Monday, January 31, 2005

Responding to a commenter

In response to one of my recent articles on Social Security, reader Andrew writes;

If I may, I'd like to dispute your characterization of the motivations of "young voters." I've been getting my yearly statement from the Social Security Administration for a couple of years now, and they've been saying quite clearly that the system is going to run out of money before I retire. That's my motivation, and when the President addressed it, I said "About time."

I'm 28 and remember market crashes very well. We just had one, as you recall, but the economy didn't collapse as a result of it. Market crashes are only a worry of those who don't invest properly.

But, to your argument that Social Security is stable and solvent: please argue the point. I am given to understand that the number of workers to retirees is shrinking.

Okay, here goes. First, when you say that the Social Security system will run out of money before you retire, it all depends on what you mean by "run out of money." According to the Congressional Budget Office, a non-partisan, non-policy making arm of the Congress, Social Security outlays will exceed revenues- meaning more money going out than coming in- in 2019, which is decidedly within sight.

However, that alone doesn't mean the system will imediately fall apart. For many years, revenues exceeded outlays- more money in than out. That surplus was placed in the Social Security Trust Fund. When the outlays exceed the revenues, the difference comes out of the trust, which the CBO projects will only be depleted in 2052. Once the trust fund reaches depletion, all the money is due to come from the revenues collected. So while the system will run at a deficit in the foreseeable future, it will not go "bankrupt" any time soon. This is what I mean I say that Social Security is "solvent and stable."

As to the President's privatization scheme, the CBO has analyzed that as well. As I understand their analysis (and I am no economist) it doesn't appear to offer any susbtantial benefit. First, personal accounts would have no effect on the trust fund- according to CBO, it would still reach depletion in 2052 under the President's plan. Moreover, a retiree's benefits would be reduced at an amount equal to the annuity paid from the personal account. In other words, the retiree gets the same amount of money.

Which wouldn't be that bad if the retiree will be able to get more return than Social Security would be able to provide- put enough into the investment account, and you can opt out of Social Security altogether. Except you can't do that. Each taxpayer may invest no more than $1,000 per year, which is considerably less than the amount paid in Social Security taxes. In other words, it could supplement Social Security, but not replace it.

So if privatizing Social Security won't save it, why do it? Politics- the point of my posts from the last couple days. Individual accounts would be a boon to the banking and financial sectors- traditionally Republican contributors, and would undermine the strong association that Democrats have with Social Security. This White House is explicitly political, and so is this proposal.

This, of course, is no excuse to do nothing. The long-term viability of Social Security does need to be addressed, and sooner rather than later. The retirement age needs to be raised- people are living and working longer, and the law needs to reflect this. This could be phased in over a number of years- the retirement age stays 65 for people whose retirement is imminent- 55 and up, perhaps. For people between 50 and 54, raise it to 66- this will give those people enough time to adjust. Keep inching it upward until you get to people in their 20s, who have probably not even begun retirement planning and who will likely live into their 80s (if we do in fact keep living longer). Raising the retirement age both keeps people paying revenue into the system and defers benefit distribution. It's a simple solution, but there is enough time to try simple things before we try something radical.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

This Sounds Familiar...

I wrote yesterday (stealing- erm, quoting liberally from Slate) that the real reason for Social Security reform was to undermine FDR's legacy, making it possible to undo much of the regulatory structure that grew up in his wake. Today's Post suggests that I may have underestimated what their goals are.

When President Bush stands before Congress on Wednesday night to deliver his State of the Union address, it is a safe bet that he will not announce that one of his goals is the long-term enfeeblement of the Democratic Party.

But a recurring theme of many items on Bush's second-term domestic agenda is that if enacted, they would weaken political and financial pillars that have propped up Democrats for years, political strategists from both parties say.

There is a reason why the strongest support for Social Security privatization comes from young people- they have no memory of market failure, and their political identities are not yet fully formed. If a young person has any awareness of Social Security at all, they tend to see it as an ill advised giveaway to the old and infirm (no Republican has yet explained how someone receiving Social Security Disability is supposed to open personal accounts). The long term goal is to undo Social Security's strong association with Democrats, and essentially create a new generation of voters who associate Republicans as the party that represents their interests.

The Post continues, If the Bush agenda is enacted, "there will be a continued growth in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves Republican, both in terms of self-identified party ID and in terms of their [economic] interests," said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and an operative who speaks regularly with White House senior adviser Karl Rove. In other words, the real goal of Bush's domestic agenda is a continuing Republican majority for the foreseeable future.

This worries me, because the opposition party has proven itself ineffectual at delivering its message. Progressive policies are the right policies- we have done a piss poor job at framing the issues, however. Case in point- John Kerry kicked Dubya's ass in all three debates, but what were we talking about? Swift Boats and whether Kerry was out of line for acknowledging in public that Mary Cheney, a lesbian, is in fact a lesbian.

The other side pursues policies that are reckless and irresponsible- risking the retirement funds of an entire nation to the vicissitudes of the market sounds reckless to me- but because of the way they present the issue, we have to take the defensive. Remember, Social Security as it exists has a 70 year history of success. Before FDR, a majority of the country lived in poverty. Now, most Americans are safely in the middle class- that change is solely the result of activist and aggressive government intervention; but because they have framed the issue, whenever I suggest that Social Security is solvent and stable, people look at me like I have three heads.

