Saturday, January 31, 2009

PJM -- R.I.P.

Look closely.
Here on my cheek.
Big tear.

Joe Gandelman has a summary of other reactions.

Digby on Wall Street Megabuck Bonuses

I dig Digby daily.

This morning she made me recall Mae West who said "When I'm good, I'm very good. But when I'm bad I'm better."

I have been hearing people all over the TV today saying that it's just wrong for the government to require that the failing banks not give out bonuses until they pay back the taxpayers for their hundreds of billions in bailout money. Apparently, there is some idea that it's now immoral for someone who is paying another to require certain behaviors from them. (I've heard quite a few people argue that these people are the best at what they do and if the taxpayers don't pay their bonuses, these failing banks will lose their expertise and the economy will suffer. )

All over the country, workers are being told that they can't have bonuses or raises, that they have to cut back their hours, that they are being laid off. The waiters at my favorite brewpub, who have been there for a decade or more, are all being reduced to part time (so that none of them have to be completely laid off) and their tips are off by 60%. The idea that the people who caused all this should get bonuses at the taxpayers expense because they are such valuable employees is ludicrous. That these people who work forsuch massively failed enterprises should be rewarded by the taxpayers for their failure is beyond reason. I can't fathom why they haven't all been fired.

After riffing the point a few more paragraphe she concludes

...There is no CEO on this planet who is worth the kind of money these jackasses have been giving to each other and it's long past time that this nearly pornographic obsession with the manly John Galt myth be put to rest.

Bust 'em Obama. It's smart politics. Me likee.

A coda follows from Kevin Drum.
This is better than rap.
She's worth her weight in silver!
You go girl!

Friday, January 30, 2009

"Born Again American"

Born Again American is committed to the rebirth and re-expression of citizenship through informed and thoughtful activism. It is an initiative of Declare Yourself, a national non-partisan, non-profit (501(c)3) organization dedicated to increasing young voter participation and civic involvement. Declare Yourself’s on-line voter registration tool has been used by almost four million people since 2004. Declare Yourself grew out of the 2003’s Declaration of Independence Road Trip that toured an original 1776 copy of the Declaration to schools, town halls, and other locations all over the country.

About the Video
Our founder, TV producer and philanthropist Norman Lear, was talking with Academy Award-winning songwriter Keith Carradine one night, and the Born Again American video was, well, born. It took the efforts of Director Mark Johnson of Playing for Change, Producer Brent Miller, and 16 performers and two choruses to bring Keith’s song to life in 14 iconic locations around the USA. The singers and musicians, non-professionals all, were chosen because they are living the lyrics in these troubled times, not just performing them.

H/T Evan Robinson

Just a workin’ man without a job
It got shipped off to China via Washington, D.C.
And I know I’m nothin’ special, there are plenty more like me
Just the same
I thought I knew the rules of the game

I stood up for this country that I love
I came back from the desert to a wife and kids to feed
I’m not sayin’ Uncle Sam should give me what I need
My offer stands
I’ll pull my weight you give me half a chance

I went up to a congressman and said to him “you know
Our government is letting people down”
He said he’d need a lot of help to buck the status-quo
I said there was a bunch of us around

I’m a Born Again American, conceived in Liberty
My Bible and the Bill of Rights, my creed’s equality
I’m a Born Again American, my country ‘tis of me
And everyone who shares the dream from sea to shining sea

My brother’s welding chassis at the plant
He’s earning what our granddad did in 1948
While CEOs count bonuses behind the castle gates
How can they see
When all they care about’s the do re mi

It’s getting where there’s nowhere left to turn
Not since the crash of twenty-nine have things been so unfair
So many of our citizens are living in despair
The time has come
To reaffirm that hope’s not just for some

The promise of America’s surrendering to greed
The rule is just look out for number one
But brace yourself ‘cause some of us have sown a different seed
A harvest of the spirit has begun

I’m a Born Again American conceived in liberty
My Bible and The Bill Of Rights
My creed’s equality
A Born Again American, my country ‘tis of me
And everyone who shares the dream from sea to shining sea

It’s clear my country’s soul is on the line
She’s hungering for something that she lost along the way
The principle the framers called upon us to obey
That in this land
The people’s will must have the upper hand

I felt the calling once before and took a sacred vow
And faithful to that vow I have remained
I hear the calling once again, my country needs me now
And to her cause I have been re-ordained

I’m a Born Again American conceived in liberty
My Bible and the Bill Of Rights, all people living free
A Born Again American, my country ‘tis of me
And everyone who shares the dream
From sea to shining sea
And everyone who shares the dream
From sea to shining sea

Krugman on Depression Economics

"If Japan had done in '92 what they did in 1998, it might have not been a lost three or four years."


Welcome NY Times visitors.
I know you didn't link here just to see the video again, so if you're interested in another foray into the dismal science check out Knightian Uncertainty and TARP.

Knightian Uncertainty and TARP

The moment I opened this window I knew that very shortly I would not remember what I am about to write. I have been slogging around in a swamp of economic theories as discussed by some of the smartest of contemporary practitioners of the dismal science. I therefore forgive both myself and the reader for not reading any further. Words like arcane, abstruse, opaque and just plain goofy come to mind.

By way of background I should explain how I found my way into this swamp. Last September when the stock market did that terrible plunge I, like most other ordinary people, began paying careful attention to economics, both personal and general. (They say that a man who has survived a ligtening strike watches the sky more than others.) It didn't take long for Nouriel Roubini's name to appear because he had predicted the currnet crisis for some time. So long, in fact, that I even heard someone use that old saw about even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

So I added Roubini's blog, RGE Monitor, to the places I track. I don't pay to be a premium subscriber but there is so much spillover I already don't understand that paying to get more would be like buying a hundred bicycles when I have neither the time nor space to use even one.

If all this rambling is starting to get dull, there is a reason. It is a prosaic introduction to the Knightian uncertainty.

Knightian uncertainty lies at the core of an essay by Ricardo Caballero, one of the many smart economists in Roubini's stable.
A Global Perspective on the Great Financial Insurance Run: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions advances what might be called a contrarian view of the current crisis and how world governments are reacting. I say "might be called" because I haven't come across anything telling me that governments are already reacting in an coherent manner to begin with. From where I stand, it appears that governments all over the world are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. And that observation on my part gets to the nub of Caballero's argument. In times like these, what's an investor to do? Where can someone like me and my wife, who have managed to live for years on a cash economy, going to put what little assets we have where they might be safe? Interestingly, obscenely wealthy petroleum magnates rich enough to build indoor ski slopes and refrigetated sand beaches in the desert going to put their idle assets as well?

Knightian uncertainty (capitalized because it refers to the late Frank Knight) is simply unmeasurable risk.

To paraphrase a recent secretary of defense, risk refers to situations where the unknowns are known, while uncertainty refers to situations where the unknowns are unknown. This distinction is not only linguistically interesting, but also has significant implications for economic behavior and policy prescriptions. There is extensive experimental evidence that economic agents faced with (Knightian) uncertainty become overly concerned with extreme, even if highly unlikely, negative events. Unfortunately, the very fact that investors behave in this manner make the dreaded scenarios all the more likely.

The sum of Caballero's point is this: insurance companies are in the business of handling risk, but financial institutions are not. So when financial institutions try to manage risk they are out of their depth.

The global demand for assets was particularly for safe AAA instruments. This is not surprising in light of the importance of central banks and sovereign wealth funds in creating this high demand for assets. Moreover, this trend toward safety became even more pronounced after the NASDAQ crash.

