Friday, February 29, 2008

An accurate look at the terrorist threat to America.

I. Introduction
II. Ignatius' review
III. What this means
IV. Bush political response
V. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Ah Hah!

Someone with more expertise than I have has confirmed my belief that the so-called "Clash of Civilizations" that Bush, Cheney, McCain and the conservatives want all of us to panic over is almost entirely fiction! As I have been writing for some time now, there is no great organized massive threatening block of enemies out there in the dark threatening to destroy America.

That is not to say that there are no enemies out there who want to do American and Americans harm. There are. But they are really little more than a bunch of disorganized bandits hiding in mountains and jungles and occasionally trying to make brave statements with their terrorist activities.

Their terrorists actions consist primarily of raids on soft (unprotected) targets for the purpose of getting media attention. The media is catered to by attacks characterized by randomness and utter depraved viciousness designed to frighten Americans, but there are no real militarily effective attacks. There can't be. There is no great organization out there that has the capability of taking over America and converting it to radical Islam or anything like that. So we need to look realistically at what the terrorist threat consists of, at what we can and need to do about that terrorist threat, and why the Bush administration has so greatly exaggerated the terrorist threat to conceal their numerous failures to govern.

First we need to look at the true terrorist threat. Former CIA officer and more recently forensic Psychiatrist Marc Sageman has published a book based on his case studies of over 500 Islamic terrorists to explain "...who they are, why they attack and how to stop them." David Ignatius reviews Sageman's book Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century.

II. Ignatius' review of Sagemen's book (excerpt)

Sageman's message is that we have been scaring ourselves into exaggerating the terrorism threat -- and then by our unwise actions in Iraq making the problem worse. He attacks head-on the central thesis of the Bush administration, echoed increasingly by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, that, as McCain's Web site puts it, the United States is facing "a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War against Islamic Extremists" spawned by al-Qaeda.

The numbers say otherwise, Sageman insists. The first wave of al-Qaeda leaders, who joined Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, is down to a few dozen people on the run in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. The second wave of terrorists, who trained in al-Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan during the 1990s, has also been devastated, with about 100 hiding out on the Pakistani frontier. These people are genuinely dangerous, says Sageman, and they must be captured or killed. But they do not pose an existential threat to America, much less a "clash of civilizations."

It's the third wave of terrorism that is growing, but what is it? By Sageman's account, it's a leaderless hodgepodge of thousands of what he calls "terrorist wannabes." Unlike the first two waves, whose members were well educated and intensely religious, the new jihadists are a weird species of the Internet culture. Outraged by video images of Americans killing Muslims in Iraq, they gather in password-protected chat rooms and dare each other to take action. Like young people across time and religious boundaries, they are bored and looking for thrills.

"It's more about hero worship than about religion," Sageman said in a presentation of his research last week at the New America Foundation, a liberal think tank here. Many of this third wave don't speak Arabic or read the Koran. Very few (13 percent of Sageman's sample) have attended radical madrassas. Nearly all join the movement because they know or are related to someone who's already in it. Those detained on terrorism charges are getting younger: In Sageman's 2003 sample, the average age was 26; among those arrested after 2006, it was down to about 20. They are disaffected, homicidal kids -- closer to urban gang members than to motivated Muslim fanatics.

Sageman's harshest judgment is that the United States is making the terrorism problem worse by its actions in Iraq. "Since 2003, the war in Iraq has without question fueled the process of radicalization worldwide, including the U.S. The data are crystal clear," he writes. We have taken a fire that would otherwise burn itself out and poured gasoline on it.

The third wave of terrorism is inherently self-limiting, Sageman continues. As soon as the amorphous groups gather and train, they make themselves vulnerable to arrest. "As the threat from al-Qaeda is self-limiting, so is its appeal, and global Islamist terrorism will probably disappear for internal reasons -- if the United States has the sense to allow it to continue on its course and fade away."

III. What this means

Not only is there no great Islamic Jihad based organization that threatens the foundations of America, there cannot be. While there are a number of people motivated to attack America and Americans, to the extent that the organize, train and try to become more efficient they become highly vulnerable to police and special operations attacks. Their very efforts to attack America are self-defeating, and it is only dreamy youths who think that such efforts have any possibility of success.

When the Bush administration took office, Dick Cheney had the idea that successful terrorists had to have state sponsorship, so he essentially ignored al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Based on Sageman's analysis, it would appear that Cheney's instinct was correct. In the absence of state support that provides training and safe sanctuary areas terrorist organizations could not become major threats. The only thing that was wrong was that improved technology and greater global travel and communication does allow non-state supported terrorist organizations the ability to conduct occasional spectacular attacks that are politically threatening to the incumbent leaders of attacked nations.

Al Qaeda was, in fact, state-sponsored terrorism. They were funded largely by extremists’ religious individuals who spent oil money through Pakistan to create the Taliban-led state of Afghanistan who provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden after Saudi Arabia and Sudan kicked him out. The attack on 9/11 was a one-off result of what was almost state-sponsored terrorism. The funding from Saudi Arabia has been allowed by the Saudi Royal family to bleed-off internal discontent within the Arabian Peninsula, and the creation of the Taliban and the Afghanistan state they ran was a result of the semi-failed state of Pakistan. The American invasion of Afghanistan was a completely appropriate reaction to 9/11 and, according to Sageman, has resulted in the effective destruction of the first wave of terrorists.

IV. The Bush political response

9/11 was a spectacular failure for the new Bush administration. It was a clear demonstration that their focus on missile defense and containment of China was a failed foreign policy. They wanted to do something similarly spectacular to cover up for their failure to prevent 9/11. They had intended to attack Iraq from their first month in office, and 9/11 provided an excuse. Unfortunately, as soon as the public was aware that al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan and was being protected by the Taliban, they were forced to redirect some resources to the invasion of Afghanistan. Because of their continued focus on attacking Iraq, Osama was never caught, but as Sageman points out, the first wave of terrorists has since been effectively destroyed. Without a state-provided sanctuary, terrorist organizations cannot survive.

The point to remember is that the invasion of Iraq was intended as an effort to consolidate Republican control of the American government. Such military and foreign policy actions are the strongest power of the American President. That's why Bush, and now McCain, speak of the Presidency as being Commander-in-Chief. The American President is sharply constrained by the Constitution in all other actions, so Bush and Cheney want everything the President does run under the title of Commander-in-Chief, and they need the Iraq War to continue for that to be effective.

The only real threat to the Bush administration from Iraq is the casualty rate, and by extending the time in Iraq to the point where most of the local ethnic cleansing is finished. With the end of the ethnic cleansing, the American casualty rate has dropped to where the American media is essentially ignoring that country. The Shiite government America has installed makes this easier by not protecting reporters, so that no real information can get out. As long as there is no effective information coming out of Iraq and the casualty rate is low, the Bush administration has been able to extend the Iraq occupation (it's no longer a war) until the end of the Bush administration.

After that the Democratic President, who has no need for the war to maintain his or her power, will withdraw the troops, giving the Republicans the opportunity to blame the Democrats for "losing" the war in Iraq. But as Sagemen points out, the war in Iraq has no purpose except to stir up resentment against Americans and create new terrorists out of stupid young men. The creation of those enemies is what maintains the Republican Party as a viable political entity. Without a steady stream of apparent enemies, there is no reason to vote Republican. The Republican Party has demonstrated its total failure and corruption and has no ability to correct itself.

The Republicans are aware of this. McCain is going to run a campaign against (probably Obama) in which is himself runs above the fray and has kind words, much as Bush did in 2000. But below that level there are at least three-quarters of a billion dollars aimed to label the Democratic nominee with a series of repeated and very nasty lies. (See Josh Marshall's description of the coming Republican campaign.)

V. Conclusion

The nature of the terrorist threat has been obvious to the experts for several years now, but with the publication of Sageman's book we now get objective facts we can review without trying to decide who to trust to tell us the truth.

By looking realistically at the nature and extent of the terrorist threat, it becomes clear that the Bush administration has been severely exaggerating it, encouraging the terrorists, and using that threat to extend their otherwise completely failed administration in power. That fact is that in a Parliamentary system 9/11 itself would have caused the government to fall and the Prime Minister to resign. So would the invasion of Iraq, abu Ghraib, Katrina, and any number of other failures over which Bush and Cheney have presided.

So let's look at the situation realistically. There is going to be a Democratic President elected in November 2008, but the current Congress is complicit in the incompetence and failures of the last seven plus years. That includes most of the Democratic leadership, and they are all going to try to avoid investigating the disasters America has suffered under its failed government. That must not be permitted.

America will require years to recover from the Bush administration series of disasters. A close look at the terrorist threat that has been used by our politicians to justify these disasters is one major step in correcting the problems and rebuilding an America under the Constitution and Rule of Law that we can be proud of. Sageman's book is a major step forward in this effort.

If you find that the use of headings and internal links improves the readability of this essay, leave me a comment. If it doesn't, suggestions would also be nice.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Reform? Louisiana government ethics? Not possible ... but...