If Dubya gets his way, it will be because they control the language.

From the Sunday Papers

It's Election Day in Iraq and by all accounts turnout was high, and the violence was lower than I thought it would be. Dubya will no doubt claim a great victory. Don't buy it- this is only the first step in a long, slow transition from dictatorship to occupation to self-government. Also, the system chosen for the first Iraqi parliament, proprtional representation, will likely continue to inflame the insurgency. Let me explain- in proportional representation, voters cast ballots for the party of their choice. Party A gets 40%, Party B gets 30%, Party C gets 20%, and Party D gets 10%- therefore, Party A gets 40% of the seats in the parliament, B gets 30%, etc etc.

In Iraq, the majority of the electorate is Shiite. Under Saddam, Shiites were repressed, sometimes brutally. Sunnis are numerically in the minority, but they were the rank and file of Saddam's Baath Party. Times have changed. The Shiites will likely retain a number of seats proportional to their numbers, although not necessarily in one party. The flipside, of course, is that the Sunni will also have power proprtional to their numbers. The people formerly in power soon to be on the outs. Is it any wonder why the Sunnis have been the most vicious of the insurgents?

Now, here's where it gets really tricky. On the whole, Sunnis are most likely to be friendly to the West. Shiite Muslims, on the other hand, adhere to Islamic law more stricly and are more likely to pursue anti-Western policies. What happens if the new Iraqi government is dominated by explicitly anti-Western Shiites? If this country is to regain a scintilla of the credibility we have lost over Iraq, we can't just shout "do over!" This ain't kickball, folks.

If I could think this through while watching Meet The Press over a couple cups of coffee in bed, surely the Departments of State and Defense, the CIA, the NSC, and the White House could have figured this out over the last three years.

The op-ed
page of the Times sharply criticizes the corporate welfare hidden in the American Jobs Creation Act. It was a known accounting trick for years- attribute the profits to an overseas subsidiary. The Feds can't tax it here, and the host country taxes it at their prevailing tax-haven rates. The problem is that eventually the money has to come back to the States, where it would be taxed at the corporate rate of 35%. The Act reduces that rate for repatriated money to five and a quarter percent!

But it wasn't enough for many companies that have piled up excess cash abroad. The Homeland Investment Coalition, a roster of dozens of America's largest corporations, lobbied vigorously - and successfully - for a tax holiday before deigning to repatriate their overseas profits.

Congress's ostensible purpose for allowing the holiday is to unleash a flood of money for job creation, hence the name of the law that includes the holiday - the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004. But few of the approved uses for the repatriated funds - such as debt redemption, advertising and a catchall category of "financial stabilization" - will lead directly, if at all, to more jobs. One approved use - the ability to spend the money to buy other companies - would be more likely to create layoffs, as corporate acquisitions usually do.

Companies can also use the money to help pay legal liabilities, which could prove to be a big boon for companies like the drug maker Merck, which is sitting on some $15 billion in untaxed foreign profits and faces an estimated $18 billion in potential claims arising from the Vioxx debacle. Multinationals cannot use the repatriated profits to pay dividends to shareholders, buy back their own stock or pay executives. But because companies have a lot of flexibility in financing their activities, they will generally be able to use the money as they see fit while still meeting the letter of the law.

The Times correctly concludes that giveaways like this encourage tax avoidance. I can't blame the companies- they are taking advantage of the system in a lawful way to the benefit of their shareholders. Rather, I blame the Congress, who exempted overseas profits in the first place.

That Highbrow Hussy Maureen Dowd has found yet another way to get me angry. She writes this morning about a book recently written by a former Gitmo interpreter. It seems that our proud nation has sunk to appalling lows, making me once again contemplate a move to Canada. It's too bad that this book wasn't out last years for all those people who voted for Bush because of his "moral convictions." Like Pat Benatar once sang, "stop using sex as a weapon."
A female military interrogator who wanted to turn up the heat on a 21-year-old Saudi detainee who allegedly had taken flying lessons in Arizona before 9/11 removed her uniform top to expose a snug T-shirt. She began belittling the prisoner - who was praying with his eyes closed - as she touched her breasts, rubbed them against the Saudi's back and commented on his apparent erection.

After the prisoner spat in her face, she left the room to ask a Muslim linguist how she could break the prisoner's reliance on God. The linguist suggested she tell the prisoner that she was menstruating, touch him, and then shut off the water in his cell so he couldn't wash.

"The concept was to make the detainee feel that after talking to her he was unclean and was unable to go before his God in prayer and gain strength," Mr. Saar recounted, adding: "She then started to place her hands in her pants as she walked behind the detainee. As she circled around him he could see that she was taking her hand out of her pants. When it became visible the detainee saw what appeared to be red blood on her hand. She said, 'Who sent you to Arizona?' He then glared at her with a piercing look of hatred. She then wiped the red ink on his face. He shouted at the top of his lungs, spat at her and lunged forward," breaking out of an ankle shackle.

"He began to cry like a baby," the author wrote, adding that the interrogator's parting shot was: "Have a fun night in your cell without any water to clean yourself."
No doubt these incidents will be minimized. It was just a few bad apples, someone will say. These are different times, someone else will say. This is a different war, another person will say. Let's turn the tables for a second. What would the Bushies say if an insurgent did this to an American soldier? You can bet your bottom dollar that there would be hell to pay, as well as an angry Bill O'Reilly and a furious piece on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. What if one of our soldiers were captured and sexually denigrated? What would the reaction be in Peoria? Conflict is no excuse for stripping a person of his essential human dignity. The ends do not ever justify the means. I am so angry.

