Friday, December 31, 2010

Jon Swift Memorial Roundup 2010

Batocchio at Vagabond Scholar has taken on the effort of continuing the yearly practice of the much-missed Jon Swift (Al Weisel in real life) of posting links to The Best Posts of the Year, Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves. It's being called the Jon Swift Memorial Roundup 2010 (hopefully to gain a new number next year) and you really should check it out.

My own submission, after a lot of fussing and fumbling and fuming, was "And another thing," posted on November 14. It was addressed to the august members of the Cat Food Commission, who grandly declared how we have to face the necessity of "shared sacrifice." But just who, I wondered, did they mean by "we?" And what constitutes "sharing?"

Well, the very prospect of choosing my "best" rather than my "least bad" got my ego going and looking for an easy post to fill out the year and seeing as how there are always year-end roundups of various sorts and - well, anyway, I decided to put up links to the posts that made my first cut with reasons why they weren't the final choice.

January 8: "Unhealthy compromise" laid out why I was against the health care "reform." I think it's held up well but it dropped off the list fairly quickly because - well, primarily because I just didn't like the idea that my best post of the year came just a week after New Year's Day, okay?

January 17: "Life and death" expressed some despair as I declared there is too much of the latter. Even though the personal context behind it makes it still meaningful to me, I suspected (and suspect) to most it would just seem like a list of statistics.

January 28 and February 2: "Everybody's talkin', Part 1," "Everybody's talkin', Part 3," and "Footnote to Everybody's talkin', Parts 1 and 3" were a series (and yes, the numbers are correct; Part 2 was about something else) in which I went after Glenn Greenwald's seriously wrong endorsement of the Citizens United decision. I think it was well done, but the submission had to be one post and this really needed at least the first two and preferably all three. So, gone.

March 5: "The giant economy size" described the economy in numbers and made the observation that "numbers" can also be pronounced with a silent "b" and become "numbers," things that make us numb and that to avoid that we can't just read the numbers with our eyes, we have to "listen to them with our consciences." On later consideration, maybe a few too many numbers and so a little too much numbing.

April 8: "It's just a question" I asked of Barack Obama in the wake of the revelation he had ordered the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. The question was "Mr. President, just who the hell do you think you are?" This was one of the last to be dropped. I think it may be the most important post I wrote all year, but I just didn't think it was as well-written as some others.

April 22: "A not altogether unsympathetic look at the teabaggers" was exactly that. Another late drop. I still think it's worth a read.

May 20: "Goodbye to all that, Part One" and "Goodbye to all that, Part Two" explained why Bob Somerby is gone from my list of media sources, among which reasons was his "greasily sanctimonious condescension." It resulted in my losing one reader and (I think) gaining another for reasons which had nothing at all to do with Bob Somerby. However, again only one post per blogger, please.

June 20: "Let me explain" one example of why I'd been feeling dispirited: So many people still buy into the "progressive = Obama = progressive" bullshit that Rachel Maddow - Rachel Maddow, for god's sake - was belittled and attacked in a comment thread at TPM for being insufficiently supportive of President Hopey-Changey. It was an okay post, but I thought I quoted myself rather a lot for a "best of the year" candidate post.

July 23: "Which side are you on? #1" was the first of a series of four arguing that that's a question we all have to answer and that the answer may not be obvious because, as another in the series said, "no matter where your heart may imagine you are or desire you to be, it's where your feet are that matters." This one tried to give a sense of where I think "our proper place to stand" is - but I decided the list of particulars is too long for smooth reading.

September 7: "Happy half-anniversary" commemorated, if you'll pardon the expression, six months since the Iraqi elections and still no government. A decent analysis, I think, but, I dunno, I wanted to pick something with a greater feeling of passion rather than cool analysis.

September 11: "Consider this my own personal observance" on the date, which consisted of some things I wrote in the weeks following 9/11. As I said in the post, "I think they have held up well," but since none of it was new material and I posted the same things last September 11th and plan on doing it next year as well, it didn't seem an appropriate candidate.

October 8: "Ashes amid the hopes" looked at the state of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and explained why Israel is to blame for the impasse. It made the first cut on the strength of the analysis but I decided the writing just wasn't as good as it should have been.

November 1: "Show who's placed to win" recalled how supporters of third parties are always told they're just "spoilers" who should drop out because they're "only helping the worse candidate win" and asked what happens when the candidate running a distant third is a Democrat. The answer, of course, is that the rules change. This was one of the last to go.

November 1: "Are you happy now?" went after a study which got used to push the already-tiresome claim that rightists are happier than lefties. Again, it made the first cut but "best of the year?" Eh.

November 12: "This should have gone up yesterday #1," which it should have, because it was my now-annual Veterans' Day posting of "Heroics," my most popular (or notorious) post ever, one which was intended to object to the increasing tendency of the left to embrace all things military as a way to "prove" our "national security" credentials but instead was most noted for its declaration that "soldiers are not heroes." Again, it was dropped because it wasn't new.

December 7: "Once more into the breach" was about WikiLeaks and the attempts to destroy the organization by people who do not have the moral standing to criticize it. My wife wanted me to pick this one, but - well, I didn't.

December 16: "It taxes me" pointed out how the tax deal created a threat to Social Security: Cutting payroll taxes and making up the difference from general revenues makes SS arguably responsible for part of the deficit - which had never been true before and opens up a new line of attack for the reactionaries, a prospect so obvious that I had to wonder if the O-crowd didn't know exactly what it was doing. When I wrote the post I hadn't seen anyone pointing that out - but subsequently discovered several people had, some of them before my post, which killed its chances for a "best of the year" nomination.

Finally, one from after I had already submitted my choice but which would have been a contender:

December 29: "Where we are at, Part Two" looks at the dramatic rise in temporary jobs and considers the increasing possibility of a bleak future of a nation of "rootless workers" jumping from one temp job to the next, never able to set down roots and be part of a stable community. One side note: If you want to understand the last line, you should read "Where we are at, Part One," in which it served as something of a refrain.

So hey, go over to Vagabond Scholar, check out all the submissions, then come back here and look at these links and tell me if you think I made a good final choice or am I full of crap. And remember: Even if you want to say "They all suck!" still, did the one I picked suck the least?

Footnote to the Footnote

This is the real takeaway from the article linked in the preceding post, the buried comment that reveals much more than the naked numbers do:
With the inflation rate stagnating at only 1.2% and hourly wages rising 1.6%, employers have little incentive now to add jobs, [Kenneth] Goldstein[, a labor economist at the Conference Board,] says. "If it's going to cost you 1.6% more to hire that person and you're only going to get back 1.2% on whatever you sell, even with a productivity dividend it's awfully hard to see where you're going to make money on the deal," he says.
Okay, two things. The first, less important one, is that the math is screwy. You can't directly compare percentages like that unless the original quantities were equal - which here the two (labor cost and unit sale price) obviously are not. It just makes no sense. Just consider that if your labor costs are 50% of your total unit cost and they have gone up 1.6%, then the unit cost has gone up 0.8%. So if the unit price goes up 1.2%, than yes, you are making money on the deal. Maybe not as much as you want, but you are making money. (Yes, I know other unit costs might have increased which could change the final answer, etc., etc., but that's irrelevant to the point that you can't simply say that if wages go up faster than prices you are losing money. It is mathematically absurd.)

The second is much more important because it reveals the attitude driving the decisions, the attitude of the bosses, the attitude, bluntly, of capitalism. What Goldstein is saying, when you strip it down to its real on-the-gound meaning, is that unless prices are going up faster than wages, that is, unless workers are losing ground, seeing their real wages shrink, then there won't be jobs. Your long-term choice as a worker is to be unemployed and lose ground rapidly or be employed and lose ground less rapidly. The idea of real gains is denied you and your only hope of getting such gains is to get them at the expense of others increasingly discouraged, increasingly marginalized, increasingly left to their fates.

You think that's overstated? You think I'm reading too much into it? Think again.
Goldstein predicts that unemployment will remain above 6% as late as 2014 or 2015. In fact, employment may never return to earlier levels, he forecasts, because businesses found it was profitable to cut jobs. "Some of those folks in their 40s and 50s may not realize it, but they are not going back to work, period," he says.
And those workers, those people who have hoped, planned, and worked to support themselves and their families and dreamed of leaving a better life for their children will be denounced by the caterwauling chorus of the comfortable as lazy lay-abouts, a drain on society, as good-for-nothings, as demonstrating the "need" for more "discipline" for workers and as "proof" that "wasteful" programs like welfare, food stamps, unemployment, subsidized health care, public housing, and all the rest have only bred "indolence" and "destroyed self-reliance." We will be asked - indeed, there are already those who are in effect asking - "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" And more and more, the response to an answer of "No" will be "Why not?"

All because, I keep saying it, we know who must be protected.

Footnote to Part Two

So - the rich got their deal and Social Security has been opened to attack. Do we - and I do mean "we," the vast majority of us - get anything from this deal beyond pious punditry and politial palaver? Probably not:
Among economists, the consensus is that the job outlook will improve very slowly in the first half of 2011 -- but that unemployment numbers could keep rising through the summer. ...

Kenneth Goldstein, a labor economist at the Conference Board, an executives association, expects an average of 125,000 to 150,000 new jobs to be created each month next year.
That's not enough! Normal population growth expands the labor force by about 100,000 a month. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in November there were something over 15 million unemployed people - and remember, that figure does not include underemployed people (working part-time because that's all the work they could find) or discouraged workers (who have given up hope of finding work). Including them would nearly double the total.

But considering just the "official" figures and doing a rudimentary calculation, the economy would have to add 150,000 jobs a month, every month, between now and the fall of 2012 to reduce the number of unemployed by just one million - and that would still leave unemployment at over nine percent.*

In fact, Goldstein predicts that the unemployment rate will hit 10.2% in early 2011 and stay around that high through the middle of the year as more long-term jobless workers rejoin the "official" unemployment totals.
However, Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors, a Holland, Penn.-based forecasting firm, is much more sanguine about the job outlook. "I actually think we're on the cusp of a clear turnaround," Naroff says. He thinks job creation could grow to 150,000 to 200,000 new jobs per month by the summer -- and as many as 250,000 a month by year-end.
Well, just dandy: Assuming an average for the whole year of 200,000 new jobs a month, unemployment remains at 9% or above all of 2011.* That's the "sanguine," the optimistic, outlook? Terrific.

And Happy New Year to you, too.

*The calculations I made here are of course very rough and I'm sure some real number-cruncher with some more exact numbers where I relied on "about"s and knowing all the necessary bits about seasonal adjustments would do better. Still, for completeness, this is how I arrived at the answers I got, with all figures rounded to the nearest tenth:

For Goldstein: The BLS says the labor force in November was just over 154 million, with 15.1 million unemployed. Various sources say that the size of the labor force grows by about 100,000 a month on average over time. So job growth of 150,000 a month, after absorbing growth in the labor force, leaves 50,000 jobs a month to shrink unemployment. It would thus take 20 months to reduce the number unemployed to 14.1 million. Over the same time, the labor force would have grown by 2 million, to 156 million. So 20 months from now, in late summer 2012, the unemployment rate (14.1/156) would be 9.0%.

For Naroff: Job growth of 200,000 per month reduces the number unemployed by 100,000 a month, again after absorbing natural growth in the labor force. In one year, the number of unemployed drops by 1.2 million while the labor force grows by 1.2 million, ending with 13.9 million unemployed out of a labor force of 155.2 million, for an unemployment rate of 9.0%. Even if the same rate continued another entire year, that is, throughout 2012, the rate would still be 8.1% at the end of that time.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Where we are at, Part Two

Back in April, as part of taking a "not altogether unsympathetic look at the teabaggers," I wrote this:
Now, remember when Barack Obama was attacked during the campaign for referring to people in western Pennsylvania as “clinging to their guns and their religion?” The point was clumsily expressed and deserved a clearer explanation, but the point was entirely valid: The people in the area were suffering real economic dislocations. Jobs were disappearing and more importantly for the purpose here, the sort of stable communities on which those people had depended for generations were disappearing along with them. So of course they clung to their guns and their religion. When you are under pressure, constantly stressed, when the things you have counted on seem to be slipping away, you are going to cling ever more tightly to those things you have left, those parts of your world that still make sense, that you still can control. It is a natural, normal, entirely human reaction.
I suggested then that such stresses were part of what was driving the TPers. In the interim it has become clear that those kind of stresses, those kinds of dislocations, which affect not only TPers but all of us, are not only going to continue, they are going to intensify. From the NY Times last week:
Temporary workers are starting to look, well, not so temporary. ...

This is bad news for the nation’s workers, who are already facing one of the bleakest labor markets in recent history. Temporary employees generally receive fewer benefits or none at all, and have virtually no job security. It is harder for them to save. And it is much more difficult for them to develop a career arc while hopping from boss to boss.

“We’re in a period where uncertainty seems to be going on forever,” said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “So this period of temporary employment seems to be going on forever.”
"Seems" is a very poorly chosen word here, because all indications are that it's not going to change any time soon - if it does at all. The Times notes that at this point after the recession of July 1990 to March 1991, not quite 11% of new private-sector jobs were temporary. For the recession of of March-November 2001, the figure was just over 7%. In 2010, over 26% of all new private-sector jobs were temporary.
Temporary employees still make up a small fraction of total employees, but that segment has been rising steeply over the past year. “It hints at a structural change,” said Allen L. Sinai, chief global economist at the consulting firm Decision Economics. Temp workers “are becoming an ever more important part of what is going on,” he said. ...

And even before the recession, workers were learning that lifelong employment was disappearing along with phone booths and Filofax organizers
as corporations increasingly gear operations toward outsourced temp labor, making it easier to hire and fire people and cut benefits. Put another way, their goal is to increase their profits at the expense of working people. And they've been doing very well indeed at that:
Since their cyclical low in the fourth quarter of 2008, profits have grown for seven consecutive quarters, at some of the fastest rates in history.
The third quarter of 2010 was the best quarter for corporate profits ever. Meanwhile, according to the Census Bureau, real median household income in 2009 was 5% below where it was in 1999. The Bureau says the difference isn't statistically significant, but even if that's true, it still means that average families have gotten precisely nowhere for 10 years - while poverty has been rising more or less continuously across that same time. (Bureau figures from pages 7 and 14, respectively, of this .pdf report.) And long-term unemployment is not only the worst ever, it's so bad that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is about to change the way it measures it because no one knows how bad it really is: Instead of the maximum number of weeks someone can be described as being unemployed being "99 weeks and over," the new measure will be "260 weeks and over." Five full years.

But hey, who cares? Go with the flow! Get with the program!
[T]he whole notion of what constitutes a permanent job may simply be changing. Workers “need to expect that their lives and jobs will change much more often than they have in the past,” said Jonas Prising, president of the Americas at Manpower,
trying to sound as if he has no vested interest in that development. Still, as the Times says, there are workers who
are starting to face the prospect that they could move among temporary assignments for the rest of their careers.
What does that mean for us, for our futures not only as individuals but as members of a broader society? I considered that idea some time ago - seventeen years, in fact - in the course of a personal letter to a friend in the UK. I was discussing what was the then-recent passage of NAFTA.
That, in turn, raises another issue which predates NAFTA (and GATT) but is closely connected to them: loss of community or, rather, the creation of what I call rootless workers. For a few decades now, capital has become more and more mobile, shifting from place to place more by electronic transfers than by the movement of actual bonds, bills, and coins. (You’ve heard of “virtual reality;” this is like virtual money.) Corporations have become freer than ever to chase around a country or the world, leaping from enterprise to enterprise, even industry to industry, in pursuit of profit. The result has been regional booms and busts as one area competes with others to see who could offer the most to Big Business in a downward spiral of self-flagellation that inevitably left the losers gasping for economic breath - and, often, the “winners” with a temporary if not downright pyrrhic “victory.” (Consider Texas, whose “boom towns” of the ‘70s became the empty husks of the ‘80s; consider Korea, whose “economic miracle” of the ‘80s, built on the infusion of transnational capital in search of low-wage labor, is turning sour as corporations move on to the Philippines in search of even lower-wage labor.)

The corporate response to this undeniable reality has been to trumpet “emerging opportunities,” “growth regions,” and “market expansion.” Implicit in all this staged euphoria is the notion that working stiffs, ordinary folks, everyday people, or whatever other folksy label we want to put on the 90% of us left out of the considerations of the powerful, are no different than the parts on a machine: replaceable, disposable, even interchangeable. And that the only way for us to survive in this bold new economic future is to be as mobile as capital - that is, to chase work around the country or the world as rapidly as money chases profit. We dare not attach ourselves to a place, a people, a community, or even a particular sort of work because we may have to abandon it on short notice for the sake of our own and our families’ survival, perpetually chasing behind - always, of course, behind - capital in what gives a new, more sinister meaning to “the rat race.”

We have to drink the shallow economic water that runs on the surface of a local economy because if we dare to set down roots and try to drink from a deeper source, we may find the watershed pumped away to feed another, distant, plain, leaving the earth cracked, dry, and barren and ourselves (and the stable communities we hoped to find) to wither. We must, that is, become nomads - no, not even nomads, which implies purposeful ranging over well-known territory, but mere wanderers, emotionally isolated in order to be emotionally insulated against the constant risk and frequent reality of loss. We must be homeless, placeless, rootless.

If that sounds melodramatic it’s because it describes not what’s fully formed today but the end of a process that has been going for some time and will only be accelerated by NAFTA and GATT, which make the macroeconomics of transnational corporations and not the microeconomics of actual human beings not merely the central (that’d be nothing new) but increasingly the only economic standard of measure. On the other hand, if it sounds melancholic, that’s because it is.
And the fact is, as our corporate overlords shrug and say "that's just the way it's going to be, hopping from one low-paying temporary job lacking benefits, health insurance, or a retirement plan to another just like it, so suck it up," the damn fact is, that future of rootless workers, of wanderers over the economic landscape, of "periods of uncertainty" that last lifetimes, of atomizing communities coupled with tight, even irrational, grips on "guns and religion" (and often enough, alcohol) as emotional crutches - the damn fact is, that future, that "melodramatic, melancholic" future, is exactly what they are talking about.

