(for the other 95% of America)

Monday, January 31, 2011

Clinton Finally Uses the D-word, Democracy -- Will Mubarak Take Heed?

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton resisted calls to explicitly tell Mubarak to step down when she was on a handful of morning talk shows on Sunday, but she did for the first time in the official US response to the Egyptian unrest use the d-word, democracy. Ms. Clinton said on CNN “Both existing and any new members of any government [must] take concrete steps toward democratic and economic reform,” and highlighted the carefully calibrated “transition” wording that is now being used with regards to an end-game scenario in Egypt.

As the situation on the ground has been rapidly changing over the past few days, so too has the language that Western officials have used to show their support, or lack of it, of the aging dictator. Obama made vague mentions of support for ‘democratic aspirations’ in his State of the Union which coincided with the first few days of the unrest. The gaffe-prone Biden said on Friday that Mubarak was actually not a dictator. Now the administration seems to have adopted a new stance, stemming from the continued unrest over the weekend, which depicts an increasingly weak and fragile government. Indeed many nations all over the world are calling for some sort of democratic transition, but refraining from calling for Mubarak to step down.

Fears that a radical movement could fill the vacuum of power that Mubarak’s absence would bring reverberate throughout many foreign official's concerns of a regime change in Egypt. Many commentators are suggesting that the protests could be hijacked by fundamentalists, and would result in another Iran-like theocratic state.

While we should fear the radicalization of the presently secular protests, we should even more so fear deeper alienating the democratic process by imposing our influence over what should be a matter decided upon by Egyptians. Not Americans, not Britons, not Israelis or Chinese, but by the Egyptian people alone. Not to mention the fact that the protests seem to be largely secular anyway and that the most prominent Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has agreed to take a backseat in the forming of a new government. But US support of any one person or candidate is much more a burden than a help. The popularity of the United States is still quite low because of increasing belligerence in the region over the last decade, and if we do decide to back any one candidate over another then we will only be pushing moderate Egyptians towards radical solutions.

While US restraint on publicly stating Mubarak should step down is frustrating, especially considering we’re the country with the most leverage in Egypt given the aid we give, no other countries are calling for the dictator to step down either. No European country is saying that, nor China, nor India, or Japan either. In some respects this tact has already achieved perhaps game changing results. The New York Times reported that the "EU Institute for Security Studies said Mubarak’s regime was ‘beyond the point of reforming.’ The appointment of Omar Suleiman as vice president ‘indicates that the army, probably prodded by the U.S. administration, has accepted that Mubarak must leave.’”

Consider this statement made by British Prime Minister David Cameron: “There needs to be a proper, orderly transition to a more democratic situation, where there are greater rights, greater freedoms, better rule of law…It is very important that, whether it is President Obama or me, we are not saying who should run this country or that country.” We would do well to heed his advice and continue to limit our involvement to calling for general reform and continuing to use the military aid we give as leverage. Indeed it seems that these actions have already reaped handsome rewards.

Further Reading:

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Stunning Video Footage Shows Egyptian Military Protecting Demonstrators From Police

I wanted to post this raw footage from Cairo this morning, one day after the most violent protests in recent history. What you are watching is a group of Egyptian policemen attempting to clear a street which leads to Tahir Square, a major protest site over the past few days. The police subsequently fired shotguns into the air and the Egyptian police moved tanks in front of the rock-wielding protesters to shield them from the line of fire. If there is an onslaught of violence between the police, who are currently guarding the presidential palace, and the military, who show signs of increasingly strained relations with dictator Hosni Mubarak, we could very well see some sort of revolution take place within the next few days.

Obama May be Forced To Take a Stand on Same-Sex Marriage

Over the past two years, President Obama has managed to avoid a political showdown regarding same-sex marriage, but two pending federal lawsuits are now threatening this fragile balancing act. To date, executive officials have been upholding the Defense of Marriage Act (which denies federal recognition of same-sex marriage) by citing their duty to defend Acts of Congress. In general, the Obama Administration has previously been able to downplay 'family value' issues in the last two elections, which normally tend to get a lot of conservative voters to the polls. More attention has been put on the economy and jobs in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Democratic legislators across the country have also been grappling with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) issues concerning marriage over the past decade. California voters passed the infamous Prop 8 Law in 2008, which denied same-sex couples the short-lived right to marry -- 173 days to be exact. But Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown refused to defend the prop in court, which basically ended up nullifying the voter-passed initiative. The Obama Administration is essentially facing the same dissonance between its responsibility to defend the law of the land, or force the federal courts to prove why there has to be a separate set of laws for the gay community.

The New York Times reported today that "Some conservatives have accused the administration of throwing the fight by not invoking other arguments, like morality. And in particular, lawmakers' primary focus in 1996," (when DOMA passed), "was 'encouraging responsible procreation and child-rearing....' [but] other cases disavowed that rationale, noting that infertile heterosexuals may marry and citing studies that children raised by same-sex parents are as likely to be well-adjusted as those raised by heterosexuals."

Not only should Obama ask himself whether certain individuals' moral beliefs should be imposed onto everybody else -- which they shouldn't -- but he should also ask himself whether or not he learned anything at Harvard Law School. I find it hard to balance the fact that our president studied constitutional law at the most prestigious university in the world, and also thinks that gay people should have a 'separate' institution of marriage called civil-union, 'but equal' in that it affords them all the same rights. How can he square this rationale when everything history teaches us tells us different?

The Obama Administration has until March 11 to decide whether or not to defend DOMA. The United States is indeed exceptional, and as the president noted in the SOTU, we were the first country in history to be founded on an idea -- that all men are created equal, and possess the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hope our administration makes the decision to live up to these firmly held values.

Further Reading:
NY Times: Lawsuits on Same-Sex Marriage May Force Administration to Take a Stand

Egyptian Military is Siding With Demonstrators

Today marks the fifth day of the Egyptian uprising, and dictator Hosni Mubarak seems to be running out of options to quell the unrest. We all saw the pictures of the tumult from Friday, when the feared police attempted to violently disperse the thousands of people who took to the streets. The police used tear gas canisters, batons, rocks, water cannons, and in some cases even open fired on protesters as violence quickly escalated out of control.

