see entitlements cut and will refuse to solve the fiscal cliff or raise the debt ceiling unless there are entitlement cuts.

We've seen this play before.  In March, Sahil Kapur of Talking Points Memo reported

“Democrats cut $500 billion from Medicare in order to pay for ObamaCare,” Lindsay told TPM. “The Path to Prosperity puts that back towards ensuring that Medicare remains sustainable instead of funding the Democrats’ massive government healthcare takeover.”

Republicans used this line of attack ahead of the 2010 elections and reaped the political rewards. But their own budget, for the second year in a row, illustrates that the GOP has no qualms with the Medicare policy they’re excoriating Dems for enacting.

Republicans liked the reduction in Medicare spending in the Affordable Care Act, which did not prevent them from (successfully) bashing Democrats for it in the 2010 mid-term elections, nor Mitt Romney from criticizing Barack Obama for it in the 2012 presidential election.

Still, on Sunday's Meet The Press, the President (his segment taped Saturday) told David Gregory

David, as you know, one of the proposals we made was something called Chain CPI, which sounds real technical but basically makes an adjustment in terms of how inflation is calculated on Social Security. Highly unpopular among Democrats. Not something supported by AARP. But in pursuit of strengthening Social Security for the long-term I'm willing to make those decisions. What I'm not willing to do is to have the entire burden of deficit reduction rest on the shoulders of seniors, making students pay higher student loan rates, ruining our capacity to invest in things like basic research that help our economy grow. Those are the things that I'm not willing to do. And so...

Due to the President's phraseology, two-thirds of the statement is ambiguous.  He might mean that he doesn't want students to bear sacrifice alone or that he doesn't want students to pay higher loan rates at all; similarly, he may intend that basic research not be reduced alone or that he wants no reduction in our capacity to invest in basic research.   But it is clear that he while he doesn't want all the "burden of deficit reduction to rest on the shoulders of seniors," he believes they should assume at least some pain.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-CA), who has his sights set on the White House, wasted no time in exploiting the President's plea for austerity, to be borne by elderly people.  He tweeted "report that GOP insisting on changes to social security as part of fiscal cliff false.   BTW those changes are supported by Barack Obama."  Slightly shorter Rubio:  don't blame us; blame your guy.

Fortunately, word today came late yesterday that Mitch McConnell has dropped his request to include chained CPI (which the President describes as not a cut, just a silly ol' adjustment) to calculate Social Security benefits as part of a short term budget deal.  This is a belated, but significant, gift to virtually all congressional Democrats expecting to run for re-election because the GOP, as Rubio hinted, would have made them own it.  And it's bad policy, as explained by Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR):

What is a chained CPI? Well, the pointy heads like Mr. Furman who work for President Obama say "we're [...] overstating inflation with the way we adjust, so there's something called 'substitution effect,' so when prices of things go up, you buy something cheaper so that means there isn't inflation."

Well, no. Wait a minute. The think you used to buy is more expensive so you're buying something else. In the pointy head economics world this makes sense. So let's see how this would work for someone on Medicare. Okay, you can't afford your heart bypass so instead you'll say to the doctor "look, I can't afford the copay on the heart bypass, why don't you do a hernia instead?" That's substitution, and in Mr. Furman's world this makes sense.

Now what this would do to seniors on Social Security—we already understate inflation, and seniors haven't gotten a COLA for the lat two years. Tell me the price of prescription drugs and medical care hasn't gone up over the last two years. We need, in fact, a different measure for seniors, for Medicare, for veterans for others who consume more health care and more essentials which the CPI doesn't measure. It just measures junk that people buy. That's all it measures. And they're saying because people will buy cheaper junk we should change the CPI.

That means a senior, by the time they reach 85 in this brave new world of the chained CPI will get $100 less a month in their Social Security.

When the GOP tried to turn Social Security over to Wall Street in 2004, Digby wrote "if the Democrats end up cutting social security and other vital safety net programs in this round of the ongoing scam, they will have become the biggest dupes in political history."  Similarly, congressional Democrats would become dupes today if they join Republicans in cutting Social Security or, probably, Medicare.  They ought to remember the wise three lemmings (from Stephan Pastis' Pearls Before Swine) when Barack Obama, who himself has run his last race, diplomatically asks them to fall on their sword.

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Another, If Expected, Disappointment

When the House is controlled by Republicans, the White House by an (Eisenhower) Republican, and the Senate Majority Leader is a moderate-conservative Democrat, it shouldn't be surprising that

The Senate on Friday reauthorized for five years broad electronic eavesdropping powers that legalized and expanded the President George W. Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.

The FISA Amendments Act, (.pdf) which was expiring Monday at midnight, allows the government to electronically eavesdrop on Americans’ phone calls and e-mails without a probable-cause warrant so long as one of the parties to the communication is believed outside the United States. The communications may be intercepted “to acquire foreign intelligence information.”

The House approved the measure in September. President Barack Obama, who said the spy powers were a national security priority, is expected to quickly sign the package before the law Congress codified in 2008 expires in the coming days. Over the past two days, the Senate debated and voted down a handful of amendments in what was seen as largely political theater to get Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) to lift a procedural hold on the FISA Amendments Act legislation that barred lawmakers from voting on the package.

In the end, the identical package the House passed 301-118 swept through the Senate on a 73-23 vote.

The American Civil Liberties Union immediately blasted the vote.

“The Bush administration’s program of warrantless wiretapping, once considered a radical threat to the Fourth Amendment, has become institutionalized for another five years,” said Michelle Richardson, the ACLU’s legislative counsel.

Amendments senators refused to enact included extending the measure for just three years, another one requiring the government to account for how many times Americans’ communications have been intercepted, and one by Wyden prohibiting U.S. spy agencies from reviewing the communications of Americans ensnared in the program.

“The amendment I fought to include would have helped bring the constitutional principles of security and liberty back into balance and intend to work with my colleagues to see that the liberties of individual Americans are maintained,” Wyden said immediately after the vote.

The legislation does not require the government to identify the target or facility to be monitored. It can begin surveillance a week before making the request, and the surveillance can continue during the appeals process if, in a rare case, the secret FISA court rejects the surveillance application. The court’s rulings are not public.

The government has also interpreted the law to mean that as long as the real target is al-Qaeda, the government can wiretap purely domestic e-mails and phone calls without getting a warrant from a judge. That’s according to David Kris, a former top anti-terrorism attorney at the Justice Department.

In short, Kris said the FISA Amendments Act gives the government nearly carte blanche spying powers.

Journalist and civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald reminds us

when seeking the Democratic nomination, then-Sen. Obama unambiguously vowed that he would filibuster "any bill" that retroactively immunized the telecom industry for having participated in the illegal Bush NSA warrantless eavesdropping program.

But in July 2008, once he had secured the nomination, a bill came before the Senate that did exactly that - the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 - and Obama not only failed to filibuster as promised, but far worse, he voted against the filibuster brought by other Senators, and then voted in favor of enacting the bill itself. That blatant, unblinking violation of his own clear promise - actively supporting a bill he had sworn months earlier he would block from a vote - caused a serious rift even in the middle of an election year between Obama and his own supporters.

Critically, the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 did much more than shield lawbreaking telecoms from all forms of legal accountability. Jointly written by Dick Cheney and then-Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller, it also legalized vast new, sweeping and almost certainly unconstitutional forms of warrantless government eavesdropping.

