Friday, January 20, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #40

This week:

- Lies about Social Security

- Outrage of the Week: Occupy protesters charged with felony for mic-checking speech

- Bigotry is alive and well in the US

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Going "dark" tomorrow

As you likely know, a number of websites, in a campaign sparked by Reddit, are going dark on Wednesday as a protest against the reprehensible PIPA and SOPA.

The list includes some big names, such as Reddit, Mozilla, Wikipedia, Wordpress, MoveOn, Tucows, and BoingBoing as well as at least hundreds of smaller sites. Google will not go dark but says it will have a protest banner on its home page.

I think I've made it clear - at least I have on my cable show - what I think of these bills - but I'm not enough of a tech geek to know how to make this blog literally go dark for the day. Which is why the word "dark" is in quotes in the headline: The site will be up but there will be no posts on Wednesday.

I know that my not posting for a day is hardly unusual, which is why I'm posting this now: I want to make it clear that the lack of posts on January 18 is not just my usual slacking but a deliberate, conscious decision.

The pressure on Congress is building and there is now a fair amount of foot-shuffling and harrumphing about delaying the votes until after "more study" going on, even among the bills' supporters. But PIPA and SOPA don't need to be delayed, they need to be killed - and as of now, the Senate is still scheduled to vote on PIPA on January 24.

So keep it up. We can win this one.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #39

Topics this week:

- It shows what shape the economy is in when 8.5% unemployment is good news

- Outrage of the Week: tasers

- January 11 was the 10th anniversary of the opening of Gitmo

And Another Thing...: Why is January 1 the first day of the year?

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Another reason tasers should be banned

Jaime Gonzalez, an 8th grade student in Brownsville, Texas, was shot three times and killed by police on Wednesday after he refused when - I love this description - he was "asked" that he put down what later proved to be a pellet gun.
[T]he two officers fired three shots, and hit Gonzalez at least twice, once in the back of the head.
I'm not going to judge the cops here: The gun supposedly looked real, they could have felt genuinely threatened, and reports say that on the emergency recording they can be heard several times demanding that he drop the gun before they fired. So while there are still several questions, such as the possibility of excessive force (how did he wind up getting hit in the back of the head, for example) and the severity of the perceived threat (was the gun pointed up or down toward the floor, for one example; did the boy take an "aggressive stance," for another), I will withhold judgement on that score.

But I am going to insist that this is just more evidence of why tasers should be banned.

Why? Because why the fuck wasn't one used? Dammit, this is exactly the sort of situation for which they were supposedly designed, exactly the sort of case for which they were intended. And yet we get a dead kid instead.

Nearly eight years ago, I wrote here that
With the increasing availability of tasers, especially combined with repeated assurances that they are safe and even "humane," will come the increasing temptation to use them routinely, no longer in lieu of lethal force but in lieu of persuasion and patience, no longer against someone posing a physical threat but against someone giving "a hard time," no longer for protection but for dominance.
The intervening years have proven the accurary of that prediction. And now, it appears, they're not only being used for things they supposedly are not for, they're not being used for what they supposedly are for.

Ban them. Now.

Footnote, I Don't Think You Quite Get It Div.: At a memoral service for Gonzalez, the Rev. Jorge Gomez said
"I implore you young people, learn from this experience. ... Young people, I invite you to get out of trouble. Don't get lost."
There is no indication Jaime Gonzalez was involved in gangs or any sort of trouble beyond the usual teenager crap like staying out too late. If he was "lost," it wasn't due to the sort of "trouble" Rev. Gomez meant.

Everything you need to un-know in one headline

Venezuela's Chavez welcomes ally Ahmadinejad
     - Reuters headine, January 8

It's a two-fer! Apparently happy to cooperate with the on-going (and largely successful) campaign to demonize Hugo Chavez, Reuters links him to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad even as Iran continues to be the focus of US war fever.

However, the article itself does not say a single thing about Iran and Venezuela being "allies." Rather, it describes Ahmadinejad as making a tour of Latin America in order to "shore up support from the region's leftist leaders." Which you would hardly expect to need with an "ally."

Footnote: Bearing in mind that "leftist" is a pejorative term to many, does Reuters ever talk about any region's "rightist leaders?" Is any US-supported government ever called "rightist" (as opposed to, say, "conservative")?

