Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Can Climate Change Sell Candy? Should It?

It seems that ad agencies are glomming on to global warming as a cool new way to sell products.

I’m not talking about the oil company ads that want us to believe that ExxonMobil or BP or Shell are environmentally conscious and seeking non-fossil fuel energy sources even as they continue to pump out millions and millions of gallons of products that continue to pollute the planet each year, and generate record profits in the process.

Nope. I am talking about something completely different: Selling candy to babies (regardless of their age).

Imagine my surprise last night while watching the Red Sox-Angels game to see my screen suddenly turn a bright, glowing orange during a commercial break. Framed in a deep yellow, up came the words “Stop Global Warming Now” followed by a dissolve to a second screen in the same colors with the words “Or All The Reese’s Pieces Will Melt” appearing along with a shot of candy with the chocolate turning all runny and gooey.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before some 23 year old creative director earning a half-million dollars a year said to a client, “Hey! Let’s show the real impact of global warming. All the chocolate will melt!” And the idiot client clapped their hands together and shouted “Great idea! Finally something positive to come from climate change!”

Madison Avenue has never been loathe taking the low road to sell anything. But the destruction of the planet probably is going too far, even for the vast bulk of the advertising industry.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

This Is A War Hero?

For decades, John McCain actively cultivated the image of a “warrior” and “war hero,” the genuine article, toting that carefully crafted impression around like a Louis Vittuon carry-all. The problem is that the supposedly genuine Vittuon actually is a cheap knock-off, a piece of counterfeit luggage that has no more in common with the genuine article than I have with McCain himself.

After years of McCain perpetuating the myth, it’s time someone publicly calls McCain what he is: An exaggerator of his military experience and fabricator of his status as war hero.

To bastardize a distasteful line he unwrapped this week, McCain would rather win a campaign than be honest about his wartime experience.

In fact, the record shows that the Man Who Would Be President was a not-very-good Naval Academy student who preferred parties to studying and graduated in the bottom five of his Annapolis class; a mediocre pilot who crashed three jet fighters during training before being shipped out to ‘Nam where he crashed a fourth; an insubordinate junior officer who got shot down over Hanoi because he disobeyed direct orders to abandon his 23rd mission and return the A-4 Skyhawk he flew to the USS Forrestal; and, as a POW, willingly provided so much intelligence – admittedly, bits of it false – and co-operated so extensively with the North Vietnamese in exchange for favourable treatment over a three year period that his fellow prisoners at the Hanoi Hilton gave him the derisive nickname “Songbird.” In propaganda aimed at the US, the North Vietnamese even used his nickname in a news release about McCain, not understanding it was an insult by prisoners who were disgusted with his behaviour.

Put bluntly, the closest John McCain has ever come to a war hero was when he sat on his grandfather’s lap as a child. The first John McCain commanded naval aviation at the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The candidate’s father, also an Admiral named John, commanded American forces in Vietnam for a time.

In other words, John McCain III (or “Johnny Three Sticks” as a Republican Senate aid called him when being interviewed for this post) not only changes his positions on substantive issues in the campaign, he totally changes the reality of his “service to my country.” No wonder he seems to have so much trouble staying on message as a candidate; he can’t keep the story of his life straight.

In the process of repeatedly violating the Military Code of Conduct while a POW, he placed other naval airmen in jeopardy. Unclassified North Vietnamese and Pentagon records confirm that he provided Hanoi with detailed information about the number of airplanes on the Forrestal, flight paths into and out of North Viet Nam, how targets were selected, the positioning of rescue ships and the success rate of attacks from fighter-bombers based on his carrier. As far as can be discovered, the only thing he deceived the North Vietnamese about was the names of the pilots with whom he flew, for which he substituted the names of the Green Bay Packer’s offensive linemen. McCain has dined out on the Green Bay Packer story for decades, omitting the other, less noble, portions of his captivity.

If the fact that his father and grandfather were Annapolis grads kept him from being booted out of the Navy, then his family background also contributed to McCain being awarded 28 medals including a Silver Star, a Legion of Merit for Valor, a Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze stars, two commendation medals, and a dozen other service medals. But he only flew 23 missions – which amounts to a medal-and-a-half for roughly every hour he flew in combat.

“There were infantry guys – grunts on the ground – who had more than 7,000 hours in combat,” explains Bill Bell, a veteran of Vietnam and former chief of the U.S. Office for POW/MIA Affairs – the first official US representative in Vietnam since the 1973 fall of Saigon.

“I can tell you that there were times and situations where I’m sure a prison cell would have looked pretty good to them by comparison,” Bell states. “But the question really is how many guys got that number of medals for not being shot down."

Eventually, even the Navy was on to McCain. He left the service after being told twice that he would not be made an Admiral like his father and grandfather.

For years, McCain has been an unchecked master at manipulating an overly friendly and oft-times biased news media. The former POW turned Congressman, turned U.S. Senator, turned Presidential candidate, has managed to gloss over his failures as a pilot and his collaboration with the enemy to become America’s POW-hero presidential candidate.

UPDATE: To see what would happen, I posted this as a comment to a posting about McCain's war record at RedState.com, the conservative blog. Not surprisingly, my comment was deleted (and my account closed) within 90 minutes of when it first appeared on RedState.

This says mountains about the right wing.

Why do we see conservative rebuttal comments on sites such as Huffington Post, AlterNet, Daily Kos etc., but conservative sites censor anything that factually challenges their unfounded rants?

Oh, wait. In the question lies the answer.

Viet Nam Veterans Against McCain provided some research for this item.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

British Parliament Calls Bush, US, Liars

Hear that tearing noise? It's the so-called “Special Relationship” between the US and England being torn to shreds. Why? Because Britain says it no longer believes what the American government says about torture. In other words, to England our government is run by liars.

That’s the remarkable conclusion of a Parliamentary committee’s report published today in London. It also calls for an immediate investigation into allegations that the UK government “outsourced” torture of its own nationals to Pakistan.

In a damning criticism of US integrity, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said ministers should no longer take at face value statements from senior politicians, including George Bush, that America does not torture in the light of the CIA admitting it used “waterboarding,” unreservedly condemned by Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who called it torture.

A change in approach would have implications for extradition of prisoners to the US, especially in terror or security cases, as the UK has signed the UN convention which bars sending individuals to nations where they are at risk of being tortured.

The committee report said there were 'serious implications' of the striking inconsistencies between British ministers continuing to believe the Bush administration when it denies using torture. “The UK can no longer rely on US assurances that it does not use torture, and we recommend that the government does not rely on such assurances in the future,” the committee said. “We also recommend that the government should immediately carry out an exhaustive analysis of current US interrogation techniques on the basis of such information as is publicly available or which can be supplied by the US.”

It also urges the government to press the US authorities for information on whether any American military flights landing in the UK were part of the 'rendition circuit', even if they did not have detainees on board at the time.

The government has repeatedly accepted US assurances that UK territory has not been used for rendition, the extra-judicial transfer of suspects between countries. But in February, Miliband told the Commons he was told by the US that two rendition planes refuelled on the British territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

The MPs also urged the Foreign Office to investigate a report in The Guardian that six British nationals claimed to have been detained and tortured by the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency, where they were also interrogated by British intelligence officers.

It’s not so much that someone else has joined the long queue of people who know that George Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain and their friends in high places are liars; it’s that another country, an ally and close friend, has figured it out and said so publicly.

What, oh what, have we become?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Please, Not Another "C" Student In The White House!

John McCain believes that Czechoslovakia is still a country, despite the fact that it has not been for 15 years. Actually, he believes it so earnestly he’s repeated it twice in less than a week. This makes him the type of person that one might charitably describe as a dum-dum.

