December 31, 2009

Have A Wonderful 2010!

Have a wonderful and joyous New Year!  Sensen No Sen will resume regular posting in 2010.

December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays and Good-Bye to the Bush Decade

I, for one, will be very glad to have the first ten years of the 21st century in my rear view mirror.  The excellent Juan Cole seems to share that opinion, and counts down his top 10 worst things about the Bush Decade here.

Let's hope that 2010 kicks off a new era, and that the next decade is a whole lot better.  Have a happy holiday and a wonderful new year!

December 19, 2009

The Senate Prepares to Keep America from Joining the Rest of the Civilized World

[Click on image to view at full size.]

A report today in the Washington Post indicates that, with the announced support of Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, there are now enough votes to pass the Senate's version of a health care reform bill. If the bill is passed, the next step will be reconciliation with legislation that came out of the House in November, which promises to be interesting, to say the least.

HR 3962, the House's Affordable Health Care for America Act, is summarized as follows:
... It seeks to expand health care coverage to the approximately 40 million Americans who are currently uninsured by lowering the cost of health care and making the system more efficient. To that end, it includes a new government-run insurance plan (a.k.a. a public option) to compete with the private companies, a requirement that all Americans have health insurance, a ban on denying coverage because of a pre-existing condition and, to pay for it all, a surtax on individuals with incomes above $500,000.
The Senate version, however, is a different beast entirely.  Not only does it lack a public option, but it places even greater coverage restrictions on abortion procedures - which, despite whatever one's personal feelings might be, are perfectly legal - and mandates the purchase of coverage from private insurers.  Former Vermont governor, presidential candidate and Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean eviscerated the bill in column last Thursday:
If I were a senator, I would not vote for the current health-care bill. Any measure that expands private insurers' monopoly over health care and transfers millions of taxpayer dollars to private corporations is not real health-care reform. Real reform would insert competition into insurance markets, force insurers to cut unnecessary administrative expenses and spend health-care dollars caring for people. Real reform would significantly lower costs, improve the delivery of health care and give all Americans a meaningful choice of coverage. The current Senate bill accomplishes none of these.

Real health-care reform is supposed to eliminate discrimination based on preexisting conditions. But the legislation allows insurance companies to charge older Americans up to three times as much as younger Americans, pricing them out of coverage. The bill was supposed to give Americans choices about what kind of system they wanted to enroll in. Instead, it fines Americans if they do not sign up with an insurance company, which may take up to 30 percent of your premium dollars and spend it on CEO salaries - in the range of $20 million a year - and on return on equity for the company's shareholders. Few Americans will see any benefit until 2014, by which time premiums are likely to have doubled. In short, the winners in this bill are insurance companies; the American taxpayer is about to be fleeced with a bailout in a situation that dwarfs even what happened at AIG.

From the very beginning of this debate, progressives have argued that a public option or a Medicare buy-in would restore competition and hold the private health insurance industry accountable. Progressives understood that a public plan would give Americans real choices about what kind of system they wanted to be in and how they wanted to spend their money. Yet Washington has decided, once again, that the American people cannot be trusted to choose for themselves. Your money goes to insurers, whether or not you want it to.
I reluctantly conclude that, as it stands, this bill would do more harm than good to the future of America.

I agree with Dr. Dean; the Senate bill is a giveaway to the insurance industry that does little to fundamentally alter the health insurance landscape.  And let's be entirely clear about whose fault this is: blame for this debacle should be placed not only on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but President Obama, as well.

It was Senator Reid's decision to use rules for advancing this bill that require 60 votes to end debate, as opposed to a simple 51-vote majority, which he could have done, and which would have made people like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman - who have gutted this legislation - irrelevant.  The president, meanwhile, has failed to lead in this entire process, declaring in September that he would like to see a public option included, but then backing away from this stance mere weeks later, leaving Mr. Reid and the American people out on a limb while taking care to distance himself from any political fallout.

To be sure, real reform is not dead, but it will take unwavering leadership from the House of Representatives, and a full-court press on the White House to make it happen.  This isn't about passing a bill before Christmas so Mr. Obama can cross an item off of his to-do list; it's about helping real people, making our country stronger, and standing with the rest of the civilized world.  (See map above.)

December 14, 2009

The Troubling Math of the Gitmo "Suicides"

Back in September, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered the release of a Kuwaiti man named Fouad al Rabiah from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, where he had been held since 2002. The judge found that the evidence against Mr. al Rabiah was insufficient to justify his internment, and last Thursday, he was flown home from Cuba on a Kuwaiti royal jet.  The next day, the Pentagon dropped all charges against him, although it maintains the option to refile the case - which alleged that Mr. al Rabiah ran a supply depot for al Qaeda at Tora Bora during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 - at a later date.

The specifics of the al Rabiah case feature the now-all-too-familiar elements of torture by the American military, but while that is no longer as shocking as it should be, what is striking is the general trend for the prison population at Guantanamo Bay.  Since the beginning of George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” approximately 775 prisoners have been interned at the American prison camp at one time or another, with a peak population of 536 men in June 2002.  As of November 2009, however, that number had dropped to 215, meaning that almost seventy-five percent of the individuals once locked up at Gitmo have been released.  Even more tellingly, since the Supreme Court ruled that detainees can challenge their imprisonment in court, only seven detentions have been approved, while 30 prisoners – more than four times that number - have been freed.

In my last post, A Difficult Case for Suicide, I wrote about a 2006 incident in which three Guantanamo prisoners had been found hanged in their cells, their hands and feet bound, and rags stuffed in their mouths.  Even if one ignores the highly questionable claim by the U.S. military that the trio committed an elaborate, coordinated suicide while under near-constant observation, or alternatively, even if one is comfortable with the idea that a frontier-style lynching by American guards was the right thing to do, their is some deeply troubling math to consider. 

