Saturday, 30 December 2006

The Egalitarian Ideal

Is egalitarianism an unattainable, and thus naive, pointless abstraction, or is it a principle central to the American ideal? Politics always involves an interplay between philosophical abstractions and pragmatic concessions to reality. That is as it should be. We err terribly if a recognition of non-attainability leads to the abandonment of ideals.

In our personal lives, horizons are necessarily limited, and lofty goals often must be scaled back or altered in order to set new goals which are indeed attainable. Sadly for some, that means abandoning not only the unattainable goal, but also the worthy ideal which buttressed it. But for others it means balancing the ideals with realism, and achieving something that can make a difference, rather than overreaching and achieving nothing, or giving up and substituting lofty goals with cynical opportunistic ends.

Our nation's history serves as a testament to the worthiness of the egalitarian ideal, boldly written into our Declaration of Independence, but incrementally approached as two centuries saw the extension of the vote to non-land owners, then an end to slavery, then women's suffrage, and further progress in the mid-twentieth century in the rights of minorities. As Martin Luther King Jr, who participated in creating that progress noted in 1967, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." Formalization of an ideal, such as that written into the Declaration of Independence can have a lasting influence in moving toward that ideal, however unattainable the ultimate manifestation of the ideal can be.

Of course, there will always be inequities. There is wisdom in the oft heard counsel that "life isn't fair" and we do well to recognize that early. But that does not mean that fairness should be thrown away as a value, nor does it justify mistreatment of our fellow human beings, just because absolute equality is unattainable. No matter how much someone may buy into the notion that making things fair is a hopeless proposition, it always seems they will still be acutely aware when they are not dealt a fair hand.

The egalitarian ideal has been held up by people of various political stripes throughout America's history, and adopted broadly in many parts of the world as a worthy goal. No philosophy or party has the market cornered on it, nor do I wish for that, but for much of the last century Democrats have been more consistent than Republicans in holding it up as central to the American dream, and it is largely due to that emphasis that my own identification has remained that of a Democrat throughout my adult life. My party's candidates stumble and fail frequently enough, but the egalitarian ideal remains an American ideal to which I hope the Democrats can hold fast as we approach the future.

And let us all, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and others alike, continue to hold ideals and vision as a beacon to guide our policy and politics as we grapple with the realities in our imperfect world.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 14 December 2006

Yunus: Poverty is a threat to Peace

The Nobel committee chose wisely this year when they awarded the Peace Prize to Muhammad Yunus, whose Grameen Bank revolutionized credit and proved that poor women of Bangladesh were better credit risks than wealthy men in suits from New York. Yunus' acceptance speech last weekend, heard on Democracy Now, tells the story worth repeating:

"This year's prize gives the highest honor and dignity to the hundreds of millions of women all around the world who struggle every day to make a living and bring hope for better lives for their children. This is an historic moment for all of them. By giving us this prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has given important support to the proposition that peace is inextricably linked to poverty. Poverty is a threat to peace.

World's income distribution gives a very telling story. 94% of the world income goes to 40% of the world population, while 60% of people live only with 6% of the world income. Half of the world population lives on two dollars a day.

The millennium began with a great global dream. World leaders gathered at the United Nations in 2000 and adopted, among others, a historic goal to reduce poverty by half by 2015. Never in human history had such a bold goal been adopted by the entire world in one voice, one that specified time and size.

But then came September 11 and the Iraq war, and suddenly the world became derailed from the pursuit of this dream, with the attention of the world leaders shifting from the war on poverty to the war on terrorism. ’Til now, over $530 billion has been spent on the war in Iraq by the USA alone.

I believe terrorism cannot be won by the military action. Terrorism must be condemned in the strongest possible language. We must stand solidly against it and find all the means to end it. We must address the root cause of terrorism to end terrorism for all time to come. I believe that putting resources into improving the lives of the poor is a better strategy than spending it on guns.

Peace should be understood in a human way, in a broad social, political and economic way. Peace is threatened by unjust economic, social and political order, absence of democracy, environmental degradation and absence of human rights.

Poverty is the absence of all human rights. The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. For building stable peace, we must find ways to provide opportunities for people to live decent lives. The creation of opportunities for the majority of the people -- the poor -- is at the heart of the work that we have dedicated ourselves during the past 30 years.

I became involved in the poverty issue, not as a policymaker or as a researcher. I became involved because poverty was all around me, and I could not turn away from it. In 1974, I found it difficult to teach elegant theories of economics in the university classroom, in the backdrop of a terrible famine that was raging in Bangladesh. Suddenly, I felt the emptiness of all those theories in the face of the crushing hunger and poverty.

I wanted to do something immediate to help people around me, even if it was just one human being, to get through another day with a little more ease. That brought me face to face with poor people’s struggle to find the tiniest amounts of money to support their efforts to eke out a living.

I was shocked to discover a woman in the village, borrowing less than a dollar from the money lender, on the condition that he would have the exclusive right to buy all she produces at the price that he decides. This, to me, was a way of recruiting slave labor.

I decided to make a list of the victims of the money lending in the village next door to our campus. When my list was complete, I had names of 42 victims, who borrowed a total amount of $27. I was shocked. I offered this $27 from my own pocket to get these victims out of the clutches of the money lenders.

The excitement that was created among the people by this action got me further involved in it. If I could make so many people so happy with such a tiny amount of money, why shouldn’t I do more of it? That’s what I have been trying to do ever since.

The first thing I did was try to persuade the bank located in the campus to lend money to the poor. But that didn’t work. They didn’t agree. The bank said that the poor are not creditworthy. After all my efforts for several months, when it failed, I offered to become a guarantor for the loans to the poor.

When I gave the loans, I was stunned by the result I got. The poor paid back their loans on time, every time. But still, I kept confronting difficulties in expanding the program through the existing banks. That was when I decided to create a separate bank for the poor. I finally succeeded in doing that in 1983. I named it Grameen Bank or Village Bank.

Today, Grameen Bank gives loans to nearly 7 million poor people -- 97% of them are women -- in 73,000 villages of Bangladesh. Grameen Bank gives collateral-free income-generating loans, housing loans, student loans and micro-enterprise loans to the poor families and offers them a host of attractive savings, pension funds and insurance products for its members.

Since it introduced them in 1984, housing loans have been used to construct 640,000 houses. The legal ownership of these houses belongs to the women themselves. We focused on women, because we found giving loans to women always brought more benefits to the family.

In a cumulative way, the bank has given out a loan totaling about $6 billion. Repayment rate, 99%. Grameen Bank routinely makes profit. Financially, it is self-reliant and has not taken donor money since 1995. Deposits and own resources of Grameen Bank today amount to 143% of all outstanding loans. According to Grameen Bank's internal survey, 58% of our borrowers have crossed the poverty line.

Grameen Bank was born as a tiny homegrown project run with the help of several of my students, all local girls and boys. Three of these students are still with me in Grameen Bank, after all these years, as its topmost executives. They are here today to receive this honor you gave us.

This idea, which began in Jobra, a small village in Bangladesh, has spread around the world. There are now Grameen-type programs in almost every country in the world.
The photo of the weaver comes from this 2002 article on Yunus and microcredit from Sustainable Times.

Sunday, 12 November 2006

John Haynes Holmes & Harry Emerson Fosdick

Two forward thinking theologians active in the early part of the twentieth century have been brought to my attention recently. Harry Emerson Fosdick began his ministry in the Baptist tradition of my own upbringing, while John Holmes Haynes started his ministry in the Unitarian tradition which I have now adopted in its Unitarian Universalist incarnation. Both were outspoken liberals within their traditions, creating some uproar in their day, but also engendering a dedicated following of progressive religious thinkers.

Reading their brief biographies points up the extent to which we share the same battles simply in different garb as those of our forebears, and that those on both sides of these battles have their foibles as they do their inspiration. Anyone with insight into the lives of either of these two, or perhaps on any interaction between them is invited to comment here.

Friday, 10 November 2006

Keep it Simple, Congress

Already I have some more advice for the new Democratic majorities in Congress.

Write some really simple legislation.

Americans are already disgusted with the "I'll scratch your back, if you'll scratch mine" system of governance in which bills become absurd conglomerations of disparate issues which no one wholly agrees with and no one wholly disagrees with. With majorities, Democrats have an opportunity to just say no to that process, and put bills in front of the President which are popular with the American people and carry no baggage that spoil their central theme.

Minimum wage is a great example. Democrats should avoid the temptation to fill a minimum wage bill with liberal riders. Make the President's veto, if he dares, mean exactly that he thinks it's ok for employers to pay sub-poverty wages.

Reverse the worst of the Republican legislation of the last 12 years a piece at a time. There's so much to do - make each piece of it as simple as possible. Allow the government to negotiate the best prices with pharmaceuticals for prescription drugs. Reverse the media consolidation rules which squelch diversity of opinion broadcast over TV and radio. Etc, etc, etc. One at a time the American people can come to understand that Democratic leadership is in their best interest. But only if the Democrats deliver that leadership.