Soon enough, U.S. banks found a “solution” to this mismatch between the demand for safe assets and the expansion of supply through the creation of risky subprime assets: This consisted of pooling the latter on the asset side of an SIV, and to tranch the liability side to generate a AAA component buffered by the now ultra volatile “toxic” residual. The latter was then pooled again into CDOs, tranched again, and then into CDO-squared, and so on. At the end of this iterative process, many new AAA assets were produced out of very risky (subprime) claims.

The AAA tranches so created were held by the non-levered sector of the world economy, including central banks, sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, etc. They were also held by a segment of the highly-levered sector, especially foreign banks and domestic banks that kept them on their books, directly and indirectly, as they provided attractive “safe” yields. The small toxic component was mostly held by agents that could handle it, although highly levered investment banks also were exposed.

At this point most readers already got the point. We ALL got the point last September and continue to get the point with just about every news broadcast. For most of us the point is simply that we're in a steaming pile of you-know-what and no one seems to be finding a way out. At the end of the day, we look to government to protect us. Even the most doctrinaire CATO Libertarians know that it is government, not language, that separates men from animals. Traditional conservatives, quick to make snide ramarks about the nanny state, in times of war and crisis look to their uber-Mom to furnish both the military might and economic muscle to protect us from all enemies, foreign and domestic.

An this is where TARP comes in.

In this environment, financially constrained agents obviously cannot go about their businesses with the flexibility they once enjoyed. However, the real hope for a recovery, as well as the concern for a meltdown, lies on the other side of the spectrum, on the unconstrained agents. At this juncture of the crisis there are mountains of investment-ready cash waiting for some indication that the time to enter the market has arrived. But investors are frozen staring at each other, and by so doing, they are further dragging the economy downward. The normal speculative forces that trigger a recovery are for everybody to want to arrive first, to “make a killing.” But with so much fear around us, investors have changed the paradigm and they are now content with letting somebody else try his or her luck first, so we are stuck.

Other cash-rich investors see great investment opportunities in the not so distant future, but, in the meantime, they do not unlock their resources for fear that the temporary investments may turn illiquid, a process which in itself contributes to widespread illiquidity, or because the lack of competition brought about by crisis almost ensures a better deal in the future. And yet others go one step further in profiting from illiquidity and panic itself, by shorting run-prone financial institutions they close the circle of fear that fuels the runs.

We need to reverse this mechanism by restoring the appetite for arriving first. I do not mean to say that this recession is an imaginary one. On the contrary, I believe it is a very serious recession. My point is simply that good policy has an opportunity to bring the recession back to familiar turf, and when this happens, the recession will become a manageable one from which current asset prices, on average, will look like once-in-a-lifetime deals.

Caballero concludes by comparing developing economies with what, until recently, we imagined were "developed" economies. He poiints out that what is happing globally is very similar, writ large, to what happens from time to time in developing economies.

Essentially, the U.S. (and other) financial markets are experiencing the modern version of a systemic run as we had not seen since the Great Depression. It used to be that depositors ran from banks. Some of this still happens, but runs in modern financial markets, to be systemic, have to involve a larger class of assets. A run against explicit and implicit financial insurance is essentially a run against virtually all private sector financial transactions but for those with the shortest maturities. Thus, the modern lender-of-last resort facility has to be a provider of broad insurance, not just deposit insurance. This is what it will take to get us back into a reasonable equilibrium where we can initiate a recovery from a (more) “normal” recession.

If I understand what he said correctly, TARP, big as it seems, is but a drop in the bucket. Government, as the lender and insurer of last resort, must initiate recovery from a recession, but only after restoring reasonable certainty to a larger universe of unknown risk.

Here endeth the lesson by Ricard Caballero.
Thanks be to God.


Further reading here for those with an unsatisfied appetite...

The Step-By-Step Resolution to the Sub-Prime Crisis

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Credit Default Swaps -- But Were Never Told

Finally, Daniel Alpert suggests that instead of cutting bailout deals with institutions on an ad hoc basis, the new government must set absolute criteria for deeming banks ‘in need of resolution’. After applying more stringent asset marks, the government should require any bank unable to prove at least 6% tangible equity net worth and Tier 1 capital ratios sufficient to be deemed ‘well capitalized’ under current measurements, to submit to something we call Special Administrative Resolution (“SAR”) by the government. Read:Inauguration, Aggregation and Aggravation”.

Despite that dry description, this last piece comes as close to excitement as professional economists dare tread.

The scheme du jour again focuses on our banking institutions’ “troubled” or “toxic” assets, rather than on the institutions themselves. Troubled assets? It’s as though we had the worst luck in some financial-genetic draw—a group of irascible, miscreant children in need of loving discipline. Toxic? Poisonous, yes, but not some unfortunate oil spill destroying pristine coastline or hobbling innocent birds.

So, at the risk of failing their class, those of us passing notes in the back of the lecture hall are prepared to raise our hands and ask (former) Professors Summers, Bernanke and Bair, “What the heck is your problem with wiping out the economic interests of existing common shareholders of toxic and currently systemically worthless (albeit critical) banks?” We don’t understand anyone’s reluctance, other than dyed-in-the- wool, scorched-earth ideologues, to have the banks start over with new capital—at first, the government’s, but in short time private capital, in lieu of taxpayers overpaying for assets at a price sufficient to support existing bank capitalization based on smoke, mirrors and overstated asset values. And here’s the real puzzle, Professors: None of you has a record indicating a profoundly ideological bent. What’s up with that?

Nope, we didn’t miss your lecture when you posited that if the government owns too much of the banks, the banks won’t be able to attract private-sector investment. With all due respect, guys and gal, that’s hogwash!


Are we na├»ve about the politics of all this? Perhaps. But following President Obama’s stirring first inaugural address, we are inspired by President Lincoln’s words, which Mr. Obama often quotes, and trust that our politicians will ultimately stand for the interests of our Union and economy when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” It is long past time to get off the unproductive treadmill of ideological limitations and address the real-world crisis in a pragmatic, productive way. That’s what Americans do in times of challenge. As of now, with our zombie banks and overstated bank assets, we more resemble Japan in the 1990s than the United States anywhere near its best. Let’s not keep that up, shall we?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Feedback to Congress -- My Adventure

Inspired by last night's C-SPAN live broadcast of the Senate Finance Committee I wrote to a Congressman this morning for the first time in twenty-five or thirty years. As a Liberal in an overwhelmingly Conservative part of suburban Atlanta I gave up such efforts years ago. Bob Barr, Lester Maddox, the late Congressman Larry McDonald, Newt Gingrich and a rash of less notable local politicians have emerged from Cobb and surrounding counties. My opinions here are not welcome.

More recently Dr. Phil Gingrey, who takes pride that " in 2008 The National Journal ranked me the most conservative Member of the House of Representatives" has been taking care of the people's business in Washington.

I noticed this morning that Dr. Gingrey was mentioned in Politico for what struck me as excellent pushback aimed at Rush Limbaugh and the talk show crowd following Rush's now famous "I hope Obama fails" statement.

Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., did not take kindly to this assessment in an interview with Politico Tuesday.

“I think that our leadership, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, are taking the right approach,” Gingrey said. “I mean, it’s easy if you’re Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks. You don’t have to try to do what’s best for your people and your party. You know you’re just on these talk shows and you’re living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of that thing. But when it comes to true leadership, not that these people couldn’t be or wouldn’t be good leaders, they’re not in that position of John Boehner or Mitch McConnell."

Wow! I couldn't have said it better. So my next move was to send him an email recognizing what he had said and telling him to keep up the good work.

The "contact" link at his website didn't call up my gmail account so I have no copy of what I sent. The substance of it was clear, however. I specifically recall mentioning that Limbaugh and his crowd are to talk radio what Jerry Springer and that crowd are to TV, appealing to the lowest common denominator of the audience. Here in Atlanta we have our own second-string version of Rush's crowd so I'm sure that Gingrey has no trouble recognizing the flavor of that koolaid.