Remember that survey everyone kept talking about, the one that showed FauxNews viewers to be the least informed (or the most misinformed, if you prefer)? It included a question asking if the US economy was improving or not. If you said "no," you were considered uninformed. Because, you see, the measure - the measure - of the economy used in the survey had nothing to do with unemployment or underemployment, nothing to do with foreclosures, nothing to do with flat real incomes, nothing, that is, to do with the microeconomics of real people. No, the measure was the "official" one, the macroeconomic one, based on GDP growth.

The measure approved by economists, the measure embraced by corporations as their profits grow and what they give back to their employees for the work they do in producing that profit shrinks, the measure enthused over by the rich as income inequality continues to grow to heights not seen since the Roaring '20s and greater even than that found in most all industrialized and many poor nations - the measure that increasingly is a reflection of the wealth of the powerful and is increasingly distant from the lives of the vast majority of us - that is the sole measure on which the health of the economy is to be judged.

Because we know who must be protected.

Where we are at, Part One

We can start with the case of Imogene Hall, whose story was told a month ago in the Miami Herald. The details a bit complex, so you should read the article, but in outline for, it's this:

Hall wanted to tap the equity in her house to help pay the bills while looking for a job. So she refinanced the house - or rather, she thought she did. The agent who was supposed to handle the deal - it was supposedly his business - was a fraud. He got a "straw buyer" to pretend he was buying Hall's house, got an inflated assessment, and got a mortgage of $230,000 - of which he gave $50,000 to Hall and kept the rest. She made her mortgage payments on the refinance to him, that is, the "refinance agency." That money never went to the bank that granted the mortgage.

Subsequently, Deutsche Bank of Frankfurt, Germany, acting as trustee for the mortgager, claimed she was months in arrears and moved to foreclose.

So this is a case where clearly both Hall and the bank were victims of fraud. And while you can say she didn't exercise due diligence, neither did the bank: It granted a $230,000 mortgage to an applicant who claimed his income came from working at a nonexistent Blockbuster Video store in New York. Just how much do banks think people working at video stores, particularly nonexistent video stores, make?

Here's the thing: In July, the case came up in the new foreclosure-only division of the Miami-Dade County Court. It's the place from which the term "rocket docket" emerged, which tips you to what comes next in Hall's story. Even though all the evidence of fraud is in the court records, right down to the phony receipts Hall was sent each month, it still took the judge - who had never encountered the case before - just 15 minutes to issue a summary judgment in favor of the bank, a time period during which, Hall says, neither she nor her lawyer got in a word.

The simple fact is that when the choice comes down to who has to suffer, the individual or the bank, it's just no contest. It is the powerful that must be protected.

This does not simply arise under crunch of circumstance or press of numbers; it is done carefully, with considered thought. McClatchy reported early this month that
[a]s Americans continue to lose their homes in record numbers, the Federal Reserve is considering making it much harder for homeowners to stop foreclosures and escape predatory home loans with onerous terms.
The issue here is a provision of the Truth in Lending Act, passed in 1968, which gave homeowners the right to cancel loans anytime during the first three years of the loan if the buyer wasn't provided with proper and legally-required disclosures at the time of closing.
[H]omeowners — usually those facing financial problems or foreclosure — hire an attorney to scour their mortgage documents for possible violations regarding the actual cost of the loan or payment terms. ...

Creditors that end up rescinding a loan are then required to cancel their "security interest," or lien, on the property.

Once that occurs, the homeowner must then pay the outstanding loan balance back to the lender — minus the finance charges, fees and payments already made.
The idea is that one the lien is canceled, homeowners can refinance while being protected against foreclosure, pay off the balance, and be left with terms they can afford.

And that, according to the Fed, it just too good a deal for homeowners.
The Fed proposal would require homeowners who seek a loan rescission through the courts, to pay off the entire loan balance before the lender cancels the lien.

"This, of course, would be almost impossible for most consumers to do because they can't come up with the money until they get out of the loan. And they can't get out of the loan until the lien is released," said Barry Zigas, director of housing and credit policy at the Consumer Federation of America. "None of us are quite sure what purpose is being served by this proposal or what prompted it."
To the contrary, Mr. Zigas, the purpose is clear: By making recissions almost impossible to get, this would de facto gut the Truth in Lending Act. Because we know who it is that must be protected.

Just how true is that? Writing in The Nation a couple of weeks ago, Katrina vanden Heuvel described a little-noticed but revealing example:
[T]he recent Fed audit revealed over $3.3 trillion in emergency assistance to the banks and other corporate behemoths during the financial crisis—no strings attached. ... [N]o demands to increase lending to small businesses, or modify mortgages for unemployed homeowners, for example.

Then consider the 19 states which are recipients of the Hardest Hit Fund (HHF)—a portion of TARP money set aside to help homeowners in states struggling with the highest unemployment rates and steepest declines in the housing market.

Some of those states ... wanted to use some of those funds to assist legal aid groups that help individual homeowners.
The Treasury Dept., after asking for an opinion from a law firm connected to the financial industry, said no. Not allowed. No can do. Uh-uh.
Huh? Hold on a sec—is this the same TARP that granted the Treasury Secretary all those "extraordinary powers" to protect people's home values, preserve home ownership, promote economic growth, etc.?
Yeah, it's the same TARP. And TARP would love to help people be able to keep right on shoveling their money to the banks. But helping individuals homeowners protect themselves against the ripoffs, bullying, misleading claims, and outright fraud by the banks? Out of the question. We know who must be protected.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur and Senator Sherrod Brown, both of Ohio, introduced bills to let states do what Treasury prevented them from doing - but Kaptur's died on December 17 when it fell far short of the 2/3 vote needed to suspend the rules and pass the bill. Brown's bill, for its part, vanished into the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, where it will die when the Congressional session ends January 4.

Because we know who must be protected.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Unigeek and the Wasp

This is sort of a geek post but sort of a what, a political one I guess, too. A segue, so to speak.

Back at the beginning of November, I wrote about an article describing a psychological study that supposedly demonstrated that right-wingers are "happier" than left-wingers.

One of the standard, almost cliché, tenets of the happiness patrol is that religious faith is a key to happiness, demonstrated by the fact that people who attend church regularly report being happy more than those who don't.

However, a new study published in the December issue of the American Sociological Review challenges the assumptions inherent in that finding: that religious belief is measurable by church attendance and through that, that it is the belief itself that is the source of happiness.

In fact, sociologist Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-author Robert Putnam of Harvard found no connection between church attendance and self-reported happiness. The difference, they found, was in the social connections people established in the congregation.
Ac­cord­ing to the stu­dy, 33 per­cent of peo­ple who at­tend re­li­gious ser­vic­es eve­ry week and have three to five close friends in their con­grega­t­ion re­port that they are “ex­tremely sat­is­fied” with their lives. “Ex­tremely sat­is­fied” is de­fined as a 10 on a scale rang­ing from 1 to 10.

In com­par­i­son, only 19 per­cent of peo­ple who at­tend ser­vic­es week­ly, but who have no close friends in their con­grega­t­ion call them­selves ex­tremely sat­is­fied. On the oth­er hand, 23 per­cent of peo­ple who at­tend ser­vic­es only sev­er­al times a year, but who have three to five close friends in their con­grega­t­ion are ex­tremely sat­is­fied with their lives, the re­search­ers re­ported. Fi­nal­ly, 19 per­cent of peo­ple who nev­er at­tend ser­vic­es say they’re ex­tremely sat­is­fied with their lives.

“To me, the ev­i­dence sub­stanti­ates that it is not really go­ing to church and lis­ten­ing to ser­mons or pray­ing that makes peo­ple hap­pi­er, but mak­ing church-based friends and build­ing in­ti­mate so­cial net­works there,” Lim said.
That is, the people who have friends in the congregation and thus feel they are part of a community are the ones who are the happiest. It is the community, not the religion, that matters.

I posted something about the value of community it was not quite two years ago now. I argued that "community" was a concept in which the right does not believe but that it's value was such that that our relentless cry, relentless as the right always is about their latest slogan, should be "Justice. Compassion. Community." Nice to have the value of that notion given some confirmation.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Geektor's Daughter

Now don't anybody try to tell me that this is not major cool:
A previously unknown kind of human—the Denisovans—likely roamed Asia for thousands of years, probably interbreeding occasionally with humans like you and me, according to a new genetic study. ...

This "new twist" in human evolution adds substantial new evidence that different types of humans—so-called modern humans and Neanderthals, modern humans and Denisovans, and perhaps even Denisovans and Neanderthals—mated and bore offspring, experts say. ...