If nearly three quarters of all of the prisoners interned at Guantanamo Bay have been released for lack of evidence or because they have been determined to be not guilty - and they have - odds are that at least two of the "suicides" would have been freed by now.  Instead, they ended up dead in an American prison in Cuba, thousands of miles from their homes and their families, the victims of a toxic mixture of fear, ignorance, thoughtless expedience, and American exceptionalism.

December 9, 2009

A Difficult Case for Suicide

In June 2006, three inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp - Yassar Talal al Zahrani, Mani Shaman Turki al Habardi al Tabi, and Ali Abdullah Ahmed  -  were discovered in their cells, dead.  Each had either hanged themselves or been hanged.  Camp commander Admiral Harry Harris made it clear that he believed it was the former, saying at the time:
They are smart, they are creative, they are committed. They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.
Without conducting an autopsy, the military issued a ruling of suicide for all three men, but took more than two years to do so.  Enough questions surrounded the incident, however, that Seton Hall University's Center for Policy & Research (CPR) conducted a lengthy investigation of its own. The CPR report was issued a few days ago, and its contents are profoundly disturbing:
Questions immediately arose about how three detainees, under constant supervision, were able to conspire effectively to commit coordinated suicides. The military soon announced that it was conducting an investigation, but the results were not published until more than two years later. In August 2008 a heavily redacted report of the investigation concluded that the detainees had hanged themselves in their cells and that one detainee, while walking the corridors that night, had announced, “tonight’s the night.”

The investigation, however, leaves many unanswered questions. Three years later it is still unclear how such coordinated conduct could have occurred, much less how heavily-supervised detainees could have been dead for more than two hours before they were discovered.  Both the time and exact manner of the deaths remain uncertain, and the presence of rags stuffed in the detainees‘ throats is unexplained. Negligence of the guards seems to have been ruled out by the absence of any disciplinary action by any military personnel. Although some of the guards were formally warned that their original statements were suspected to be false or that they were suspected of failing to follow direct orders, no guard was ultimately charged with either making a false statement or being derelict in his duty.

The following report examines the investigation, not to determine what happened that night, but rather to assess why an investigation into three deaths could have failed to address significant issues. Further, the report raises serious questions that must be addressed to dispose of rumors that have circulated - rumors that the cause of the deaths was more sinister than “asymmetrical warfare.”

This report reveals the following facts:
  • The original military press releases did not report that the detainees had been dead for more than two hours when they were discovered, nor that rigor mortis had set in by the time of discovery.
  • There is no explanation of how three bodies could have hung in cells for at least two hours while the cells were under constant supervision, both by video camera and by guards continually walking the corridors guarding only 28 detainees.
  • There is no explanation of how each of the detainees, much less all three, could have done the following: braided a noose by tearing up his sheets and/or clothing, made a mannequin of himself so it would appear to the guards he was asleep in his cell, hung sheets to block vision into the cell—a violation of Standard Operating Procedures, tied his feet together, tied his hands together, hung the noose from the metal mesh of the cell wall and/or ceiling, climbed up on to the sink, put the noose around his neck and released his weight to result in death by strangulation, hanged until dead and hung for at least two hours completely unnoticed by guards.
  • There is no indication that the medics observed anything unusual on the cell block at the time that the detainees were hanging dead in their cells.
  • The initial military press releases did not report that, when the detainees‘ bodies arrived at the clinic, it was determined that each had a rag obstructing his throat.
  • There is no explanation of how the supposed acts of “asymmetrical warfare” could have been coordinated by the three detainees, who had been on the same cell block fewer than 72 hours with occupied and unoccupied cells between them and under constant supervision.
  • There is no explanation of why the Alpha Block guards were advised that they were suspected of making false statements or failing to obey direct orders.
  • There is no explanation of why the guards were ordered not to provide sworn statements about what happened that night.
  • There is no explanation of why the government seemed to be unable to determine which guards were on duty that night in Alpha Block.
  • There is no explanation of why the guards who brought the bodies to the medics did not tell the medics what had happened to cause the deaths and why the medics never asked how the deaths had occurred.
  • There is no explanation of why no one was disciplined for acts or failures to act that night.
  • There is no explanation of why the guards on duty in the cell block were not systematically interviewed about the events of the night; why the medics who visited the cell block before the hangings were not interviewed; or why the tower guards, who had the responsibility and ability to observe all activity in the camp, were not interviewed.
As these many unanswered questions suggest, the investigations were themselves contrary, not only to best practices for investigations of serious matters, but also failed to conform to minimum standards in several ways. These include:
  • Failure to review relevant information, most of which was easily available including audio and video recordings which are systematically maintained; “Pass-On” books prepared by each shift to describe occurrences on the block for the next shift; the Detainee Information Management System, which contains records of all activity for that night as the events occur; and Serious Incident Reports, which are the reports used when there are suicide attempts. 
  • Failure to investigate an alleged conspiracy among detainees to commit suicide, despite the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s statement that on the night in question another detainee - who did not later commit suicide - walked through the cell block telling people, “tonight’s the night.”  There is no indication of how this could have happened given camp security rules or, if it had taken place, why security was not tighter than usual as a result. 
  • Failure to investigate all available material witnesses who would have had an opportunity to observe what happened that night.
There is little to add here, and the report’s findings, depressingly, speak for themselves.  The deaths of Zahrani, Abi and Ahmed reek of the “accidents” that used to befall IRA members and sympathizers in British jails during the worst days of The Troubles, and blacks in the custody of Apartheid-era South African security forces.

Either truly monolithic incompetence (and potentially, corruption) allowed these three men to take their own lives in a coordinated fashion under heavy guard, or they were murdered.  Given the rags stuffed in their mouths and the extreme difficulty involved in hanging one’s self with bound hands and feet, the case for group suicide appears to be a thin one.

December 4, 2009

Version 2.0 - Updated

Returning readers will notice that I have been messing around with a new template for Sensen No Sen. I apologize for what are some pretty significant changes to the way this blog looks, but the modifications you see before you are driven not so much by a desire for an update, but by technical issues with Blogger that have forced my hand.