In doing so, the new 2008 law gutted the 30-year-old FISA statute that had been enacted to prevent the decades of severe spying abuses discovered by the mid-1970s Church Committee: by simply barring the government from eavesdropping on the communications of Americans without first obtaining a warrant from a court. Worst of all, the 2008 law legalized most of what Democrats had spent years pretending was such a scandal: the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program secretly implemented by George Bush after the 9/11 attack. In other words, the warrantless eavesdropping "scandal" that led to a Pulitzer Prize for the New York Times reporters who revealed it ended not with investigations or prosecutions for those who illegally spied on Americans, but with the Congressional GOP joining with key Democrats (including Obama) to legalize most of what Bush and Cheney had done. Ever since, the Obama DOJ has invoked secrecy and standing doctrines to prevent any courts from ruling on whether the warrantless eavesdropping powers granted by the 2008 law violate the Constitution.

Mother Jones' Kevin Drum has a different take, arguing

Glenn thinks that liberals have largely given up criticizing this stuff because we now have a Democratic president in the White House rather than George W. Bush, and I suppose that's part of it. But a bigger part, I think, is simply that it's all become so institutionalized. Back in 2004 and 2006, we were outraged because this was all so new. Today, after fighting and losing, it's just part of our brave new world, along with 3-ounce bottles on airplanes, unreviewable no-fly lists, and cops who demand to know what you're up to if you start taking pictures in public places.

As a country, we're now divided into two parts: those who aggressively support things like warrantless wiretapping because they're consumed with fear, and those who don't but have given up trying to fight about it. There's hardly anyone left still willing to tilt at this particular windmill. It's sad as hell.

Yes, liberals for the most part "have given up trying to fight about it" with "hardly anyone left still willing to tilt at this particular windmill."  But that's no act of God.  It's a confluence of a Democrat in the Oval Office- as Greenwald observes- and of having Barack Obama in the White House.

Perhaps President Obama has such an effect in part because the alternatives are so much worse.  Just as in the presidential race the choice was between the incumbent and a more dangerous alternative, so it is that 42 of 45 Republicans voting joined the President they despise and most Democrats in wantonly extending the national security state.  (Check out the east-west geographical split in the roll call vote.)  The GOP, whose tea party faction is obsessed with the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, gave Obama a pass in bypassing the Fourth Amendment.

The faith in Obama as a progressive may stem also from disbelief that the first black President- a constitutional lawyer and community organizer!- possibly could be anything but a child of the left.  Admittedly, the President, despite his actions and some statements to the contrary, periodically nurtures that favorable impression.

The most obvious example is the Affordable Care Act, a Rube Goldberg-inspired initiative whose main virtue is its superiority to the current health care system and considerable superiority to the harsh regimen Republicans dream of.  Union rights are another, inasmuch as the Democratic candidate for President in 2007 once promised (please control your laughter)

And understand this: If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I’ll will walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.

When thousands of workers in Wisconsin picketed last year, President Obama couldn't find a pair of comfortable shoes.  But he did, eventually, manage to remark half-heartedly

Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions.  I think everybody's got to make some adjustments, but I think it's also important to recognize that public employees make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens.

When Governor Scott Walker, who had run roughshod over the rights of middle class, working class, and lower class public employees, faced a recall, President Obama remained silent until the night before the election. Instead, his campaign spokesperson cautioned against expecting her boss to become involved, stating "If you think that the secret weapon here is sending President President Obama, then, you know, I'm pleased that you believe that."

Soon thereafter Obama, recognizing that he had to appear interested, tweeted (no cameras, please) "It's Election Day in Wisconsin tomorrow, and I'm standing by Tom Barrett. He'd make an outstanding governor. -bo."

Thanks, Bo. I hear all Portugese Water Dogs in Wisconsin supported Barrett.   And he failed to "stand by" Barrett because there would have been cameras.  Transformation apparently complete, the man who once promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet now claimed less influence than a ward boss, labor official, corporate executive, or your next-door neighbor.

There always is just enough from Barack Obama to convince supporters it could be worse, and would be, with the other guys (or gals).   But the PPACA, drone signature attacks, labor rights, FISA re-authorization,  efforts to cut earned benefits, indifference to the poor, climate change, and abuses in the financial industry: the list goes on and on.  And on.    He might as well say "hey, it's not like I'm a Democrat or anything."

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Friday, December 28, 2012

Good Luck With That

Demetry Smirnov apparently purchased a .40 caliber handgun from a private seller in Seattle through the website of Oklahoma-based Armslist, LLC.  While interstate arms sales are illegal, federal law does not require a background check for private gun sales, and neither does Illinois or most states.  The family of Jitka Vesel two days before the massacre in Newtown, Ct. filed against Armslist a wrongful death suit which charges

Jitka Vesel, 36, was shot 11 to 12 times by Smirnov in the parking lot of the Czechoslovak Heritage Museum in Oak Brook, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Smirnov, a Canadian resident, had stalked her after she rebuffed his romantic overtures, according to Vesely. Smirnov, now serving a life prison sentence without parole, paid an extra $200 for the gun that had been listed for $400 because he couldn’t buy it legally.

Firearms now can be purchased over the Internet, as was the case in the brutal murder of Vesel,  or at gun shows without a background check of the purchaser   Efforts by states or the federal government to require a check of the criminal involvement or mental health of an individual buying a lethal weapon have been consistently, routinely, and vigorously opposed by the Criminal Enabler Cartel more commonly known as the National Rifle Association.

The speech by NRA Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre on December 21, in which he attributed the deaths resulting from shooting sprees at schools to everything but guns or bullets, is widely considered to have been a public-relations disaster. No less an expert than GOP wordmeister Frank Luntz, often considered to be a messaging genius, responded in part

I don’t think the NRA is listening.I don’t think they understand most Americans would protect the Second Amendment rights and yet agree with the idea that not every human being should own a gun, not every gun should be available at anytime, anywhere, for anyone. At gun shows, you should not be able to buy something there without any kind of check whatsoever.

Since the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School, pro-gun Democratic and Repub legislators alike have called for a consideration of gun-control measures or at least a "conversation" and pundits everywhere have speculated that, finally, measures may be taken to combat gun violence.

If it were only so.    In a poll conducted December 19-22, "Americans" were asked by Gallup, "What is your overall opinion of the National Rifle Association, also known as the NRA- is it very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?"   Only seven percent offered no opinion, while 54% (21% very, 33% mostly) were generally favorable.  

That's a mere 39% looking unkindly upon an organization which supports the gun show loophole and allowing terrorists to board airplanes; and which opposes granting law enforcement the right to obtain and exchange data that helps them enforce federal, state and local gun laws; or requiring owners to report if their gun has been lost or stolen; or requiring states to share records of individuals ineligible to buy firearms because of criminal record or mental health problems.

When asked specifically about individual gun control proposals, respondents are not nearly as pro-gun.  By analogy, however, when asked about cutting Social Security benefits, the public is adamantly opposed, notwithstanding the favorable response to the more general concept of reducing "entitlements."    And the same Republican House and nominally Democratic President who are targeting Social Security will have to summon a lot of courage to offend the NRA and a public which, inexplicably or otherwise, seems to like it.

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Criminal's Best Friend

Erica Goode and Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times report that neither President Obama nor his immediate predecessor has been able to get a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drugs confirmed in six years.  Additionally

the agency’s ability to thwart gun violence is hamstrung by legislative restrictions and by loopholes in federal gun laws, many law enforcement officials and advocates of tighter gun regulations say.