But the riot police seemed to have largely failed to restore peace, and may have even fueled more anger towards the regime. Even as cell phone and internet services were cutoff and curfews were put in place, Egyptians are united like never before, setting fire to Mubarak’s ruling party headquarters, looting the Interior Ministry and state television headquarters, and setting fire to about half a dozen police stations and cars as well.

The feared police have now withdrawn from the streets to take positions around the Presidential Palace, as Mubarak tries a change of tact and has ordered the military to restore calm to the streets of Cairo. This is pretty much the last option the aging dictator has, and many see it as the last barrier between Egypt and democracy. But, two things remain unclear. One is what orders Mubarak will give the army, or has given the army with regards to the level of force that is acceptable to disperse the protests. But, more importantly, it remains unclear how the soldiers will respond to their orders, if they do respond at all.

It’s about 7:00 PM in Egypt right now, and so far the army hasn’t used violence to enforce the 4 PM curfew. News agencies are reporting many instances where the military appears to support the protesters more than the officials they are taking orders from. A soldier in Cairo reportedly addressed Egyptians with a bullhorn saying, “The army and the people will purify the country.” There was an announcement earlier Saturday saying that anybody out after curfew would be arrested, but the military is doing nothing to move the protesters out of the streets, and in some cases soldiers reportedly “smiled and shook hands with protesters and invited them up onto their tanks,” reported the Washington Post.

While the restraint could mean the military has sided with the protesters, it could also represent a new tactic by Mubarak. As the violent methods of suppression the police used largely fueled more unrest, the military is holding back on using force perhaps so protests will wither away as there doesn’t seem much to fight back against. It could also mean that Mubarak has lost control of the military, and if that’s the case then this drama will probably unravel quicker then we know it.

Further Reading:
NY Times: Egypt Protests Continue as Military Stands By

Washington Post: Cairo falls into near anarchy; army warns it will treat protesters as criminals

Friday, January 28, 2011

US Economy Shows Robust Growth -- But Who Will Take Credit, Obama or GOP?

The Commerce Department released a report today showing the US Economy sped up it's growth rate in the last quarter of 2010 to 3.2%, up from 2.6%. As Americans felt comfortable buying again during the holiday season, and businesses are increasing funding for equipment and software, economists are hoping these numbers will be coupled with investments in new workers as well.

The real story, however, will be unraveling over the next few days. And that is, who will take credit for the strong growth rate? President Obama obviously has reason to claim his policies have turned the economy around, with hundreds of pieces of legislation promoting growth to prove his point. But, I would not at all be surprised if Republicans claim the growth is due to a boost in confidence from consumers and businesses, stemming from their recent victory in November.

I hope to bring more updates on this, as it could get really juicy.

Further Reading:
NY Times: U.S. Economy Grew at 3.2% Rate in the 4th Quarter

Live Blogging Updates on Egyptian Protests Turned Violent

As I'm sure a lot of you have noticed that Egypt is dominating the news. Events are happening so quickly there it is getting hard to keep up with. Here are a couple websites that have been updating the news from the region pretty frequently. Dan Murphy, staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, has been updating this page every 20 minutes or so all day which is very helpful. Andrew Sullivan's "The Daily Dish" has also done a good job with providing commentary pretty frequently, and the Huffington Post has been providing both news and commentary updates fairly regularly.

Hawaiian Legislators Put Birther’s Claims to Rest – Obama is Not Kenyan

forged Kenyan birth certificate that circulated the conservative blogosphere

I can’t believe this is news, but Hawaiian legislators have taken steps today to ensure skeptics that President Obama was not, in fact, born in Kenya. We all remember the incredulous McCain supporters, unable to just admit that they lost. Perhaps my favorite claim was that our president is a Muslim, and even maybe a sleeper terrorist cell (?) – and with a name like that, how could it not be true? Representative Rida Labanilla, the bill’s main sponsor, said, “All these people are still doubting it because they don’t want the birth certificate from Obama. They want it from our state office.” The state is currently unable to release the records because of strong constitutional privacy protections.

But, putting these ridiculous claims to rest was only one motivating factor behind the measure. If passed, anybody will be able to acquire Obama’s birth certificate for a fee of $100. One of the main reasons the new legislation is being considered is actually to offset the time lost by state employees who frequently receive phone calls and emails from people who believe Obama was not born in the US. Hawaii is currently facing a budget deficit exceeding $800 million, and if they can make money putting these idiot's claims to rest, then fine. But that does imply that birthers follow some kind of reasonable logic, and I’m not convinced they do yet.

Further Reading:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Obama Voices Support for Tunisia in SOTU, But What About Egypt?

The civil unrest in Egypt has sent U.S. officials scrambling to explain our democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East. Under scrutiny is the policy of massive military and economic aid to brutal dictators, while at the same time claiming to advocate for political and economic reform.

President Obama, in his State of the Union address subtlety expressed support for democratic efforts in Egypt, saying “Tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people." Hilary Clinton especially, being in charge of the State Department, has been making speeches expressing support for reform in the region. The United States, she said, “have consistently raised with the Egyptian government, over many years, as well as other governments in the region, the need for reform and greater openness and participation in order to provide a better life, a better future, for the people.”

But actions speak louder than words. And when we don’t put any teeth behind these words it makes our efforts seem half-hearted and meaningless. Dictator Hosni Mubarak has been the recipient of billions of billions of military and economic aid, and that gives the US a lot of leverage over the Egyptian President. Simply asking a dictator to enforce political reforms that would essentially bring about his demise, and expecting change is just plain dumb. We owe it to ourselves, as a country founded on the idea of democracy and liberty, and to Egyptians to spend that money wisely and put conditions on aid. Without using our leverage, and possibly adding some sticks into the equation if we don’t see reform, saying that we support Egypt is a totally empty statement. If Obama is serious when he says he’ll stand with democratic movements, he should put his money where is mouth is.