I wish now that I had kept a copy because a few hours later I received a form letter reply clearly written to respond to the blizzard of complaints he is no doubt receiving from angry constituents.

With respect to my comments regarding commentators who each and every day speak out in defense of these values, I regret and apologize for that fact these comments have offended and upset not only my constituents but also listeners throughout the country. I am sorry to see how my comments have been reported and read much harsher than intended. I recognize it is my responsibility to clarify my own comments.

Now more than ever,there is a need to articulate a clear conservative message for moving our nation forward. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, and other conservative giants are the voices of the conservative movement's conscience. Everyday, millions and millions of Americans-myself included - turn on their radios and televisions to listen to what they have to say, and we are inspired by their words and by their determination. At the end of the day, every member of the conservative movement, from political commentators and thinkers to elected officials, share an important and common purpose in advancing the cause of liberty, reigning in a bloated federal government, and defending our traditional family values.

Silly me. I thought my email might have been read, if not by a busy congressman, at least by someone on staff who might recognize immediately that he had won a few points with someone from across the aisle.

Well excuse me. I won't make that mistake again. I sent a reply to his response. (Notice how cleverly I'm using red and blue to keep things straight.)

What? "regret and apologize" ?

Please, Dr. Gingrey. I appreciate that you must have a blizzard of complaints from your constituents this morning, but my email was not among them.

I wrote to thank, not reprimand you for what you said.

I suppose you may disregard my other communication.

Wouldn't you know it?
That email came back as undeliverable.

This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification

Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently:
Technical details of permanent failure:
Google tried to deliver your message, but it was rejected by the recipient domain. We recommend contacting the other email provider for further information about the cause of this error. The error that the other server returned was: 550 550 5.7.1 Unable to deliver to <> (state 14).

I give up.

I feel like someone that got a teeshirt that says


Frank Schaeffer on Pro-life

I'm grabbing this open letter to Obama because I don't want to lose track of it. It comes closer to my own point of view than anything I have read.

Terry Gross' interview with Frank Schaeffer in December was powerful. I had a hard time remembering the details this morning so I looked it up to copy here for future reference.

Dear Republican and Pro-Life Friends,

Thanks for the spittle-flecked emails as well as for the polite queries. Yes, I am aware Obama is pro-choice. Yes, I'm still pro-life. I also believe that with Obama in the White House that there will be less abortions in America than with the Republicans in power.

As you know I was a lifelong Republican until I reregistered as an Independent in 2006, after I just couldn't take the Rove brigade's dirty tricks, lies and slime any longer. When I worked to get John McCain nominated in 2000 I went on many conservative and religious radio shows to plead his cause. I started edging away from the party after seeing the filth the Bush crew got away with.

I know rather a lot about the politics of the "life issues." And I know you know that is true because you are calling me a traitor for supporting Senator Obama because of my leadership in the early stages of the pro-life movement.

You also know that without my late Evangelical leader father Francis Schaeffer's and my work (teamed up with C. Everett Koop) there would have been no Evangelical/Republican pro-life movement as it emerged in the mid 1970s. And on a personal note, having gotten my girlfriend pregnant when we were teens, I also know a little about the heartache that goes along with a very unplanned pregnancy. Fortunately we received the sort of support that made keeping our daughter Jessica possible. It could have gone another way.

That said...I know (as you pro-lifers do if you're honest) that the Republicans have milked the abortion issue, as have the Evangelical and Roman Catholic leadership, for every dime it's worth for fundraising, votes, power and empire-building, without changing much if anything. As I said, I also am fully aware that Senator Obama is pro-choice. I think his pro-choice views are out of character with his otherwise generous and enlightened world view.

The pro-life cause poisoned many of us who were part of it. Me included. It led to self-righteous hubris that extended to a general attitude of hate toward the "other." For instance power hungry strivers such as James Dobson and Pat Robertson took the passion generated by the pro-life cause and fueled their wholly illegitimate war against gay Americans with it, not to mention their multi million dollar empires. Our cause became all about power over other people, money and the muscle to win elections, not about the good of unborn babies and women.

I describe this corruption in my book, CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back. I explore what happened to us as we were lured by politics and money. So lots of folks who are in the Evangelical/Republican/Roman Catholic establishment and who are still earning a good living through the culture wars hate my book (and me) for spilling the beans.

Just for the record: my annual income was a lot bigger and more secure within the Evangelical fold than without. The big bucks in America are all about selling God, as Rick Warren, James Dobson or Joel Osteen can tell you, not earned blogging for lefty sites such as Huffington Post or writing novels as I do now.

That said... First, a nod to reality: even if Roe were reversed (it won't be no matter who is president) the abortion pill and the acceptance of at least some types of legal abortion by most Americans guarantees there will be access to abortion. Besides, on a state-by-state basis abortion would remain legal in most states no matter what the court does. And as we have seen the Republicans haven't really changed anything in thirty years.

So what do we who find abortion abhorrent do if we want to deal in reality rather than fantasies and slogans of winner-take-all propaganda? The reality is that we need to foster a climate in which we can reduce the number of abortions and also keep the moral -- rather than legal -- debate alive.

We can't do this by concentrating on politics, or silver bullets such as trying for that one magic court appointment. It's the "holistic" approach that is really what's important if our goal is to reduce the number of abortions rather than just "win" political games.

The effort to reduce abortions will be more possible in the Obama era than in a continuation of the hardhearted Bush presidency with McCain. This is all about tone and moral leadership, not law.

At heart of the abortion reality is this: we are a consumerist society with a heart of stone when it comes to the poor, who account for four times the national average of people having abortions, mostly because of economic needs that Republicans don't lift a finger to address. And we still denigrate women and female sexuality.

Meanwhile we face global catastrophe if we keep on the path we are on that the Republicans have put us on. And Obama promises real change on the environment, education, the economy, the military and foreign affairs, all of which need to change, not as a luxury or choice or option, but as a matter of national survival.

I guess that having had my Marine son John go to war for George W. Bush concentrated my mind on the seriousness of this election. McCain won't do more than provide another four-to-eight years of Bush. Our planet and country can't endure that. And our military is disintegrating under the Bush doctrine, which is: "You all go shopping while we ask a few Americans to go to war again and again and again and again..."

For all you sanctimonious Evangelicals out there, also note: when it comes to squeaky clean family values, Senator Obama -- not Senator McCain -- should be your role model. The Republican right wants us to draw back in horror from Obama because he is pro-choice, but this is the same group working to get a philanderer who abandoned his wife because she had a disfiguring accident, elected.

It isn't just a matter of voting for Obama. Americans who want there to be a country left in which to argue our issues must vote against McCain. As his support for the Bush lies about Iraq shows McCain is hung up on his own version of post-Vietnam traumatic stress disorder. This is a man who would take our civilian culture down in flames and sacrifice it to his sense of death-or-glory military "honor." How do you "win" a wrong war? McCain will make the world more dangerous. You think Bush was a cowboy? Just try McCain.

I say this as the proud father of United States Marine. I say this as someone who believes that we should be in Afghanistan where my son served, fought and risked his life for us all. I also say this as someone who believes that when it comes to pro-life issues in the most comprehensive sense, that President Bush, Dick Cheney and the neoconservative/Republican establishment have needlessly killed tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis and over 4000 American servicemen and women.

I use the words "needlessly killed" advisedly. When you send men and women into an unnecessary and unprovoked war-of-choice for spurious reasons that then turn into outright lies, you've murdered them. And George W. Bush has sanctioned torture, contravened the Geneva conventions, and has lied to the American people about all of it.