Technorati tags

Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Real Reason For Social Security "Reform"

Republicans, if nothing else, are consistent. When the economy is down, they can be sure to argue that the only way to build it back up is to cut taxes and regulation. When the economy is up, they argue that the way to keep it going is to cut taxes and regulation. If Bill Frist's wife is constipated, I'm fairly certain that he would prescribe tax cuts and regulation (and perhaps some fiber).

Of course, history does suggest otherwise. There was thing called The Great Depression. You may remember reading about it, or perhaps you watched The Waltons. Anyway, times were tough. People were starving. Amber waves of grain turned to vast bowls of dust. Unemployment was the norm. Life, generally, sucked. America got this way under the "leadership" (note intentional use of irony quotes) of Herbert Hoover, a laissez faire Republican champion of low taxes and free markets.

Enter Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A scion of wealth who became a man of the people, he saved American capitalism from itself with policies of taxation and regulation. FDR's economics (actually John Maynard Keynes' economics) adopted activist polices- putting people to work on public projects to increase the demand for goods and services- that flew in the face of Republican economic thought- cutting taxes to increase the supply of money in the economy. Republicans, who sometimes called FDR a traitor to his class, were incensed.

FDR deftly charted a course between extremists on the left- who were calling for government control of all private property, AKA communism- and extremists on the right- who were calling for crackdowns on personal liberties the unemployed in line, AKA fascism. By giving the unemployed immediate relief, while keeping American business in business, even if on a shorter leash, FDR became beloved like few other Presidents before him.

And that, argues Daniel Gross in Slate, is why Dubya is making a full court press to "reform" (note intentional use of irony quotes) Social Security.

Dead going on 60 years, FDR still makes self-styled champions of American-style capitalism fulminate, much the same way their counterparts in the 1930s raged against "That Man." Why? The New Deal era reminds national greatness Republicans... of their party's futility in a time of true national greatness. I also suspect that many Republicans are simply unable to forgive Roosevelt for what may have been his greatest and longest-lasting achievement: saving American capitalism through regulation. And since they can't tear down the Triborough Bridge or the Hoover Dam, these guys act out by going after Social Security.

The fight over Social Security, therefore, is a proxy war- it is a fight over FDR's legacy. No Republican since Lincoln is as holy in public memory as FDR. Changing Social Security is a way to remove the halo from over his head- making him no longer the People's Champion who saved America from the excesses of American business, but rather the meddlesome class traitor who left us all the alphabet soup agencies. Again, Daniel Gross-

It's difficult to discern the short-term political gain for Republicans to try to dismantle Social Security now. So the payoff must be more psychological or intellectual. Now that they indisputably control all three branches of government, Republicans finally have the opportunity to slay some of the liberal demons that have been bedeviling them for so long.

Those liberal demons are taxation and regulation. What amazes me about Republican trust in business is their utter distrust of individuals to regulate their own behavior. The right wing response to crime, sexuality and religion issues is almost always in favor of more regulation. Smoke pot? You're not fit to walk among us. Are you gay? Then you shouldn't enjoy the privileges of family life. You a Jew? Buddhist? Atheist? I suppose you can believe what you want to, but never forget that this is a Christian nation, boy, and if we post the Ten Commandments on our courthouse walls, you ought to just shut up. These are the same people who believe that business will always regulate itself for the betterment of humanity. Recent history suggests otherwise.

I fear that Social Security will only be the first step, and that much of the public regulatory system will be dismantled in some way, because while I trust most people will do the right thing, I absolutely do not trust corporate America to do anything.

Technorati tags-

Friday, January 28, 2005

Bird Brains

Sorry about the headline- I know it's obvious, but sometimes the obvious joke is just the one that works.

Now that Oklahoma's citizenry has forced the state to ban cockfighting, a diehard state senator has the gall to try to revive the lurid pastime by equipping roosters with - picture this - tiny boxing gloves and chest protectors.

It's hard for me to fathom how we haven't all just reverted back to drooling lemurs.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Payola, Shmayola

The big story of the day is clearly the emerging evidence that the administration is paying off commentators for favorable press. This is an issue that gets politicians and journalists fired up- some people are taking money on the down low! GASP! Hands will be wrung and ink will be spilled as the cognoscenti try to determine what should be done about this.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of people will shrug and wonder what the fuss is about.

Democrats would be well counseled not to push this too much- the wrong is too petty, the injury too remote to get all worked up about. Besides- people in glass houses should not throw stones. It was known as early as October, 2003 that Howard Dean had been paying bloggers to build up hype, and the Clinton Administration did much the same thing.
Also Wednesday, Democratic members of the House Government Reform Committee released a report on federal spending on public relations, reporting that Bush agencies spent more than $88 million on contracts with outside firms in 2004. That outpaces the $64 million spent on public relations firms in 2003, which was roughly equivalent to the amount Clinton administration agencies spent on such firms in 1999.
Is it wrong? Yeah- but not "invade a country for no good reason" wrong. The Democrats really need to stay on the ball and hit the President where he is vulnerable- the war, the Social Security fraud, and the ridiculous deficit. Hit those issues hard for the 2006 midterms (Jeebus Christ- am I already blogging next year's elections?), because voters will have forgotten Armstrong Williams by then. But they will remember that their neighbor's son lost a leg in Iraq; they will remember that the country is deeper and deeper in debt.