No doubt Bush will be dusting off his veto pen at long last, but maybe there's a limit to the number of popular bills that an unpopular president can get away with vetoing. Opportunities abound; I'm choosing hope.

Wednesday, 8 November 2006

Russ Feingold, 2008: A Principled Progressive

[Update 12 Nov: Russ Feingold on Saturday, 11 November 2006, withdrew his name from consideration for the Democratic ticket for 2008. Who can blame anyone for not wanting to go through a grueling campaign, much less actually have to run the executive branch of government. If he says he's out, I believe him - Feingold has always been a man of his word. I maintain the central sentiment of this message nonetheless. A principled stand for progressive values, consistently applied can win the respect of the American people, even when those values are frequently deemed to be "more liberal" than the average American. Dare to dream!]


A 12 year stranglehold on the lower chamber of our Congress by the greed-driven faction of the Republican party has been decisively broken. The grown ups (hopefully) can now set the agenda, and reasonable Republicans can participate.

So why wait on looking toward 2008?

It's time to break the right-left dichotomy myth as well.

Principled Progressive values are common sense compassionate values which in their simplest form are shared by the majority of the American people.

Russ Feingold has represented those values consistently with integrity and grace.

They'll say he's "too far left". Let him speak. America is ready to listen.

They said Howard Dean's 50 state strategy was nuts. It wasn't. Dean has been a great nuts and bolts leader of the Democratic Party.

Russ Feingold can be an inspirational leader of our great nation.

Dare to dream!

Fire Rumsfeld, Jail Cheney, Impeach Bush!

Nay, do it not ye Dems of the new majorities.

However little doubt you may have that those criminal miscreants deserve such fates, the agenda of the 110th Congress must not and will not be consumed with recriminations, but rather with doing the necessary business of this nation which has been so woefully neglected over the last six years.

At this time, expedience must trump justice. The not-so-perilous Nancy Pelosi realizes it well, and in spite of the hue and cry from the right over her misperceived extremism, all indications are she gets it, and will successfully negotiate the balance between overplaying the Democrats' hand and governing too timidly.

Investigations will occur, and rightly so! But the emphasis will be (or should be) on uncovering corruption that has remained hidden, not on targeted witch hunts of particular individuals.

Front and center instead will be popular measures like raising the minimum wage, retracting the ban on negotiating prices with big pharmaceuticals, breaking the link between lobbyists and legislation, and finally enacting all the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. "Drain the GOP swamp", Ms Pelosi, America won't find it so controversial.

As for the title actions of this post? Well this observer suspects Rumsfeld may see the writing on the wall and take care of the first himself by resigning without giving Bush a choice in the matter. Calls for his resignation or dismissal are already much broader than ever, coming from scarcely ideologically driven sources. Bringing our Vice President to justice for his lies and reckless policies may never happen. He will be shamed by history, however, when all is said and done, as will his boss who delegated his responsibilities in foreign policy to a naive band of fools whose hubris led to a destabilization of the Middle East which we will have to live with for years to come. I'm afraid the Dems don't have the magic glue for fixing that pot, much less the authority to do much if they did.

Still I will savor this moment, knowing that the repudiation of the power corrupt Republican leadership was shared by liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike. This is still, on balance, a conservative nation, but we learned last night that shutting out voices of reason from the other side can only last so long. I don't think Democrats will make the same mistake, at least not now. And perhaps conservatives will learn in the next two years that the principled cravings of progressive Democrats are not as out of touch with mainstream American values as they have been led to believe.

Saturday, 4 November 2006

My Land, Your Land, Our Land

My home state of Washington must fend off an atrociously crafted property rights initiative, I-933, in next Tuesday's election. A recent poll suggests cause for great hope in both this race and the other initiatives in my state. If it proves true, I believe it will be the first time ever that I voted on the winning side of every initiative here.

Property rights measures often succeed by appealing to Americans' notions about property ownership and the American dream. "Property fairness" is the rallying cry of its supporters. My own predisposition is to be very distrustful of property rights movements, which are often motivated by greed and selfishness at the expense of the public good. That doesn't mean I cannot acknowledge instances where simplistically crafted regulations constrain reasonable uses of people's land creating justifiable resentment against government. But the answer doesn't lie in a simplistically crafted initiative voted on by the public at large, rather than having elected representatives hammer out the details to mitigate problems with existing regulation.

Even the Yakima Herald-Republic in conservative eastern Washington farm country was able to recognize the problems with an initiative approach to solving these complex issues:
About the most positive thing we can say about Initiative 933 is that it is a good example of why it's bad public policy to write complex state laws by initiative -- absent the give-and-take of debate and compromise in the legislative arena.
No doubt their predisposition on property rights differs considerably from mine, but even so we've come to the same conclusion.

The down side to having such strong predispositions is that I'm less inclined to become as fully informed as I might about issues where I'm more doubtful of my own stance. I reacted strongly against an online libertartian-right "voters guide" sent me by a libertarian leaning friend. While I am sufficiently informed to be quite certain that I-933 would make bad law, that certainty has hampered me from doing the background research to make that case to someone who doesn't share my predispositions.

Hence my follow up answer to her was couched in some uncertainty:
I don't pretend to be an expert, but my impression is that 933 proponents claim that the state, counties, and municipalities frequently write regulations which are in abridgement of the state constitution because they do devalue the property without compensation, and that their initiative simply enforces the constitution.

I believe some claims of devaluation are specious, some are correct, and some are debatable. For just about any issue one can find gray areas. In my opinion this initiative gives ammunition to any property owner whose personal interpretation of any post-1996 regulation leads him/her to believe there property has been devalued to sue for damages or to have the regulation overturned. Having encountered folks I deem as "property rights yahoos" in action before, that has me seeing red. Lots of these folks are motivated by greed and get their undies in a bunch at some perceived injustice when reasonable regulations spell out that there are certain uses prohibited of their land. Some may even seek compensation for potential profits they are being denied that they really didn't even intend to take advantage of.

If someone buys land at some point when regulations at the time of purchase allow them to build a residence and regulations change to disallow that, then I believe the current constitution should come into play to protect their interests, and they should either be allowed to build or be compensated for takings. Again, I'm not an expert, but I believe such cases don't require this initiative. While there may be cases where an owner has been unreasonably hurt by regulation, and deserves redress, this initiative is not the silver bullet for providing that redress. In spite of a few exceptions written into 933, its language adopts a far too broad approach which in the completely accurate words of the No campaign "goes too far, and costs too much."
I further acknowledged that there are some cases of eminent domain abuse, such as the Kelo decision, where I actually sided with the conservative justices. The public good argument didn't fly in that case for me - rather it seemed like a municipality caving to moneyed interests. Especially in an instance where the result of the decision is to force someone out of their own home so it can be developed into a condominium to be sold to wealthier people.

So I am not always kneejerk reactive against property rights, but an early fondness for William Faulkner and the Native American sensibility about the land and ownership do cause me to cast a wary eye toward those for whom property rights is their most burning issue. So while I won't be burning the paperwork that the bank has given me regarding my investment in a certain plot of land, I will always regard it with a certain bemused attitude toward the concept that human beings own little pieces of the earth's crust. Any piece of land is part of a system which takes precedence over anyone's putative ownership of that piece. An ownership system is fine as long as ownership obliges the owner to appropriate stewardship of their holding. The land after all will be around long after we depart.

Thanks to Land Use Watch from neighboring Oregon for the pointer to the recent encouraging poll.

Monday, 2 October 2006

Death penalty thrown out in Cory Maye case

Coincidentally, I happened upon today's daily podcast at the Cato Institute, a site I rarely visit, which featured news on the Cory Maye case which I highlighted here back in January and February of this year.

The good news is that the death penalty was thrown out in this case. In the podcast Radley Balko explains three possible actions that the current presiding judge could take. He could refer the case directly to resentencing; he could override the jury's verdict and declare Maye not guilty (which Balko says precedent would clearly allow, and perhaps even dictate in this case), or he could schedule the case for retrial, which Balko believes to be the most likely scenario.

I highly recommend the podcast, a compelling interview with Balko.

Wednesday, 20 September 2006

Maher Arar, I'm profoundly sorry

Just how many letters of profound apology are owed to innocent victims of our overzealous policies supposedly aimed at curbing terrorism? And how much animosity and likely future terrorism has been created by these misguided policies?

Khaled el-Masri, I'm profoundly sorry
Maher Arar, I'm profoundly sorry

I'm profoundly sorry that my government abdicated its responsibility in determining your innocence, and instead sent you to foreign lands where you were tortured and brutalized and made to confess to acts which you did not do. My government still seeks to excuse their criminal negligence against you and your loved ones, but I do not excuse them. Please forgive my fellow Americans for too long tolerating this sort of behavior from their government.

el-Masri and Arar are the two on this list of examples (scroll down) of extraordinary rendition who are clearly innocent. Many of the others there were apprehended on arguably flimsy evidence. In any case America should be about due process, and abdicating our responsibility to deal with likely terrorists because "wink, wink" these other governments without our scruples might be able to extract confessions, is a morally bankrupt and counter productive policy.