Taken together with a May DNA study that found Neanderthals also interbred with modern human ancestors, the Denisovan finding suggests there was much more interbreeding among different human types than previously thought, Stanford University geneticist Brenna Henn said.
That is not a position that has had a lot of support lately, although it has continuously percolated through discussions of human evolution. What makes this new DNA study, using material taken from a fossil bone of the finger of a young girl who died about 40,000 years ago, extra intriguing is that
living Pacific islanders in Papua New Guinea may be distant descendants of these prehistoric pairings.
Which, if true, would mean that prehistoric interbreeding not only occurred, it was common enough to leave present-day traces.

And Jean Auel smiles.

The Poison Geek

He's fearless. She's totally without fear. They showed no fear. Yes, they are fearless.

She is fearless.

Um, actually, yeah, she is. Literally.
A woman with a rare genetic disorder, Urbach-Wiethe disease, isn't frightened by anything – haunted houses, spiders, snakes, movie monsters, death threats, being attacked or robbed, the Live Science website reports.

Researchers at the University of Iowa have done their best to scare the 44-year-old woman, identified only as "SM" for confidentiality reasons.
And they failed.

SM has a damaged amygdala, an almond-shaped portion of the brain strongly linked to feelings of fear in animals - and, SM's case indicates, in humans as well.
"On no occasion did SM exhibit fear, and she never endorsed feeling more than minimal levels of fear," the experts wrote.

They indicated that, over a three-month period of investigation "and a life history replete with traumatic events, SM repeatedly demonstrated an absence of overt fear manifestations."
Which, as they note, has clear drawbacks:
"She is aware that she does not have appropriate or normal responses to situations that would normally induce fear," University of Iowa researcher Daniel Tranel said.
A lack of response that could easily lead her into danger by being unaware of - or, more accurately, unresponsive to - conditions and situations that others would recognize as potentially threatening.

But here's Einstein's "difficulty - opportunity" thing again: Justin Feinstein, one of the researchers, has worked with veterans who suffer from PTSD. He described them as having lives "marred by fear," sometimes so great they can't even leave their homes. SM can help us to better understand how fear functions in the brain and thereby to develop better treatments.

The Geektaran Stratagem

Enough of space stuff. Some down-to-Earth geeky things. Start with some good news - or at least may become good news.
On the heels of World AIDS Day comes a stunning medical breakthrough: Doctors believe an HIV-positive man who underwent a stem cell transplant has been cured as a result of the procedure.

Timothy Ray Brown, also known as the "Berlin Patient," received the transplant in 2007 as part of a lengthy treatment course for leukemia.

His doctors recently published a report in the journal Blood affirming that the results of extensive testing "strongly suggest that cure of HIV infection has been achieved."

Brown's case paves a path for constructing a permanent cure for HIV through genetically-engineered stem cells.
This, as should be obvious from that last sentence, is not a cure. But if confirmed it is indeed a breakthrough. With some 33 million people worldwide who are HIV-positive and live with the day-to-day potential of developing full-blown AIDS, the potential this presents for improving life is major.

Geek of the Ood

More evidence that we very well may not be alone.

From nearby there is this:

Scientists have found at least one dormant "cryovolcano" - an ice volcano, one that spews near-liquid ice rather than molten rock - on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan.

Why is that particularly exciting for exobiologists? Because it increases the chance of finding some sort of life there. For one thing, the fact that there could have been liquid water carried to the surface makes it possible for chemical reactions to occur that could form amino acids within days, much sooner than the "cryolava" could freeze. Second, it has been speculated for some time that Titan might have a liquid ocean under its frozen surface. If so, it becomes possible that life developed there and a cryovolcano would carry it to the surface where its frozen remains might later be detectable.

None of that, of course, means that there ever was, is, or ever will be life on Titan. But it does increase the possibility.

Meanwhile, from far away there is this:
[R]ed dwarfs are much more common than previously thought—so much so that any estimate of the total number of stars existing must be tripled, some astronomers have announced.

The findings could boost the chances of life existing in the relatively nearby universe, as red dwarfs are considered good candidates for hosting planets with potentially complex life.

Because red dwarfs are rather dim, astronomers hadn’t been able to detect them in most galaxies other than our own before now, the researchers explained.
Using the instruments at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the investigators found that red dwarfs are far more plentiful in nearby galaxies than they are in our own Milky Way - about 20 times as many, in fact.
In addition to boosting the total number of stars in the universe, the discovery also increases the number of planets orbiting those stars, which in turn elevates the number of planets that might harbor life, [Pieter] van Dokkum [of Yale, who lead the research,] said. ...

“There are possibly trillions of Earths orbiting these stars,” van Dokkum said, adding that the red dwarfs they discovered, which are typically more than 10 billion years old, have been around long enough for complex life to evolve. “It’s one reason why people are interested in this type of star.”
We, obviously, have never found life anywhere other than Earth. But the chances of something alive being out there, whether simple or complex, seem to improve every time we turn around.

The Geeks of Pompeii

You want a head-scratcher a little closer to home? Try this:
The Geminid meteor shower, which peaks [in early mid-December], is the most intense meteor shower of the year. It lasts for days, is rich in fireballs, and can be seen from almost any point on Earth.
And astronomers can't figure out why.
Most meteor showers come from comets, which spew ample meteoroids for a night of 'shooting stars.' The Geminids are different. The parent is not a comet but a weird rocky object named 3200 Phaethon that sheds very little dusty debris—not nearly enough to explain the Geminids.
The debris stream that produces the Geminids is massive compared to the others through which the Earth passes, but compared to typical comets, 3200 Phaethon, classified as an asteroid, "is more of a 98-lb weakling."

One possible explanation is that when 3200 Phaethon passes inside the orbit of Mercury, which it does every 1.4 years, the Sun boils off debris that becomes part of the Geminid stream. One problem: When researchers observed 3200 Phaethon pass just 13 million miles (21 million km) from the Sun's surface - that's just a little more than one-third the distance from the Sun to Mercury, in other words, damn close - the amount of debris boiled off amounted to only 0.01% of the mass of the Geminid stream, which is not enough to keep the stream from dissipating over time.
Perhaps the rock comet was more active in the past?

"We just don't know," says [NASA astronomer Bill] Cooke. "Every new thing we learn about the Geminids seems to deepen the mystery."
And no matter what the deniers and dodos may say, scientists love a good mystery.

Partners in Geek

Galaxy-sized space bubbles aren't the only thing that has astronomers and astrophysicists scratching their heads of late. It seems that prevailing scientific models of how galaxies formed just might be wrong.

Astrophysicist Danilo Marchesini of Tufts University and his team have reported finding "a relatively large number of very massive, highly luminous galaxies that existed almost 12 billion years ago when the universe was still very young, about 1.5 billion years old." The problem is, by most recent models galaxies that massive - about five to ten times as massive as the Milky Way - should not have been able to form that quickly.
These estimates [of when the galaxies were formed] might be somewhat off, but it’s not clear whether any such error could be large enough to explain the findings, the researchers said. ...

“It is clear that our understanding of how massive galaxies form is still far from satisfactory,” said Marchesini.
But as Albert Einstein famously said, "In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity" and the very fact of this unexpected result can lead to a better understanding of how galaxies form and evolve.

This is why I love astronomy and astrophysics. We know so much and at the same time know so little. We just keep finding new stuff out there.

Voyage of the Geek

I figured a good way to come back from a break but still give me until tomorrow to get all dark and serious again would be to put up some geek posts with titles celebrating my Christmas acquisition. So herewith post the one:

A NASA space telescope has discovered two giant structures resembling bubbles emanating from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Together, they span 50,000 light years, a distance equal to half the width of the entire galaxy and are expanding into intergalactic space at more than 2.2 million miles an hour (over 3.5 million kph).
“What we see are two gamma ray-emitting bubbles that extend 25,000 light-years north and south of the galactic center,” above and below the galactic disc itself, said Doug Finkbeiner, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.
Yes, we all know that technically there's no "up and down" or "north and south" in space, but astronomers often imagine the disc of the Milky Way as lying in a flat horizontal plane with a "top" ("north") and a "bottom" ("south") for ease of description. The cool part here however, is the next thing Finkbeiner said, referring to the "bubbles" the team observed: “We don’t fully understand their nature or origin.”

It could be the result of a millions-of-years-ago explosion of a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. Or it could be from a rapid burst of star formation. Astronomers don't know. and now they have to find out. That's what's exciting here.

David Spergel of Princeton University was quoted as saying “Whatever the energy source behind these huge bubbles may be, it is connected to many deep questions in astrophysics.” And deep questions are - well, they are just cool.

Happy happy happy

Happy Holidays.

Happy Winter Solstice Celebration.

Happy Saturnalia - It's the Reason for the Season.

Drink a toast to passion and purpose and may they not dissipate into mere frustrated anger.

Take a break, take a breath, have some eggnog - and then:

Carry it on.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

No good news goes unsullied

Updated Not even "pretty" good news.

I learn from JayV at Blazing Indiscretions that the day before the Senate vote on DADT, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a ban on military recruitment of minors that had been instituted by the voters of the northern Califormia cities of Eureka and Arcata. The court found the laws to be unconstitutional on the grounds that they interfered with the constitutional activities of the federal government.
"The states have no power to retard, impede, burden, or in any manner control, the operations of the constitutional laws enacted by Congress to carry into execution the powers vested in the general government," the judges said.
That strikes me as an astoundingly broad and rather dangerous assertion. Consider this: The No Child Left Behind Act already mandates that military recruiters must have free access to students in every one of the country’s public schools. Imagine Congress passes a law expanding on that, one that requires any school system that is the direct or indirect recipient of federal aid (which means pretty much every public school in the country and a lot of private ones as well) to arrange for one-on-one "interviews" with military recruiters for every high school senior. In fact, at least for one such interview per student per year, from the age of 14 on. Based on the precedent of NCLB and the argument of the court here and given the practice of the federal courts to bend over and grab their ankles whenever the phrase "national security" is uttered - this case being such an example - do you truly think such a law would fail to pass muster? How? Why? Do you think that if towns and states tried to restrict recruiters in ways equivalent to how they regulate businesses that would survive a challenge to it as a "burden?" How? Why?

It's one thing to argue for federal pre-eminence, to argue that states have no authority to override federal law. It's one thing to say states can't unduly hinder the feds in carrying out constitutional activity (such as, as in this case, raising an army). It's quite another to say, as the court did, that states can do absolutely nothing to even regulate how the feds go about carrying out those activities within their borders.

One interesting thing, however: The linked article says that
[t]he campaign literature [used in the effort to pass the laws] accused recruiters of disseminating ads "glorifying military service and exaggerating the educational and career benefits, while ignoring the dangers."
I don't know if this was part of the pitch for the laws, but in a sense, it seems to me, they were accusing the recruiters of false advertising. What if that was made explicit? That is, what if towns and states said "Sure, recruiters, you can recruit, even among teenagers and others without the worldly experience to judge your claims. But you have to be honest. You have to tell the truth. No false advertising. You have to tell of the hardships, the dangers. You have to tell their targets that you can't promise them anything, you can't promise them any particular assignment, training, or education and that once they sign up, the military makes all those decisions and they have no say."

Various places have passed laws trying to restrict abortion by requiring physicians to tell a woman considering an abortion certain things, things intended to scare her out of having one. These laws have in at least some cases been upheld under the rubric of making a "fully-informed" decision. This would use the same idea: making a "fully-informed" decision about enlisting.

I frankly doubt that would succeed - but damn it would be good fun to see the federal courts, by knocking it down, have to openly assert that the government is not only free to, it is empowered by the Constitution to, lie in order to secure its cannon fodder.

Updated with the reference to NCLB and the addition of the paragraph about laws on abortion.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Pretty bad news

Welcome, Unknown News readers. Maybe after this you'd like to check out some of my other posts.

In this case, "pretty" does not mean "kinda," but is used in the slangier meaning of "truly."

The DREAM Act has failed in the Senate.

It's hard to believe this is a controversial bill. It really is. In an even reasonably sane world, it would be a gimmie. It provides that an undocumented resident who was under 16 when they came here with their parents, is not yet 30, has lived in the US for five years, has a high school diploma (or the equivalent) and either spends two years in the military or attends college would become documented - that is, "legal" - as a "conditional permanent resident" and be eligible for later citizenship. It also says that those who are at least 12 and enrolled full-time in primary or secondary school will not be deported and upon completion of secondary school would be eligible to apply for Conditional Permanent Residency.

That is what has got the wackos in a ginned-up tizzy over "all them illegal furriners." This is just insane.

The DREAM Act or its equivalent was first introduced nine years ago and has been introduced in every session of Congress since. This year was the time people thought it might actually make it.

They were wrong. And so
[t]he dream has died, at least for now. ...

The House had passed the bill, but on Saturday a Senate vote to cut off debate failed 55-41 on a largely party-line vote, essentially killing the legislation for this year. ... And with Republicans taking over the House and gaining seats in the Senate as a result of the recent midterm elections, prospects for the DREAM Act have dimmed considerably.
So by five votes, something between one and two million young people striving to make a life for themselves still have to live in the shadows, perpetually fearful of the ICE-y knock on the door because some combination of ass-licking political cowardice and xenophobic paranoia outweighed both rationality and justice.

Where were those five votes when they were needed? Where were the famous GOPper "moderates?" Where was the "moderate" Olympia Snowe? The "moderate" Susan Collins? The "moderate" Scott Brown? And where were those five Dimcrats who voted with the GOPpers to kill the bill? Where were Max Baucus, Jon Tester, Kay Hagan, Ben Nelson, and Mark Pryor? Crouching under their desks in trembling fear of fear of brown-skinned hordes? Where?

And if you really want to reach new levels of political depravity, where was Orrin Hatch? He wasn't even there: He
skipped the vote to attend a grandson’s college graduation but said in a statement that he would have voted against the bill, calling it a ploy by Democrats to gain favor with their base voters.
He was one of the original sponsors when an almost identical bill was first introduced in 2001! This was his idea, dammit! And the current bill is significantly stricter than his original proposal - so the issue can't be that it's too liberal. What heights of hypocrisy do you have to ascend to turn your back on your own idea based according to your own words entirely on which political party gets how much of the credit? And no, the business about the GOPpers changing their position on the Cat Food Commission after Obama endorsed the idea does not begin to compare: This is not about setting up some stupid commission designed to reach a pre-determined conclusion, this is about honest-to-gosh-real justice that directly affects the lives of honest-to-gosh-real people in numbers that could equal half the total population of his whole state.

But while Hatch may have been the most egregious example of saying "Fuck you" to a million young people, he clearly was not the only one. This is more than disappointing. It is more, even, than outrageous. It is a moral disgrace.

Pretty good news

Don't Ask, Don't Tell is (almost) history.

You doubtless know that the Senate has voted 65-31 to repeal the law. As the House had already voted in favor of repeal, the deed is done except for Obama's signature, which is a foregone conclusion.

Many are doing handsprings of joy over this, but that should be tempered somewhat: The bill does not trash the provision immediately; rather it requires the military to establish procedures for ending it. The actual final elimination of this version of official bigotry could take anywhere from a couple of months to a year and maybe longer if some of the dipshits in the military :cough: James Amos :cough: try to drag it out. Advocates are making a point of telling people "Don't come out yet. It's still not safe."

Still, the question about ending DADT is no longer if it will end but just exactly when.

So why do I call it "pretty" good news? Two reasons, one of which is precisely that delay.

The other is that frankly I have trouble getting greatly enthused about events and decisions that encourage joining the military. Somehow, I just can't accept the idea that the ability to "maintain combat effectiveness" in two immoral wars which should be stopped immediately is a good measure of justice.

Still.... Still.... Still, it has to be seen as a step in the right direction. Its symbolic value, and therefore its potential to assist progress on a broader front, is enormous. And so yes, it is good news. And I will enjoy it as such.

Footnote: The Obamabots are going to leap to chalk this up as a win for him, as proof of his greatness. And yes, he was openly in favor of repeal and yes, it is one area where he didn't try to weasel out of an earlier position. But let's be truthful: Other than saying he wanted it to be done, what did he actually do about it? Did he lobby? Did he twist arms? Did he expend any political capital at all?

It seems to me that the people in DC who deserve the most credit here are Harry Reid and - although it makes me gag a bit to say it - Joe Lieberman, who refused to let the issue die in the post-election session of the Senate.

And now...

...for something completely different. I'm about to agree with Sarah Palin on something.
Sarah Palin says there's a double standard when it comes to politicians who cry in public.

The former Alaska governor and possible 2012 Republican presidential candidate says she would be "knocked a little bit" if she cried while giving a speech. But Palin tells ABC's "Good Morning America" that House speaker-in-waiting John Boehner gets a "pass" when he cries in public.
Of course there's a double standard. A male politician who tears up at certain things is just "an emotional guy" who is "in touch with his feelings." A woman politician who did the same would be "a weepy sob sister" and quite possibly "hysterical."

However, there is an addendum to that, something that makes the comparison more accurate: A right-wing male politician who tears up is "an emotional guy." Any male on the left side of the political spectrum that did that would be immediately and forever branded "weak." It's kind of a double double standard, one in which most of the media is complicit.

Footnote: Rachel Maddow recently claimed that public policies, not public tears, are what's relevant about a politician (true) and that public tears are not politically damaging (false if you're not a right-winger).

One example she used in making her case was Edmund Muskie's (in)famous tears during the New Hampshire primary in 1972, shed while defending his wife against a scurrilous personal attack by the screwily right-wing Manchester Union Leader. But he won the primary! she declared. That's true - but it was by a plurality, not a majority, and by a smaller margin than expected, and his campaign collapsed shortly thereafter.

Maddow is obviously too young to remember the events, but she is notorious for referring to using "the Google." If she had done so in this case she could have learned about how in the wake of the event Muskie was excoriated in the press and how it supposedly proved he was "too temperamental" to be president.

This is related to WikiLeaks

It is, really. The connection may not be obvious immediately, but I'm confident you'll see it before I explain it.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s top clandestine officer in Islamabad was pulled from the country on Thursday amid an escalating war of recriminations between American and Pakistani spies, with some American officials convinced that the officer’s cover was deliberately blown by Pakistan’s military intelligence agency. ...

American officials said that the C.I.A. station chief had received a number of death threats after he was named publicly in a legal complaint sent to Pakistani police this week by the family of victims of an earlier drone strike.
See the connection? Of course you do: Here we have a case where the name of a US agent was, quite possibly, deliberately leaked, a leak which - distinctly unlike anything of which WikiLeaks or Bradley Manning stand accused - did put that agent in immediate and verifiable danger, danger sufficient to force his removal from the country.

So hey, White House and assorted right-wing zombies, what are the consequences going to be for Pakistan for leaking information that endangered the life of Americans?

Bueller.... Bueller....

Okay, as long as I'm on WikiLeaks again

FauxNews just published the results of a survey which included several questions about the WikiLeaks saga. Take a look at the questions, which are quoted in full, and see if you notice anything.
Q. 25-27 Now, thinking about the recent disclosures made by the organization known as WikiLeaks. Who do you think should be arrested and put on trial for disclosure of classified government information? First, do you think [ITEM] should be arrested and put on trial?
Q. 25 The person or employee who stole and leaked the information
Q. 26 The owner of the website who received and posted the leaked information
Q. 27 Representatives of the news organizations that published the leaked information

Q. 28 Generally speaking, treason involves an American giving aid to an enemy of the United States. Do you think stealing classified government information should be considered an act of treason, or not?

Q. 29 Do you think the federal government has the right to keep classified national security information secret, or do you think that everything the government does has to be transparent to the public?

Q. 30 Thinking specifically about the recent leaks of U.S. state department cables, do you think those leaks are better described as seriously damaging to U.S. diplomatic relations, or just embarrassing?
So did you notice anything? How about that all of them are biased or false choices? It's closer to a push poll than an opinion poll.

Consider the first one: "Who do you think should be arrested and put on trial for disclosure of classified government information?" Not should someone be put on trial (and then if yes, who) but who should? It's presented almost as a multiple choice that requires at least one "yes, trial" response.

The second: "Treason involves an American giving aid to an enemy of the United States." That is not the definition of treason. Indeed, if it was, a great deal of public information would be considered treasonous because it could in some way aid an enemy. (Hey, you don't think it wasn't "helpful" to the Soviets during the Cold War to know exactly how many ICBM's we had and where the bases were, do you? That was public information. So is now the number of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. You think that can't somehow be of "aid" to our "enemies?")

It fact, "giving aid to an enemy" is not even the usual reference, which is to "giving aid and comfort to an enemy." More than that, treason involves the intent to give such aid and comfort in order to damage the safety and security of the nation. The bar of treason, quite properly, is set quite high.

But having reduced that bar to about ankle height, the poll then gives an either/or: "Stealing classified government information" is either treason or it isn't. Period. No depending on the circumstances, no "sometimes," no measure of intent or effect, no question of if it's actually damaging or not, just yes or no. False forced choice.

(And I have to point out again that there was no "stealing" of government documents here. The documents never left the government's hands and it was never denied use of them. They were copied, they were leaked, but they were not stolen.)

The third: Again, a false forced choice, an all or nothing. No "sometimes," no "some things can be secret but it should be as few as possible." It's brick wall or clear glass. Either we get to know only what the government in its infinite self-interested judgment chooses to tell us, or there are absolutely no secrets at all and what time Barack Obama got up to pee last night is public information.

And the fourth: the documents had to be either "seriously damaging" or "just embarrassing." How about a choice of "had no real impact at all?" This time I suppose it's not a false forced choice, but it is a false limited choice, as it assumes an impact.

And just to round this out, the very last question in the poll was: "When you think about politics, do you think of yourself as a Democrat or a Republican?" Any other choice, even "independent," even after all the talk all over the mass media about the importance of "the independent voter," had to be volunteered.

Just in case you're curious, this is how I would have answered the survey:

Who should be put on trial? None of them.

Is stealing classified information treason? First, I assume you mean "releasing" or "transmitting" rather than "stealing." Theoretically, I suppose in some circumstances it could be part of an act of treason depending on your intent and what you did with the info, but is it, is the act itself treason? Don't be stupid.

Total secrets versus total transparency? I can see the argument for keeping some secrets, but if those are my only choices, I think of Thomas Jefferson, who said "given the choice between a government with no newspapers and newspapers with no government, I should unhesitatingly choose the latter," and say transparency.

Damaging versus embarrassing? They were for the most part, to the extent they had an impact, merely embarrassing - which is unfortunate because there is much about US foreign policy that deserves to be damaged.

Think of myself? Democratic socialist. Um, I guess that'd go under "other." Yeah.

Watch this space

Recnetly (and thanks again go to Avedon Carol for the link), Raw Story reported that
[o]ne of the two Swedish women who have filed sex complaints against the founder of WikiLeaks has reportedly left Sweden and may no longer be cooperating with the criminal investigation.

According to a report at Australian news site, Anna Ardin has moved to the Palestinian territories to volunteer with a Christian group working to reconcile Arabs and Israelis. ...

Some of Ardin's most recent Tweets suggest sympathy for WikiLeaks.

"MasterCard, Visa and PayPal -- belt them now!" Ardin urged in a Tweet Wednesday, evidently referring to the cyber-attacks launched on those institutions after they severed their relationships with WikiLeaks.
As I've noted on other news on this before, this does not stand as proof of Julian Assange's innocence of the allegations (allegations because there still are no actual charges) but it does add strongly to my sense of fishiness about the whole deal.

Footnote to the preceding

In using the phrase "US hero Bradley Manning," I got to wondering to who else I have applied the term. Searching the archives, I came up with these:

- Elizabeth Solomon, an activist who repeatedly attempted to get the word "gay" into a vanity license plate. I called her "definitely a true American hero" because of her stubborn, principled refusal to back down in the face of official opposition and personal threats.

- The unknown person who leaked the information that the CIA was running a secret prison system around the world.

- Mark "Deep Throat" Felt ("a whistleblower extraordinaire").

- My personal hero, I. F. Stone.

- Bev Harris, a pioneer in calling attention to the risks of electronic voting, who I called an "unsung hero."

- That same term was applied to Betty Ostergren, a privacy activist in Virginia, who ran a sort of guerrilla campaign against that state's program of putting online public records that included a grossly unnecessary amount of personally-identifying information irrelevant for the purpose of government oversight but very relevant to identity thieves.

- One person for who I should have used the term but through some failure never did, instead using the term "a true patriot," is former Sergeant Joseph Darby, the man who risked his safety and sacrificed his military career to blow the whistle on Abu Ghraib.

And now to that list I've added Bradley Manning. I do think that there is a sort of common thread or at least some common threads there.

Once more into the leak

On Wednesday, supporters of US hero Bradley Manning went public with complaints about the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, conditions which, as Glenn Greenwald wrote, "constitute cruel and inhumane treatment and, by the standards of many nations, even torture."
For 23 out of 24 hours every day -- for seven straight months and counting -- he sits completely alone in his cell. Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he's barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions. For reasons that appear completely punitive, he's being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed.... For the one hour per day when he is freed from this isolation, he is barred from accessing any news or current events programs.
That very last part, about what he can watch on TV, is disputed by a Quantico official named Lt. Brian Villiard, but as Greenwald notes, that is both different from all other reports and ultimately a really minor point since Villiard pretty much confirmed all the rest.

The supporters decided to go public after complaints to the military got no response.
"We were aware of those situations [of Manning's confinement] and we were hoping that they would improve without applying public pressure through the media," Jeff Paterson, who runs Manning's legal defense fund, told The Huffington Post. "His attorney and supporters were hoping that this could be taken care of through the appropriate channels."

Paterson says that Manning is "very annoyed" at the conditions of his confinement, adding that he is primarily upset at his inability to exercise. "He sits in this small box, for the most part only to take a shower - he just sits and eats and four months have gone by."
Greenwald argues that the purpose of the treatment is to get Julian Assange by coercing Manning into testifying that Assange colluded with and/or actively encouraged him to leak the documents in order to justify charging Assange as a "co-conspirator" in the leaking. That argument is given extra weight by the report in the Belfast Telegraph (UK) that
US sources [have] revealed that prosecutors are awaiting a decision from the American Attorney-General, Eric Holder, on what form of plea bargaining they should offer to Manning in return for him incriminating Mr Assange as a fellow conspirator in disseminating the classified information.
Friends say Manning has so far refused to cooperate but express worry at his "increasingly fragile condition" after seven months in solitary confinement.

This even as John Conyers, still-for-now chair of the House Judiciary Committee, defended WikiLeaks during a committee hearing on Thursday,
arguing that the controversial actions of the anti-secrecy outlet are protected under free speech. ...

"[B]eing unpopular is not a crime[," Conyers said in prepared remarks, "]and publishing offensive information is not either. And the repeated calls from politicians, journalists, and other so-called experts crying out for criminal prosecutions or other extreme measures make me very uncomfortable." ...

"And so whatever you think about this controversy, it is clear that prosecuting Wikileaks would raise the most fundamental questions about freedom of speech, about who is a journalist, and about what the public can know about the actions of its own government," Conyers said.
That issue is the driving force behind the DOJ's attempt to come up with a case for a conspiracy charge, even if doing so requires torturing Bradley Manning until he agrees to testify so that, in the words of Robert Feldman, a US lawyer specializing on security issues, "a picture can be drawn of an Assange, an older man, who manipulated an emotionally disturbed younger man" into doing the evil deed. The aim, that is, is to avoid "awkward questions about why it is not also prosecuting traditional news organizations or investigative journalists who also disclose information the government says should be kept secret," says an article in the NY Times.

But such an indictment wouldn't avoid those questions, it would enable them, since the stack of revealing documents mysteriously dropped uninvited on a reporter's desk is a virtually complete fantasy - and thus the proposed bizarre new twist on the term "conspiracy" would threaten to criminalize much of investigative journalism. A reporter says to a source "I can't publish just on your word - I need to see the document," the source agrees - and you have a criminal conspiracy.

Then again, considering that the O-gang has been even more aggressive about keeping secrets and going after whistleblowers than even the Shrub gang was, maybe they don't think that's such an unpleasant idea.

Footnote: The Belfast Telegraph also reports that
a number of hackers have claimed they have been offered financial inducements in return for associating with WikiLeaks and gathering evidence of wrongdoing.

One computer specialist told the Washington Post said the US Army offered him money to “infiltrate” the website, but he turned it down because “I don’t’ want anything to do with cloak and dagger stuff.” An Army criminal investigation division spokesman told the newspaper “We’ve got an ongoing investigation. We don't discuss our techniques and tactics."
Techniques and tactics which apparently include spying and entrapment. But I guess once torture is on the table, there's little basis for keeping anything else off.

Another Footnote: Marcy Wheeler passes along the news that employees at AT&T and Verizon are griping that they are being blocked from accessing news articles about WikiLeaks. An update says that a source at AT&T says the sites "are not blocked, at least not consistently or completely" - but I'm not sure if having them blocked only sometimes is a serious improvement.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Footnote to the preceding

In an interview on NPR last week, The Great Shrinking O said this about deficits:
Actually, I think that if you talk to economists, both conservative and liberal, what they'll say is the problem is not next year. The problem is, how are we dealing with our medium-term debt and deficit, and how are we dealing with our long-term debt and deficit? And most of that has to do with entitlements, particularly Social Security and Medicaid.
I don't know if he did mean to say Medicaid or if he meant to say Medicare (the two programs are funded differently and face different struggles), but it doesn't matter: He is blaming deficits on Social Security. And that is both false and dangerous. The choice between an incompetent and being a liar still exists, but either way the impact is the same: Barack Obama, the Great Liberal Hope, he of "hope and change," has joined the right-wing attack on Social Security.

(Thanks for the link go to Sam Seder via Avedon Carol.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

It taxes me

So the Dimocratic majority in the Senate has capitulated - like it was ever in doubt - and given the right-wing what it most wanted: more tax freebies for the rich with the rest of us stuck with the bill. The House is widely expected to do the same and may well have already done so by the time you read this.

But while the "temporary" extension of the "temporary" tax cuts for the filthy rich, people who already have so much money they don't know what to spend it on so they wind up paying $402,000 for a fucking wristwatch, has gotten the most attention, in the longer run it may well prove to not be what is most significant - not in comparison to something that has gotten not only less attention, but too little attention, far less than it deserves. I'm referring to the payroll tax cut.

Yes, I know you heard about it and heard the arguments about how it will/won't stimulate the economy blah blah etc. etc. so forth and so on. You probably also heard about how in combination with the expiration of Making Work Pay, it means that this tax "cut" will actually raise taxes on individuals making less than $20,000 a year and couples making less than $40,000 a year.

You may have even heard about concerns that this will affect Social Security. Those concerns have been rebuffed by the White House, with Obama economic adviser Jason Furman saying it will have "absolutely no effect on the solvency of Social Security" because the proposal requires the amounts lost to be replenished from the general fund. Those concerns also have been rejected by such as Kevin "Don't Worry, Be Happy" Drum, who airily dismisses worries that this "temporary" cut will be renewed or even made permanent in two years because, he says, expected GOPper rants about "raising taxes" just "won't be very effective: "Never underestimate the power of AARP." Right. Like those rants haven't been effective this year. Or any time before.

Leaving Kevin Drum to his dreamy reverie of "We'll get 'em next time, you just wait and see," Furman's assertion is exactly the heart of the too-little-considered problem. More precisely, it doesn't resolve the problem, it points to it.

Social Security has always been funded separately from general revenue. It was done that way by design to maintain political support for it by giving future recipients a personal stake in the program. As you know, the right wing has hated the program for its entire life and over the years has looked for a variety of ways to dismantle it. Of late, one of the means of attack has been The Deficit! The Deficit! with GOPpers insisting that Social Security has to be "part of the mix" to reduce that deficit (a deficit which of course can't be reduced by raising taxes, especially not on the rich, perish the thought). The easy defense against that has been that the program, financed separately and now with a large surplus, was not contributing to the deficit. Not a penny. In fact, by investing that surplus in various government securities and bonds, it actually was helping to finance the deficit.

But with this bill, all that changes. Social Security is now to be partly financed from general revenues. Which means that to precisely that extent - $120 billion a year, according to Nancy Altman of the Strengthen Social Security campaign - Social Security does contribute to the deficit and can be attacked on that basis. This is something that has never happened before. A number of GOPpers - not surprisingly - have figured this out, as have at least some Dims even as some of those foolishly dismiss the importance of it despite those GOPpers being quite open about their intention to use this as a battering ram to break down the program.

Simply put, to the extent Social Security is financed out of general revenues, to that same extent it becomes politically vulnerable. It is utterly incomprehensible how the Obama crowd could not only embrace that, they could call the payroll tax cut a win for the White House and its Congressional minions (part of "What We Got" as compared to "What They Got") - even though it was a GOPper idea which the right directly proposed in 2009 and which had the backing of more than half the party caucus in the House.

The only alternatives I can come up with are a)the Obamites are incredibly bad negotiators or b)they knew what they were doing and Barack Obama is lying through his teeth about "protecting" Social Security and actually wants to see it slashed if not smashed.

You know things are really bad when extreme incompetence is the more comforting option.

Footnote: In his linked piece, Kevin Drum notes a survey on how people feel about the proposed tax deal and mentions that it says that a majority support the expansion of the estate tax exemption while a larger majority are against the payroll tax cut. This, being directly opposite to his own position, utterly mystifies Drum and he speculates on how people could feel that way. He offers five possibilities, one of which involves a commitment to Social Security, another of which refers to a philosophical belief you should be able to pass on to your children whatever you have built up, no matter how large - and the other three of which involve most people just being too dumb to understand what the hell is going on around them.

Y'know, I actually used to kinda like Kevin Drum, back in the days when he had his own blog; I think it was called Calpundit or something like that. Same goes for Ezra Klein when he was one of two proprietors of Pandagon. Even then I thought they were far too closely tied to the Democrats; still, they could be useful. But in each case, that was six or seven years ago and now they have positions to protect and conventional wisdom to dispense and their usefulness has long since ended.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Noted in passing

It seems that the Federal Aviation Administration is unclear about the ownership of 119,000 privately-owned aircraft in the US, some one-third of the total number. It's
a gap the agency fears could be exploited by terrorists and drug traffickers.
The planes have
"questionable registration" because of missing forms, invalid addresses, unreported sales or other paperwork problems, according to the FAA. In many cases, the FAA cannot say who owns a plane or even whether it is still flying or has been junked.
Meanwhile, the rest of us have to go barefoot through the strip-or-grope gauntlet.

See how much safer they've made us?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Finally finally, a couple of more-or-less related footnotes

1. The federal government - that is, Obama's Department for the Protection of the Fatherland - is now asserting the authority to seize entire domain names based on claims of copyright infringement. Not proof of infringement, mind you, not as punishment for some conviction on a charge of infringement, but merely on a claim of it. And not just to shut down the offender, but to seize it and to do it without any notice to or even complaint filed against the site.
These domain seizures come even without the COICA law being in place, and despite assurances from COICA supporters that no such domain seizures would ever possibly come without a full trial first, many of the operators of the domain names seized in this round state they hadn't received any notification of complaints, let alone demands to be taken down.

And it gets even more ridiculous, as some of the sites taken down appear to be nothing more than search engines, which did not host any content and did not host any trackers, but simply acted as perfectly normal search engines.
COICA is the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, a focus of truly intensive lobbying by the highly self-interested movie and recording industries, lobbying that is having success even though that months ago, the Government Accountability Office determined that industry claims about the economic costs of piracy were bogus. The bill passed a Senate committee earlier this month but is several steps away from being law. The chances of it passing the lame duck session are small. But the questionable legal authority doesn't seem to bother the White House.

2. Last week I noted how often right-wing sites all suddenly address the same issue in the same way, often enough in the same words. I wondered if there was some sort of right-wing Central Command issuing instructions. Here's another example, small enough that it could be coincidence but I still have to wonder.

On the same day, Tuesday, Bryan Fisher of the wacked-out American Family Association and Cliff Kincaid of the bizarre right "media watchdog" outfit Accuracy in Media, had columns published in which they argued that the WikiLeaks affair contained proof in the person of Bradley Manning of the evilness of gays. While phrased differently, both made the identical argument (again, on the same day): Manning, they claimed, leaked the cables because of his resentment over DADT and that therefore it should not be repealed because gays should not be allowed in the military, non sequiturs (such as the fact that by their own argument, if he'd been allowed to serve openly there would have been no resentment and thus no leak) not withstanding.

(Sidebar: Wonkette did a decent job of mocking Fisher.)

3. Finally, others have mentioned this so I suppose you know about it but it's such a wonderful example of unintentional humor I had to include it:
U.S. state department spokesperson P. J. Crowley announced that the U.S. govt. has won the right to host "World Press Freedom Day" [in May]. The event will be held in Washington D.C.

Crowley said that this would prove U.S. commitment to "expand press freedom and the free flow of information in this digital age"....
Like they say, sometimes the stuff just writes itself.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

One other thing

Welcome, Bradley Manning Support Network readers. Maybe after this you'd like to check out some of my other posts.

There is one part of this I have not addressed, one interested party who I have not considered. He is in some ways the "forgotten man" in the whole business, the central figure whose name often doesn't come up.

He is Private First Class Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst now held in the military prison at Quantico, Virginia on suspicion of being an American hero.

Manning, of course, is the man suspected of leaking documents to WikiLeaks including not only cablegate but the earlier documents about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars including the notorious "Collateral Murder" video. He was arrested in July.

In the media, he has been subjected to the typical combination of amateur psychoanalysis and subtle smears that always get inflicted on those who do not act in accordance with our sterilized "don't make waves, trust your betters" social norms.

He grew up, we've been told, and I emphasize that all that follows here is just a sample, "teased" and "taunted." He "had trouble fitting in at school," we hear. He was a high school dropout, "adrift," as he "hopscotched through various jobs" (including at a pizza parlor which for some reason was found relevant enough to specify) before enlisting.

But, the tale goes on, the military provided "no respite." He felt "alone, invisible," that his life was falling apart. He felt "he had no future." He was "anguished." "Isolated." And of course, of course, as just everyone seemed to think was starkly-stand-out relevant, he was a homosexual "bridling" under the demands of DADT.

"With doors closing all around him, Private Manning searched for a window." And so this "troubled young man," "fuelled by vanity," "used his proximity to sensitive documents to inflate his own sense of importance" and single-handedly destroyed, destroyed I say, the whole of international diplomacy.

And his reference to a hope that the leak might "actually change something?" That wasn't a reference to US foreign policy, oh no. It was a forlorn reflection on the conditions of his personal life.

In the face of all that, there's only one thing to do: We must tch-tch our way to sympathy for this obviously disturbed young man of the troubled childhood, the troubled adolescence, and the troubled young adulthood, the troubled soul who acted out of emotional desperation. Because, clearly, clearly, no sane person would do what he did. And we say that out of compassion, being unlike - and quite superior - to those who would have him killed as a traitor.

Or so we are by clear implication told.

In Quantico he is held in solitary confinement and is under a suicide watch, a status most often used as an excuse to humiliate a prisoner by stripping them of their belt, shoelaces, and anything sharp or breakable while implying (to them and to anyone outside) that they are not in their right mind.

But, it should be noted, there is another view of Bradley Manning, one that appears in the reporting of Denver Nicks. In it, he describes an incident that took place while Manning was still in school.
Bradley Manning, still effectively a boy, had few friends, and his family had all but fallen apart. In a time before Facebook and sustained long-distance friendships, he was leaving his two best friends for what could easily have been the last time.... He didn’t need to tell them he was gay in order to confess a hidden affection, to explain a behavior or even to allow his friends to know him better–in a short time he would be gone. And yet, presumably for no other reason than that he was who he was and wanted to live honestly in his own skin, he felt compelled, in a conservative, religious town, to confide in his friends that he was a homosexual. Not only must it have taken tremendous courage for such a young man, it displays a crucial aspect of Brad’s personality. As his Facebook profile still says today, “Take me for who I am, or face the consequences!”
Nicks also punched holes in the "disturbed young man" theory of why Manning leaked the documents. He first demonstrated that Manning was likely the source of the so-called Reykjavik13 memo, published by WikiLeaks on February 18, 2010.
The timing debunks the overarching narrative in the media that Brad was an anti-social outcast lashing out at the world and crying for attention when he decided to leak military secrets,
as this was several months before the exchanges with Adrian Lamo, the creep who turned him in and whose last name, if there is any justice in the world, is pronounced with long vowels.
Over the next several months[ after February], when Brad may have leaked most of the documents, he appears happy and carefree,
Nicks reports.

In his own words, Manning hoped the cables would spur “worldwide discussion, debates, and reform.”
I want people to see the truth[, he said,]… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.
Combine that and Nicks' reporting with the frequent media references to Manning's "liberal" or "progressive" Facebook entries and you have the makings of the psychological profile not of a "troubled young man" but of a variety of '60s radical, someone who grew up believing in the US of the civics classes but who ultimately was faced with proof that could not be denied that the US they had believed in was not the US that stood before them. Given the opportunity to act on that realization, he took it.

So, bottom line, as expressed by Sheldon Richman, writing in the Christian Science Monitor: "What are we to make of him?"
Is he a hero or a villain?

I say hero. When a government secretly engages in such consequential activities as aggressive wars justified by at best questionable and at worst fabricated intelligence, covert bombings and assassinations, and diplomatic maneuvering designed to support such global meddling, the people in whose name that government acts – and who could suffer retaliation – have a right to know.
I'm with him. Bradley Manning is an American hero. And he deserves to be recognized and supported as such.

Be aware, however: There can be a price to be paid for that support, at least if you're vocal about it, as Glenn Greenwald has shown:
In July of this year, U.S. citizen Jacob Appelbaum, a researcher and spokesman for WikiLeaks, was detained for several hours at the Newark airport after returning from a trip to Holland, and had his laptop, cellphones and other electronic products seized -- all without a search warrant, without being charged with a crime, and without even being under investigation, at least to his knowledge. He was interrogated at length about WikiLeaks, and was told by the detaining agents that he could expect to be subjected to the same treatment every time he left the country and attempted to return to the U.S. ...

November 3, David House, a 23-year-old researcher who works at MIT, was returning to the U.S. from a short vacation with his girlfriend in Mexico, and was subjected to similar and even worse treatment. House's crime: he did work in helping set up the Bradley Manning Support Network, an organization created to raise money for Manning's legal defense fund, and he has now visited Manning three times in Quantico....
The government is expanding its intensifying campaign against WikiLeaks to include those who have supported Bradley Manning. That, however, should not be taken as a sign to back off but to step up.

So I say Free Bradley Manning! No, I have no expectation that will happen. But some things should be said just because they should be said, not because you expect them to happen. Free Bradley Manning! Free the American hero.

A Footnote: In a footnote because it refers to someone who deserves to be no more than a footnote. It is frequently mentioned that it was in conversations with the Lame-o guy where Manning described how he obtained the documents he leaked. What I have yet to see mentioned anywhere other than a Glenn Greenwald piece (if it's out there, someone tell me) is that Lame-o lied to Manning, getting him to open up by telling him he was a journalist and he continued to pump him for details even after he - that is, Lame-o - had informed federal cops what Manning had said.

Lame-o, himself a convicted hacker, sanctimoniously allowed as how he hopes that Manning has "the same chance" to "reinvent" himself as he did - such "reinvention" apparently to include becoming a government snitch.

One other Footnote: Sheldon Richman, it develops, is a real right-wing/libertarian type, one of those who believes laissez-faire capitalism is the answer to everything and rails against "collectivism." It bears repeating yet again: Issues surrounding personal privacy, government secrecy, and civil liberties mark an area where left and right can combine and overlap in unusual ways.

Updated to say that in comments, Sheldeon Richman says my description of him is incorrect; he describes himself as a "left-libertarian, an anarchist" who "reject[s] historical capitalism as a system of inexcusable privilege." I stand corrected.
// I Support The Occupy Movement : banner and script by @jeffcouturer / (v1.2) document.write('
I support the OCCUPY movement
');function occupySwap(whichState){if(whichState==1){document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}else{document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}} document.write('');