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Archive for May, 2009

We’re going to be away for about a week taking care of some family issues with an aging parent. This is something that many people experience.  Now it’s our turn.  Aging can be a difficult process, and the longer one lives, the more likely there will be both physical and mental decline.

Talk to y’all when we get back.

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Several interesting news stories recently on the partisan struggle regarding closing Gitmo.  The first was a McClatchy article on former VP Cheney’s speech yesterday to the American Enterprise Institute — the center of Neocon World.  In it they charge that the speech was filled with misstatements, exaggerations and omissions.  Lately, Cheney has been acting like someone desperately trying to rewrite history, or in some cynical way hoping for vindication should another attack come, or could it be that he’s trying to taint a war crimes jury pool?   His daughter Liz has been on TV almost as much as her father, pleading his case right along with him.  On CNN’s “AC 360,” she acknowledged that fear of prosecution does indeed explain his near omnipresence.  And yet there is another factor that might be involved — the former VP’s anger at Bush for not pardoning Scooter Libby.  Could he be so angry that he is trying to hurt Bush’s legacy?  Wow.

Cheney’s not getting much help outside the family.  The chorus of voices on the other side is getting louder, and some of the voices in that chorus are former members of the Bush/Cheney administration.  It is as if the majority of sane people want to close Gitmo — Bush called for it in the latter days of his presidency, as did McCain, Gates, and a number of other Republicans.  But closing it is a difficult prospect.  What to do with the detainees that we’ve spent 8 years demonizing?  Meanwhile, while Cheney continues to play the fear card, with some benefit, President Obama and others are calling for a discussion of how best to proceed.

The RNC is doing a remix of a 1964 campaign ad. The so-called “Daisy” ad played very effectively to American’s fears about the Soviet Union and the possibility of nuclear annihilation.  Don’t forget that this ad ran a mere two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis when many Americans expected that all-out nuclear war was just hours or days away.  The irony in doing a remix of this ad is that it follows immediately upon the pronouncement that the GOP is done looking backward and that they will confront the President with classiness.  So the first thing they do is to look back for inspiration to something that was done — to them — 45 years ago.  The new ad plays upon the fears that somehow the Gitmo detainees are going to be released onto American streets rather than tried and, if convicted, locked up in supermax prisons.

Fear is likely at the heart of the debate on all sides.  Is it fear that somehow our justice and penal systems aren’t up to the task of determining the fate of the 250 remaining detainees?  Or is it a deeper fear that in determining their fate, we will learn that the entire policy system that supports the detention system was flawed from its inception?  Fear was, after all, what led to that system’s creation.  Fear of another attack.  Fear of all Muslims.

So, how did fear specifically play itself out with the detainee system?  First, we didn’t devise a good system for identifying which people were really Al Qaeda associates or sympathizers.  Instead, lacking language and cultural knowledge, we relied on villagers and tribal elders, not considering that we were providing them a way to settle grievances that had absolutely no connection to 9/11, Al Qaeda, or even terrorism.  We just wanted the bad guys rounded up, yesterday if possible.  We’d figure out later how to sort them out, if any sorting needed to be done.  So, after rounding them up — off the battlefield, off the streets, out of airports, in their homes — we started questioning them.  But because we were afraid, we didn’t believe them when they said they weren’t part of Al Qaeda, that they didn’t hate Americans.  Ah, we said, they must hate us.  After all, they’re Muslims.  So, we pushed them harder and harder, using ever harsher means to question them.  We sent them off to other countries — countries who had no qualms about torturing people to gain confessions.  And we began torturing them ourselves.

Finally, we began to come to our senses — just a little.  And we got scared about what we had done.  After all, torture is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, other international laws and treaties, and even US law.  So, we “reasoned,” we needed to make sure our guys — from the people doing the interrogations to those who authorized them — wouldn’t get hauled up on war crimes charges.  So we came up with the novel idea of getting some lawyers to write opinions that said it wasn’t torture after all.  We defined the detainees as “unlawful enemy combatants” instead of prisoners of war to avoid the Geneva Conventions.  And we set up a prison at a US Navy base in Cuba.  That wasn’t on US soil, so US law wouldn’t apply.  We could just make up the rules as we went along.  And we’d just question the patriotism of anyone who objected.  Whew!  That’d cover us. Except that it didn’t.  Because those among us who didn’t object — whether they actually supported the program or just remained silent — are morally complicit.