Technorati Tag

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Speaking of rubberstamping Alberto Gonzales...

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 to approve Gonzales' nomination. Democrats decried his evasion and arrogance. Republicans played up his self-made, humble beginnings.

Yeah, whatever, the guy should be in prison. When asked how to justify torture, he came up with the answer that his boss wanted- nevermind that the rest of the world disagrees with his analysis. Since torture is an international crime, the rest of the world gets a vote.

It is a crime against humanity, and as we learned from Nuremburg everyone from the brains of the operation all the way to the person wiring up some poor Iraqi slob's dick, they're all guilty. If Lynndie England is going away for years, so should Alberto Gonzales.

And Dubya, Dick, Condi, Tom Ridge.

And maybe reality show contestants.

If you took "nay" and 71 votes- YOU LOST!

You may recall that I predicted Condi's confirmation would be overwhelming. What would you say to 85 yeas against only 13 nays. Next up for rubberstamping is Alberto Gonzales.

If only the opposition could muster up the testicles to oppose something. It took us nine hours of "debate" to keep the worst war criminal since Kissinger down to a 72 vote cushion.

I'm moving to someplace where people give a shit. Like Iceland.


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Deficit Update

Earlier I wrote about the CBO's deficit projection of $368 billion. Well, the White House says that the deficit is going to be a little closer to $427 billion.

That's 427 billion. With a "b." As in 427,000 millions.

I would say that it's your tax dollars at work, but it's actually our kids' tax dollars at work.

Noteworthy Events

First, you may notice the Google ads down the sidebar. Do not think that I'm going commercial on ya- really it's more of an experiment. In any event, Google ads are relatively unobtrusive and relevant to the content of the site itself. Also, it helps your Google rating, which is really the key for me. Don't be alarmed- I'm still the same ol' cranky SOB I always was!

Now- on to the news of the day! Senate Dems are holding a nine hour bitch session on Condi's confirmation to the State Department. Not that it will come to anything- she will be confirmed rather handily. I think it's poor strategy on our part- it looks petty and vindictive to harangue her, and then rubber stamp the vote. We cannot continue this way- either she is qualified, or she is not qulaified. I think she's a liar, and if I were in the Senate, I would vote no. Hell, if my seat were absolutely safe (like, say... John Kerry), I might filibuster her nomination.

The Congressional Budget Office announced they project the federal deficit this year to be $368 billion. Ummmm, not counting the additional $80 billion the administration is requesting for Iraq. Also not counting whatever the hell happens to Social Security.

To get an idea of just how screwed we are, the CBO projects that the government debt will increase $855 billion between 2006 and 2015. That projection assumes the following:
  • No Iraq spending (God only knows how much this will cost us)
  • The Bush tax plan expires in 2010 (if it is renewed, a projected $71B surplus becomes a $189B deficit)
  • Social Security stays as is (W's planned dismantling of Social Security could add $1 to $2 trillion dollars to the figures- that's right, trillion).

All in all, this President inherited a surplus when he came to office, and he will leave office (not soon enough, I'm sorry to say) with a deficit that is seriously out of control. Dubya offered himself in 2000 as an alternative to the Washington insider, just a simple (Harvard educated, scion of wealth, well connected, friendly to Saudi Arabia) bidnessman. Considering that every bidness he ever started went belly up, it looks like he's succeeded.

Social conservatives have written Karl Rove a nasty letter suggesting that they will fight the President on Social Security unless he pushes more forcefully for stripping gays and lesbians of their civil rights. From the letter:

We couldn't help but notice the contrast between how the president is approaching the difficult issue of Social Security privatization where the public is deeply divided and the marriage issue where public opinion is overwhelmingly on his side. Is he prepared to spend significant political capital on privatization but reluctant to devote the same energy to preserving traditional marriage? If so it would create outrage with countless voters who stood with him just a few weeks ago, including an unprecedented number of African-Americans, Latinos and Catholics who broke with tradition and supported the president solely because of this issue.

This just shows how different it is on the other side of the fence. It is easy to eb the party in opposition, but governing is hard. You have lots of constitutents to appease, each of whom subjugated their own particular interests in the name of party unity. Now that they're in power, it's payday, and everybody wants to cash their checks.

The Club for Growth and the Family Research Council always did make for strange bedfellows. They got into bed with each oterh while wearing beergoggles- now its the morning after.


File Under "Coincidence? I Think Not."

The Zen-like random news aggregator that is Google News kicked out three stories this morning that all pretty much summarize the state of things in this country, as well as in Mesopotamia, the 51st State.
  • Dubya will ask Congress for an additional $80 billion in war money. Shoulda seen this coming- call it the Quagmire Tax.
  • Iraqi police captured a major Zarqawi lieutenant, who then confessed to over 30 car bombings. I suspect that extreme methods of compulsion may have been used to obtain this confession- he would probably have admitted the Lindbergh kidnapping to free his nuts from the vise.
  • And holding all this together, oil prices to stay below $49 per barrel.
Isn't that what it's all about? Publicize an arrest and a confession I wouldn't believe if I were in the room watching him confess. Ask for shitloads more money. Gas up your Hummer. God bless America.