Oh, but we have Alberto Gonzales' assurance that:
Well, we were not responsible for his removal to Syria, I'm not aware that he was tortured, and I haven't read the Commission report. Mr. Arar was deported under our immigration laws. He was initially detained because his name appeared on terrorist lists, and he was deported according to our laws.

Some people have characterized his removal as a rendition. That is not what happened here. It was a deportation. And even if it were a rendition, we understand as a government what our obligations are with respect to anyone who is rendered by this government to another country, and that is that we seek to satisfy ourselves that they will not be tortured. And we do that in every case. And if in fact he had been rendered to Syria, we would have sought those same kind of assurances, as we do in every case.
Mr Gonzales you are a moral cripple who should be disbarred, let alone be sitting as the chief law enforcement officer of our land. That's harsh language against someone who appears so reasonable, and no doubt would be incapable of inflicting torture on anyone himself. But it was Gonzales who as chief counsel to the President was architect to internal policies weakening our commitment to the Geneva Conventions, referring to them as "quaint" and giving cover to those who created the environment for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, many against entirely innocent Iraqis who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

If Gonzales had any decency we would be expressing profound regret at the pain and suffering caused to innocent families trapped by the web of his own making. But instead he defends, denies, and asks us to believe that the government is satisfied in every case that such extradited prisoners will not be tortured.

But they were. Time and time again. Why send them except because we know that these other governments are not constrained as we are? And we are far less constrained already because of your policies? When will we renounce this madness? And still Bush stubbornly fights members of his own party to weaken our commitment against inhumane and degrading treatment. Canada's Harper could use some lessons in humility as well.

This is surely beyond the pale, and I just don't get those who don't understand that.

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

WA State Supreme Court Race Results

Of the major TV websites, it looks like King5 has the best primary night election coverage of those important races for Supreme Court.
At the moment Gerry Alexander vs John Groen is too close to call, the incumbent holding a 5 point edge with 25% counted. It looks like the presence of the extra candidates will cause a run-off to happen in the race between Susan Owens and Stephen Johnson, and nutcase Burrage will fail to get on the court.

It would be interesting to do in depth polling of the 22% of people who are voting for one of the other 3 candidates in the Owens-Johnson race, since Owens and Johnson by all previous reports were really the only serious candidates. Are these folks contrarians, guessing, or might those who voted for the other Johnson just be mixing up the names.

Well my fingers are crossed for Alexander - Groen seems downright creepy to me. We'll still have to drum up support for Owens in the General election in November.

Monday, 18 September 2006

Codifying Prisoner Mistreatment a Grievous Mistake

Stephen Daugherty wrote an excellent article on WatchBlog yesterday which did a great job of covering the bases on why writing in exceptions to (clarifying, according to Bush) the Geneva Conventions when it comes to humiliating and degrading treatment of prisoners is just awful policy on so many levels. I highly recommend the full article, but suggest that you just skip the comments section.

A Time for Partisanship

We should yearn for dialogue, not stridency; for calmly deliberated, rational solutions in public policy, not do-nothing bickering between shrill ideologues which leaves us with the status quo.

Frustration in America is palpable across the political spectrum. People with very different ideas about what direction is best are rightly annoyed that partisan divisiveness has engendered a climate of distrust.

Appealing to that frustration can result in some pretty compelling political advertising by candidates from any party who claim to represent a sensible deliberate approach to governance while attacking partisanship as a divisive source of political gridlock.

In my state of Washington, Republican candidate for Senate, Mike McGavick, is airing such a set of commercials. But I know that McGavick supports policies which run counter to my idea of good governance. (And his implication that incumbent Senator Cantwell is an exemplar of partisan divisiveness is dishonest. Cantwell's biggest problem may well come from the pacifist sensibilities of the liberal leaning Puget Sound electorate, many of whom were upset with the extent to which she supported Bush's Iraq policy.) More importantly, independents and moderate Republicans need to understand that in order for real dialogue to be restored, one-party control of government must be squashed.

That's right -- partisanship, specifically Democratic partisanship, is desperately needed right now to bring some balance to government so that dialogue can return.

Jack Whelan at the After the Future, summed it up brilliantly in a pair of posts (1) & (2) a month ago. Please read them both!
. . . moderates play right into the hands of the far right which hopes that no one mounts a serious opposition to their agenda. The longer the hard right can keep the moderates diverted in "reasonable" conversation, the more time it gives it to consolidate power. That's why moderates need throw their support to partisan Democrats, whether they like them or not. There is no other way to create a potent counterbalance to the power-grabbing agenda of the right. The right works hard to present a reasonable facade, but feels no need to negotiate or compromise unless it is forced to do so, and at the moment there is no political power potent enough to force such negotiations.

So my point is that moderates, if they really understood how serious the threat we are facing, would have no choice but to become partisans in opposing the current power grab by the far right. There is no way to communicate the seriousness of this threat moderately. And since moderates are inoculated against immoderate language, they cannot hear the alarm because it is alarmist. As such they are vulnerable to manipulation by the far right who achieve their ends precisely by playing moderates for the moderates that they are.

. . . There are no moderates in one-party systems; there are only collaborators. ... I consider myself a centrist, but I know many readers consider me alarmist. ... And I am particularly alarmed that moderates are still sitting on the fence because they think that's the grownup, reasonable thing to do. On the contrary, it's time to get alarmed, very alarmed.
Someone reading only this, or for that matter only Jack's articles might well complain that we have not cited the evidence that requires such an alarm. But I have to wonder what box such a person must have been living in for the last 5 years.

Friday, 15 September 2006

It's a Big Time in America

That was Jim Hightower's catchphrase last night as he entertained, agitated, and communed with an activist rich community last night in Seattle's Town Hall.

Hightower never minces words in his indictment of the powers that be who misuse their wealth and power to separate themselves from the rest of us, but what secures my admiration of him is his unrelenting optimism in spite of his often dire analysis. He finds the underlying progressivism in the fabric of America, even among those who think of themselves as conservative. Of Republican mothers he comments, "Guess what? They don't want pesticides on their babies' food."

"We don't have to create a progressive movement, we just have to go out and collect it up!"

There were zingers aplenty.

America depends on its agitators to beat out the dirt.

The bigwigs are "gettin' so rich they could air condition hell, and I tell you what ..."

When the Bushites tell the poor about their number of jobs they created, one working poor woman respond "I know, I have 3 of them!" (Then Hightower went on the expose that myth noting that Bush has created the fewest jobs of any president since Hoover.)

He quoted fellow Texan Bill Moyers who has noted that "the delusional is no longer marginal."

He made fun of himself, noting that at an earlier point in his career he decided to "stop running for office, and start running his mouth."

But beyond the barbs, Hightower's optimism takes over. He told the faithful that "pursuit of egalitarianism is America's true path." He doesn't pretend that the road will be easy or that it will be short. He reminded us that suffragists Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton never lived to get the vote themselves. But what they wrought brought America one step closer to its egalitarian destiny. Hightower referred to the "prairie fires of rebellion across America" today - "It's a big time in America!" and he quoted the Chinese proverb, "Those who say it can't be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."

He talked about how lucky he is to be able to travel all over America and meet the people who are getting things done. He thanked the crowd - not for coming to hear him, but for being on the front lines of the fight to retain our democracy. He thanked the sponsors. He thanked the Seattle Peace Chorus who had warmed the crowd up with several rousing songs of hope. He took a moment to remember the recently passed Ann Richards, another rabble-rousing Texan who made a real difference in moving that state forward in an earlier decade. His words were a accompanied by a genuine warmth, a warmth that was felt by a number of us lucky enough to meet him before the main event. Jim Hightower is the real deal, not just a blabbermouth ideologue looking for attention. He understands that the struggle is not about ideology, it's about truth.

All of us are going to be wrong sometimes, and sometimes partial truths can lead well intentioned people to disastrous decisions. But other times it's pretty obvious what's going on, and if we're all too timid to say it the powerful will continue to run roughshod over us. Timidity is certainly not among Hightower's shortcomings. We can always count on the sharp-witted Texan to give it to us straight in his "Lowdown", regulary aired on many public radio stations. But if you ever get a chance to see him live, don't miss it. Hightower live is a helluva treat.

Sunday, 10 September 2006

"Exquisite Hypocrisy"

That's how Noemie Maxwell captioned the photo of unqualified Washington State Supreme Court candidate John Groen in her excellent article, Buying Justice & Lying About It over at Washblog.
This [Groen] is the man who touts his "eighteen years (of) experience before the Washington Supreme Court, advocating for property rights," He's raised, $276,061.56 for this race, according to Washington's Public Disclosure Commission records. Much of it's from from lumber, construction, and development interests. Scads of it was poured into the campaign right before a June deadline that made such contributions illegal. SDS Company, for example, which provided $25,000 right before that deadline, is a lumber company from Klickitat County. Then we've got $25,000 from the principals of another development company, Sundquist Homes. And so on.