For example, under current laws the bureau is prohibited from creating a federal registry of gun transactions. So while detectives on television tap a serial number into a computer and instantly identify the buyer of a firearm, the reality could not be more different.

When law enforcement officers recover a gun and serial number, workers at the bureau’s National Tracing Center here — a windowless warehouse-style building on a narrow road outside town — begin making their way through a series of phone calls, asking first the manufacturer, then the wholesaler and finally the dealer to search their files to identify the buyer of the firearm.

About a third of the time, the process involves digging through records sent in by companies that have closed, in many cases searching by hand through cardboard boxes filled with computer printouts, hand-scrawled index cards or even water-stained sheets of paper.

As children would have put it decades ago, you have three guesses who is behind forcing a critical law enforcement to employ 1970s technology... and the first two guesses don't count.   Goode/Stolberg explain

In an age when data is often available with a few keystrokes, the A.T.F. is forced to follow this manual routine because the idea of establishing a central database of gun transactions has been rejected by lawmakers in Congress, who have sided with the National Rifle Association, which argues that such a database poses a threat to the Second Amendment. In other countries, gun rights groups argue, governments have used gun registries to confiscate the firearms of law-abiding citizens.

Apparently, though, it's never too late to warn liberals don't touch our guns.   The Second Amendment project director at the right-wing, pseudo-libertarian Independence Institute maintains “We don’t have an automated database of everybody who’s had an abortion or of anyone who owns controversial books."

Having an automated database of everyone who has undergone an abortion would be slightly odd when he have no such record of everyone who has undergone an abortion- nor of anyone who has had a colonoscopy, CAT scan, or tracheotomy.  We do, however, have one of individuals waiting for organ transplants because it facilitates the preservation of life.  

There is only one reason we don't have that database for people who possess a weapon whose purpose is to kill. (And, yes, if kept for personal protection the owner needs to be willing to use it if necessary.)  It would allow us to preserve life and would discomfort  the Criminal Enabler Cartel, less accurately known as the National Rifle Association.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Pro-Life View Of God As Killer

Last month the Irish Times reported

Two investigations are under way into the death of a woman who was 17 weeks pregnant, at University Hospital Galway last month.

Savita Halappanavar (31), a dentist, presented with back pain at the hospital on October 21st, was found to be miscarrying, and died of septicaemia a week later.

Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar (34), an engineer at Boston Scientific in Galway, says she asked several times over a three-day period that the pregnancy be terminated. He says that, having been told she was miscarrying, and after one day in severe pain, Ms Halappanavar asked for a medical termination.

This was refused, he says, because the foetal heartbeat was still present and they were told, “this is a Catholic country”.

She spent a further 2½ days “in agony” until the foetal heartbeat stopped.

The dead foetus was removed and Savita was taken to the high dependency unit and then the intensive care unit, where she died of septicaemia on the 28th.

An autopsy carried out by Dr Grace Callagy two days later found she died of septicaemia “documented ante-mortem” and E.coli ESBL.

Soon after this story was reported, Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote

This is what happens when a nation drags its concept of God into medical decisions. This is what happens when doctors are cruelly thwarted in doing the job of saving people. And that’s why if you ignore the health and safety of women and you call yourself “pro-life” you are nothing but a sad, sick joke. As Irish Parliament member Clare Daly ruefully pointed out this week, “An unviable fetus … was given priority over the woman’s life.” 

Abortion is illegal in the Republic of Ireland but, responding to the death of Halappanavar, legislation is being prepared to codify a 20-year Supreme Court ruling that a woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy if her life is endangered.  The nation's Roman Catholic Church, however, is not given to doubts, or the humility of uncertainty.  Its bishops immediately accused the government of encouraging the "intentional killing of the unborn."  Without referring to the horrid death which precipitated the furor in the Republic, Cardinal Sean Brady delivered his Christmas message and ratcheted up the controversy when

He urged people to tell politicians that no government was entitled to remove that right from an innocent person.

The Archbishop of Armagh said the country was now approaching what would "prove to be a defining moment regarding Ireland's attitude to respect and care for human life".

He continued: "Public representatives will be asked to decide whether a caring and compassionate society is defined by providing the best possible care and protection to a woman struggling to cope with an unwanted pregnancy or by the deliberate destruction of another human life.

"I hope that everyone who believes that the right to life is fundamental will make their voice heard in a reasonable, but forthright, way to their representatives."

Cardinal Brady said politicians needed to be reminded "that the right to life is conferred on human beings, not by the powerful ones of this world, but by the Creator."

A minimum of ten percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, obviously the vast majority not by choice of the woman.   Apparently, then- according to the Archbishop's logic- once the Creator confers life on human beings, He snuffs it out in at least ten percent, and possibly as much as 25 percent, of cases.  

The irony in the message delivered by the leading prelate of the Republic of Ireland is not limited to condoning the death of a 31-year-old woman in the name of "life."   Cardinal Brady's lack of compassion is clear enough, and not uncommon in fanatics.   But the greater irony may be, in assuming abortion ends a life created by God, that the Archbishop implies that the same Creator ends the life of a baby when He so chooses.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Gergen, Among Many

Reviewing one of the recent commentaries from silly, yet well respected CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen, Digby comments

Yes, it's true that the Republicans are a little bit wacky but that's not the real problem. The roadblock is that the president just has not agreed to hurt enough people for the elite centrist pundit's taste. And that's after the president agreed to throw Social Security on the pyre despite the fact that Social Security contributes nothing to this allegedly deadly deficit. 

I am no fan of the Tea Party. But I don't think they are the real problem. They are, after all, doing what their voters want them to do, however ill-advised that might be. No, our real problem is David Gergen and his ilk.

The font of Washington Wisdom had written

And that's a big part of the problem -- no one can be confident that our national leaders are still capable of governing responsibly. And in the process, they are putting both our economy and our international reputation at risk.

President Barack Obama had rightly hoped that the elections would clear the air; they haven't. If anything, the recent squabbling over the federal budget has injected fresh poison into relationships and dimmed prospects for other bipartisan agreements in the next few years, starting with hopes for a "grand bargain"in 2013.

The President insists he remains an optimist, but if he and Republicans can't agree on how to bring the nation's finances under control -- something fundamental to the welfare of the country -- why should we have faith they will succeed on other important issues like energy, education, immigration and gun safety?

As the blame game heats up, Republicans are sure to pay the biggest price with the public. It was bad enough that they lost the message fight, letting themselves be painted as protectors of the wealthy. But it was inexcusable when they revolted against House Speaker John Boehner in his search for a way forward: that only reinforced a narrative that the Grand Old Party has fallen hostage to its right wing -- a narrative that already exacted a huge price in the fall elections.

Most voters -- I am among them -- believe the country needs a center-right party but will not support an extremist party.

President Obama is certainly not blameless in these financial talks. Early on, he overplayed his hand, alienating rank-and-file Republicans. Like Boehner, he has been more accommodating recently, offering concessions on taxes and entitlement spending that narrowed the negotiating gap between the parties, even as his leftward allies fretted.

Still, Boehner has a point in arguing that what Obama now has on the table comes nowhere close to what the he was advocating in the election season: a ratio of 2.5 dollars in spending cuts to 1.0 dollars in tax increases.