Another aspect of this whole thing about the detainees is the assumption — on the part not just of Cheney but of potentially millions of Americans — that they are all guilty.  Never mind that over 2/3 of those held at Gitmo have already been released for lack of evidence and that none have been tried.  Never mind that some of those remaining have been declared innocent.  Never mind that no court of law would accept evidence obtained under torture, and that as a result, some of those we believe are guilty may not be convicted.  We created a disaster in this program, and President Obama is going to have the devil of a time trying to resolve it.

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So, the voters have spoken.  And California is in deep trouble.  The legislature, having failed to pass a budget for several months past the deadline, in effect punted the problem to the voters.  And the voters punted it right back.  Unfortunately, the most important issue wasn’t on the ballot.  The right measure would have been one to bring some sanity to the whole mess by eliminating the 2/3 majority needed to pass a budget.  I could support a reasonable super majority requirement — something more along the lines of 55%.  That would force both parties to work together to figure out how to finance the state’s activities.  As it is, with a 2/3 requirement, a small group of legislators can hold the entire state hostage.  And it does.  Year after year after year.

The state’s financial mess has its roots back some 30 years ago with another taxpayer revolt.  Property values were rising quickly — beginning one of the state’s recurring real estate booms.  The result was a huge windfall of revenue into the state’s coffers and tales of seniors being forced out of their homes because they couldn’t afford the tax bill.  Some clever commercial property and apartment building owners decided that they could use that populist anger to their advantage.  And thus Proposition 13 was born.  Basically, it rolled assessed values and the associated property tax levels back to where they had been before the boom started — provided that you had owned the property at that time.  Renters were told that their rents would go down.  Proposition 13 passed.  Renters generally failed to see the promised rent decrease, but no matter.  They had voted in sufficient numbers to pass the initiative.

Assessed valuations could rise only 4% a year, and property couldn’t be reassessed except when it sold.  I believe there was also a provision that allowed an addition to be assessed at current market value, but not the original portion of the property.  But there were also a couple of poison pills hidden in the fine print — things that worked particularly to the benefit of commercial property owners who had backed the bill.  The only time a commercial property could be reassessed was if more than 50% of the ownership interest changed hands.  Well, it’s not hard to figure out how to get around that one, is it?  You simply make sure that no single owner-partner of a commercial property ever has 50% ownership.  And then you stagger the sales by the partners so that the portion changing hands never reaches that threshold.  So, while residential properties are reassessed when ownership changes, commercial property can remain at an artificially low assessed value forever.

During my previous time in California, I benefited from Proposition 13 — at least when I paid my property taxes.  However, as a state we all lost.  Property tax monies fund schools, libraries, parks, police, fire — most public services.  Prop. 13’s passage had a big impact on funding those services.  And Prop. 13 has become the third rail of California politics.  No debate is allowed.  A few politicians have learned that one the hard way. Several years ago, when he was advising Gov. Schwartzeneger, Warren Buffet commented that property taxes in California were too low.  Buffet may be the Oracle of Omaha, but his comment was met with howls, and he was forced to backtrack.  The truth is that Buffet was right.  It’s not so much that property taxes are too low, but that they are artificially low for some people, which tends to make them artificially high for others.

So Californians have once again failed to deal with a very broken budgeting system.  Distrust of politicians runs deep here for many people of both parties.  And the majority of California’s voters are, I believe, unafiliated with either party.  It may well be, as former Gov. Jerry Brown once declared, that California is ungovernable.  The state is looking at a budget deficit of at least $20 billion, coupled with lower revenues from all three major sources of state revenue.  Plunging property values have led many homeowners to challenge their assessed valuations.  These challenges, if approved, will primarily affect those who purchased homes in the past five or six years — the properties that were assessed at their full value, thus generating the highest tax levels.   California’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average, leading to significant reductions in income tax revenue.  And due to the recession, people are cutting back on their spending, affecting revenue from sales taxes.  Yes, California is in a financial crisis.  But we do like our services.  The question is whether for once, we’ll like them enough to be willing to pay for them.  I doubt it.  We have a tendency to opt for bond issues rather than agree to a tax increase.  It’s the old “buy now, pay later” mentality.  We’ve maxed out the state’s credit card, and now the bills are coming in.  It will be interesting to see what happens.

It’s almost certain that tens of thousands of teachers and other state workers will be laid off, adding to our already high unemployment levels.  And that will lead to a further restriction on consumer spending, and may well lead to additional foreclosures.  The state will almost certainly cut back on the monies it sends to the counties and cities, impacting them still further and leading to cuts in police and fire protection.  Whether California voters will draw the conclusion that we will finally have to pay for the services we demand remains to be seen.  Now, I don’t enjoy paying taxes any more than the next person, but I do realize that if we want the services, we’ll have to pay for them.

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Now that the initial sense of panic about the H1N1 virus (formerly known as swine flu) has died down, can we have a discussion on how some of our policies actually put us at greater risk as a nation for a pandemic outbreak?

US health officials urged Americans to wash their hands frequently and to avoid contact with others if 1) they were sick and 2) people around them were sick.  We were told to stay home from work if we were sick and to keep our kids out of school if they were sick.  That’s just common sense.  Avoiding contact or “social distancing” is the best way to stop the spread of contagious disease.  Before the advent of antibiotics and vaccines, health officials put quarantine signs on homes where a family member had a contagious disease.  Today, thanks to modern medicine and to an increased awareness of the civil liberties aspects of quarantine, such efforts in the US are largely limited to points of entry and to various agricultural products.  Additionally, hospitals have the capability to isolate individuals — either to protect them in the event of compromised immune systems or to protect others from an infectious disease.  The most notable recent case was the individual who had contracted a highly drug-resistant form of TB.  That individual was placed in isolation, largely against his will, while undergoing treatment.

The spread of the H1N1 virus seems to be slowing in the US as flu season draws to a close.  But public health officials warn that it may well return next winter.  And if efforts fail to develop and produce an effective vaccine in sufficient quantities, as the World Health Organization is reporting could well occur, social distancing will be even more necessary to slow or stop the disease from spreading.

While voluntary social distancing is an effective strategy for slowing the spread of infectious disease, public policy makes that strategy difficult to implement.  When people, especially low-wage earners, do not have paid time off in the event of illness, it is difficult for them to take the responsible action of staying home, whether to care for themselves or for a sick child.

The United States is the only one of the 22 most affluent nations — the ones ranked highest on the UN’s “human development” index — that lacks a mandated paid sick leave or paid sick days policy.  Without that protection, particularly during a time of economic dislocation, there is a clear disincentive to remain home.  Staying home might cost the person his or her job, and with high unemployment rates, that becomes a greater and more immediate risk than the possibility of infecting others.

Those who oppose such things as paid vacations, employer-provided health insurance, worker safety requirements, and even a minimum wage will, no doubt, argue against paid sick leave or paid sick days.  But that argument fails in its persuasiveness when US policy is compared to the other 21 most affluent nations.  One might even argue that such policies in fact contribute to a nation’s affluence.

In the meantime, a bill has been proposed by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) to mandate seven days of paid sick leave per year — leave that could spell the difference between a normal flu season and a pandemic in the US, should the H1N1 virus strike again next winter.  If viewed as a public health measure, this bill should be passed with near unanimous support.

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Former VP Cheney just can’t seem to stay home and write his memoirs now that he’s been released from his undisclosed location.  That’s what other Former VPs have done.  But Cheney is eager to stay in the public eye.  Is he trying to take some sort of revenge against George W. Bush for not pardoning Scooter Libbey?  Perhaps he’s trying to re-write history so that when he does write his memoir, it won’t be identified as a piece of fiction.  Or maybe he just didn’t get the memo that book tours are supposed to FOLLOW the actual writing.  One might propose a number of reasons he suddenly seems to crave the limelight.

In any case, a statement he made yesterday on FTN contained an absolutely stunning statement. “I certainly have every reason to believe that he knew a great deal about the [torture] program,” he said. “He basically authorized it. I mean, this was a presidential level decision. And the decision went to the president. He signed off on it.”  This remark sounds a bit like saying someone is a little bit pregnant.  Either you are or are not pregnant.  Either the president authorized the program or he didn’t.  One would hope that the president truly understood the implications of the program before he signed off on it.  Is Cheney’s statement confirmation of the actual power-sharing arrangement of the Bush administration?  Was the VP the man behind the curtain?

Dick Cheney was the first self-selected vice president in our history.  If you’ll recall, he was tasked during the 2000 primary season with helping then-Governor Bush choose his running mate.  It struck me as both odd and presumptuous that the person Dick Cheney recommended was none other than Dick Cheney.  I mean, was there nobody else in the Republican Party who was suited for the job?

President Bush took it pretty easy while he was president.  In bed early every night, almost every weekend at Camp David, long vacations in Crawford.  And when he was in Crawford, it was pretty hard to get his attention, especially during August.  Just ask Richard Clarke, his counter-terrorism chief during the initial months of the administration.  Just ask the people in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, the vice president seemed always to be in an undisclosed location.  The whole thing seemed a very odd management style.  No wonder people wondered who was really in charge.  Then the rumors started leaking out.  Ron Suskind, in his book The One Percent Solution, related comments from Cheney friends and colleagues about how the events of 9/11 had brought out paranoid aspects of his personality they hadn’t seen before.

There was another statement in yesterday’s interview that caught my attention, a statement that may in fact be even more important.  The former Vice President mis-quoted the oath of office.  Here is the text of the oath that has used since 1884.

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

Notice that the oath is to support and defend the Constitution.  Yesterday, Cheney said that he had sworn to protect the country against all enemies.  I am reminded of Monica Goodling’s testimony that she had sworn loyalty to President Bush and how Sen. Leahy immediately schooled her that she had sworn loyalty to the Constitution, not the President.  And perhaps that’s the core problem over the past eight years.  The beauty of the Constitution is that it establishes the rule of law, not of men.  Our public officials swear their primary allegiance to a document, not to a person or a party or even an ideology.  Our founders understood the dangers of too much power concentrated in the hands of one or two people.  That’s why they gave the president such limited power.  Congress, being closer to the people, held the real federal power.  And that’s why the rise of the imperial presidency is, or should be, so distasteful to Americans.  That’s why the argument that the role of Commander in Chief gave the President almost unlimited power was so odious to so many, and why such things as signing statements saying the President could choose unilaterally to ignore all or parts of laws passed by Congress was rejected by many people.

Let’s not forget that Dick Cheney was the architect of many of those ideas.  The lesson he learned from Watergate was that the President didn’t have enough power — that the Congress had too much.  This view is exactly contrary to what the Constitution says.  That Congress went along, that they chose to abdicate their oversight responsibility, is to their shame.

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They say confession is good for the soul.  So here’s mine.  I also prefer Dijon mustard to the yellow kind.  I guess that makes me an elitist.  And, horror or horrors, if yellow mustard is the only kind available, I’ll do without — even on a hotdog.

This whole “controversy” about President Obama’s ordering spicy or Dijon mustard on his burger the other day is absolutely absurd.  Talk about trying to make something out of nothing!  The whole “rebranding” of French fries in the Congressional lunch room was idiotic enough.  But since Dijon mustard is made by Kraft — the very same folks who make yellow mustard and Velveeta (which in my opinion doesn’t even qualify as a food stuff and is suitable only for fish bait) — the claim that it’s somehow not Amurikun is pure nonsense.

Once again, the conservative talking heads are demonstrating that they’ve been abducted by aliens and had their brains sucked out.  It started with Sean Hannity and has spread like a virus to Laura Ingraham and into the right wingnut bloggosphere.  Can we please talk about something important?  Please???

Discussing and critiquing President Obama’s policies is one thing.  It’s part of what keeps democracy alive.  Donning tin foil hats and obsessing on something as trivial as the kind of mustard he likes is infantile.  And it’s part of why the Republican Party’s support is vanishing into irrelevance.

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Didn’t the United States fight a successful war, led by Abraham Lincoln, to establish that states do not have the right to leave the Union?  Unbelievably, Georgia is signing up for a second chance at secession.  Given the way Sherman marched through, destroying everything in sight and ultimately burning Atlanta, Georgia might want to think twice about re-playing that epic.

And Georgia isn’t the only one to be working on sovereignty resolutions.  Periodically, during the last administration, I wondered if perhaps I’d fallen down the rabbit hole.  When President Obama was elected, I rejoiced that just maybe Americans had returned to some semblance of sanity.  But, alas, I was wrong.  I wonder if the combined population of the states considering secession is approximately the same 21% of the electorate that is willing to admit that they are Republicans.

Perhaps we ought to do a cost-benefit analysis and see if we just ought to let them go…  Here are some things to consider.

  1. Net of Federal dollars going to the states in question compared to the dollars coming in from them.
  2. Savings gained through elimination of disaster relief (hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, wildfires, etc.) for those states
  3. Defense programs located there and costs associated with moving them to remaining states
  4. Number of creationists lost, thus reducing pressure on the rest of us to stop teaching evolution in science class
  5. Savings related to jettisoning Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid recipients from those states (and how and whether to reimburse the new countries for funds previously paid into the system — this would, of course, need to be in the form of a treaty agreement, voted on by the Congress composed of the remaining states)
  6. Dollars saved in infrastructure maintenance and development
  7. Mineral and agricultural resources lost v. ways to replace the losses in remaining states
  8. Impact on military enlistment rates and costs associated with retirement and health care benefits to vets; i.e., what percentage of costs and enlistees come from the states wanting to secede
  9. Costs of refugee/resettlement program for residents wanting to emigrate to remaining states
  10. Costs of moving border entry points and establishing new ones
  11. Cost of foreign aid to those newly independent countries
  12. Impact on supply of tea bags

Oh, yeah, message to conservatives:  satire alert.

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