Gerry Alexander, our current chief justice, known as a moderate, adhered to the letter and spirit of Washington's law and has raised only $47,581.60. Alexander, according to King County Bar Association, is exceptionally well qualified.

We have only a week to expose the hypocrisy of those attempting to buy justice for their narrow well-moneyed interests. I fear Susan Owens is in particular trouble in her race against a better qualified (better qualified than Groen is faint praise) property-rights ideologue, Stephen Johnson who has secured several more media endorsements in his attempt to unseat the incumbent, who bravely sided with the minority in the recent high profile case on gay marriage. Hopefully, nutcase Jeanette Burrage's reputation will keep her from unseating the outstanding sitting justice Tom Chambers.

In the long term, we need to get our state to revisit a system which allows a primary vote to be the final determinant for these important offices, but all we can do now is to make sure our friends and acquaintances are informed and don't let the real "activist judges" take over the court for the building industry.

Resources include
Voting for Judges
Public Disclosure Commission

Friday, 18 August 2006

The Election of Judges

Once again in my state of Washington, important Supreme Court Judges are about to be chosen in a likely low-turnout primary. Once again right-wing "property rights" advocates are attempting a stealth campaign to get their frequently under-qualified ideologues who do not represent the majority of our electorate into these powerful positions.

I fear the same sort of thing is happening across the country, as studies show that in recent elections money is being pumped into these judicial campaigns at unprecedented levels. Personally I question the wisdom of popularly electing judges. I want qualified judges who have gone through a thoughtful review process, not pretty faces who are good at waging an election campaign. Further, the majority of the electorate simply isn't interested in doing the research necessary to make a truly informed decision.

My short-term message to Washington voters is to reelect incumbent justices Owens, Alexander, and Chambers, and incumbent appeals judge Becker. My longer term question is can we work toward changing our silly system of electing judges in which unqualified candidates such as Jeanette Burrage are even allowed to run, and special interest money is allowed to hijack our judicial process?

Nationwide, most states do elect justices, though in many of those the vote is a referendum on retaining an already appointed judge, thus largely avoiding the danger of unqualified ideologues bypassing a more professional review. Of course appointments can result in bad choices as well, so I'm not sure what system is best, only that the popular election system currently in place in Washington and nearly half the other states is badly flawed. Here is a snapshot of the system in place in each of the states back in 1995. I do not know how much it may have changed since then. Here is a more recent document (pdf) with somewhat different information about the courts in all the states.

Saturday, 12 August 2006

Bill Moyers: on Faith & Reason

Though I taped the whole series, I was delighted to find the complete transcripts on line just now, in easy to read & easy to print format:

1 - Salman Rushdie
2 - Mary Gordon and Colin McGinn
3 - Jeanette Winterson and Will Power
4 - Anne Provoost and David Grossman
5 - Richard Rodriguez and Sir John Houghton
6 - Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis
7 - Pema Chodron

Thank you Bill, for coming back to public television. America desperately needs your calm wisdom and openness. I couldn't blame you personally for leaving NOW after making it one of the finest investigative acts on television, but shortening the show to half and hour accentuated my disappointment. And I was aghast that an ideologue such as Kenneth Tomlinson could spend our tax dollars to try to "prove your liberal bias". You got it right when you fired back:
The more compelling our journalism, the angrier the radical right of the Republican Party gets. That's because the one thing they loathe more than liberals is the truth. And the quickest way to be damned by them as liberal is to tell the truth.

Hey, I know you won't do it, but I've long harbored the same wish that Molly Ivins recently expressed in an op-ed piece:
imagine, if seven or eight other Democratic candidates, all beautifully coiffed and triangulated and carefully coached to say nothing that will offend anyone, stand on stage with Bill Moyers in front of cameras for a national debate … what would happen? Bill Moyers would win, would walk away with it, just because he doesn’t triangulate or calculate or trim or try to straddle the issues. Bill Moyers doesn’t have to endorse a constitutional amendment against flag burning or whatever wedge issue du jour Republicans have come up with. He is not afraid of being called “unpatriotic.” And besides, he is a wise and a kind man who knows how to talk on TV.

I wonder how much mail Moyers has received since Ivins posted his P.O. Box at the end of her article. I think I should send some love his way. What a gentle soul.

Thursday, 10 August 2006

Knowledge is Best Defense against Terrorism

In the days and weeks following 9/11, what always struck me as missing in the response was a clear message to the terrorists that they had used up that method of operation. Not because of new security measures at airports, but because the method was now common knowledge. What happened on the Flight 93 was proof, that given knowledge our citizens can be relied upon to react as necessary. UK Terrorist Plot

Terrorists depend on secrecy in their planning. If one week before 9/11 the plans for hijacking planes with box cutters & running them into buildings had been announced, and such warnings given regularly at all airports, then I dare say 1) the terrorists wouldn't have even tried it & 2) if they had other passengers would have fought them before they were ever able to get to the cockpit. Not that there might not have been lives lost, but the plot would have been foiled.

Just how surreptitiously could a person or persons carry out this new threat of mixing ingredients on planes.
Chertoff said the terrorists planned to bring various bomb components in a benign state aboard the planes and combine them once the planes were aloft to create and detonate explosive devices. Sources tell CBS News correspondent Jim Stewart that these chemical bombs would have been set with timers to go off simultaneously.
Must the government step in to protect us from ourselves and prohibit everyone and their grandma from taking shampoo in their carry-ons? Ironically these restrictions probably won't last - but they will create terrible inconvenience for millions of passengers at the very time when they are probably least necessary: right after everyone knows of the plan and terrorists would be least likely to follow through with it.

It seems now is a good time to remind ourselves of JFK's "Ask not" quote.

Wednesday, 9 August 2006

Senators Tester & Lamont? Let's hope!

If I lived in Connecticut, I'd certainly have voted for Ned Lamont yesterday. Some people think that makes me radically left. That's just funny. There may be pieces of my world view which are radical by today's standards. Thinking that Ned Lamont will make a better Senator from Connecticut than Joe Lieberman sure ain't one of them. If Tester and Lamont both prevail in November, maybe we can boot the DLC - the so-called centrist; but in point of fact spineless - arm of the party out of its role of vetting who makes a good Democrat.

Don't let people label you as extreme for taking a sane stance. Progressives have become the moderates in America.

Tuesday, 25 July 2006

The Salient Condition

Amos Oz, longtime Israeli peace activist, whose 2003 account of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations brought a human face to both sides of that debate, last week defended Israel's recent incursions into Lebanon "as long as this operation targets mostly Hezbollah, and spares, as much as possible, the lives of Lebanese civilians". Israel Hezbollah Lebanon

I must ask Mr. Oz if his salient condition has been met when I read reports from Human Rights Watch such as this account of Israel's use of cluster bombs corroborated elsewhere in the media and not denied by Israel. I find less, but some recent corroboration for the Lebanese President's accusation that Israel is employing white phosphorus as a weapon. The characterization of Israel's recent military operations as targeting mostly Hezbollah, certainly seems well off the mark.

I'm more than a little troubled by Oz's phrase "targets mostly" anyway. I would have opted for "strictly targets, with an emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties." If a significant minority of the targets are not demonstrably Hezbollah or terrorist, and the munitions used against those that are are prone to inflicting indiscriminate civilian casualties as well, then I find this action indefensible. Certainly Amy Goodman's daily broadcast summarizing events in Lebanon on Democracy Now leaves this listener horrified, even as others are appropriately horrified by the indiscriminate shelling of Haifa by Hezbollah.

Here is an interview Amy conducted with Noam Chomsky and others in the early days of the conflict. I know Goodman and Chomsky will be dismissed by right leaning pundits as extreme or "far left", but while I'll not take every word they say at face value, I cannot dismiss so easily the voices they bring to us which the mainstream media so easily ignores.

Wednesday, 19 July 2006

Gitmo & the SCOTUS decision revisited

Jack Grant of Random Fate asked this salient question 10 days ago:
In what twisted universe is it that the President of the United States has to be TOLD by the courts that an extra-legal prison that uses “stress positions” and other “coercive” means of interrogation is not only ill-advised in a war that depends more on image than on casualties but also completely contrary to the most fundamental of American values including the rule of law?
I've been catching up a little on some blogs I used to frequent but had dropped the habit. Jack and the "Rev. Gisher" are always good for keeping both sides of our political divide on their toes.

Monday, 17 July 2006

Opposition to Tyranny

Ideologues of all varieties often think of themselves as opposed to tyranny. And so they ascribe to opposing ideologies a tendency to produce tyranny. On this point they may be largely correct, while remaining blind to the tendencies of their own ideology to do the same.