In any case, things are likely to be a bit unsettled for the next several days to a week, but I hope to have a final Sensen No Sen v2.0 shortly. Thank you, in advance, for your patience.

UPDATED December 6, 2009 at 3:39pm CST: Well, I'm finally done! After experimenting with a number of cool templates I found on the web, I became discouraged with their lack of flexibility, and have instead returned to a basic Blogger template that I have modified heavily. Overall, I am pretty pleased with how it turned out, and hope you like it!

December 3, 2009

FOX News Channel's Legal Analyst: Military Tribunals for Guantanamo Bay Prisoners Are Unconstitutional

[Click on image to view at original size.]

Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a very interesting editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times, authored by former New Jersey Superior Court Judge Andrew Napolitano, who currently works for FOX News Channel as a legal affairs analyst. In it, Judge Napolitano laid out a very clear and concise explanation of why the collective tearing of hair, clutching of pearls and gnashing of teeth coming from the American right wing at the news that alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed will be tried in civilian court is entirely off-base. It is a relatively short article that carefully stacks each point on top of the one preceding it, and I recommend checking it out in its original form to get the full effect, but the highlights are below.
When President George W. Bush spoke to Congress shortly after 9/11, he did not ask for a declaration of war. Instead, Republican leaders offered and Congress enacted an Authorization for the Use of Military Force... Thus was born the "war" on terror.
Virtually all of those seized who survived interrogation have been held at Guantanamo Bay. Bush initially ordered that no law or treaty applied to these detainees and that no judge could hear their cases, and thus he could detain whoever he decided was too risky to release and whoever he was satisfied had participated in terrorist attacks against the U.S. He made these extra-constitutional claims based, he said, on the inherent powers of the commander in chief in wartime. But in the Supreme Court, he lost all five substantive challenges to his authority brought by detainees. As a result, some detainees had to be freed, and he and Congress eventually settled for trying some before military tribunals under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and subsequent legislation.

The casual use of the word "war" has lead to a mentality among the public and even in the government that the rules of war could apply to those held at Guantanamo. But the rules of war apply only to those involved in a lawfully declared war, and not to something that the government merely calls a war. Only Congress can declare war - and thus trigger the panoply of the government's military powers that come with that declaration. Among those powers is the ability to use military tribunals to try those who have caused us harm by violating the rules of war.
All those still detained since 9/11 should be tried in federal courts because without a declaration of war, the Constitution demands no less.

That the target of the Cole attackers was military property manned by the Navy offers no constitutional reason for a military trial. In the 1960s, when Army draft offices and college ROTC facilities were attacked and bombed, those charged were quite properly tried in federal courts. And when Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal courthouse in Oklahoma City; and Omar Abdel Rahman attempted in 1993 to blow up the World Trade Center, which housed many federal offices; and when Zacarias Moussaoui was accused in the 9/11 attacks,all were tried in federal courts. The "American Taliban," John Walker Lindh, and the notorious would-be shoe bomber, Richard Reid, were tried in federal courts. Even the "Ft. Dix Six," five of whom were convicted in a plot to invade a U.S. Army post in New Jersey, were tried in federal court. And the sun still rose on the mornings after their convictions.

The framers of the Constitution feared letting the president alone decide with whom we are at war, and thus permitting him to trigger for his own purposes the military tools reserved for wartime. They also feared allowing the government to take life, liberty or property from any person without the intercession of a civilian jury to check the government's appetite and to compel transparency and fairness by forcing the government to prove its case to 12 ordinary citizens. Thus, the 5th Amendment to the Constitution, which requires due process, includes the essential component of a jury trial. And the 6th Amendment requires that when the government pursues any person in court, it must do so in the venue where the person is alleged to have caused harm.

Numerous Supreme Court cases have ruled that any person in conflict with the government can invoke due process - be that person a citizen or an immigrant, someone born here, legally here, illegally here or whose suspect behavior did not even occur here.
That's a pretty clear and unambiguous argument. So can we stop the shrieking and the pants-soiling and start acting like the nation we're supposed to be?

November 24, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

No post today, as Amy and I are visiting family and friends for the holiday. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving - I know I have a lot for which to be thankful, and I hope you do, too!

November 19, 2009

Same-Sex Parents and the Cost to Children

In the long-standing effort to prevent loving, committed same-sex couples from attaining the matrimonial rights enjoyed by heterosexuals, one of the most prominent arguments for continued discrimination against gays and lesbians has been that any costs associated with expanding the definition of marriage would be borne by their children. Just over a year ago, for instance, David Blankenhorn of something called the Institute for American Values wrote this:
All our scholarly instruments seem to agree: For healthy development, what a child needs more than anything else is the mother and father who together made the child, who love the child and love each other.
Every child being raised by gay or lesbian couples will be denied his birthright to both parents who made him. Every single one. Moreover, losing that right will not be a consequence of something that at least most of us view as tragic, such as a marriage that didn't last, or an unexpected pregnancy where the father-to-be has no intention of sticking around. On the contrary, in the case of same-sex marriage and the children of those unions, it will be explained to everyone, including the children, that something wonderful has happened!
There's a funny thing about the "scholarly instruments" cited by Mr. Blankenhorn, however. Until very recently, they consisted largely of conjectures based on the examination of the children of divorced and single parents, as well as small studies of same-sex couples who volunteered to be counted. In other words, conclusions drawn from these populations should be taken with a healthy dose of statistically significant salt.

About 20 years ago, however, the Census Bureau
added a category for unwed partners, which included same-sex couples and provided considerably more demographic data. As it turns out, roughly one-fifth of male homosexual couples and about one-third of lesbian couples are raising children, a proportion that has grown considerably over the past two decades. Together with the passage of time, this growth means that there is now a large cohort of the children of same-sex couples who are old enough to yield solid data. This data, in turn, provides insights into the true cost to children of their homosexual parents' union:
In most ways, the accumulated research shows, children of same-sex parents are not markedly different from those of heterosexual parents. They show no increased incidence of psychiatric disorders, are just as popular at school and have just as many friends. While girls raised by lesbian mothers seem slightly more likely to have more sexual partners, and boys slightly more likely to have fewer, than those raised by heterosexual mothers, neither sex is more likely to suffer from gender confusion nor to identify themselves as gay.

More enlightening than the similarities, however, are the differences, the most striking of which is that these children tend to be less conventional and more flexible when it comes to gender roles and assumptions than those raised in more traditional families.

There are data that show, for instance, that daughters of lesbian mothers are more likely to aspire to professions that are traditionally considered male, like doctors or lawyers — 52 percent in one study said that was their goal, compared with 21 percent of daughters of heterosexual mothers, who are still more likely to say they want to be nurses or teachers when they grow up. (The same study found that 95 percent of boys from both types of families choose the more masculine jobs.) Girls raised by lesbians are also more likely to engage in “roughhousing” and to play with “male-gendered-type toys” than girls raised by straight mothers. And adult children of gay parents appear more likely than the average adult to work in the fields of social justice and to have more gay friends in their social mix.
What is so startling about this finding, of course, is not the conclusion itself - which would seem to be a wrench in the gears for fear-mongering outfits like the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) - but that it isn't widely reported and that it confirms the findings of other studies. A Tufts University report from 2005, for example, found the following:

The vast consensus of all the studies shows that children of same-sex parents do as well as children whose parents are heterosexual in every way. In some ways children of same-sex parents actually may have advantages over other family structures.
So, there it is - out in the open. Now we know the terrible consequences of same-sex marriage to children: a tendency to rough-house a bit and a predisposition to tolerance.

No wonder religious bigots fight so hard against gay marriage; tolerance is, after all, a threat to their recruiting base.

November 14, 2009

The Lingering Preference for Ideology Over Fact

While President Obama and congressional Democrats have haltingly advanced legislation aimed at reshaping the health insurance landscape, Republicans have dug in their heels, spouting bromides about tax cuts and the need for change, but opposing substantive steps of any kind, and studiously ignoring their own complete inaction during the Bush Administration, a period of 8 years when they dominated Washington.

The current debate over health care reform, may have starkly divided the political class, but that doesn't appear to be the case with the citizenry. A June poll, for instance - the results of which are in line with a host of other surveys - indicated that fully 83% of the public supports a public option for health insurance coverage. (Click image at right to enlarge.)

If this is the case, from where does the raging conflict over giving Americans better access to health care coverage originate? If Republican pols truly advocate the desires and interests of their constituents, how can a poll like this be accurate? The answer, of course, is not that modern polling is consistently missing the mark, but that GOP positions truly do not represent the needs of the people in red states.

If that sounds like an arrogant exercise in divining the true intentions and best interests of others, it isn't. Last month, the Commonwealth Fund released the 2009 edition of their ongoing research, Aiming Higher: Results from a State Scorecard on Health System Performance, and the idea that Republican politicians are markedly out of sync with realities on the ground is entirely quantifiable.

Of the states with the best health care scores, nine of the top ten voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 election, while seven of the ten worst performing states voted for John McCain. (Click image at left to enlarge.)

On one level, this is not necessarily the fault of Republican politicians - people keep voting for them, for whatever reason - but the fact remains that there is a clear correlation between state health care performance and whether or not it leans conservative. In general, if it's got one of the worst-performing care systems, it's a red state.

On another level, of course, GOP politicians are very much to blame, as they work to reinforce the memes that keep them in power. A perfect example of this occurred earlier this month, when former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry lobbied in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post to Let States Lead the Way, writing:
Texas, for example, has adopted approaches to controlling health-care costs while improving choice, advancing quality of care and expanding coverage. Consider the successful 2003 tort reform. Fewer frivolous lawsuits have attracted record numbers of doctors to the state as medical malpractice insurance premiums dropped by half.
Unfortunately for Governor Perry and Speaker Gingrich, the Lone Star State is the epitome of what is wrong with the current health insurance system. Fully 25% of its population goes without insurance, the highest percentage in the nation and far worse than the already alarming national average of 15.4%. Of course, given that Texas pays so much attention to "frivolous lawsuits" this is not entirely unexpected; according to the Congressional Budget Office, medical malpractice judgments represent just one half of one percent of total health care costs in the United States. Personal injury lawyers might be an easy target, but any plan that uses "tort reform" as a centerpiece is pretty much guaranteed to miss the mark.

With one in four Texans without health insurance, why do people in that state continue to support politicians like Rick Perry, John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchinson, all of whom have come out against health care reform? Probably for the same reason that Republicans decry "government intervention" and tout themselves as bootstrapping champions of personal responsibility, despite the fact that red states take far more in federal handouts than they contribute in tax dollars.

The widest gap between rhetoric and reality may be behind us with the long-overdue departure of George W. Bush from the White House. But like the lasting damage inflicted on the nation by his administration, continued claims that the United States has the best health care in the world - despite ever-taller mountains of evidence to the contrary - are ample proof that, within GOP political leadership, there remains not just a lingering preference for ideology over fact, but for political power over the interests of people.

November 9, 2009

Greenville, SC

I'm headed to Greenville, SC for work this week, so there will be no post on November 9th. Posting will resume later this week.

November 4, 2009

Operation Shower: Making a Difference

My wife, Amy, and three other women are the combined driving force behind Operation Shower, a small not-for-profit organization that focuses on one simple thing that makes a big difference in the lives of military men and women and their families. Operation Shower produces and delivers unit-wide baby showers and "showers in a box" for pregnant mothers whose husbands are in deployment or high stress situations.

The men and women who serve in the armed forces of the United States do not do so in order to become wealthy, and this simple gesture - providing items from diapers to toys to furniture - is a way not only to recognize the sacrifice and service of Americans in uniform, but to make their lives a little easier, too.

If you are interested in learning more or helping out, please be sure to check out the Operation Shower Blog.

October 30, 2009

Finally Prepared to Kill Zombies?

Earlier this year, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman took the position - as did former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan - that large American banks, the ones to which the term "too big to fail" has been applied, ought to, in fact, be temporarily nationalized through receivership by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC):

Lately the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has been seizing banks it deems insolvent at the rate of about two a week. When the FDIC seizes a bank, it takes over the bank's bad assets, pays off some of its debt, and resells the cleaned-up institution to private investors. And that's exactly what advocates of temporary nationalization want to see happen, not just to the small banks the FDIC has been seizing, but to major banks that are similarly insolvent.

The real question is why the Obama administration keeps coming up with proposals that sound like possible alternatives to nationalization, but turn out to involve huge handouts to bank stockholders.

What we got, of course, was exactly what Dr. Krugman warned us about: the Troubled Assets Relief Plan (TARP), a $700 billion plan that uses public money to purchase unmarketable assets from struggling financial institutions in the hope of strengthening their balance sheets. In other words, an attempt to treat symptoms instead of addressing the underlying illness:
... it’s basically saying that, you know, there’s nothing really fundamentally wrong with our banking system; there’s just this crisis of confidence, and so nobody wants to buy, you know, asset-backed securities, nobody wants to buy stuff that’s ultimately backed by home mortgages, and if only we could get people to see that these things are really pretty decent assets, then the banks will be in fine shape. And that’s the trouble. You know, there’s an argument that says maybe they were somewhat underpriced, but to make this the centerpiece of your financial rescue plan is just—well, as I wrote in the column, it leaves me with a feeling of despair.
TARP has allowed banks to essentially operate as if their financial underpinnings are actually healthy and to pay out enormous bonuses to their employees. While this has generated plenty of popular outrage that taxpayer dollars are effectively flowing straight into the wallets of the already-wealthy, such bonuses have continued unabated and without apparent shame. As Daniel Alpert, managing director of New York-based investment bank Westwood Capital LLC noted - without any evidence of irony - “The large banks are knocking the cover off the ball. [The industry is] making money, though with government help.”

The argument against FDIC receivership has always been a bit hard to see, although backers of government handouts to the financial sector have pointed to the facts that the agency has both plenty on its plate with the number of banks it has seized, and that it is running out of money. Of course, the simple solution to that would be to use the money allocated for TARP to fund the FDIC. The bill to taxpayers would almost certainly be smaller and management of the funds more transparent, but for some reason, this is rarely discussed as an option.

On Thursday however, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner stated that, not only should the Federal Reserve lose its ability to bail out firms in the manner in which it propped up insurance giant AIG, but that the FDIC is the proper mechanism for enforcing the notion that no financial institution should ever be considered too big to fail:
Any firm that puts itself in a position where it cannot survive without special assistance from the government must face the consequences of failure... We cannot put taxpayers in the position of paying for the losses of large private financial institutions... We must build a system in which individual firms, no matter how large or important, can fail without risking catastrophic damage to the economy.
Mr. Geithner's statement came in support of H.R. 384, legislation designed to bring increased accountability to TARP now and to any similar situations that may arise in the future. More accountability is always a good thing, especially in the realm of public funds, and TARP is unquestionably a reality that needs to be addressed. The Treasury Secretary's new-found appreciation for the function of the FDIC might turn out to be a case of closing the barn door after the horse has already bolted, but a drive to ensure that zombie banks are not allowed to live on remains the right course of action.

October 25, 2009

Demonstrating That There Is No Line Between News and Opinion at Fox

In my last post, I provided numerous examples of the Fox News Channel's outright advocacy for conservative positions. In a similar vein, Media Matters for America - which focuses on tracking conservative media figures and holding them accountable for their actions and words - has assembled a video (below) that very clearly illustrates the non-existent line between Fox's so-called "opinion" shows and its allegedly "straight reporting" programs. Senior Vice President for Fox News, Michael Clemente, might be "astounded" that the White House has trouble distinguishing between news and opinion programs, but as the following clip illustrates, that's pretty obviously the network's intent.

October 20, 2009

Not Necessarily the News

[Click image to view at full size]

Last week, White House Communications Director Anita Dunn stated plainly that the Obama Administration wasn't going to continue pretending the Fox News Channel was... well... a news organization:
Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party... What I think is fair to say about Fox, and certainly the way we view it, is that it really is more a wing of the Republican Party.
Predictably, in the masturbatory world of the 24-hour news cycle - in which on-air personalities seem to love nothing more than to cover themselves - this has been a big deal. There has been breathless coverage of the response from Fox News that the White House is conflating reportage with opinion, and conventional wisdom among the media establishment has been that this is a bad move for the White House, and one that diminishes the presidency.

My own perspective however, has been that this is a long time coming; Fox News has not only blazed its own tawdry, partisan path to new lows, it has dragged down the quality of broadcast journalism overall. (Evidence of said decline is below.) To my mind, handled properly, there is little risk to the president, and this may well be something that reinvigorates our cowardly, incurious Fourth Estate.

All that said, I have friends and even relatives who watch Fox News, and so I think it is only fair that I back up those assertions. For starters, click on the image above, and zoom it to full size. (Thanks to whoever created this - I stumbled across it online, and it is, at present, uncredited to the best of my knowledge.) Now take a look at these screen captures and notice several things:
  • There are about as many examples from "straight reporting" programs as there are from so-called opinion shows
  • In all cases, the Fox News Channel logo is displayed to reinforce the idea that what is being watched is "news"
  • There are consistent tactics: the use of the caption in the form of a question to express an opinion while maintaining deniability ("Dems helping the enemy?"); the rebranding of Republicans from John McCain to Lamar Alexander to Arlen Specter (pre-party-switch) to Mark Foley to Larry Craig as Democrats when they were either embarrassing to the GOP or failing to toe the party line; captions designed to favor a conservative position ("Usama bin Laden is talking to the far left, saying we're on the same side" ); and even outright lies ("Scooter Libby found not guilty of lying to investigators").
The response to this type of observation, however, is almost always to trot out MSNBC as the so-called "liberal equivalent" of Fox News. Liberal voices probably outweigh conservative ones on MSNBC (but even that is a tenuous toe-hold for claims of comparability, as there is simply no liberal equivalent to MSNBC's conservative Morning Joe on Fox News, for example), but even if the two networks' pundits provided precise counterweights to one another, there is simply nothing on MSNBC or any other major network that rivals the consistent and blatant conservative advocacy utterly permeating Fox's supposedly straight reportage. (If you haven't clicked on the image, now would be a good time to do so.)