On another note, the poorly written headline award goes to..... Reuters!
Whoa! Those Palestinians take their building code seriously! Where it says that studs shall be placed at least 16 inches apart, they mean it!

Monday, January 24, 2005

Enough moping- back to work.

Okay, my feelings of fear and loathing have subsided, and I have decided that there is nothing to be gained by pretending that I am somehow doing anyone service by waiting for the blue state expulsion. It'll never come, anyway (dammit). How can we advance the cause of (actual) liberty while out of power in all three branches of government?

Take a lesson from the South- assert states rights.

Let's be honest- states rights were nothing more than a desperate attempt by the minority to stave off the will of the majority. It was about power, and nothing more. Never mind that the cause of states rights was used in the 50s and 60s to slow the march of civil rights. Never mind that states rights was used in the 90s to thwart the Gun Free School Zone Act and the Violence Against Women Act. In the new century, let's use the doctrine to undo the PATRIOT Act, No Child Left Behind, and same sex marriage.

I always thought that the Feds should have more power than, say, Minnesota. I also know that in politics, what matters is power. Right now, we don't that much power. So screw it- use the tools at our disposal to effectuate change. File suit, challenge their actions, and use the intellectually specious doctrine that conservatives used for years to prevent progress- only now, we'll be using it to stop the damage.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Johnny Carson, 1925-2005

This is a little off my usual focus, and I swear to God almighty that this will be the only time I link to E!, but the great Johnny Carson has passed away. It is no hyperbole to say that he was one of the most important public figures of the 20th Century. He was not the inventor of the late night talk show, that belongs to the late Steve Allen, but he perfected the format. The comic monolouge, the skits, the celebrity guests, the overwrought band, the boozehound second banana, the interviewee's sofa- all these late night staples are the direct descendents of Carson's Tonight Show.

Dozens of careers exist solely because of Carson's benificence. David Letterman, Jay Leno, David Brenner, and (unfortunately) Joan Rivers would not be who they are today were it not for Johnny Carson.

Politics, too, felt Johnny Carson's deft influence from time to time. He ended Richard Nixon's career, and he began Bill Clinton's. Scandals, wars, mere gaffes- Johnny could dispatch them all with a light hand. Until the Daily Show emerged in the past few years as a major force, the yardstick for political impact in popular culture is the late night monolouge.

Rest well, Johnny- you are deeply missed.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Well, It's Official

He's reupped. They let the eagle soar. The Marine Band played hail to somebody. Then W solemnly swore to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Whoops- I think the bastard has a problem with that part.

The enormous cost, the unprecedented armed presence, and that God forsaken John Ashcroft song felt to me like nothing more than than a giant "fuck you" to the blue states. On the other hand, Chief Justice rehnquist looked dashing in his beret and gold striped robe- and they said Kerry looked French. Anywho- here now is my analysis of the inaugural address.

  • After saying "freedom" 27 times, and "liberty" 15 times, I think that Iran, North Korea and Minnesota are on notice- you're getting inva--- errr, liberated.
  • He wants to create an "ownership society," (that will get its own article altogether- coming soon) in which home ownership is up, small businesses get started, and investment gets made. Oh, and Enron and Halliburton execs get 8 figure salaries and their legal bills paid by the Board. It's only, fair right?
  • Note to Texans- cowboy hats don't cover the ears in the cold.
  • After liberating a 100 square block area of Washington, DC, followed by an occupation force of armed guards and snipers on every rooftop, calm has been restored- expect free elections to follow soon (hey, at least they had an exit strategy this time.)
Also, this may have gotten buried under the other news of the day. Shadow President Dick Cheney called in to the Imus in the Morning show yesterday, and said that Israel may act first on Iran. If they are acting "first," that means someone has to act second, right?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Inauguration Day

How did we get here? What did we do to offend you, dear Lord? I understand that in a democracy, one cannot win all the time. Sometimes, you are outvoted. However, I simply cannot understand how anyone could have voted for this nincompoop.

When you look at his record, you see failure after failure. You see a pattern of lies and deceit and bodies. Bodies from death row in Texas. Bodies in Iraq. Our President has a body count to rival the greatest tyrants and villians in history.

The President, as he proudly notes, governs based based on his "gut." This wouldn't bother me so much in the abstract- good instincts are occasionally helpful. However, W ignores the evidence and advice that doesn't synch up with his gut. Good instincts are no match for good advice, and good advice is only worth anything if the advisee is listens.

Maybe I'm just a little depressed, but I actually have a nervous stomach this morning. I am filled with despair.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

A Snapshot of the Bush Mandate

According to a Washington Post poll-

  • 58% disapprove of his Iraq policies
  • 52% disapprove of the way he has handled the economy
  • 51% disapprove of the way he has handled health care
  • 58% disapprove of the way W has handled the budget deficit
  • 53% do not think Bush will make progress on Social Security
  • 65% do not think Bush will make progress on the environment
  • 62% do not think that W will make progress on the deficit
  • 56% do not believe that GWB "understands the problems of people like you"
  • 55% do not think that the war in Iraq was worth fighting
  • 57% believe that companies should face the possibility of big penalties in lawsuits

Finally, 55% think that Bush will do a better job in his second term. That's a backhanded compliment- how could he possibily do worse.