Years ago I took on the mantle of liberal, and still I like it as well as any - though arguments can be made that progressive is the better label for the ideals I ascribe to. And so it was that "conservative" philosophy was what supposedly stood in opposition to my ideals, and indeed it has been rare that I could rightly be described as conservative. And yet I have often found individuals who self-label as conservative to be decent folk as genuinely committed to principles founded on moral behavior as many of my liberal colleagues who are quite genuinely committed to principles of equity and opportunity for all.

During my college years I still recall the excitement with which a friend extolled a new ism, which seemed to capture the piece of liberalism which was true and right, but without some of the naivete often ascribed to it. I listened, not fully convinced, to his description of libertarianism which in the late 70s was far less well known than it is today. Certainly the notion of individualistic freedom which was already engrained into me as an American was appealing. It seems that only a few days or weeks later, that the same friend came back disillusioned, describing these libertarians as nothing more than laissez-faire capitalists minus the puritanical authoritarianism of our caricature of traditional conservatives.

Reagan co-opted the economic piece of libertarianism and branded the Republican party with it, much to my dismay, but undeniably to the political advantage of Republicans who now tapped into a whole new constituency raised in a more permissive generation not likely to go back to the more restrictive brand of conservatism, but amenable to this new animal. But it is this economic libertarianism which I now find more pernicious than the stodgy old-fashioned conservatism, and more in opposition to my own ideals.

But there are pieces of truth in any way of thinking. What we should agree on is that tyranny must be avoided. Libertarians seek to avoid the tyranny of big government, liberals seek to avoid the tyranny of big business, conservatives the tyranny of permissiveness, et cetera. The ideals always feel principled, but the reality is that mundane concepts like checks and balances remain the best weapon against encroaching tyranny, and at any given time the greatest threat of tyranny lies in the hands of whomever it is that holds the most power. Jack Whelan, at After the Future writes:
in the world we live in the real threat of tyranny comes not from the political sector, but from the economic. For me the fundamental flaw in Libertarian thinking is its failure to recognize this. Tyranny derives from the abuse of power, and so it follows that the greatest threat to freedom comes from those who have the greatest concentrations of power. Look around you. Does that power lie in the hands of Liberal congressmen and professors? Of course not. It lies with those factions within American society which have enormous economic power. And the greatest threat to American democracy lies not in the power of big government if it serves the will of the broad electorate, but in the power of big government if it serves the will of those with enormous economic power.

The Libertarians fixation with freedom and economic prosperity seems to blind them to how their emphasis of them leads to problems with the distribution of power. They seem not to care at all about the dangers associated with the growing concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer hands. They seem not to realize how that concentration of power is the direct result of their hard work to pull back government power as a counterbalance to economic power. The kind of crony capitalism that we're seeing in Washington now is not caused by a failure of conservatives to live up to their ideals; it is the inevitable result of economic power moving into the territory from which good government has retreated. If the government won't stand as a counterbalance to economic power, it inevitably winds up being coopted by it. And then neither principled conservatives nor principled Liberals get what they want--they both have to deal with a big, bloated government serving the needs of big pharma, big oil, or the big companies that make their money from military spending.

He also points to an excellent article at Washington Monthly by Alan Wolfe "Why Conservatives Can't Govern"
Eager to salvage conservatism from the wreckage of conservative rule, right-wing pundits are furiously blaming right-wing politicians for failing to adhere to right-wing convictions. . . . A conservative president and an even more conservative Congress must be repudiated to enable genuine conservatism to survive. . . . [They say the Bush presidency failed] because Bush and his Republican allies in Congress borrowed big government and foreign-policy idealism from the left. . . . Of course, many of these dissidents extolled the president's conservative leadership when he was riding high in the polls. But the real flaw in their argument is akin to that of Trotskyites who, when confronted with the failures of communism in Cuba, China and the Soviet Union, would claim that real communism had never been tried. If leaders consistently depart in disastrous ways from their underlying political ideology, there comes a point where one has to stop just blaming the leaders and start questioning the ideology.
The brilliance of liberal democracy as conceived by our founding fathers was that it spoke to ideals but relied on the mundane instruments of checks and balances to keep new tyrannies at bay. If it needs any tweaking, that should be based on any new imbalances that may creep in. It's why I am often a broken record here concerned about corporate wealth and power, for surely that is the primary clear imbalance in our own country, and by extension to a large degree throughout the world, which of course has plenty of pockets of extreme tyranny of other descriptions which are also to be despised. One tyranny cannot justify itself simply by spending some of its energy in opposition to another tyranny. I suspect Osama bin Laden is genuinely appalled by Western profligacy even as he is blind to the horrific nature of his response to it. We should rightly oppose the tyranny of bin Laden or Saddam or Mugabe or Kim Jong Il, but we needn't therefore champion the growing disparity of power in our own country just because it can be manipulated in opposition to the former -- even if it had been done more competently.

Right now the most important thing we can do as Americans is to preserve our democratic institutions and insure that we retain pluralism and restore trust in our vote counting mechanism. We are certainly due for a correction - if that correction is made unavailable by corruption and tampering with our democratic processes it will be huge loss not only to America, but to the world at large as well.

Friday, 14 July 2006

Damned Week

Violence in Mumbai.

Violence in Iraq.

Violence in Lebanon & Israel.

Violence in Sri Lanka.

May the peacemakers persevere. It would be so easy to give up in this world.

I'll take solace in knowing that for many the week past was a damned good one. Celebrations must be allowed in the midst of horrors, else we cannot refuel to fight future horrors. Current horrors will always be with us, whether open or hidden. This past week just seemed especially bad.

And so it was good to see Bunnatine Greenhouse almost giddy over the Army's announcement finally that Halliburton's gig as a no-bid contractor has been cancelled.

But let's not forget the pain of those who lost so much this week. And let's not abandon the peacemakers.

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

Shine on You Crazy Diamond

I always thought of him as relatively obscure, but Syd Barrett's passing is receiving huge attention among bloggers. Says something about the staying power of a good tune. Since I heard this on the midday news, his tunes and those of Pink Floyd about him have been bouncing in my brain. I see it was noted that the other members of the band always made sure he received his royalties. Would that society at large so reliably take care of her casualties.

"I'd give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it."

Monday, 3 July 2006

Mexican Election Follow-up

Yesterday's national election in the United States of Mexico, are still officially too close to call, but with 98% of the vote counted, fiscal conservative Felipe Calderon appears to have a 1% edge and is speaking confidently. Concerns about unrest on the heels of a narrow Calderon victory are not yet laid to rest, but populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador stated:
Have patience. We are always going to act responsibly. If we lose the elections I will recognize that. But if we won the vote, I'm going to defend my triumph.
If the results hold up, there will certainly be those who suspect a stolen election, regardless of Obrador's own stance. Let's hope frustration does not descend into violence. If fraud seems very likely, perhaps Ukraine's Orange Revolution can serve as the model. I fear Americans are still just too comfortable to follow that model if and when our elections become systematically stolen.

Thursday, 29 June 2006

Idolatry: the Symbol over the Referent

Shall we protect our nation and our freedoms, or is our flag more important?

Earlier this week, the Senate came within 1 vote of wasting the time of legislators the country over by advancing the "cause" of a Constitutional Amendment to ban the desecration of the flag. My thanks go out to the 34 Senators who saved us from this nonsense - and shame on the 66 (or most of them) who voted for it.

Mark Kleiman stated it succinctly:
The notion of writing a restriction on freedom of expression into the text of the Constitution ought to offend every patriot. To pledge allegiance to the Flag instead of "the Republic for which it stands" is the political equivalent of the sin of idolatry: confusing a symbol with its referent, to the extreme of elevating the symbol above the referent.

The Bill of Rights is as central to that Republic as anything could be: surely more central than the Flag. So to deface the Bill of Rights in order to defend the Flag is political idolatry at its worst.
Then he goes on to allow that while sullying our Constitution is an offense, a statute against flag burning, if found constitutional would not be so objectionable. I can't agree - it would offend me - but I do see his point, and do agree with him that if the aye votes on the amendment by a few swing state Democrats help them retain their seats, that is probably worth it. Really it's the Republicans that ought to know better and speak sense to the American public. Few have much backbone when it comes to confronting the deep-seated emotional illogic which consumes so many Americans around reverence for the flag.

Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Robert Bennett of Utah, and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky were the lone Republicans willing to defend the Constitution rather than pander to false patriotism. Mitch McConnell's statement shows that there is a way to frame such a vote, and still do the requisite pandering anyway. It also shows that this is not an ideologically tied position. McConnell and Bennett are not among the more moderate Republicans. In fact, I recall that in 1989 when the Supreme Court held that anti-flag burning statutes are unconstitutional, it was arch-conservative Scalia who cast the deciding vote.