The buck stops on the President's desk, so that ordinarily one would expect him to take the lead in these final days before January 1. For reasons that are still unclear, he instead chose in his press statement late Friday to toss responsibility for negotiations next week into the laps of Congressional leaders.

They are putting both our economy and our international reputation at risk, says the eminent font of Washington Wisdom.  (The exemplars of Washington Wisdom always put down Washington; it establishes their SERIOUSNESS and bipartisan bonafides.)      No deal and everyone falls off the cliff.  That was, in the way of the elite of the field, immediately after Gergen remarks

What in the world is gripping Washington?  Everywhere one turns- from finances to guns to nominations- there is madness in the air.

With time rapidly running out, efforts have collapsed to reach a major agreement on federal spending and taxes before year's end, and both Congress and President are leaving town for the holiday.  At best, they will return next week and construct a small bridge over the "fiscal cliff"; at worst, they won't.  But who knows?

The temptation is to suggest that no one better embodies that "madness in the air" than David Gergen.   But that would be giving him too much credit.    Digby ponders

Either they don't know that going over the fiscal cliff will go a long way toward closing this deadly deficit they fear so much or they just want to ensure that the deficit is closed on the backs of the poor, the old and the sick. I'll let you decide if these people are really stupid or just selfish and cruel.

I vote "selfish and cruel." Gergen- who is 70- won't have to subsist on Social Security to get by in his later years.  He is neither a construction worker, plumber, or retail clerk pulling down minimum wage and at the mercy of her employer.  Individuals such as himself can go on working forever expounding on the great issues of the day for a living.   And he surely knows that by terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 set to go in to effect on January 2, the Bush-era tax cuts are rescinded and federal spending bludgeoned.  In approximately ten years, spending would be cut approximately $1.2 trillion and revenues increased by roughly the same, lowering the dreaded deficit substantially.  Yet, the fellow who so wants "the nation's finances (to be brought) under control" believes inaction (defined as failure to reach bipartisan agreement) represents "madness in the air."

The problem (among many) is that President Obama often has seemed anxious to please the Village.   Gergen characteristically advocates on guns "a national conversation to see what can be sensibly done," tracking closely the position of the President, who always is in favor of "a national conversation," and had been silent on the issue until the events at Sandy Hook Elementary.   (Even now the President echoes Gergen's fealty to the Supreme Court's faulty interpretation of the Second Amendment.)  It would be refreshing to see the President reject the conventional, wrongheaded  wisdom of the Establishment in favor of the sentiments of the people who actually advocated, worked for, or at least voted for, his re-election.  But unlikely.


                                                  MERRY CHRISTMAS

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Just Another Guest Worker Program

A press release of the American Federation of Teachers reports a righteous decision in Nunang-Tanedo et al. v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board in which

A federal court jury late Monday ordered Universal Placement International of Los Angeles and its owner and president, Lourdes Navarro, to pay $4.5 million to the 350 Filipino teachers they lured to teach in Louisiana public schools following Hurricane Katrina and forced into exploitive contracts after arriving in the United States through the federal guest worker program. 

The verdict in the class-action lawsuit follows a two-week trial in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles. The case was filed on behalf of the teachers by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Covington & Burling law firm. 

"This groundbreaking verdict affirms the principle that all teachers working in our public schools must be treated fairly, regardless of what country they may come from," said AFT President Randi Weingarten. "The outrageous abuses provide dramatic examples of the extreme exploitation that can occur, even here in the United States, when there is no proper oversight of the professional recruitment industry. The practices involved in this case—labor contracts signed under duress and other arrangements reminiscent of indentured servitude—are things that should have no place in 21st-century America." 

Mary Bauer, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said, "The jury sent a clear message that exploitive and abusive business practices involving federal guest workers will not be tolerated. This decision puts unscrupulous recruitment agencies on notice that human beings—regardless of citizenship status—cannot be forced into contracts that require them to pay illegal fees."

Dennis Auerbach, lead attorney on the case from Covington and Burling, praised the perseverance of the Filipino teachers. "We are very pleased with the verdict in this case and proud to have stood by these brave teachers as they finally obtained justice," he said. 

Other Background Information: 

The teachers began arriving in the United States in 2007 as part of the H-1B guest worker program. Administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, H-1B visas permit foreign nationals with special skills to work in the United States for up to six years. Most teachers paid the placement service about $16,000—several times the average household income in the Philippines—to obtain their jobs. 

Nearly all the teachers had to borrow money to pay the massive recruiting fees. The recruiters referred the teachers to private lenders who charged 3 to 5 percent interest per month. Teachers were forced to pay these exorbitant fees because they had already made substantial investments that would not be returned. The recruiters confiscated their passports and visas until the teachers paid. 

In addition to paying up-front fees, the teachers also were forced to sign away an additional 10 percent of the salaries they would earn during their second year of teaching. Teachers who resisted signing the contracts were threatened with being sent home and losing the thousands of dollars they already had paid. Those contracts were declared illegal and unenforceable by the court as part of this case.

Approximately 20% of the 700,000 workers in information technology in the U.S. are here on an H-1B visa.   While supporters of the program argue that it allows imporation of workers with unique talents, that need can be met by the O (for "outstanding") visa program, which has no quotas.

But the claimed shortage of skilled technical workers has little basis in reality.  Robert Oak of The Economic Populist has found

There were 614,636 Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate degrees awarded to U.S. Citizens and green card holders in 2011, yet there were only 145,930 jobs gained in all of STEM in 2011. In other words, the United States already produces far more STEM than can be employed....

Even before the recession, less than a third of S&E degree holders were working in areas requiring or even closely associated with their degree. A full 65% of STEM graduates were in other occupations after just two years of graduating. By 2011, 53% of all college graduates couldn't either find any job or a position in their field of study.

And Dan Rather last year explained

Over the past year, Dan Rather Reports has done a series of programs about the foreign labor force brought here by a vast array of U.S companies ostensibly to do jobs they can't find Americans to fill. Using an alphabet soup of special temporary work visas, employers have imported millions of foreign workers -- from hotel housekeepers to farm laborers to software engineers. It's part of the federal guest worker system and it's perfectly legal.

Most people --- including guest workers -- might assume that if a U.S. company decides to sponsor a person to come here on work visa, they must have tried to hire an American first. But that's not the necessarily the case. According to U.S. Department of Labor, a guest worker visa known as H-1B for "specialty occupations" especially tech workers -- may be issued "even when a qualified U.S. worker wants the job." In fact, the bulletin notes, "A U.S. worker can be displaced from the job in favor of the foreign worker."

Guest workers have little leverage to complain about wages or working conditions because unlike citizens or legal permanent residents, they are dependent on their employers not just for their paycheck, but also for their immigration status. If they lose their job, they may lose their right to be in the country. Despite laws requiring H-1B employers to pay guest workers what's known as a "prevailing wage," the cost savings offered by visa-holders are an open secret in the tech world.

As the graph (below) from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities indicates, there were, as of October, approximately ten unemployed persons for every available job.   Even in the STEM field, there is a surplus of qualified workers, yet the disinformation industry and their political allies are hard at work convincing Americans that other Americans aren't up to the task, that they need more training or education or a better work ethic.  In the Louisiana case, it was teachers who, even at the time of Katrina, were likely in surplus.