Monday, January 17, 2005

In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, I spent the holiday shopping.

Well, I really only did some grocery shopping, and buying some super deeply discounted winter clothes (fleece lined jacket- $10!!!). In any event, I was not at work today, which meant that I got to do some things I don't usually get to do.

Like listen to Rush Limbaugh.

My, God- what a dunderhead. To celebrate the spirit of MLK, he mostly denigrated contemporary civil rights activists, calling them socialists. He spouted some statistics about minority business starts, and how African-Americans are economically better off now. As if equality meant a bigger bank account.

Don't get me wrong, those things are good things- but they're not the same as equality. There is still much to be done in this country in terms of race relations, and Rush Limbaugh has no interest in doing them.

Of course, now that we've had our "accountability moment," I doubt that the White House will do anything.

Besides, they're too bust bringing democracy to Iraq. They're even going to let expat Iraqis vote. I've thought a fair bit about that, and I've come to the conclusion that the only way to get a friendly government (i.e. Sunni) elected, is to stack the deck with anti-Baathist Sunnis- who all live in Detroit, apparently. I really do not have the numbers to back up the above assertion, but I suspect it's probably correct. Anyway, about 1.2 million Iraqis live abroad, while about 20 million voting age persons live in Iraq.

Iraq is about 85% ethnic Iraqi and 15% Kurdish. No one is worried about the Kurds- they'll form a minority third party, but you can take those 3 million voters out of the power equation. Of the ethnic Iraqis, they break down 50% Shiite and 45% Sunni. 8.5 million Shiites, and about 7.7 Sunnis.

And just over 1 million expats. If my guess is correct, the final tally is 8.7 million Sunni voters. Not a terribly large margin, but just enough of one to put a (slightly less unfriendly) government in Baghdad.

I really doubt that these elections will alleviate the situation on the ground in Iraq, especially if these expat voters tip the scales toward the Sunnis. Imagine 2000, with all those disenfranchised Floridians running around, agitating about a stolen election. Only instead of "Bush Cheated" signs, they all have IEDs.

Exactly the kind of democracy we want to spread throughout the worldd- oh, and it will spread, too. The buzz on CNN this morning was that "unnamed sources" revealed that war plans are in place for Iran by July.

If this is true, it will take more than one moment of accountability to make it right.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Go away for a few days, seems like a good day to come back...

Lessee, what's going on... Abu Ghraib court martial? Nah- if Rummy's not on trial, I'm not commenting on the small fish. SCOTUS ruling that the federal sentencing guidelines are unconstitutional? Ummmm, interesting to me, but too technical. More mayhem in Iraq? Old news. White House gives up on the search for WMDs?

I think I'll write about that.

The Iraq Survey Group- better known as the weapons inspectors- have given up. They've concluded that Saddam Hussein destroyed his WMDs years ago, and that his capabilities have been waning ever since. In other words, they don't have 'em, they haven't had 'em for awhile, and they weren't gonna make 'em for the foreseeable future.

Let's flash back in time shall we, to Colin Powell's presentation to the UN.

"The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more, and according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes."

Rummy was bit more prosaic. There's no debate in the world as to whether they have those weapons....We all know that. A trained ape knows that.

As opposed to the untrained apes running the show.

They weren't there- they were never there. Based on what amounts to a bald faced lie, this country that I once so loved committed 1358 of its young to their graves. Not to mention thousands of Iraqis and $159.5 billion.

If it wasn't absurdly offensive it would almost be funny, but as George Costanza once noted, "It's not a lie if you believe it." They believed it. It's still a lie.

This President is little more than a war criminal, and America is a rogue state. We have lost all direction. American exceptionalism used to mean "We are the better people, therefore we do not lower ourselves to our enemies' level." Now it means "We are the better people, so if we do something it must be the right thing." Wrong. We are better only so long as we choose to be better.

In other words, because we are a good people, we will obey the rules. The President would have you believe that because we are a good people, we do not need to follow the rules.

It doesn't work that way. I am ashamed of my country.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

"It's going to be ugly"

Those are the words of Joe Biden on elections in Iraq, as reported by Zell Miller's least favorite "highbrow hussy." As usual, Maureen Dowd gets it right. She is a blue state Ann Coulter- sharp, good looking, controversial- except that she's neither a moron nor bigot.

The administration astounds me- the President models his leadership style after an effective CEO. Effective CEO's listen to the specialists in their company, and make the decisions based on their counsel. Dubya, however, makes his decisions and then listens only to those specialists whose counsel echoes the path already taken. The "realists" (i.e. the people with the audacity to suggest that Iraq is not going well) are pushed aside in favor of "idealists" (i.e. the people who said it was going to be a cakewalk).

So, because Brent Scowcroft believes that elections could "deepen the conflict" he gets the boot. Scowcroft is no hippie dove- he was GHWB's National Security Advisor, and one of the architects of Gulf War I. He actively advised against taking Saddam down in 1991, fearing that we could get bogged down into a protracted occupation. In fact, he co-wrote a book with GHWB in 1998 making this point exactly. For his presecience, GWB disses him as "a pain in the ass in his old age." Indeed.