For anyone who is familiar with Louisiana politics and government, this is an amazing story. The new (Republican) governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, has forced a set of real ethics reforms through the state legislature.

From the New York times
The new requirements will force all state legislators, as well as most other elected and appointed officials around the state, to disclose all sources of income, real estate holdings and debts over $10,000. (Judges are exempted.) Lawmakers and executive branch officials will no longer be able to get contracts for state-financed or disaster-related work. Lobbyists will also have to disclose their sources of income and will be limited to spending no more than $50 per elected official, per meal; splitting the tab, say among other lobbyists or legislators, will also be prohibited.

The new income disclosure requirements for legislators are comparable to those of Washington State, ranked first in the country by the Center for Public Integrity.
For Bobby Jindal to actually get that pack of crooks that call themselves the Louisiana State Legislature to even pass such legislation is a miracle on par with or even surpassing the Biblical story of Christ feeding the multitude with a very few loaves and fishes.

When I lived in Louisiana it quickly became clear to me that no one there believed there is any value in government organizations. If you need something, you don't ask "the government" for it, you ask some person you know, and if you get anything it is because of your personal relationship with that person. As extreme as it sounds, if you went to the Parish (county) office to get a marriage license, the clerk didn't issue you one because that was her job and doing so was part of her job description. She did it because she was your friend and she was doing you a favor, one you exchanged for the favor of a fee. The culture in Louisiana is that there are no government systems, there are only personal relationships.

Since there are no systems of government, there is no reason to try to make government more efficient. In that kind of atmosphere, ethics reforms not only would not be expected to work, but would be expected to make government even less efficient. [Note: This is my personal observation, not sourced to anyone else.]

So this legislation is truly amazing.

Even more amazing, though, will be if somehow the government of Louisiana can actually implement this ethics legislation in any effective manner. A cynic (which should include anyone closely familiar with Louisiana politics) would suspect that the legislators who voted for this legislation did so with every intention of finding ways around it at the earliest instance. So the heavy lifting is going to be to actually make these ideas work in the culture of Louisiana.

It's going to be interesting.

[ h/t to The Reality-Based Community. ]

What's wrong with fundamentalist "Christianity"? This.

Here is an example of the ways the people who call themselves "Christians" sow divisiveness for no rational reason. From SF Gate:
(02-27) 15:08 PST SACRAMENTO, (AP) --

An evangelical chaplain who leads Bible studies for California lawmakers says God is disgusted with a rival fellowship group that includes people of all faiths.

"Although they are pleasant men in their personal demeanor, their group is more than disgusting to our Lord and Savior," Drollinger wrote on the Capitol Ministries' Web site.

The comments drew immediate fire from others in the capital, including the Republican lawmaker who sponsors Drollinger's Bible study group.

Drollinger said "progressive religious tolerance" is an offense against God and causes harm to its practitioners.

He said the other Bible study group was perpetrating a "deadly lie" by presenting Jesus as "a good moral teacher who loves everyone without distinction."
Drollinger believes that his unproven religious fantasies, of no better validity than those of Joseph Smith of the Mormons or Muhammad who established Islam, are sufficient reason to set men against each other. He'll not be happy until America is trapped in a set of religious civil wars like those bedeviling Iraq today.

Drollinger's behavior itself is totally immoral and is dangerous to others. He imagines that his personal beliefs are justification for shunning others, and if he were given government police powers, he would happily do worse in the name of his warped "God." He is quite unsuited to minister to elected politicians who are trying to make government work to improve society.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Dollar Still dropping (Feb 2008)

Just over a year ago I wrote that if you want to know how America is doing economically, watch the value of the dollar. Well, as of yesterday the dollar has reached a new post WW-II low against foreign currencies.

The Euro was established in 1999 and at at that time the value of one dollar for one Euro was established. Ss of yesterday it cost $1.4981 in Dollars to buy one Euro. Here is the Bloomberg Report:
Feb. 26 (Bloomberg) -- The dollar sank to a record low against the Euro as U.S. home prices and consumer confidence tumbled, bolstering bets the Federal Reserve will keep reducing interest rates.

The U.S. currency declined to the weakest level since the Euro began trading in 1999, and slumped against all 16 of its most-active counterparts. It reached its lowest level of the day after Fed Vice Chairman Donald Kohn said turmoil in credit markets and the possibility of slower economic growth pose a ``greater threat'' than inflation.

Kohn's comment ``confirmed the Fed will keep cutting interest rates,'' said Adam Boyton, a senior currency strategist in New York at Deutsche Bank AG, the world's biggest currency trader. ``That brought more downward pressure on the dollar.''

The dollar weakened to $1.4981 per euro at 4:32 p.m. in New York, from $1.4830 yesterday, falling past the previous historic low of $1.4967 set Nov. 23. The U.S. currency dropped to 107.24 yen from 108.07, and has lost 4 percent this year.

Boyton forecasts a dollar drop to $1.55 per euro in the next three months. He's more bearish than the consensus. The dollar will rebound to $1.48 per euro by the end of March and to $1.40 by year-end, according to the median forecast in a Bloomberg News survey of 41 analysts.

The U.S. currency has lost about a quarter of its value in the past five years, according to the Fed's U.S. Trade Weighted Major Currency Dollar index, which comprises seven currencies of U.S. trading partners. The weaker dollar has made U.S. goods cheaper abroad, boosting exports to a record and shrinking the nation's trade deficit last year for the first time since 2001. [Snip]

`Bleak Assessment'

The U.S. currency extended declines after Kohn, speaking in North Carolina, said ``the adverse dynamics of the financial markets and the economy have presented the greater threat'' to the U.S. economy than inflation.

``Kohn painted a very bleak assessment of the U.S. economy,'' said Brian Dolan, research director at, a unit of online currency trading firm Gain Capital in Bedminster, New Jersey, which has about $250 million funds under management. ``What he indicated is that the Fed will keep providing lower interest rates regardless of inflation. It's outright dollar- negative.''
The rest of the world is watching as the U.S. economy becomes less and less economically competitive against Europe and Asia. The Federal Reserve is now promising to lower interest rates to spur the economy in spite of the threat that such lowering of interest rates will cause an increase in inflation.

The lowered interest rates are all the Fed can do, but they are a short term fix, while the inflation that will result is a longer term threat. At some point, lenders will start anticipating the inflation and increase the interest they charge for loans. That's already happening in the long term mortgage markets. In spite of the recent actions by the Fed to lower interest rates, mortgage rates have not gone down.

In spite of all the happy-talk about how strong the U.S. economy is, there is little evidence to support that talk. That's what the drop in the value of the dollar is telling us.

For some of my previous economic reports, go here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

After Bush/Rove/Ashcroft the federal "justice" system is totally illegitimate

The CBS report on the miscarriage of "justice" that the political prosecution of Alabama Democratic Governor Don Siegelman represents has exposed the total corruption of the American government under Bush and the Republican Party. Dday at Hullabaloo summarizes the case itself:
The nub of the case is that Siegelman allowed HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy to remain on an oversight board on which he had already served, and in return Scrushy gave money to a noble effort to improve education in the state of Alabama, an effort Siegelman approved of. That's literally the reason that Siegelman is in a jail cell right now. This is the kind of thing that, were it actually considered bribery, would put every politician in America in jail. The case hung on evidence that Siegelman walked out of a meeting with Scrushy with the check, a baseless lie spouted by a convicted criminal on Siegelman's staff, and the Justice Department KNEW it was a lie and yet continued the case. 60 Minutes tried to talk with the accuser, a man named Nick Bailey, but the DoJ refused to authorize the interview (he's in a federal prison).
There has been no doubt that the Department of Justice was politicized under both Ashcroft and Gonzalez to bring politically-motivated prosecutions against successful Democratic politicians so that the Republican control of government could be increased, but until now the republicans have been successful in concealing the facts from a media that simply hasn't wanted to search for the Truth. That's what makes the firing of U.S. Attorneys for NOT bringing politicized prosecutions has been all about. But cases like firing San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam because of her successful prosecution of Republican Congressman and her indictments of Brent Wilkes, Mitchell Wade and Dusty Foggo for corrupt dealings with Cunningham and others; for the manner in which Los Angeles U.S. Attorney Debra Yang was bribed to halt her investigations of corrupt Congressmen John Doolittle and Jerry Lewis; the removal of Arizona U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton because he was actively investigating corruption by Congressman Rick Renzi (crimes for which Renzi has recently been indicted after the investigation was slow-walked but did not disappear); and on the opposite side, how Milwaukee U.S. Attorney Steve Biscupic was able to hold onto his job by conducting a similar political prosecution of an innocent Wisconsin civil servant, Georgia Thompson, in order to create an issue to use to defeat the Democratic Governor of Wisconsin.