History is in the making in the Middle East, and we should be sure we’re on the right side of it.

Potter Over Bailey

Well, once again we made it through that time of year when the halls are decked with holly, the five golden bells are pealing, and the elves are waxing the skids so Santa can cruise through the skies, dispensing gifts to all the good little girls and boys. That means it was also time for a thousand re-runs of It’s A Wonderful Life, the Frank Capra film that manages to pull off a Yuletide hat trick by combining capitalism, communalism, and Hollywood hokum to save the day in small town Americana. Only this year it seemed that there was something smudgy around the edges of this particular charm. Americans have come to understand that instead of rescuing Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, we have rescued Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter, the epitome of greed who drips venom instead of Christmas cheer.

How did it come to this? Rather than bail out the millions who are suffering foreclosures we bailed out those who perpetrated the fraud that led to the foreclosures. Rather than helping the needy and indigent, we are helping the coddled at the highest ends of the income bracket. Rather then reaching out a helping hand to the homeless, we have reached out a helping hand to those with multiple homes, sometimes so many that, like John McCain, they have lost count of how many they own.

We have been told by the wise sages of the economy that we had to rescue capitalism, that Wall Street would have imploded if we had not lent it a cool trillion, that those receiving taxpayer funds were deeply sorry about their financial transgressions, and that the mistakes of the past would be rectified once the money was handed over.

But doesn’t it seem a little odd that hardly any of the bullish free-marketers have acknowledged that something went drastically wrong with their foolproof system? Isn’t it true that those who most earnestly believe in the power and glory of the private sector to solve any and every problem are still acting as if the public has no right to meddle in their affairs?

Consider the following quotation from FDR inscribed on the Roosevelt Monument in Washington, D.C: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." We seemed to have flipped this credo over during the last thirty years, continually succumbing to an odd urge to ensure that the rich get richer and the poor poorer. We have waged wars while cutting taxes, an untenable economic feat completely unprecedented in its degree of foolhardiness. That such profligacy would lead to huge deficits is hardly shocking; what’s shocking is that it was done in the first place. As President Clinton once admitted, the only sacrifice the wealthy were asked to make for the war effort was to open up envelopes with their tax refunds stuck inside.

Meanwhile, the middle class is crumbling and the poor are being blissfully ignored, just as their numbers increase to startling proportions. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate for children under 18 rose from 19.0 percent to 20.7 percent in 2009, while the total number of people living in poverty stood at 43.6 million, the largest number in the 51 years that such an estimate has been published by the Bureau. Yet the poor have no funds to pour into the coffers of our politicians so, while they may be pitied, nothing is done to ameliorate their condition.

Bank profits are soaring. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, net income for banks went from $3.2.billion during the first nine months of 2009 to $53.6 billion in 2010. During the same period, millions of Americans lost their homes through foreclosure. Potter is gleeful. And we seem intent on giving him even more. Meanwhile, George Bailey seems to have disappeared. Or maybe he fled, having realized that America is no place for him, not with its citizens intent on rewarding Potter over and over again while sending his borrowers out into the cold.

Tea Party Mandate to Cut Spending Makes Exception for Defense

2010 US Budget

Incoming Tea Party representatives were elected on a wave of concern with government spending, but the elephant in the room (which is defense spending), is causing most newly elected Republicans to just simply look the other way. I posted the above graph just to prove the point that if any congressman is serious about reducing our “crushing burden of debt,” as Mr. Ryan called it in his response to the State of the Union address, you simply cannot ignore the defense budget. But, incoming representatives are finding that there is much more nuance to governing than their mantra to ‘cut, cut, cut.’

But this is just another of the many emerging struggles within the Republican Party about what direction to go in (Poll Analysis: Is the Tea Party Digging Their Own Grave?). The ‘party of no’ passed a repeal of health care reform last week, but immediately began backpedaling. Mr. Ryan went so far as to announce Republicans would now be coming out with their own health care plan as they recognize the unpopularity of the repeal. Tea Party representatives campaigned on repealing entitlements like Social Security and Medicare to reign in spending, but now that they’re in power, it seems like these unpopular stances will also take a back seat, as Mr. Ryan conveniently left these ideas out of his response as well.

The same thing is happening with defense spending. For all their fervor to come to Washington to set the country’s finances straight, Republicans are now split on whether or not to cut defense spending. Looking at what newly elected Tea Party candidates said during the campaign and what the say now, you’ll notice a divide. Representative Vicky Hartzler, a freshman from Missouri, was backed by Sarah Palin and said her main priority was to reign in spending. But, when it comes to spending for the Pentagon all of a sudden Ms. Hartzler has had a change of mind. Her district has two large military bases and is home to the B-2 Stealth Bomber and the unmanned Predator Drones. Representative Scott Rigell, a freshman from Virginia, signed onto the Tea Party platform of cutting spending, but when asked about Secretary of Defense Robert Gate’s plan to do just that, he said “The abruptness of the decision is concerning me.” Mr. Rigell now represents a district that is economically dependent on military funding.

I really don’t say this often, but I’ve got a gift for freshman representatives who act so concerned about the budget: the much beloved founders probably wouldn’t have supported a 550 billion dollar defense budget either! In fact, the founders didn’t support any kind of defense budget. Not until the early 19th century did America have a navy, let alone an army. President Thomas Jefferson finally convinced Congress to create a navy to fight off the Barbary Coast pirates in 1801. Since the tea party seems to be interested in what the founders would have to say of our present-day state of affairs, shouldn’t that extend to the nation’s defense as well?

It seems that freshman Republicans are finding that governing is not quite as easy as just saying yes, or no; there is much more gray than black or white. Will there be room for nuance in the ‘party of no?’ We’ll just have to wait and see.

Further Reading:
NY Times: G.O.P. Splits Over Plans to Cut Defense Budget

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Obama's Speech: Lot's of Promise, Little Substance

Before I delve into any commentary on the President’s State of the Union Speech, I just want to post two lists I’ve made. One is a Democratic wish list of proposals Obama made to energize the left, and another list is a Republican wish list of proposals offered as an olive branch to the right.