Everything you need to know in one headline

Investors in Murdoch's News Corp forgive hacking
     - Reuters headline, January 8

Footnote: A total of seventeen people have now been arrested in the UK over the phone hacking scandal

Passing thought #5: The power of one

Never underestimate the power that can be wielded by one person who is in the right position at the right time.

The SEC has had a notorious practice of shielding corporations with which it reaches some settlement from further exposure to civil suits by allowing the company to "neither admit or deny" any actual wrongdoing - even in cases where the same corporation has been convicted of criminal violations for the same behavior.

This past November, Judge Jed Rakoff of US Court for the Southern District of New York, just wasn't going to go for that. He refused to accept a proposed settlement in a case involving Citibank, calling it "neither fair, nor reasonable, nor adequate, nor in the public interest."

More to the point here, he also said that the practice of allowing the "neither admit nor deny" business
deprives the court of even the most minimal assurance that the substantial injunctive relief it is being asked to impose has any basis in fact.
Rakoff is having what several people are calling a ripple effect. In December, for example, a New York state Appellate court cited (in a footnote) Rakoff's criticism of SEC boilerplate in an earlier case as it dismissed a suit by JPMorgan against its own insurers. What happened was that in 2006, Bear Stearns entered a $250 million consent agreement with the SEC which included the boilerplate "neither admit nor deny" language. Bear and its successor, JPMorgan Chase, went to their insurers to cover the settlement, even though penalties are not covered. The insurers refused. JPMorgan sued on the basis of the no-admission language - and lost.
“Read as a whole,” the [Appellate Court] decision said, “the offer of settlement, the SEC Order ... and related documents are not reasonably susceptible to any interpretation other than that Bear Stearns knowingly and intentionally facilitated illegal late trading for preferred customers, and that the relief provisions of the SEC Order required disgorgement of funds gained through that illegal activity.”
That is, the Appellate Court ignored the boilerplate as not affecting the overall reading. It was, in effect, irrelevant.

And this week, the SEC changed its policy on the boilerplate.
The Securities and Exchange Commission, in a fundamental policy shift, said Friday that it would no longer allow defendants to say they neither admit nor deny civil fraud or insider trading charges when, at the same time, they admit to or have been convicted of criminal violations.

The change is the first time that the S.E.C. has stepped back from its longstanding practice of allowing companies to settle fraud charges by paying a fine without admitting wrongdoing.
The impact is smaller than it might seem at first because the agency said it would continue to use the language where the agency alone reaches the agreement with the accused and there is no associated criminal case; such individual agreements make up a large majority of SEC settlements - and are the kind that draws Rakoff's particular ire.

But despite the SEC's CYA claim that the change had been under consideration for several months, I don't see how it can be denied that Rakoff's raising of the issue to the level of broader awareness (along with the efforts of others :cough: OWS :cough:) has played a key role in pushing things as far along as they have gone.

Footnote: The identity of the man in the linked video is still unknown. Rumors abound but evidence does not.

Passing thought #4: Coming attractions

Yet another thing of which I'm sure you're aware is how GoDaddy stumbled all over itself, reversing its support of SOPA and PIPA in the wake of over 70,000 of customers moving their websites to a different domain. (An amusing sidebar was one "expert," not linked here, who insisted it wasn't the boycott that caused GoDaddy to double back, it was the "public outcry." Right, like corporations have not long shown that they don't give a shit about "public outcries" that do not affect their bottom line.)

You may also know that the Heritage Foundation, in one of those left-right-overlap-in-odd-ways things, has come out against SOPA, arguing that it
enforces private property rights at the expense of other values, such as innovation on the Internet, security of the Internet, and freedom of communication.
So this post is really just an excuse to remind you that
the U.S. Senate will debate a controversial Hollywood-backed copyright bill as soon as senators return in January.

A vote on the Protect IP Act, a close cousin of the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, will be held January 24, thanks to a last-minute push by Majority Leader Harry Reid,
who called PIPA "extremely important" and hoped it would be passed in "a productive couple of days" (translation: can be rushed through).

Uh-huh. So on this he decides to be Mr. Tough Guy. Terrific.

Footnote, It Would Be Funny If It Wasn't So Serious Div.: A new free app for Android allows users to scan the barcode of a product to see if the manufacturer has endorsed SOPA.