The prosecution of Governor Siegelman is only the most blatant of these efforts to use the U.S. Federal Courts to elect Republicans by falsely indicting and even imprisoning Democrats. In so doing, the Bush administration has turned the Federal Courts into a bad joke. Dday at Hullabaloo presents this:
Here's the state of justice in America.

It has been 20 months since Siegelman’s trial ended and no trial transcript has been produced by Fuller's court. This is in violation of the rules of criminal procedure which require a transcript within 30 days of sentencing. Siegelman can't appeal his conviction with out an official trial transcript.

The Attorney General, by the way, has said he would rather let the case go through the normal appeals process rather than open an investigation.

Kafka would be proud.
America could get better justice from turning the government over to the Mafia than it has gotten from the Republican Party. At least the Mafia Dons have a reputation for Honor. The Republicans steal more and lack even the pretense of Honor.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

White House doesn't try to maintain Balkan or Israeli/Palestinian stability

Laura Rozen quotes the LA Times to explain why the instability in Serbia and Kosovo is a direct result of Bush administration incompetence.
"Far from stabilizing the region, as the Bush administration had forecast, the move by Kosovo has launched a period of volatile uncertainty."

As a former US diplomat involved in the Balkans commented to me today, "There simply is no serious US leadership at this point on Serbia and Kosovo. It is being handled three or four levels down in the bureaucracy."
Then Laura quotes Melman & Raviv explaining why the right-wing Israeli government's use of assassination of terrorist leaders hasn't worked.
"Israel’s experience shows that assassination – or what Israel terms 'targeted killing' – is a double-edged sword. The policy only pays off in a few special cases. When a state deals with a terrorist group that is basically a 'one-man show,' chopping off the snake’s head by killing the leader can neutralize the group – so that can be justified in cost-effectiveness terms. But when a country encounters a highly motivated, solidified and structured terrorist group, killing its senior members proves to be counter-productive. The dead are soon replaced by members who are sometimes more skillful and more determined."
The common thread between the two stories is hands-off attitude of the Bush White House. They have ignored the Kosovo - Serbian situation until it has now blown up in their face, and they have allowed the Israeli right-wing extremist government free rein in its handling of the Israeli - Palestinian problems. In both cases the Bush administration ignorance and failure to get involved is causing greater problems internationally. That refusal to act is further demonstration of the foreign policy incompetence of the Bush administration.

If you don't regularly read Laura Rozen's blog War and Piece you are missing some of the clearest explanations of current events on-line.

Rove lied when denying the 60-Minutes accusations

As we know, 60-Minutes presented a story saying that Karl Rove was an instigator of the trumped up Department of Justice charges that caused the Democratic governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman, to be removed from office and imprisoned on charges that did not reach the level of any kind of crime. The contents of the 60-Minutes story have been well-leaked in advance, and widely discussed.

A key witness against Karl Rove is Jill Simpson who has testified that she heard discussions among Alabama Republicans that Rove was pushing the Department of Justice to bring charges against Governor Siegelman, and particularly Ms. Simpson has testified that Karl Rove specifically asked her to "find" evidence that the Governor was unfaithful to his wife. Rove wanted her to get compromising photos of Siegelman having sex with one of his aides, something she says she was unable do. She states that she was unable to ever find any evidence supporting the charges that were brought against Governor Siegelman and that the charges which were brought against him were trumped up for political purposes.

This was written about in an Associated Press story Thursday, Feb 21st. The author of that story, Ben Evans, contacted Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, for a comment and was told:
"Mr. Rove never made such a request to her or anyone else," Luskin said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "Had '60 Minutes' taken the trouble to contact Mr. Rove before circulating this falsehood, he would have told them the same thing."
Scott Horton wrote a piece, published February 22 by Harper's which states that he personally knows that what Luskin said in Rove's defense is false.

First, Scott Horton reports that he has personal knowledge that Ms. Simpson had previously made those same statements about Rove attempting to manufacture evidence against Governor Siegelman. He takes Ben Evan's reporting to task:
Ben Evans writes: “She has never before said that Rove pressed her for evidence of marital infidelity in spite of testifying to congressional lawyers last year, submitting a sworn affidavit and speaking extensively with reporters.” Evans is dead wrong on this. If he had written “It has not previously been reported that she said that Rove…” he would be fine. I interviewed Simpson in July and she recounted this to me; and I believe she recounted it to two other reporters as well, one with another major national publication, but I’ll let them speak for themselves. She requested that I not write it up or report it without her prior okay, and I abided by her request. My understanding is that she also gave this information to congressional investigators when they initially interviewed her. So Evans is incorrect.
Then Horton points out Luskin's falsehood and its apparent genesis from Rove himself:
In fact, Rove was contacted by CBS and did speak with CBS about the allegations. Rove insisted that his comments could not be used in any way without his prior permission.

I have no idea what Rove said in that discussion, but I do know that the discussion occurred.

So I’m wondering: did Rove mislead his lawyer about what happened? As we enter the coverage of the Siegelman story with the CBS exposé, much will turn on Rove’s truthfulness. And he has started the process with a predictable pattern: he lies when he thinks he can get away with it, or even better, he has others lie in his stead.
So, has Karl rove committed perjury in his own sworn Grand Jury testimony?

I doubt that we will know as long as the Bush administration controls the Department of Justice. The question is, will the Democrats have to cojones to continue the investigation after taking over the White House in January of 2009?

The history of Democratic leadership wimpihood does not give me any real reason to hope for justice in this case, which would basically mean releasing Siegelman from prison with an apology and putting Rove in to replace him.

One thing that this morning's announcement by Ralph Nadar that he is again running for President did point out is that there really is very little difference between the Republicans and the Democrats in their leadership and their policies. What is different is that the Republicans are willing to take unreasonable risks and then lie about it, assuming they will never be caught, while the Democrats seem to think that as long as they let the Republicans get away with their corruption and lies then the Democrats will get to keep their cushy power jobs for life. Governor Siegelman's imprisonment is apparently just a bit of collateral damage as the leaders of both major parties carefully watch out for their own personal well-being and ignore the American people.

Addendum01 Feb 25, 2008 10:45AM
Go watch the 60 Minute story at TPM Muckraker. Notice that:
  • The two most prominent on air accusers claiming that the prosecution of Governor Siegelman was a political prosecution trumped up by the Bush Republican politicized Department of Justice are, themselves, Republicans.
  • The Department of Justice is stonewalling. They are not announcing any investigation and are refusing to turn over any documents which have been requested, with no reason giving.
Stonewalling implies guilt, and the natural allies of the Republican Department of Justice are among the accusers willing to present their story to the public.

This story isn't going away, and this is a Presidential election year.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Congressman Rick Renzi (AZ-R) indicted for Fraud, money-laundering

This case sure took long enough to percolate up into an indictment. Rep. Rick Renzi has been indicted for fraud and money laundering. According to TPM Muckraker the fraud was using his Congressional office to promote the purchase of land from his buddy, James Sandlin, that the buyers could then swap for more valuable government land. The money laundering charge is based on the way Renzi got his kickbacks through a series of obscure transactions designed to hide the fact that the money he received indirectly from Sandlin was in fact illegal kickbacks. The Bush Department of Justice has been slow-walking the Renzi investigation and indictment, much as they have the investigation of California Rep. Doolittle, but apparently they couldn't keep it under wraps any longer.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hillary is not the revolutionary leader that Obama is.

There is no doubt that the conservative movement has brought America to a very sad low state. We are ineffectively fighting multiple wars in the Middle East while our economy moves into the tank and the middle class is finding itself losing economic ground for the first time since the Depression. Americans are unhappy with the government we have gotten, and the mid-term elections of 2006 are a down payment on that unhappiness. Something is changing, and most of the politicians are unaware of it. The mass media has no clue. It's time for changes. Big changes. The crowds surrounding Barack Obama suggest that he has tapped into the nature of the times, and the times are going to be revolutionary. So what makes the times so revolutionary?

Sara Robinson reports some very interesting research into the causes of revolutions. Some sociologists have study revolution, and they have established a set of conditions that, when they occur, result in revolution. The seven criteria are

  1. Economic conditions for most people soar, then crash

  2. The upper classes no longer consider the condition of the lower classes to be important to what happens to them. There ceases to be a general consensus across all the society that everyone is in it together.

  3. The career and social expectations of the professional and upper military classes cease to be tied to those of the very wealthy. Instead of the best qualified being able to reach the top jobs through talent and hard work, they find that those top jobs are filled by the well-born and wealthy but less competent - like George Bush.

  4. Conservatives who do not believe that government should exist run the government. The result is invariably incompetent government and a great deal of corruption. This is the natural result of putting conservatives in charge of government.

  5. The world is changing rapidly, yet the top government leaders do not react and lead.

  6. The economy is mismanaged to the point of indebtedness, bankruptcy, and currency collapse. Whether through ineptness or corruption is unimportant, although I can identify a great deal of both in the present situation.