So enjoy your Fourths, folks - wave your flags - attend your parades, but watch out for any demagogues who try to impugn the patriotism of any of the 34 who avoided idolatry this week.

Wednesday, 28 June 2006

Turbulence on our Southern Border

Mexicans this weekend face a difficult choice as they try to read the tea leaves as to what a radical change of course would really mean. Those who genuinely long for reforms aimed at supporting the aspirations of the poor and weakening the grip of the wealthy and powerful on the purse strings of the country must be tempted by the populist promises of López Obrador, candidate of the Party of Democratic Revolution. But concerns that his numbers don't add up, and that his programs would wreck the economy, or that his messianic message would usher in a cult of personality damaging to democratic ideals are giving pause to many.

In 2000, Vicente Fox came in and ended 71 years of rule by the PRI, ending an era dominated by corruption. His business friendly policies were hardly welcomed by populists or the left. Felipe Calderón is the standard bearer of Fox's party, PAN, and promises stability. Recent polls show him trailing Obrador, but only by a few points. PRI candidate, Roberto Madrazo, is painting himself as the moderate between extremes on the right and the left, but trails the leaders in the polls by 8 or 9 points. PRI remains Mexico's largest party, but years of corruption have earned them plenty of distrust.

The possibility of an Obrador victory is at once the most exciting outcome and the scariest. Who can reliably predict how such changes will play out? When Robert Mugabe was elected President of Zimbabwe 26 years ago on the strength of a populist message there was great celebrating, but it took very little time for his rule to betray signs of tyranny, and today Zimbabwe stands in ruins while Mugabe lives in walled splendor as was sadly reported on last night's Frontline on PBS. My guess is that Obrador is genuine in his pronouncements now, but is he realistic or would his policies work?

The right will no doubt reflexively pull out the standard repeated failure of socialism meme and declare that Obrador would be a disaster, but as ever it will depend on the details, not on the putative ideology of the leader or his party. For now, anyway, there does not seem to be the fear and loathing from the usual quarters in U.S. politics against Obrador as we have seen against Hugo Chavez of Venezuela or Evo Morales of Bolivia. Of course he hasn't been elected yet.

An additional fear that hangs over this Mexican election is that Obrador is already accusing the ruling party of attempted fraud, so even if Calderón prevails, some see the likelihood of unrest in the wake of such charges.

Tuesday, 27 June 2006

Patriotism & Treason

When I wrote of the thin, thin line the other week, perhaps I should have defined it as the line between patriotism and treason. So thin sometimes it practically overlaps. I'm grateful not to have faced such a choice myself, but this is staying near the front of my consciousness. Saturday I chanced to be in a passenger car at the Dupont exit overpass where Thank You Lt supporters held banners over the interstate, and counter protestors nearby equated Watada's refusal with treachery. And in the mail that day I received my copy of Mission Rejected. A generally sympathetic blogger wrote privately
Just one tactical note: if the Democrats start supporting mutinous soldiers, it doesn't matter what we say about he minimum wage; we'll be the minority party forever.
Maybe so, but what constitutes mutiny in a questionable or worse war, and cannot people better understand a human story than an abstraction? I have the advantage of being far removed from the official voice of the Democratic party, but just how much pussyfooting should the official party do?

Stand in contrast, Dems - what you've been doing ain't been working.

Tuesday, 20 June 2006

Remember Muqtada al-Sadr?

Zarqawi is gone, and even I am glad for that. But in terms of influence, Muqtada al-Sadr may be scarier. Unfortunately, his death, I fear would backfire. Read the transcript [scroll down to In Depth: Dispatch From Iraq] of Fareed Zakaria's interview with Nir Rosen which aired two weeks ago on Foreign Exchange. It still chills me. In whose hands are we placing lethal power?

Monday, 19 June 2006

Minimum Wage Must Go Up

If there is any issue that Democrats ought to be able to unite behind without ambiguity, and know that they have a clear huge majority of Americans with them, it has to be insistence on an increase in the minimum wage. Libertarian and Republican arguments exist in opposition to the minimum wage, and I'm not opposed to their being aired and limited exceptions to a new reasonable minimum wage be part of new legislation, but it's a huge failure for the Democrats that they cannot succeed in getting this most fundamental requirement that the American worker be treated humanely written into law. Because unambiguously, paying an adult trying to support a family $5.15 an hour for full time permanent work is inhumane.

One exception I might allow, would be that temporary jobs could pay as little as $6 an hour, to allow for summer jobs for high schoolers, or retirees (such as campground managers). But the law should explicitly prohibit replacement of permanent positions with sequential temporary positions as a means of skirting the minimum wage increase. Courts should provide quick judicial review of such claims, and human judges should be able to quickly discern cases in which a corporation is misrepresenting a job as temporary.

A $9 minimum wage is a modest demand, and industries which rely on cheaper labor must adjust, because they are disrespecting their workers in paying the current minimum wage. $9 ia a large enough shift from the current obscene $5.15, that a phase in over 2 to 4 years is tolerable. Alternatively we could go with Senator Kennedy's proposal for now, and insist on another step later when Democrats control one or both branches of Congress.

I think the only reason Democrats are not strongly enough pushing this issue, is that it is not front and center for the establishment Democrats. Most of these Democrats in higher offices are affluent and sufficiently removed from poverty to be susceptible to the arguments from their libertarian leaning colleagues. They should get a clue. This issue plays well with the rank and file, including many cultural conservatives who left the party for Reagan in the eighties. Lots of these folks are just aching to come back now that the Republican elite has been exposed themselves as the aloof and privileged lot that they are. We don't need elitist Democrats focusing on cultural issues and ignoring the poor.

You will hear the argument that most of the minimum wage jobs are going to people looking for supplemental income who don't rely on it for their living. Whether it is most or some, it is obscene that anyone living in poverty is working full time. Listen to Dan's story. If the law causes two supplemental jobs held by people not relying on them to disappear for every one full time worker that it provides with a living wage, that is a clear net gain.

Others will talk of the inevitable siphoning of American jobs to outsourcing overseas. Yes this is a problem and raising the minimum wage will exacerbate it, but solutions must be found to put all Americans to work who are willing and able to work at a wage which will support them and boost the economy. Raising the minimum wage fixes a clear injustice and is easily understood. Outsourcing is already a problem which needs its own solutions. Keeping a minimum wage which has only been adjusted (and quite inadequately) for inflation since sometime in the seventies is quite simply immoral. The inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage is 26% lower in 2004 than it was in 1979, and there are real questions whether a minimum raise hike even causes a loss in jobs.

Do the right thing - call your representatives in Washington.


Current state of minimum wage across the country

Boston Globe article

Center for American Progress article


I see now that Ezra Klein posted about this last week.

He references this graph:
Which convinces me that my $9 suggestion is too high - I really ought to research before I post a guess such as that. It looks like Kennedy's proposal was right on the mark.

In spite of its clumsiness, my article drew a lot of good discussion over at Watchblog.

Unfortunately the Senate couldn't muster the will to do the right thing yesterday, and yet this vote suggests that they DID pass it (Required for Majority 1/2; Amendment agreed to) - but then later it was withdrawn?. What's going on here? The CNN article attests to the 52-46 vote in favor of the amendment, and yet says
sixty votes were required because the plan was proposed as an amendment to an unrelated defense bill.

So 80% of Americans want it, and Republican Senators Chafee, Lugar, Collins, Snowe, Coleman, Specter, DeWine, and Warner joined a solid Democratic caucus to give this a majority, but presumably because the majority party controls the agenda, it can only be appended to an unrelated bill causing it to need 60% to pass. Sounds like minority rule to me.

Saturday, 17 June 2006

Mission Rejected

Since my previous post about Lt Watada's refusal to deploy to Iraq, Amy Goodman on Democracy Now has been featuring soldiers' stories and the resistance to serve by those in the military who oppose this war.
She interviewed Peter Laufer, whose new book, Mission Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq covers the subject broadly.

I've long intended to do a bit of research on the topic of military war resisters, but found that information hard to find. Peter Laufer explained in the interview that hard numbers are really hard to come by, since most soldiers who refuse deployment or redeployment are keeping a low profile, and the military is not interested in highlighting the issue.

Those cases we do hear about, many of which are listed here, are really subjecting themselves to harsh scrutiny for the cause which they believe in. Many others simply go AWOL, but whether their reasons constitute a resistance to the Iraq war for cause is not clear.
One early resister was staff sergeant Camilo Mejia, who served in Iraq, and then applied for conscientious objector status after discovering first hand what the war was really about. Those who casually dismiss such examples as simply cowardly are unlikely to have read the words of some of these heroes or to have thought through the issues very thoroughly.