Passing thought #3: Is that all there is?

So many people, it seems, were almost beside themselves with joy over PHC* actually going to the Pentagon for a presser to announce a new military strategy that would include cuts in military spending! Hooray! Second Nobel Peace Prize coming!

Um, I wondered, were these cuts more than the $400 billion over 10 years already announced months ago?

Turns out, no, not really. It's $487 billion over 10 years. And it's still not clear, at least to me, if these are cuts in DOD spending or in all "defense" spending.

With the 2012 DOD budget request set at $553 billion and allowing for the fact that the budget is expected to grow in current dollars despite the cuts - that is, the "cuts" are actually "smaller increases" - it winds up giving the gun-wielders about 8% less over the next decade. And if the cuts are to apply to all "defense" spending - $881 billion requested for 2012, it becomes just a five or six percent smaller increase.

Not insignificant, granted, but hardly let-out-a-cheer stuff, especially when there are proposals already out there to cut such spending by 25% (The 25 Percent Solution), by $1.2 trillion (The Cato Institute), and by $2.3 Trillion (The House Progressive Caucus), all over 10 years, and another to cut 40% over just three years (Ret. Army Col. Douglas Macgregor). And especially not when "defense" spending has gone up by a whopping 70% over the last decade.

Footnote: The NY Times is already starting with the articles about the supposedly devastating impact these smaller increases will have on companies and their employees who depend on military contracts. That there will some sort of impact is undeniable; I just wish such things were a matter of concern to our source of "all the news that's fit to print" when it involved cuts in spending that are about actual human needs.

*PHC = President Hopey-Changey

Passing thought #2: "Boat" joins "gate"

Politico recently reported that Newt Grinch is suffering from buyer’s remorse about Citizens United, which at the time he hailed as a great victory for free speech. Politico said that after seeing his Iowa poll number plummet in the face of weeks of what he claimed were false attacks,
Gingrich won’t stop talking about the injustices of unchecked spending — specifically the $3 million spent attacking him. He even coined a name for it, saying he got “Romney-boated” by his chief opponent’s “millionaire friends.”
Oh, so terrific: Now the right-wingers are going to adopt the term "fill-in-the-blank-boated" as shorthand for the experience of "being overwhelmed by a massive campaign of falsehoods?" Is Grinch now going to apologize to John Kerry?

Sorry for making you spit out your drink.

Passing thought #1: One is not the same as the other

I'm sure that you're already aware that the Montana Supreme Court recently upheld a 100-year-old state law that limits corporate donations to political campaigns, thus directly rejecting the notorious Citizens United decision.

A number of observers have praised the decision as demonstrating the depth of public opposition to Citizens United while insisting that the legal result will simply be that SCOTUS will strike down the Montana decision on appeal, leaving that legal landscape unchanged.

The thought here is that while I think that more likely than not, I'm not as convinced of the zero effect as some other are. The Montana case can be differentiated from CitUnit on at least two grounds: One is that this case refers to a state law, not a federal law, and the general tradition (which I emphasize for what I hope would be obvious reasons) has been to let states regulate their own elections, with the feds generally stepping in only when some identifiable group of voters was being denied access to the ballot box. (That being the legitimate part of the reason why SCOTUS said that its other notorious decision of recent times, Bush v. Gore in 2000, was not to be used as precedent.)

The other, though, is the more important one: Part of the, um, "logic" of CitUnit was the claim that evidence of the corrupting influence of money was lacking. The Montana decision was evidence-based, citing the history of mining interests in Montana, the interests whose actions lead to the ban, as proof. To overturn the ruling, SCOTUS would have to either deny that history or deny the relevance of facts - not that either of those is beyond this Court.

So while I don't see the Court reversing itself on CitUnit, as lovely as that would be, I do see some chance of the decision being in some way modified to allow some controls and or least a requirement for transparency.

Footnote A: As I again expect you know but is still worth pointing out, the dissenters in the Montana case agreed with pretty much everything the majority said, holding only that CitUnit unhappily required the law be overturned. One of them, Justice James Nelson, called corporate personhood "an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species."

Footnote B: I've written some stuff on corporate personhood, including these two on Glenn Greenwald's seriously wrong endorsement of CitUnit.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Some stuff I didn't have time for #4

This is what Sharia law looks like. Well, not Sharia law, no, but something that smells just as bad.
Beit Shemesh, Israel — A shy 8-year-old schoolgirl has unwittingly found herself on the front line of Israel's latest religious war.

Naama Margolese is a ponytailed, bespectacled second-grader who is afraid of walking to her religious Jewish girls school for fear of ultra-Orthodox extremists who have spat on her and called her a whore for dressing "immodestly."
She is not the only one; the other children going to the school are also targets. Beyond them, their parents, escorting them as protection against the mob, have also been accosted and spat on and journalists trying to cover the story have been the targets of eggs and rocks.

The ultra-Orthodox are only about 10% of Israel's population but they are a rather privileged 10%, and I don't mean financially but in terms of power.
The ultra-Orthodox are perennial king-makers in Israeli coalition politics – two such parties serve as key members of the ruling coalition. They receive generous government subsidies, and police have traditionally been reluctant to enter their communities. ...

[T]hey have become increasingly aggressive in trying to impose their ways on others, as their population has grown and spread to new areas.
In Beit Shemesh, a city of about 100,000, these radical-Islamist-wannabes who make up about half the local population have
erected street signs calling for the separation of sexes on the sidewalks, dispatched "modesty patrols" to enforce a chaste female appearance and hurled stones at offenders and outsiders. Walls of the neighborhood are plastered with signs exhorting women to dress modestly in closed-necked, long-sleeved blouses and long skirts.
To the credit of the Israeli public, when Naama's story and through her the story of the conflict in Beit Shemesh got media attention, the response was shock among the public and expressions of outrage from some political leaders, who have generally turned a blind eye to the treatment of women within the ultra-Orthodox community.

However, that outrage is by itself not enough.
"It is clear that Israeli society is faced with a challenge that I am not sure it can handle," said Menachem Friedman, a professor emeritus of Bar Ilan University and expert on the ultra-Orthodox, "a challenge that is no less and no more than an existential challenge."
Put another way, Israel as a whole has to decide what it will be. Even if it is determined to remain an avowedly Jewish state despite the limitations that automatically and of necessity places on its Arab and Palestinian citizens, even then it has to decide if it is to be a modern, pluralistic state or if it is to be an expression of its most reactionary, extremist, hating elements. It's a question Israel has ignored throughout its history; it is rapidly coming to a time when it can do so no longer.

Some stuff I didn't have time for #3

Because South Carolina has a history of discriminating against minority voters, it is one of several states that are required under the Voting Rights Act to obtain federal approval for any changes in its voting laws. Just before Christmas, the DOJ blocked a new law that would have required voters to present photo identification at the voting place on the grounds that the law would disproportionately suppress turnout among eligible minority voters.

The justification for the move was the "significant racial disparities" revealed by state's own data, which showed that minority citizens are significantly more likely to be disenfranchised by the change than white voters are - as if that wasn't the intention all along.

Current rules in the state allow people to vote with a voter registration card and a signature. The state tried to justify the photo ID requirement on the grounds of preventing fraud, but the DOJ found that
the state failed to point to "any evidence or instance of either in-person voter impersonation or any other type of fraud that is not already addressed by the state's existing voter identification requirement and that arguably could be deterred by requiring voters to present only photo identification at the polls."
It was the first time since 1994 that the department has blocked a voter ID law, and comes at a time when stories - I should say more stories - are emerging of cases where photo ID laws have prevented registered voters from casting ballots.
It has allegedly happened twice in Tennessee alone, including a 96-year-old woman who could not locate her marriage license, and a 93-year-old woman who had cleaned the state Capitol there for some 30 years. The latter woman, Thelma Johnson, was born in Alabama via midwife and was never issued a birth certificate.
It's possible the good news out of the DOJ may yet continue: Texas has enacted a similar voter ID law which could very well be next to face action by the department.

Speaking on behalf of the Attorney General of Texas, spokeswoman Lauren Bean said any such move would be fought in federal court, a sentiment already expressed by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, who echoed Gov. Nikki Haley pledge to "protect our 10th Amendment rights" - all of which statements are revealing in that they don't actually deny a racially disparate impact of these laws; they don't actually deny they will suppress voting among minorities, the elderly, the poor; they in essence claim rather that states are free to suppress the vote of certain groups if they want.

The future of these cases in the courts is up for grabs. SCOTUS has already disgraced itself on the issue, having upheld Indiana's photo ID law; still, that case was different in two ways: First, the suit was brought on behalf of people who feared the law - not yet in effect - would disenfranchise them and the Court found that they hadn't actually been discriminated against, at least not yet (and so left open the possibility of a subsequent suit). And second, Indiana's law did not require federal approval, which somewhat shifts the burden of proof.

In a South Carolina or Texas case, the Court would either have to find that the state had met the legally-required burden of proof to justify the change or it would have to find the section of the Voting Rights Act requiring federal approval of changes to be unconstitutional - which by leaving the feds with only limited and cumbersome enforcement mechanisms, would effectively invalidate the entire law, and I'm not sure even this Supreme Court would be willing to go that far.

Footnote: In one of those bizarre, artificial balance things that major media seems to feel obligated to invoke, the New York Times notes that examples of the type of fraud that voter photo ID laws supposedly combat - voter impersonation at the polling place - "have been few and isolated." (In fact, the numbers are vanishingly small.) However, it then adds that "there is greater evidence that absentee ballot fraud has been used" - and then had to go back to a single incident on a mayoral race over 14 years ago to find an example.

Footnote again: The DNC has a website called Being a party outlet, it obviously skews the story in a party-oriented direction (complete with donation pitch) but I'd still recommend giving it a look.

Some stuff I didn't have time for #2

According to an article in the Huffington Post the end of December,
Maryland is one of 38 states that allows murder charges to be brought against someone accused of killing a viable fetus. The 2005 state law has so far only been used for cases in which defendants were accused of assaulting or killing pregnant women.
Now, however, Maryland has used it to charge two doctors with multiple counts of murder of fetuses.

The case appears to have arisen over a "botched" abortion in August 2010, but the police investigation supposedly turned up a number of late-term aborted fetuses in a freezer. As a result,
[Dr. Steven] Brigham, 55, is charged with five counts of first-degree murder, five counts of second-degree murder and one count of conspiracy. [Dr. Nicola] Riley, 46, faces one count each of first- and second-degree murder and one conspiracy count.
When these laws were first proposed and passed, there were those of us who predicted that they would be used against abortion providers because they legally established a fetus as a separate individual with its own rights to legal protection - so anyone aborting a "viable" fetus could be charged with murder. Proponents of the law, denying their true intentions, insisted that would never happen. Now, however, it appears their actual wish, the one denied by their words, has come true.

But for pure shake-your-head and quality of unintended revelation, nothing could beat this statement:
"We are in uncharted territory," [Cecil County State's Attorney Ellis] Roberts said. "At some point in time," he added, "you will hear our explanation" of the charges.
Um, what? You had a 16-month investigation, filed a total of six counts of first-degree murder, six counts of second-degree murder, and two counts of conspiracy - and you can't offer an explanation of the charges? What, do you still have to make one up? Maybe you haven't focus-group tested the alternatives yet?

And we take one more step back toward the days of the coat hanger.

Some stuff I didn't have time for #1

Of course it wasn't ethnically or religiously motivated. Who would ever have thought?
A police security tower rose into the sky [over New York City] Monday, keeping watch over a globally prominent Islamic cultural center that was firebombed amid a handful of attacks being investigated as possibly linked bias crimes.
Possibly? At about 8 pm Sunday evening, a possible firebomb was thrown at a counter of a corner convenience store. Ten minutes later, a nearby home was firebombed. About a half-hour after that, the Imam Al-Khoei Foundation was hit with two Molotov cocktails. Eighty people were gathered inside for a dinner. Forty-five minutes later, a private house used as a Hindu house of worship was similarly attacked.
It's unclear if the attacks are related.
Unclear? Four firebombs within two and a-quarter hours of each other and we are supposed to think this could just as easily be coincidence? Just how common are firebomb attacks in New York?

Happily, although one of the homes was extensively damaged, no one was injured in any of the attacks. Sadly, it reminds us that, contrary to the claims of some, hate crimes are not "just crimes," but something much more and whose effect is more pervasive.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #38

Political crisis in Iraq

Outrage of the Week: Drug tests for public benefits

Some updates on Occupy,0,4262216.story
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