Even though I probably disagreed with GHWB and Scowcroft more often than not, I can't recall feeling the fear and dread that I feel now. I can't remember thinking that my country was a rogue state, bent on imposing its worldview. I can't remember thinking (seriously) about moving to another country. In 1991, even though I disagreed with the policies, I never thought that the country was evil. Now, I'm not so sure.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Alberto Gonzales- Evil Incarnate

The more I think about this man, the more disgusted I become. Mever mind that he justified torture. Never mind that he misrepresented basic facts in death penalty memos. It's what he does to the law, and to lawyers, that pisses me off.

One of a lawyer's basic jobs is to give honest, independent professional advice. Sometimes, that means looking your client in the eye and telling him that he's shit-outta-luck. Now, obviously, whether the client listens to you is up to him- as the lawyer, you advocate the client's position, not yours- and I've had clients refuse my advice before. Usually, that leads to a bad loss, and an "I told you so."

When you look at the lousy advice that Gonzales has given the President over the years, it makes you wonder how he's managed to keep his job, let alone keep getting promoted. Consider his position on torture- first, he argued that certain language is vague (specifically quoting, "outrages against personal dignity" as an example of vagueness; hey Alberto, it's not that vague- for example, stripping your prisoners naked and forcing to simulate sex is an outrage against personal dignity... and you created the climate that made it possible); second, he seized upon that perceived ambiguity, and decided that torture means only that abuse that results in serious injury. He created a new category of person, the "enemy combatant," and then quesitoned whether the Geneva Conventions applied to enemy combatants. In other words, he jiggered the system to get the answer that his client wanted, even though very few people other than his client agreed.

What a good lawyer should have done, is to look his client in the eye and tell him, "You can't do that." Alberto Gonzales didn't do that- I doubt that he ever will.

Vermont Civil Unions- Five Years Later, State Apparently NOT Going To Hell In A Handbasket

It's been five years since Vermont split the baby, and opted to enforce the equal rights provision of its state constitution by splitting the baby- I mean, choosing civil unions over marriage. Despite much handwringing, and a brief (and bigoted) attempt to rewrite the state constitution, Vermonters have gotten used to it. Which is what we who are not freaked out by gay people have been saying would happen.

Don't tell Dubya- he might try to invade... erm, liberate Vermont.

More thoughts on tort "reform"

Dubya went to Michigan to announce a push to change the way asbestos claims are handled. Yup- now he wants to protect makers of asbestos, a known carcinogen, and the Time notes that Halliburton is a major asbestos defendant. They report, you decide.

Industry has been critical of asbestos suits for some time, arguing that these cases have bankrupted a number of companies. To which I respond, so what? In a nation where 38 states have death penalties, where a person can lose his life for taking even one other person's, why shouldn't corporations face the same fate when their products kill thousands of people, and injures many thousands or millions more?

I'm not anti-business; on the contrary, almost every major innovation has come from business and that history of innovation should be encouraged. However, when people are injured or killed because businesses considered profit to be more important than safety, or because they intentionally suppressed information (as the evidence suggests happened in the Vioxx case), then businesses must pay the piper. In business, that means money.

Holding businesses accountable for their actions is good for consumers, because it will ultimately result in better, safer products. What many people don't understand is that it is also good for business, because the makers of good products will no longer be at a competitive disadvantage to the companies that routinely cut corners.

If you really want to change the tort system, however, here is a free market idea that the Bushies don't want to pursue: eliminate limited liability. Corporate shareholders enjoy limited liability, meaning that shoreholders are not liable for the debts of the corporation. Imagine if after every multi-million dollar lawsuit, a small investor got a bill from a lawyer for fifty bucks, or a large institutional investor (like CalPERS) got a bill in the millions. The people responsible (i.e. the execs) would be out on their asses in a blue state minute. The Boards of Directors would take their responsibilities seriously and oversee the managers instead of rubber stamping them. As a result, business would make sure their ducks are in a row before they made a move, and lawsuits would become rarer and less costly.

Everyone wants that, don't they?

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Let's See If Understand You, Mr. Attorney General Designate

If confirmed to the position, you promise to obey the law?

Fuck The Injured

The President made a visit to Madison County, Illinois today. Why visit a blue state backwater? To remind the rest of the country how wrong it is. You see, Madison County is considered the most plaintiff friendly county in America- and that's just wrong! So, Dubya showed up to clean up the courthouse.

"What's happening all across this country is that lawyers are filing baseless suits against hospitals and doctors. That's just a plain fact," Bush said. "And they're doing it for a simple reason. They know the medical-liability system is tilted in their favor.

Let's unpack that quote a little shall we- first, he blames lawyers for filing "baseless suits." Trying to determine whether a claim has merit is always a little subjective. Unless, of course, you are George W. Bush, because in Crawford it's "just a plain fact." Nevermind that "baseless" has no legal meaning- I assume he means "frivilous," which is a legal term of art for a claim that has no basis in fact or law. A case might lack "merit", and still not be frivilous.

Let me give you an example- suppose a patient dies from complications from surgery despite the surgeon's best efforts and use of reasonable medical practices. The patient's widow files suit alleging malpractice- as is her right. I feel that it is important to remind everyone that in this country, you have the absolute right to seek redress in the courts- you might not win, but you have the right to try. Each side presents evidence, and the jury decides which way the evidence points. If the doctor wins, it's because he convinced a jury that he did nothing wrong- to use the legal standard, he provided that level of care expected of reasonable medical professionals. Is this a "baseless" suit? It might be "meritless," but it's not baseless.

But the driving impetus behind tort reform has little to do with determining liability- it's about money. Key to most med mal reform plans is capping "non-economic" damages to $250,000. "Non-economic" means pain and suffering. In other words, "I don't care if you get hurt, we can't really place a dollar value on suffering." If the proposed reforms don't actually changes the rules of liability, then whom do they benefit.

Insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and hospitals that have the audacity to charge $5 to $10K per day.

Oh, and when you look at the actual facts, you see whose interests the President has closest to his heart.

Med mal is just the tip of the iceberg- class actions and products liability are on the GOP's radar. Class actions are an absolute necessity- companies can get away with collective murder if the individual loss is so low that no one will complain about it. You have to aggregate claims to keep polluters, larcenous corporate directors, and predatory lenders at bay.

Why would the guy who ran as a simple, plain spoken man of the people and a defender of Crawford values against the coastal elites side with the wealthy corporate robber barons? Well, duh? Isn't it obvious? So that the rich keep getting richer. For a man of the people, he really seems to be bad for people.

So let's edit that quote a little.

All across the country insurance companies want to help incompetent doctors and makers of defective, dangerous products avoid taking resonsibility for their actions. They're doing it for a simple reason- cabbage. Lettuce. Moolah. Scadole.

And that's just a plain fact.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Bad to Worse

Alright, the Washington Times is not exactly required reading, but they seem to be only media source running with this story. According to the Iraqi intel minister, insurgents outnumber coalition forces. The situation on the ground is about as bad as possible. This morning we learned that the governor of Baghdad province was assassinated.

Bush cannot possibly postpone the elections- the lost political capital would be tremendous. On the other hand, there is no way that Iraq can possibly hold elections. The candidates completely lack legitimacy in the eyes of the voters, seeing as how Sunnis are basically disenfranchised. al Qaeda sees any Iraqi who participates in the government as an infidel, no better than Americans. Basically- you vote, you become a target for al Qaeda.

I harbor no pretense that Saddam was a good guy. I wholeheartedly believe that democracy and self-government are essential to a free society, but the basic assumption that makes self-government work is simply not there in Iraq. Self-government means more than simply choosing from a list of people- it means that you have to want to make the choice in the first place. Iraq may not have been Disneyland under Saddam, but most Iraqis were free to work where they wanted, form the relationships they wanted, and were not in danger of getting blown up randomly.

The "freedom" we are imposing on Iraq is not freedom at all. It is a forced choice, a bait and switch, like the car dealer who tells you on the phone that they have red Mustangs in stock, but when you get there he says, "Red? Oh, we have blue and yellow- which one do y'want?" Can you blame the insurgents- we are forcing a menu of choices on them, except for the ones they want.

On another note- as I write this, Southern Cal is kicking Oklahoma's ass. Utah would have been a much better opponent, evidenced by their dismantling of Pitt. Friggin' BCS- just give us a playoff already!!!

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Rep. Bob Matsui Dead at 63

Rep. Bob Matsui (D-CA) passed away today. He suffered from a rare disease that affected his immune system. He entered the hospital Christmas Eve with pneumonia. He was 63.

As the ranking Democrat on the Social Security Subcommittee, he was going to lead the opposition against Bush's attempt to privatize it. I don't know much about Bob Matsui, but I suspect that there will be a leadership vacuum in the House for a little while as the Dems try to figure out who their point man will be- and with a special election coming up, it will give the GOP another opportunity to expand their majority.

All of which matters little to his family, who have lost a father and husband. They have my condolences and prayers.

Have No Fear- Jeb Bush Is Here!

Lame duck Colin Powell and Presidential proxy Jeb Bush are on their way to Indonesia. Powell I understand, but Jeb is completely off the wall. The official justification is that since Florida is demolished by hurricanes on a regualr basis, he has experience managing natural disasters. On the other hand, since there are substantially fewer trailer parks in Phi Phi than Orlando I suspect that his contribution may amount to little more than sending someone whose name is Bush. I wonder if George Prescott was unavailable.

The flap over the "stingy" remark, which was entirely innocuous and did not name names in its original context, had the remarkable effect of increasing U.S. aid tenfold. Nevermind that $350 million buys slightly less than two days of warmongering. It would behoove our government to remember that you get more flies with honey than vinegar; our wise leaders, however, would rather try to convince the flies that the vinegar is just as good as the honey, and we're gonna ram it down your throats anyway so just get used to it.

Memo to Dubya- move the troops out of Iraq and send them to the disaster zone. Have them help with the rebuilding effort. Let the world see that they are not conquerors and occupiers, but that they are simply people- kids, really- who want to do right by their country, their world, their God. Not much different from the Iraqi people who only want to do right by their country, their world, and their God. I don't see it happening, though; our leadership doesn't think that far ahead.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

2004- The Year of the Moron

Happy New Year! May 2005 be better than the year just ended. 2004 sucked for a variety of reasons- personal, political, and otherwise. In the future, when the history books are written, I believe that 2004 will mostly be remembered as the year when the shit hit the fan. We gave Dubya a "mandate," the Sox won the series, and nature wiped away thousands in people in a few seconds. More personally, 2004 was the year my father fell ill.

Let's just put 2004 behind us, and work to make things better in 2005.