Camilo Mejia, from his statement upon receiving the "Courageous Resister Award", August 2004:
I am only a regular person that got tired of being afraid to follow his own conscience. For far too long I allowed others to direct my actions even when I knew that they were wrong....To those who have called me a coward I say that they are wrong, and that without knowing it, they are also right. They are wrong when they think that I left the war for fear of being killed. I admit that fear was there, but there was also the fear of killing innocent people, the fear of putting myself in a position where to survive means to kill, there was the fear of losing my soul in the process of saving my body, the fear of losing myself to my daughter, to the people who love me, to the man I used to be, the man I wanted to be. I was afraid of waking up one morning to realize my humanity had abandoned me.

Other resources:

Kevin Benderman defense committee

Psychoanalysts against the war

Sir, No Sir
a film

Monday, 12 June 2006

The Thin Thin Line

For most of us, everyday choices present modest dilemmas in which we may choose between two sets of potential outcomes with variable good or bad results.

Military personnel, however, are faced with a duty to follow orders which may have grave consequences. Where is the line beyond which that duty to obey becomes a duty to refuse the order? Certainly there is such a line. No reasonable person would suggest blind duty to obey orders for instance to kill one's fellow soldiers. And yet the military would not work if all orders became optional, and soldiers could disobey any order they thought wrong. Perhaps this is all spelled out quite clearly in the military code, and yet it is hard to imagine there not being circumstances where a soldier might suspect (without being certain) that following an order constitutes a greater crime than disobedience. And then there are cases where one person's certainty counters that of another.

Lt. Ehren Watada has made a very difficult choice.
It is the duty, the obligation of every soldier, and specifically the officers, to evaluate the legality, the truth behind every order — including the order to go to war.
Detractors will point out that Watada enlisted in 2003 after the risk of being deployed to Iraq was quite clear. But since that time the illegality of that war has been made clear to many who did not see it before.
Watada has received substantial support from numerous organizations and individuals who are standing by him, and an online petition supporting his decision is being circulated.

Dan Kirkdorffer, of On the Road to 2008, has been closely following the Watada story here, here, and initially here.

I've long known I never had the right make up to be a soldier. To submit so thoroughly to the authority of others does not come easily when I'm so imbued with notions of independent thought and intellectual freedom. As abhorrent as I find war, I cannot deny the necessity for organizing militaries for the defense of nations, and can see the case for leaving the option of war open as a last resort. I understand the need for a command structure which demands rote loyalty in order for such an enterprise to work. But we must defend a soldier's right to question some orders, including some entire campaigns. Otherwise leaders have carte blanche to engage our troops to their own ends with impunity.

Earlier soldiers such as Kevin Benderman and Carl Webb have been drawing that line. Now a commissioned officer has joined them. America's conscience is being tested, and it will take more than just committed pacifists to bring us around to sanity. When our leaders take us into questionable military adventures, is it any wonder that our military is stretched too thin and morale is low? We risk not having a ready response when the cause is just at some point down the road.

Go here for a military blogger's perspective on this case.

Saturday, 10 June 2006

National Humility

Once upon a time I dreamt that perhaps hundreds or thousands of people would regularly stop by here to soak in my pearls of wisdom, but there are advantages to relative anonymity. It's less of a big deal if I take extended breaks from writing (sorry though, to those of you who wish I would post more often), and I really don't need to worry so much about delivering messages that will backfire, and hence be used against the causes that I care about. I've also come to realize just how many excellent writers and thinkers there are out there, most of whom never get the lucky break to become widely read. It's wonderful that we have this vehicle for sharing ideas, and I'm pleased to see the current widespread outcry from disparate corners of the blogosphere to protect "net neutrality" from undue corporate control.

Recent revelations about the atrocities apparently committed by a few Marines in Haditha got me to thinking about the national humility we need to adopt, a subject which gets far too little attention precisely because any politician approaching it would fear a swift and strong backlash reaction and accusations of being unpatriotic. The mere fact that many such subjects become politically taboo damages our ability to have honest and open dialog, because politicians are constrained to finding popularly acceptable frames within which to make the case for whatever it is they are advocating.

It's quite acceptable for ministers to preach about humility as a virtue, and for individuals to seek an appropriate balance between positive self esteem and humble recognition of their own limitations. But to talk about the need for our nation to find such a comparable balance between marketing the ideas which have made us great and recognizing that we don't have every answer and often have much to learn from other cultures and other experiments in governance is a sure way to be dismissed by many as unpatriotic and unworthy of attention, if not traitorous.

Why can't we celebrate that which is wonderful about our traditions and simultaneously seek to improve on them and recognize our limitations without worrying about drawing such vitriolic scorn? In fact what is wonderful about our system of government is that it attempts to grant great freedom to the individual while providing checks and balances against any one group or portion of government gaining too much control. This brings me back to that wonderful quote by James Madison:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
But people today confuse the greatness of our system with the goodness of our people. While growing up in a democratic context in which respect of our fellows is an inherent value can provide a template for decent behavior, at heart we are no more or less human than anyone else on the planet. In the stress of war, Americans are no different than anyone else, and some will tragically misbehave. Abu Ghraib and Haditha should be wake up calls for a little national humility. The justification of torture, or at least of inhumane and degrading treatment of suspects in custody is born of a misapprehension that Americans can be trusted, simply because they are Americans. If national humility were accepted as a desirable counterweight to our national pride, then we would likely avoid such hubris.

A Google search of "national humility" turns up a few interesting hits, but few American politicians since Lincoln who openly call for it. One exception I found extolling national humility was surprisingly Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar, who quotes former Democratic Senator William Fulbright who said:
Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor.
I also found a portion of a sermon which acknowledges a practical reason for not extending such a humility too far, but nonetheless to apply some national humility wisely:
We must be careful to extend the analogy of personal humility to national humility with great care, for in many respects the analogy does not hold. Governments have a responsibility to protect that individuals can set aside in a spirit of self-sacrifice. Nevertheless, the American government can conspicuously put others first by making sure that profits on oil, for instance, are fairly distributed in a country before the oil is taken out, and can make sure that poor nations in Africa have the most advantageous condition for the development of their agriculture in a world market.
Finally, I shall leave you with this article in Common Dreams by Thom Hartmann in which we see that Jefferson like Lincoln understood the need for a national humility. It suggests to me that the current taboo against acknowledging that we don't have every answer is stronger now than it was in the first century of our nation's existence. This article was written in advance of our last presidential election in which Hartmann asks whether we will choose the path of empire or the path of democracy. We made a grievous choice, as I've noted before, but it's not too late for humbler choices to follow. Let us recognize that representative democracy by its nature is both noble and humble.

Friday, 12 May 2006

Knowledge, Security, Privacy, & Trust

The NSA's newly revealed database of phone call records won't generate any outrage from me. I felt the wiretapping uncovered a few months ago was clearly illegal, and holding Congressional hearings on that was appropriate. But really my concern is not with the surveillance so much as with its potential misuse. If our government was composed of gods, it wouldn't really be troubling if every secret was known, but it is of course composed of human beings so requiring documented justification for surveillance is certainly reasonable. If the government has to be more open about its activities, that prevents it from abusing the privilege. When secrecy is rampant already, I don't buy the argument that eliminating oversight is necessary for security. Indeed security is damaged if insiders become compromised through bribery or self-interest, and that secrecy is used to protect those from whom it is supposed to protect us. The FISA solution made a lot of sense by providing oversight without wide knowledge, and so the Administration's bypassing of it requires more public oversight in spite of any perceived risk.

This newly revealed program which gives access to a database which can be queried if real terrorist numbers are discovered, sounds like a very defensible program in the right context, but Bush defenders should hardly be surprised that it arouses major suspicion in the context of a secretive administration which regularly flouts the law, misleads the public, and manipulates the press. Still I want to be careful about flying off the handle and declaring that the existence of this database is an outrage. It is not. Misuse of the database might range from somewhat unethical to truly outrageous, but the potential for it to be used only in the interest of security does exist, and I wouldn't want to deny the method forever and for all time simply based on my mistrust of Bush and his minions.

What I really want is a government I can trust. Imagine a program where every infant born or immigrant to our shores got DNA sequenced and that information was retained in a secure database for future medical decisions and law enforcement. That would frighten most libertarians and civil libertarians to the core, and with good reason. But ideally it would be a wonderful asset if guarding against its misuse were taken seriously, and we could feel assured that it would only be used appropriately. This would be great, not only for victims, but for the wrongly accused, where DNA evidence could exonerate them. And what a deterrent to crime when you know that any found DNA can pinpoint you to a scene or weapon. In the long run it would be worth developing the system to guard the system against misuse, in order to benefit from it. I'm not going to push for it any time real soon, however.

Having a searchable database which records billions of phone call records is pretty small potatoes on the Big Brother meter, certainly compared to my DNA suggestion above. Rather than going ape over its existence, I believe the appropriate response is to continue to demand accountability by the executive branch for how it uses any such program. There may be cases where approval of further surveillance needs to be done by a secret court such as FISA, but approval needs to come from independently created sources which shouldn't be too chummy with those making the requests, and there is a strong case to be made that FISA is not sufficiently independent. That the NSA bypassed the required step in the earlier revealed wiretapping, in spite of that, feeds the distrust that more and more Americans are feeling for the current crop of leaders.