Democrat Wish List

·      Encouraging American innovation (biomedical research, information technology, and green technology funding)
·      Increased education funding
·      Address Immigration
·      Rebuilding America (infrastructure spending, including trains, wireless coverage, roads, airports, construction, etc)
·      Take away oil companies’ tax breaks to use for environmental technology research
·      Bring the troops home from Afghanistan by July of this year.

Republican Wish List

·      Less government regulation of financial markets
·      Reform specific parts of health care reform
·      Reform medical malpractice laws
·      Reduce the deficit by freezing annual spending for 5 years (Obama also mentioned cutting Medicare and Medicaid)

Now, granted, it’s been all over the media for the past few days that Obama’s speech would turn to the center, with one eye on the 2012 elections. But what I was surprised at was at his uncomfortably overt way of doing this. Looking at the lists above, it almost seems like they were made by two separate candidates. Sure there were the lofty remarks, the patriotic rhetoric, the call to set aside our differences and work together to achieve a more perfect union.

What threw me off was this laundry list of totally paradoxical policies. How in the world do we increase spending for education, for infrastructure, for green energy, and at the same time freeze annual spending for 5 years? The answer can be found in the paradoxical beliefs of the American people. Americans overwhelmingly support spending cuts over tax increases, when given the choice. But, when asked about what exactly we would cut out of our budget, Americans are hesitant, and Obama danced along that fine line of “investing” in America’s future, but also not cutting any programs that Americans feel attached too to pay for it.

While Obama made a pot shot at Republicans who are vying for the number one contender’s seat for a chance at the Presidency, saying “At stake right now is not who wins the next election, because didn’t we just have an election?” It was very hard to explain what Obama’s speech was if not a campaign speech; it was very light on policy proposals, and heavy on the rhetoric.  The New York Times deftly noted, “The president who once emphasized the problems he had inherited from his predecessor was instead looking forward and making the case that the nation had a long last emerged from economic crisis.” Perhaps a possible campaign slogan for 2012: There’s still hope!

I have to say even if it was not my favorite campaign speech, especially as a liberal voter, after watching the two Republican responses I was pleasantly surprised by the State of the Union's superiority. I’ll have more on those speeches later today.

Further Reading:

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

US Government is Main Culprit in Financial Meltdown, Inquiry Concludes

Inquiry Commission Chairman, Phil Angelides

A damning inquiry into the 2008 financial crisis released today is essentially a broad indictment of Wall Street and our government that supposedly regulates the financial markets. But, perhaps most damning of all, is the fact there was absolutely no bi-partisan support on the 10-member commission, foreshadowing the fact that while reform may be necessary to avoid another major financial catastrophe, reform will probably be shelved until the next time the issue is brought to the public’s attention. Like, for example, if there is another recession or depression.

One of the most striking things in the report is not the moral ineptitude, or greed of the financial institutions, but the fact that the very institutions designed to regulate Wall Street nurtured this excessive risk-taking culture. In large part we have simply reaped what we have sewn. The Fed, which is supposed to regulate Wall Street, has basically been a revolving door for financial executives for decades, and the chairman Alan Greenspan (until 2006) didn’t even believe in regulation.

While President Bush’s administration is criticized for failing to recognize a crisis was at hand, and then failing to provide a consistent response, President Clinton has also come under heavy fire. The deregulation of derivatives in 2000 under Clinton is called “a key turning point in the march toward the financial crisis.” In addition, the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 (I hope you don’t have to get out your history book to see the irony in the date) was also repealed under Clinton, which played a huge role in the creation of companies that were, and still are, ‘too big to fail.’

In the conclusion of the report, the panel notes, “The greatest tragedy would be to accept the refrain that no one could have seen this coming and thus nothing could have been done… If we accept this notion, it will happen again.” But, given the complete lack of enthusiasm for financial reform in the new House of Representatives, nothing could very well be done. I find it extremely frustrating that for all Republican’s talk of ‘free enterprise’ and less government intervention, these very ideas have led to companies who cannot fail – something so inherently contradictory to the idea of a free market. To add to that, less oversight has led to one of the biggest government interventions in history.

I’m not really sure what’s more disgusting, Republican hypocrites, or two-faced Democrats.

Further Reading:
NY Times: Financial Meltdown Was 'Avoidable,' Inquiry Concludes

Massive Protests Rock Egypt

Tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets today to protest against the government, led by dictator Hosni Mubarak for the last 30 years. Three people died in the civil unrest, including one soldier and two protesters.

Revolutions tend to come in waves, and it's hard not to draw a link from the unrest to the protests that rocked Tunisia before its leaders fled. At least six people have set themselves on fire in Egypt, in imitation of Tunisian dissident Mohamed Bouazizi. The government has since gone to the extraordinary length of forbidding gas stations to sell to people who are not in cars.

Many of the marchers captured the clashes with cellphone cameras, like these:

Further Reading:

NY Times: Broad Protests Across Egypt Focus Fury On Mubarak 



Facing Austerity Measures, British Economy Contracts

At a time when Americans are debating how best to reduce the deficit, we would do well to take a look at how Britain is grappling with the same problem of cutting mounting deficits. It was reported today that the British economy contracted by 0.5% in the fourth quarter of 2010, after projections showed the GDP would grow by 0.5%. The figures coming out should raise a lot of questions about how effective drastic spending cuts are for a sluggish economy. But, the British are only experiencing the onset of the austerity measures, as more of the cuts are being implemented this year.

I can’t help thinking this is one of those, ‘I told you so’ moments. Some government officials are actually attempting to find scapegoats for the shrinking economic numbers, the most popular one being the weather. Wait, what? So the economy would have been booming if it hadn’t been for that darned weather? To be fair, freezing temperatures in Britain forced some workers to stay home, but can’t these ‘brilliant’ economists account for probably the single most predictable event – the changing of seasons? Apparently not.

Americans should be looking for reactions from House Republicans, as they proposed very similar cuts to our own government last week. The thinking goes that as public expenditures are cut, the private sector will fill in the vacuum. But the private sector has shown extreme weariness in filling in that vacuum, even though GDP figures have been inching up since 2009. Today’s report should leave us even more skeptical of the belief that the private sector will save the day.

Some economists, like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, have warned us that if we don’t invest enough money in growth-oriented government services (transportation, construction, manufacturing, utilities, research, etc) then we could very well see a double-dip recession. If the sluggish figures being churned out of the Britain are in fact not due to the weather, and are the beginnings of another recession, then they will likely be far worse off at the end of the next quarter as more cuts are to be implemented.

Other economists are skeptical about the new numbers coming out, though. Andrew Goodwin, an economic advisor at Ernst & Young, told the NY Times today “We really do find it difficult to believe that the economy is really weak as these figures suggest.” Ernst & Young is currently being sued by the state of New York for helping Lehman Brothers cover up its demise before it collapsed in 2008.

Further Reading:

Monday, January 24, 2011

Israel Absolves Itself of Wrongdoing in Raid

Gaza-bound aid flotilla

An inquiry commission appointed by the Israeli government found today that the Navy “was in conformity with customary international law,” when it raided a Turkish aid flotilla last May. Nine people were killed, including one Turkish-American, as the elite Israeli commando unit’s raid violently stopped the ships from reaching the Gaza Strip, one of the most poverty-stricken regions of the world.

Also in the news today, a Hezbollah commission found they had no role in the assassination of President Hariri in 2005, a North Korean inquiry found that they didn’t, in fact, shell a S. Korean island, and China has absolved itself of all human rights abuses. We can finally rest assured! Or… not. Does Israel actually expect the world to believe a criminal investigation of one’s self is impartial?

One other thing about this incident that makes me angry is how exactly did a group of peace activists pose a threat to an elite Israeli commando unit. We’re talking about one of the most highly trained military units in the entire world, armed to the teeth, versus peace activists wielding blunt objects and knives. The Israelis claim that the activists disarmed some of the commandos and used the firearms against the invading force. I’m sorry, but did they forget to mention these were super hero peace activists? Were these perhaps the most deadly hippies the world has ever seen? They must have decades of training in hand to hand combat if they managed to disarm some of the most feared elite commando units in the world, who were armed with multiple weapons and had air support.

It sounds like a crooked LAPD unit that’s used too much force in a police situation. The cop plants a gun in the victim's hand, shoots another cop in a non-fatal place so as to seem there was a struggle, and voila! Just like in the movies.

Luckily the Israeli inquiry is not the only commission that is looking into the matter. The UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission found the raid to be “clearly unlawful,” and that its actions “constituted grave violations of human rights law and international law.” Another UN backed panel is conducting an inquiry as well.

But at the end of the day what’s another international decision finding Israel violated international law? Just throw it on the heap with the rest of ‘em. The fact is that the US, not the international community, is the only governing body that has leverage over Israel. I don’t see any progress on this front until at least after 2012, since it’s political anathema for a lame-duck President to take sides against Israel. The only other scenario where this situation gets resolved is if Israel and Palestine come to the table themselves – like that’s ever going to happen.

Further Reading:

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Afghanistan’s President Karzai Prevents Constitutional Crisis

President Hamid Karzai

Afghani President Hamid Karzai agreed to allow the new Parliament to convene for the first time this coming Wednesday. This brings a sigh of relief to the Afghani people and also the international community at large, who poured some 150 million dollars into the election to insure its fairness. I myself wrote in these pages a few days ago that unless something was worked out there would be a crisis of some sorts (Election Fraud in Afghanistan Throws Country into Tumult). Soon after I wrote that, the newly elected representatives issued a standoff with their president, saying they would convene anyway, which would have caused a constitutional crisis since only the President can authorize the convening of Parliament.

Mr. Karzai seems to have understood he over-reached, as he scrambled back to his country yesterday from an official visit to Russia. He then invited 249 elected members to lunch at the Presidential Palace, where after hours of negotiation all but 11 of the members signed an agreement to convene this week.

Well, now that the mess of electing a governing body has been cleared up, all there is left to do is actually govern.

Arizona’s 2011 Budget Includes Massive Cutbacks for Mental Health

Gabrielle Giffords

Arizona’s Governor, Jan Brewer, released a budget proposal last week that keeps in place a 2010 proposal to halve funding for the Department of Health and Human Services, reducing assistance for about 14,000 mentally ill patients. Also in the budget proposal is a plan to roll back Medicaid, which would cutback services for another 5,000 mentally ill patients.

For many it seems like a slap in the face, since the lack of mental health services in Arizona is probably one of the primary reasons Jared Laughner, the young man who committed the shooting in Tucson, never got the help he so desperately and obviously needed. But, the budget proposal claims, “Making painful decisions about how to fund and who will receive health and welfare services is critical to balancing the state budget.” In fact many governors around the country are being forced to make cutbacks in the face of growing debt. Newly elected California Governor Jerry Brown says, “Wherever I look, it’s not pretty… None of it looks good, but tell me how else to draw the lines. It’s pretty much a zero-sum game.”

Although state debt is very real right now, we would be well served to take a look at the history of mental health institutions in America. Has it always been so underfunded? And if not, then where the heck did all the money go? The answer can be found in the era of Reagonomics, or the trickle-down theory. In an era of somewhat unstable economic times, President Reagan did what no president had done in decades – he redistributed the wealth in the country to the haves in the hopes that it would jump start the economy. The age of reasonable corporate tax rates were over (they went from 70% to 28%), the age of massive corporate welfare had begun (and continues to this day), and meanwhile social programs were considered an afterthought.

Not surprisingly, mental health institutions took a big hit. One of the first things President Reagan did in office was to rescind the Mental Health Systems Act, a revolutionary piece of legislation passed by Jimmy Carter that provided federal guidelines for mental health institutions. As a result, individual states were left to come up with their own guidelines, where reforms were often only marginally addressed, if at all.

Now look where we are. Is there really no money for mental health? No, there’s not. But there is money for tens of billions of dollars of tax breaks for Fortune 500 companies every year. And, oh yeah, we better give almost a trillion dollars to some bankers, auto companies, investment firms, and insurance companies. And of course all the multi-millionaires still need their tax-cuts. And even President Obama several days ago wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal bemoaning more regulations for those poor, poor corporations (the piece, ironically enough, came out the same day that Citigroup reported their first quarterly profit since 2008).

We need to ask ourselves do these corporations REALLY need the money? Do they need the money as much as the families who lost loved ones in the shooting need their daughter, husband, father, or mother back? Do they really need the money more than the tens of thousands of people who die in this country every single year from totally preventable causes because they can’t afford healthcare?

At some point conservatives and liberals will need to make the choice of whether or not social programs should be an afterthought, or an integral part of our society.

GOP Targets Abortion, Ignoring Mandate for Jobs and Economy

Pro-life advocates all across the country are stepping up their efforts to chip away at abortion rights at the federal and state level. Many are particularly incensed that Republicans have totally misread their mandate (if you even want to call it that).  Nancy Keenan, President of Naral Pro-Choice America said, “The 2010 elections were about jobs and the economy. It was not an endorsement of an anti-choice agenda.”

Efforts in the House of Representatives are underway to pass their third piece of legislation, HR 3 (the low number signifies its high priority). The bill, “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” is an effort to reduce federal abortion funding that was put in place with health care reform.

But, opponents rightfully claim, it’s not even clear that Obamacare does that. Before the historic health care reform passed last year, 87% of insurance plans already included an option for abortion coverage. So this new law is actually not stripping away pro-choice rights from the health care law, but stripping away abortion rights that were already available before 2009.

Efforts to pass pro-life legislation are also taking off at the state level. The election in November not only changed the make-up of the Capital, but of state legislators and state capitals as well. There are now 29 pro-life governors, up from 21, and 15 states with both a pro-life governor and legislator, up from 10.

The newly elected legislators are united in making progress on three fronts: (1) pushing women to review an ultrasound of the fetus, (2) cutbacks in insurance coverage, and (3) tighter regulations of late-term abortions. Whether or not this will actually prevent abortions is a whole other subject that deserves wider scrutiny. It will most likely push women to perform an abortion themselves, or turn to an underground market, both of which would put women at much greater risk to their health. Doctors will also have to make tough decisions, and be forced to wait before providing abortions until the women become dangerously ill so the operation can be legally performed. We’ll also probably see more cases of mothers simply abandoning their babies. Besides these truly scary worst-case scenarios, there is just something inherently arrogant and disgusting about people trying to impose their moral beliefs onto others through guilt and fear.

Even though there is a sizeable portion of America that is pro-life, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a backlash from the public. So far newly elected Republicans have focused on many pieces of legislation that the voters simply do not support – like repealing health care, and cutting Medicaid and Social Security. The new House has also, at the same time, neglected to bring up the issues that that they largely got elected to address – jobs and the economy. Even if pro-lifers do make great strides over the next few years, it could very well being a Pyrrhic victory, costing them dearly in 2012.

Further Reading:

Friday, January 21, 2011

North and South Korea: Inevitable Rivals?

Kim Jong Il

North and South Korea took preliminary steps to continue a dialogue between the two nations today, which would then be followed by another round of six-party talks (meetings involving both Koreas, their neighbors, and the US). While this is definitely a positive sign that N. Korea will finally apologize for the sinking of a S. Korean navy ship and the shelling of an island, most are rightly skeptical of any meaningful, lasting agreement.

The recent breakthrough is largely due to pressure from the Chinese President Hu Jintao, who is currently on an official visit here. China is probably the only nation that has leverage against N. Korea, since it the nation that the dictatorship in Pyongyang trades most with. But the Chinese also have strong interest in not making any progress, providing them a kind of buffer zone against a sea of neighbors who are all increasingly and aggressively balancing against the rising behemoth.

This makes diplomacy that much harder in the region since China is really the only country with sway over N. Korea, and is in no hurry to rid the region of really their only valuable partner. Surrounded by South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, India, Russia, Indonesia, Australia, and America all working to counter Chinese growing influence in the area, N. Korea provides an obvious asset.

While it is well and good President Jintao made a gesture towards the peace process, when the day is over we’ll probably just be right back where we started. Much like the recent diplomatic breakthrough with Iran, there is really only a marginal possibility of a breakthrough – the best we can do is to simply cross our fingers.

Further reading:

Poll Analysis: Is the Tea Party Digging Their Own Grave?

Tea Party's Christine O'Donnell

Last November when Republicans took back the house, many progressives were rightfully gloomy. Our President had done much of what we asked him, passing more legislation than any other president since Lyndon Johnson. And while we knew our concerns about the economy, the environment, and the historic health care bill would take a back seat, many expressed optimism that the tea party Congress would pull the Republican Party even further away from the center.

That is exactly what is happening.

Four polls have been released this week showing many new revelations on what the American public thinks of the new House of Representatives. A Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that while a slim majority of Americans don’t like the health care bill, only a small minority of Americans want to fully repeal the bill. Of the Republicans who don’t support Obamacare only 1/3 of them want to repeal it in totality. On the other side, most Democrats support the health care bill – and the ones that don’t believe it didn’t go far enough towards not-for-profit health care.

The other new poll done by the NY Times/CBS News shows that while Americans favor spending cuts over tax increases, we also do not favor cuts when they involve Medicaid and Social Security. Yet that is exactly what Republicans have endorsed in their call yesterday to enact legislation that drastically reduces government spending. Republicans are now divided amongst themselves on how to move forward. About 2/3 of the House Republicans support this legislation, including all of the newly elected tea party activists, which pits them against John Boehner and the ‘old-guard’ Republicans.

Another poll released this week shows President Obama enjoying a surge of support from the American public. Now, I don’t want to jump to conclusions, because this could very well be in response to the tragic shooting in Tucson. Many Presidents enjoy short surges of support during a national crises. The poll could, however, represent the fact that the tea party is pulling Republicans far to the right just in time for the 2012 elections. So the surge is not from the national tragedy, but from independents and moderate conservatives who voted Republican last November and have now changed their mind.

The bottom line is that America’s top priority right now is jobs, and if the Republicans continue to offer incompetent solutions, the Republican victory in November may well be a boon for Democrats in 2012. Let’s look at one last poll: the top three GOP Presidential contenders for 2012. Newt Gingrich (a washed up political hack), Mitt Romney (a Mormon, and not that I care but America has never elected a non-Christian), Sarah Palin (where do I even begin?), and then there is Barack Obama, one of the most respected and admired presidents this nation has seen since probably Ronald Reagan or FDR.

I, for one, am optimistic.

Further Reading:

New Round of Talks with Iran; Is Iran at a Breaking Point?

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Today Irani officials will meet with their US counterparts and other permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany. The last round of talks in December produced no binding statements or agreements except to meet again today. Moreover, after more than 30 years of sanctions Western diplomats and the public at large have been conditioned to have low expectations of any meaningful advancement.

In fact the policy of enforcing sanctions on countries over the past few decades has an extremely poor track record (think N. Korea, Cuba, or Iraq). This has led many commentators to begin theorizing about not how to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, but how to contain Iran once it inevitably has the ability to use such weapons.

Given my own low expectations of a breakthrough I have also given that thought, but it also must be acknowledged that if Iran were to acquire the technology and material capability to launch nukes it would create a strong possibility of igniting a nuclear arms race in the region. As if the Middle East is not volatile enough.

On a more optimistic note, there have been several promising signs that Iran is at a breaking point where it could be forced to confront economic, political, and military realities. Over the past month the state has been dealt several major setbacks and is coming to the table in a much weaker position than December.

The Stuxnet virus, apparently planted at a nuclear enrichment plant by deep undercover Israeli agents, has destroyed as much as 20% of Iran’s enriched uranium. This makes Iran look incredibly weak and may have bought the west several more years before the state has full nuclear capabilities. Also recently, Iran was forced to reduce massive fuel and food subsidies for the Iranian people. This is important for two reasons: one, it means the sanctions are working, and two, growing concern about food prices in the Middle East has led to protests that have rocked several states in the region. This directly feeds into the other major setback for Ian – the revolution in Tunisia. Pretty much all leaders in the region are extremely concerned about the current political climate, but Iran is more so because of these other compounding factors.

Of course these are all only possibilities, and given the history of diplomacy between the West and Iran there is not much to be optimistic about. But there is no doubt that Iran is closer to its breaking point than ever before; the only question is what happens after that.

Further Reading:
NY Times : Iran Talks Set to Resume

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Do Critiques of the Healthcare Plan Add Up?

The LA Times came out with a really splendid Q & A article this morning on the GOP critiques of the healthcare legislation. So if you want to know what to say to your nutty Republican uncle or neighbor, or just want to be up to date on whether or not the critiques add up and if not why, then this is a great place to start. It deals specifically with the arguments that the law will kill jobs and increase the deficit.

LA Times: Behind the Arguments for Healthcare Repeal

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Election Fraud in Afghanistan Throws Country into Tumult

President Hamid Karzai today ordered the delay of the new Parliament by another month, which would bring the total months the state has gone without a parliament to five. International backers, who have invested millions of dollars into monitoring and validating the elections, insist the results are valid despite the uncovering of widespread fraud.

Had Mr. Karzai acknowledged that the election were indeed valid, and allowed the new Parliament to be inaugurated, then the Pashtuns (an ethnic group which Mr. Karzai belongs to) would have lost their majority. In the past this body of representatives acted as a virtual rubber stamp for the President’s policies. This conflict of interest makes Mr. Karzai’s concerns of election fraud seem corrupt at best, and dictatorial at worst. Many Western diplomats have been scrambling to persuade the President to inaugurate the parliament. Western officials speaking on condition of anonymity to the New York Times wondered “Is a delay the endgame, or is it no parliament for another year that’s the endgame, or is it a throw-out of Parliament altogether?”

Not only would this have massive repercussions for the legitimacy of the government by Afghanis and by the international community, but it could also threaten to heave the country into violent political protests and upheaval. A loss on the good governance front could also play directly into the hands of fundamentalist Islamists, who argue that an Islamic approach to government would be better for Afghans.

The election committee in charge of certifying the results has said that the results are final and there is no legal mechanism for changing that. Fortunately for Mr. Karzai, Afghanistan is so corrupt, there are always ‘extra legal’ ways of getting things done. One thing he has done along these lines is appoint a “special court” to investigate the fraud (I use quotations because according to the Afghan constitution this court is completely illegal). This same special court is the one responsible for the request to delay the inauguration.

So this is what ten years, billions and trillions of dollars, thousands upon thousands of lives, and the loss of international prestige has bought us??? So much for democracy in Afghanistan.

Further Reading:

New Poll Shows More Support For Obamacare Than Previously Thought

Since the passage of the health care bill last year, the American public’s views of the legislation has remained pretty evenly entrenched. Most polls that the mainstream media have conducted show about 45% supporting the bill, and 50% opposed (Fox News poll and NBC/WSJ poll)

But a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that there is much less consensus among those who oppose the bill than previously thought, especially as to whether or not to fully repeal health care legislation. This is of huge importance to our representatives (or it should be) who will be voting on the bill within the next few weeks.

The new poll shows that of those who do not support the law, only 33% support its total repeal, 35 % support a partial repeal, and 30% want to wait-and-see what happens. About 2/3’s of Republicans surveyed wanted the law repealed (at least partly), and about ¼ of all opposed to the law are against it because it doesn’t go far enough (towards not-for-profit health care).

As we can see, support for the health care bill is much more nuanced than simply up or down. If the new poll is taken into account, then in fact 77% of Americans do not want to repeal Obamacare, or at least in its entirety, and only 16% do.

At this point I can only hope that House Republicans will take their constituent’s concerns seriously, although there doesn’t seem to be much room for nuance in the ‘party of no.’