Foreigners lured into the U.S.A. by unscrupulous outfits like Universal Placement International are at particular risk of being exploited.   But native-born workers who find salaries and benefits lagging also are exploited, even if they don't have the Southern Poverty Law Center to look out for their interests.  

                                                  MERRY CHRISTMAS

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Neither Democrat Nor Republican But An Obama

Barack Obama won re-election by 3.7% (outside of the margin of error in most national presidential polls), snaring 332 electoral votes to Mitt Romneys 206.   While the GOP maintained control of the House- due solely to gerrymandering by Repub-controlled state legislatures- Think Progress notes "Based on current tallies,Democrats now lead Republicans 59,343,447 to 58,178,393 in total votes cast for their House candidates — meaning that the American people preferred Democrats over Republicans by nearly a full percentage point of the total vote."

The results of Senate elections were even more lopsided and impressive.   The Democratic Party had to defend 23 seats, Republicans only 10, in the 33 contests.   A year ago, one might not have been able to get odds on Democrats picking up two seats in the U.S. Senate; it might have been, as gamblers put it, "off the board."  It was considered likely the GOP would gain undisputed control of the chamber with 51 votes and very likely would snatch the 51 seats necessary for the majority it would need if the Democratic president were to be re-elected.  Yet, the Democratic Party picked up two seats, ending up with 55.

Now it is approximately six weeks since Election Day and President Obama addresses the nation after the Repub caucus rejected "Plan B."  He maintains

In 10 days, under current law, tax rates are scheduled to rise on most Americans.  And even though Democrats and Republicans are arguing about whether those rates should go up for the wealthiest individuals, all of us -- every single one of us -- agrees that tax rates shouldn't go up for the other 98 percent of Americans, which includes 97 percent of small businesses. Every member of Congress believes that.

A few moments later, he would add "Averting this middle-class tax hike is not a Democratic responsibility or a Republican responsibility.  With their votes, the American people have determined that governing is a shared responsibility between both parties."

With their votes, the American people did nothing of the sort, instead declaring the Republican agenda too extreme.  In contrast, when Democrats got creamed in the 2010 off-year elections, President Obama rushed to label it a "shellacking.   Now that Republicans have been rejected, Americans have politely asked that everyone work together, and they all want the same thing.  Sure they do.

Nancy Pelosi has been trying to get the House GOP leadership to sign a discharge petition so that extending the tax cuts on middle-class incomes, approved months ago by the Democratic Senate, can receive a vote in the lower chamber. Thus far, though, Republicans have refused to go along, preferring that taxes on all incomes rise in the new year.    On Thursday, Speaker Boehner pulled his bill to allow taxes to rise (only) on incomes above $1 million because it was clear he did not have majority support in his caucus. Given a chance to give a break for all- taxes would fall on the first $1 million for everyone, wealthy or not- most Republicans were ready to say "nyet."   If taxes have to go up for millionaires, they must go up for everyone.

"Every single one us agrees" that tax rates shouldn't go up for "the other 98 percent of Americans," President Obama asserts.  Republicans and Democrats (except himself, of course) all agree.  They're all the same, equally to blame in Barack Obama's evaluation.   Democrats finally can undermine the image of the GOP as the agent of middle-class tax cuts and enhance their own reputation as the protector of social insurance, defenders of Medicare and Social Security. by drawing useful distinctions between the ideologies and values represented by the two parties.  Instead, Barack Obama says "There's a mismatch right now between how everybody else is thinking about these problems-- Democrats and Republicans outside of this town -- and how folks are operating here. "

President Obama put on the table cuts to Social Security and Medicare in his quest for the "grand bargain" with Speaker Boehner which eventually fell apart.  He took $716 billion out of the Medicare program (not in direct benefits) to help fund the Affordable Care Act and was attacked by presidential candidate Mitt Romney, despite his running mate's inclusion of it in his own budget.  Now the President is proposing chained CPI in order to reduce Social Security benefits.   Barack Obama has run his last race, but not so other Democrats, who will have to suffer the consequences of a President whose policies and rhetoric seem designed to sink what is ostensibly his own Party.

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Calling Their Bluff

Wayne LaPierre has spoken, and we now have an answer from the NRA.  The director of the nation's largest crime advocacy organization, responding to the growing outcry for gun control legislation, urges Congress (transcript of speech, here) to enact legislation placing an armed police officer inside every public and private elementary, middle, and high school in the land.

It could have been worse.   There are people- no kidding- across the country who have suggested that one individual, or every teacher, in each school be armed.   That would be far worse, as unruly students happily disarm educators more focused on teaching than on classroom security.

The NRA's recommendation appears spurred by a few misconceptions.  LaPierre claimed "a child growing up in America witnesses 16,000 murders and 200.000 acts of violence by the time he or she reaches the ripe old age of 18."  It's a wonder the child has time to eat, sleep or do much of anything else.   He contends, further, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."  Not all non-shooters are good guys and not all guys with a gun are bad guys, something LaPierre apparently momentarily forgot.   And alas, these official "bad guys" are reluctant to walk around wearing a sign reading "Bad Guy- Take Cover."

The falsehoods evidently extend to Cleta Mitchell, whom The Washington Post described as "a Washington lawyer and NRA board member who said she participated in the discussions of the proposal."   She says liberals

always connect the wrong dots and blame the same people when their idiotic 'solutions' don't solve problems. No one bothers to ask why the Clinton assault weapons ban didn't prevent Columbine.  Same question now:  Why didn't the Connecticut gun laws prevent these killings? It is because gun laws don't stop bad guys with guns from killing people.

Ignore, for now, the irony of someone decrying "idiocy" trotting out the tired, debunked "guns don't kill people, people kill people" cliche.   Consider, instead, the notion that "the Clinton assault weapons ban didn't prevent Columbine."   The Associated Press compiled, and the Associated Press reported, a list of mass shootings worldwide in the past 45-50 years.   Of those having taken place in the United States, eight (8) occurred from August 1, 1966 to 91/13/94, when the assault weapons ban was enacted; none from that date until the Columbine atrocity on 4/20/99, nor any from then until 9/13/04, when the assault weapons ban expired; and seven (7) since that date.      Mitchell's slick rhetoric brings to mind Napoleon's great line of propaganda to his fellow animals in George Orwell's Animal Farm:

Do you know what would happen if we pigs failed in our duty? Jones 
would come back! Yes, Jones would come back! Surely, comrades," cried 
Squealer almost pleadingly, skipping from side to side and whisking his 
tail, "surely there is no one among you who wants to see Jones come back?"

Jones' reign, as you might recall, was no worse- and probably better- than that of Napoleon, just as the incidence of mass killings indicates the assault weapons ban probably was reasonably effective, notwithstanding Mitchell's implication.