  7. The use of force is irrational and unproductive.
    • Domestically criminal punishments are widely seen to be unfair and inappropriate, with clear criminals getting no punishment ("Scooter" Libby) or alternatively, punishments wildly excessive to the crimes are handed out (see the mandatory drug sentencing laws.)
    • Outside the U.S. The military is used in wars that offer no benefit to the nation (Iraq is, of course, a classic example.) "These misadventures not only reduce the country's international prestige and contribute to economic declines; they often create a class of displaced soldiers who return home with both the skills and the motivation to turn political unrest into a full-fledged shooting war." Timothy McVeigh would be a classic example of this latter case.

  8. [If I have not adequately summarized the seven items then the error is mine, not Sara Robinson's.]
I have seen every one of these conditions occur in the last two decades, and have grown more and more upset.

The Vietnam war was a beginning of a lot of it. It was clearly a war we did not need to fight, but our conservatives held every other progressive action the government could take hostage until LBJ was forced to send half-a-million soldiers to that country. His goal was to pass Medicare, the Civil Rights Bill, and the Voting Rights Bill. As bad as the Vietnam War was, LBJ was leading America to the solution of the social problems of lack of health care for the elderly and was resolving the problems of Racism and segregation that have plagued America since European settlers arrived. There has not been an example of national leadership since then, unless you want to count the totally negative attacks on modernity that Ronald Reagan represented. Conservatives don't solve social problems. They shoot the messengers who describe real problems and move into gated communities while siphoning as much money off the middle and lower classes as they can. The predator lending that is represented by payday loans, subprime loans, and increased credit card interest with hidden and surprise fees are just the tip of the iceberg. The bankruptcy bill was another step in the same system of predatory lending. All of that sucks money from the middle and lower classes and hands if over to the wealthy and extremely wealthy, who, unsurprisingly, have been purchasing tax breaks from their Congressmen.

If you want to know why the crowds are surrounding Obama as they are, he is the person who is promising the leadership out of this morass. Hillary, for all her technical skills, simply has not demonstrated the awareness or the leadership to make the changes needed to break up the disaster America has become under the Reagan Revolution and the Bush administration.

The conditions for a real revolution are ripe. Obama has tapped into the feelings the conditions have created, and he is stoking them. Will he be able to provide the real leadership that is going to be required at this time of change?

That is always the question. In Obama we seem to have a man who recognizes the nature of the times and who is offering his leadership to deal with them. The question always remains whether he has the abilities. But one thing is becoming more and more clear - there is no one else on the horizon even willing to try.

The Reagan "Democrats" aren't coming back to the Democratic Party

The so-called Reagan Democrats, the Blue-collar angry white males who left the Democratic Party because they objected to Democratic supported feminism and affirmative action, are talking like they recognize that they are getting the economic shaft and might return to the Democratic Party. It's clear that the Republican Party is not going to do anything about the economic problems such as health care, free trade and the loss of manufacturing jobs to overseas companies they face. Digby points out their real dilemma.
I feel for these fellows' economic plight. They have been getting the shaft for 30 years and there's no end in sight. But until they get over their bigotry I just don't see them voting for the Democrats because the cognitive dissonance is just too great --- the Democratic party is too diverse for them to feel comfortable.
Digby's right.

No matter what the economic cost, those while males as a group will not give up their feeling of superiority over Blacks and Women. They've lived their entire lives with their feelings of innate superiority over women and Blacks to support them when they felt really down. Voting for either a woman or a Black Man will be an admission that they have lived much of their lives for a lie. That simply isn't an admission they are going to make.

The cognitive dissonance of the majority of the white make working class voters, the so-called Reagan Democrats, is going to make it very difficult for them to see how the Republican policies are not related to their real problems are, nor will they admit just how incompetent and corrupt the Republicans have repeatedly shown themselves to be in running government. People strongly resist learning things that contradict what they already think they know, and that resistance increases when what they think they know is very important to them. People also strongly resist admitting that they have been "conned." So the cognitive dissonance of the white working class males who make up the Reagan Democrats is going to be a primary target for conservative spin-masters.

One such group, the Republican multimillionaires for multimillionaire dominance (RMFMD, AKA "Freedom's Watch") are going to be playing this cognitive dissonance up with every dollar, innuendo and lie they can throw at Obama (currently the Democratic Party front-runner.)

I have said this before. All the signs point to this being that nastiest Presidential election any of us now living have ever seen. The conservatives, with no successes and no real positive program to run on have little chance of actually winning the election. They have no long-term goals they can achieve if they lose this Presidential election and they will happily sacrifice any reputation as being honest, moral good people if such sacrifice will let them win the Fall Presidential election.m So they have every reason to use all the tools in their very substantial arsenal of nasty tricks. Why not? If they win the win will cancel out any damage to their reputations. A win will simply make nasty politics seem like sharp, effective politics. And if they lose?

They will leave the public eye and not have to account for their behavior. They will just move somewhere into conservative think tanks (or sinecures like the Pepperdine Law School Presidency that Richard Mellon Scaife bought for Ken Starr or the Hudson Institute where "Scooter" Libby promptly moved after his conviction for orchestrating the exposure of an American CIA Agent) to wait for another Republican administration they can move back into.

All in all, the Reagan Democrats will not be voting for a Democratic candidate this year, and it is unlikely they ever will again. They aren't Democrats now, if they every were. The core reason is the curse of America, racism.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Our American armchair warriors are protecting us from the Greatest Threat Ever

Did you know that the non-military armchair warriors of the National Review Online and the NeoCons are (rhetorically) defending the "the Greatest Country ever to exist on the Earth in all of human history?" from "the greatest Enemy that exists on the planet, the most cunning and nefarious and evil force the world has ever seen -- not just now, but for all of human history."

Glenn Greenwald points to the superior rhetoricians of the American right-wing who man the barricades at a great distance from any real fighting when most Americans are, according to Mark Steyn, "... too weak, too brittle, just not up to the task of bearing the heavy burden of prosecuting the war against the omnipotent jihadi super-villains."

Glenn has it right. These faux-warriors are playing out their fantasies in lurid language at a great distance from any real fighting, so of course they are the true descendants of Winston Churchill. They fight our wars for us at a great distance from any real danger, living vicariously much like teenagers who vanquish dragons in computer games. Only the Faux-warriors want to be given real medals and real respect for their ability to throw super-words at the greatest enemies of all times (until the game shuts down and a new one is started.)

Unfortunately, these faux-warriors are led by their faux-warrior in chief who "had other priorities" rather than going to Vietnam but now resides in the Office of the Vice President sending real soldiers to fight the fantasy wars that make him feel alive.

Dick Cheney has had four heart attacks. It is unlikely that he would be alive today if he didn't have a full-time doctor following him around everywhere he goes. He has a very good reason to fear death, since he cheats it every day merely by waking up, and he has done so for close to a decade now. I'm sure that reading and listening to the lurid rhetoric from the right-wing faux warrior writers makes him feel alive, and feel that his continued life still has some meaning.

So what do the faux-warrior writers get out of the deal? First, they don't have to actually go to Iraq and get shot at, but they get to pretend that they are fighting the greatest battle of all time. [We used to have a word for people like this during the Vietnam War. REMFs. Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers. But at least those REMFs put on the uniform and traveled to where they could get shot at.]

But what else do the faux-warriors get out of the deal? Glenn quotes from Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations:
In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies . . . .

They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war.
These faux-warriors are the kinds of people who called for the idiotic invasion of Iraq in the first place, and who now want the war to continue. Their purpose is not victory, something they neither define nor understand. Their purpose is the rush of vicarious thrill they get from writing about the war in their purple prose, much like the rush that a sports fan gets when he watch a touchdown by whichever sports team he has adopted so that he can feel somehow involved in a sport he doesn't play.

The faux-warriors ignore any hint of reality and of real motives and purposes. The thrill is in the Great Battle for All Mankind. They refuse to inquire into what is really happening in the deserts where frightened people are actually fighting, killing, raping and dying. In their ignorance of reality the faux-warriors are supremely unsuited for any role in deciding what to do with the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the troubles that are growing in Pakistan (among others.) To the extent that they are taken seriously, they make things worse rather than better.

The faux-warriors shouldn't be writing material to be taken seriously by the real warriors who fight these wars and who have to deal with reality. Instead the faux warriors need to be taken to quiet rooms by themselves and given keepers while they meditate on what there is in their personal lived they are working so hard to avoid confronting.

In the meantime, the adults need to be called in to clean up the mess these ignorant and obsessed children have created.

That's part of the change the American public is looking for this year.

The threat of religion in politics

TMP Cafe has had a good discussion of E. J. Dionne's new book Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right (which I have unfortunately not had time to read.) As part of that excellent discussion, Brian McLaran makes some very good points that provide some explanation of my attitude towards religion in American politics.

I have a long-time interest in both European history and in Military history, so the history of the European Thirty Years War is familiar to me. Here is what Brian has to say about the Thirty Years War:
I’ve been thinking about how we who are deeply and un-secretly religious can tell the story of our nervous-about-religion colleagues in a more sympathetic light, following Dionne’s example.