Tuesday, 2 May 2006

Turning Congress & the New Silent Majority

I came of age politically when Richard Nixon was President, and dissent against the Vietnam war and his Presidency was noisy and noticed. Nixon spoke of the "Silent Majority" of Americans who were not outspoken and remained at home, presumably supporting his policies. Noise is more apt to draw attention, and one could sense Nixon's petulant indignation that these objectors got all the press, while regular folk went about their business unnoticed.

The conservative movement which has been building since that time learned that lesson, and has been all about creating noise of a different sort. Like the antiwar movement of the 60's, this one represents a minority, but unlike that movement, the conservatives have their base already entrenched in the power elite. There is some new noise on the left, but the "new silent majority" is one of cynical distrust of all politicians. It is an ideologically mixed majority, but if the question was the generic one of trusting politicians, the answer would be pretty overwhelming.

I'm not much interested in silent majorities. They prove nothing about what is right or wrong - but it is worth noting their presence when electoral results are used to prove a point about what "most people" believe. I'm much more interested in honoring the few committed individuals who act on their conscience to make real differences that silent majorities don't care to make. But we live in a nation where political power is real and does make a difference. So it makes a difference to me who wins these contests, even if it means supporting the campaign of someone I may view as "the lesser of two evils."

Which brings me to Congress - turning Congress, that is. There are those who just want to "throw the bums out", and they can make a compelling argument that if incumbents became an endangered species due to the distrust of voters, that in itself would engender real reform. But they stand no chance of convincing me that voting against my Democratic Congressman is any way to make a positive difference. Right now we are stuck with two parties in national elections, and there is a difference. While there are flaws all around, the Republicans in power are a scary breed - not as individuals, but as a group and as a force for maintaining the current imbalance of power and wealth.

I don't buy the suggestion that putting the Democrats in power would represent no change. Even to the extent that Democratic politicians are also beholden to the money that puts them there, there is not the same strict allegiance to a corporate agenda which pays only lip service to the public good while being truly committed only to a program of, by, and for the established plutocracy. Some readers who have been peppered with the language of the failure of socialism, will roll their eyes at this suggestion, but the evidence seems clear enough to me. It's as if those in power use Marxist critique as a script for their behavior so that anyone who calls them on their misbehavior will sound like a Marxist, and thus be discredited. My own belief that the personal incentives inherent in capitalism lead to productivity and innovation which tends to be absent in a strictly controlled egalitarian economy, doesn't mean that Marx did not correctly identify some of the ills of Capitalism. Western liberalism, while not perfect, represents a better method of addressing some of those ills than Marxist revolution.

At least the Democrats are obliged to act like they represent common folk, even when we know it's often not true. The Republicans' focus on being steadfastly opposed to any hint of liberalism or mandated controls on business assures that the economic interests of common folk will be subjugated to the almighty power of the boardroom. Common sense balance is discarded in favor of ideological purity.

The rules of Congress give so little power to the minority party, that Republican control of the House has become the primary roadblock to any chance of economic justice for the growing population living in poverty in the United States. It is why at this point in time I would vote for any Democrat over any Republican in any Congressional race, regardless of my opinion of the individuals involved.

There has been a lot of attention lately to the possibility that the House could change hands this year. Even many Republican strategists are conceding the possibility, though there remain many reasons to doubt it will happen. It's not a very sexy issue, but it is very substantive, and if the right set of progressives get energized around the effort, there is potential for a very real stanching of the growing power of the corporate elite. Turning Congress is not enough -- progressive vigilance will need to follow -- but moving the leadership of the House to the Democrats represents a huge step in the right direction.

Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Keeping Bitterness at Bay

If we choose hope we are making a commitment to stave off bitterness. We cannot always succeed, and even when we do, we should be careful not to condemn the bitterness of others in the same way that we must speak out against violence, greed, and injustice. Good people who give up are not the enemy. Indeed bitterness and cynicism are often the byproducts of a former idealism which collided headlong with terrible realities.

Here I choose to celebrate the possibility of a better world, the fulfillment to be had in the effort to bring it about, and the connections and friendships made along the journey. Recently I've been most inclined to shake my head in dismay at the news which is most reported on, and the apparent absence of a coordinated and hopeful uprising against the tide of corruption and greed which seems to be strangling our government and the corporate media from which most of us receive the news of the day. This dismay has unfortunately played a part in the absence of posts here, and for that I apologize - especially to those of you whose kind words have kept me from abandoning the project altogether.

It turns out that one doesn't have to hunt too hard, especially in this information age, to find seeds of hope in the fields of despair, and so I will endeavor to take up the task again, if not daily at least on a weekly basis. Now some on the left have taken pleasure from the continuing deterioration of Bush's popularity, and while I confess that the dismal poll numbers give me hope that a larger share of us are no longer fooled by the spin, mere dissatisfaction does not a movement make. We need positive messages for positive change.

When the immigration reform protests and marches took place, my initial reaction was why does this issue mobilize so many while similar efforts on behalf of peace or fairness to workers or poverty relief or saving our environment can't seem to get traction, when those causes have been so utterly betrayed by our government and our media. As much sympathy as I felt toward the very real human beings threatened with felony status for their honest efforts to improve their lives, and the likely trickle down ethnic discrimination against legal residents whose heritage groups them in the minds of the prejudiced with those who "steal our jobs", the complexity of immigration issues cuts both ways, and I longed for such activism on other fronts.

Paul Loeb writes compellingly on this issue and delivers a hopeful epilog to his analysis:
Immigration politics are complicated-- flooding this or any country with cheap labor can and will drive down wages, especially when unions are being busted and undocumented workers live in fear of deportation. If we don't create enough global justice so desperate people don't continue leaving their homes in search of a glimmer of hope, then all but the wealthiest will succumb to the worldwide race to the bottom. But as the signs at the march reminded us, we're all children of immigrants, except for the Native Americans. And those marching and chanting reminded those of us who are legal because our ancestors immigrated earlier on that even in the land of Microsoft, we are tied with the people who pick our crops, build our houses, clean our office buildings, tied in what King called "an inescapable network of mutuality...a single garment of destiny."
Why can't we have these kinds of marches to challenge the war or global warming, or all of Bush's arrogant reign? Anti-war marches were huge before Bush went into Iraq, since then far more disappointing, even as the polls steadily shift. Maybe it's because those more comfortable sit behind our computers too much and believe we can do all politics with the click of a mouse.. Maybe the issues feel abstract or intransigent. Unless you have a son or daughter over serving it doesn't hit home nearly as much as the raw callousness of Congressman Sensenbrenner's plan to make 12 million people instant felons, as well as anyone who gives them water or food, education or medical care. ...

Here the stakes were clear, immediate, and people turned out despite the risk of being deported, because if Sensenbrenner's bill had gone through, as might well have happened without these marches and outcries, then life would have gotten instantly far harsher and crueler. So for those of us who didn't march but claim to act for justice, we need to heed the lives of those these voices represent, and do what we can to ensure they are heard. We also need to link this issue of fundamental human dignity to all the threats that make it difficult for people to simply live and flourish on this earth. Maybe by finding their voice and courage, those who marched in America these past weeks can teach the rest of us how to come out of our own shadows and fears and join across our own divides.

I've come close to chiming in on other issues. When Rumsfeld came under increasing heat (Isn't it simply obvious that the whole lot of them should have long since resigned in shame?), when Bush changes his mouthpiece by replacing McClelland (Who really believes that a different spin has any positive effect on a failed policy), when mainstream news reports, most recently 60 Minutes, yet another voice corroborating the obviously established fact that the Administration chose intelligence to fit its policy to attack Iraq rather than the other way around (How is this an iota different than reporting that was readily available on-line before the last election?).

But discontent with the Bush administration is nothing new, and it was getting plenty of attention, even in the mainstream media. Piling on just adds to cynicism, and shouldn't this site be about providing a positive alternative?

And so it was that I was much heartened by David Brancaccio's interview last week with singer/activist Peter Gabriel. In spite of being involved with a project highlighting many of the worst cases of human abuse, mistreatment, and genocide, Gabriel remains committed to a brighter future which seeks to curb such atrocities. Brancaccio contrasted Gabriel's hope, with the bitterness which Kurt Vonnegut exhibited on a previous interview on NOW. I recalled my disappointment with that episode which I had been looking forward to at the time. Vonnegut, like Twain, who became very bitter in his later days, can be forgiven his bleak outlook given his years of keen observation, but his bleak vision for our future has its only utility in the possibility of waking up some to alarming trends. Twain and Vonnegut may be proved right in the long run - certainly it is easy to imagine a falling apart as has happened all too often in many human societies - but it is a practical matter that I continue to put my ideals first and believe in the possibilities while keeping that bitterness at bay.

We need each other's help in this effort. Again thank you to those whose kind words have helped me recently.