Friday, February 29, 2008

we're number 1!

We see all these depressing international statistics about how the US has slid on rankings of such socio-economic indicators as life expectancy at birth, infant mortality rate, literacy, educational attainment, etc.

Well, a report released on Thursday shows us at #1 in at least ONE such area.

We imprison a higher percentage of our population than any other country. Even more than China, with its far-greater number of political prisoners.

More than 1% of adults are in the slammer. That is a truly depressing number. The rise over the past 20 years has been mostly due to the absurdly strict sentencing guidelines many states have passed, the so-called "3 strikes and out" thing. Which means for example that some guy who is up before a judge for shoplifting, having already been convicted of possession of one marijuana joint and a prior petty vandalism charge, will find himself sentenced to prison.

The fact that our drug laws treat possession of crack cocaine (more popular among black Americans) far more severely than possession of powder cocaine (more popular among white Americans) is part of the discrepancy among incarceration rates for blacks and whites.

When we throw people into prison - especially young men - for such petty non-violent crimes, you are depriving them the ability to overcome their mistake and maybe become productive members of society. And we have to pay for them, too.

And it doesn't help with crime that much (if at all) anyway. New York state has seen its crime rate drop since 1993 - despite reducing its incarceration rate. Other states like Florida have seen both the prison rate and the crime rate go up. There are many other factors - putting people in prison is not the most effective method. After all, many other countries like Canada and European countries have lower prison rates and lower crime rates.

The article doesn't address it, but in many states moves to rescind tough sentencing laws have been blocked by the commercial prison sector. Yes, people run prisons on a for-profit basis, as contractors for various states. And these people don't want to see their supply of prisoners dry up, so the urge stricter sentencing laws.

The administration of justice, the operation of a penal system should NOT be run on a for-profit basis. It encourages this type of abuse.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

if you can't say something nice about somebody...

... then don't say anything, my mom always said. And that's even more true about the dead. Like a recent addition to that group, William F. Buckley, dead at 82.

OK, let me try to say some good things about him. Yeah, he was erudite and had a great voice - the kind of voice that modern conservatives like to make fun of and say it sounds French, as if that were an insult.

He was an intellectual. "Intellectual" now of course is a slur among most modern day conservatives. (In fact, between his brains and his voice I can imagine most modern conservatives preferring to beat him up if he wandered into a bar in Alabama somewhere, rather than embracing him.)

Buckley founded the National Review, and was a major inspiration for the Reagan "Revolution" of the 1980s. Oh wait, I said I would say NICE things about him - so I can't use that, can I?

I'm running out of things - wait, his son Christopher has written some funny books.

That's it. Buckley was a founder of modern conservatism, a movement that has been unrelentingly negative for America. I don't think he was a crypto-Nazi, as Gore Vidal once called him. I don't necessarily think he was a bad man, either. But the ideas he helped nurture have on net been bad for America, and the world. And that's too bad for us all.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

is the irs targetting obama's church?

Last June, Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a speech about faith at the annual United Church of Christ gathering in Hartford. The UCC says Obama had been invited the previous year before announcing his presidential race, because of his involvement in the UCC. The UCC had done its homework, and there was no overt politicking - no Obama leaflets were handed out, or anything like that. There were some Obama volunteers present, but they stayed outside.

Sounds OK, I'd say. But now the Internal Revenue Service is investigating the UCC because of that speech. The IRS sent a letter that says "reasonable belief exists" that the event "violated restrictions on political activity for tax-exempt organizations."

Apparently, the IRS letter pointed to web sites (including the church's) that reported on the event, claiming that the Obama volunteers were "outside the (Hartford Civic) center to promote his campaign."

Smells like that Republican specialty, another selective investigation to me. Another church with a liberal bent was investigated by the IRS in 2005 for allegedly being too political.

Yet somehow, the IRS seems slow to investigate churches whose ministers tell their congregations that God would want them to vote Republican.

The message? Churches are free to get involved in politics - as long as they support the Right party, the Republicans. Otherwise, they are partisan and the IRS will harass them and their tax-exempt status.

Another mark of a deeply corrupt political party.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

inexperienced presidents

Desperate to push her theme of "experience" as her advantage over Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton compares Obama to de facto President George W. Bush as too inexperienced in foreign policy to run the country.

Funny, I missed Clinton's foreign policy credentials. Unless road trips as the First Lady count, I don't see much there in her 35 years of work.