There is an argument to be made for having a law enforcement officer in every school.    But with national hysteria over the deficit and $1.2 trillion in defense, medicare, medicaid, social security, and non-defense discretionary cuts due to begin on January 2, 2013, LaPierre envisions an armed officer in up to 135,000 public and private schools, and says little regarding how such an ambitious undertaking would be funded.   The left, therefore, could issue a counter-proposal to the NRA:  an armed police officer in every public school in the U.S.A., to be funded by a tax surcharge on millionaires.  Then we would find out how truly committed Wayne LaPierre and his organization are to children.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Sinking Along With Labor

You've heard or read some of the numbers.  Data compiled by the CBO demonstrate that over the period 1979 (the first for which such information is available) and 2007, the rich have gotten richer and have left most of the rest of us behind.   The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities noted that the CBO's numbers indicate

- after adjusting for inflation, the average after-tax incomes for the top 1 percent rose by 281% ($93,700 per household), by 25% ($11,200 per household) for the middle fifth of households and 16% ($2400 per household) for the bottom fifth;

- the share of the top 1 percent of the nation's total after-tax household income increased from 7.5% to 117.1% while the share of income going to the middle three-fifths (60%) of households declined from 51.1% to 43.5%, the share to the bottom fifth from 6.8% to 4.9%, and the share going to the bottom four-fifths from 58% to 48%;

- in 2007, the share of after-tax income going to the top 1 percent rose to its highest level- 17.1%- since 1979 while that going to the middle one-fifth of Americans declined to 14.1%, its lowest level during this period.

It wasn't always thus.   The chart below, from Jacob Hacker of Yale University and Paul Pierson of the University of California, Berkeley (posted by Mother Jones' Kevin Drum) depicts what incomes would have been had all income groups seen the same growth rate in 1979-2005 as they had in previous decades.

Reasons for the decline of the middle class are many, of course, including automation/computers, "free" trade, offshoring, outsourcing, privatization, federal tax policy, a stagnant minimum wage, and- yes- immigration.   These factors depress wage rates, which would have dropped even further had not productivity among American workers grown 69.1% from 1979 through 2011.

But let us now turn to arguably the most important, the decline of organized labor.    The graph below, from the Center for American Progress Action Fund (whose source CAP indicates here), demonstrates that in the period of 1967-2011 the union membership rate declined in tandem with the middle class share of the national income.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that the middle class in the State of Michigan, with an economy heavily dependent on union workers in the automotive industry, took an even greater hit from 1979 to 2010 than in the nation as a whole.  Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute found that the increase in income of the top 5 percent was larger in Michigan than nationally while the income of the typical household actually fell.   He noted "Michigan's middle class had incomes 13 percent above the nation in 1979 but 6 percent below in 2010."

Obviously, unionized employees earn higher wages and receive better benefits because they can bargain collectively and are likely to have at least some protection against arbitrary work rules and termination.   Further, Mishel explains

Collective bargaining affects the wages and benefits of those not directly covered by an agreement when employers meet standards set by collective agreements or at least improve their compensation and labor practices beyond what they would have provided in the absence of collective bargaining. A more general mechanism through which collective bargaining has broadly affected pay and practices is the institution of norms and established practices that become more generalized throughout the economy, thereby improving pay and working conditions for the entire workforce.

There are few better explanations for the strong causal relationship on the macro level between the rate of unionization and the strength of the middle class than that of Drum summarizing the 2010 Winner Take All Politics of Hacker and Pierson:

1. In the 60s, at the same time that labor unions begin to decline, liberal money and energy starts to flow strongly toward "postmaterialist" issues: civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, gay rights, etc.  These are the famous "interest groups" that take over the Democratic Party during the subsequent decades.

2. At about the same time, business interests take stock of the country's anti-corporate mood and begin to pool their resources to push for generic pro-business policies in a way they never had before. Conservative think tanks start to press a business-friendly agenda and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce start to fundraise on an unprecedented scale. This level of persistent, organizational energy is something new.

3. Unions, already in decline, are the particular focus of business animus. As they decline, they leave a vacuum. There's no other nationwide organization dedicated to persistently fighting for middle class economic issues and no other nationwide organization that's able to routinely mobilize working class voters to support or oppose specific federal policies. (In both items #2 and #3, note the focus on persistent organizational pressure. This is key.)

4.  With unions in decline and political campaigns becoming ever more expensive, Democrats eventually decide they need to become more business friendly as well. This is a vicious circle: the more unions decline, the more that Democrats turn to corporate funding to survive. There is, in the end, simply no one left who's fighting for middle class economic issues in a sustained and organized way. Conversely, there are lots of extremely well-funded and determined organizations fighting for the interests of corporations and the rich.

The Republican Party has aided and abetted the decline of the labor movement and is always ready to undermine the middle class.   The Democratic Party is better, but with a Democratic President recommending cuts to Social Security and its House leader falling in line, anyone who isn't wealthy better hold on to his or her wallet.

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Keeping Hope Alive

Yesterday was a very good day for President Obama and potentially for the nation as he announced (video and transcript of press conference, here)

That is why I have asked the Vice President to lead an effort that includes members of my cabinet and outside organizations to come up with a set of concrete proposals no later than January. Proposals that I then intend to push without delay

This is not some Washington Commission. This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for 6 months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside.

This is a team that has a very specific task. To pull together real reforms right now.
I asked Joe to lead this effort in part because he wrote the 1994 crime bill that helped law enforcement bring down the rate of crime in this country.

That plan, that bill also included the assault weapons band that was publically supported at the time by former presidents including Ronald Reagan

The good news is there is already a growing consensus for us to building from.

A majority of American support banning the sale of military style support weapons. A majority of American support banning the sale of high capacity ammunition clips. A majority of Americans support laws requiring background checks before all gun purchases so that criminals can’t take advantage of legal loop holes to buy a gun from somebody who won’t take the responsibility to do a background check at all

I urge the new Congress to hold votes on these measures next year. In a timely manner.
And considering Congress hasn’t confirmed a director of the bureau of alcohol, firearms and tobacco in six years, the agency that works most closely with state and local law enforcement to keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals. I suggest that they make this a priority early in the year.

Given the President's order to set up a task force, have it chaired by Vice President Biden, and demand a report- with "concrete proposals"- by the end of January, we can forgive him for maintaining "I believe the 2nd Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms."  Erroneously, the Supreme Court agrees with him, by a majority of one.  That would be the same majority that shut down vote counting in Florida in 2000, thereby determining that the loser of the national popular vote and the of the popular vote in Florida should be anointed President.   And it was the same majority which decided that the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution does not permit the federal government to mandate the purchase of health insurance.  Five Justices can be wrong- disastrously wrong.

Following the President's statement, ABC's Jake Tapper unsettled Obama by asking

It seems to a lot of observers that you made the political decision in 2008 [...] to not talk about gun violence,   You had your position on renewing the ban on semi-automatic rifles that then-Sen. Biden put in place, but you didn’t do much about it. This is not the first incident of horrific gun violence of your four years [...] where have you been?

Why, the President was just too busy with other things, Obama replied, contending

Here’s where I’ve been, Jake – I’ve been President of the United States dealing with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an auto industry on the verge of collapse, two wars — I don’t think I’ve been on vacation. And so I think all of us have to do some reflection how we prioritize what we do here in Washington, and as I said on Sunday, this should be a wakeup call for all of us.  If we aren’t getting right the need to keep our children safe, then nothing else matters.

Even before the atrocity at Sandy Hook Elementary School, plenty of children in this country were not "safe," whether because of attack from a stranger or, more often, someone they know.   The President, it seems, has only now awakened to the problem of criminal violence in the nation.

And that is, or should be, a little hard to understand from a President whose defense of his inaction is that there have been other problems (a severe recession, auto industry disintegration, and wars) to which his attention has been drawn.   It is not so long ago- four years, roughly- since GOP presidential nominee John McCain asked that a presidential debate be suspended, citing the financial crisis on Wall Street.  And when Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama responded by noting "

I believe that we should continue to have the debate.   It is my belief that this is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from the person who, in approximately 40 days, will be responsible for dealing with this mess.  It is going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once.

Then, it was to be "part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once."   Now, he has just been too darned busy saving the country while murder and assault remain a daily threat to millions of Americans in their communities.

The irony, of course, in the President's patronizing response is that it came on a day in which he announced a promising new- and vital- initiative.   The plan should be welcomed additionally because the group is to focus on one topic (firearms) and therefore is more likely to produce concrete proposals, as the President demands.   Consideration of the more abstract issues of mental illness or the coarsening of the culture can take place on a separate front.  For now, for this moment, President Obama does seem to have a strategy. It is a start, and is the right place to start.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Tough Guy Act, Again

Where have we heard this sort of thing before?   Ezra Klein writes

A few weeks ago, the Obama administration was firm that they wouldn’t budge on tax rates for income above $250,000 and that they wouldn’t budge on the debt ceiling. They’ve since budged on both. Republicans increasingly think the White House will concede more now, and that if they don’t concede more now they’ll definitely give Republicans a better deal if threatened with debt default. Whether or not that’s true, it pulls Republicans — and Boehner — to the right, as it makes it harder for Boehner to argue for a compromise now.

In his first White House speech after Election Day, President Obama had declared

But as I’ve said before, we can’t just cut our way to prosperity.  If we’re serious about reducing the deficit, we have to combine spending cuts with revenue -- and that means asking the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more in taxes.  (Applause.)...  I am not going to ask students and seniors and middle-class families to pay down the entire deficit while people like me, making over $250,000, aren’t asked to pay a dime more in taxes.  I'm not going to do that.  (Applause.)

Apparently, the President wasn't so firm on that $250,000 thing (and that is on taxable, not gross, income and in 2009 dollars).  When Obama met with corporate executives a couple of weeks ago and addressed the threat of debt default, he boasted, testosterone ablaze, "I will not play that game."  Evidently, he wasn't quite so firm on that, either.

We don't have to ancient history to find President Obama playing his macho man act before backing down.    At his first press conference in November, President Bluff asserted

If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham want to go after somebody, they should go after me, I’m happy to have that discussion with them. But for them to go after the U.N. Ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi, and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation is outrageous.

It is outrageous, the President declared, as he protected his gal, challenging his critics to "go after me" instead of her.   How chivalrous.  And how disingenuous.  Dan Rather laid it out (program transcript, here) when he told Rachel Maddow (video, below, from Down With Tyranny!) last Thursday

Well, the most important thing that just happened is that President Obama has once again been backed down and away. Let`s make no mistake.

This is chalk one up for the Republicans. They can hopefully in private smile, even smirk, wink at one another. They have the professional scalp of Susan Rice now hanging on their door. They backed President Obama down and away.

President Obama for whatever reasons -- and I thought Andrea Mitchell laid out, a lot of the potential reasons for it -- chose not to fight it to the end. There will be any number of people, and not all of them Democrats, who say this tells us something about President Obama.  He was not for a friend, a close friend, a long-time supporter, someone who was eminently qualified, Rhodes Scholar, the whole -- public servant. Somebody who made a lot of money on the outside but has dedicated herself to public service.

He indicated in his press conference after the election, he made a tough talk, he didn`t back it up.

The tentative tentative (no typo) deal Klein reported may be only a trial balloon and not form the basis of a deal on the fiscal slope.   More certain, however, is Rather's observation that Barack Obama's decision accepting Rice's withdrawal from consideration suggested "he's not a guy who's going to put up much of a fight, even when he feels strongly about it.  Even when he has a strong emotional and loyalty quotient, won't fight for it."   Republicans believe, Rather observes, "President Obama can be rolled for his wallet and his watch."

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Huckabee, Eyes Diverted

Mike Huckabee is not giving up.   After arguing the Newton, Ct. shooting spree ensued because "we've systematically removed God from our schools," Huckabee went back on Fox News Saturday and clarified

It's far more than just taking prayer or Bible reading out of the schools. It's that fact that people sue a city so we're not confronted with a manger scene or a Christmas carol, and lawsuits are filed to remove a cross that's a memorial to fallen soldiers. Churches and Christian-owned businesses are told to surrender their values under the edict of government orders to provide tax funded abortion pills. We carefully and intentionally stop saying things are 'sinful' and we call them 'disorders.' Sometimes we even say they are normal. And, to get to where we have to abandon bedrock moral truths, then we are asked, well 'where was God?' And I respond that, as I see it, we've escorted Him right out of our culture and we've marched Him off the public square and then we express our  surprise that a culture without Him actually reflects what it has become...

Riddle me this:  If we have "escorted Him right out of our culture," what has He been replaced with?

Of course, as Think Progress points out, there is no "government funded abortion pills," inasmuch as the Affordable Care Act does not provide abortifacients.  Further, the mandate in the ACA that health insurance companies provide birth control services without a co-pay reduces unwanted pregnancy and abortion, the latter outcome which, presumably, Mr. Huckabee would support.

But Huckabee's larger point is about the larger culture: God has been abandoned, aided and abetted by government.    So we'll play that game and concede, for argument's sake, that violence has wracked our nation because "bedrock moral truths" have been abandoned.   Earlier this year, The New York Times reported

In September 2005, a senior Wal-Mart lawyer received an alarming e-mail from a former executive at the company’s largest foreign subsidiary, Wal-Mart de Mexico. In the e-mail and follow-up conversations, the former executive described how Wal-Mart de Mexico had orchestrated a campaign of bribery to win market dominance. In its rush to build stores, he said, the company had paid bribes to obtain permits in virtually every corner of the country.

The former executive gave names, dates and bribe amounts. He knew so much, he explained, because for years he had been the lawyer in charge of obtaining construction permits for Wal-Mart de Mexico.

Wal-Mart dispatched investigators to Mexico City, and within days they unearthed evidence of widespread bribery. They found a paper trail of hundreds of suspect payments totaling more than $24 million. They also found documents showing that Wal-Mart de Mexico’s top executives not only knew about the payments, but had taken steps to conceal them from Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. In a confidential report to his superiors, Wal-Mart’s lead investigator, a former F.B.I. special agent, summed up their initial findings this way: “There is reasonable suspicion to believe that Mexican and USA laws have been violated.”

The lead investigator recommended that Wal-Mart expand the investigation.

Instead, an examination by The New York Times found, Wal-Mart’s leaders shut it down.

Neither American nor Mexican law enforcement officials were notified. None of Wal-Mart de Mexico’s leaders were disciplined. Indeed, its chief executive, Eduardo Castro-Wright, identified by the former executive as the driving force behind years of bribery, was promoted to vice chairman of Wal-Mart in 2008. Until this article, the allegations and Wal-Mart’s investigation had never been publicly disclosed.

But The Times’s examination uncovered a prolonged struggle at the highest levels of Wal-Mart, a struggle that pitted the company’s much publicized commitment to the highest moral and ethical standards against its relentless pursuit of growth.

Under fire from labor critics, worried about press leaks and facing a sagging stock price, Wal-Mart’s leaders recognized that the allegations could have devastating consequences, documents and interviews show. 

Hint of bribery and obstruction of justice insufficient?   Wal-Mart has long been known for varied abuses, especially of employees.  Most recently

In the midst of worker strikes in several cities and the looming threat of a mass employee walkout on Black Friday (one of the busiest shopping days of the year), the world's largest retailer has been hit with a class action lawsuit affecting temporary workers in the Chicago area.