I know what some readers are thinking: "Hell, I didn't know Czechoslovakia isn't a country anymore, either – and, darn it, I'm no dum-dum!" Well, maybe you are and maybe you aren't, but it's rather beside the point since you're not running to be the President of the United States, the most globally important job on the planet.

Unfortunately, for a whole lot of reasons, McCain is – and that means he probably ought to have a passing familiarity with the goings-on in Europe over the last couple of decades. After all, it's a rather important continent and serious stuff happens there. It's totally in the Top 10, at least.

So what's he been spending his time learning these last 15 years?

Surely not how to navigate the internets – despite how remarkable they are – given that he's a self-described computer "illiterate who has to rely on [his] wife for all of the assistance that [he] can get" and doesn’t do e-mail. And he definitely hasn't been spending time boning up on the economy or foreign policy (he still can’t keep Shiia’s and Sunni’s straight despite Joe Lieberman’s whispered explanations) or basic sex ed. I'm just not sure exactly what his feisty little noggin's been up to with the exception of learning during his thwarted presidential run in 2000 that, when Karl Rove trashes your family, the only appropriate response if you want to be president some day is, "Thank you, sir. May I have another?"

By this point, perhaps some of you are thinking: "Oh, big deal. So he doesn't know Czechoslovakia doesn't exist anymore. Whoopty-doo. Not everyone's an A student, you brown-nosing geography nerd."

True, not everyone is.

The thing is we've given the leadership-of-the-nation-to-the-C-student thing a try. And it didn't work out so well. Maybe we could try shooting for something a little higher this time?

My fellow Americans, let's have a little dignity and expect more of our president than we expect of ourselves.

It's really OK if you didn't get the memo about Czeko, although a daily dose of international news never hurt anyone, with the possible exception of Archduke Ferdinand. But it's really not OK that John McCain didn't – and it's alright to hold him to a higher standard. In fact, I firmly support the idea that, at least once in awhile, the president should be the smartest person in the room.

BREAKING NEWS: US-Iran Re-establishing Diplomatic Ties

A breaking report from Ewan MacAskill, Washington, DC, bureau chief for The Guardian, claims that the United States and Iran are in the process of establishing formal diplomatic relations - a distinct turnaround of Bush administration policy regarding Iran. The report does not cite a source for the information, but claims that, within a month, there will be an announcement of an agreement to "establish a US interests section in Tehran," a major step toward establishing a full embassy.

The Associated Press and The Washington Post have apparently received similar information, but have not yet named a source.

This is the very same policy Barack Obama has urged all along and Pres. Bush dismissed as "appeasement" not six weeks ago.

McCain Loses Lead Among Men, Is 7 Points Down

As the economy worsens and people are increasingly concerned – even frightened – about their financial future, Barack Obama is the clear political benefactor.

Just as Bill Clinton benefited in 1992 from a feeling of economic malaise in the country, Obama is gaining an advantage from the public’s telling pollsters the economy is their number one worry. Of course, the vast majority of Americans are convinced that the Iraq War has worsened the country's economic posture, so the two are not unrelated.

A new Reuters/Zogby poll reports today:

“Dissatisfaction with U.S. economic policy continues to increase, with 89% who now view the nation’s economic policy as fair or poor, up from 84% who said the same last month – 55% now give U.S. economic policy a “poor” rating. The vast majority of Democrats (96%) and political independents (91%) have a negative view of the nation’s economic policy, while 80% of Republicans now share those feelings, an increase from 71% who said the same in June.”

Republicans who think the relative decline in violence in Iraq will save their bacon should remember that the Gulf War was an unambiguous win for Bush Sr., but he still lost to Clinton. A disaster following upon a major catastrophe is a much worse platform on which to campaign than the one Bush Sr. had. Of course, the crisis in the Gulf was politically ambiguous because it had put back up petroleum prices from $9 a barrel in 1986 to over $40 in 1991.

In any case, in 1992 the American public was just not that concerned with the victory over Iraq in Kuwait; they were worried about a real estate bust and a recession. The S&L scandal, which cost the public $100-billion and occurred because the Republican had fired the auditors of these financial institutions and coddled the white collar criminals who funded their campaigns, was fresh in people's minds. McCain, of course, was close to a major figure in that S&L scandal.

The current bank scandals, stemming in no small part from the Republican Party's tendency to weaken or ignore regulations constraining corruption in big business, thus promoting fraud on a vast scale, coupled with the spike in oil prices and anxieties around recession all must strike anyone who lived through 1992 as eerily familiar.

There is even a third party challenge by Bob Barr that may take votes away from McCain just as Ross Perot took them away from Bush Sr. rather than Clinton on a 2-to-1 ratio.

The Zogby/Reuters poll confirms why voters are moving towards Obama and away from McCain.

“Obama continues to maintain his lead over Republican John McCain in the race for U.S. President and is viewed as the candidate who could best manage the U.S. economy – even as nearly half of likely voters list the economy as their top election issue . . . Obama leads McCain, 47% to 40%, with 13% saying they prefer someone else or are not yet sure about their selection in the race — just a slight shift from June’s survey, when Obama led McCain 47% to 42%. While Obama maintains a significant lead among women, among men the candidates are now deadlocked at 44%, erasing the six-point lead among men McCain held in June.”

A seven point lead is well beyond the margin of error. And so is the erasure of McCain's lead among men. If the men are splitting their vote, Obama will win, since the women favour him by a significant margin. Again, something like that happened with Clinton.

Clinton and Obama are both policy wonks, seen as people they could trust to handle the economy – unlike Bush and McCain, who are seen as all about giveaways to the rich, their own social class. But Clinton and Obama are also hunks, whom men admire for their lithe physical stature and over whom women swoon.

In a bad economy, Americans seem to want to be led not so much by a man on a white horse as by a brilliant hunk from the party that didn’t make a mess of the family finances by destroying the economy.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

So Much For The Myth Of Canada The Good …

Yesterday, lawyers for Gitmo detainee Omar Khadr won a major court victory in Canada when the Supreme Court ruled the Canadian government must release videos of its security service agents interrogating Khadr.

Khadr, who was 15 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan by American forces in 2001, was hustled off to Guantanamo where he has languished ever since. After several years in custody, the Canadian government was finally allowed to interview him – although Ottawa never made getting to see Khadr a priority. But rather than send counsellor officials, a doctor and lawyers once permission was granted, it sent a pair of secret service operatives who he agreed to see only because they promised they could help get him home.

The tape is appalling. It's on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNCyrFV2G_0

Once he realised he’d been tricked, Khadr, who was by then 16, broke down and could not stop crying. Left alone by the interrogators, who told him to pull himself together, he kept sobbing uncontrollably, rocking back and forth and muttering to himself. The audio makes it hard to decipher what he's saying. To me and many others who watched the video it sounds like "help me." Others heard, "kill me." An Arabic-speaking friend of mine wondered if he was saying, "Oh, my mother" – "Ya ummi" – not very likely since English is his first language.

Whatever he was trying to say, the scene is hard to view, exactly what his lawyers wanted. Nathan Whitling and Dennis Edney hoped the video would outrage a previously indifferent public and federal government. They had spent years launching legal challenges, finally winning a Supreme Court case in May that forced the Conservative government to hand over the recording.

After the tape’s release, Prime Minister Stephen Harper reiterated the same government lines he's used for years: Canada will not interfere in the U.S. justice system, implicitly suggesting that the federal government respects Guantanamo's controversial military commissions but not answering questions about its legality directly.

Nor would he address questions from reporters about Khadr's treatment or Canada's involvement in his interrogations.

Others called for Khadr's outright release – something Khadr's lawyers themselves have not suggested, offering instead a gradual re-integration into society that involves psychological and religious rehabilitation.

Yesterday's revelations are by far the most visceral that have been released and were carried around the world because it's the first time any Guantanamo detainee has been seen undergoing interrogation. But yesterday wasn't the first time that Khadr's allegations of abuse have been heard. At a press conference in Toronto three years ago, Edney told reporters that Khadr's American captors had shackled his hands and legs together and used the teenager as a "human mop" to soak up a pool of his own urine.

So much for myth of Canada the good, the caring, the world’s refuge.

International civil rights groups have decried Khadr's detention and trial due to his age. He was 15 when he was detained in Afghanistan but has not been considered a child soldier, as required by the Geneva Conventions and how he would have been if he was captured in foreign conflicts such as those in Africa or South Asia.

A Guantanamo kangaroo court rejected an argument that Khadr's charges should be dismissed because international law protects children under the age of 18. But the issue still resonates in legal and human rights circles. A UN committee denounced the trial of a minor; Canadian Senator Roméo Dallaire and former child soldier Ishmael Beah are among those who have warned that the U.S. will set a dangerous precedent by trying someone who was a child at the time of his alleged war crimes.

Shame on Prime Minister Harper and the Canadian government for being a willing, on-going party to the psychological torture and illegal detention of a child who is a Canadian citizen.

He must be brought back to Canada and, if sufficient genuine evidence (as opposed to evidence gained through physical or psychological torture) exists, charged in a court of law. His lawyers must have access to all evidence obtained by the Americans after his capture – including anything considered "sensitive." Khdar must have the right to confront his accusers in an open court, before a jury that will decide his guilt or innocence. Most of all, he needs psychological help.

Today, all Canadians are Omar Khadr. Americans are, too. If the Harper government can conspire with the war crimes of George Bush in the case of Mr. Khdar, then it is conspiring against all of us and in our name.

When I watched the video, I wept for him and for all of us.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Looming Trap In Afghanistan Awaits The Unwary

In an Op-Ed piece in this morning’s New York Times, Barack Obama says he wants to be out of Iraq by the summer of 2010 but wants to send 10,000 extra troops to Afghanistan.

Obama's editorial is thoughtful and far more sensible than anything we are hearing from the White House or McCain, and I agree with most of it. But I have one quibble and one major critique. The quibble is that Obama talks about leaving a small American force in Iraq after most of the troops are withdrawn, to continue to fight "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia."

This isn’t plausible for several reasons. If there is only a small force in the country, who will rescue them if their helicopter gets shot down or they are ambushed and besieged? How would a small American unit be any good against a terrorist organization operating in remote parts of Sunni Iraq? They don't know Arabic, don’t understand tribal rivalries and can't hope for really good intelligence from locals.

Wouldn't it be more efficient to let the Special Police Commandos of the Iraqi Interior Ministry take care of this sort of thing? By the way, Juan Cole reports that no one seems to be calling themselves "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" any more on the jihadi bulletin boards. The main fundamentalist vigilante group is the "Islamic State of Iraq."

And then there is the problem that the Iraqis are demanding veto power over US operations in Iraq, a demand that will only grow with time. If they don't concur that a Sunni group are terrorists, Baghdad could just keep the US unit cooling its heels. It is precisely over issues such as Iraqi demands that US troops get permission before acting that has totally derailed negotiations between Bush and al-Maliki on a Status of Forces agreement, according to The Washington Post. Now the two leaders seem likely to do just some quick and dirty executive-to-executive understanding that may not last past Bush's last day in office. So the Iraqis are unlikely to want a special forces unit of the sort Senator Obama envisages running around Iraq at will.

Anyway, it will be over with by then. Iraqis want their sovereignty back.

The way to get out of Iraq is to get out of Iraq.

The major critique I have is that Obama keeps talking about intensifying the search and destroy missions being carried out by US troops in Pushtun areas of southern Afghanistan. We should have learned in Vietnam: Search and destroy missions only alienate the local population and drive people into the arms of the insurgency.

The cost of such guerrilla struggles is high. On Sunday, Pushtun guerillas attacked a remote base manned by US troops under NATO command; nine Americans were killed and another 15 wounded. Many more "Taliban" were no doubt killed. But the evidence is that the Afghan insurgents are getting better at fighting the US.

When was the last time that an al-Qaeda operative was captured in Afghanistan by US forces? Is that really what US troops are doing there, looking for al-Qaeda? Wouldn't we hear more about it if they were having successes in that regard? What is reported in the press is that they are fighting "Taliban." But I'm not so sure these Pushtun rural guerrillas are proper Taliban (which means 'seminary student.') The original Taliban have been mostly displaced as refugees into Pakistan. These 'neo-Taliban' don't seem to have that background. A lot of them seem to be just disgruntled Pushtun villagers in places like Uruzgan.

There has also been a rise of suicide bombings in Afghanistan, on a scale never before seen. Robert Pape has demonstrated that suicide bombings typically are carried out by people who think their country is under foreign military occupation. If the US keeps sending more troops, how will that really calm things down?

I don't know whether Senator Obama really wants to try occupying Afghanistan militarily even more than is now being attempted. I wish he would first talk to some old Russian officers who were there in the 1980s. Of course, it may be that this announced strategy is political and for the purposes of having something to say when McCain accuses him of surrendering in Iraq.

If the Afghanistan gambit is sincere, I don't think it is good geostrategy. Afghanistan is far less winnable even than Iraq. If playing it up is politics, then it is dangerous politics. Presidents can become captive of their own record and end up having to commit to things because they made strong representations about them to the public.

Search and destroy in Afghanistan is an awful example of going overboard. My advice to his campaign team is to give more thought to how he can take a strong enough position on an issue to win on it, without giving away the whole store.

We who admire him don't want Afghanistan to become an albatross around the neck of a President Obama. I am old enough to remember one of the things that nearly killed the Democrats as a presidential party was the way Lyndon Johnson let himself get roped into gradually ramping up the number of US troops in Vietnam from a small force to 500,000, and then still not win.

Afghan tribes are fractious. They've been feuding for centuries. Their territory is vast and rugged, and they know it like the back of their hands. Afghans are Jeffersonians in the sense that they want a light touch from the central government, and heavy handedness drives them into rebellion. Stand up Karzai's army and air force, give him some billions to bribe the tribal chiefs, and let him apply the carrot and stick himself. We need to get out of there. "Al-Qaeda" was always Bin Laden's hype. He wanted to get us on the ground there so that the Mujahideen could bleed us the way they did the Soviets. It is a trap.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Why There'll Always Be An England ...

In reading The Independent on-line this morning, I was reminded again of why there’ll always be an England.

It ran an article on the Haltemprice-Howden by-election in which David Davis was returned to Parliament by a 15,000 vote majority. In case it slipped your notice, Davis was the Conservative Party's shadow Home Secretary who resigned to protest his party's vote with the Labour government extending the detention period of "terrorism suspects" to 42 days without having to charge them or bring them before a magistrate.

What made me sit up and take note (besides the photo of the strikingly beautiful and distressingly young Gemma Davis, one of the losing candidates, alongside the winner) was the complete list of 26 candidates standing for election and vast array of party affiliations. Mad-Cow Girl of the Looney Party got nearly as many votes as Ms. Davis and her Miss Great Britain Party. I was amazed that 44 people in the riding thought the Elvis Party’s David Bishop should represent them in Parliament. And poor Tony Farnon and Norman Scarth: Receiving only eight votes each probably meant they had more people sign the petition to put them on the ballot than actually voted for them. It reminded me of an episode of The Vicar of Dibley in which Geraldine stood against David Horton for counsellor.

When I moved to Canada, it took me two or three elections to become accustomed to having candidates from four or five parties on a ballot: Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats, the Greens and the Bloc Quebecois, which actually only puts up candidates in Québec.