Sure, Obama has little foreign policy experience. Though he DOES have significant overseas experience, having lived in Indonesia and visited family in Kenya. But frankly, foreign policy experience is overrated. Few presidential candidates have a LOT of such experience. How much did Bill Clinton have? Very little. Bush the Younger? Even less - and it wasn't his foreign policy inexperience so much as his narrow-mindedness "intellect" that has gotten him into his foreign policy messes.

It would be easier to list recent presidents who DID have foreign policy experience before being elected. George HW Bush qualifies, having been ambassador to China and the United Nations and head of the CIA. Nixon had some, although I question how much 8 years of being Eisenhower's vice-president should count.

Reagan? None. Carter? None. JFK and LBJ? Little and little. Truman? Very little.

Foreign policy is about applying common sense and reacting to crises. You don't need to have been in the Senate for 30 years to have that.


Monday, February 25, 2008

will the real john mccain stand up?

John McCain likes to be seen as the straight-talking politician. And sometimes he says things that are good to hear. For example, he told a journalist he would "never" use a signing statement; McCain elaborated, "Never, never, never, never. If I disagree with a law that passed, I'll veto it." (Obama and Clinton reserved the right, although both said they would not do it to the extent and in the way that de facto President Bush has.)

Admirable. But then McCain has ALSO told a journalist on ABC that if elected he would NOT raise taxes, period. No matter what, Senator McCain?

What happened to the guy who in 2001 and 2003 and 2004 criticized Bush's tax cuts because they "go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief"?

Answer: he's gone at least for the moment, as he panders to the far right of the GOP to convince them he is an acceptable candidate.

This doesn't make McCain unique as a politician. But it does mean he doesn't get to keep his self-proclaimed "straight talk" mantle, tarnished anyway by his Keating 5 membership and the fact that he may have been boffing a female lobbyist...

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

an addition to the gop scandal list

You may be shocked, shocked to hear another Republican has been indicted for corruption.  This time, it's Congressman Rick Renzi of Arizona, who collected hundreds of thousands of bucks for using his Congressional oomph to help influence a federal land-exchange deal.  Renzi is ALSO indicted of embezzling corporate money for his first run for Congress.
But as far as I can tell, Renzi did not follow in the footsteps (?) of fellow Arizona Republican John McCain in actually SLEEPING with any of the people he was doing business with...

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

burning down the street

Wall Street has made big bucks over the past 20 years packaging different debts and assets into increasingly complicated financial innovations.  And the leaders of Wall Street have made HUGE bucks doing so.  They are verily the self-proclaimed "Masters of the Universe," the heroes of capitalism who want the government to leave them alone to do their financial wizardry and make big bucks for themselves and for the investors.  (Often to the detriment of the real economy, i.e. the people who make and buy and sell things and provide (real) services.)
Except when their stuff - like securities based on sub-prime mortgages - begin to go bad.  Then, they want the Fed to slash rates to zero if necessary and won't be above accepting a federal bailout lest some highly-leveraged Wall Street financial firm go belly-up.

In a great column today, Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein resists the "responsible" take of stabilizing these financial firms to prevent a recession.  Instead, Pearlstein bemoans the rise of these masters and their arcane instruments, notes that their huge compensation packages grossly outweigh their own personal financial risk-taking, bemoans the fact that nowadays half the students of top US universities want to go into this sort of business, instead of becoming scientists or doctors or academics or public service.

You should read Pearlstein's column - but if you don't have time, I agree heartily with his conclusion:

So I hope you'll forgive me, dear readers, when I say that the best thing that could happen to our economy is for a dozen high-profile hedge funds to collapse; for investment banking to enter a long, deep freeze; for a major bank to fail; and for the price of a typical Park Avenue duplex to fall by 30 percent.  For only then might we finally stop genuflecting before the altar of unregulated financial markets and insist that Wall Street serve the interest of Main Street, rather than the other way around.

Yes, I know it's harsh and vengeful solution, and there will be lots of collateral damage.  But as I look out over the destruction sweeping across the financial sector, I just can't silence the small voice in my head that keeps repeating that old '60s expression, "Burn, baby, burn."

Hear, hear.

(Pardon the strange formatting - blogger is being weirdly uncooperative today.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

brett boone?

Jim Bowden's jones for former Reds players strikes again. He's giving Brett Boone a chance at making the Nationals. Boone has been out of the major leagues since 2005; he's 39 years old. It doesn't look like a good prospect - couldn't this attention be paid to some minor leaguer?

No, he's not like Dmitri Young. Young was only out of baseball for a year, and he was out of baseball because of personal problems more than a decline in skills. And at the start of the 2007 season, he was 33 not 39 - approaching the tme when a player declines, but better than the age when most players are long gone. So Young's very fine 2007 season (which I was wrong about, though I still wouldn't have given him the 2 year extension) does not constitute a reason for optimism about Boone. Neither do Bowden's reclamation projects with Ron Gant or Eric Davies.

Monday, February 18, 2008

born poor hurts

Krugman writes about the recent findings that stress of poverty can hurt the development of the brain. In other words, being born into a poor family screws you and makes you more likely to remain poor by hurting your brain, reinforcing the economic factors that can perpetuate poverty.

And it doesn't have to be that way, as Britain under Labour has shown in reducing child poverty. Think of it as an investment - money spent on a small kid will make that kid much more likely to grow up into a productive member of society - a good employee for the elite, if nothing else...

Saturday, February 16, 2008

lord of the rings 4 - the lawsuits

Our heroes Frodo and Samwise, having managed to destroy the One Ring in the Mount of Doom, return home only to find themselves slapped with lawsuits by various people who claim descent from Isildur, for destroying their rightful property.

Actually, that is apparently the ONLY lawsuit not taking place in the wake of the Peter Jackson/New Line fantasy movies based on JRR Tolkien's book.

The latest to enter the heroic field of legal battle were Tolkien's heirs, suing New Line for some reason I can't keep track of. Jackson sued New Line but then made nice. An accounting company is suing. A bunch of New Zealand actors are suing.

Maybe I can get in on this - after all, there's plenty of cash in the Lord of the Rings kitty...

Friday, February 15, 2008

a shooting at (fill in the blank), (x) people killed, (y) injured

The Northern Illinois shooting is sad; I feel very bad for the victims and their families and friends.

What will come out of it? Probably nothing beyond a half-dozen funerals and some heart-wrenching scenes at memorial services. We are clearly not at a place in this country where politicians are prepared to take a risk to thwart the will of the NRA and actually pass meaningful gun control laws, despite growing public support for such laws.

No, not laws that tell you that you may not own a gun, period. But at least laws that strengthen the controls around them, that strictly limit ownership of semi-automatic weapons and the like (which are not used for hunting anything but human beings), that require real checks on the would-be owner.

But clearly protection of the fetish of gun ownership as espoused by the NRA and its lackeys in Congress is more important than protection of our lives.

Do I even bother to note that the Constitution's Second Amendment reads,
"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
In other words, this amendment is supposed to protect the STATES from being disarmed by the Federal government in order to maintain its militia. Not the right for every crackpot and misanthrope to pack heat.



The House found Josh Bolten and Harriet Miers to be in contempt for refusing "to cooperate with an investigation into the mass firings of U.S. attorneys and allegations that administration officials sought to politicize the Justice Department."

The Democrats had no choice - the de facto Bush Administration continues to take the most expansive interpretation of "executive privilege" ever. They offered to let Bolten and Miers testify as long as they didn't swear an oath, and no transcript was taken.

How generous. Given the well-documented predilection of this Administration to lie at any conceivable occasion, that was an offer nobody should accept.

"Contempt" has a legal connotation in this instance. But it is an accurate word, except the Bushies aren't just in contempt of the House.

They are contemptuous of America and the world, of anybody who hasn't drunk their Kool-Aid and doesn't see things exactly as they do.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

the good old days

I read all this depressing stuff about how the de facto Bush Administration not only condones torture, but is actually pushing to say how waterboarding is a legal "interrogation" technique.

Remember the good old days, when it was the BAD guys who tortured people, and we didn't?

But this nifty little news item brought back the flood of memories of a happier, better day. You know, the day when the Russians were unambiguously the bad guys. Now the new Russian empire is doing cool things like having its bombers buzz our aircraft carrier the Nimitz. The Nimitz scrambled fighters, things were tense, but nobody got shot or bombed.

Thanks Russia, for the nostalgia hit.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

it's only three hours but...

... when you are used to being hooked up to your email anywhere anytime, those three hours can seem like a long long time.

Though it might be a stretch to call a BlackBerry outage your worst nightmare. I would probably rate it below being abducted by aliens. Or finding out your mom was running away to join Hells Angels.

Or below the past 7+ years of the de facto Bush Administration.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

water wars

Georgia is considering trying to fix its northern border with Tennessee, which was supposed to be on the 35th parallel but was actually located a mile south of that line back in 1818. Why now?


If the border were really on the 35th parallel, Georgia would have access to the Tennessee River. And Atlanta needs water.

This is unlikely to become a water "war" in the shooting sense. But as climate change takes grip and some places grow drier, this sort of creative quest for water will grow more common. And in some places where the border is more volatile than the Georgia-Tennessee border, you can't rule out shooting.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

empty words

De facto President George W. Bush said during the State of the Union that he supported a move to let troops give unused education benefits to family members.

And then he submitted a budget to Congress that did not include one dime to fund this idea. More empty words from a master liar.

And the sad thing is, a lot of our service members think Bush is the bee's knees. Even as he screws them by sending them to war in unarmored vehicles and with inadequate body armor. As he screws them with insufficient funding for the Veterans Administration hospital system. As he and his Pentagon dick around with injured troops arguing over whether having your legs blown off by an IED makes you fully disabled or merely 75% disabled so the Pentagon can save a few bucks at the injured party's expense.


Friday, February 08, 2008

more republican shame

The admission this week by the de facto Bush Administration that yes US agents HAVE tortured people only surprised me because it was made public.

I've said a lot about torture. Eugene Robinson does a good job here. Some highlights:

"Did you ever imagine that we would have a president who uses legalistic euphemisms and craven rationalizations to justify strapping prisoners down and subjecting them to simulated drowning? A president who claims the right to use waterboarding, and God knows what other "techniques," in the future if he wants?

This is a moral outrage, people. At least, it should be. There simply cannot be any kind of pro-and-con debate over the use of torture -- whatever anodyne phrase you hide it behind -- by agents of the United States government on persons in custody. Torture is not debatable. It is forbidden by U.S. and international law. It is a vile implement used by tinhorn despots, not by the elected leaders of great democracies."

"I'm sure the CIA extracted some truth as a result of these waterboarding sessions. But I'm also sure the questioners came away with falsehoods, exaggerations and fantasies. I believe the many professional interrogators who say there are better ways of getting useful information out of uncooperative subjects."

To summarize. Torture is vile, illegal, and degrades any country that condones it. And it isn't effective.

Vile and ineffective? Sounds like an epithet for an illegal, immoral, and ultimately failed presidency. How long till Bush is gone?

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romney's shameful exit

Mitt Romney's exit because he was beaten by John McCain wasn't shameful. But as the generally moderate but pretending to be a raw-meat conservative Romney spoke to announce he was leaving the GOP race, he got in one last nasty line full of dishonesty. In saying he was quitting to help McCain win in November, Romney said: "In this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."

Wow, that's good Mitt. Maybe you HAVE learned the lessons of the true masters of the Republican Party - Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the rest of the right-wing noise machine.

Two points to refute Mitt's slanderous statement. First, does it actually SEEM like a time of war? With the very very notable exception of the men and women who serve in the armed forces, National Guard, and reserves, and all of their families (and the mercenaries and contractors like Blackwater, Halliburton, etc, who are getting rich off of the Republican wars), the answer of course is no. That's because Bush has asked for no sacrifice. He still kicks out tax cuts for the Republican base, aka the rich, despite $10 billion a month in spending in Iraq and Afghanistan. After 9/11, he urged us to go shopping. In fact, the ONLY thing most of us have been asked to sacrifice has been our civil liberties. Oh and our dignity as a nation that once defended human rights but now officially condones practices that we until very recently called torture.

Second and most importantly, Clinton and Obama don't plan to "surrender to terror", whatever that means. (It's not like Bin Laden has an army poised to invade and occupy New Jersey.) No matter the lies from the right wing noise machine, remember: Democrats like Clinton and Obama are Americans. Democrats actually love America. Democrats don't like seeing their fellow Americans being killed by terrorists (or Iraqi insurgents or the Taliban) any more than Republicans. And Democrats if elected will attempt to adopt policies that will seek to protect Americans from terrorist attacks. And such policies may well include NOT INVADING COUNTRIES THAT HAD ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO WITH AL QAEDA OR THE ATTACKS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001!

Sorry for the shouting, but sometimes it's hard to get through to people. Remember - Iraq was not involved with 9/11 (Afghanistan was and we were right to invade, although we have not done very well there), had no WMDs, posed ZERO threat to the United States, and the invasion there was purely a war of Republican choosing, not necessity.

It is a tribute to the right wing noise machine that we have to keep repeating such things. And it is a tribute to the effectiveness of the right wing noise machine, which has cowed the so-called independent major media like CNN and MSNBC to the extent that statements like Romney's are reported straight up with nobody (except Olbermann occasionally) calling them out on it. And Dana Milbank praises Romney's "flawless exit" from the race without even mentioning that he called Obama and Clinton traitors.


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

all we are is dust in the wind

I know we all get concerned when we know of a polluting factory a few miles away, or power stations burning acidic coal a couple of states away. But did you realize that dust from as far away as China and Africa can reach the US by the millions of tons? And better yet, that dust can actually carry microbes and germs that survive the trip and can infect people?

For example, scientists now thing that contaminants and microbes in dust clouds from Africa might be behind the rise in asthma in the Caribbean and southeastern United States.

Stories like this just underscore the importance of a sane approach to the environment. What happens on the other side of the world can touch you.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

a stupid statement by somebody who apparently doesn't understand capitalism

So often it is difficult to narrow down the stupidity and mendacity you see in the news to just a couple of examples. But there was a good one today.

In this article about the housing crisis' affect in the Phoenix area, a guy who publishes a local real estate newsletter - his name is R.L. Brown - criticized the stupid stimulus plan being considered by Congress. Brown said, "From the housing perspective, what would help is some kind of program that would permanently mitigate the resets. But who is going to make the difference up to the investors? It is a real dilemma."

Is R.L. Brown a confused communist or something? "Who is going to make the difference up to the investors?" Does Brown understand how capitalism works? Here, I'll give him a clue about capitalism first, and then an answer to his question second.

In capitalism, investors risk their money. The greater the risk, normally the higher the return. It's really quite simple. And the various financial instruments backed by subprime mortgages, by liar loans, by interest-only mortgages, promised high returns - hence high risk.

So who should make up the difference to the investors? NOBODY. They didn't need anybody to "make up the difference" between the high rate of return they enjoyed on these risky instruments during the years they paid off, and the rate they would have gotten with safer investments. And they don't deserve ONE DIME. That's the name of the game. To "make up the difference" just encourages risky behavior, and the corporate-welfare attitude that when the market goes UP, the government should keep out of it. But when the markets go DOWN, then the cry goes out for Uncle Sam to save everybody from their own greed or poor decision-making.

What does that represent? The ideology of the modern Republican Party.


Monday, February 04, 2008

good news, bad news

The good news from Super Bowl 42's upset New York Giants victory over the New England Patriots - Boston-area sports fans' heads won't swell to dangerously massive proportions just yet, pending the conclusion of the Boston Celtics' NBA season.

The bad news - we missed the perfect (pun intended) chance to shut up the aging ingrates also known as the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Every year, these fading jocks celebrate the defeat of the last undefeated NFL team. Yes, they have every right to be proud of their 17-0 run. But show some class, will ya, and quit cheering when an NFL team suffers its first loss of the year. It's not like YOU had anything to do with it.


Sunday, February 03, 2008

squandering it

It stuns me that people can spend hundreds of dollars every week on drinking and eating out - and as this article discusses, we aren't just talking about the Donald Trumps but about regular people earning regular salaries.

I do find it ironic that Post writer Nancy Trejos writes that personal finance experts suggest that you "Eat at expensive restaurants only on special occasions, not on nights you simply don't feel like cooking. Entertain at home, and ask your friends to bring dishes or drinks."

Because remember, Trejos is the one who recently wrote "As a single, working woman, I don't cook. The last time I had been to a supermarket, frankly, was to buy bags of ice for a party."

In other words, she eats every meal out of the house. Not necessarily at expensive restaurants sure - but it adds up.

Still, the advice she gleaned from experts (surely not her OWN experience) about cutting back some on the drinking and entertaining is good to follow. I guess Trejos is like a doctor who smokes - he or she is still right when suggesting you quit, too.


Saturday, February 02, 2008

not ready

Public health officials say the US isn't ready for a pandemic influenza outbreak. They are of course right.

The health care system as it exists now runs very much on a just-in-time system. That's OK when things are normal. But that would break down rapidly if the number of patients needing care rose dramatically.

There is no profit to be made in preparing for a pandemic. It's a classic market failure. And it's a clear example of where government should step in and be prepared. But in Republican America, there is no interest in doing anything like this. After all, that would require acknowledging the blessed Market is not all-powerful and all-wise. And it would require acknowledging there are a few things only the government can do.

And we can't have that, can we? Better to whistle in the dark and hope there is never another case of a new-to-humans influenza virus making the leap from birds or pigs to people. After all, 1918-19 is so long ago, right?

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Friday, February 01, 2008

enjoy your new climate

Another study, just published in Science, shows that the decline in water supplies in the west is because less snow is falling on the mountains, and more of the moisture is rain. Which means less snowpack, less melting snow, and less water to replenish rivers in the summer.

Which means, Los Angelenos and San Diegans and Phoenixites and Las Vegans - less water for you.

I wouldn't buy a house in any marginally-watered place right now.