The filing accuses Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and two temporary staffing agencies in the region - Labor Ready Midwest Inc. and QPS Employment Group, Inc. -  of breaking minimum wage and overtime laws for temp workers by making them show up early and work through lunch breaks. The lawsuit also alleges that Walmart failed to pay contracted workers the requisite four hours minimum in wages.

But at least they have jobs (such as they are), some conservatives will protest.  Late in the recent presidential campaign, Mitt Romney was outraged- outraged! that Jeep "sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build jeeps in China.  That was grossly misleading, as well as a subtle swipe at "Italians."  But in 2007 the Economic Policy Institute found

The world’s biggest retailer, U.S.-based Wal-Mart was responsible for $27 billion in U.S. imports from China in 2006 and 11% of the growth of the total U.S. trade deficit with China between 2001 and 2006. Wal-Mart’s trade deficit with China alone eliminated nearly 200,000 U.S. jobs in this period.

The manufacturing sector and its workers were hardest hit by the growth of Wal-Mart’s imports. Wal-Mart’s increased trade deficit with China eliminated 133,000 manufacturing jobs, 68% of those jobs lost from Wal-Mart’s imports. Jobs in the manufacturing sector pay higher wages and provide better benefits than most other industries, especially for workers with less than a college education.

China has achieved its rapidly growing trade surpluses by purchasing more than $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury bills and other government securities over the past few years in order to artificially and illegally reduce the value of its currency and thereby lower the cost of its exports to the United States and other countries. It has also repressed the labor rights of its workers and suppressed their wages, making its products artificially cheap and further subsidizing its exports. Wal-Mart has aided China’s abuse of labor rights and its violations of internally recognized norms of fair trade behavior by providing a vast and growing conduit for the distribution of artificially cheap and subsidized Chinese exports to the United States.

But this isn't a post about Wal-Mart, owned by a family with the combined wealth of fully 41.5% of the American people.   It already has been exposed as an emperor with no clothes. Instead, consider that once upon a time, presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was attacked by the corporate front Club for Growth and responded by labeling it the "Club for Greed."  That Mike Huckabee was not only more humane than the current one, but also sounded a lot less foolish.   That Mike Huckabee remembered

Do not lay up for yourselves measures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal... No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and money.

If Mike Huckabee wants to target sin in a "culture without Him," he ought to address a corporate culture whose love of mammon is its top value, and which has expelled God with no help from government.

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Shutting Down The Pump

Digby seems to have figured out something, a truth that dare not be spoken.  She began a post Saturday with a medical story from mid 19th century Great Britain.  In 2003, Kathleen Tuthill wrote

British doctor John Snow couldn’t convince other doctors and scientists that cholera, a deadly disease, was spread when people drank contaminated water until a mother washed her baby’s diaper in a town well in 1854 and touched off an epidemic that killed 616 people.
Dr. Snow believed sewage dumped into the river or into cesspools near town wells could contaminate the water supply, leading to a rapid spread of disease.

In August of 1854 Soho, a suburb of London, was hit hard by a terrible outbreak of cholera. Dr. Snows himself lived near Soho, and immediately went to work to prove his theory that contaminated water was the cause of the outbreak.

“Within 250 yards of the spot where Cambridge Street joins Broad Street there were upwards of 500 fatal attacks of cholera in 10 days,” Dr. Snow wrote “As soon as I became acquainted with the situation and extent of this irruption (sic) of cholera, I suspected some contamination of the water of the much-frequented street-pump in Broad Street.”

Dr. Snow worked around the clock to track down information from hospital and public records on when the outbreak began and whether the victims drank water from the Broad Street pump. Snow suspected that those who lived or worked near the pump were the most likely to use the pump and thus, contract cholera. His pioneering medical research paid off. By using a geographical grid to chart deaths from the outbreak and investigating each case to determine access to the pump water, Snow developed what he considered positive proof the pump was the source of the epidemic... Snow was able to prove that the cholera was not a problem in Soho except among people who were in the habit of drinking water from the Broad Street pump. He also studied samples of water from the pump and found white flecks floating in it, which he believed were the source of contamination.

On 7 September 1854, Snow took his research to the town officials and convinced them to take the handle off the pump, making it impossible to draw water. The officials were reluctant to believe him, but took the handle off as a trial only to find the outbreak of cholera almost immediately trickled to a stop. Little by little, people who had left their homes and businesses in the Broad Street area out of fear of getting cholera began to return.

Dr. Snow did not filter the water, nor cleanse it in any way.  It was still contaminated- but people stopped dying.   Human nature was not altered but behavior was transformed because the pump was shut down.  

Just as Dr. Snow met with resistance when he advocated a practical step to deal with an emergency, thee is considerable reluctance by politicians now to take  plainly necessary action. On Sunday's Up With Chris Hayes, The Nation contributor and MSNBC host began yet another extraordinary segment (video below) by observing

So there can be political pressure responding to this tragedy.  One thing I can see playing out and I can already see it a little bit- if you look at the way the Virginia legislature responded to Virginia Tech- Virginia is a state where you can't do anything about guns because of the politics there, there was this focus on mental health.

Of course there was, because focusing on mental health is an effective way of avoiding the big issue (and one more easily modified by public policy), gun control.  Stressing mental health adroitly switches the conversation to one requiring public officials to regulate firearm sale, possession, and use to one concentrating on the individual.  It is one not likely to offend an organized interested group, such as the NRA or the Gun Owners of America.   As a more comforting path, it is particularly tempting, a concept explained by one of Albert Camus' characters when he remarked

Do you know that the firing squad stands only a yard and a half from the condemned man? Do you know that if the victim took two steps forward his chest would touch the rifles? Do you know that, at this short range, the soldiers concentrate their fire on the region of the heart and their bullets make a hole into which you could thrust your fist? No, you didn't know all that; those are things that are never spoke of.  For the plague-stricken their peace of mind is more important than a human life.  Decent folks must be allowed to sleep easy o'nights, mustn't they?  Really it would be in shockingly bad taste to linger on such details.

Though Hayes in the segment added "focusing on mental health is great," he probably, and should have, meant "seriously addressing" mental health.  Keeping firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill is essential but, as Hayes went on to explain, a focus on mental health can lead to profiling people in the name of protection against terrorism.  Further, the distinction between the mentally ill and the mentally healthy can be relatively small and open to interpretation, and the ability to correct (or even alleviate) emotional disturbance is unhappily limited.   Psychiatrists, moreover, often disagree with each other and laypeople often describe as "crazy" an individual whose ideas they find absurd or outrageous.

So going down that road of obsession over mental health can lead us to a dead end while precious time is wasted.   Digby recounts circumstances in Australia, which suffered several massacres from 1984 to 1986, which bear similarity to our own.  In Port Arthur in 1986, "thirty five people were killed and 21 wounded when a man with a history of violent and erratic behaviour beginning in early childhood opened fire on shop owners and tourists with two military style semi-automatic rifles."   In response, serious gun control measures were enacted. Predictably

This did not solve the problem of mental illness or end the primitive capacity of human beings to commit murder and mayhem. Those are huge problems that their society, like all societies, is still grappling with every day. But it did end the epidemic of mass shootings. They have not had even one since then. 

The lesson is this: End the epidemic and then we can --- and must --- talk about root causes and mental health facilities and our violent culture. But first things first --- shut down the damned pump.

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