Further Reading:
Huffington Post: Health Care Poll Finds Decreasing Republican Support...
Daily Kos: Obama Does Not Need to Move to Center

Let Us Now Praise Inaccessibility

Let us now praise inaccessibility. Let us raise our voices high for being out of touch and off the communicative grid, at least to some degree.
I do not have a cell phone. Neither do I twitter or blog. Facebook knows not my face or my name.

I can hear it now: What’s wrong with this poor slob? How does he exist? Where does he live? ln a cave? Some hut in Siberia? Is he a hermit? Or merely a technically inefficient cultural clod?

I had a cell phone, once. But I left it in my blue jeans and it went through the washing machine. Once rinsed and spun, the phone was very clean but no longer quite operational. That was over three years ago. What was intended to be a brief vacation from the phone has turned into a long love affair with inaccessibility. Just think of it. No one knows where I am. How mysterious! What solitude!

And, here’s the kicker, I am married with three children.
What irresponsibility, I hear you say, to leave your children without immediate access to their dad.

Okay, here’s one qualifier that may redeem me: my boys are 33, 23, and 18; they’re on their own, at least to a certain degree. However, even if they were younger, of what value is my instant accessibility?

But what about an emergency: suppose your son breaks his leg?

My reasoned response is: What, am I a doctor or something? Do I know how to set a leg? Am I a fireman? A cop? An EMT? What good am I in an emergency? I’ll find out about that broken leg soon enough.

Now I admit: my profession (or lack of one, as some of the more callous amongst you may say) allows me the freedom of this inaccessibility. I am a graduate student in geography at UCLA. Went back to school at age 54 and now I’m just a dissertation shy of a PhD. Okay, so if I was a real estate or theatrical agent, or an attorney or a doctor, I admit it would be extremely difficult to get by without a cell phone. But I am a student; therefore, I have a certain liberty that others may not enjoy. I appreciate that. Still, even given my unusual status, there are not many people doing anything these days, no matter how impractical or trivial their pursuits may seem to be, who go without instant access, 24 hours a day.

And what exactly does that instant access get them? Well, let me tell you, I overhear many a memorable call while strolling across the UCLA campus; allow me to share a few. First there’s the call with absolutely zero content, inconsequential to the nth degree, and then there’s its opposite, the ubiquitous TMI call, shockers bruited as if no one else in the world exists..

And are you so sure you want your whereabouts traceable 24 hours a day? What that translates into is that every demographic marketer, every Internet entrepreneur, every wife, every husband, and every police officer has the ability to discover your location and reap the whirlwind of the consequences. Just thought I should throw that in. Not that I’m doing anything wrong, mind you.

OK, I know, I’m on the losing end of history. Cell phones are here to stay. I’m a dinosaur, heaving away in the antediluvian mud. But try out a little inaccessibility some time. There’s a whole mysterious world of solitude out there, just waiting for your silent arrival.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Supreme Court Will Not Revive D.C. Same-Sex Marriage Law

Today the Supreme Court declined to renew a lawsuit to continue a voter initiative in Washington D.C. to ban same-sex marriage. The D.C. Appeals Court decided it wouldn’t allow a voter initiative because it could cause discrimination based on sexual orientation.

This is a huge win for gay/lesbian activists in the area, where same-sex marriage was legalized last year. The decision marks the second time an appeals court has successfully struck down a same-sex marriage ban by voter initiative (the other being California’s Proposition 8).

The case in DC, however, is markedly different because the Appeals Court has stepped in the way of the voter initiative process itself. Proponents of the referendum say that only Congress has the power to set policy on ballot initiatives. This is indeed a fine line the Appeals Court is crossing, and one of the biggest conundrums about voter initiatives -- how is the judicial branch supposed to act if voters want to enact an initiative that is unconstitutional?

Should states be allowed to submit referendums stating that, since blue-eyed people are better than brown-eyed people, they get more tax breaks? Should states even give voters the option to vote on initiatives? Should the general public be entrusted to make policies that affect the lives of millions of people?

It seems to me that we should let politicians do the policy-making. Isn’t that what we pay them for?

Further Reading:
Huffington Post: Supreme Court Rejects Appeal Over DC Same-Sex Marriage Law
Washington Post: Supreme Court refuses to revive effort to put D.C...

'Job-Killing' or 'People-Saving' Healthcare?

Republican strategists never fail to amaze me with their ability to frame debates around issues that affect Americans. Usually the Democrats are not as well apt at this as their counterparts are, but the White House today made a slam dunk in their efforts to reframe the debate on healthcare.

Today the Secretary of Health and Human Services released a study showing that as many as 129 million Americans who have pre-existing health conditions will have to pay for as much as two to three times the amount for healthcare insurance than they would without the healthcare bill, and that's only if they are not completely rejected by the healthcare companies. The fact is that for profit healthcare insurance will not voluntarily cover people who have a higher chance of getting sick. I mean come on, how cost-effective is it to take care of sick people? Where's the money in that?

Reading the news about this study today was a sigh of relief. Republicans have managed to deflect debate over the healthcare bill (see video), and instead debate over the wording of the bill. Should the phrase ‘job-killing’ be in the bill? Is it too soon to use a charged word like ‘killing’ after the tragedy in Tucson? Do we need to tone down the rhetoric? Should Republicans and Democrats sit together during the State of the Union speech? This is what you have been reading in the news for the past week, while we should have been having a debate on the issues. Healthcare will obviously, as we see from this study, have a negative impact on millions of people’s lives, and the bill will probably create jobs not 'kill them.' Democrats should be excited that we may as a nation have a REAL debate.

But that’s exactly what Republicans don’t want. Denying healthcare to over a hundred million Americans is not a winning strategy, so the Republicans have simply changed the topic.

The Obama administration has done the nation a huge service in reframing the debate. Let the Republicans talk about the ‘job-killing’ bill, and lets talk about the ‘people-saving’ healthcare bill. Do you enjoy living? Breathing? Waking up in the morning? Then you’re going to need healthcare.

Further Reading: