Monday, February 28, 2011

I was a Teenage Geekenstein

The chances of eventually having somewhere else to go to really get away from it all have gone up.

According to an extrapolation of early results from NASA's Kepler telescope, which is designed to search for extrasolar planets, there are at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way.
At least 500 million of those planets are in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold zone where life could exist.
True, no extraterrestrial life has been found despite some teasers over the years. But then add in other discoveries, such the recent one of a bacterium in California’s Mono Lake that uses arsenic instead of phosphorus in its DNA and the examination of a meteorite that revealed amino acids where there shouldn't have been any (leading chief researcher Dr. Daniel Glavin to say it suggests "there is more than one way to make amino acids in space"). In light of those and other discoveries, 500 million seems, well, let's just say to my mind it's rather too large a number to think that life screwed up every one of those chances.

Time for some good news

Brace yourself: I'm about to say something nice about the Obama administration.

There has been a fair amount of discussion about the White House's decision to stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA (which I keep wanting to pronounce as "Doom! Ah!"). Much of what has come from the right has been predictably inane, such as the execrable Newt Gingrich, the nation's most perfectly-named politician, calling it an impeachable offense and the always-good-for-a-laugh Alan Keyes comparing same-sex marriage to owning slaves on a plantation. (I keep expecting Keyes to bust out laughing and say "I just can't hold it in any more! Haven't you people ever read Jonathan Swift? How obvious do I have to be?")

Commentary from the left has also been predictable in its own way, justly praising the decision while scolding PHC* for how long it took to get to this point. A number on both sides referred to a "reversal" in the administration's position.

But truth be told, I'm not sure it was a true reversal, and here's why: It's generally held to be the obligation of the DOJ to defend in court the constitutionality of federal laws. This is because it's felt unwise to essentially give the Executive Branch a double veto, one when the bill comes out of Congress and a second by refusing to defend the law against a legal challenge.

In this case, the DOJ's statement said that
the Department of Justice has defended Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act on several occasions in federal court. Each of those cases evaluating Section 3 was considered in jurisdictions in which binding circuit court precedents hold that laws singling out people based on sexual orientation, as DOMA does, are constitutional if there is a rational basis for their enactment. ...

Section 3 of DOMA has now been challenged in the Second Circuit, however, which has no established or binding standard for how laws concerning sexual orientation should be treated. In these cases, the Administration faces for the first time the question of whether laws regarding sexual orientation are subject to the more permissive standard of review or whether a more rigorous standard, under which laws targeting minority groups with a history of discrimination are viewed with suspicion by the courts, should apply.
Put another way, in those previous cases the underlying question of can it be constitutional to single out people based on sexual orientation had already been answered yes. However, now DOMA has come up in a circuit where that question has not been answered and so the constitutionality of DOMA is a relevant issue. The administration's response is to defend that more rigorous standard regarding discrimination to which the statement referred, under which DOMA could well be held unconstitutional.

What this makes me suspect is that the White House was defending DOMA only to the extent it felt obligated to and it grabbed the first chance to offer what I suppose could be called a truly minimalist defense, that of "DOMA is constitutional if it can meet this strict standard, which we say it can't." Which in turn suggests that this is not a "reversal" but a case of having waited for an opportunity and then grabbing it when it arose.

I've said enough times before but it bears repeating: The day of justice, the day when the sex of the person you love will be, at least legally and eventually socially, no more relevant than their race or their religion, will come. Want a bit more proof? How about the fact that earlier this week
the Maryland Senate voted 25-21 to pass SB 116, the Civil Marriage Protection Act, legislation that would end the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples from marriage in Maryland.
The bill now goes to The House of Delegates; thanks to Rumproast for the link.

The day is coming. And while all the screeching and scraping of the bigots and bozos may delay that day, they will not prevent it.

*PHC = President Hopey-Changey


Updated In 1958 the New York Giants met the Baltimore Colts for the NFL championship. I was growing up in central New Jersey and everyone I knew was rooting for the Giants. I thought somebody should be rooting for the Colts, so I decided I would. Which is how I became a Baltimore Colts fan. Something of a rebel even then, I suppose.

On another sports front, baseball, and a few years earlier: My father, oddly enough, was not a big sports fan. But the members of my mother's family were fanatics. For them, there was only one baseball team that mattered: the Giants. Which is, I expect, and along the same lines of becoming a Colts fan, how I came to be a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. (Well, I sure as hell wasn't going to root for the Yankees! Sheesh.)

All of which serves by way of introduction to the news that Duke Snider, centerfielder of The Boys of Summer, died yesterday at the age of 84.

My family was not by any means well off, and getting all the way into Brooklyn for a game would have been difficult logistically as well as financially. I got to see Snider play in person just once, at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey and yes it was a regular season game: For each of two seasons, the Dodgers played seven home games there. And damn it, didn't he go 0-3 that night. At least the Dodgers won. (It occurs to me that with all the records baseball keeps, since the Dodgers only played a total of 14 games at Roosevelt Stadium and I know the teams and the final score - the Dodgers beat the Reds, 3-1 - I could probably find out the exact date I was there. I doubt I'll bother.)

I can't say I follow any sports any more, and now when I watch the occasional game (most commonly but not exclusively basketball) I prefer to have no rooting interest, as I find that enables me better to appreciate the good plays and cringe at the bad ones no matter which team it affects, to better focus on how well the game is played rather than on who wins it. Perhaps that's just me.

The point is that while I neither could nor would any longer call myself a Dodger fan - I couldn't name a single person on the current roster - I can still play in my head a clip from I have no idea what game or when, but a clip of Vin (or, as he then used, Vince) Scully going "In comes Snider! Right behind him is Hodges! It's a brand new ball game!"

And y'know what? Grapefruit League games are getting started, the snow here is melting, spring and then summer are coming, and I've decided that this year I'm gonna go see myself some baseball.

Updated due to the fact that my curiosity - about the Web even more than about the date - got the better of me and a search on "Dodgers Redlegs Roosevelt Stadium" easily produced the date of July 12, 1957 as well as proving my memory incorrect: Duke went 0-4, not 0-3.

Oh, and yeah, they were called the Redlegs at the time; it was the 1950s, after all, and being called "the Reds," well, you know.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Rallying point

I was going to post this earlier but I decided to wait until reports of Saturday's pro-union rallies were in. I had heard some breathless pre-event predictions of a million turning out across the country, which I dismissed as over-enthusiastic hyperbole, and properly so.

Even so, the numbers and even more the range, both geographic and demographic, of the rallies were impressive. According to a mailing from, there were actions in every state capitol as well as other places; 66 in all. The biggest, of course, was in Madison, where local police estimated the crowd at upwards of 100,000. But the turnout in a number of other places, based on various news and/or eyewitness accounts, was in four figures, including not just obvious ones like New York and Los Angeles, but Boston, Hartford, Harrisburg, St. Paul, Santa Fe, Lansing, Denver, Olympia, Trenton, and more. One - Columbus, scene of its own labor fight - could well have been in five figures. Again according to the MoveOn mailing, a total of 50,000 people outside of Wisconsin took to the streets to say they support the rights of workers - a figure I find, based on my own search of media accounts, to be if anything a little conservative. And remember: All these actions were put together in just four days.

All this is, of course, in addition to the thousands who turned out earlier in the week both to express support for Wisconsin workers and to demand that the same treatment not be given to workers in their own state.

It's been exhilarating to see that there is still life in the old lefty-labor coalition. It's been energizing to see the steadfast determination on the part of the Wisconsinites and others. (I had a distressed moment last weekend when I thought the Wisconsin teachers' union had blinked, as its president told its members to go back to the classroom. Happily, I was wrong.) It's been greatly encouraging to see actual union solidarity - particularly from Wisconsin police and firefighters whose unions, as is not commonly known, were exempted from the stripping away of rights Governor Walkalloveryou wants to inflict on others. (Those unions were also the ones who endorsed Walkalloveryou in the campaign. Ain't coincidence wonderful?)

And it has been particularly pleasurable for this aging radical who has repeatedly said - here and here, for example - that we leftists, we progressives (in the real sense of the word), we who like to think of ourselves as part of a movement, need to be more aggressive, more assertive, in our behavior and stop thinking of political action as limited to legislative chambers and getting Dimcrats elected, it has been a delight for this "vaguely reminiscent of the '60s" old guy to see that there are still some things that will get Americans out on the streets other than death panels and the looming threat of a secret Muslim socialist foreigner imposing sharia law on the nation.

So yes, it was great to see, even more so because in Austin the rally was done in conjunction with one supporting Planned Parenthood and in other places the rallies were supported by the new group US Uncut, which uses social network organizing to put together protests against tax-dodging corporations and produced actions at 50 different places on Saturday, most of them at branches of Bank of America. That sort of unity, that sort of "It's all connected so we all need to be connected" thinking is what can drive a wider, more inclusive, and therefore stronger movement.

(Lighthearted sidebar: I smiled at hearing one rally chant "The people! United! Will never be" only to be taken aback when instead of the last word being the '60s cry "defeated," it was "divided." I swear, these kids today....)

However - and you damn well knew that was coming sometime - in another way I found the day, well, not disheartening but depressing. Amidst all the energy, all the hoopla, all the excitement, there is a shadow filtering through, a shadow big enough to dim the light cast by the crowds: The goal of the entire enterprise, the entire effort, the entire purpose of every action from the very beginning of the entire confrontation, was to stand in the same place. To not be forced to back down. To not, in another sense, be forced to back up.

Even if every demand of every one of those protests about labor laws in Wisconsin or Ohio or Indiana or wherever else workers' rights were under attack, even if every goal was achieved, even if there was total success, still we would have gained nothing. Rather, we would have not lost what we already have.

We've been fighting, that is, not to go forward but to resist going backwards. These are all rear-guard actions, all hoping merely to stand our ground, not to advance. We are perpetually playing defense. But the fact is, you can't hold ground forever; you can't always play defense and still score. In war, a purely defensive strategy can be good, even effective, because it takes significantly more military resources to attack than to defend. But in political and social conflicts such as this, that often is untrue and so in the long run, a purely defensive strategy always fails - always.

So it is depressing to think that even with the massive effort, the intense emotion, the fearsome determination, that have been on display these past couple of weeks that holding our own appears to be - in fact is - the best we are hoping for. It bespeaks a future of continued gradual, even if somewhat slowed, decline, a future that if we are to avoid we will somehow have to find even more energy than we have shown so far.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Footnote to the preceding, Truth in Headlines Div.

Headline on a February 21 AP story about Wisconsin:
Wisconsin lawmakers take up bill to cripple unions
I know it's just one headline, but take what you can get. Meanwhile, the Sunday talking head shows, the ones that "set the agenda" for the debate among the Serious People, continuing their inspiring attempt to get all sides, have these people at least tentatively booked for tomorrow:

Deface the Nation: Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ)
Press the Meat: Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI)
Faux News Sunday: Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN)

(In fairness, Press the Meat has supposedly added Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO to the guest list. So I guess any complaints about the overall guest list are out the window, hey?)

On another point that has been sticking in my craw, in a quote gleefully spread by the wingnuts as if it was some ultimate slammer, Christie responded to a charge he's engaged in union-busting by saying "unions are trying to break the middle class."

"Trying?" Not even "breaking" but "trying to?" Hey, bozo, don't make me go all Jersey on you. Man up, admit that's a bigger pile of trash than Fresh Kills ever had, and face facts: Unions created the middle class in this country. The middle class in this country exists because of unions. The only reason the middle class still manages to hang on now is because of unions, because even as the level of unionization shrinks, the wages and benefits unions can obtain for their members set a standard that employers on non-unionized people have to at least approach if they want to have a stable and capable workforce.

One of my all-time favorite bumper stickers referred to unions with the line "From the people who brought you the weekend." And the 40-hour week. And sick time. And vacation time. And a pension plan. And a safe workplace. And better educated, more skilled workers. And - the list goes on at some length. All due to the simple fact that when they are united, workers have enough clout to stand up on an equal basis to the array of forces opposing them, forces which would - and before unions did - squeeze the life out of workers in pursuit of their own greed.

Which is also why self-interested, grasping, power-hungry jackasses like you, Chrissy, people to who the word "community" and the concept of reciprocal responsibility for each other's welfare mean nothing, want to destroy them.

Friday, February 25, 2011

On Wisconsin!

I haven't said anything about the events in Wisconsin - well duh, obviously I haven't - even as I have been following them closely. The latest bit, of course, is the Assembly GOPpers stripping away workers' rights in a quite literally middle-of-the-night vote and then again quite literally immediately scurrying away like the shameless cowards they are. That it was a consciously-designed maneuver to sneak in a vote before debate had finished is obvious:
Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer, R-Waukesha, opened the roll and closed it within seconds,
a time frame sufficient to allow more than enough GOPpers to vote to pass the crap while 25 of the 38 Dems got skunked. Clearly, those GOPpers knew this was coming and were waiting for it. Scummy does not begin to describe it, but labeling it as displaying "a craven yet well-founded fear of a full and open discussion with time for the public to understand and react instead of cramming 60 hours of 'debate' into three days" might make a start.

Rachel Maddow had a clip of the immediate aftermath of the vote, featuring Dems chanting "Shame! Shame!" as the GOPper skulked away. The second time it was on, during her interview with State Sen. John Erpenbach, one of the honorable Wisconsin 14, there is a moment when one of the departing GOPpers pauses as if to argue with a Democratic Assemblywoman. Immediately, someone steps between them and the GOPper behind the guy who paused gives him a "keep moving" push and all three of those guys leave. Which serves to confirm that there was indeed a pre-planned decision of "flash vote then get up and leave without talking to anyone."

Even before that bush-league ambush, it had become obvious to any observer who can see or hear or breathe that this has nothing to do with a budget shortfall and everything to do with attacking labor. This is part of a coordinated attack not only on the standard of living of the middle class (or what's left of it) but on workers' ability to sustain that middle class, on labor's right to unite to resist the class war that has been directed against them and the poor for three decades or longer.

Governor Scott Walkalloveryou made that abundantly clear all the way back on Sunday, telling Faux News that
he did not believe union leaders were really interested in giving up their benefits and cities, school districts and counties will need weakened unions to cut spending for years to come.
It's hard to get more direct than that. Even so, "Oh, but still, even there he's talking about the money!" the wingnuts screeched and the selfish wailed. "It's about the deficit!" It's hard to accept that anyone would seriously raise such transparent nonsense, but if there really was any lingering doubt about the real goal - although I can't imagine its source - Governor Walkalloveryou surely dispelled it during his appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Tuesday. Asked why he kept talking about the need to reduce benefits to state employees when the unions had already said they agreed to the cuts, cuts which amount to, on average, a rather dramatic 10% reduction in take-home pay, he lamely sputtered that no one had made that offer to him directly. But when asked a bit later if would he meet with the unions, he flatly said no - which of course makes it impossible for anyone to say it to him "directly." He can't take it seriously because no one has said it directly while he is actively preventing anyone from doing so.

This is, to put it mildly, an exceedingly dishonest man.

In that same appearance, he was asked about who else besides unionized state workers should bear part of the burden for closing the budget gap and his answer, in short, was "no one." When he was asked specifically about raising taxes on the wealthiest people in the state, well, you know what he said without even having to watch the clip: Raise taxes? Omigod! It will destroy the economy! How you even think of doing such a horrific thing to "the hardworking families" of the state? Which not only suggests that Walkalloveryou thinks that state employees are neither hardworking nor taxpayers but, recalling that the question was about taxing the richest, he is actually arguing - really, he is, and we're supposed to regard it as a serious stance - that middle-class state employees can afford to pay more but millionaires can't, that state employees have excess income but millionaires don't.

Reprise "exceedingly dishonest."

And then of course there was the phone call from "David Koch." Others have covered that quite adequately, but I bring it up because it serves to raise the issue of the shortcomings of much of the media coverage. In responding to the report of the call, Walkalloveryou lamely claimed he said nothing in that call which he hadn't said publicly. As near as I can tell, not only did the assembled press corps not burst out laughing, no one asked him when he had publicly described a plan to trick Dem state senators into coming back to the capitol in order to get a quorum or when he publicly said that he and his staff had considered sending "troublemakers" among demonstrators to cause a "ruckus" but rejected it on the purely political tactical grounds that it might backfire.

Speaking of the protests, that in turn brings up the TPer rally with its pre-printed "Pay your share" signs. I'll leave aside for now my fury at the news media which just talked about the total number of protesters on that day and it being "the first time pro-Walkalloveryou supporters turned out" without feeling it necessary to mention either that the TP rally was organized from out of state and bused in people or that the number of pro-union demonstrators utterly dwarfed the number of TPers. However, I will express my fury at a different failing: Why were none of those people, why weren't the TPers and their ilk, why weren't any of the "screw you, I got mine" crowd, asked "What's your share?"

I would like to see every one of those people asked what benefits they are going to give up to chip in toward solving "the budget crisis," what tax increases that they would have to pay are they are ready to accept, what loss of public services that affect them personally are they prepared to advocate. I'm tired of this crap of "everyone has to pitch in" actually meaning "except me." I've referred to this attitude before in the case of the rich and the attack on Social Security, but frankly it applies across the rightwing half of the board.

In fact, I want someone to ask Walkalloveryou the same thing: Governor, what are you giving up? What losses are you accepting? What sacrifices are you making? And I mean you, personally.

However, I suppose the media failure there is not surprising since it has been a failure in a number of ways. Here's another: Initially, the talk was about a $137 million shortfall. When a few people tried to argue that Walkalloveryou and his minions had driven that deficit with the tax cuts that got rammed through in the first few days of the legislative session, they got shot down with the observation that the cuts don't take effect until next year. Fine. Except that, apparently deciding that $137 million wasn't scary enough, W., et al., started talking about a $3.6 billion shortfall, a figure dutifully repeated in the press - and not once did I see that mainstream press note that that puts it into the period affected by the tax cuts and therefore that W.'s cuts do drive a significant part of that deficit. Maybe some did, but I didn't see it, any more than I saw any of them comment on the absurd behavior of the GOPpers of the state Senate, who proposed to act even without the Dems on non-budgetary matters (as in fact they can) - such as passing a tax cut for dairy farmers.

Wait - at the same time that you're screaming about deficits you're proposing more tax cuts? And this was not considered worthy of notice by our esteemed free press?

What's more, I am sick to death of hearing about the supposedly fat $48,000 paychecks that Wisconsin public school teachers get on average when that is below the median household income in Wisconsin, which is $50,000, and even further below that of Dane County (where Madison is), which is $58,000. As David Sirota says, comparing this to the failed attempt to limit CEO pay as part of the bailout of the bankers, in the corporatist-government view,
$500,000 isn't nearly enough taxpayer cash to retain government-funded bankers, but $48,000 ... is too much to pay educators.
On that same point I want to turn to David Cay Johnston, author of Perfectly Legal and Free Lunch, who argues cogently that slipshod media coverage of the workers' benefits has
created the impression that somehow the workers are getting something extra, a gift from taxpayers. They are not.
Rather, he says, the benefits are in the form of deferred wages, with whatever the state is contributing to benefits being done, according to the terms of the agreement, "on behalf of the employee." What that means more directly is that whatever the state is putting in for pensions and health insurance is money that otherwise would be paid directly to the employee.
This shows that this is just divvying up the total compensation package, so much for cash wages, so much for paid vacations, so much for retirement, etc.
His point, besides criticism of the failure of the media to realize that fact, is that Governor Walkalloveryou says he wants state workers to "contribute more" towards health and pension benefits when in fact they are already fully, even if indirectly, funding them and what he's really demanding is an outright pay cut or more technically an outright compensation cut.

Workers - to be precise, unionized state workers - must accept a 10% reduction in their standard of living while everyone else, including (or rather especially) millionaires, remain untouchable. And even if they do accept that, which they have, it's not good enough unless they also give up the ability to stand up for themselves in the future.

No wonder the rightwing scream machine is in full-throated roar about the "freeloaders" and "parasites" that teach your children, keep your house from burning down, plow your streets, watch over your health, and haul away the crap you throw out: There is a great need to keep people from thinking about what is really happening, to keep them distracted from what is being done to them. Unlike the beleaguered, befuddled, and bewildered useful idiots comprising the TPers and the dittoheads, the operators of that machine know who their real enemy is.

Footnote: PHC* has been almost completely silent on this; his one contribution was an all-but-passing remark nearly a week ago to a local media outlet that it "seems like" that Walkalloveryou is mounting "an assault" on public employee unions. Even that minimal involvement did not sit well with the GOPpers:
"I think the president should be focusing on what we're doing in Washington," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said today on NBC's Meet The Press.
Y'know, Lindsey, maybe you can give some attention only to one thing at a time, but most of the rest of us are not so intellectually stunted.

*PHC = President Hopey-Changey


Nicholas Courtney died Tuesday after a battle with cancer. He was 81.

If you don't know the name, perhaps Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart of UNIT will ring a bell.

If there is still no "Oh!" there, all I can say is you missed out. I will say that in the clip, he's the one one's not Jon Pertwee - and if that's no help it's because you don't deserve any.

"Chap with the wings. Five rounds rapid."

Footnote: As further proof as if it were needed that there is nothing rightwingers can't turn into an opportunity to take a slap at the left, the editor of blogs at the rightwing paper The Telegraph (UK) had to say in the course of noting Courtney's death that he, the editor, had recently watched some episodes of the show from the 1970s and expressed his irritation at the "Left-liberal subtext of many of the storylines." Y'know, "cringe-making" stuff like peace and understanding and environmentalism and internationalism and crap like that.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Do you see what I see?

It seems to me that often enough to deserve mention I see something or react to something in a news item that others don't see (or at least don't comment on) or to which they don't react. So out of curiosity, think about your response to this brief story, quoted in full, before you go on to my reaction, just to see if my take really is off the beaten path.
New statistics show that New York Police Department officers made 601,055 street stops of potential suspects last year.

It was the first time the total topped 600,000. The NYPD reports the figures on so-called stop and frisks to the City Council, and the 2010 numbers were made public Tuesday.

Civil rights advocates claim the practice unfairly targets blacks and other minorities, and that many stops are made without proper cause.

Police officials counter that it's essential crime-fighting tool. About 10 percent of the stops result in arrests.

In 2009, 575,304 stops were recorded.
To repeat, that's the whole article. Now, one obvious thing is that it doesn't address the issues of any potential racial disparity in the stops or lack of cause even though those were cited as objections to the practice. But here's what got me about it:

Consider first that it says that 10% of stops resulted in arrests but it doesn't say what for. The whole idea of "stop and frisk" was to search for illegal hidden weapons. Were the arrests for that? Or were they for, I dunno, drug possession (which shouldn't have been found in a frisk and could indicate an illegal search)? Outstanding warrants? Were they some bogus "contempt of cop" arrests because someone made a fuss about being stopped? What?

Consider second that it mentions only arrests but not disposition. Were the charges dismissed or pursued? If they were pursued, did they result in convictions? We have no idea.

Okay. With that in mind, here's the thing that really got me, the thing I noticed: Even if we were to assume that every one of those arrests was for a legitimate hidden weapons charge and that every such arrest resulted in a conviction, we are still left with the undeniable but unaddressed fact that the cops were wrong 90% of the time! At least!

At least nine out of every ten such stops, nine out of every ten uses of this "essential crime-fighting tool" were unnecessary, unproductive, intrusive, wasteful displays of official arrogance and power that served only to humiliate and express dominance over the victims. Nine out of every ten. At least.

I've had a number of posts that addressed issues of privacy*; in several of them (this one, for example) I expressed my concern that one real and quite possibly intended effect of practices such as this "stop and frisk" business is getting us used to being watched, checked, stopped, examined, and searched by "authority," to make passive acceptance of arbitrary authority a normal part of our lives.

How far has this penetrated our culture? How about that commercial for I think it's National Car Rental with the guy at the airport of who it's said "you can spot an amateur a mile away while you go shoeless and metal-free in seconds?" This "business pro" is being praised for how quickly and efficiently he can submit - and I've yet to come across anyone (other than my wife) who thinks that's strange! That surely is one measure.

Another measure is that at least nine out of every ten of the NYPD's increasingly-frequent uses of its "essential crime-fighting tool" of "stop and frisk" fought no crime, uncovered no wrongdoing, caught no miscreant - but that fact appears to have produced no discernible outrage. One sad but true thing about a slippery slope is that the further down you go, the more slippery it becomes.

*Just FYI: Several of the posts at that link don't deal with privacy as a topic but do use the word somewhere in the post. I know of no way to separate the two so if some of them leave you going "Why is this here?" that's why.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Um, you forgot one

I decided to consider Libya separately because there is a somewhat different dynamic here with somewhat different concerns about the outcome.

Libya has been the scene of the most violent examples of repression of the protests sweeping the region, with
[e]stimates of the total number of fatalities over six days of unprecedented unrest rang[ing] from 173 to 285. Some opposition sources gave figures as high as 500.
But it has also been the place where the protests themselves have been most violent, particularly in Benghazi in the eastern part of the country. There, Al-Jazeera reports, protesters against the 41-year long regime of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi have seized army vehicles and weapons and even some of the troops sent to quash the protest switched sides. In fact, the protesters have essentially taken control of the city with pro-government forces reduced to harassing sniper fire.
There were also reports of protesters heading to Gaddafi's compound in the city of Al-Zawia near Tripoli, with the intention of burning the building down.

Protests have also reportedly broken out in other cities, including Bayda, Derna, Tobruk and Misrata - and anti-Gaddafi graffiti adorns the walls of several cities.
A vital point about Libya is that tribal ties are still very important. Which gives extra emphasis to the statement of the head of the Al-Zuwayya tribe in eastern Libya, who has threatened to cut off oil exports from the region to the West unless there is an end to the "oppression of protesters." Meanwhile, the Warfala tribe, which lives south of Tripoli and is one of the nation's largest, has reportedly joined the anti-Qaddafi protests. A leader of the Warfala tribe said Qaddafi is "no longer a brother" and should "leave the country."

All this together - nationwide protests, what amounts to insurrection in Benghazi, rejection by one of Libya's largest tribes - without doubt creates the biggest threat to Qaddafi's rule ever, which is likely why the response has been so ugly. That repression hasn't stopped the protests, however; in fact they have spread. And that is often the turning point, when repression produces more protest rather than less.

In a predictable step, in a nationally-televised speech on Sunday night, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, Col. Qaddafi's son, offered the carrot to the military's stick, completing the triangle of threats, promises, and pleas that have been the pattern of governments unable to understand or deal with protest that doesn't melt away at the first baton. Mixed in with defiant declarations about fighting to "the last man,"
[t]he younger Gadhafi offered to put forward reforms within days that he described as a "historic national initiative" and said the regime was willing to remove some restrictions and begin discussions for a constitution. He offered to change a number of laws, including those covering the media and the penal code.
He also appealed for an end to the protests, saying that if they continued, it could lead to civil war that could send the country's oil wells up in flames and he admitted to "mistakes" in responding to protests.

The thing I found interesting about the speech, something that indicates, as similar things have in other cases, that the regime is on flimsier footing than could have been imagined just a couple of months ago was that he found it necessary both to say that the army still backed his father and to deny rumors that he had fled to Venezuela. What's more, the BBC noted, without actually saying it he
appears to be conceding that the country has already broken into two parts, with the east out of control.
That makes what's happening in Libya qualitatively different from what's happening elsewhere in the region in this wave of protest. If the Beeb's interpretation is correct, so was Seif Qaddafi's: This is becoming a civil war. Which also means that something other than a change in the form of central government may be coming; this may not be a not-at-all simple but still relatively straightforward change from a repressive government to a more open one but an outcome considerably more complex.

Qaddafi ingratiated himself with a West addicted to oil when he withdrew his support for various revolutionary (or "terrorist") groups around the world and shut down his nascent nuclear weapons program. But those same Western nations turned a blind eye to his continued violent repression of any opposition. And here, once again, our preference for stability over justice, for convenience over conscience, may well come around to bite us on the ass.

It appears to me now that there is much more of a threat than elsewhere of Libya descending into the sort of violent chaos that was feared for - but did not occur in - both Tunisia and Egypt. With the reality that the people of Libya have been given over these recent years more than enough reason to see Western nations as enablers of Qaddafi's reign, what emerges from that potential chaos and whether or not it is burningly hostile to Western people - and note the careful and conscious distinction: not Western interests, Western people - can be a matter of genuine concern.

We - by which I mean those of us who make up the actual Left in this country - are assuredly on the side of the people of Libya over their oppressors. (If you're not, you're not part of the Left.) Here as is so often true, the best course, even the politically wise course, is the just one - which means our leaders should be and their side, too. And it would be helpful if they said so.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What's goin' down

This is going to be a rather long post but as it's broken into various bits, I hope it's not overlong. As I've said any number of times, this is not a site people do (or should) look to for breaking news. Still, the events of the past week in North Africa and the Middle East can't be ignored just because I can't do minute-by-minute - hell, day-by-day - updates.

But I decided I wanted to try to give an overview of where things stand in various places in the region as of this writing, which is late on Sunday night, despite knowing it may be outdated by the time anyone reads it. Or I finish it, for that matter.

Anyway, here it is, news I found from various sources, presented alphabetically by country as if you couldn't tell, with some commentary here and there. Perhaps it will be of use to some folks.

Algeria: For the second week in a row, thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in the capital city of Algiers on Sunday. And for the second week in a row the mass rally was disrupted by riot police brandishing clubs who forced their way through the crowd, breaking it into small groups that security forces could prevent from marching.

Even so, the government moved to placate the protesters, with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika promising to lift the state of emergency, which has been in place for about 19 years, while warning that the ban on protests in Algiers would remain.

It's doubtful that would satisfy the great number of the protesters in light of the government's notorious corruption and an estimated 42% unemployment rate among young people. They have indicated an intent to march every Saturday until the main demand - an end to Bouteflika's government - is met.

Bahrain: Six days of protests were capped on Friday by three massive funeral rallies in the capital of Manama for those killed in earlier demonstrations. According to the Guardian (UK), the turnout was above 50,000 – at least 5% of the entire population of the country and over one-third that of the city.
"We don't care if they kill 5,000 of us," a protester screamed inside the forecourt of the Salmaniya hospital, which has become a staging point for Bahrain's raging youth. "The regime must fall and we will make sure it does." ...

"Down with the king, down with the Khalifas," they cried, referring to the kingdom's ruling family. Anger among the overwhelmingly Shia Muslim demonstrators towards the Sunni dynasty that has ruled Bahrain for more than 200 years is now virulent.
Even so,
"No to Sunni; no to Shia," they cried at one point. "We are all Bahraini."
Towards evening, soldiers fired on one march, wounding at least 50 and prompting Crown Prince Salman, deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces, to order the army off the streets. He also promised what one source called "a new dawn of free expression."

[v]arious sources reported that seven opposition groups demanding political reform in the country have agreed to meet to formulate a response to the government's call
for political dialogue. The opposition decided that pulling back the army and allowing protesters to re-occupy Pearl Square, the focus of previous protests from which they'd been violently driven on Thursday, was enough of a concession to engage in talks.

Iran: Supporters of the Green Movement gathered in Tehran for the second time within a week on Sunday to protest the killing of two protesters killed by police in the demonstrations on Tuesday. Thousands took part on Sunday but it was in a number of smaller groups which were met with riot police and plainclothed basiji militia who used tear gas and clubs to attack the protesters. An opposition website said that one person had been killed by police and dozens were arrested.
It was unclear how many people joined the demonstrations in Tehran on Sunday. Witnesses estimated that more than 30,000 people protested on Feb. 14, and some opposition Web sites suggested there were close to one million people. Whatever the precise turnout, these were the largest opposition protests since the disputed election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.
Reports from opposition sources say protests occurred a number of other places besides Tehran, including Shiraz, Isfahan, Tabriz, Mashhad, Sanandaj, Rasht, and in Marewan Province in the Kurdistan region.

In a laughably transparent ploy, on Saturday the government had warned people to stay away from the demonstrations because, it claimed, members of a banned opposition group planned to shoot at demonstrators in order to incite the police to do the same. There is of course no way to know how big an effect that sort of blatant threat had on the turnout, but it obviously failed to prevent the protests.

It seems to me that the movement's slogan might be "Green is Forever." The opposition in Iran has been aggressively dispersed and officially denounced - but, "God Bless the Grass," it never seems to die off completely.

Iraq: Protests of sizes ranging from dozens to thousands have broken out in numerous places in Iraq over the past week. Karbala, Nassiriya, Wasit Province, Kut, Sulaimaniya, Thi-Qar Province, Ramadi, Falluja, and of course Baghdad have seen protests.
Unlike their regional counterparts, Iraqi protesters generally have not been calling for the removal of their elected government, installed just two months ago after months of tense negotiations between political factions.
Which is true - but they are calling for jobs, better pay, and improvement in public services such as electric power and water, and in several cases have demanded the resignation of local officials, who they say are often indifferent and corrupt.

Some of the protests have been the targets of official violence, with security forces shooting demonstrators. According to the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, police killed three and wounded sixty while suppressing the demonstrations in Wasit Province. Meanwhile, several dozen have been injured in a series of clashes in Sulaimaniya in the Kurdish area and a gang of about 30 armed men broke into a local TV station that had been covering those protests, wounded a guard, and burned the equipment. The same day, fires were set at three offices of Goran, a Kurdish opposition group.

The government is clearly worried: The cabinet has announced it is taking steps toward "improv[ing] the food ration card system and ... reforming the social benefits system" as well as "launching job opportunities" and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has made moves intended to reduce the level of anger, including
cutting his pay, reducing electricity bills, buying more sugar for the national food ration programme and diverting money from fighter jets to food.
It remains to be seen if, lacking a wholesale sacking of corrupt local officials, it will be enough.

Jordan: On each of the past several Fridays there have been anti-government protest in Amman with turnouts ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. The protesters have been calling for an end to corruption, the creation of a constitutional monarchy, and the lowering of prices. The numbers are not massive but that they are happening at all is very unusual. The actions had been peaceful until this past Friday, when pro-government thugs attacked the demonstrators with clubs and metal pipes, injuring several.

Back on February 1, apparently aware of the potential for a threat to his position after what was then four weeks of demonstrations, King Abdullah II took steps intended to head off more protest. He had sacked his cabinet including the prime minister, replacing him with Marouf al-Bakhit, who is widely viewed as free of the taint of corruption. The government said Bakhit was charged with "taking practical, swift and tangible steps to launch a real political reform process." That appears to have satisfied some protesters - the rallies have been smaller of late - but clearly not all and the government may be feeling the pressure of the constant irritation of the weekly protests. This Friday may be revealing one way or the other.

Morocco: Ignoring a whisper campaign seeking to undermine their protest,
[t]housands staged rallies in Moroccan cities on Sunday demanding political reform and limits on the powers of King Mohammed VI, the latest protests demanding change that have rocked the region.
There were 4,000 people demonstrating in the capital Rabat and 4,000 more in Casablanca. Other cities including Marrakesh and Tangier also saw rallies. The calls were for political change, an end to corruption, and a democratic constitution.

Taken together, what was called an unprecedented show of political unity and strength turned out tens of thousands of protesters from various political strains despite calls from some established Islamic and socialist political parties for their members to stay home.
"We no longer want to be subjects," said Abdelilah Benabdeslam, a leader of the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights. "We want to be citizens."
Morocco is a hereditary monarchy and the king wields most official political power. Protesters want a new constitution and seemed to be calling for a constitutional monarchy - not to get rid of the king, but to limit his power. The idea of getting rid of the monarchy altogether is a social taboo in Morocco, so much so that it was the subject of that whisper campaign, which tried to portray the rallies as anti-monarchy.
The main rally in Rabat drew a massive tide of protesters that flooded the main streets and wound up before the parliament building. Unlike in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, official permission was granted for the rally. No riot police were present, and the few uniformed security forces hung back, directed traffic or chatted amicably with demonstrators.
There were a few small scuffles reported in Rabat and elsewhere, but nothing serious. Then again, there often isn't at first. We'll see what happens if it develops that the protesters aren't just blowing off steam but persist in their efforts.

Tunisia: Protests at what can be considered the epicenter of the changes in the region are continuing. Protesters are calling for further changes in the interim government, in effect standing guard against the possibility of the revolution being coopted by the old guard. Meanwhile, that interim government wants Saudi Arabia to extradite ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to face charges on "severe crimes."

Yemen: Yemen has seen nine straight days of unrest calling for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, with thousands participating in sit-ins in the cities of Ibb and Taiz and shots being fired at a demonstration in the capital Sana'a. At least 76 people, including seven soldiers, have been wounded in clashes and at least one protester has been killed.

Saleh, in power for 32 years, has called for opposition parties to continue pursuing a dialogue with his government, even as that opposition said it would join the protests, which so far have been driven largely by students at Sana'a University.

A commentator with the Inter Press news service suggested that protests in Yemen may have a problem catching fire the way they have elsewhere in the region because of "a complex context here [which] demands a different kind of political dialogue with power." The problem, simply put, is that the students don't trust either Saleh's ruling General People's Congress (GPC) or the opposition coalition known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). They regard them both as corrupt and are of the mind that the JMP is getting involved to advance its own political interests, not that of the protesters. They want the protests to remain a "march of the people without leaders and middle-persons from the ruling and opposition groups."

Frankly, that seems rather naive to me. Even if their judgment about the JMP is correct and relations with them must be approached with caution so protests don't just turn into JMP campaign rallies, seeking to deal them out entirely is unwise and makes the students easy to isolate. Not to put too fine a point on it, but when you're risking at least your future and potentially your life, turning away potential (even if temporary) allies cannot be a good idea.

"Be afraid" is always Option One

There is, of course, legitimate concern about how the revolution in Egypt will ultimately play out. While there is still good reason to think the the military will be true to its word about returning to civilian government (because, as I've argued previously, there really is no gain to the military to stay in power), there is also cause for concern, such the the military's declared intention to put and end to the strikes that arose as part of the protests.

However, our media can always find another reason to tremble. Friday's New York Times had an article that opened this way:
Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential Sunni cleric who is banned from the United States and Britain for supporting violence against Israel and American forces in Iraq, delivered his first public sermon here in 50 years on Friday, emerging as a powerful voice in the struggle to shape what kind of Egyptian state emerges from the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
So the very first thing it was felt necessary to say was "Ooh! Scary Muslim radical" and the second thing was "Ooh - Scary Muslim radical is a 'powerful voice' in shaping Egypt's future." Be afraid - be very afraid.

Then, after saying the scary Muslim radical addressed "a rapt audience of more than a million" (Ooh! Scary!), calling Qaradawi "an intellectual inspiration to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood" (Ooh! Scary!) and repeating the "supports violence" bit (Ooh! Still scary!), only then, in the seventh graph, does the article say this:
On Friday, he struck themes of democracy and pluralism, long hallmarks of his writing and preaching. He began his sermon by saying that he was discarding the customary opening “Oh Muslims,” in favor of “Oh Muslims and Copts”....

He urged the military officers governing Egypt to deliver on their promises of turning over power to “a civil government” founded on principles of pluralism, democracy and freedom. [Emphasis added.]
So the scary Muslim radical with the "powerful voice" and the "rapt audience" actually believes, according to scholars who have studied his work, that
Islamic law supports the idea of a pluralistic, multiparty, civil democracy.
But the NY Times couldn't lead with that, could it? After all, that would not have been scary.

I had to share this

I came across this when I got distracted by a link while looking for something else and found it so deliciously revealing of corporate-think that I just had to share it. Consider it another entry in the "Everything you need to know" series.

It comes from a Reuters article on the corporate outlook on the economy for the next months. In considering inflation, it notes that
[i]t is no secret that commodity-sensitive companies are feeling the pinch from rising costs and are keen to share some of the burden with shoppers.
Among those intending to raise prices is Campbell's Soup. But oh wait, no no no, they are not going to raise prices. Perish the thought. Rather, the company
expected "better pricing" in the second half of the year.
The price isn't higher, it's better. It's the New! Improved! price.

That is just hilarious. Just how stupid do they think we are? (Don't answer that.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Speaking of Avedon Carol, Three

And one more thing I came across via The Sideshow over the past couple of days.

This could - emphasize could - be really significant. Writing at Firedoglake, Cindy Kouril, a former Special Assistant US Attorney in the Southern District of New York, says that
[i]n a tour de force of dicta, a Long Island bankruptcy judge telegraphed the intention to rule against MERS in a whole bunch of pending motions.
MERS stands for Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, a private company that runs an electronic registry which in theory tracks servicing rights and ownership of mortgage loans in the US. The whole idea of the system is, not surprisingly, to save the banking and real estate industries money (and so increase profits).

To understand how - and I admit that I'm not 100% sure I've got a real grip on this but I do think I've got a basic one so I'm giving a very basic explanation - you need to realize that there are two main documents involved in taking out a loan to buy a house. One is the promissory note; that is the one that lays out the terms of the loan, how much it is, how it's supposed to be repaid, and all the rest of that. The other is the mortgage, which assigns a security interest in your home to the lender - that is, it puts the house up as collateral for the loan.

The idea behind MERS is that it will be the owner (or the owner's nominee) of the security interest indicated by the mortgage - that is, it will hold the mortgage - while the various banks, investors, and loan servicers busily bundle, re-bundle, sell, swap, trade, and otherwise move the promissory notes around to their short-term advantage. The argument is thus that because while all that is going on the security interests in the properties involved are not transferred (because MERS holds them), there is no need to file any assignments with any county land record offices. Because there were, supposedly, no such assignments, get it? So there are also no associated fees to be paid. Presto! Lower costs yielding higher profits. It's an end run around the law that John Yoo could admire.

And at least this one court is not willing to put up with it, finding that
MERS and its partners made the decision to create and operate under a business model that was designed in large part to avoid the requirements of the traditional mortgage recording process. This Court does not accept the argument that because MERS may be involved with 50% of all residential mortgages in the country, that is reason enough for this Court to turn a blind eye to the fact that this process does not comply with the law.
That is, "too big to fail" doesn't cut the mustard in this court. But I suspect that what really has the bankers and their allies worried is the issue of "fractionalization," defined by Kouril as "the process of separating ownership of the Promissory Note from ownership of the Mortgage Deed." The court said:
In simple terms the Movant relies on the argument that a note and mortgage are inseparable. ... While it is generally true that a mortgage travels a parallel path with its corresponding debt obligation, the parties in this case have adopted a process which by its very terms alters this practice where mortgages are held by MERS as “mortgagee of record.” By MERS’s own account, the Note in this case was transferred among its members, while the Mortgage remained in MERS’s name. MERS admits that the very foundation of its business model as described herein requires that the Note and Mortgage travel on divergent paths. Because the Note and Mortgage did not travel together, Movant must prove not only that it is acting on behalf of a valid assignee of the Note, but also that it is acting on behalf of the valid assignee of the Mortgage.
If that's not clear, this is what Kouril says it means and herein is the potential importance of what the court said: The court found that by the very arrangement MERS establishes, the connection between the note and the mortgage is broken and that such fractionalization ends the security interest. Yes, the debt still exists, but the house is no longer collateral for the debt. Put another way, you owe party A money, but they have no present legal claim on your house. Party B has a security interest in your house, but you don't owe them any money! So to proceed with a foreclosure, the foreclosing institution would have to show it holds both the note and the mortgage, which in many MERS-related cases is simply not true or even possible.

I should emphasize that this won't stop foreclosures, especially not in places like Florida with its imfamous "rocket docket." And just because a lender can't foreclose because it has lost - actually, has given away - its security interest in the house, doesn't mean it can't look to other legal means to seize the property to pay the debt. But at least it might - might - provide some daylight between the homes of so many of us struggling day to day to keep going and the grasping hands of Wall Street.

Footnote A: This is not the first court to question MERS' position. In August 2009, for example, in Landmark National Bank v. Kesler, the Kansas Supreme Court found that MERS was a "straw man" that served to cloud the issue of who actually owned either the promissory note or title to the property. What's more, it found that
MERS is not an economic ‘beneficiary’ under the Deed of Trust. It is owed and will collect no money from Debtors under the Note, nor will it realize the value of the Property through foreclosure of the Deed of Trust in the event the Note is not paid.
The decision only applies to Kansas, but perhaps it will guide more courts in the future.

Footnote B: Every time I see the term MERS, I can't help but think of "merser," which is the usual pronunciation of MRSA, which stands for Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a so-called "super bug" that is resistant to a wide variety of antibiotics. (I don't usually rely on Wikipedia for medical information, but I compared this with the Mayo Clinic site and the info seemed solid and more conveniently organized.)

Footnote C: If there is someone out there who has a good grip on all this and sees errors in my understanding, please do comment and/or email. I would simply ask that you recall the old admonition that "it's better to instruct than denounce." One last note, though: If all you want to do is tell me I've omitted all the glorious consumer benefits of MERS, don't bother.

Speaking of Avedon Carol, Two

The second of three things I picked up on via The Sideshow.

Writing at The Lipstick Chronicles, novelist Sarah Strohmeyer tells of her friend Melissa who died unexpectedly because the chest and back pain she was suffering was not, contrary to what she thought, a pulled muscle. It was a failing heart. "Melissa died," she wrote, "because she couldn't afford to see a doctor."

So instead of having the EKGs and blood work and other tests that might have saved her had they been done in response to her symptoms, Melissa was found in her house, dead, alone except for her beloved pet dog Daisy.
Melissa worked hard. She owned a home. She paid her taxes (late, but paid). She was trying to live a dream - the American Dream - that supposedly we as citizens are promised - the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. For her, that couldn't be achieved in a traditional job that came with the perks of health care.

But does that mean she had to die? ...

[At a time when so many have so much they simply waste it,] is it fair that Melissa Hall should lie suffering and in pain in the home she was afraid of losing by risking a trip to the emergency room?
Should fear, financial fear, ever be a deterrent to health care? Strohmeyer referred to health insurance for the self-employed Melissa as "a luxury she simply couldn't afford." In comments, Ramona wrote:
Here's the definition of luxury from the American Heritage Dictionary:

1. Something inessential but conducive to pleasure and comfort.
2. Something expensive or hard to obtain.

Neither of those should apply to seeing a doctor.
Damn straight. And note well and note clearly: The sort of health insurance reform we saw last year will not stop the creation of more Melissas because even when fully in force assuming it gets that far, there will still be those without insurance and still be those - indeed likely more of them than now - who have insurance but with deductibles so high that it will be of little use and the fear, the hindering financial fear, will still remain. Because - and I will keep saying this as long as I have breath (or a keyboard), the issue is not access to health insurance. It is access to health care.

And as long as there are still Melissas we have failed.

Footnote: Also in comments, Nancy Martin links to an article in The New Yorker which describes programs in places including Camden and Atlantic City, NJ, and Boston which are succeeding at reducing health care costs by preventive care focusing on the most vulnerable (and most expensive) patients.

Footnote Again: My wife nearly died from a heart attack. She, too, ignored her chest pain, chalking it up to stress and concealing it from her doctor and from me (we were dating, but not yet a committed couple, at the time). She now gives talks on women and heart disease, encouraging them to not ignore their symptoms and to be aware that the symptoms of heart disease in women can vary, sometimes significantly, from those for men. She recommends the book Women Are Not Small Men.

Speaking of Avedon Carol, One

The first of three more things I picked up via The Sideshow.

In December 2008, a young environmental activist named Tim DeChristopher, a student at the University of Utah, took part in a public auction for federal land. He placed the winning bid of $1.7 million for 14 of the 77 parcels up for sale, totaling 22,000 acres. His intent was to protect that land from oil and gas drilling and to protest national energy policy.

"I was concerned about the state of the environment and how little people were doing," he said in an interview. "I was building up the commitment to do something to try to resist the climate crisis. I felt that writing letters and riding my bike was not enough."

So when the opportunity to take part in the bidding arose, he took it.

One problem: He couldn't pay for his bid. It was, in fact, an act of nonviolent civil disobedience or more exactly disruption, peacefully throwing a virtual monkey wrench into the works.

Despite the fact that over the past three years there have been 25 other people who made winning bids in similar autions without being able to pay for them, only one person is being prosecuted for it: Tim DeChristopher. He has been hit with two felony charges and faces 10 years in prison and a $75,000 fine. The charges, apparently, were filed at the behest of the Bureau of Land Management and quite possibly with the collusion of the fossil fuel industry: DeChristopher's lawyer first learned of what the charges would be from an AP reporter, who learned it from an oil industry lobbyist.

His trial starts on February 28 in Salt Lake City. A website to support him has been set up under the name Bidder70; the site covers more than just his legal case and is worth a visit on general principles. There is to be a rally in SLC on the day the trial opens and there is a legal defense fund; info on both is at the site.

Certainly 10 years in prison is such an absurdly outsized punishment for the crime of causing some nuisance to those eager to serve the desires of the oil and gas industry (and to that industry itself) that it becomes clear that the filing of these charges - especially when no one else has been charged due to an inability to make good on their bid - marks them as intimidation done less to punish DeChristopher than to deter anyone else who might consider some similar action. Which of course is clearly and unjustly contrary to "let the punishment fit the crime" but hey, when you're writing the rules you can make them say whatever you want. And there are profits at stake, after all.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Everything you need to know in one sentence again

This time about the media.

Fair warning: It's not actually a quote, it's a paraphrase. It comes from The Bobblespeak Translations - What They're Really Saying When They're Saying What They're Saying. The target in this case was yesterday's This Week with Christiane Amanpour:
Amanpour: whoa ‘people power’ overthrew a 30-year dictator in Egypt so of course we will talk to Newt Gingrich
Again, not a direct quote but couldn't be more spot on.

Thanks go to Avedon at The Sideshow for the tip.

Everything you need to know in one sentence

From Bob Herbert's column in the New York Times for this past Friday:
The Obama forces reportedly want to raise a billion dollars or more for the president’s re-election bid.
I was going to say more but yeah, that sums it up.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egypt on my mind

This is not going to be some in-depth analysis. Rather, it is just some general observations. I'm not entirely happy with the clarity or insight of what follows, some of which may prove in a rather short time to be jaw-droppingly naive, but it's what I have now.

The first thing is to point out, as others have, that what happened in Egypt was essentially and almost completely a nonviolent revolution. It was a revolution driven by emotion and passion, by courage and commitment, and not by guns or murder or bombings; indeed, its nonviolence stood firm even in the face of the murderous violence of the state and even on that one day and night of stones and Molotov cocktails being tossed back and forth it did not allow itself to lose so much control as to enable the state to justify the imposition of the most massive official repression. It was a demonstration of precisely what is so often denied: the power of the people, the power of unarmed determination, the power yes of nonviolence. Watching this unfold has been, well, frankly exhilarating.

At the same time I have to say that I am thoroughly sickened by hearing praise for the nonviolence of the demonstrators come out of the mouths of those who have been the architects of so much violence, the authors of so much blood, violence against the people of Iraq, of Afghanistan, of Pakistan; of hearing that praise come from those who preferred "stability" above freedom until it was politically inconvenient, who have coddled and condoned dictators (who were, we were told, not even really dictators), who have endorsed and financed the oppressors and the occupiers.

But enough of that for now. The important question, the one that actually matters, is what now? What happens in Egypt, what happens to the hopes and ideas and ideals of the protestors?

There is still a huge "if" hanging over the whole situation. The army, which took power when Mubarak was forced out by the protests, has in the wake of his downfall repeatedly done things or made statements that can be seen as encouraging or ominous depending on how you want to interpret them, and so far there simply is not enough experience of this new situation to favor one such view over the other.

For example, the army ruling council has promised elections within six months - which is actually a fairly short time line given that it requires a new, even if interim, constitution and more importantly, if the elections really are going to be free and fair, political parties and groupings that have been repressed for so long will need some time to get organized and establish a presence in order to effectively campaign.

On the other hand, six months is more than enough time for the military to establish a direct and firm grip on the country if it is of a mind to, something Robert Fisk fears is already happening. Additionally, it is easy to read a sinister meaning into the army's statement that
it intends to retain power for six months or longer while elections are scheduled and will rule by decree,
the phrase "or longer" being a loophole more than big enough to drive a military dictatorship through, especially one that has spent those months ruling by decree.

Combine that with the calls for "stability" and a declared intention to crack down on those the army accuses of creating "chaos and disorder" ("Plus ça change?" Fisk asks.) while effectively banning strikes and you have more than enough reason for concern.

Yet it must be said that the people of Egypt largely trust and respect the military and welcomed many of the moves, such as suspending the constitution and dissolving Mubarak's rubber-stamp parliament. I think it can be reasonably said that when the military declares that it fully intends to hand over control to a civilian government, most Egyptians honestly believe it. And, being as fair as I can, it should be noted that during the protests the military on the whole - not completely, surely, as there were several reports of the military arresting and even torturing protestors and turning them over to the police, but the qualified "on the whole" - tried to avoid taking sides. Which tells us little about longer-term intentions, but does at least suggest that the army is not particularly interested in being responsible for running the country, preferring its politically (and for officers, personally) comfortable role of "respected defender of the nation" to a "new boss, just like the old boss" status. It suggests, putting it another way, that the army is prepared to back up the state, but is not so much interested in formally being the state.

On the other other hand, some of the protestors are not satisfied, angry over the retention of Mubarak's cabinet and upset at the lack - at least so far - of civilian participation in the transition planning. Some of the organizers are trying to set up a civilian council to deal with the military and establish civilian control of the changeover. In the meanwhile, some protestors - I have seen numbers ranging from "hundreds" to "a few thousand" - have sworn to remain in Tahrir Square and continue to protest until there is civilian rule. Military attempts to push them out caused some scuffling but the BBC said this afternoon that "the situation on the square has become a good-natured standoff." Which again can be seen as either damning (the army tried to push them out) or encouraging (it's reluctant to push really hard).

(A related point here which I don't think I've seen mentioned elsewhere - although I'm sure it has been - is drawn from something I wrote in a post about Egypt sometime last century, i.e., about two weeks ago: Middle-ranking officers appeared to sympathize with the protestors while soldiers on the ground freely mingled unarmed among the crowds in the square. Does the upper echelon of the military really have complete confidence that if it did order a mass crackdown that it would not face some form of rebellion from within its own ranks?)

At this point, while I'm not as sure as I was about declaring that Mubarak was on the way out, I have a fair degree of confidence that the military will be true to its word and that a civilian government will emerge. Besides wanting to cling to a Pollyanna moment - I have few enough of them - the baseline reason is that the military has no reason to fear any threat to its position or its members (particularly, as always, high-ranking officers) from a civilian government. It has not been connected in the public mind with the repression and cruelties of the past decades and there is no reason to expect any investigations or prosecutions. So I don't see where the military would see any gain, any advantage, in retaining direct power with all the hassles of dealing with an energized citizenry and the undermining of public respect and confidence that would entail.

I think another week or two will tell the story. Does the military forcibly clear Tahrir Square? Does it aggressively break strikes? Or do the "good-natured standoffs" continue? Perhaps most significantly in the short-term, there have been calls for protests on Friday to continue to press for a rapid move to civilian government and to complain about the retention of Mubarak's cabinet. If those protests look like they are going to be large, what does the military do? Does it try to repress them? Disrupt them? Or not? If that civilian council comes together, does the army talk to it? Or not?

The move for change in Egypt has scored a major, potentially an historic, victory for sheer people power. But the cause is not complete and the song has not reached its coda. Perhaps the best source of hope is that I am quite sure that the people of Egypt know that.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Everything you need to know in one headline

You might also consider this a Footnote to the preceding.

RealtyTrac, which tracks mortgage default and foreclosure data, reported recently that
foreclosure activity jumped in 149 of the country's 206 largest metropolitan areas last year.
It said the foreclosure crisis is getting worse and has entered a new phase:
"We've actually had a sea change in what's causing foreclosures, from the overheated home prices and bad loans to a second wave of foreclosures actually caused by unemployment and economic displacement," says Rick Sharga, a senior vice president at RealtyTrac.
Meanwhile, the percentage of mortgagees who are underwater, that is, who owe more on their mortgage than the property is worth, rose from 23.2% in the third quarter of 2010 to 27% at the end of the year, largely due to the continuing crash in house prices, which is largely driven in turn by the continuing bad economy.

So how does the Wall Street Journal approach that? With an article headlined
Home Affordability Returns to Pre-Bubble Levels
Because, y'see, housing prices have dropped so much that the ratio of median home prices to annual household incomes in something over half of the markets followed by Moody's Analytics is now below what it was in 2003.

Woo-hoo! Let the good times roll!

Really - they're not

If you are still prone to wondering about who is on what side, consider that besides expanding the "national security" prerogatives of the Executive branch, cutting aid to the poor, "containing" Social Security benefits, and never never raising taxes on the rich, there is something else on which the wackos and the White House agree: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
should be left to die and that their support for the housing market should wither away. ...

Federally backed Fannie and Freddie buy mortgage loans and guarantee them against default. This government guarantee has lent certainty and stability to the housing market, keeping funding available and interest rates low, at a time of severe stress. Fannie and Freddie, combined with the Federal Housing Administration, which supports low down-payment loans, have been behind more than 90 percent of new home loans in recent years.
In other words, they have expanded the possibility of home ownership to moderate- and lower-income people who never could have afforded a house otherwise and helped to secure the housing market against collapse until the greed of the bankers was too much to bear so when the giant investment houses went down, the undertow took Fannie and Freddie with them. The wingnuts have always hated them precisely because of the leverage they gave to ordinary workers and other members of the non-elite, so when the opportunity to (falsely) blame them for supposedly causing the 2008 financial meltdown arose (it would be more accurate to call them victims or at worst accessories after the fact), the wackos of course took it. What PHC's reason for agreeing to kill the firms off is less clear.

Oh, wait, maybe it's not:
"I think it's absolutely the case that the U.S. government provided too much support for housing, too strong incentives for investment in housing," Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said Friday during a speech at the Brookings Institution.
So to correct that egregious interference in The Free Market (pbui),
[t]he Obama administration wants to raise fees for borrowers and require larger down payments for home loans as part of a long-term effort to restructure the nation's housing market. ...

[T]he administration said it intends to wind down the federal mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and curtail the Federal Housing Administration to help reduce the government's outsized role in mortgage funding.
Significantly, as it did it admitted that the plan
could boost mortgage rates and make it harder for home buyers to secure the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, a mainstay of American home buying for decades.
So, in sum, the plan is for higher fees, bigger down payments, higher interest rates, and fewer fixed-rate mortgages. All to correct the supposed mistake of having helped ordinary schmucks like us buy a house by, it certainly appears, making it harder for us to get one.

This despite the fact that people who have the biggest mortgages, those in excess of $1 million, are far more likely to be delinquent than those with smaller loans (1 in 7 versus 1 in 12) and a 2008 study by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation found that
[m]ortgage defaults stem from loan products not income level....

Delinquency and foreclosure rates for subprime borrowers were comparable across all income levels, according to Michael Rubinger, LISC president/CEO.
Even Timmy G. says that part of the problem was that
the government "allowed a huge amount of basic mortgage business to shift where there was no regulation or oversight"
and even the Wall Street Journal, for pity's sake, referred to "lax lending and speculation" as inflating the housing bubble and unless you know a bunch of blue-collar or middle- and lower-income families who are housing speculators, that wouldn't seem to be directed at us.

Doesn't matter. The problem in their minds is still that all those déclassé people were helped to buy houses, when they should be grateful for the opportunity to pay someone else for the privilege of living where they do, as
[t]he report emphasized the importance of rental housing for low and moderate-income communities.
Now let me be clear: I have nothing against rental housing. I have rented and I have owned and while overall I prefer owning, the place my wife and I lived before here, a place we had hoped to live in for a long time, was a rented apartment. Rather, it's that I agree with
John Taylor, president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, [who] said his group supports the effort to expand affordable rental housing, but he feared the plan's effect on working-class home buyers who couldn't afford the higher upfront costs.
And what enrages me is the attitude, the attitude that, despite the facts of the matter, the facts that indict Wall Street avarice, corporate corruption, and financial speculation as the drivers of the burst bubble, the attitude that the real problem with the housing market is that too many non-wealthy people were able to be in it. The self-blinding hubris is breathtaking.

Fortunately, there is some pushback coming from "some influential interest groups." (Are the banks ever called an "interest group?")
They include small banks, real estate agents and consumer groups, who all say that Fannie and Freddie, or something similar, are crucial for sustaining the struggling housing market. ...

Some business groups, such as small banks and credit unions, are worried that the demise of Fannie and Freddie would allow large financial firms to dominate the mortgage market,
an even bigger concern than you may realize, considering that according to a study by researchers at Ohio State University which was released last month,
[e]ven the riskiest borrowers tend to have an easier time dealing with their home loan obligations if they got their mortgage from smaller local banks.... If two homeowners with similar credit ratings get a loan for the same amount and at the same interest rate, the one that went to their local bank will default far less often.

“The door you walk into when you’re looking for a loan matters a lot,” said Stephanie Moulton, assistant professor at OSU’s John Glenn School of Public Affairs. “Local banks seem to offer some protection to homebuyers, particularly those with low incomes who may be seen as risky borrowers.”
Which makes PHC's* plan a double whammy: harder-to-get loans from places less willing to work with you afterwards.

Bottom line:
"The administration today has laid out a series of options that could lead to the abandonment of a nearly 70-year commitment to affordable homeownership by working American families," Barry Zigas, director of housing policy for Consumer Federation of America, said in a statement. "American consumers need policies that will foster affordable, long-term fixed rate mortgages, as well as a stable supply of capital that will be available to lenders of all sizes, including community banks and credit unions."
Which is exactly what PHC would see us denied.

Footnote: Timmy G. does not want to completely abandon a federal role in the housing market. He said that
whatever path lawmakers choose for Fannie and Freddie, there must in the future be "some capacity for the government to step in and protect the economy from the collateral damage that can come from that sort of crushing deleveraging, big withdrawal of private capital that happens in crises."
That is, whenever the banks fuck up again (and they will) we taxpayers will have to jump in again in "shared sacrifice" to save their stinking asses so they never have to suffer - Perish the thought! - from their bonehead greed fetish.

*PHC = President Hopey-Changey

They still are not on your side

So on Wednesday, Sir Boner of Orange and his crew announced a series of deep cuts of $30-something billion in current federal spending, focused almost entirely on programs related to environmental protection, public support for transportation, the arts, and aid to the poor, with zero cuts aimed at the military, the wars, or corporate subsidies.

By Thursday, they had already "accede[d] to demands from conservatives" for even deeper cuts; "conservative" being the polite term, it seems, for the right wing of the right wing, making me wonder if we now are supposed to regard Sir Boner as what, a "moderate?"

By Friday, Boner, et. al., had come up with a plan to slash $61 billion in current spending, a notable degree of responsiveness to their base.

Well, still, who expected better? But what about the "other side?" What, that is, of PHC*? What hope and change is he offering in response?

According to Jacob Lew, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, it's "a five-year freeze on discretionary spending other than for national security." Remembering that unless inflation is zero, spending freezes equal benefit cuts, what does "a five-year freeze on discretionary spending other than for national security" mean in a practical sense? It means cuts focused almost entirely on programs related to environmental protection, public support for transportation, the arts, and aid to the poor. And not on war.

Is there an echo in here?

By the way, when is a freeze not a freeze? When it's an actual immediate cut - and PHC
is planning to request that funding for heating oil aid to the poor be cut in half in his upcoming budget proposal, according to several news reports.

The president would seek to reduce the Low Income Home Energy Heating Assistance Program from the current funding of $5.1 billion to $2.6 billion, the Associated Press said, citing a source familiar with the budget discussions.
Because as we all well know, hypothermia is character-building.

These people are not on your side.

What, you expected better? You expected more from those who respond to criticism from their left by calling them "fucking retards," dismissing them as the "professional left," and telling them, in pretty much just these words, to shut the fuck up and get with the program? Really?

Get a clue: They are not on your side.

*PHC = President Hopey-Changey
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