The Conservatives, which used to be called the Progressive Conservatives before it was the Reform Party which morphed into the Canadian Alliance before some smoke-filled room machinations turned it back into the Conservative Party again, run a minority government headed by Stephen Harper. Harper is a dim bulb who idolises George Bush. In group photos at the recent G8 summit, Harper always stood awkwardly at the end of the line, looking a bit like the accountant who came in to tally the books and found himself being invited by accident to stay for lunch.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

More From Mukasey's Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight

This morning, Juan Cole writes in Salon about plans working their way through the Justice Dept. that would fundamentally change the way the FBI can investigate American citizens and legal residents. Forget “probable cause” that someone has committed a crime as the basis for opening a file. The new rules, which are set to be implemented next month, allow agents to establish a terrorist profile or pattern of behavior and attributes and, on the basis of that profile, start investigating an individual or group. Agents would be permitted to ask “open-ended questions” concerning the activities of Muslim Americans and Arab-Americans. A person's travel and occupation, as well as race or ethnicity, could be grounds for opening a national security investigation.

The problem is that the FBI and Justice Dept. usually acts like The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight in combatting terrorism. The 14 Miami "terrorists" who actually only wanted new boots and a bit of cash, and the Detroit "jihadists" who were acquitted because there was no evidence of anything remotely connected to terrorism in their possession shows the folly of profiling and the incompetence of G-men as they bumble and stumble around fighting the so-called "war on terror" like characters from a Laurel and Hardy movie.

The new Justice Dept. plans should be more aptly called "The Government's War on American's Rights and Liberties."

The problem always has been that, as the FBI follows its decades-long pattern of ignoring the Constitution and any semblance of recognising civil liberties, innocent people find their lives disrupted at best and ruined at worst. Remember the FBI helping Joe McCarthy chase "Commies" in the 1950s, or spying on peace activitists in the 1960s and 1970s, or chasing down names on Nixon's "enemies list"?

Now it's the turn of people with brown-ish hued skin and funny sounding names who practice a "suspect" religion to fall under the cataract-blurred gaze of America’s law enforcers.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey joins his illustrious predecessor Alberto Gonzales in helping Bush and Cheney continue to shred what, in 2001, Bush called "just a Goddamned piece of paper." He meant the United States Constitution.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Yankee Go Home!

So now the Iraqi foreign minister has joined with the country’s prime minister to call for at least a timetable if not a set date for American troops to get out of their country.

Iraq was expected to be the key issue in the 2008 presidential election. Instead, opinion polls tend to show that it is the second most important issue, after the economy. That second place showing does not justify the decision of corporate television news to deep-six the Iraq story. It is still the number one issue for 25% of Americans, or 75-million people. Moreover, 71% of Americans think that the Iraq debacle was one reason for the bad economy. So when they name the latter as the most important issue a lot of them are rolling the two issues into one.

Iraq is still central to the campaign and people are fooling themselves if they say otherwise. But it isn't playing out as expected.

The major debate the Republicans were looking forward to having revolved around the success of the troop escalation of 2007 and 2008. They want to argue that the escalation showed that Iraq is not an unwinnable war and that counter-insurgency techniques could tamp down violence. Therefore, there was no reason for the next president to withdraw US troops.

Moreover, McCain argued, if the US withdrew from Iraq, "al-Qaeda" would take over the country and use it as a base to attack the American mainland. A timetable for withdrawal was both unnecessarily defeatist and also highly unwise, they were saying. They completely ignored the political yields expected of the troop escalation, most of which have not materialized, concentrating only on death statistics.

The idea that a tiny fringe terrorist group hated by Shiites and is not even popular with Sunni Arab Iraqis could take over a largely Shiite country with a large Kurdish minority was always daft. That McCain says it is a possibility gives reason to seriously question whether he has the judgment to be president. But even Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of US forces in Northern Iraq, says al-Qaeda is defeated in his area of operations.

"Defeat means they're not capable of major offensive operations … We don't think al Qaeda has that anymore. All the cities that we have in the northern part of Iraq, I think have been secured . . . We're literally in the post-Gettysburg phase of this … We have defeated them in the city. They have dispersed to the desert, now we are pursuing them out into their safe havens: small villages and towns."

Hertling specifically gave the credit for this victory to a change in the esprit de corps of the Iraqi Army. I have always said that "al-Qaeda in Iraq" was over-hyped, and that it would be defeated because it chose a sectarian rather than a nationalist strategy.

So how likely is it that "al-Qaeda" is going to take over anything substantial in Iraq, with or without US troops? It was always a silly idea: Even if the Shiites and Kurds would not have massacred them, the Turks, Syrians and Jordanians would have. But Hertling's comments underline how silly that scenario is.

By the way, the American public never bought McCain's terror-mongering. In February more thought al-Qaeda was more likely to attack the US if it kept troops in Iraq than if it withdrew. Some 16% thought it made no difference, and 56% thought it was either more dangerous to stay in Iraq than to leave, or thought it was a wash. Only 38% thought that a withdrawal from Iraq increased the danger of a terror hit on the US.

Given the way Republicans and McCain have crafted the narrative of Iraq as being all about "al-Qaeda," for that organization to disappear from the front pages would be a cruel blow to the McCain campaign. Without it, there is no justification for the US to remain in Iraq.

Almost as bad is for the Iraqi government to align its position with that of the Obama campaign. McCain increasingly looks like he is stuck in 2007, and Obama looks more and more like the man of the future. That conclusion is the opposite of the GOP's spin on Obama, but then they have never understood colonialism or what is wrong with it. Or why Iraqi's march through the streets of Baghdad and other major cities chanting "Yankee Go Home!" in demonstrations nearly every Friday after prayer services.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

McCain Campaign Tramples Free Speech – Here’s A Legal Way To Fight Back

Update At Bottom of Post

It’s time to start harassing the McCain campaign, which has no interest in free speech and harasses people who try exercising it.

A 61-year-old librarian was ejected from what was billed as a public McCain campaign event at the Denver Center of Performing Arts in Denver on July 7. The reason? She she was brandishing a deadly weapon: A hand-lettered sign that read "McCain=Bush."

Carol Kreck was standing outside the building, which is located on city property. When she was asked to either discard the sign or get out, Ms. Kreck objected, saying she was standing on city property. Check the video at YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lyaMrS0hzk

She was led away by police officers and ticketed for trespassing. As she was being removed, Kreck asked if was being arrested. The officer answered, "Yes."

There is a way around this, if we organize.

One approach is to have a T-shirt printed with McCain=Bush and wear it under a shirt to enter the event. Once McCain is on-stage, remove your sport shirt to reveal the sign. Yellow letters on a dark blue background show up best.

A second, more direct, approach is to come prepared with questions for the “town hall” gathering. When McCain asks for questions, stand up and ask him a question about contradictions in his stand about Iraq, taxes, the environment, health care, the middle class. But a warning: Do your homework and come prepared because McCain will simply deny saying it. Use the back-up in framing your question because you won’t get a chance to ask a follow-up.

“Sen. McCain, on Feb.1, 2008, you said this. Then on March 20, 2008 you said just the opposite. Yesterday you said a third thing. If you don’t remember saying these things, I can tell you where to find them on YouTube. So what is your position today?”

If a number of your friends invade the McCain campaign town halls with their Q&A’s, the local press will report it and, eventually, the travelling press corps will begin to notice and cover McCain’s reaction. A possible bonus: One of us might set off his hair-trigger temper in public.

Be assertive, demand an answer but be polite.
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July 10, 2008 -- Yesterday, a Viet Nam vet confronted McCain at a Town Hall meeting in Denver to ask why he has voted against improving veterans benefits. McCain didn't answer the question but talked instead about old approval ratings from the VFW. The questioner came right back offering to list the specific pieces of Veterans legislation McCain voted against. Turning angry, McCain replied, "I'll look into why your version of what I did runs counter to mine" and moved on to a friendlier question.

Iraq Preparing For US Withdrawal

The White House is scrambling to spin the truth, a major occupation of Bush’s minions. On Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said he wants a hard date for withdrawal of US troops from the country. So, yesterday, the White House insisted that talks on a Status of Forces Agreement does not mention such a timeline.

So with 65% of Americans and from 60% to 70% of Iraqi’s wanting US troops out, it seems the only people who want to keep American soldiers in Iraq are George Bush, Dick Cheney and John McCain.

Al-Maliki is under pressure from cleric Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr to seek such a timetable. Thousands of Iraqis demonstrated Friday against the SOFA negotiations on the grounds that they surrendered too much of Iraq's sovereignty.

Meanwhile, the Baghdad newspaper al-Hayat reports that Sadrist aide Liwa' Sumaisim praised al-Maliki's statement as a "positive development" and said that the Sadr Movement was ready to support it. Moreover, Iraqi MP Jalal al-Din Saghir said that the latest proposed draft of the SOFA from the American side left a great deal to be desired.

A highly placed Iraqi source told al-Hayat that a study had been completed a month ago on a US withdrawal from Iraq. He said that the American negotiators had not forbidden it and that they were aware that Barack Obama might win the presidency. Obama has pledged to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Here's a question for you: If Iraq is a sovereign nation, why would its government need US permission to conduct a study?

So much for the surge’s so-called “success,” and every day McClatchy carries reports of violence all around the country. Yesterday, the US media overlooked Sunni Arab guerrillas launching a violent campaign in provincial Iraq. They fired mortars at the mansion of the governor in Mosul. They wounded the mayor of Kirkuk. There were also several attacks on members of the Awakening Councils formed under the auspices of the US.

Yesterday alone, there were 11 separate acts of violence across Iraq, according to McClatchy, killing 16 civilians and wounding another 42. Oh, yeah. The surge is really helping.

Tell McCain To Stop Lying.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, I suppose. After all, the McCain campaign has used misstatements, half-truths and outright lies throughout its campaign. Yesterday, for example, McCain gave a speech in which he repeated the misleading attack that “Senator Obama will raise your taxes.”

“We need to keep the IRS from taking more of your income and making life harder for small business. If you believe you should pay more taxes, I am the wrong candidate for you. Senator Obama is your man. The choice in this election is stark and simple. Senator Obama will raise your taxes. I won't. I will cut them where I can. Jobs are the most important thing our economy creates. When you raise taxes in a bad economy you eliminate jobs. I'm not going to let that happen. Senator Obama's tax increases will hurt the economy even more, and destroy jobs across this country.”

In reality, Senator Obama’s plan will not raise taxes and will provide a bigger break for middle class Americans than McCain’s plan. As numerous outside observers agree, McCain’s claims that Obama will raise taxes are “wrong,” “false” and “misleading.”

According to the non partisan Tax Policy Center’s computations, “under Mr. Obama’s plan, the middle of the middle class, or those earning $37,595 to $66,354, would see taxes cut by $1,042 a year. Under Mr. McCain’s plan, taxes for people in that category would also fall, but by $319; the largest chunk of the benefits would go to those making $2.8 million a year or more.” [New York Times, 6/13/08]

Washington Post Fact Checker: McCain Campaign Attacks on Obama Tax Plan “Overblown,” “Wrong” and “Greatly Exaggerated.” “The McCain camp is attempting to persuade Americans that their taxes will increase dramatically with Barack Obama as president. The presumptive Republican nominee has repeatedly said that Obama would enact ‘the largest tax increase since the Second World War.’ A surrogate, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, insists that Obama has not proposed ‘a single tax cut’ and wants to ‘raise every tax in the book.’ The claim that Obama will ‘enact’ the largest tax increase since World War II is also overblown. The Bush tax cuts will expire automatically at the end of 2010, so it is hardly a question of ‘enacting’ a new tax increase. ... Carly Fiorina is wrong to claim that Obama has proposed no tax cuts and wants to raise ‘every tax in the book.’” [Washington Post, 6/11/08]

Politifact: McCain’s Statement That Obama’s Tax Plan Would Raise Taxes Is “False.” Politifact reported, “So calling it a tax increase might not be considered fair. There's no disputing that taxes will rise, but the question of who's responsible for that tax increase is another matter entirely. At PolitiFact, we've concluded, as have others, that it's unfair to call Obama's plan a tax increase merely because it doesn't change existing tax law to keep rates low. We think about it this way: The reason taxes will increase is because of tax policy signed into law not by Obama, but by somebody else… the more recent data — combined with the fact that Obama's proposal does not constitute a tax increase in the traditional sense, since some taxes would be lower under his plan than they would under current law — persuades us to classify McCain's statement as False.” [Politifact, 6/11/08]

FactCheck.Org: McCain's Largest Tax Increase Charge Wrong and Misleading. According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Factcheck.org: “By the measure most economists prefer, McCain is wrong in his claim that Sen. Obama wants to implement "the single largest tax increase since the Second World War;"… At a more basic level, it's misleading to tag Clinton and Obama for something that was scheduled during the Bush administration – the expiration of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, which by law will occur at the end of 2010.” [Factcheck.org, 5/14/2008]

Meanwhile, there are still people who think that this knucklehead should be president. Oy.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Zogby: Obama Thumping McCain In Electoral College Votes

What a lovely way to end the long July 4th weekend. I was zipping through a string of websites and came across this excellent news: Results from the latest Zogby nationwide poll on the presidential campaign.

Obama Leads McCain in Electoral College Tally, 273-158
The Democrat also leads 44% to 38% in the nationwide horserace test as Libertarian Bob Barr wins 6%

UTICA, New York (July 6 2008) – As the race for President passes the Independence Day holiday and heads toward the dog days of summer, Sen. Barack Obama holds a 44% to 38% lead over Sen. John McCain in the horserace contest, but also leads by a substantial margin in a state-by-state Electoral College tally, a new Zogby Interactive poll shows.

The extensive national poll of of 46,274 likely voters also shows Libertarian candidate and former Congressman Bob Barr wins 6% support, eating into McCain’s needed conservative base of support.

The online survey was conducted from June 11-30, 2008. It carries a margin of error of 0.5 percentage points. After nearly a decade in development, the Zogby Interactive survey on a state level was remarkably accurate in the 2006 midterm elections. In 18 U.S. Senate elections polled two years ago, the Zogby online survey correctly identified the winner of 17 of 18 races, and in the 18th race – in Missouri, it was still within the margin of error, though it had Republican Jim Talent winning (he was defeated narrowly by Democrat Claire McCaskill).

Zogby’s Electoral College Count
Obama: 273
McCain: 158
Undecided: 105

This latest extensive survey of all 50 states reveals that while Obama holds a narrow lead in the national preference test, he holds a substantial advantage right now in the Electoral College. Using this survey - and an average of other public state polls in certain states to corroborate the Zogby results – Zogby calculates that Obama leads McCain, 273-158. A total of 11 states with 105 electoral votes are within the margin of error and therefore too close to call. A candidate needs 270 to be elected President.

Neither Obama nor McCain breaks a 50% favorable rating. Obama is viewed as very or somewhat favorable by 49.7%. For McCain, that number is 43.2%.

Pollster John Zogby: “Obama is in the driver’s seat right now, especially where it really counts - in the electoral votes. Bob Barr could really hurt McCain’s chances. McCain can’t afford the level of slippage to Barr we found among conservatives in this polling. While there has been plenty of talk about Obama’s recent emphasis on his centrist positions, he can get away with it during these dog days of the campaign as McCain finds himself still trying to shore up the conservative base. McCain will have to move to the center because right now Obama is clobbering him among independents. But there is the rub for McCain: Bob Barr has some juice among conservatives and is hurting him in several states. ”

Bob Barr receives the support of 7% of voters who identify themselves as conservative or very conservative voters. Barr gets 43% of libertarians and 11% of independents. McCain’s support among conservatives is 74%. On the left, Ralph Nader gets less than 2% nationally.

Obama has the support of 83% of Democrats, while McCain gets 75% of Republicans. Independents break 39% for Obama, compared with 31% who support McCain.

For white voters, race doesn’t appear to be playing a significant factor. McCain leads Obama, 43%-39%, with Barr at 6%. Among black voters, Obama wins the vast majority of support.
- - - - -
Maybe there really is something to Obama's strategy of redrawing the electoral map. And I'm ecstatic to see Bob Barr acting as the Republican version of Ralph Nader.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Bush's July 4th, My July 4th ...

Your Fourth of July is blood for oil.
My Fourth of July is the pure sunbeam of peace.

Yours is the imperial presidency and "so what?" to public opinion.
Mine is "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed"

Yours is profiling and discrimination.
Mine is "all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights."

Yours is "My country right or wrong."
Mine is avoiding "Offences against the Law of Nations"

Yours is the veto of child health care and rejection of Kyoto,
Mine is an America that cares about the wellbeing of our children.

Yours is a monarchical presidency above the law.
Mine is, as Tom Paine said, "in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other."

Yours is aggressive invasions of countries that did not attack us first.
Mine is "and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends."

Yours is water-boarding and electrocution.
Mine is the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

Yours is the stench of a million mouldering corpses, military rule over 27-million who did us no wrong and the creation of oceans of misery.
Mine is "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Yours is off-shore drilling, coddling polluters, 'heckuva job Brownie.'
Mine is a stewardship of America the beautiful for succeeding generations.

Yours is the privatization of war and the deployment of whole divisions of “contractors.”
Mine is an America where privates do not risk their lives for a tenth of what a mercenary is paid by the Pentagon.

Yours is erecting "free speech" protest zones as zoos for free citizens.
Mine is "or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Yours is the swagger of the flight jacket and the bombs raining down.
Mine is the schooling of the next global generation.

Mine is America, the pure sunbeam of peace.

May you enjoy an Independence Day that is truly independent of the depraved men and women who work for George Bush, Dick Cheney and John McCain.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

It's Official: The Stupid Season Has Arrived.

Forget about Iraq, the environment, the economy, gas prices, unemployment or health care. The Associated Press and Yahoo teamed up to find out what's really important to voters.

Moments ago, it was announced that people would rather barbecue burgers with Barack Obama than with John McCain. No kidding.

While many are still deciding who should be president, by 52% to 45% they would prefer having Obama than McCain to their summer cookout, according to the poll.

Men are about evenly divided between the two while women prefer Obama by 11%. Whites prefer McCain, minorities Obama. And Obama is a more popular guest with younger voters while McCain does best with the oldest.

Having Obama to a barbecue would be like a relaxed family gathering, while inviting McCain "would be more like a retirement party than something fun," said Wesley Welbourne, 38, a systems engineer from Washington, D.C., quoted in the Yahoo article about the poll.

No word yet on which candidate people would prefer having a beer with at the corner pub. It’s probably too early in the campaign for the beer poll.

The results are at http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080702/ap_on_el_pr/ap_yahoo_poll_candidates_barbecue_3

Flip Flip, He Is Taking A Drop ...

If John McCain keeps changing positions as quickly as he is doing, he’s going to look like Lynda Blair in The Exorcist.

As Keith Olbermann noted last night on Countdown, thanks to Steven Benan at Carpetbagger Report, we now have a three page long catalogue of John McCain’s flip-flopping and yet the media has been reluctant to catalogue his Flip Flop Express.

Benan writes “I’m beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, the criticism is taking root. Consider yesterday’s “Cafferty File” on CNN where Jack Cafferty notes some of McCain more glaring recent reversals, adding, ‘If John McCain doesn’t stop changing his position on the issues, he threatens to make John Kerry look like an amateur. In order for McCain to win in November, he has to appeal to both the traditional Republican base and to Independents. Dana Milbank in The Washington Post says that’s a delicate dance. And if McCain’s not careful, ‘he’s liable to break a hip.’ Of course, any doctor will tell you a broken hip can be very difficult to recover from.”

The past couple of weeks have been especially difficult when it comes to McCain flip-flops.

• McCain supported the off-shore drilling moratorium; now he’s against it.
• McCain strongly opposes a windfall-tax on oil company profits. Three weeks earlier, he was perfectly comfortable with the idea.
• McCain thought Bush’s warrantless-wiretap program circumvented the law; now he believes the opposite.
• McCain defended “privatizing” Social Security. Now he says he’s against privatization though he actually still supports it.
• McCain wanted to change the Republican Party platform to protect abortion rights in cases of rape and incest. Now he doesn’t.
• McCain thought the estate tax was perfectly fair. Now he believes the opposite.
• He opposed indefinite detention of terrorist suspects. When the Supreme Court reached the same conclusion, he called it “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”
• McCain said he would “not impose a litmus test on any nominee.” He used to promise the opposite.
• McCain believes the telecoms should be forced to explain their role in the administration’s warrantless surveillance program as a condition for retroactive immunity. He used to believe the opposite.
• McCain supported storing spent nuclear fuel at Yucca mountain in Nevada. Now he believes the opposite.
• McCain supported moving “towards normalisation of relations” with Cuba. Now he believes the opposite.
• McCain believed the U.S. should engage in diplomacy with Hamas and Syria . Now he believes the opposite.
• He argued the NRA should not have a role in the Republican Party’s policy making. Now he believes the opposite.
• McCain supported his own lobbying-reform legislation from 1997. Now he doesn’t.
• He wanted political support from radical televangelists like John Hagee and Rod Parsley. Now he doesn’t.
• McCain supported the Lieberman-Warner to combat global warming. Now he doesn’t.
• McCain pledged in February 2008 that he would not, under any circumstances, raise taxes. Specifically, McCain was asked if he is a “‘read my lips’ candidate, no new taxes, no matter what?” referring to George H.W. Bush’s 1988 pledge. “No new taxes,” McCain responded. Two weeks later, McCain said, “I’m not making a ‘read my lips’ statement, in that I will not raise taxes.”
• McCain is both for and against a "rogue state rollback" as a focus of his foreign policy vision.
• McCain says he considered and did not consider joining John Kerry’s Democratic ticket in 2004.
• In 1998, he championed raising cigarette taxes to fund programs to cut underage smoking, insisting that it would prevent illnesses and provide resources for public health programs. Now, McCain opposes a 61cent-per-pack tax increase, won’t commit to supporting a regulation bill he’s co-sponsoring, and has hired Philip Morris’ former lobbyist as his senior campaign adviser.
• McCain has changed his economic worldview on multiple occasions.
• McCain has changed his mind about a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq on multiple occasions.
• McCain is both for and against attacking Barack Obama over his former pastor at his former church.
• McCain believes Americans are both better off and worse off than they were before Bush took office.
• McCain is both for and against earmarks for Arizona.
• McCain believes his endorsement from radical televangelist John Hagee was both a good and a bad idea.
• McCain’s first mortgage plan was premised on the notion that homeowners facing foreclosure shouldn’t be “rewarded” for acting “irresponsibly.” His second mortgage plan took largely the opposite position.
• McCain vowed, if elected, to balance the federal budget by the end of his first term. Soon after, he decided he would no longer even try to reach that goal.
• In February 2008, McCain reversed course on prohibiting waterboarding.
• McCain used to champion the Law of the Sea convention, even volunteering to testify on the treaty’s behalf before a Senate committee. Now he opposes it.
• McCain was a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to illegal immigrants’ kids who graduate from high school. Now he’s against it.
• On immigration policy in general, McCain announced in February 2008 that he would vote against his own legislation.
• In 2006, McCain sponsored legislation to require grassroots lobbying coalitions to reveal their financial donors. In 2007, after receiving “feedback” on the proposal, McCain told far-right activist groups that he opposes his own measure.
• McCain said before the war in Iraq, “We will win this conflict. We will win it easily.” Four years later, McCain said he knew all along that the war in Iraq war was “probably going to be long and hard and tough.”
• McCain said he was the “greatest critic” of Rumsfeld’s failed Iraq policy. In December 2003, McCain praised the same strategy as “a mission accomplished.” In March 2004, he said, “I’m confident we’re on the right course.” In December 2005, he said, “Overall, I think a year from now, we will have made a fair amount of progress if we stay the course.”
• McCain went from saying he would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade to saying the exact opposite.
• McCain went from saying gay marriage should be allowed, to saying gay marriage shouldn’t be allowed.
• McCain criticized TV preacher Jerry Falwell as “an agent of intolerance” in 2002, but then decided to cozy up to the man who said Americans “deserved” the 9/11 attacks.
• McCain used to oppose Bush’s tax cuts for the very wealthy, but he reversed course in February.
• On a related note, he said 2005 that he opposed the tax cuts because they were “too tilted to the wealthy.” By 2007, he denied ever having said this despite it having been recorded on video tape, and insisted he opposed the cuts because of increased government spending.
• In 2000, McCain accused Texas businessmen Sam and Charles Wyly of being corrupt, spending “dirty money” to help finance Bush’s presidential campaign. McCain not only filed a complaint against the Wylys for allegedly violating campaign finance law, he also lashed out at them publicly. In April, McCain reached out to the Wylys for support.
• McCain supported a major campaign-finance reform measure that bore his name. In June 2007, he abandoned his own legislation.
• McCain opposed a holiday to honour Martin Luther King, Jr., before he supported it.
• McCain was against presidential candidates campaigning at Bob Jones University before he was for it.
• McCain was anti-ethanol. Now he’s pro-ethanol.
• McCain was both for and against state promotion of the Confederate flag.
• McCain decided in 2000 that he didn’t want anything to do with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, believing he “would taint the image of the ‘Straight Talk Express.’” Kissinger is now the Honorary Co-Chair for his presidential campaign in New York.

Confronted with the inconsistencies in McCain’s record in March, the senator’s aides told The New York Times that the senator “has evolved rather than switched positions in his 25-year career.”

Evolved? Evolved! That’s some evolution.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Is George Will Morphing Into Bill Kristol?

In the May 5, 2008 issue of Newsweek, George Will posed a handful of questions for Barack Obama. Alas, like so many on the right, Will took Obama statements out of context and then set up straw dog premises that led to questions along the lines of “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

In many respects, what Will did is what New York Times columnist Bill Kristol does all the time: Make up “facts” and then demand an answer to a non-existent question.

Here are the questions Will posed of Obama, along with answers that provide context and meaning. No wonder the Obama for President website has an anti-smear page.

Q – "Senator, concerning the criteria by which you will nominate judges, you said: 'We need somebody who's got the heart, the empathy, to recognize what it's like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it's like to be poor, or African-American, or gay, or disabled, or old.' Such sensitivities might serve an admirable legislator, but what have they to do with judging? Should a judge side with whichever party in a controversy stirs his or her empathy? Is such personalization of the judicial function inimical to the rule of law?”

A – Mr. Will, you're taking Obama's comments out of context. He was talking about Supreme Court judges who, rightly so, must look at how statutes and their Constitutionality apply in the context of 21st century America. He never said or implied that a winning party in a dispute should be the side that does the best job of playing on a justice's sympathy.

Q – “Voting against the confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts, you said: Deciding 'truly difficult cases' should involve 'one's deepest values, one's core concerns, one's broader perspectives on how the world works, and the depth and breadth of one's empathy.' Is that not essentially how Chief Justice Roger Taney decided the Dred Scott case? Should other factors, say, the language of the constitutional or statutory provision at issue "matter?”

A – Roger Taney and Clarence Thomas have a lot in common. Beyond that, Mr. Will, if you had bothered to read the Federalist Papers and other writings of the Framers, he would have seen great concern amongst the founders that future generations would understand that the Constitution was not intended to be frozen in time. Yes, the language of the Constitution is crucial. So, too, is putting the issue at hand in the context of what the Constitution intended and what life is like in the 21st century.

Q – You say, 'The insurance companies, the drug companies, they're not going to give up their profits easily when it comes to health care.' Why should they? Who will profit from making those industries unprofitable? When pharmaceutical companies have given up their profits, who will fund pharmaceutical innovations, without which there will be much preventable suffering and death? What other industries should 'give up their profits'?

A – Out of context, again, Georgie boy. Obama never said the drug companies should "give up their profits." In the context of the speech he was making, Obama referred to the extraordinarily high profits phara companies make in the US, much higher than they happily earn in Canada, Britain and the EU. Drug prices are negotiated and regulated in every Western economy except the US, setting a fair margin that the drug companies are happy with based on the fact that they keep doing business in those nations. Moreover, Obama was also talking about giving Medicare authority to negotiate drug prices -- just as the VA does.

Q – ExxonMobil's 2007 profit of $40.6 billion annoys you. Do you know that its profit, relative to its revenue, was smaller than Microsoft's and many other corporations'? And that reducing ExxonMobil's profits will injure people who participate in mutual funds, index funds and pension funds that own 52 percent of the company?

A – ExxonMobile's profit annoys everyone because it was a windfall resulting from as yet-unexplained rocketing upwards of oil prices (which ExxonMobil and other oil companies drill, sells to itself to refine and then sells to itself to put in mostly company-owned gas stations (as well as stations owned by others). If one carefully follows the footnotes in Exxon's 10K and other SEC filings, one will notice that Exxon, like BP, Chevron and other majors, operate an elaborate web of holding companies inside subsidiaries inside divisions, the purpose of all of them being "petroleum trading and storage." In other words, hoarding and pure speculation -- much like Enron. In fact, the McCain sponsored "Enron exemption" allows oil companies to do this. By contrast, CITGO, owned by Penevesa, has maintained its typical and healthy profit margins despite giving away heating oil to poor nations around the world -- including in the Northeast and Gulf Coast US where people have been especially hard hit by rising prices.

Q – You say John McCain is content to 'watch [Americans'] home prices decline.' So, government should prop up housing prices generally? How? Why? Were prices ideal before the bubble popped? How does a senator know ideal prices? Have you explained to young couples straining to buy their first house that declining prices are a misfortune?

A – George, you really ought to look up the words "taken out of context." Obama made that statement in the context of McCain opposing a bill that would financially assist families who are in danger of losing their homes due to mortgage lender fraud and abusive practice. (See last week's FBI arrest of 409 mortgage traders, brokers and real estate agents; the FBI says the investigation is continuing and that "hundreds, perhaps thousands, more arrests may follow."

Q – Telling young people 'don't go into corporate America,' your wife, Michelle, urged them to become social workers or others in 'the helping industry,' not 'the moneymaking industry.' Given that the moneymakers pay for 100 percent of American jobs, in both public and private sectors, is it not helpful?

A – I'm getting really tired of putting things in context for a nationally published columnist. Obama, and his wife, have said repeatedly that Obama would propose a program to pay for university. In exchange, recipients of the tuition grants, would be required to work X-number of years in their community: Teaching, doing social work, community organizing, whatever, as the means of paying back the country.

Q – Michelle, who was born in 1964, says that most Americans' lives have 'gotten progressively worse since I was a little girl.' Since 1960, real per capita income has increased 143 percent, life expectancy has increased by seven years, infant mortality has declined 74 percent, deaths from heart disease have been halved, childhood leukemia has stopped being a death sentence, depression has become a treatable disease, air and water pollution have been drastically reduced, the number of women earning a bachelor's degree has more than doubled, the rate of homeownership has increased 10.2 percent, the size of the average American home has doubled, the percentage of homes with air conditioning has risen from 12 to 77, the portion of Americans who own shares of stock has quintupled. Has y our wife perhaps missed some pertinent developments in this country that she calls 'just downright mean'?

A – Figures can lie and liars can figure. Let's look at numbers that are more relevant. Since 2000, real per capita income has declined markedly; the spread between those earning at top levels and those at the middle level has widened dramatically; since 2000, wealth has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a shrinking number of people as the middle class shrinks;' infant mortality declined but remains the highest in the Western world, home ownership fell dramatically over the past 18 months. If I were you Mr. Will, I would not brag about the spread of "McMansions" because they are way beyond the price range of typical income earners. Mrs. Obama is right: The country has become downright mean for much of its citizens.

Q – You favor raising the capital gains tax rate to '20 percent or 25 percent.' You say this will not 'distort' economic decision making. Your tax returns on your 2007 income of $4.2 million show that you and Michelle own few stocks. Are you sure you understand how investors make decisions?

A – Repeated studies show that investors make buy-and-sell decisions on what they see as profitable opportunities, not the marginal tax rates.

Q – During the ABC debate, you acknowledged that when the capital gains rate was dropped first to 20 percent, then to 15 percent, government revenues from the tax increased and they declined in the 1980s when it was increased to 28 percent. Nevertheless, you said you would consider raising the rate 'for purposes of fairness.' How does decreasing the government's financial resources and punishing investors promote fairness? Are you aware that 20 percent of taxpayers reporting capital gains in 2006 had incomes of less than $50,000?

A – Actually, the percent of taxpayers you site is 17.87% but let's not quibble about a bit of rounding up. What you fail to mention is that 70% of taxpayers reporting capital gains had incomes in excess of $250,000.

Q – You favor eliminating the cap on earnings subject to the 12.4 percent Social Security tax, which now covers only the first $102,000. A Chicago police officer married to a Chicago public-school teacher, each with 20 years on the job, have a household income of $147,501, so you would take another $5,642 from them. Are they undertaxed? Are they too rich?

A – Social Security and Medicare won't pay for itself.

Q – This November, electorates in four states will vote on essentially this language: 'The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.' Three states, California, Washington and Michigan, have enacted such language. You made a radio ad opposing the Michigan initiative. Why? Are those states' voters racists?

A – When he announced opposition to the ballot initiatives, Obama explained that the measures are carefully coded ways of doing away with anti-discrimination laws; just look at the background of the organisations that got the measures on the ballots.

Q – You denounce President Bush for arrogance toward other nations. Yet you vow to use a metaphorical 'hammer' to force revisions of trade agreements unless certain weaker nations adjust their labor, environmental and other domestic policies to suit you. Can you define cognitive dissonance?

A – Can you, Mr. Will? I wouldn't call Canada a "weaker nation," nor would I use that term to describe China, Japan, India or South Korea.

Q – You want 'to reduce money in politics.' In February and March you raised $95 million.

A – Again, a little context, please. Obama has said repeatedly that the money he raised during the entire campaign has come from small contributors -- 100 million of them, in fact, and the average donation was just over $10. He has spoken repeatedly of ridding campaigns of money from lobbyists, bundlers, etc.

Clearly, Republicans are so desperate to rescue John McCain’s campaign they won’t be content with the usual racial and ethnic slurs. As George Will demonstrates, the right will also try using out-of-context statements to subject Obama to policy smears, as well. They should be ashamed but we shouldn’t be surprised.

Congress Set To Pass The ‘Incompetent Banker Relief Act of 2008’

It looks as if Congress will pass a housing bailout bill to provide $300-billion worth of mortgage loan guarantees. But rather than benefiting homeowners, as the politicians claim daily on cable news talking head shows, the main beneficiaries will be the incompetent bankers and fraud artists who issued mortgages during the housing bubble that are now going bad by the bucket-full. The government will save these bankers billions by guaranteeing new loans that will pay off the existing loans at considerably above their market value.

Congress is running to the rescue of the bankers because, unlike autoworkers or people toiling in a dwindling number of textile plants, bankers have real power. When an autoworker or textile worker faces the prospect of losing their job, house and ability to put their kids through school, the politicians will feel their pain. They might even give a few good speeches. But they will not create policies that actually help US workers keep good-paying jobs.

The economists and people who imagine themselves to be economically literate will tell you that the basic story is that there is nothing that can be done. In a globalised economy, they say in stentorian tones, there simply is no place for the sort of high-paying jobs in manufacturing that tens of millions of middle-class workers held in decades past. The best policies they can produce are temporary adjustment assistance or other measures that can help acclimate these workers and their families to a lower standard of living.

(Yet, largely unnoticed, a large carpet manufacturer in North Carolina has proven the economists wrong, and kept good paying manufacturing jobs in the US. It required a new business model, genuine management and worker co-operation and meaningful profit sharing, but it does work. Why other companies in other industries haven’t followed their suit is beyond understanding.)

So, instead, when it comes to workers pain, we are told there’s nothing that can be done. What about the pain of incompetent bankers and fraudulent mortgage brokers? Well, we can't let incompetent bankers or mortgage brokers suffer. Congress, the president and the Fed will move heaven and earth to make sure that the bankers are not allowed to sink just because of their bad business decisions.

That was why Ben Bernanke was so quick to tell the creditors of the major investment banks not to worry that Lehman Brothers or Citigroup might follow Bear Stearns in going belly up. He promised that the Fed would throw out as much money as was necessary to make them whole. There was little concern for moral hazard or the incredible waste of taxpayer money to bail out the extremely rich. And despite what pundits say, guarantees are real money – if anyone ever tells you otherwise, ask them to sign a guarantee note for your mortgage or student loan.

The guarantees plus the below market loans from the Fed's discount window was just round one. Round two is the bailout package that is about to pass Congress. This bill is being sold as a bailout of homeowners. The big problem with the story is that the government guaranteed cheques go to banks, not homeowners. Furthermore, the banks get to decide which loans get placed in the programme.

This is simple Econ 101.

Banks are sitting on hundreds of billions of dollars of really bad loans. They can foreclose but this is costly. In addition, house prices have fallen so much, and the market is so glutted in many areas, that they will be able to recover relatively little of the original value of their mortgage through foreclosure.

So, along comes Congress with a big bag of taxpayer money and offers to guarantee new mortgages that will allow the banks to recover a much larger share of the original value of their mortgage. Who knows? With an exaggerated appraisal, they may even be able to recover most of their money. Oh. Wait a minute. Weren’t exaggerated appraisals one of the reasons we got into this housing mess in the first place?

Of course Congress sells this as a bailout of homeowners. And we all know homeownership is the American Dream so anyone who raises questions must be some sort of al-Qaida loving Communist.

Well, no one expects politicians to have any backbone. But where are the economists? These are the folks who get apoplectic about a 20% tariff on steel imports. Why are they so quiet about the much larger waste associated with this bailout?

The bottom line is that economists can be every bit as corrupt as politicians. They are happy to use their arguments about economic efficiency to beat down uppity autoworkers or textile workers, but when the gainers from inefficiency are the rich and powerful – like bankers or big pharma and health insurance industries – don't look for economists to be making arguments about economic efficiency. In such cases, the economists are happy to just salute the cult of home ownership and then go out and look for some union to beat up.

In short, the next time an economist whines about the threat of some form of protection that is designed to help ordinary workers, it would be worth asking where they were during the bank bailouts of 2008. If they weren't yelling at the top of their lungs, then their objections are based in their desire to aid the rich and powerful, not any genuine concern with economic efficiency.