One way would be to go all the way back to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which arguably set the stage for the idea of secular government, separation of church and state, and a “naked public square.” The complex war pitted the Protestant League against the Holy Roman Empire, while Protestant Germans and Catholic Germans fought a bloody civil war. The protracted Christian-versus-Christian warfare was brutal enough to cast today’s Sunni-Shiite conflicts in a new light. Scholars estimate that at least 15 to 20% of the German population was killed either through direct combat or war-related famine and disease; many estimate the figure closer to 30%, and in some areas, it was closer to 60%. The conflict in Germany threatened to spread south to France, which played no small part in producing the anxiety that inspired Rene Descartes to right his Discourse on Method in 1637, which in turn became a seminal document in the development of the Enlightenment… the intellectual foment in which our own Constitution was forged.

In light of this history, I’m suggesting, my atheist and agnostic friends who find all this talk of faith and politics very disturbing have good reason for their concern: they carry on the tradition which remembers the brutality of “holy wars” in the so-called “Christian West.” They oppose religion in the public sphere not because they hate God and goodness, but because they love peace and civility, and they remember the violence, bigotry, and division that have been so often associated with religion across history. Until religious people can demonstrate an ability to bring their faith into politics in a responsible, respectful, civil, unifying, and charitable way, they have every right to be suspicious.
The highlighted sentence above describes exactly my fear of religious beliefs which are enacted by government fiat and which have behind them the power of the Army, the police and the courts.

I would also include the history of the religious strife in England between Catholics and Protestants from Elizabethan times through the English Civil War which were finally resolved by the Glorios Revolution of 1688. The Glorious Revolution (also known as the Bloodless Revolution) occurred when the English Parliament declared itself superior to the King of England, removed King James II of England because of his efforts to reignite the English Civil War and install Catholicism as the state religion of England. The Parliament replaced King James with William and Mary and introduced the Constitutional idea that the Parliament was the supreme political entity in the English democracy with the power to remove any monarch it did not approve of.

The new political arrangements brought an end to the two centuries of religious wars, and were very much in the minds of the writers of the U.S. Constitution only a century later. They, too, wanted peace and civility.

The recent actions of Judge Roy Moore to install the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court and to claim the Bible as the source of American law is representative of a clear effort to destroy the three century old accommodation between religion and government. The removal of that accommodation can only destroy the peace and stability that arrangement. The U.S. has enshrined the separation of Church and State in the U.S. Constitution, not to eliminate religion, but to do the most basic job of every government, keep the peace.

Oddly enough, while removing the strong separation of Church and State will cause strife and violence to spread through America, it will weaken religion here. It has already brought the competition between the ideas and institutions of fundamentalist Christianity and the mainline protestant religions into the public political sphere where they are being fought out be people who have little understanding of either the theological issues or the political and social issues involved.

Fundamentalist religion exists primarily because it provides a route to peace and safety through unthinking action, directed by apparently knowledgeable leaders. Fundamentalism represents the promise by religious leader that they will show them the way to the resolution of social and political problems that most of its adherents do not understand and do not wish to study. Fundamentalism everywhere is inherently authoritarian and works in part by isolating its followers from competing ideas. The efforts by the Discovery Institute to replace the teaching of Evolution in public schools with the Biblical narrative of Creationism is an example of how such isolation from competing ideas works.

Brian McLaren's discussion of E. J. Dionne's book also points out why there is such a political movement in recent years to make government subordinate to Evangelical and fundamentalist religion. The Evangelicals and Fundamentalists felt thoroughly threatened by the clear opposition to their form of Christianity that came out of the 60's and the 70's.
as Dionne suggests (in Chapter 8, for example), the anti-religious bias of late modernity has been one of the primary stimulants for the resurgence of religious fundamentalism: after all, any community under threat tends to be energized by fear and thrust into a defensive posture.

Which may explain the anxious tone and negative comments of some nonreligous folk. Just as religious folk fear being marginalized by secularists, secular folk may fear (with more statistical reason, it should be noted) being marginalized by the religious; just as religious folk fear the negative social consequences of materialism and atheism, nonreligious folk fear the negative social consequences of religiosity.
That "defensive posture" in religious terms is the essence of Fundamentalism. This is true not only in Christianity, but also in Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Having grown up an Anglican and lived all my life in the conservative Southern Baptist theocracy of Texas I can recognize the feeling of being marginalized for my beliefs. Our local Anglican Bishop, The Rt. Rev. Jack Leo Iker Bishop of Fort Worth, has resolved the tension between being an Anglican leader in fundamentalist Texas by adopting the fundamentalist view of Christianity. He has filled all the local parishes with Priests who agree with his views, and has rejected the elevation of a gay man to the level of Episcopal Bishop. He has also rejected the authority of the first woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, D.D., Ph.D, ever to become Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church. At the moment he is attempting to remove his Diocese from the control of the American Episcopal Church and join with like-minded Bishops in Africa. So because of his fears that his views of religion are not being respected within his own denomination, he is prepared to destroy the American Episcopal Church.

It is this extremist reaction to feeling marginalized for his beliefs that is the hallmark of all fundamentalist religions, and is the core threat the bringing such religious ideas into the political realm and giving their leaders the power to control the police, courts, prisons and the Army that leads me to my own belief that such religious ideas and leaders are dangerous to the peace and stability of our society.

Am I afraid of fundamentalists? Of course. Are they reacting to fear of being marginalized in society? Certainly. So fear begets fear, and if the resulting conflict is brought into government the outcome will be civil strife. Not "maybe." It WILL happen. That has always been true in history, and there is no reason for it to change today. That's why the accommodation between religion and government that grew out of the Thirty Years War, The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution in 1688 remains our greatest protection today.

That's the biggest threat of bringing religion into politics.

Can the reaction of increasing fear on both sides of the conflict be avoided? That's apparently what E. J. Dionne has written his book about. I find it helpful to recognize how fundamentalists have felt themselves marginalized by the mass media culture of the 60's and 70's. Since I have felt a similar marginalization in the Southern Baptist Theocracy of Texas all my life, it makes sense to me. Can they see how very threatening they are to people like me? The efforts to force the teaching of creationism instead of science in public schools, the rejection and demonization of homosexuality for no rational reason, and the clearly idiotic idea that somehow the narratives in the Bible are to be read word for word literally as an instruction book in science and history does not give me much hope in their openness to my views. I hope E. J. Dionne is right.

Krugman: the markets are suffering from a loss of faith

I have been quite negative on the prospects for the American economy for the next at least two years. While some economists, finance experts and government officials keep saying it will be a mild downturn and maybe not even a recession, I continually see things pointing to reduced demand from consumers, no reason for investors to invest (because they can't anticipate an increase in demand) and no effective actions being taken by the government that are large enough and properly targeted at consumption to make any difference. Even the drop in the value of the dollar, which should increase demand for exports, will be smaller than the increase in import prices (especially the price of energy.)

On top of that, consumers need either increased income from some source or access to loans in order to demand more goods and services. But employment is going down, not up, and the banks are cutting back on loans while the credit card companies are increasing interest rates on their credit cards.

In the absence of increased wages, which we aren't going to see without an increase in the economy (which requires the increased demand to trigger) loans are the only possible source of funds for consumers.

So Paul Krugman explains why there will be no increase in loans. What started out as a crisis in subprime mortgage loans has taken the entire financial industry largely out of the business of making loans of almost any kind. Why? Because those loans are based on trust between the lender and the borrowers, and that trust is gone.
...this week the state of Michigan suspended a major student-loan program because of the sudden collapse of another $300 billion market you’ve never heard of, the market for auction-rate securities.

Why has a crisis that began with loans to a limited group of home buyers ended up disrupting so much of the financial system? Because, ultimately, it’s more than a subprime crisis; indeed, it’s more than a housing crisis. It’s a crisis of faith. [Snip]

Like many of the financial innovations that are now being called into question, auction-rate securities are complicated deals that seemed to offer something for nothing.

They seemed to offer the borrowers — typically local governments or quasi-governmental agencies, like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Michigan Higher Education Student Loan Authority — a way to borrow long term without paying the relatively high interest rates investors usually demand on long-term loans.

At the same time, they seemed to offer investors an asset that was as good as cash — readily available whenever needed — but paid higher interest rates than bank deposits.

The operative word in all of this, of course, is “seemed.”

Auction-rate securities seemed as good as cash because they involve regular, well, auctions, held as often as once a week, in which investors wanting out sell their positions to investors wanting in. In principle, it was always possible for auctions to fail for lack of enough willing buyers — but that wasn’t ever supposed to happen.

Meanwhile, these securities seemed like a good deal for borrowers despite the fact that they contain a penalty clause: if an auction fails, the interest rate the borrower pays jumps up. (The Port Authority, which had a failed auction last week, just saw the interest rate it pays leap from 4.3 percent to 20 percent.) You see, there weren’t ever supposed to be failed auctions, so the penalties weren’t supposed to be relevant.

Now, what wasn’t ever supposed to happen has. In the last few weeks, a series of auctions have failed, leaving investors who thought they had ready access to their cash stuck, even as borrowers find themselves paying penalty rates.

The collapse of the auction-rate security market doesn’t reflect newly discovered problems with the borrowers: the Port Authority is as financially sound today as it was a month ago. Instead, it’s contagion from the broader credit crisis.

One channel of contagion involves monoline bond insurers, the specialized insurance companies that are supposed to guarantee debt. These companies insured buyers of local government debt against losses — but they also guaranteed a lot of subprime-related investments, which makes everyone wonder whether they’ll actually have the money to compensate losers in other markets.

More important, however, is the way the ever-widening financial crisis has shaken investors’ faith in the whole system. People no longer trust assurances that fancy financial instruments will function the way they’re supposed to — after all, they know what happened to people who thought their subprime-backed securities were safe, AAA-rated investments. Why, then, should they believe that auction-rate securities are as good as cash?

And loss of trust can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now that new investors won’t buy auction-rate securities because they no longer believe that they’re as good as cash, those securities become a much worse investment. [Snip]

One simple measure of the seriousness of the credit problem is this: although the Federal Reserve has sharply cut the interest rate it controls over the past few weeks, the borrowing costs facing many companies and households have actually gone up.

And the financial contagion is still spreading. What market is next?
So when I hear some spokes person saying that the financial crisis that America has been in since before last Summer will be mild and short, I've got to ask what that person knows about the economic forces that will change the current direction of the economy? Consumers have to start spending more, and to do that they have to somehow get more to spend. Where does it come from?

And forget supply side economics. Businesses already have plenty of cash in reserve to invest. They simply can't find good investments to spend the money on. Giving government money to businesses will not change the lack of consumer demand that would generate new investments. It will just give the companies more money to provide bonuses to their failed managers or to invest overseas somewhere outside the U.S.

The financial theories that underpinned the credit instruments that no longer work have not been corrected, nor are there new ideas to replace the old, failed ones. Without trust in those instruments, the investors will not lend money because they are afraid they will lose it.

This is not a prediction of deep dark financial gloom forever. There will be some lending done that works, other lenders will observe it over time, and the early lenders will make big money, attracting more lenders and borrowers to that market. But "over time" means more than six months to a year.

In the meantime, our economy is in for a bumpy ride, and sweet words will not change that. They'll just sucker some lenders into markets that aren't ready to work yet, causing them to either not be able to make deals or the deals that are made will fail.

That's where we are right now. And a lot of the problem is, as Krugman said, based on a failure of trust in the lending markets.

My idiosyncratic list of John McCain's negatives as candidate for President

It's reasonably clear now that John McCain will be the Republican nominee for President this year. As a Democrat I have to say that I think he is the strongest choice the republicans could make, but that doesn't make him a real strong choice. So I decided to list the problems Sen. McCain will have to overcome in order to win the general election. Here's my list:

  • The Recession. It is here, and the incumbent party will take the blame.

  • The fragmentation of the Republican coalition. McCain’s first efforts will have to be to pull the Republican Party back together, but the Social Republicans don’t trust him, the extremist conservatives and their radio talk hosts don’t like him, and his efforts to get those extremists to vote for him will be a turn-off for the independent voters he desperately needs in the general election.

  • McCain’s performance in the Republican nomination has been less than sterling. Starting as the front-runner, he immediately went bankrupt, was replaced by Giuliani, and when Rudy collapsed, the front runner because Mitt Romney rather than McCain. The refusal of a large block of Social Republicans to vote for a Mormon sank Romney, and then the choice devolved back to McCain, who has been unable to beat Huckabee convincingly.

  • The Republican anti-immigrant efforts are widely seen by Hispanics as being anti-Hispanic, much as was the case when then-governor Pete Wilson destroyed the California Republican Party with his very similar efforts.

  • The still lingering Iraq war. The war may cause some militarists to vote for McCain as most likely to conduct it with the greatest will, but at least as many voters, including a lot of independents, will vote against him for exactly that reason. As long as the casualty rate remains low, the media will not publicize the war, so it is not the level of problem the Recession will be, but it will be a net problem.

  • McCain’s reputation for a hot temper along with his clear militarism (Bomb Iran, 100 years in Iraq, etc.) will make him a prime target for being described as unfit to control the American nuclear arsenal, much as Goldwater was in 1964.

  • Bush’s unpopularity and the reputation for incompetence that the Bush White House has earned will carry over to any Republican candidate for the Presidency.

  • McCain’s demographic is primarily all white, all male. This is rapidly becoming a minority group of voters in America.

  • McCain is the oldest candidate every to run for the White House. McCain has glibly attempted to neutralize this but the comparison between the old man McCain and the much younger Obama will be very difficult for McCain to carry off successfully.

  • The general unpopularity of the Republican party and the clear exhaustion of the conservative movement present real obstacles for McCain, which his age and lack of charisma will do nothing to overcome.

There may be other items I am overlooking, but this is a large collection of negatives for any one candidate to overcome. It's going to be interesting to see how the McCain campaign attempts to neutralize these items.

This said, I still don't think the general election is going to be a Democratic Party blowout.

If I've missed anything, leave me a comment.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

I guess that's what allies are for.

It's a good thing we have allies like Saudi Arabia to help us deal with terrorist jihadis. Of course, there is the question about how long we can afford to turn a blind eye to the extreme bribes they demand for being our ally, but do we dare stop bribing them and investigate what they have gotten up 'til now?

See Laura Rozen at War and Piece.

So what is the social and economic value added by private health insurance firms?

Any fact-based and rational discussion of America's health insurance "system" will get stuck on the question "What do private health insurance companies do to add value to the health delivery system? Here is a brief discussion from Harold Pollack :
Why do we have this industry again? I understand that history and politics make this industry hard to replace, but what social value does it really create? I don't ask this question about the oil industry, the pharmaceutical industry, or computer software giants. Whatever the misdeeds of particular firms and the pressing needs for public regulation in these latter industries, we understand why it's good to have firms competing to find new energy sources, new drugs, new operating systems. I don't believe private insurers are less ethical, as a whole, than soft drink manufacturers or manufacturers of plush carpet. I just can't explain what we are getting here.

In the case of private health insurance, firms have some expertise administering claims and perhaps designing wellness programs. Yet to the extent that their business relies upon avoiding high-cost patients their activities are social wasteful. In so many ways, their incentives are poorly aligned with the public good.

Even if we could correct these misplaced incentives, it seems as though anything beneficial insurers can do could be accomplished better and cheaper by government. Private insurers are too fragmented to promote needed efficiencies such as electronic medical records. A Chicago provider dealing with 20 payers is hardly swayed by the pay-for-performance standard of any one of them. In general, private payers are too fragmented to exert powerful market discipline on providers. The embarrassing history of Medicare managed care provides one of many embarrassments for those who assert the inherent superiority of the private sector.

Private insurers do have two advantages: They are more nimble than government is. More important, they can take the political heat for saying "no" when patients want some desirable but unjustified service, drug, or therapy. This is hard for government to do, and "no" should sometimes be said even when this is painful.

But maybe we have this backwards. It seems to me that even when insurers are justified in saying no--as Cigna might have been in the liver transplant case promoted by John Edwards, and as insurers sometimes are regarding potentially useless or harmful experimental therapies--profit-making firms lack the legitimacy to deny anyone a desperately wanted treatment that provides some plausible benefit. Denying important treatments is an inherently political question. A transparent process, by financially disinterested parties, is required to secure public legitimacy.

If this is so, private insurers themselves have a strong stake in government assuming a larger role in scrutinizing costly therapies. And they have a strong stake in some larger regulatory structure to constrain the more predatory aspects of current market practice.

I write this as (by HuffPo standards) a politically moderate free-trade policy wonk who instinctively favors market solutions for most economic concerns. If people like me feel this way--and many of us do--the industry should be worried.
We know that any reform of the health care system will immediately face insurance company financed "Harry and Louise" ads to try to scare voters out of rationally considering the problems insurance companies cause and their inability to add anything positive to the health care delivery system. But really, are physicians and nurses so brain washed that they are willing to continue to waste thousands of man-hours trying to get insurance companies to do things that are rational and provide decent patient care?

It is fear of government bureaucracy? Why is rational government bureaucracy any less efficient than the existing multiple bureaucracies of thousands of different health insurers? (Answer - a single government-run bureaucracy is clearly capable of being much more efficient than what we have now.) Given that the inherent difference in the source of a bureaucracy is negligible, then the clear cost savings of a single, rational bureaucratic system with a decent appeals system and media oversight is obviously preferable to the current inefficient and corruption-ridden private enterprise system. And health care providers will have greater ability to influence a government-run single payer health care financing system than they do to influence powerful insurance executives who answer to no one except their investors.

I think America is ready for realistic health insurance reform. I do wonder if Barack Obama understands why previous efforts have failed and what he has to do to avoid those same traps if and when he is elected President. Hillary is clearly the preferred candidate if the intent is to reform health care. She understands the need and understands many of the pitfalls that Bill Clinton was unable to navigate around in 1993.

This is a subject that needs to be continually readdressed. America can't afford the gold-plated system that fails one in six Americans when they need it.

Conservative America - where wealth and power is rewarded instead of work

Work hard and you will be rewarded in America. We still get taught that in school - but under the Reagan Revolution you will only get part of the reward for your work. The rest is siphoned off and redistributed to the wealthy and the powerful. That's what is meant by the statistics showing greater disparity between the wealthy and the superwealthy and the rest of us. It's not better educated workers getting paid more in the global economy for economic reasons. It's the power-based redistribution of income upwards from the workers who produce the wealth to the wealthy and powerful who define the rules of who gets the rewards.

Part of this results from the changes in tax codes that make the middle class pay a larger percentage of their income after family support than is true for the wealthy and especially the superwealthy. But even more comes from the redistribution of power away from workers and from the government to the investors and top management class. The Reagan Revolution is building a Latin-American style plutocracy in America by shifting power from the workers and their government to the wealthy and the superrich.

This is bad economics in the first place since it rewards position and class rather than effort, but it also has social consequences as the connection between effort and the reward for that effort is severed.

For all the conservative rant that America should be a nation based on "free enterprise" what has happened in America since the 1960's is that people get wealthy primarily by getting a government contract or a government-protected monopoly. The ideal of the American economy used to be that the people who did the productive work that created wealth were rewarded more for their productivity than were the managers who organized the work, and the investors who merely contributed money to the enterprise were the least rewarded because their effort was the least productive. That's the ideal of a middle class nation. It is the skills and efforts of the middle class that actually produce more and better goods and services, and the efforts of those who merely reorganize those productive efforts should not be rewarded more than the efforts of those who actually do the final productive work of wealth creation.

How do you get the most wealth creation and greatest productivity from a society with a modern economy embedded in it? You provide the greatest reward to those who do the real work rather than to the managers, investors and politicians.

In the last thirty years especially American has changed. The rewards for productive effort have been distributed away from those who actually create the final goods and services towards those with the power and money to decide who gets rewarded and who does not. David Cay Johnston's new book Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill) provides numerous examples of how our society now rewards wealth, power and position rather than productive effort.

Contrary to the fictions the Reagan conservatives keep spouting, this redistribution of wealth from the workers and families up to the very wealthy is a political function, not an economic one. Every time a big-box store like Wal-Mart or Costco arranges with local governments to not have to pay local taxes for a decade or more to locate a story in a community, they gain an economic advantage over the local stores which still have to pay those taxes. I used to trade at two local hardware stores where I got good service and advice along with the hardware, tools and parts I needed, but home Depot and Lowe's opened up, cut the prices because of the tax benefits the County gave them, and sucked up the business that had gone to my local hardware stores.

I'm not getting lower prices because now I have to drive ten miles instead of two, and park half a mile from the big box store in a dangerous anonymous parking lot instead of right in front of my local store. I also can't find anyone who can help me figure out how to deal with my plumbing or lawn problem. And oddly enough, the amount of product that Home Depot and Lowe's make is roughly the same as the amount of tax incentive they got the County commissioners court to give them to open in the first place. That money is sucked out of my community into the pockets of those wealthy and powerful enough to get the special government privileges that makes the big-box business model profitable in the first place. So Our community is poorer, we have fewer total jobs and the ones we have pay less than when we had local hardware stores, and the only winners have been the wealthy and politically connected investors. Welcome to the Reagan Revolution - the revolution in which plutocrats, investors and top managers of big business conglomerates are disproportionately rewarded because of the positions they occupy instead of the actual wealth they personally produce.

Rick Perlstein quotes Tom Geoghegan who describes the social and economic results of this failed economic structure in See You in Court: How the Right Made America a Lawsuit Nation :
It took ten years—almost all of the 1990s—for the median family income to get to the same level that it was, in real terms, in 1989. But in 1999, when we got to the same income level we had in 1989, the "median" family had to work six more weeks a year.

To keep from falling, the 1999 middle class had to work six more weeks a year for free. Not a few more hours—six more weeks! By the way, maybe it's worth pausing to say this: No wonder our FDP keeps shooting up, if the middle class is being forced to work for free.

But all this unpaid extra labor tends to undermine the Rule of Law.

Why? The economist John Maynard Keynes put it best: "Nothing corrupts society more than to disconnect effort and reward." That's what did in the old Soviet Union: no matter how hard one worked, one could not get ahead of someone who did not work at all. All that is what is happening in the United States, too. Of course, in a certain way our country would seem the very opposite of the Soviet Union. Here, if people don’t' work, they're going to end up homeless. Then again, if they do work, they may end up homeless, too.

That's the point. Like the USSR, we are slowly breaking the connection between effort and reward. And in terms of the Rule of Law, that's a dangerous thing to do. It's dangerous to push the middle class into questioning the fairness of the rules.

The danger is that people in the middle class will begin to see the world as arbitrary and unfair—unpredictable, a matter of luck, a chance of catastrophe around the corner. It does not matter if they work the extra hours. Over 40 percent of American families have less than $5,000 in savings. One bill, a hurricane out of the blue, can blow everything away.

So, quietly and to themselves, people at the median or below have to wonder, as the country becomes fabulously wealthy: Why play by the rules?

I may even understate the case. The disconnect between effort and reward is much greater than it seems. Some families lost income, though they worked harder. But they became wealthier. How? They made money off their homes. But this is not "effort." It's not even savings. It's just something that happened arbitrarily, to me, but not to many others. The moral is: Hard work doesn't pay.

Let's go back to my earlier example. I doubt many people did actually get back to the same 1989 level of income in 1999. Think of pensions. Fewer working people had pensions, though they worked longer. Or they had bigger administrative fees. Think of health insurance. Fewer people had it. Or they had bigger deductibles. They lost out, even with six more weeks of work. Perhaps our moral character can survive one decade of that kind of thing, but it keeps going.

Why is this so dangerous for the Rule of Law? It's simple. If we do not expect the world to be reasonable and fair, then sooner or later we do not demand or expect those qualities from the law, either. We get used to arbitrariness and unfairness. Sometimes we take a certain glee in it—at least when arbitrary things happen to others. Worse, as fewer of us vote, or even watch the news, we experience the legal system not just as arbitrary but as alien. It's something that is imposed on us. We did not consent to it. We didn't vote.

Worse, the more we drop out, the more arbitrary and unpredictable the Rule of Law becomes. The unions, political parties, and other institutions such as the liberal churches helped us shape a certain legal system. When they began to weaken, the law itself begins to change. It became less rational and predictable. It is not just that people now perceive the law as less rational and predictable. It really is.

Maybe the country will survive it. Maybe the less rational and predictable the law becomes, the more people will go along. They will accept it up to a point, as in backward societies, because they will experience the Rule of Law in the same way they experience the world.
America became a wealthy and powerful nation because the availability of free land severed the connection between rewarding land ownership and rewarding hard work. Individuals who wanted to get rewarded for their own work merely had to open new land and put their effort into the enterprise.

When the wealthy landowners tried to get government to tax the new middle class for reasons that did not contribute to their economic success, they used their numbers to change the way government was controlled. The shock expressed by many who had been leaders during the American Revolution when Andrew Jackson took control of the government is clear in history, but the Jacksonian Democrats were people who were used to being rewarded for their effort and weren't going to let a few large landowners (A.K.A. "The Right People") take the rewards away from them.

The fact that the American South with its plantation culture and slavery did not participate in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution (and has yet to get fully with the program) is a clear demonstration of the economic superiority of rewarding the efforts of labor more than land, capital or that strange, mostly ideological economic concept, Entrepreneurship. [Land, Capital and Entrepreneurship are not unimportant economic factors, but the rewards to those who do the final job of creating goods and services are the most powerfully productive rewards in the system. That's what the statement that "a business' most important assets are its workers" really means.]

The reason why laissez faire economics does not work is that it assumes that the social and power structures of society will somehow automatically gravitate to those which produce the best good, services, and social benefits. Unfortunately, there is no automatic pressure or mechanism that makes that true. In fact, in some markets such as a private insurance-dominated national health care system, the assumption that somehow the market will give the best results at the lowest possible cost is clearly false.
America needs to seriously reconsider the reward structure in has in place and that will include, but not be limited to, the tax structure. What social benefit is returned from the super-rich that justifies their failure to pay a greater percentage on their incomes in taxes than those with the least income? The super-rich get proportionately more form society, they should support it proportionately more. Is there any social benefit at all in allowing great wealth to be inflicted on the descendants of wealthy families? Is that not simply an incentive for them to NOT be productive and instead play power politics for the sole purpose of protect their social position?

America has had a three decade experiment with the Reagan Revolution. The Reagan Revolution and the conservative movement that has inflicted in on America has clearly failed our society and our nation. It needs to be rethought and re-worked.

A major element of that rethinking is how work is rewarded. Today it is more likely for most people to become wealthy by hitting the lottery than by the results of their hard work. That is simply wrong, and destructive on any society that is supposedly built on the rule of law and also wants to be an economically productive nation that can compete in the world economy.

Conservative thought is based on the assumption that the nation exists to support business and reward the rich and powerful. Somewhere in the Reagan Revolution the idea that the heart of our nation is its families, and that business and the economy exist to improve life for the workers and their families, not for the CEOs, the investors and the politicians who enable them. Conservative thought and actions have failed America.

It's time for American to return to its roots as a middle class nation not dominated by an aristocracy. Instead, work needs to be properly rewarded and families supported by the economy.

Friday, February 15, 2008

KO: "President Bush Is A Liar And A Fascist"

Keith Olberman calls out George Bush on his ridiculous fearmongering.

It's about time.

Bush has decided not to carry out his threat to cancel his trip to Africa after all. Good. Now if he will just buy a small house and stay there, America will be much better off. Bush is not only not needed here (except by the stenographers passing themselves off as Washington reporters), America would function a lot better in Bush's permanent absence.

Bloomberg - who needs him?

The Republicans have decided that John McCain is going to be their candidate, and they hope that he can pull the fractured elements of their party together for long enough to at least conduct a credible campaign for the November general election. The Democrats are working hard to deal with their embarrassment of riches in which there seem to be too many good candidates to make a decision among them an easy one.

So who in Hell needs a Mike Bloomberg run for the Presidency? David Sirota writes about the Bloomberg idiocy.
Our media love to tell us just how much Americans are pining for an independent presidential candidacy, and specifically, just how much potential support there is for a Mike Bloomberg for President campaign. But as I show in my new nationally syndicated newspaper column out today, both assertions are fiction. That begs a simple question - one that ties into my upcoming book: Why is the Establishment so adamant about jamming a candidacy down our throat that we so clearly do not want? Why is the political elite so insistent on crushing what has become a full-fledged uprising in 2008?

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that Bloomberg is extremely unpopular on the national stage. Gallup reports that "the American public does not appear to believe it is important or necessary for an independent candidate outside of the traditional two major parties to step into the race in order to save the nation." And America clearly isn't interested in an independent candidacy who, as Glenn Greenwald notes, holds extremist views on major issues like Iraq (sidenote: As part of my ongoing efforts to use the column to promote fellow progressives, Glenn is featured in the column).

And yet the Bloomberg bandwagon in the media continues to grow ever larger. Barely a day goes by without some fawning story speculating about Bloomberg's potential run for president - implying that he has some sort of huge mass constituency and political monopoly on so-called "competence" and "bipartisanship."

The disconnect between what Americans actually want and what the Establishment wants America to want reflects just how petrified the elite are right now. They look at both parties' potential nominees and realize that they each potentially represent some form of fundamental change - and that scares them. And so they are desperate for someone - anyone! - to suppress what Alexander Hamilton called the "popular passions" and champion the status quo's "permanent will."
So we have the Republicans who are the party of fear and war, and the Democrats who think that the demonstrated incompetence of the Republicans are sufficient justification for replacing the Republicans in the White House and regaining control of Congress.

So who is Bloomberg's constituency besides a few media voices? Billionaires for Bloomberg? What is that? A constituency of one very large ego and a massive pocket book?

We don't need him here in Texas, and he offers nothing apparent that Washington needs. He needs to be satisfied with buying the job of Mayor of New York and forget buying the Presidency. Or perhaps he merely wants to see how much money he can waste on votes, the way Mitt Romney, Phil Gramm, and John Connelly all have done.

FISA: Senate Democrats lack cojones, forcing Pelosi to develp hers - Evolution at work?

After the Senate unsurprisingly caved in on the FISA bill Wednesday, it has gone back to the House, since the version they previously passed did not include telecom immunity. The Congressional Republicans, supported by Bush, have refused to allow another extension of the existing FISA law without telecom immunity, clearly intending to put pressure on the Democrats to cave in and permit the telecoms to avoid lawsuits for their earlier lawbreaking activities. So, lacking House concurrence with the Senate version, FISA will expire Friday evening.

What did Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats do? They adjourned the House for the long President's day weekend as previously planned.

Shocked House Republicans then walked out of the House proceedings since they weren't getting their way, and Bush whined that the Democrats were obstructing his actions as the King of America Unitary Executive.

I am so damned tired of hearing an aggrieved Bush who feels he is not getting his way get on TV and whine about how bad he is being treated and how dangerous it supposedly is for America if we ignore his stupidities. And when he isn't whining, he is lecturing America on crap he himself is utterly clueless on. The man is barely literate, and somehow he is the expert who explains why everyone else is wrong? He doesn't know enough personally to question the aides who advise him and lacking that knowledge he doesn't know enough to appoint decent qualified aides.

Of course, the media is happy to report Bush's whine, without context or understanding that (A) the entire issue is made up by the Bush and the Republicans for political gain and is meaningless in terms of national security and (B) they ignore the real damage that the telecom immunity provision does to the American Rule of Law.

Michell Cottle at The New Republic points out how utterly out of it the media coverage on the FISA issue is. Her excellent example: "Every time Congressional Democrats do something Bush remotely doesn't like, he puts out an angry statement. It's like writing a story about the Capitol burning down and headlining it, "Many Cameramen Gather at Capitol." The media is so damned busy reporting what Bush whines that they don't even bother to find out what the Democrats really did and why. That's another example of the fact that Washington Reporters exist by rewriting handouts and stenographically reporting leaks instead of real reporting. It's clear that Washington reports as a group are paid way too much for what they actually do.

But we should all be proud of Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats. We need to see more of that kind of behavior where politicians put the needs of America above Bush's whines and the Republican Party's power plays and temper tantrums.

Go Nancy!

Clinton campaign: trapped in unreality, spouting blind spin

The Clinton campaign seems stuck, with wheels spinning but traction lost. Obama seems to be moving rapidly towards the nomination with the wins over the last weekend. The political momentum is away from Clinton and towards Obama, and the Clinton campaign seems to have no idea what action they can take to change the situation.

The Clinton campaign has responded with strange, unrealistic threats that they will take the nomination based on the decisions of the superdelegates even if Obama gets more regular delegates. This has been a major misstep, one that Josh Marshall blames on Clinton adviser Mark Penn.

How a misstep? Take a look at yesterday's post by Digby. The suggestion from the Clinton campaign that if the regular delegates break towards Obama that the Clinton campaign will take the nomination on the strength of the superdelegates has infuriated a lot of Democrats. That's not a reaction that a campaign that finds itself sliding out of the lead wants from the party members they expect to represent.

Not only has revealing that proposed tactic made the Clinton campaign’s problems worse rather than better, it's also obviously unrealistic. It looks as though the Clinton campaign, having run the campaign for the nomination from the start on the theory that they would simply overwhelm the opposition and roll to victory, has bought into its own fantasy and can’t respond when reality intrudes. Clinton is clearly no longer the inevitable Democratic nominee for President. Are they so trapped inside the beltway bubble that they can’t see that the dynamics have changed? What makes them think that if Obama gets more regular delegates, the Clinton campaign has a lock on the superdelegates?

Nothing forces the superdelegates to vote for Clinton, not even their previous commitments. Superdelegate, Congressional Representative and long-time Civil Rights leader John L. Lewis, who earlier endorsed Clinton, has just announced that he is switching his support to Obama.

As Josh Marshall says, endorsements don’t ordinarily sway votes. But Lewis’ is not just an endorsement. It is also proof that the supposed inevitability of the Clinton nomination is a mirage. Even the old-line Democrats who make up the superdelegates are wavering and Lewis’ announcement gives a lot of other Superdelegates as well as primary voters in Texas and Ohio new freedom to take a second look at the decision between Clinton and Obama. Since the Clinton campaign has been based on the Mark Penn strategy that Clinton is the inevitable nominee, the events of the last few weeks leave Clinton without a viable campaign strategy as well as a clear appearance that they don't know how to react to the Obama surge.

Spin isn't going to get the Clinton campaign any traction. Nor is going negative on Obama, since that feeds into his real strength as a candidate that he is above the nastiness. So Clinton's strategy to run the campaign based on appearing to be the inevitable candidate is gone. Worse, the Clinton people clearly don't know how to respond to the changed circumstance. In fact, their attempts to deal with the new situation gives the appearance that they don't even realize that their circumstances have changed.

It's really looking like the Democrats will nominate Obama for President in Denver this summer, and Clinton is simply gobsmacked. She and her people can't believe it and don't know what to do about it.

Of all the surprises that have occurred during this strange Presidential campaign season, I think this one surprises me most.

So far.