Bush has destabilized the world. The latest evidence of this is the fact that Russia attacked Georgia. In the climate of Bush's aggression, where is our moral standing to criticize Russia? McCain offers no alternative. These too are life issues.

There's no point arguing about abortion, capital punishment, women's rights, gender equality or any other issue -- no matter how important -- while the ship of state is being torpedoed by the Commander-in-Chief. We can't afford more of this. Our honorable military can't endure more of this. Our economy can't endure more of this. Our Earth will not survive more of this. Bush and his look alike shill McCain have to go.

When it comes to the issue of abortion there is another side besides legality/illegality: the nature of our country.

What kind of care do we provide to mothers and children? What is our educational system like? Is healthcare available to all? Do our preschool programs and everything from paternal and maternal leave to the economic well-being of our country come first? Or do we argue about abortion rights while we live lives of such supreme selfish decadence that the nature of our country means that no matter what we do with the laws about abortion life will not be valued?

The Republican leadership is not pro-life. They are simply against abortion for reasons of political expediency. They are also for torture and military aggression. And they chose a literal executioner for president; a former governor who has more blood on his hands than any other modern American governor; Mr. Texas-sized, Capital Punishment-with-no-mercy-no-pardons hang em' high himself.

The Republicans have contributed to climate change by coddling oil companies and car companies and ducking the hard environmental and energy policy questions for thirty years. They have literally sold our country to the highest polluting bidders from the Saudis to the Chinese. Therefore the Republicans have literally risked the ability of our planet to sustain all human life born and unborn. So much for human life values.

Who will help us to become a nation that values life -- abortion rhetoric aside? Obama.

The contrast could not have been more clear than on August 16 in the interview between pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church and Obama and McCain. Obama gave real and thoughtful answers, often trying to explore a moral question deeply. McCain offered nothing more than canned applause lines and anecdotes from his tired simplistic stump speech.

McCain fed pre-programed red meat to the Evangelical faithful who were packing the auditorium, but not much more. He parroted all the "right" lines about abortion, the same empty phrases Bush, parrots, Bush's father parroted and Reagan and Ford parroted.

"When does life begin?" asked Warren. "At conception!" shot back McCain.

The Evangelical crowd goes wild! See?! That's our guy!

And where do the tired canned pro-life "correct answers" get us? Nowhere.

I will be voting for the presidential candidate who seems most authentically exercised about our devastating problems and who is ready to not only address them but to provide the inspiring leadership that will move my fellow citizens and I to do something about our terminal situation. I'll be voting for the man that has also inspired the world more than any national leader in my lifetime.

There are worse things than America being liked and therefore safer. Would you rather have non-Americans waving our flag or burning it?

In the best of all worlds we would be living in a country in which no one had an abortion. We would be living in a country in which there was never capital punishment. We would be living in a country that would have addressed the legacy of our racist past and racist present so that we would not have a disproportionate number of black men and women locked in our prisons. We would be living in a country where people calling themselves Christians would not hate gay people. We would be living in a country that never went to war except as last resort for self defense. We would be living in a country where education and opportunity was every American's birthright. But we are not.

The question is: Who can best help us to the realization of the real American Dream?

The Republicans only offer consumerism as a debased sort of "freedom." This is the freedom of "me" and "I." This is the freedom of pigs rooting at a trough.

As a born-again Christ-centered believer Obama offers a spiritual vision of life founded on the Sermon On the Mount. It is the freedom of "we." It is the same view of freedom that my Marine son learned in boot camp: that the person standing next to you is more important than you are. That concept of freedom is more in keeping with valuing all human life. It will create a climate more friendly to mothers and children.

As I listen to Senator Obama speak, as I see the selfless altruistic energy he has generated in a whole new generation of young people, as I think about the ethical, caring culture he would like to foster with healthcare for all, a revamped and reenergized educational system that includes the arts, history, poetry and all those things that make life worthwhile, as I think about the wars my son's brothers-in-arms are still mired and dying in because of the hubris of the Republicans, as I think about the crying need to restore our standing in the world, as I think about the scandalous way in which the Republicans have manipulated people, including the most sincere Evangelicals, Orthodox and Roman Catholics, to get their votes, while not actually doing anything about the issues they care most about, yes, I am ready to for a change.

In Obama's America arguments for compassion for the unborn and all the other "least of these" will resonate regardless of Obama's stance on the legality of abortion. Roe is not the point. Our hearts are the point. The unborn like everyone else will do better in a country that puts people, the earth, and our future ahead of greed, oil company profits and jingoistic rule by fear.

I will be voting for Senator Obama and am fighting for his election because I am pro-life.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Salute to Iraq Today Blog

The team at Iraq Today consists of a dedicated handful of volunteers who comb the news daily looking for any first report of events in Iraq, and more recently the expanding war in Afghanistan. They do a workmanlike job with no editorializing. Theirs is the labor of archiving for future historians what is known as primary source material.

I have the link on my blogroll but, like the odometer on my car, rarely look at it. I already know what it will look like. And it's depressing and frustrating to keep looking at it every day. Doing so makes me feel even more helpless than I already feel to put an end the the pain, loss and devastation.

Here is yesterday's report...

(The "Commentary" link in the first section is to a piece by Senator Kerry in which he says, in part

Torture plays directly into a central tenet of al Qaeda's recruiting pitch: that everyday Muslims across the world have something to fear from the United States of America.

From Morocco to Malaysia, people regularly hear stories of torture and suicide at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and other overseas prisons. The result has been a major blow to our credibility worldwide, particularly where we need it most: in the Muslim world.)

Monday, January 26, 2009

War News for Monday, January 26, 2009

MNF-Iraq is reporting the deaths of four Coalition Soldiers when two aircraft crashed in an undisclosed location of northern Iraq on Monday, January 26th. USA Today reports that two helicopters crashed about twenty miles west of Kirkuk.

Counting the Walking Wounded:

Feds settle Iraq vet’s negligence lawsuit:

Iraq prime minister expects speedier US pullout:

Taliban turning to more 'complex' attacks: Analysis shows insurgents are increasingly confronting NATO troops in open warfare, rather than relying on bombings, suicide strikes...

From Hospital, Afghans Rebut U.S. Account:

Islamabad lashes out after civilians die in U.S. attack against militants:

Sri Lankan troops, rebels continue heavy battles:

UN says many civilians killed in Sri Lanka clashes:

Commentary: Torture weakened America's national security:

Reported Security incidents:

#1: A roadside bomb struck a police patrol in west Baghdad's Mansour district, wounding 11 policemen, three seriously, police said.

#2: The Minister's offices in the Ministry of Science and Technology, Jadriyah, central Baghdad were torched late Sunday. The fire fighters are still trying to put out the fire as this report is being written and no casualties have been reported so far.

Diyala Prv:

#1: A bomber detonated an explosive device strapped to a bicycle near an office of the Sunni Arab Islamic Party in Baquba, 65km (40 miles) north of Baghdad, police said. Five civilians were wounded in the blast and the attacker was shot dead by police as a he fled the scene.

#1: An explosive device, placed inside a car, was detonated by police forces in central Kirkuk on Monday,” a senior police source said. “A force from the Azadi police found on Monday an improvised explosive device hidden inside a vehicle of a local company inside Kirkuk,” Colonel Bieson Mohamed told Aswat al-Iraq news agency. “Anti-bombs squad could not defuse it, and forced to detonate it, setting the vehicle ablaze,” he added.

#1: Police said they discovered an unidentified decapitated body in Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad

#2: Five persons, including a policeman, on Monday were wounded when a car bomb targeted a security checkpoint in downtown Mosul city, according to a local source. “On Monday, a car rigged with explosives detonated near a police checkpoint in al-Dawasa area, downtown Mosul, wounding five, including a cop,” the source told Aswat al-Iraq news agency.

#3: Three civilians were wounded in a bomb explosion in central Mosul, a police source said on Monday. “An explosive charge went off in Halab street in central Mosul, injuring three civilians, including a woman,” the source told Aswat al-Iraq news agency.

Afghanistan: "The Forgotten War"
#1: A bomb rigged to a bicycle exploded in a northwest Pakistani city on Monday, killing at least five people and wounding 20 in the latest attack to rattle the volatile region. The explosion occurred on a major road in Dera Ismail Khan, and most of the victims were either walking by the parked bicycle or traveling in nearby vehicles, area police chief Saeed Ullah said.

#2: In Pakistan's southwest, gunmen shot dead the leader of a small Shiite political party in the main city of Quetta, triggering violent protests. Several hundred people torched vehicles and a bank, said Mohammed Khan, an area police official.

#3: Elsewhere in the northwest, a man whom militants accused of spying for America was found shot dead Monday in Datta Khel village in North Waziristan, two intelligence officials said. The body was missing the right hand, which had been chopped off. A note pinned to the body claimed the man spied for the U.S. and warned others to "learn a lesson from the fate of this man," said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.

#4: Suspected Taliban militants blew up a government-run school Monday in Pakistan's violence-plagued Swat Valley. The boy's high school that was destroyed was located in Mingora, the valley's main city, said Sher Afzal Khan, an education officer for Swat. The attack occurred early Monday and no one was wounded.

#5: The Nuristan province officials confirmed that the Taliban insurgents captured the Gosalk area which is located between Waigal district of Nuristan and Chapadara district of Kuner province. According to Nuristan governor Jamaludin Badar, a group of 700 insurgents captured the area and declared Islamic Emirates there. Unlike Nuristan governor, his Kunar counterpart syad Fazlulllah Wahedi said, the insurgents are not so powerful to disrupt security in the province.

Casualty Reports:

Cpl. Christopher Levi is learning to walk on artificial limbs since losing his legs in a Baghdad bomb blast last year. Shortly before 1 p.m., on March 17, the armored Humvee in which Levi was riding was struck by a bomb at an intersection in the Sadr City section of Baghdad. The explosion cost Levi, 25, both of his legs.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cory Doctorow on Writing

If you don't' know who Cory Doctorow is by now you need to find out.
Before someone finds out you don't know.

The single worst piece of writing advice I ever got was to stay away from the Internet because it would only waste my time and wouldn’t help my writing. This advice was wrong creatively, professionally, artistically, and personally, but I know where the writer who doled it out was coming from. Every now and again, when I see a new website, game, or service, I sense the tug of an attention black hole: a time-sink that is just waiting to fill my every discretionary moment with distraction. As a co-parenting new father who writes at least a book per year, half-a-dozen columns a month, ten or more blog posts a day, plus assorted novellas and stories and speeches, I know just how short time can be and how dangerous distraction is.

Miniature City

Via Rocketboom

From Crackle: Miniature City

If you like this, check out Little People - a tiny street art project from my blogroll in the sidebar.

ONE-State Solution for Israel-Palestine

A post at 3Quarks, together with a few other links, has me thinking about how poorly the "two-state policy" has proved to be. For starters, the geography of the problem is multi-directional, not two-fold. Palestinians are not in one place but three and those three are not contiguous. There are pissed-off Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Southern Lebanon. If there were no Mediterranean Sea Israel would be completely surrounded by angry Palestinians.

(I guess that's what happens when people try to remain tribal way past the time when the rest of what passes for civilization starts surveying and driving down claim stakes. Indigenous people all over the world have learned that lesson too late. Whether Native American, Brazilian, Australian, African or Chinese... its a global phenomenon of our time, the aftermath of imperialism East and West.)

The most famous recent failure of a two-state solution is Pakistan. Even with the former East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh, that other Pakistan remains a geo-political messy construct festering away in South Asia, as the world still cannot understand with why they all just can't get along.

Back to the one-state solution...

It would not be one state, really, but some kind of confederation. None of the discussions I have read at this point include the Palestinians in Southern Lebanon, but their existence, in time, will have to be included part of the formula. With Hezbollah's creeping legitimacy (I read they hope to do well in the next Lebanese elections, whatever that means.) the next stage in Palestinian unity will be the same path for Hamas, although they themselves seem not to have officially admitted that obvious reality. During the recent "unpleasantness" a few rockets came from Southern Lebanon into Northern Israel but Hezbollah was quick to deny any part in that and everyone else was quick to let the matter pass without comment. (Denial, maybe, that angry Palestinians were in Southern Lebanon? Looks to me like no one in that part of the world, including other Arabs, wants anything to to with Palestinians. I can't figure out what that's all about. They are treated like Gypsies.)

Here are some snips from the 3Quarks discussion....

Israel-Palestine: Suppose a Confederation

A confederation would not mean the disappearance of the national collective polity and identity of each people: within some version of the pre-1967 territories, that is the Green line, Israel would remain a Jewish state, with its language, and holidays and elections; but it would share power in military, security, intelligence, currency and trade matters with the Palestinian state. Likewise the Palestinians would have their own language, holidays and elections, but the two peoples would develop some form of joint school curricula particularly in the teaching of history which did justice to historical truths and to the suffering of both peoples. Children of a new generation would learn to have empathy rather than hatred for each other. There would be some equalization of socio-economic and welfare rights in this confederation so that everyone would not want move into the wealthier Israeli provinces; religious pluralism and liberal civil rights would be respected equally for all Jews, Muslims, Christians and all people of other faiths. For the religiously observant who would want to have their personal affairs to be administered by religious authorities there would be optional religious courts but there would also be a shared Bill of Rights for all peoples which would guarantee equal civil and political rights.

That quote was taken from this next link:

What is Israel’s End-Game?

Hamas, much like the beginnings of the Islamist movement in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East, represents an egalitarian and redistributionist vision of Islamic solidarity which is also deeply authoritarian and anti-liberal. In the 1980’s, Hamas was supported by Israel as an alternative to the more secular and militant Fatah, much like the USA had supported Osama bin Laden and the Mujaheddin against the more secular and socialistically inclined Fedayyin in Afghanistan. In both cases, the genie flew out of the bottle, and now Israel, as well as the USA, are stuck with the shifting of allegiances by Hamas, and the much more formidable Hizbollah, from Islamic social work to Islamist militarism, from Sunni patrons such as Saudi Arabia to Shi’ite ideologues in Iran. There is nothing in this constellation which should give comfort and hope to progressives and Leftists. Our commitment to the equality, self-determination and solidarity of peoples must, therefore, remain a critical principle and must not be sacrificed to blind partisanship for one group or another.

The One-State Solution
appeared in last Wednesday's NY Times.
It bears the by-line of (are you ready for this?) Muammar Qaddafi! As the saying goes, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. He made up a name for the new country he describes, Isratine. I don't give the neologism much of a chance, but the idea behind it is not altogether crazy.

It is a fact that Palestinians inhabited the land and owned farms and homes there until recently, fleeing in fear of violence at the hands of Jews after 1948 — violence that did not occur, but rumors of which led to a mass exodus. It is important to note that the Jews did not forcibly expel Palestinians. They were never “un-welcomed.” Yet only the full territories of Isratine can accommodate all the refugees and bring about the justice that is key to peace.

Assimilation is already a fact of life in Israel. There are more than one million Muslim Arabs in Israel; they possess Israeli nationality and take part in political life with the Jews, forming political parties. On the other side, there are Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Israeli factories depend on Palestinian labor, and goods and services are exchanged. This successful assimilation can be a model for Isratine.

If the present interdependence and the historical fact of Jewish-Palestinian coexistence guide their leaders, and if they can see beyond the horizon of the recent violence and thirst for revenge toward a long-term solution, then these two peoples will come to realize, I hope sooner rather than later, that living under one roof is the only option for a lasting peace.

Bernard Avishai's What's Love Got To Do With It? - Part Two is the second of a two-part examination worth reading in full. This is from that piece.

Palestine is not Hamas and Israel is not its settlers, though the trends are depressing. Poll after poll shows that a majority of Palestinians still want peace with Israel: Palestinian elites look forward to cooperation with Israelis on advanced businesses, higher education, construction, and tourism; they may even have some affection for Israelis; they know that their economic dignity and secular life depend on staving off Hamas.

And a majority of Israelis still want peace with Palestine, skeptical as they may be of Palestinian political institutions. Israeli elites are stirred by globalization and know that West Bank business infrastructure cannot development with 500 checkpoints. They know their own economic growth and cultural vitality depend on peace; their children, many of whom are leaving the country, hate guarding and paying for settlements.

Finally, it is clear that commerce and business remains alive and well in that part of the world despite a landscape littered with the residue of military conflict. I saw TV reports last week that showed the tunnel business returning to "normal" within hours of the most recent ceasefire. Smuggling tunnels connecting Gaza with Egypt with superficial damage at the openings were rapidly being repaired and put back in service as soon as possible, and those that were not damaged were soon to be up and running. The precision of the IDF may have been exceptional when targeting individual addresses above ground, but efforts to put the tunnels out of business was as unscientific as swatting flies.

Here is a great story that NPR ran four years ago that caught my attention at the time. It describes a curious symbiosis between Israel and Gaza reflected in how automobiles were tagged in Gaza City. This was prior to Sharon's removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza, making me wonder if some of them may have had a surreptitious part in the story.

An Odd Hierarchy of License Plates in Gaza

The local government in Gaza issues a unique kind of license plate: one for stolen cars. Driving school owner Raeed el-Sa'ati decodes the region's vehicle license plates.

SIEGEL: Last week, as we were riding through the streets of Gaza, our interpreter, Hosam Arhoun(ph), pointed out something that is, so far as we know, unique to that isolated strip of Mediterranean coast. It's a kind of license plate. I thought he was kidding. We would be behind a car, and he would say, `See that pair of Arabic letters on the tag? That indicates this is a stolen car. And that one,' he said, `that's an official stolen car.'

Well, we dropped in on Raeed el-Sa'ati, who owns the Ekhlas Driving School in Gaza, to get more details. And he explained that Gaza license plates can be red for official, green for taxis, and white for private vehicles. The lower the number on the red plates, the higher the position of the official. The number 30 designates a truck.

All this is pretty conventional stuff for license plates. But then...

Mr. RAEED EL-SA'ATI (Ekhlas Driving School): (Through Translator) And then the cars which, written in Arabic, the letters M and F, it is the stolen cars.

SIEGEL: The stolen cars?

Mr. EL-SA'ATI: (Through Translator) And then there is these plates which, M-H-F--it is stolen cars, but working at the authority, means, aha, it is a stolen governmental car. There's also another kind, but this is the same plates; the numbers are different. The numbers which started with 25, it is a stolen car, but it is allowed to work as taxis. This is a very modern law in the world.

SIEGEL: As you can hear, our man Hosam could hardly stop laughing as he translated this.

It turns out this system is a legacy of the most efficient but embarrassing example of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in the 1990s: auto theft. The Palestinian Authority took over Gaza, and the Israeli police were out, so Israeli car thieves fenced thousands of stolen cars into the Gaza Strip, about 15,000 of them, where they were then sold. Thousands are driven by Palestinian security and other officials. A lot of them are in that stolen taxicab category, vehicles that provide income while costing a lot less than a legal yellow minivan.

When their cars were stolen, the Israeli car owners would get reimbursed by their insurance, and they would go buy new cars. So in effect, Israeli insurance companies were paying for Gaza's used car trade. When the insurance companies sued, the Palestinian Authority settled, and the settlement cost was offset in part by much higher registration fees for cars that had been stolen. So to designate those cars, they were given special license plates. According to the Transportation Department in Gaza, the news is that the Authority has decided in principle to end stolen car plates. Everyone will pay the same registration fees. But since this may put a lot of self-employed taxi drivers out of work, no one is saying how long it will take to abolish the license plate that says, `This car was stolen.'

Yo, Obama Team, Mrs. Clinton, somebody in Washington...
Ya'll getting this???

Take a look at this and try to puzzle out any better remedy...

April 11 Addendum: More material regarding a "one-state solution"

Helena Cobban in IPS News Agency

From 1982 - the year the PLO’s leaders and guerrilla forces were expelled from Lebanon - until recently, the main dynamo of Palestinian nationalism has been located in the Palestinian communities of the occupied West Bank and Gaza. But in recent years, those communities have been severely weakened. They are administratively atomised, politically divided, and live under a palpable sense of physical threat.

Many ‘occupied’ Palestinians are returning to the key defensive ideas of steadfastness and “just hanging on” to their land. But new energy for leadership is now emerging between two other key groups of Palestinians: those in the diaspora, and those who are citizens of Israel. The contribution those groups can make to nationwide organising has been considerably strengthened by new technologies - and crucially, neither of them has much interest in a two-state outcome.

Not surprisingly, therefore, discussions about the nature of a one-state outcome - and how to achieve it - have become more frequent, and much richer in intellectual content, in recent years.

Palestinian-Israeli professor Nadim Rouhanna, now teaching at Tufts University in Massachusetts, is a leader in the new thinking. “The challenge is how to achieve the liberation of both societies from being oppressed and being oppressors,” he told a recent conference in Washington, DC. “Palestinians have to… reassure the Israeli Jews that their culture and vitality will remain. We need to go further than seeing them only as ‘Jews-by- religion’ in a future Palestinian society.”

Like many advocates of the one-state outcome, Rouhanna referred enthusiastically to the exuberant multiculturalism and full political equality that have been embraced by post-apartheid South Africa.

Progressive Jewish Israelis like Ben Gurion University geographer Oren Yiftachel are also part of the new movement. Yiftachel’s most recent work has examined at the Israeli authorities’ decades-long campaign to expropriate the lands of the ethnically Palestinian Bedouin who live in southern Israel - and are citizens of Israel. “The expropriation continues - there and inside the West Bank, and in East Jerusalem,” Yiftachel said, explaining that he did not see the existence of “the Green Line” that supposedly separates Israel from the occupied territory as an analytically or politically relevant concept.

Flashback -- Remembering Cindy Sheehan

[Another re-post today. This one is from August 2005. I don't know what became of Cindy Sheehan but I still remember from time to time how she was somehow part of the collateral damage of the Iraq adventure. It is appropriate that we grieve as we leave behind one of the saddest, most carelessly misguided mistakes made by the US in recent times.

This morning's story about a Pakistani man's "honor killing" of his daughter (not in some distant land but in Atlanta) makes me wonder how easily we can see his behavior as the savage act of primitive reasoning that it is, while not seeing that when we abuse the Cindy Sheehans among us, our own behavior, though not as violent, runs parallel. Repentance is in order.]

Aging dims sight but not vision. Sometimes the mind remains supple even as the body grows stiff. I had a flashback this morning as I was reading about Cindy Sheehan.

Cindy Sheehan is that woman in Texas camping out by the president's ranch purporting to want a personal talk with him. Hmm. I think we all know better. But that's not the point. The point is this: she has been radicalized. It's not about talking. It's not about sympathy. It's not about anything more complicated than bringing an end to a war that took the life of Casey Sheehan.

Hours after the WTC attack a sketch by a high school girl captured the attention of a lot of people looking for images to express their feelings. It was a picture of the Statue of Liberty grieving but angry, with a gun in her left hand, clutching an infant in her right arm, with the line, "The most dangerous place in the world is between a mother and her children."

It is now four years later and another mother has lost a child. We can talk all day about how that happened, but in the end the fact remains: she has been radicalized. To use a fashionable phrase, she reached the tipping point.

I figured it was coming to this when I looked at yesterday's Huffington blog. Not only did Arianna herself pay homage to Cindy Sheehan, but she was able to marshall her entire stable of bloggers to do the same. The swarm was impressive in size, irrespective of content. The first column in the collection was by Cindy Sheehan herself.

I am a continued thorn in the side of right-wing bloggers and right wing-nut "journalists." One man, Phil Hendry, called me an "ignorant cow." But you know what, the people who have come out from all over the country to give me a hug and support the cause of peace, overwhelms me so much, I don't have time to worry about the negativity and the hatred. The people who are slamming me have no idea about what it feels like to unjustly have a child killed in an insane war. Plus, they have no truth to fight truth with, so they fight truth with more lies and hate.

I recognize righteous indignation when I see it. And this is it. This is not a put-on. This is the genuine article, and whether it is from a restaurant patron feeling "disrespected" by someone on staff who simply made a mistake, or the president of the United States who symbolically represents the policy that cost the life of a twenty-four old son prematurely, the dynamic is the same. This momma no longer cares what happened in the past. She just wants it to stop and walk away feeling that somebody cares and it ain't gonna happen again, to her or anybody else.

(LINK...LINK...LINK...LINK...LINK...LINK...LINK...LINK...and many more. I think it's what we call a swarm.)

Okay, then.

Here is my flashback.

I recall the time when I got radicalized myself, "politicized" as we used to say.

It was when I was still a late teen, off to college for the first time, getting myself exposed to all kinds of strange ideas about racial stereotyping and social development that didn't conform to the template that had been the norm for me for my whole life. At the same time I was hearing a lot of stuff about a war being conducted sotto voce somewhere in Asia in a place called Viet Nam. The Ugly American had just been published. A lunatic group of women was talking about something called "women's' liberation" and a few men were starting to talk about the same thing, realizing that it was about men's' liberation as well. The symbiotic relationship between husbands and wives was being reexamined in the light of what had become a "two-income" family, optional before WWII but clearly becoming mandatory twenty years later.

There was more. Much more. And this is not the place to belabor the point.
But from out of that time I recall the effect that a change in my thinking had on those around me who were not changed in the same way. That included not only my peers and neighbors at school (I was evicted, put on the sidewalk with all my belongings, afraid to call the police) but my family as well. My mother was tolerant, but I don't think my father, whose family had lost their youngest child in WWII, would "understand" for years, as I spent that first summer home from college taking all the necessary steps to have my draft status changed from 1-A to 1-A-O.

It is easy to remember the dramatic stuff. But less dramatic were the calm, sure voices of those whose tone was basically one of sympathy -- no, pity -- that I had been deceived by others. At some level they knew in their hearts that I was not only wrong, but in time I would be able to see the error of my thinking and return to the norms of civil society that have been the hallmark of Southern sensibilities from before I was born.

This morning I came across a couple of expressions of "sympathy" for Cindy Sheehan from people who just want to be helpful. My thanks to The Anchoress whose blog is on my daily reading list, whose post the other day pleading for moderation reached deeply into my soul and made me remember how much I despise the polarization that is tearing the country apart, not only regarding the war, but just about anything else you can mention, from abortion to stem-cell research to evolution to Florida politics. If it were not so long, I would love to publish in its entirety a post I came across recently that cries out for moderation, but I have started to believe that no one would be paying attention anyway.

Robert Jamieson sounds slightly sympathetic, but he sees her as a pawn in a larger conflict that she really doesn't grasp. She wants to make a public splash by allowing critics of the unjustified war in Iraq to use her as a human bazooka against Bush, who got us into this war mess....That Sheehan would allow her private grief to be plied for a public stunt seems unfathomable even if her underlying message about unnecessary blood being shed by American soldiers hits the mark.

Kathleen Parker gets extra points for the best turn of a phrase I have seen lately ["Bush is not Tony Blair, as intelligent design would have it." I love it!]. And she really is sympathetic with Cindy Sheehan.

Speaking as a mother and fellow citizen, my heart goes out to Cindy Sheehan and all other parents of lost sons and daughters. One can only imagine their grief and pain. Thus, my first thought upon hearing her plea for an audience with Bush was that he should run, not walk, and greet her with a warm embrace.

I wanted him to hug her and to say how deeply sorry he is for her loss. I wanted him to face the cameras and, choking back emotion, to tell the world how much he cares for every single son and daughter serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then I wanted him to be Tony Blair and say all the right things in just the right way so that Cindy Sheehan could return home to Vacaville, Calif., and begin to heal.

I don't think she is making that up to sound sarcastic. I think those sentiments rise from a place deep inside that anyone can understand. But in the end, she agrees with those whose support of this war is virtually absolute. Cindy Sheehan is no longer just a grieving mother. She's a media extravaganza, a political pawn and a rallying icon - the Rosa Parks of the anti-war movement, as she has been dubbed.... At this point, Sheehan's demands have become impossibly problematic for Bush. Just as intended? By declining to see her, he seems cruel and out of touch with others' suffering. But by seeing her, he puts himself - and potentially the security of others - at great risk....Bush, regardless of what he personally might wish to do, has responsibilities that far exceed the crowd gathering beyond his Prairie Chapel Ranch....Democrats might be delighted to freeze that image in political time, but so would insurgents planning their next Baghdad ambush.

In a few short sentences, Cindy Sheehan has been morphed, as have all of us whose opposition to this war cannot be seen in anything but the most treasonable light, into the next reason another bomb kills someone in Iraq. Human bazooka, indeed!

I can't think of anything that I can add that will describe my flashback any plainer. I can identify with her simply because I remember arguments and discussions from long ago, from gentle, civil people, trying to convince me that by being a part of something triggering violence, I was somehow responsible for that violence.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Raise the Gas Tax (Updated)

[January 24, 2009]

My idea of a variable gas tax (see below) was not original and when I started this post it seemed to have no chance of survival.
But look how the notion has grown.
Today I came across the FORA video and knew it was time to bring the post up to date once again.

[December 28, 2008]

When I started this post November 17 the idea was shocking but obvious. Gas prices had fallen so quickly no one could believe it had really happened. Everyone, including me, had gritted their teeth, complained, and rolled our eyes so long getting used to high gas prices the new, painful higher prices were finally getting accepted as a new reality. Then all at once, WHAM! We woke up one morning and could fill the car for less than going out to a movie. It was like winning the lottery.

I had been joking about paying more for bottled water than for gas -- and complaining that the gas cost too much! (Pretty stupid, huh?)

Before we had a chance to forget, the Washington Post and a couple of other places advanced the reasonable suggestion that NOW is the logical time for a gas tax. Taxes are never popular, but they are easier to pay when the need is clear (highways, schools) or to assuage the pain of sin (tobacco, alcohol).

[November 17]

Those of us old enough to remember the gas shortage of the seventies remember well how quickly America returned to gas-guzzlers after flirting briefly with the notion of more economical cars with good mileage. We can blame Detroit all we want, but they were only producing what Americans wanted.

Recently when the prices went out of sight the response was dramatic. Behavior changed and the price of oil has fallen low enough that gas is back below two dollars. I don't know how the politics can work, but it is clear that while recent gas prices are fresh in memory no one would flinch at a price jump at the pump.

This is from the Washington Post. The logic is too clear to ignore...

THE PRICE OF crude oil closed at $57.04 a barrel on Friday. That's about $90 cheaper than it was in July. The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline Friday was $2.15, nearly $2 less than it was in July. This is definitely good news for the battered American consumer. But we fear that the temptation to return to gas-guzzling vehicles, to drive more and to forget the painful lessons learned last summer will be too great to resist.

Our concern is hardly unfounded. As Post-Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson wrote in his Oct. 29 column, "We've seen this movie before." A gas crisis leads to widespread calls for conservation, fuel-efficient cars and greater reliance on alternative sources of energy to help slip the yoke of imported oil. Then, as happened after the 1970s gas crunch, amnesia sets in the moment prices fall. One of the best ways to prevent a rerun is to raise the federal tax per gallon of gasoline. Mr. Samuelson made a worthy suggestion: Raise the gas tax a penny a month for 48 months.

In a perfect world, we'd like to see a gas tax that was the equivalent of oil at $100 per barrel. This would send a loud-and-clear signal to drivers to continue eschewing gas guzzlers for fuel sippers and mass transit. Automakers would get the message to speed up production of motor vehicles that meet or exceed the 35 miles per gallon by 2020 mandated by Congress last year. Instead of the money going to countries that have U.S. interests at heart in the same way a dealer cares about a junkie, the revenue would stay here -- and it could all be returned to the American people in the form of tax rebates.

Okay, we know that the world isn't perfect and a lame-duck Congress and president aren't going to make the tough but necessary decisions on energy independence: That will fall to President-elect Barack Obama. As he puts his administration together and considers his priorities, he faces the choice of playing it safe with incremental steps or going bold with dramatic action when he assumes office on Jan. 20. We urge Mr. Obama to take the latter course. The United States cannot afford to backslide to its voracious, polluting ways as it did in the 1970s.

Gregg Carlstrom is a journalist and freelance photographer currently based in Washington, D.C. He picked up the same idea this morning. [November 17]

It's a simple idea: use a variable tax to keep gasoline prices at a minimum level (say, $4.50 per gallon). When prices are below that level, the tax money goes into a fund that pays for mass transit, next-generation cars, etc. And when prices climb above the floor, the tax disappears.

Obviously the tax would be unpopular in the short term. But it would provide much-needed revenues for upgrading our energy infrastructure — and it would remind everyone that, although they might fluctuate for a time, oil prices will inevitably continue their upward march.

It's good that Obama recognizes the pattern of our oil addiction — will he do something to break it?

[December 28]

Charles Krauthammer adds his voice to the conversation calling for a "net-zero" gas tax. This elegant idea is to create a hybrid tax stimulus, if we can borrow a term from the car people, by swapping income tax for gas tax. The "net zero" feature is really a sugar pill PR locution aimed at misleading people into believing that the amount they pay for gas will more or less equal the amount of income taxes they might otherwise pay if the shiny new gas tax is not approved. Good sales pitch, if you ask me, although if you look at it too close it reminds me of a cross between a politician and an insurance salesman.

Nevertheless, I do like the idea.

Here is how it works. The simultaneous enactment of two measures: A $1 increase in the federal gasoline tax--together with an immediate $14 a week reduction of the FICA tax. Indeed, that reduction in payroll tax should go into effect the preceding week, so that the upside of the swap (the cash from the payroll tax rebate) is in hand even before the downside (the tax) kicks in.

The math is simple. The average American buys roughly 14 gallons of gasoline a week. The $1 gas tax takes $14 out of his pocket. The reduction in payroll tax puts it right back. The average driver comes out even, and the government makes nothing on the transaction. (There are, of course, more drivers than workers--203 million vs. 163 million. The 10 million unemployed would receive the extra $14 in their unemployment insurance checks. And the elderly who drive--there are 30 million licensed drivers over 65--would receive it with their Social Security payments.)

I give him credit for having the nerve to pull FICA taxes into the discussion. That is one part of our tax code that even in the most heated of debates remains unmentionable. The annual cap on FICA earnings is the best-kept secret in America and if I understand Mr. Krauthammer's suggestion that sacred cow would live unmolested. In fact, it would have the effect of LOWERING that cap instead of raising it in the face of the Social Security "Insolvency" Terror. That's what I call chutzpah.

But all in all I like the idea for political and practical reasons and want to give it a push.

In fact, Mr. Krauthammer, I'll see your "net-zero" gas tax and raise you one better.

What about a Variable Rate Gas Tax with the rate pegged to the market price of crude oil. In this way consumers would have a cushion against market spikes, the retail marketplace would still have spirited competition, and with the passing of time the federal treasury would not be stuck with a "net zero" increase but a chance at an improved gas tax revenue stream.

If you really want to move things along, put that in your tank and burn it.

A Variable Rate Gas Tax aimed at keeping the retail price of gas more predictable for the consumer could be adjusted at whatever interval seems politically most feasible: weekly, monthly or quarterly. As in the case of indexing for other purposes, it could be based on the trailing average market price of oil or any other factors the Congress needs to add to make it through the system.

We saw with a six hundred billion dollar bailout package (Remember? That was the original request.) that after Congress added another one hundred fifty billion dollars of lipstick the final total swelled to seven hundred fifty billion.

We cannot predict how the Gas Tax Pig might come out as sausage, but I still think it's time to feed it into the grinder.

Dragging an "analog government bureaucracy into the digital era":

Waldo inspired my headline.

My poor widget in the sidebar hasn't had new content for hours! I can't stand it. The Obama Team spoiled me with how well they kept on top of everything.
The same moribund system that tried to forbid the president's Blackberry seems to be the root of the problem. Reagan was right. Government IS the problem. Waiting for government to change is like watching a tree grow. I'm getting more timely information from the SF Gate than from Washington. President Obama's Web-savvy team works out the kinks at its new digital home, the administration's attitude of openness is already starting to change the archaic federal culture, making other agencies re-examine how they interact with the public....

During the campaign, candidate Obama compiled a list of more than 11 million e-mail addresses. Millions more connected to the campaign through online organizations like and Facebook groups, so there is no shortage of citizens to converse with.

"He is sitting on a volcano of participation," said Micah Sifry, editor of, an online hub that examines the intersection of technology and politics, referring to the enormous amount of online participation Obama's campaign and transition teams generated. "The potential here is enormous.

The Obama team learned one hard lesson on its first day in the White House. They arrived at their offices to find they were working on 6-year-old versions of Microsoft software, few laptops and no social networking connections. That's one reason it took several hours to post some of Obama's first-day executive orders on, such as enhancing the Freedom of Information Act and freezing the salaries of White House employees who make more than $100,000.

"The people who came from the Obama campaign understand what to do," said Raven Brooks, executive director of Netroots Nation, which acts as a hub for liberal online organizations. "But now they're working with a lot of senior staff and career politicians from Washington who may not be on the same page yet."

HUD changes policy

Still, the incoming administration's new way of doing things has already been felt. Last month, Obama transition team members asked federal agencies if their employees were allowed to use social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube, and if not, why not? Almost immediately after receiving the inquiry, the Housing and Urban Development Department dropped its prohibition.

Obama's campaign built its power on connecting with citizens where they can be found - on social networks like Facebook - instead of waiting for them to find a faceless federal Web site.

"The biggest change we have in this administration is that they understand the power of these tools," said Bev Godwin, director of, a federal site that helps connect citizens with government services. She also works with managers across the 24,000 federal Web sites to improve best practices.

Some would argue that easy access to too much data makes spying easier. Spare me that nonsense. That's like worrying about privacy when for thirty-five dollars I can discover more about you than you know about yourself, including your credit reports and your mother's maiden name.

The Obama team is on the right track.
Sic 'em, ya'll.