Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Footnote to the Footnote, Okay I Have to Be Fair Div.

One bit of good news: The ACLU reported last week that the Obama administration has declined to seek Supreme Court review of a Second Circuit Appeals Court decision from 2008 that struck down part of the Traitor - excuse me, "Patriot" - Act as unconstitutional. The time limit for filing such a petition has expired without action from the White House.

The provisions in question related to the issuance of gag orders on recipients of National Security Letters, or NSLs, a means by which the FBI can with no judicial or executive oversight demand a wide range of information from individuals. The gag orders make it a crime to tell anyone anything about the contents of the letter or even that you were served with one.
The lawsuit at issue, now called Doe v. Holder, was filed by the ACLU and New York Civil Liberties Union in April 2004 on behalf of an Internet service provider (ISP) that the FBI served with an NSL. Because the FBI imposed a gag order on the ISP, the lawsuit was filed under seal, and even today the ACLU is prohibited from disclosing its client's identity.

Because the government has decided not to seek Supreme Court review, it will now for the first time have to defend the constitutionality of the gag order on the ACLU's client. The FBI continues to enforce the gag order even though the underlying investigation is more than five years old and may well have ended, and even though the FBI abandoned its demand for records from the ISP more than two years ago. ...

Moreover, beyond the resolution of the gag that was imposed in this case, the appeals court decision will require the government to develop new procedures under which it will bear the burden of justifying any gag that it seeks to impose.
The issue at hand, note, is the gag order, not the NSL itself. Frankly, how such things as NSLs - which predate the Traitor Act - can be possibly be held as Constitutional is beyond me, but again, the immediate issue here is the gag order. Maybe once that is shot down we can take up the broader issue.

Footnote Just To Be Paranoid: Having praised the Obama White House for declining to appeal, I have to wonder (yes, I have to) if the decision was made because they knew it was a loser - courts, including, perhaps especially, SCOTUS, tend to be very protective of their powers, around which NSLs make an end run - and better to lose in one circuit than in the whole country.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Footnote to the preceding, Another Front Div.

While "national security" and the War on Terror(c)(reg.)(pat.pend.) are likely the areas where he is getting the biggest push from those around him, they are not the only areas where President Obama appears to have found the levers of power more alluring than candidate Obama did.

Barack Obama came into office promising to run "the most transparent and accountable government in history." In fact, the day after his inauguration,
Mr. Obama said he would require his administration to consider the Freedom of Information Act and the general concept of openness and transparency in a different way than in previous administrations.
But like more than a few other fine phrases, the implementation did not live up to the implication. ABC News reported recently that
[a] sweeping new Obama administration openness policy doesn't apply to a key White House office that supports most of Obama's key staff and advisers, administration officials confirm. Rather, the Obama White House has opted to retain a Bush-era policy that blocks information about those operations from public release.
The office in question is the White House Office of Administration, which oversees much of the day-to-day operations of the president's office and staff.

George Bush was the man who declared, in 2007, that the office was not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. A federal court subsequently agreed with the White House that the office was technically not an "agency" within the meaning of the FOIA and so was not covered by it.
Today, the Obama White House Web site announces that the Office of Administration "is not subject to FOIA and related authorities." And that's just not good enough, say government watchdogs.
Not good enough because the court decision does not require the government to dismiss FOIA requests about the Office of Administration, it says only that it doesn't have to respond to them. It's still free to do so if it chooses.
"If the president is talking about establishing an 'unprecedented' level of transparency, it seems like at a minimum he should be reverting to the pre-Bush practice of honoring the FOIA within a key White House component," said David Sobel, a lawyer who runs a government accountability project at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "That's not even unprecedented, that's just getting back to what had been the norm."

Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, agreed, noting that he'd also like to see Obama reverse a Clinton administration decision to exempt the White House National Security Council from FOIA, a stance Bush maintained and Obama has shown no inclination to reverse.
This, admittedly, is something that might change in time, something that has been rather low on their list of priorities. But frankly, reverting to a previous status quo - especialy when that could be done with a simple executive order directing the Office of Administration to act as if it was covered the the FOIA - is not something that should take a lot of study or deep consideration. The bottom line here is that Obama campaigned on creating "the most transparent and accountable administration in history" and yet, so far, is in at least some ways running one that is less open than the first six years of the Bush administration.

Can you hear me now? Part two

Updated Okay, now for the bigger bit.

On May 15, Barack Obama announced plans to revive military tribunals for some prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. There were some "improved rights" for those facing those excuses for trials, but as Amnesty International said, they still
do not provide an adequate standard of justice for the detainees nor the victims of terrorism - they merely mock the U.S. Constitution, international laws and undermine fundamental human rights standards.
A year ago, Obama branded the military commissions "an enormous failure," but his new tack won praise from such as Mitch McConnell, who called it "an encouraging development," and Reagan administration alumnus David Rivkin, who praised Obama administration members for "coming to their senses."

The administration's defense of its decision included the claim that torture used on detainees "had become an obstacle" to prosecution, which is another way of saying that except for unreliable, torture-induced "confessions," they got bubkes on those people. Another part of the defense seemed less revealing but more odd:
Though some detainees, in so-called clean confessions, admitted to terrorist activities in 2007, they were not given the warnings against self-incrimination that are standard in law enforcement.

Federal courts would likely ban such confessions, lawyers said, and, in some cases, convictions may be nearly impossible without them.
I'm sorry, but seriously, do you think courts are going to throw out non-coerced confessions because the military did not Miranda people? That strikes me much more as an excuse for continuing tribunals, not a reason. (The difference being that a reason comes before the decision and an excuse comes after.)

Odder still, the White House insists that Obama is not going back on his word.
The president "never promised to abolish" military commissions, an administration official said. But Obama repeatedly called for change.

"It's time to better protect the American people and our values by bringing swift and sure justice to terrorists through our courts and our Uniform Code of Military Justice," Obama said in August.
The Obama crowd seems to have adopted another Bush practice, the "we never actually said the particular word 'imminent'" defense.

According to records at, there have been nearly 800 people imprisoned at Gitmo, up to 625 at one time. Over 400 of them have been released without charge; about 240 remain today. From the very beginning, all along, right up to the present, we have been told each step of the way that those who remained there were absolutely "the worst of the worst." Then we released some and then some more, while still saying those left were, well, they really were the worst of the worst. But in fact, the record shows that the vast majority of those imprisoned there posed no risk at all.

And no, the bogus reporting that "one in seven" of the prisoners released from Guantánamo "has returned to terrorism" doesn't change that one bit even if the numbers are accurate. Three reasons: One, the word "returned" is wrong; for most of those so accused, the US has no idea if they were involved in anything before they were taken. If they are involved in some anti-US actions now, it could just as well be because of their imprisonment. (Even Elisabeth Bumiller, who wrote the original story, is backing off the word "returned.") Two: The actual phrase was "terrorism or militant activity," the latter of which, undefined, could mean participating in demonstrations, making speeches, even just writing letters. Third, that's a 14% recidivism rate. The recidivism rate for those released from US prisons can reach 68% three years after release. If these people really were terrorists, who tend to be very dedicated, driven, people, you would expect a higher recidivism rate than from civilian prisons, not one one-fifth as large.

Oh, and before it gets away: After all the evidence, all the reports, all the experiences, after the illegal imprisonment, the mistreatment, the torture, the Constitutional violations, the executive-level power-grabbing, how did Obama just characterize Gitmo? As a "failed experiment." Not an outrage, a disgrace, a blot on our national soul, a nail driving into our national conscience, no. A "failed experiment."

Which could to some degree explain some of what happened during his May 20 meeting with representatives of leading civil liberties and human rights groups. It was apparently a nice show but little more; the groups came out of the meeting talking about "a robust exchange" (which sounds much like "a frank exchange of views") and by the next day were charging Obama with "mimic[king] the Bush administration's abusive approach to fighting terrorism" and were failing to find "meaningful differences" between Obama's policies and those of his predecessor.

Apparently, during the meeting
one of the attendees warned the President he was letting George Bush's policies become his own - and that Obama was not pleased by that characterization.
To which I say, tough noogies. If you don't like the comparison, stop making it a good one.

Here's another comparison he won't like: According to Marc Ambinder, writing in The Atlantic, at that meeting Obama asked the civil libertarians
to help his administration draft guidelines for military commissions - lasting guidelines, guidelines that would outlive his administration.

He was blunt; the MCs are a fait accompli, so the civil libertarians can either help Congress and the White House figure out the best way to protect the rights of the accused within the framework of that decision, or they can remain on the outside, as agitators.
Being equally blunt, the military commissions are nothing but an attempt to guarantee convictions. The position of the Obama administration is, essentially, that if we can convict you in a civilian court, we will - but if we can't, we'll just loosen the rules some and convict you in a military tribunal.

So what he really was offering these human rights advocates was to let them, in effect, paint the barracks in the concentration camps. Help make them look pretty, the better to hide their real purpose. Or, if you prefer and perhaps more accurately, to be the doctors at the torture sessions who salve their consciences by imagining things would be worse if they weren't there - but who actually serve to provide cover for the torturers and so better enable the torture to continue.

I mean, "lasting guidelines?" Just who is he kidding and I include the possibility that among those is himself? What "guidelines" can you lay down that can't be changed by a future administration, a future Congress, once you have established the basic legal principle? It's like the old joke - which I know you've heard but I'm going to lay out anyway - about the man who asks a woman if she'll have sex with him for $100,000.

"Well," she says, "I dunno, but.... Yeah, okay."

"What about for five dollars?" he asks.

Bristling, she snaps "You creep! What kind of woman do you think I am?"

"We've established what kind of woman you are," he replies. "We're just haggling about price."

Obama wants to establish the principle, the principle that opens the door to the sordid, the cruel, the easy, demeaning, judgment, leaving future administrations the ability to, if you will, haggle about the price.

But then, again, at a Congressional hearing last month, Secretary of War Robert Gates said
that there were "50 to 100 [detainees] probably in that ballpark who we cannot release and cannot trust, either in Article 3 [civilian] courts or military commissions." (Brackets in original.)
That is, even under the loosened rules, in some cases you can't guarantee a conviction. What do we do with those people? On May 21, in his speech on civil liberties, Obama answered that question: He intends to
create a system of "preventive detention" for accused Terrorists without a trial, in order to keep locked up indefinitely people who, in his words, "cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people."
So what was hinted at before has been made explicit now: Barack Obama wants the power to imprison people indefinitely without charge and without a right to challenge their imprisonment, based solely on his determination that they could in the future commit an act against the United States. White House reps claim this will only be applied to people now at Guantánamo - as if that made a difference - but even they admit that it could be applied against others in the future.

And of course it could. And would. It's hard to believe that something this outrageous could be seriously proposed. Ambinder referred to it as crossing the Rubicon, but a much better comparison would be walking off a cliff. This is a line that once you cross it, if this becomes established as a legal principle, you quite literally cannot go back. It is not possible. And being able to imprison without proof, detain without charge, confine without appeal, this is, again quite literally, the hallmark of tyranny. You can assume the purest of hearts among the Obama team, the very best possible intentions, and it doesn't change a frelling thing unless you can equally guarantee the nobility of every single future administration. And you know damn well you can't.

This is not going forward without opposition, albeit it largely from the expected quarters, and I agree with Greenwald that Rachel Maddow had an excellent piece on the matter. But the bottom line is that what Obama wants to do is unprecedented in our history, an expansion of executive power beyond even what the Shrub gang tried to do. The Bushites wanted to (and did) indefinitely imprison people based on what the president said they had done. Obama wants to indefinitely imprison people based on what the president says they will do. Obama wants to establish the principle, the legal principle, the legal principle that when the president says it, proof is not necessary, evidence is to be damned, the Constitution does not apply - and the crystal ball replaces the courtroom.

Welcome to change.

Footnote: Ambinder said the reference to the human rights groups remaining "outside, as agitators," was "not meant to be pejorative." He claimed "the White House does not give a scintilla of attention to its right-wing critics" but does "read, and will read," criticism from the left.
Obama, according to an administration official, finds this outside pressure healthy and useful.
As well he should - but the claim that the Obama crowd ignores the right but carefully considers the left is utterly laughable.

Updated with a Footnote, Again: While this has been about Obama's policies and proposals about Gitmo, I can't let pass without mention the incredibly stupid and astonishingly cowardly action of the Senate of passing that amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill barring the use of any funds to "transfer, release, or incarcerate any individual who was detained as of May 19, 2009, at Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to or within the United States." The craven, belly-crawling vote was 90-6.

Durbin, Harkin, Leahy, Levin, Reed, and Whitehouse voted against it; Byrd, Kennedy, and Rockefeller didn't vote. Everyone else said "yes, I'm a spinelesss fraidy-cat."

On the upside, several such amendments have been offered in the House but none seem to be going anywhere. So far, anyway. The question is what happens when the bill goes to conference. House leaders, feeling no such heat from within their own chamber, may be in no mood to take the kind of swing at Obama that the amendment represents - but the Senate did vote 90-6. Still, before the vote there was a lot of whining that the funds were being withheld because Obama hadn't "presented a plan" for the prisoners and so Obama's speech could easily afford Senate leaders an out if they care to use it.

Can you hear me now? Part one

This was going to be one post, but it kept growing so I split it into two parts, one with the short bits and the other with the long bit. So here, a summary of some recent events.

On April 10, the Obama administration said it was going to appeal a district court ruling that said some - not even all, but some - military prisoners in Afghanistan had the right to challenge their detention in court.
The decision signaled that the administration was not backing down in its effort to maintain the power to imprison terrorism suspects for extended periods without judicial oversight.
The prisoners in question had not been "captured on the battlefield" in Afghanistan but had been shipped there from other places. Is the plan to "close Gitmo, expand Bagram?"

On May 12, the Washington Times confirmed what had been reported in February: The Obama crowd has threatened to withhold intelligence information from the British government if it reveals information about the torture of a former Guantánamo detainee, now free in the UK.
A court filing from the British Foreign Office released recently includes a letter from the U.S. government, identified as the "Obama administration's communication." Other information identifying the U.S. agency and author of the letter appears to have been redacted.

The letter says:

"If it is determined that [her majesty's government] is unable to protect information we provide to it, even if that inability is caused by your judicial system, we will necessarily have to review with the greatest care the sensitivity of information we can provide in the future."
In other words, shut up if you know what's good for you.

(Link via Glenn Greenwald. Sidebar: If you want an insight into some dark recesses of our society, read the comments on the article.)

On May 13, the administration did a 180o flip-flop and announced it was going to appeal an order to release more photos from Abu Ghraib. The argument was that the release would "inflame anti-American sentiment" - as if it was the photos rather than the actions they depict that angered people - but "add nothing new" - as if it was up to the White House to unilaterally decide what adds to the historical record.

It's worthy of note who praised Obama's abrupt about-face: John Boehner and Lindsey Graham, the latter of who opined that "He's realized the difference between being a candidate and being commander in chief." That is, the boy is learning his place. (And yes, the word was chosen deliberately.)

Graham said that even if the Obama administration ultimately loses in court and the photos are released, "it's good for the troops to know their commander in chief went to bat for them." But - I started to say "stunningly," but I should realize by now that this is only to be expected - the Obamabots are claiming that losing is the intention, that Obama wants to lose, a result which will get the photos out while not getting the right wing pissed at him about it. It's all part of his continuing political brilliance, they say.

Um, yeah, right. What if he wins? What if it becomes established as a legal principle that "it'll make us look bad" is a valid basis for withholding information on "national security" grounds? What if it becomes established that the president has the authority to conceal information because he or she decides it "adds nothing" to the issue? What then?

Finally, on May 23, Judge Vaughn Walker of US District Court in San Francisco threatened the Obama administration with severe sanctions, including issuing a summary judgment against it, if it didn't stop stonewalling and obey the court's order to turn over to the plaintiffs a document showing they were the targets of illegal surveillance.

The case is Al-Haramain v. Obama, originally Al-Haramain v. Bush. Al-Haramain is a Muslim charity. In the original suit, the government accidentally released to the plaintiffs a document showing that it had spied on the group's lawyers: The papers even contained transcripts of telephone conversations. The government took the document back and ever since has insisted that the attorneys who saw it should not be allowed to use their memories of it to pursue the case.

That is, there is a document that proves - beyond question - that the government illegally spied on the group. The government knows about it, the court knows about it, the plaintiffs' lawyers know about it, they've all seen it, they all know what's in it - but the position of the Obama administration is that everyone involved should go around acting and talking as if it didn't exist. Kind of like a reverse Tinker Bell deal: "I don't believe, I don't believe...."

I wrote about Obama's endorsement of the "state secrets privilege" in this case, but Judge Walker, having rejected the claim, itself an unusual event, is getting fed up. There is to be a "show cause" hearing on June 3, when the Obama crowd will have to explain why it should not be sanctioned. That should prove interesting.

Monday, May 18, 2009

No need to hide

So the trustees of the Social Security fund came out with their report. Not surprisingly since it involves economic projections made in the course of a deep recession, it projects that Social Security will start running a deficit in 2016, one year earlier than previously predicted, and the built-up surplus will be gone in 2037, four years earlier than before. Medicare is already running a deficit and the surplus will be gone by 2017 - two years sooner than last year's prediction.

Even though the report offered no reason to panic, the Washington Post, as is its wont with anything to do with Social Security, fear-mongered it; it's front-page story referred to "raising the alarm" and said the report "ratchets up pressure on the Obama administration and Congress to stabilize the retirement system." And on the editorial page, it said with bug-eyed breathlessness that
the programs are in trouble. ... The U.S. population is aging, health-care costs are spiraling upward and neither program has the money to cover promised benefits.
The editors dismissed out of hand the arguments of those who refuse to be stampeded and (perhaps unintentionally) revealed the true agenda when it insisted that "cost control has to be at the center of any plan" while continuing to refer to such code words for "cut benefits" as "reform." The only thing it lacked was the appeal to the "sacrifices that we will all have to make," the word "all," in this case, meaning "all of you."

As Robert Reich pointed out,
[r]eports of these two funds' demise are not new. Fifteen years ago ... both funds were supposedly in trouble. But as I learned, the timing and magnitude of the trouble depended a great deal on what assumptions the actuary used in his models.
That analysis assumed the economy would grow an average of 2.6% a year over the next 75 years. But average annual growth over the past 150 years has been closer to 3% per year. Use that figure and the system is flush. Now, it does make sense to make, you'll pardon the expression, conservative assumptions about future growth, the better to insure the long-term stability of the system. What does not make sense is to use conservative assumptions and then run around like Chicken Little yelling about imminent disaster. But that is what's happening.
Even if you assume Social Security is a problem[, Reich adds], it's not a big problem. Raise the ceiling slightly on yearly wages subject to Social Security payroll taxes (now a bit over $100,000), and the problem vanishes.... Social Security would also be in safe shape if it were slightly more means tested, or if the retirement age were raised just a bit. The main point is that Social Security is a tiny problem, as these things go.
I would endorse raising the ceiling on wages subject to SS payroll taxes (in fact, I'd eliminate it altogether) and I'd be strongly opposed to raising the retirement age further - but Reich's valid point remains that Social Security needs tweaking at most.

Bob Weiner, former chief of staff for the House Committee on Aging, reminded viewers of CNN of the value of Social Security, something too often forgotten in the heat of budget battles.
[It] has been the most successful one in the history of American social programs - taking half of senior citizens out of poverty. Half of seniors rely on Social Security for 90% of their income.
He noted pointedly that
one third of the cost of the Iraq war or one third of the tax cuts; even then in the worst case scenario would solve [any funding problems]
and that even under that worst case scenario, the system will be able to pay 75% of projected benefits even after it's "depleted" or "broke" or "bankrupt" or whatever scare word the reactionaries want to apply to it.

There is also a very important but often-overlooked point here: Again, that is 75% of projected benefits. Initial SS benefits rise over time with wage inflation, which, happily, tends to rise faster than price inflation. Put another way, over time, initial SS benefits tend to rise in real terms, provide an improved standard of living for new retirees. That 75% of projected benefits, depending on what assumptions you make about price inflation between now and 2037, could actually provide a higher standard of living for new retirees in 2037 than now.

However, there is still the other side of the issue: Medicare. Weiner says it's "in dire straits" and Reich calls it "a monster." And there is no question but that it needs to be addressed and soon. But the problems with Medicare, ultimately, are not about Medicare - they are about sharply rising health care costs, rising at a rate that far outstrips overall inflation. Weiner suggests some simple fixes ("allowing imports," I assume of prescription drugs, and "vying and buying," which I assume means using the buying clout of the federal government to better negotiate prices, particularly for drugs) which would help short term but which he knows are no solution. The way to fix Medicare is to fix the damn health care system.

And I damn well don't mean the apparently bogus offer by the medical industry to cut costs by $2 trillion over the next 10 years. I mean real, thorough-going change. Hopefully, over the next few days I will get it together enough to explain in more detail just what I mean by that. In any event, the basic fact remains: Fixing Medicare requires fixing the health care system and fixing the health care system will fix Medicare.

Footnote: As an indication of how eager they were to push the fear button, the WaPo editorial also said that
the size of the Social Security surpluses has shrunk, posing a problem for the government since it relies on these funds to help plug its deficits. Over the next seven years, the cumulative surpluses will be $157 billion instead of the previously estimated $454 billion, forcing the cash-strapped feds to borrow even more than they had expected.
Now, it's true that the feds have been using the trust fund as a piggy bank, borrowing from it to help cover deficits and if the amount in the trust fund is lower than expected, that part of the deficit will have to be financed elsewhere at perhaps greater cost. However, that doesn't have one single blessed little thing to do with the future or soundness of Social Security. It is a complete and total irrelevancy, thrown in, in a kitchen sink approach, to stampede people into supporting benefit cuts - cuts which, as I noted last time, would have to be immediate cuts in benefits to current retirees to have a real impact on the deficit.

It would appear that's that the WaPo wants.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I feel their pain

Really. I do. Would I lie?

Consider this a sort of footnote to the preceding post:
A new study by Fidelity Investments finds that millionaires don’t feel wealthy anymore....

The study, an online poll of more than 1,000 people with investible assets of at least $1 million, excluding workplace retirement accounts and any real-estate holdings, found that 46% of millionaires didn’t feel wealthy. That is a huge jump from last year, when only 19% of millionaires said they didn’t feel wealthy.
Why not? Well, because they were not immune to the effects of the economic mess. More than 40% blamed losses in the stock market.
The millionaires reported an average household income drop of 19%, along with investment losses of 19% and real-estate losses of 28%. ...

“While many millionaires recognize they are doing better than the average investor, last year’s market volatility and loss of assets have forced them to reassess what the term ‘wealthy’ means to them,” said Gail Graham, executive vice president of Fidelity Investments.
Well, let me offer my assessment, you over-valued bozos. When your "investible assets" - not even counting real estate - are equal to at least 20 years total income for a median American household, then you are wealthy and I don't give a flipping damn how you "feel" about it. And quite bluntly I am not the least bit moved to feel any distress over your wholly illusory, self-imagined, self-absorbed plight.

But no, I didn't lie. Because it wasn't their pain I was talking about. It was the pain of too many of the rest of us, still surrounded by bad economic news and evidence that we are still retrenching and the economy has yet to hit bottom.

For one example of the latter, leading US retailers are seeing shrinking sales and so shrinking profits. JC Penny saw sales drop nearly 6% from a year ago. Meanwhile, who recorded an increase? Wal-Mart, the place marketed on cut-throat prices intended to draw people desperate to cut costs. (Those prices are supported by dodgy deals in repressive countries overseas and crappy treatment of their employees at home, but they still draw bargain-hunters.)

The auto industry, a mainstay of the US industrial landscape, continues to reel. GM has notified 2,000 dealerships that they will be closed and Chrysler has announced plans to close a quarter of its showrooms. And no, it's not just a matter of "crappy American cars," either: Nissan reported a loss for the year with its biggest decline in sales coming in the US and Toyota reported its biggest loss ever and its first since 1963 - and projects a bigger loss this year.

And there's no real hope in the export market, either:
For both the 27-nation European Union and its subset, the 16 countries that use the euro, gross domestic product shrank 2.5 percent in the first three months, a 10 percent annual rate, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical office.
The European Commission predicts the economy of the "eurozone" - the 16 nations that use the euro - will contract by 4% this year, but
[t]he severity of the contraction [in the first quarter] surprised economists.

"The figures came in a bit worse than even we had expected and are significantly worse than the consensus," said Joerg Kraemer from Commerzbank.
So perhaps that prediction of a 4% decline should be taken with a grain of salt.

Meanwhile, back in the US, this is what passes for good news:
The nation's industrial production fell in April by the smallest amount in six months, fresh evidence that the pace of the economy's decline is slowing.
According to this Federal Reserve report, industrial output has dropped in 15 of the last 17 months and is down 16% from December 2007. Over that same time, the overall operating rate for factories, mines and utilities has dropped from 80.6% to 69.1%, the lowest rate on record, dating back to 1967.

That is, over 30% of our industrial capacity is idle, the most in at least 42 years. Industrial output is still declining, it's still going down, which means more idled facilities and more unemployed workers to come - but it's going down more slowly than it was. Good news!

Somehow, I don't feel like cheering.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

It's the season

Oh, lord, here we go again. We've been talking about federal budgets and programs and deficits, so it's time for all our Serious, Reasonable, Realistic, Only-Interested-in-the-Good-of-the-Nation pundits to start bloviating about "entitlement reform." The other day, for example, David Broder droned on about how "the nation" will have "missed an opportunity" if we don't establish a "commission" on the matter toot sweet.

Since according to the Chinese proverb, "the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names," let's seek some wisdom right at the start: "Entitlements" means Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. "Reform" means cutting benefits.

Cutting benefits. That's always the answer in their minds. Just the excuses vary.

The economy is undermined by a class of slick-talking, con artist greedheads who of course we have to bail out (without, of course, actually exercising any control over or ownership of those enterprises - that would be "meddling in the private sector" and terribly Unserious) and which of course is going to cost upteen trillion dollars while allowing said greedheads to continue to live in the manner to which they have become accustomed, and what is the answer our chattering class offers to this financial conundrum? Cut Social Security!

The economy has been shamblized. Even as some signs emerge that we may be hitting the bottom, the "official" unemployment rate has climbed to 8.9% (up from 4.8% a year ago) and is expected to continue to climb well into 2010. (Your confidence even in that prediction may be shaken by the fact that six months ago, the "experts" were predicting unemployment could go as high as - oh, my - 8.5% by the end of 2009.) The real unemployment rate is already 15.8% (and for black males, it's 17.2%). One in five homeowners is under water - in a house worth less than their mortgage balance.

And even some of the "good" news may be bad news. The results of the bank "stress tests" were supposed to be a relief, showing the banks were not as bad off as had been thought. Except for one detail: The results were rigged.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that that the smaller-than-expected deficit number came about because the Federal Reserve applied a "different measurement of bank-capital levels than analysts and investors had been expecting, resulting in much smaller capital deficits."
That happened because the banks got to negotiate over what the stress test would say and what standards would be used to make the judgments.

What's more, there's what Dollars & Sense magazine calls a "credit card time bomb" in the results. The official results, the NY Times said,
suggested that the nation’s 19 biggest banks could expect nearly $82.4 billion in credit card losses by the end of 2010 under what federal regulators called a “worst case” economic situation.
Except it wasn't a worst case scenario: It didn't allow for higher unemployment and it didn't include credit card balances that had been packaged into bonds and so held off the banks' balance sheets.
According to estimates by Oliver Wyman, a management consulting firm, card losses at the nation’s biggest banks could reach $141.5 billion by 2010 if the regulators’ loss rate was applied to their entire credit card business. It could top $186 billion for the entire credit card industry. ...

[And u]nlike in prior recessions, cardholders who recently lost their jobs are unlikely to be able to extract equity from their homes or draw down retirement accounts to help pay off their debts.
All of which means that the recession, instead of having the classic "V" shape where the economy declines, hits a bottom, and climbs back up again, could have a "U" shape where it declines, hits bottom, and stays there for some time before improving again. Indeed, unless things work out just right, including no time bombs going off that could cause a complete collapse of consumer credit, this recession could look less like a "U" and more like an "L."

And what is the answer proposed by Broder, et. al.?

Cut Social Security!

End the mad, pointless, vile, wasteful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saving hundreds of billions a year? We don't hear them saying that. Set up a "commission" to find ways to slash the Pentagon war budget? Crickets. Raise taxes on the rich even more than has been proposed, maybe even bringing back the old top marginal rates of the 1950s? Even the crickets go silent.

What's more, not only are Medicare and Social Security not in any crisis, but the SS Trust Fund still shows a yearly surplus and is projected to do so until 2017 - which means that unless the pundits are proposing an immediate cut in current benefits, cutting Social Security would have no impact on reducing the deficit! (The longer run is in good shape, too: With no changes at all, the system can pay out 100% of projected benefits through 2041, say the system's trustees; until 2047, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And even then, again with no changes, the system could still pay out 78% of currently-projected benefits through 2084, which is as far out as the projections go.)

So I have to ask again what I asked the other day: Who the hell are you people?

But why ask? We know who they are: They are people who think cuts in Medicare, in Medicaid, in Social Security, won't affect them. They don't worry about being cold or hungry in their retirement, they don't worry about affording health care, and they sure as hell don't worry about being poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. As much as they claim to be speaking for "ordinary people," the fact of the matter is that the world they inhabit, the circles in which they move, are so far removed from the everyday concerns of most of us that those "ordinary people" are to them nothing but abstractions, symbols, bumper stickers for their political slogans, stands for their favorite hobbyhorses. They have nothing to say to us. And never did.

Footnote Ah-One: Yes, yes, I know that Medicaid is a separate issue and I didn't address it. The best solution for Medicaid is large-scale health care reform ("reform" in this case taking up its true meaning of "change for the purpose of improvement" rather than "cut! cut!") and particularly a national health care system. (Which is another topic I should address very shortly, since the more that comes out about this proposed "public option," the less sense it makes and the less use it is.) I'm sure there are administrative savings that could be found in Medicaid, but cutting benefits makes sense only if you don't care about the health of the less-well off.

Footnote Ah-Two: Before anyone jumps, no, there is no contradiction between calling for deep cuts in military spending and stimulating the economy. Just like in the case of cutting Social Security, the argument - in this case, "Don't cut the military!" - is always the same even as the excuses very. In flush times, the excuse is "building up our defenses," which somehow never seem to be built up enough. In fair times, it's "keeping us safe," although often precisely how and from precisely what is unclear. In bad times, like now, it's "Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!"

That was the first argument dragged out by Robert Kagan in the Washington Post as to why now is "No Time To Cut Defense." He also brought out the usual stable of reasons - it would "unnerve" allies and "embolden" adversaries such as Iran, "embolden" being a word I swear owes its very continued existence the the War on Terror(c)(reg.)(pat.pend.) - which together beg the question when is a time to cut defense, but "Jobs!" was the first reason given.

However, it has been known for a long time that military spending is an incredibly inefficient way to generate employment or economic stimulus and that almost any other form of public spending - or even an equivalent tax cut - is better for the economy. What's more, employment claims made for weapons systems are often inflated. So, no - there is no contradiction between calling for deep cuts in military spending and stimulating the economy.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Footnote to the preceding

Something that I'd think deserves rather more attention than deducting the sales tax on your new Bimmer:
Blacks and Hispanics lag behind whites for higher-paying jobs at the largest rates in about a decade as employment opportunities dwindled during the nation's economic woes and housing slump. ...

Blacks who had a four-year bachelor's degree earned $46,502, or about 78 percent of the salary for comparably educated whites.

It was the biggest disparity between professional blacks and whites since the 77 percent rate in 2001....

Hispanics saw similar trends. ...

Hispanics with bachelor's degrees had an average salary of $44,696, amounting to roughly 75 cents for every dollar made by whites with bachelor's degrees - the lowest ratio in more than a decade....
Another reason to note the article is that it contains a strong contender for the biggest "Duh!" moment of the year:
"It's clear education alone is not the full reason for the pay gaps," said Sarah Crissey, a housing and economic statistician for the Census Bureau.
Gee, ya think?

Say what?

The other day, Politico ran an article noting that Barack Obama had carried the "affluent vote" - those voters making more than $200,000 a year - with 52% of the total and wondering breathlessly if, or more exactly when, his support among such influential people would collapse in the face of Obama daring to do what he said he would do during the campaign, such as raising taxes on those making more than a quarter-million dollars a year.

There was a lot of tut-tutting about how "these voters are not being repaid for their support" and hand-wringing about the concerns and feelings of those such as couples making more than $250,000 who won't be able to deduct the sales taxes on new cars they buy this year on their 2009 returns. Amid all that comes this gem:
“A person making $250,000 isn’t wealthy,” said Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “They still have to work for a living.”
And I have to ask: Who the hell are you people? What world do you live in? Where is this magical kingdom where being able to deduct the sales tax on your new Lexus or Jag is a matter for attention and the the definition of "wealthy" is, apparently, never having to work at all but just clipping coupons?* It sure as hell is no place I've ever been.

According to US Census Bureau figures for 2006 (the most recent available), households with incomes of $175,000 or more were in the richest 5% of all American households. Of a little over 116 million total households, only 2.24 million had incomes in excess of $250,000 - that puts them in the richest 1.9% of Americans.

And they're griping about how tough they have it? I don't care one whit that most of the households making that quarter-mill-plus are clustered at the lower end of that range. It still means their household income exceeds that of more than 98% of their fellow American households and they are making over five times the median household income. That's not wealthy?

Put it another way: The article states that there were 4 million tax returns for earners of more than $200,000 in 2006. It also says that in that same year, there were 92.7 million tax returns filed. That means those $200,000+ earners were the richest 4.3% of filers; they made more than over 95% of the people who filed returns. Add the fact of those who didn't even have to file because they didn't make enough, and the percentage of those who they out-earned grows. That's not wealthy?

Put it a third way: Look at this graph. It was from a letter sent out by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in September 2007. It tracks the ratio of earnings of two different sets of income percentiles from 1967 to 2005. The meaning is not immediately obvious, so I'll explain. The dotted line represents the ratio of the 50th percentile income level to the 20th percentile income level. The ratio remained fairly steady at about 2.4:1 over that time: That is, the yearly income at the 50th percentile was roughly 2.4 times that of the 20th percentile and remained so over that 38-year period.

The solid line is the ratio of the income of the 95th percentile to the 50th percentile. In 1967, that ratio was 2.6:1. Those at the 95th percentile earned about 2.6 times as much as those at the 50th percentile. But that ratio did not remain even roughly constant; it grew steadily until by 2005 it was 3.6:1. Simply put, in comparison to the rest of us, the rich, those at the 95th percentile, were getting richer. Pulling away. They were not just richer than the vast majority of us, they were getting more richer than the vast majority of us.

Yet even the generally progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research is insisting someone making $250,000 a year "isn't wealthy," almost like they were just another working stiff. And that is pathetic nonsense which shows how distorted not only our economy is but our perceptions as well, as people making a quarter-million dollars a year "don't feel rich," apparently because they have costs to meet and bills to pay - without recognizing that the fact they can afford those expenses for things far beyond what most can have is what makes them rich. Yes, the rich "were disproportionately hit" by the banking collapse but they were also the ones who disproportionately gained over the preceding four decades and it never seems to register with them or with those who observe and fret over their condition that what they lost was more than most of their fellow citizens will ever have.

Our sense of values is seriously, seriously out of whack.

*The phrase "clipping coupons" is old slang for the activities of the idle rich whose income was derived from dividends and thus did not depend on their own work but on the labor of others. In his poem "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria," Langston Hughes had these lines:

Have luncheon there this afternoon, all you jobless.
     Why not?
Dine with some of the men and women who got rich off of
     your labor, who clip coupons with clean white fingers
     because your hands dug coal, drilled stone, sewed gar-
     ments, poured steel to let other people draw dividends
     and live easy.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Blog bit

HaloScan has a not-altogether-satisfactory way of managing comment bans, one that can very effectively block comments from people you don't want - and also very effectively block comments from people you do want.

If recently you've had a problem with getting a "Banned by sitemaster" message, please try again.

Update! Kinda

This is less of an update and more of a quick expansion on one part of my earlier post about socialism, the part that addressed the question of whether the 20% of people in a Rasmussen survey who said socialism is better than capitalism were merely reacting to GOPper overuse of the term and so associating "socialism" with Obama policies, which they generally support.

It develops that Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported in late April that in a Pew survey, when people were asked for a one-word description of Barack Obama, 20 out of 742 people surveyed offered "socialist," up from 13 out of 660 in February. Up, that is, from 2.0% of responses to 2.7%.

Paul Bedard, who does the Washington Whispers blog at US News & World Report, quotes Kohut as saying of the charge of "socialist" hurled at Obama by the GOPers, "It's registering." That 2.7% of responses represents "registering" is open to question, but what's important here is not the parsing of the poll but the fact that only a small minority of people come up with the word "socialist" in describing Obama. That would seem to indicate that the identification of Obama's policies with "socialism" is not as strong as others have proposed in downplaying the support that the idea of socialism received in that Rasmussen poll.

Put another way in case that's not clear: Some 20% of people in a survey said socialism is better than capitalism, a figure clearly higher than most of us would have expected. Some folks speculated the reason for that is that the GOPpers keep calling Obama a "socialist." So even though he certainly is no such thing, people could be going "He's a socialist? Gee, in that case socialism doesn't seem that bad."

However, it now emerges that few people look at Obama and think "socialist." Admittedly, with this kind of open-ended "one-word description" question, it's unlikely that any word would gather a large response (the most common response, "intelligent," was just 4.0% of total responses) - but when you consider that the top five responses other than "socialist" (intelligent, good, liberal, great, and confident) together accounted for 14.4% of the total number of descriptions, it does appear that there is a cluster of attitudes about Obama and that "socialist" is not part of that cluster. Which suggests that it could be an evolving attraction to some form of socialism rather than an equation of Obama with socialism that drove that 20% in its favor.

Which I say would be a good thing.


Updated New developments from the "bandwagon of love."

- Maine: Just Saturday, I reported that Maine's Senate has passed a bill establishing same-sex marriage and that the state's House would vote on it this week. In those few days, not only did the House pass it but now Governor John Baldacci has signed it, becoming the first governor in the country to sign such a bill in the absence of a court decision and making Maine the second state to meet the right wing's demand for same-sex marriage to be established in a state by legislative action.
The Maine law has not yet taken effect, and will face a steep hurdle before any weddings are held. Conservative groups have pledged to bring the measure to a statewide vote, and are expected to collect 55,000 signatures in the next three months to put the new law on the ballot in November. ...

The Maine Family Policy Council will lead the fight to block the law, said the group's executive director, Mike Heath.

He said he believes a large majority of Maine voters will reject gay marriage.
He may well be disappointed in that hope: Not only did the bill pass relatively easily and not only did it get the signature of a governor who not that long ago opposed same-sex marriage, but opinion in the state has clearly been moving and not in Heath's direction:
In 1998 and again in 2000, Maine legislators voted to expand the law to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, but both times voters narrowly struck down the measure in statewide referendums. The last attempt to change the law, in 2005, succeeded.
I frankly expect it will succeed again - however, with the bitter experience of PropHate still fresh, complacency is inadvisable.

- New Hampshire: The state legislature has taken the last of several procedural votes and passed a bill for same-sex marriage. Governor John Lynch, who has waffled on what he'll do, now has five days to veto the bill, sign it, or let it become law without his signature. I predict he will do the latter but I can hope he'll do the right thing and sign it.

- New Jersey: The Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger reported on Wednesday that gay rights advocates believe that the state will pass legislation this year allowing same-sex couples to marry. In 2006, the state Supreme Court ruled that marriage discrimination was contrary to the state's constitution but left it up to the Legislature to decide how to remedy that. The Leg chose the civil unions route but now appears ready to go the whole way.

There is also - no surprise - an effort for a state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman, but
Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, said it's highly unlikely that lawmakers would ban gay marriage in this year's election.

There's no chance of a constitutional amendment. New Jersey is moving in the complete other direction, said Goldstein.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, chief sponsor of the gay marriage bill, says she expects it to pass by the end of this year. Governor Jon Corzine said in December that "I will sign marriage equality legislation when it reaches my desk."

Oh, and a passing observation:
John Tomicki of the New Jersey Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage said there was no reason to change civil union laws to gay marriage other than to change the traditional meaning of the term.

If they have all the same benefits, protections and responsibilities of marriage, why do we want to redefine marriage? he said.
Well, turning the question back, if they have all the same benefits, protections, and responsibilities, what is the problem with calling those relationships marriages, Mr. Tomicki? Why are you so insistent on denying them the use of the term?

There is "no reason" other than to have a way to still consider same-sex couples as "other," as "different," as "them." No reason, that is, other than to maintain your last bastion of your bigotry.

- New York: Last month, Governor David Paterson introduced legislation in both the state Assembly and the state Senate that would allow same-sex marriage in the state. The Assembly is expected to vote on the bill soon and it is widely expected to pass. What's more, a Siena College poll last month found that 53% of New Yorkers support marriage for same-sex couples.

However, the bill's chances in the Senate are less certain. Chances did improve when Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos told his caucus they can vote their conscience, but despite that it remains unclear if there are enough votes. But if it does pass, there obviously is no reason to doubt that Paterson will sign it into law.

- Washington, DC: The DC City Council has given final approval to legislation that recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Mayor Adrian Fenty supported the bill and is expected to sign it. After he does, Congress will have 30 days to review the law and can reject it. However,
US Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who is openly gay, said he expects congressional opponents of gay marriage to rally to repeal the city's decision, but doubts they'll get very far.
One reason for his confidence is that Speaker Nancy Pelosi said "I don’t think Congress should intervene" in the matter. Unhappily, she did that in the course of dodging a question about repealing the Defense of Marriage Act - but a step forward is still a step forward.

Updated to include the item about DC.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Good news for a change, part five

Finally, before getting back to the real world, two bits of half good news, half because they are bills that have passed the House of Representatives but not yet the Senate.

- First, some relief for consumers who use credit cards.
Propelled through the House [on May 1] by antibusiness sentiment in tough economic times, legislation putting new reins on the credit card industry now goes to the Senate, where the bill's prospects appear promising.

The legislation, which has President Barack Obama's backing, would eliminate abrupt increases in interest rates and other practices decried by consumer advocates.
If only that "antibusiness sentiment" was really that strong. Despite the "promising" outlook, supporters admitted that
industry interests could succeed in getting restrictions weakened during the legislative slog ahead.
Still, the fact that the bill passed by an overwhelming and bipartisan vote of 357-70 should serve to stiffen some of those notoriously floppy Senate spines.

- Second, one week ago, the House passed a hate crimes bill that expands protected categories to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability in addition to the existing categories of race, color, religion, national origin, and gender.

The bill also provides grants to local authorities to investigate and prosecute hate crimes and empowers the feds to step in if states either request the help of if they refuse to act on their authority to prosecute.

The bill passed on a largely but not entirely party-line vote of 249-175. Obama supports the measure, but then again he also supported the proposal to allow bankruptcy judges to order lenders to reduce the principal on home mortgages - and then didn't do a damn thing to push for it as it went down to defeat in the Senate.

Opponents in and out of the Senate are pulling out all the usual stops, going on about "pedophiles" and "thought crimes" and "threats to religious freedom" and "elevating one group above others," even labeling as a "hoax" the idea that the murder of Matthew Shepard was a hate crime. It's all bullshit, of course, spouted by the usual cabal of right-wing wack-a-doodles, but one aspect amuses me: The law makes "sexual orientation" a protected category. If doing so raises members of the LGBT community above straights, gives them "special protections," isn't that saying that straights will commit crimes against LGBT folks out of hate but not vice versa? I mean, under this bill if a gay man attacked a straight man because he was straight, he'd have committed a hate crime. Aren't the residents of bizarro world essentially arguing that that would never happen?

Ultimately, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz nailed it:
"I wonder if our friends on the other side of the aisle would be singing the same offensive tune if we were talking about hate crimes based on race or religion," she said, referring to Republican opponents. "It seems to me it is the category of individuals that they are offended by, rather than the fact that we have hate crimes laws at all."
Damn effing straight. Oh, and by the way: 45 states and DC already have hate crimes laws. I haven't noticed any crushing of religious freedom or the creation of "thought crimes" as a result.

Footnote: I wrote at some length on my own thoughts on hate crimes legislation last July.

Good news for a change, part four

A few relatively quick notes about a few other bits of good news from the last week or so.

- Great Britain: The UK's military operations in Iraq have come to an official end. A ceremony marking the occasion and to remember the 179 British military deaths in Iraq was held in Basra this past Thursday.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown continues to insist that Iraq is "a success story," but while
Britain may be pulling its troops out of Iraq a month ahead of schedule, the row over why they were sent there in the first place in support of a US-led invasion looks set to continue.

Opposition leader David Cameron called for an immediate full inquiry into the Iraq war, similar to the one carried out by the Franks Committee into the Falklands conflict. ...

"Instead of starting in many months' time, it should start right now.

"There are vital lessons to learn and we need to learn them rapidly and the only justification for delay can, I'm afraid, be a political one."
Which of course is a terrible thing to say. After all, that's yesterday's news, focusing on the past and we all should be looking forward, shouldn't we?

- Great Britain again: Privacy has an unexpected ally.
Senior cabinet ministers are privately discussing a plan to scrap the Government's £5bn identity cards programme as part of cuts to public spending, The Independent [UK] has learnt.
The program to issue national identity cards containing biometric data to every legal resident of the UK was presented as an absolutely vital defense against the threat of terrorism, an argument which expanded over time to include organized crime, illegal immigration, and identity theft. Privacy and civil liberties concerns were dismissed - this is vital, do you hear me, vital!

But come a budget crunch, and it's a "sacred cow" that may have to be "sacrificed." Which should raise some real questions about just how vital it really was.

- Ohio: I suppose this is more under the heading of "feel good" news rather than "good" news, but either way, it's good and I wanted to mention it. It's from today's New York Times.
Five years ago, a shotgun blast left a ghastly hole where the middle of Connie Culp’s face had been. Five months ago, she received a new face from a dead woman.

Ms. Culp stepped forward on Tuesday to show the results of the nation’s first face transplant. Her new look was far from the puckered, noseless sight that had made children run away in horror.

Ms. Culp’s expressions are still a bit wooden, but she can talk, smile, smell and taste food again. Her speech is at times difficult to understand. Her face is bloated and squarish, and her skin droops in folds that doctors plan to pare away as her circulation improves and her nerves grow, animating new muscles. But she had nothing but praise for those who made her new face possible.
It was a remarkable medical success, all the more remarkable when you see the before-and-after photos in profile.

Related to that, officials at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital said last month that they had performed the nation's second face transplant, this one on a man. These operations were made possible by organs and tissues from recently deceased people who were organ donors. Are you a donor? You should be.

- Sweden: On May 1, a newly-passed law went into effect which allows same-sex couples to marry.
Although homosexual couples in Sweden have been allowed to enter into legal partnerships since 1995, Friday marked the first day gay and lesbian couples were granted the same legal status as their heterosexual counterparts.
Previously, while heterosexuals could be married in either a civil or religious ceremony, same-sex couples could only "register" their "partnerships" in a civil ceremony. The new law, passed overwhelmingly by Parliament at the beginning of April, erases that distinction.
Sweden, already a pioneer in giving same-sex couples the right to adopt children, would become one of the first countries in the world to allow gays to marry in a major Church.

The Lutheran Church, which was the state Church until 2000, has offered gays a religious blessing of their union since January 2007.

The Church, which counted 74 percent of Swedes as members in 2007, said on Wednesday it supported the new law.
However, there will be a delay for any same-sex couples wanting a church service: Church officials say that
its synod will only formally decide in October whether to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

"The new law implies a change in the marriage ceremony, and the Church has to be given a chance to take a stand on that," the church's interim secretary general, Anders Lindberg, told AFP on Thursday.

"The marriage act reflects a certain view of marriage, and the liturgy needs to be altered to reflect that change," he added.
This could be an attempt by the Church to drag its feet but given the stated support of the law and the existing blessings of same-sex unions, it seems more likely that it's matter of wanting to satisfy the bureaucracy.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Good news for a change, part three

In December, in an 11th hour move, the Shrub gang issued finalized regulations eliminating the "Section 7 consultation" required for activities that might harm endangered or threatened species.

The consultation requirement - in effect for more than 20 years - meant that federal agencies had to get the go-ahead from wildlife experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) before issuing permits for such potentially-harmful activities. The change made n December made the consultations voluntary instead of required, something which the Bush cabal claimed was just a minor shift in policy.

Of course it wasn't, as it took judgments about the effect of the activities on listed species out of the hands of those whose job it is to make those judgments (and who have the expertise to do it) and essentially put them in the hands of those whose primary purpose in life seems to be finding ways to approve whatever development plans - particularly oil and gas development plans - corporate America comes up with.

Fortunately, the change did not last long. In March, Obama put a hold on the new regulations pending a review. On Tuesday, they were rescinded.
"By rolling back this 11th hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department oversees Fish and Wildlife.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, whose department oversees NOAA, added that "our decision affirms the administration’s commitment to using sound science to promote conservation and protect the environment."
Salazar also made reference to science, saying it "must serve as the foundation for decisions we make."

It is a change, I must admit, and a pleasant one, to see science presented as something central to decision-making rather than something to be ignored or even trashed.

Another test, another measure, is coming up soon:
Polar bears, highly dependent on Arctic sea ice, were listed last year as threatened after federal biologists determined they were especially vulnerable to the rapidly warming climate in the far north.

A decision on a separate special Bush administration rule limiting federal polar bear protections is due by May 10, according to Bruce Woods, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska.
Rescinding that rule, which was issued for the political purpose of downplaying the effects of global warming (since warming was a main reason why the bears were protected), would be a sign that the administration is at least prepared to take global warming seriously not merely as a hypothetical threat but as a real threat having real effects in today's world. That obviously is not enough, but it's a better place to start than we've had.

For the moment, though, score one for the Big O. No, not that Big O. No, not that one, either. The White House Big O.

Good news for a change, part two

According to the Houston Chronicle,
[u]nder new enforcement guidelines, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents will now have to build a case against an employer suspected of hiring undocumented immigrants before rounding up workers.

The guidelines, issued by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Thursday, represent a marked shift from the past administration’s work site enforcement strategy, which resulted in a series of high-profile raids across the country in recent years, including in Houston, but relatively few employer arrests.
Those sweeps resulted in numerous arrests of people who were (sometimes wrongly) suspected of being undocumented workers and frequently resulted in splitting up families, including separating mothers from their children. The arrests served to advance the cause of the right-wingnuts and assorted buffoons who wanted to make the phrase "undocumented worker" (or "illegal immigrant") into a synonym for "disease-spreading criminal invader stealing our great white nation" but did little if anything to address any real problems that might be involved. In short, great PR: be able to look like you're doing something while not actually doing anything, leaving you as free as before to crank up the fear factor.

The new guidelines are related to enforcement and so do not address the three central issues at hand: the exploitation of undocumented workers who fear being discovered, their difficulty in obtaining legal status, and the distortions and disparities of wealth internationally that lead to the poverty that drives people to leave their homes. Still, as enforcement guidelines, they seem to me to be an improvement over what was there before, from both a logical and a humanitarian point of view. For one thing,
[t]he guidelines require that field agents have either an arrest, indictment, search warrant - or at least a commitment from a U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute an employer - before arresting employees for civil violations at a work site, a DHS official confirmed on Thursday.
That is, ICE shouldn't go after the employees unless it is going after the employer. And
new guidelines instruct field agents to consider “humanitarian considerations,” which generally allow for the release of people who are the only caretakers of children, in raids involving more than 25 employees. The prior policy required at least 150 employees, a DHS official said.

The humanitarian exemptions also include pregnant women, nursing mothers or those with medical conditions or disabled or seriously ill relatives.
Not surprisingly, some employers don't like the new rules.
“The Obama administration doesn’t want to see any more employees walked out in handcuffs, but they want to see employers walked out in handcuffs,” said Norman Adams, a Houston businessman who founded Texans for a Sensible Immigration Policy, an organization made up largely of members of commercial construction companies.

“I’m not a bit happy about it,” said Adams....
Well, Mr. Adams, you are in an industry notorious for employing undocumented workers and until now you would have expected to walk away clean from any ICE raid, free to hire some more exploitable workers. So my reply to you is "tough noogies."

Good news for a change, part one

Updated Yes, it is certainly good news: The New Hampshire House and Senate have passed legislation establishing the right of same-sex couples to marry. The two houses have passed slightly different versions of the bill, so it has to be reconciled, but no one is suggesting that is more than a small procedural hindrance to final passage.

There is one hurdle remaining: Governor John Lynch is being wishy-washy about the bill, claiming to support rights while suggesting the bill is unnecessary. After Senate passage he released a statement saying
I still believe the fundamental issue is about providing the same rights and protections to same-sex couples as are available to heterosexual couples. This was accomplished through the passage of the civil unions law two years ago.
Opponents of the bill still hope Lynch will veto it because after the earlier House passage he said "I think the word marriage is reserved for a marriage between a man and a woman." However, proponents note that he has made no pledge to veto the bill. In that light it's worth noting that Lynch played this same game - trying to come off as supporting rights while taking no steps to advance them - with the passage of the 2007 civil union law which he now claims makes the new bill unnecessary: He waited several weeks before taking a position, but eventually signed it. So he may do the same here or he may allow it to become law without his signature. Still,
Kevin Smith, executive director of the New Hampshire-based Cornerstone Policy Research - which is lobbying for a veto - said if there's a Democratic governor in the Northeast who would veto such a bill, it's Lynch.
It ain't over 'til it's over.

On the other hand, it's clear which way the tide is flowing overall. The day after the New Hampshire Senate acted, Maine's state Senate passed a bill that would redefine marriage as the legal union of two people rather than of a man and a women - thus legalizing same-sex marriage.

The bill will be voted on in the state's House of Representatives next week. One sign of the times is that
Maine Governor John Baldacci once opposed gay marriage, but said earlier in April he is keeping an open mind on the issue.
I have said several times that the time will come when same-sex marriage will be no more remarkable than opposite-sex marriage and laws against it will seem as dated and strange as laws against miscegenation do now. These events are just a few more hints that not only is that time coming, it may be coming sooner than we could have expected just a few years ago.

Still, I have to admit I'm not as sanguine about the short term as KTK at Lean Left seems to be: He referred to New Hampshire as "speeding the bandwagon of love that’s sweeping the nation." He does make the cogent points that "legislators are learning that they can vote for equality and keep their seats" and, to my mind even more importantly, "every state that goes for equality proves that it can be done, without incident and without backlash." That is all true. (I still recall the Massachusetts legislator who initially supported a constitutional amendment to reverse the state's Supreme Judicial Court decision embracing same-sex marriage but who changed his mind because, a year later, nothing had happened and life went on undisturbed: Contrary to his expectation, the state had not torn itself apart in civic bitterness.)

However, there are still enormous obstacles to overcome and the wheels on that "bandwagon of love" are still kinda squarish - so moving it remains a struggle. A somewhat more restrained but still hopeful (and I think more accurate) expression comes from Josh Marshall at TPM. He raised the possibility that we are "hitting some sort of tipping point," that point where the weight of opinion is on the side of justice and it is the homophobes, not their opponents, who must explain themselves. He supported that contention by referring to some recent polls:
A few days ago, the NYT/CBS poll showed support for full marriage equality jumped a full 9 points over the course of one month - from 33% support last month to 42% this month. According to NYT/CBS that's now the plurality position - with the 'nos' divided between 28% oppose any legal recognition and 25% supporting civil unions. ... I was inclined to chalk the dramatic move ... up to statistical noise.

But a new poll out just this afternoon from ABC/WAPO shows 49% of the population supporting full marriage equality versus 46% opposing, the first time more have supported than opposed. ... The last time the question was asked was in 2006 when 36% supported and 58% opposed (in itself a dramatic shift over less than three years).
What I found particularly interesting - and, again, hopeful - in that NYT/CBS poll was that 44% of conservatives advocated no legal recognition for same-sex couples. Why is that good? This is why: The pie chart illustrating the article shows responses totaling 95%, which I expect indicates that 5% gave "I don't know" or "No opinion" answers. Assuming only that the numbers of liberals and conservatives who gave that answer were pretty much the same, i.e., about 5% of each group did so - and assuming of course that the poll is accurate - that means that a majority of conservatives (51%) are willing to grant some form of legal recognition, be that marriage or civil union, to same-sex couples. And who the hell would have expected that even just five years ago?

What's more, that previous month's NYT/CBS poll, the one with 33% support for same-sex marriage, noted that
the demographics suggest that support for gay marriage will only increase: Opposition comes largely from those 65 and older, just 18 percent of whom support gay marriage. Younger people - those 18 to 45 - are far more supportive, with 41 percent backing allowing same sex couples to marry.
Such demographic considerations were undoubtedly part of what went into an analysis done by Nate Silver of, which was developed into a map predicting the future of same-sex marriage. Bottom line is that according to Silver's analysis, by 2024 the voters in every state in the union would defeat a measure to ban same-sex marriage, with 39 states at that point less than eight years from now. (Put another way for those who think in such terms, by the end of Obama's second term, should he win one.)

But - you knew that was coming - it's just not as easy or clear-cut as that. First is the fact that in a number of those states it would not be a matter of rejecting a move to ban same-sex marriage but the harder one of overturning an existing ban, including, in 29 of those states, constitutional amendments. Second is another poll that Marshall cited:
The counterpoint is a Quinnipiac poll that came out today showing 38% support and 55% opposition - virtually unchanged from when Quinnipiac asked a similar question question last year (for 36%, con 55%).
Marshall properly notes that the questions were different. Last year it was "In general, do you support or oppose same-sex marriage?" while this year the question was "Would you support or oppose a law in your state that would allow same-sex couples to get married?" It would not be unreasonable to think that had Quinnipiac asked the same question as last year (and as the other polls cited), it, too, would have registered movement. But that very fact points out something vital to keep in mind: NIMBY. It's always easier to approve of something in the abstract: "Same-sex marriage, yes or no?" But bring it home, make it real - "Same-sex marriage in your state, yes or no?" - and the doors can slam and the walls can go up.

So, ultimately, no, I do not think we've got a "bandwagon of love" going. But I do think we could be at a tipping point, a point where a shift in attitude becomes obvious even as the work remaining is considerable. I wrote recently that the day will come when even having to have this discussion will seem odd, when the simple justice of it will be so obvious that those who still hate (and they will be there, just as there are still racists) will be seen as the freaks they are.
I don't know when that day will be and I'm old enough to think I might not live to see it - but it will come.
And tonight I'm letting myself think, again, that it could be closer than I thought - still a ways off, but closer than I thought.

Footnote: The arrival of the May 11 issue of The Nation brought some related news (no link because it's behind a subscriber firewall). Steve Schmidt, who was John McCain's presidential campaign manager, recently told a meeting of the Log Cabin Republicans that there is
a sound conservative argument to be made for same-sex marriage. I believe conservatives, more than liberals, insist that rights come with responsibilities. No other exercise of one's liberty comes with greater responsibilities than marriage.... I cannot in good conscience exclude anyone who is prepared for such a commitment from the prospect of such happiness.
Okay, I'm coming to believe the tide is more than turning, it has turned. The only question now is how long it will take to rise high enough to wash away the detritus of bigotry.

Updated with a further observation: There's been a fair amount of fuss and feathers just recently about how same-sex marriage is creating "widespread," "devastating" legal conflicts that "force" religious bigots to go against their consciences and how the only escape is to have same-sex marriage bills come with "robust" religious exemptions so the bigots are not hindered in their bigotry.

This all seems to arise over cases where certain people or religious groups have been operating in the public arena and have found that they could no longer discriminate against gays and lesbians, thus "violating their consciences." Most if not all of the tales told have proved under examination to be bullcrap.

But I don't care. I really, really don't. They could be literally and precisely true - I still don't care. When you operate in the public arena, when you work in the public square, you play by those rules. If you can't play by those rules, you can't play the game. If you're a wedding planner who finds you can't do wedding planning for same-sex couples in a state where such marriages are recognized, you don't get to be a wedding planner in that state. If you're a church group that advertises its church hall as available for rental by the general public for parties, weddings, meetings, and so on, and you can't accept renting it out for a same-sex wedding, you don't get to rent out your hall. No more than if you turned your home into a B&B and claimed you didn't have to rent rooms to blacks.

Do churches have the right to discriminate in their own operations? Do people have the right to discriminate in their private lives? Yes and yes. But when you as an organization or as an individual step out into the public marketplace, to a large degree you lose that right. When you take on that public role, that market role, you are undertaking to perform certain services, to do certain jobs. If you can't live up to those obligations, then you can't do that job. That is a price of conscience.

I have said before - and not that long ago - that while I would never deny anyone their right of conscience, they must realize and accept that conscience can bar them from some paths in life. A pacifist can't be a soldier. A Christian Scientist can't be a surgeon. But these right-wingers and these churches want society to arrange things on their behalf so they can, if you will, have their conscience and evade it, too: They want to have the right of conscience but experience no limitations arising from it. That is not conscience, that is selfishness. In the specific case of same-sex marriage, bigoted selfishness.

So it is one thing to say that, for example, a minister or a church should not be compelled to perform a same-sex marriage on the grounds that it violates their religious beliefs. It is quite another to say a judge or a Justice of the Peace should be able to refuse to perform such a ceremony on the same basis. Conscience is not a convenience - but neither can it be allowed by society to be a basis for bigotry.
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