In fact, the people running Fox News haven't really made this fact much of secret. Executives at the network have described the Fox News Channel as the "voice of the opposition" who see their confrontation with the Obama Administration as "the Alamo." To be certain, the press corps should absolutely be adversarial when it comes to politicians; but it needs to be consistently so, and in a way that is based on fact, rather than propaganda or the promotion of a particular agenda.

The Fox News Channel has literally promoted - not simply reported on, promoted - the so-called Tea Party movement, encouraged disruptions to town hall meetings held to discuss health care reform, and celebrated political victories for what it calls "Fox News Nation". Fox has even gone so far as to pass off a Republican press release as its own research - lazily failing to correct a typographical error from the original version. Ms. Dunn's assertion that the network is no more than an arm of the Republican Party has a deep basis in fact.

For some people, this will almost certainly still be insufficient reason to switch their source for news; they may simply prefer to get their information in a way that is most compatible with their world view. Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether the goal of journalism should be to inform or to comfort, here is the single most damning fact about the Fox News Channel: It does a terrible job of factual reporting, and it has done a terrible job consistently.

In 2003, for example, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) conducted a study to examine misperceptions among the public in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq:

An in-depth analysis of a series of polls conducted June through September found 48% incorrectly believed that evidence of links between Iraq and al Qaeda have been found, 22% that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, and 25% that world public opinion favored the U.S. going to war with Iraq. Overall 60% had at least one of these three misperceptions.
The most misinformed of our misinformed populace? Those who got their news from Fox:

Likewise, a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that, when given a standardized set of 23 factual questions, Fox News Channel viewers were half as successful answering those questions as people whose primary news source was either The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, which are both comedy progams.

Even now, this trend continues. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from September reveals not only a startlingly high amount of ignorance and misinformation regarding health care reform efforts among the general population, but Fox News Channel viewers again bringing up the rear with regard to valid information:

72% of self-identified FOX News viewers believe the health-care plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants, 79% of them say it will lead to a government takeover, 69% think that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and 75% believe that it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care for the elderly.
None of these beliefs are true, so even if one attempts to defend the Fox News Channel's advocacy for Republican positions, it's hard to understand why anyone would go to bat for such a piss-poor source of information. Of course, if someone is getting all their facts from Fox News, given the network's track record, ignorance and misinformation - especially about ignorance and misinformation among its viewership - is probably understandable.

October 15, 2009

A Soon-To-Be Activist Judge Asks the Right Questions

Last weekend, President Obama reiterated his promise to end the deeply unfair and damaging policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT), which prohibits homosexuals from serving openly in the United States military. While his omission of a time table and specific steps to achieve this goal might be understandable - he is, after all, about to make some hard decisions regarding American armed forces in Afghanistan - continued delay in repealing DADT is harder than ever to justify. Still, popular sentiment continues to evolve away from discrimination against gays, and it appears to be only a matter of time before Don't Ask, Don't Tell ceases to be the law of the land.

On a similar note, U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker has refused to dismiss a law suit challenging the legality of California's Proposition 8, which passed last November, and outlaws homosexual marriage in that state. Charles Cooper, the lawyer representing the group who sponsored Prop 8, had asked the judge to throw out the suit, but instead ran into a buzz saw of logic and penetrating questions too infrequently asked, and for which he was ill-equipped to answer:
The judge not only refused but signaled that when the case goes to trial in January, he expects Cooper and his legal team to present evidence showing that male-female marriages would be undermined if same-sex marriages were legal.

The question is relevant to the assertion that Proposition 8 is constitutionally valid because it furthers the states goal of fostering "naturally procreative relationships," Walker explained.

"What is the harm to the procreation purpose you outlined of allowing same-sex couples to get married?" Walker asked.

"My answer is, I don't know. I don't know," Cooper answered.

Moment later, after assuring the judge his response did not mean Proposition 8 was doomed to be struck down, Cooper tried to clarify his position. The relevant question was not whether there is proof that same-sex unions jeopardize marriages between men and women, but whether "the state is entitled, when dealing with radical proposals to make changes to bedrock institutions such as this ... to take a wait and see attitude," he said.

"There are things we can't know, that's my point," Cooper said. "The people of California are entitled to step back and let the experiment unfold in Massachusetts and other places, to see whether our concerns about the health of marital unions have either been confirmed or perhaps they have been completely assuaged."

Walker pressed on, asking again for specific "adverse consequences" that could follow expanding marriage to include same-sex couples. Cooper cited a study from the Netherlands, where gay marriage is legal, showing that straight couples were increasingly opting to become domestic partners instead of getting married.

"Has that been harmful to children in the Netherlands? What is the adverse effect?" Walker asked.

Cooper said he did not have the facts at hand.

"But it is not self-evident that there is no chance of any harm, and the people of California are entitled not to take the risk," he said.

"Since when do Constitutional rights rest on the proof of no harm?" Walker parried, adding the First Amendment right to free speech protects activities that many find offensive, "but we tolerate those in a free society."
Judge Walker has yet to endure what will almost certainly be an avalanche of criticism that he is an "activist judge," but given past experience, that is more than likely only a temporary situation. Hopefully, he will continue pursuing this line of questioning, rooted as it is in the Constitution, the fairness of basic human rights, and last - but not least - The Daily Show. (And yes, this particular video has become my touchstone, my go-to, my "Free Bird" encore on this issue. But it deserves to be, as it so neatly and totally destroys the arguments against same-sex marriage, and does so in under five minutes.)

October 10, 2009

10th Annual Elite Karate Training Camp

No posts for a few days - I'm in Kansas City for the Japan Karate-Do Ryobu-Kai 10th Annual Elite Karate Training Camp. I've been to every one of them, but it's still hard to believe the event has been going on for a decade!

This year's Elite Camp should have good attendance and more than a few guests from other styles. As usual, I'm looking forward to the opportunity to see my sensei - and my sensei's sensei! - and focus on my own training, without having to do a lot of instruction. I'll be leading a session this time around, but Elite is always a great opportunity to tune one's self up a bit, and just be a student!

October 5, 2009

The Cost of Health Care Reform "Centrism"

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As the Senate Finance Commitee bill continues - for some bizarre reason - to be at the center of the health care reform debate, additional information has emerged about the dramatic societal price to be paid for the half measures championed by Chairman Max Baucus.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation notes that researchers from the Urban Institute have used their Health Insurance Policy Simulation Model to estimate changes in coverage and cost trends that would take place between now and 2019 if the health system is not reformed. The report shows that under the worst-case scenario, within 10 years:

  • The number of uninsured people would rise by more than 30 percent in 29 states. In every state, the number of people without insurance would jump at least 10 percent.

  • Premiums for businesses would increase, and would more than double in 27 states. Even in the best case scenario, premiums for employers would rise by more than 60% in 46 states.

  • In all 50 states, a smaller share of the population would receive health insurance through their job. In twenty-five states, the number of people with employer-provided coverage would fall by more than 10 percent.

  • Spending for Medicaid/Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) would rise by more than 75 percent in all states.

  • In 45 states, the dollar value of uncompensated health care in the system would more than double.
There will be certainly be switching costs in moving to a new system, but the lesson of recent history - President Clinton's efforts for reform being prime example - is that the bill will only get higher the longer we wait. Mr. Baucus's plan simply doesn't get the job done.

September 30, 2009

Sarah Palin Puts Her Name On A Book

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Big news, today, from the land of ghost writing and celebrity whoredom: former Alaska governor and podium finisher for worst vice presidential candidate in history, Sarah Palin, is "writing" a memoir. This weighty, 400-page tome - entitled Going Rogue - will be released in mid-November, just in time for one of your crazy relatives to ingest it and show up at Thanksgiving ready to quote choice passages from the people Mrs. Palin is employing to write things she'll pretend to have said.

And if that sounds like an unfair evaluation, I assure you, it's not. To give you a flavor of this exercise, contemplate the following quote from Jonathan Burnham, publisher of Harper (an imprint of HarperCollins, which is owned by Newscorp, which also owns Fox News - you get the idea):
Governor Palin has been unbelievably conscientious and hands-on at every stage, investing herself deeply and passionately in this project.
Notice anything about that sentence? How about the fact that no mention whatsoever is made of Mrs. Palin actually, you know, writing the book - or even teaming up to compose it? That would have been easy to convey with something along the lines of "The governor has been unbelievably dedicated and passionate about writing her memoirs," but instead we're apparently supposed to be impressed that Sarah Palin has been in the same room with the ghost writer(s) - or is at least taking their calls - regaling them with tales of all the things she should've said to Katie Couric. (See video, below.)

Of course, from a literary point of view, given Mrs. Palin's track record of rambling, grammar-torturing, reasoning-challenged speechifying, if left to her own devices, Going Rogue would be a wholly unreadable mess of meaningless aphorisms and analogies strained to the point of breaking.

Oh, yes - and let's not forget the lies and fear-mongering. For, no matter who actually assembles the prose, if history is any guide, we can be sure this "project" will include several outright lies, maybe even one in the same league as her most recent oeuvre, government health care "death panels". Good thing she ditched her responsibilities as chief executive of the 49th state, isn't it? She is clearly better serving Alaska by making speeches in Asia and pimping a new book.

It would be nice if Ruben Bolling is right, and that, like Ali G, Borat and BrĂ¼no , Sarah Palin is nothing more than another abusrdist comedic creation of Sacha Baron Cohen. That's obviously wishful thinking, but one thing is for certain: if John McCain's choice for vice president remains center stage for the Republicans, the GOP's plunge from national power to radical, regional party will only continue.

September 25, 2009

The End of the Modern Two-Party System?

For those unfamiliar with it, is a site founded by Kentuckian Drew Curtis that is justifiably famous for the category tags and often bitingly witty headlines its contributors assign news stories on topics ranging from "Not News" to "Sports" to "Business" to "Politics." (My own favorite tag, called simply "Florida," marks the consistently weird, head-shake-inducing news that often tumbles out of the Sunshine State.) FARK has a dedicated community of users who are not shy about expressing their opinions or mercilessly mocking the positions of others when they are poorly supported by facts or logic. While there is a fair amount rhetorical poo-flinging in the comment threads, veins of insightful thought are also often there to be gleaned.

Such was the case yesterday, in a thread headlined with "Conservative House Democrats say Nancy Pelosi isn't offering them protection against votes that could lose them their seats, which could lead to an electoral bloodbath in 2010." In the comments, a FARKer with the handle Magorn makes what I think are some excellent points about the shifting landscape of American political parties.

Magorn postulates that, if, as polls suggest, the Republican Party as we know it is devolving from a national power to merely a regional one, the so-called Blue Dog coalition of conservative Democrats may well represent the successor to the modern GOP, and be the future home for moderate Republicans. He puts it this way:
In the House of Representatives these days, we really have a three party system, not two. Blue Dogs really don't act, or vote much like "traditional" Democrats, and when you look closely, you realize that many of them come from districts once held by a now extinct species of politician called the "moderate Republican"...

They are the primary reason that, even though the Dems have a much bigger majority than the Republicans did last time around, the Dems haven't been nearly as effective as Republicans in getting things passed...

I wonder how long it will be before the Blue Dogs go full schism and form their own party, and whether, when that move comes, it will send the Republican party to wherever it is that discarded political parties like the Whigs or the Nativists or the Grangers end up...
While it is probably premature to sound the death knell for the GOP - the Democratic Party recovered from Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution in 1994 to recapture Congress after all - this viewpoint deserves consideration. For unlike the Democrats fifteen years ago, the Republicans haven't merely exhibited a predilection for self-entitlement and corruption, but led the country into two wars and trashed the economy in a way unseen in nearly a century.

History reveals that the majority party tends to lose seats in the midterm elections, and that may still happen in 2010. Such a respite for the GOP, however, might well be only temporary. Their wounds are deeper than those of the Democrats were when they were thrown out, and when an organization counts Sarah Palin, Michael Steele, and Glenn Beck among its leading lights, the idea that the political end of days for the GOP might be a span measured in a few short years, rather than decades, becomes harder to ignore.

September 19, 2009

The Demise of the Public Option Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

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Would it surprise you to know that the administration of George W. Bush believed passionately in the concept of health care as a right, and worked to enshrine it in foundational legal documents? It's true; just not in the United States. [h/t]

Deep within the Iraqi constitution - drafted by the Bush Administration in 2005 and ratified by the Iraqi people - can be found the following:
Article 31:

First: Every citizen has the right to health care. The state takes care of public health and provide the means of prevention and treatment by building different types of hospitals and medical institutions.

Second: Individuals and institutions may build hospitals or clinics or places for treatment with the supervision of the state and this shall be regulated by law.

In other words, American conservatives support the idea of universal health care as a full-blown, consitutional right for Iraqis, but decry even a public option for insurance as creeping socialism, a government takeover of medicine, and the first step on the road to ruin, when it comes to their fellow citizens.

Republicans have concentrated on whipping their supporters into a collective, raging freakout over the idea that a public option would create a nation of welfare queens, while conveniently ignoring the many ways government programs have improved their lives. While impossible to know for sure, it's a virtual certainty that the town hall shouters and tea party marchers aren't living the "socialism-free" life they'd like to believe.

I'm willing to bet that even Glenn Beck, the cretinous liar who has become the face of anti-Obamaism, claims a tax deduction for his mortgage, thereby asking the rest of us to effectively subsidize his house; and that, as a Mormon, he probably supports tax exemptions for the Church of Latter Day Saints, thus asking other Americans to support his religious beliefs. Effective government programs are everywhere, despite the paranoid delusions of the hardcore right wing. There are state university tuition rates subsidized by out-of-state students; tax breaks for new businesses; unemployment insurance; farm subsidies; support for museums; public education and transportation; health care for seniors; health care for veterans; etc., etc., etc., etc. The list goes on and on.

The convenient, ignorant blindness of those opposing health care reform through declarations of anti-socialism was perhaps most recently best illustrated by the man who told Republican Congressman Bob Inglis to "keep your government hands off my Medicare." That, however, may have been surpassed in the last few days by GOP Representative Kevin Brady, a staunch tea partier, who protested that the taxpayer-funded Washington, DC Metro didn’t prepare sufficiently for the anti-government rally held in the nation's capital on September 12th. The moronic irony is wondrous to behold.

All of this, of course, was the backdrop this week, as Senator Max Baucus finally unveiled the health care reform bill he and 5 other members of the Senate Finance Committee have been working on for months, and which has been touted as the best hope for a bipartisan solution to the current debate. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has observed Republican tactics over the past decade - which apparently doesn't include Senator Baucus - the GOP promptly ignored it, despite the fact that the bill was tailor-made to address alleged conservative concerns by, most notably, completely excluding a public option for health insurance.

Worse for Senator Baucus - but better for pretty much everyone else - was the fact that his legislation garnered almost zero support from the usually self-destructive Democrats. Former Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Howard Dean, a doctor himself, even went out of his way to publicly shred the bill:

The Baucus bill is the worst piece of healthcare legislation I've seen in 30 years... In fact, it's a $60 billion giveaway to the health insurance industry every year... It was written by healthcare lobbyists, so that's not a surprise. It's an outrage.
Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi reiterated that the House version of any health care reform legislation will contain a public option. Of some comfort is the fact that and whatever bill comes from the Senate can be amended to contain it, too, during the reconciliation process.

Make no mistake: this is vital. The cost of health insurance has risen 131% over the last decade, while wages have risen only 38% and inflation just 28%, a relative pace that is clearly unsustainable if health care is to be available to anyone other than the very wealthy. Even more strikingly, a new study just published in the American Journal of Public Health concludes that nearly 45,000 people die every year in the United States because they are uninsured:
Lack of health insurance is associated with as many as 44,789 deaths per year in the United States. The increased risk of death attributable to uninsurance suggests that alternative measures of access to medical care for the uninsured, such as community health centers, do not provide the protection of private health insurance.

Encouragingly, another study released this week in the New England Journal of Medicine reveals that almost three-quarters of physicians polled support either public-only or a mixture of public and private insurance, with just 27% backing private coverage exclusively. This, along with the commitment to reform President Obama exhibited in his speech to Congress last week, Mrs. Pelosi's statement, the general disapproval for Mr. Baucus' bill, and a new Senate effort to strip antitrust exemptions from the health insurance industry, is good news for those who believe that a public alternative is vital to forcing private insurance companies to compete and drive down prices.

Despite the best efforts of opponents to declare the public option dead, it very clearly is not. There is much more work to do in passing effective legislation that truly reforms health care, but momentum is rebounding, and there are some encouraging signs that one of the most intractable problems in American politics may finally be addressed in the near future.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has an excellent and succinct video about the public option: