Monday, 31 December 2007

Parties, Primaries, & Presidential Politics

There is both good and bad in the way we select our nation's chief executive. The dominance of two political parties, a rather weird primary system, the influence of money on the process, and an electoral college system in lieu of a direct popular vote all seem to fly in the face of democratic ideals. We could do worse, but we could also do much better.

It is rather disquieting to realize that here, over a year away from the installation of a new president, an event in Iowa is likely to profoundly shape the prognosis for many contenders' chances to vie for that office. Those of us who do not live in early primary states can rightly question why a supposedly democratic process gives disproportionate influence to the citizens of a couple of relatively less populated states.

Now, I have nothing against Iowa or New Hampshire, and I would not characterize the primary process as tyrannical in the same way that radical thinker, O. T. Ford, does in his essay on the matter. Nonetheless, he raises a serious issue, and I do think we would do well to challenge the notion that these two states should retain their special status in perpetuity. And yet, there is actually something I like about this process. By "de-nationalizing" this small piece of the election, we are afforded an opportunity to observe the candidates ability to appeal directly to voters in settings where the pundits, the parties, and the Madison Avenue image-makers, take second fiddle to ordinary folks in town halls and public meetings.

As the essay author points out, Iowa and New Hampshire are not terribly representative of our nation as a whole, but there are some positives worth noting. Both generally score well when states are ranked in measures of quality of education. (Example 1 / Example 2) Looking at Iowa, we see a state which has an exemplary method, using an independent commission and strict rules, for drawing Congressional boundaries, thus avoiding the political gerrymandering which is rampant in most states. And Iowa does have a wholesome, middle-American image which lends to a belief that its residents will serve as reasonable evaluators of the presidential contenders. Still there is something fundamentally undemocratic about a process which puts the power to winnow our field of candidates in the hands of the citizens of the same handful of states each and every election year.

Most Americans who are familiar with our electoral college, can't help but be struck by its anti-democratic nature, and the effective disenfranchisement of minority views in non-competitive states. Again it is the citizens of a handful of states which are regularly competitive between the two major parties who get most of the attention, and hence have effectively more leverage in getting their agendas prioritized in Washington. There are mechanical and constitutional arguments for retaining the electoral college, but really it's downright archaic, weird, and unfair.

There is no constitutional basis, however, for the party system, the primary system, nor the influence of money on politics. Our elections do provide a mechanism for the voting public to keep bad leaders from retaining power indefinitely, and in that regard we should be grateful that puts us in better stead than the people in many of this world's nations. Even when evidence of institutional fraud suggests that close elections may have been incorrectly swung to the benefit of the ruling party of one state or another, so far it seems that fraud is insufficient to swing the outcome of a race which is not already close. Sadly, however, being able to oust one's leaders is not enough, when there is not a sufficiently democratic process in place to give us all a real voice about what the alternatives might be.

We are fortunate in these United States to be able to openly discuss the need to further democratize our process. We will be more fortunate still if we can move beyond discussion and actually implement improvements in spite of the political inertia which stands in their way.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Paul Loeb's Latest on Hillary

As much as I typically enjoy expounding on Presidential politics, I've been rather mute of late, feeling rather ambiguous about my own preferences. Kucinich continues to represent for me the most honest voice defending the values most important to me, but I'm enough of a realist to see that 1) he won't win, & 2) if he could, those forces in opposition to his vision would succeed in thwarting his efforts. Obama possesses an oratorical gift, a uniting vision, and fine intellect, but has failed to capture my imagination as I hoped he might, and has been disappointing in a few particulars. Edwards says a lot of the right things, but I don't fully trust him. Dodd and Biden are both smart and either would stand head and shoulders above the disaster currently occupying the White House, but neither is going to gain the traction to get there. Richardson maybe has an outside shot, and would make a good President, but I really think he's already looking to be the VP choice. Then there's Hillary. Competent and with a lot of connections, I can try to talk myself into thinking she won't be so bad, and at least will likely make many excellent appointments. But I cannot deny the palpable disappointment I feel that she will likely be the Democratic nominee. Hence I will simply publish here Paul Loeb's latest article:

Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Disappointment
by Paul Rogat Loeb

When Democrats worry about Hillary Clinton's electability, they focus on her reenergizing a depressed Republican base while demoralizing core Democratic activists, particularly those outraged about the war, and consequently losing the election. But there's a further danger if Hillary's nominated--that she will win but then split the Democratic Party.

We forget that this happened with her husband Bill, because compared to Bush, he's looking awfully good. Much of Hillary's support may be nostalgia for when America's president seemed to engage reality instead of disdaining it. But remember that over the course of Clinton's presidency, the Democrats lost 6 Senate seats, 46 Congressional seats, and 9 governorships. This political bleeding began when Monica Lewinsky was still an Oregon college senior. Given Hillary's protracted support of the Iraq war, her embrace of neoconservative rhetoric on Iran, and her coziness with powerful corporate interests, she could create a similar backlash once in office, dividing and depressing the Democratic base and reversing the party's newfound momentum.

Think about 1994. Pundits credited major Republican victories to angry white men, Hillary's failed healthcare plan, and Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." But the defeat was equally rooted in a massive withdrawal of volunteer support among Democratic activists who felt politically betrayed. Nothing fostered this sense more than Bill Clinton's going to the mat to push the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Angered by a sense that he was subordinating all other priorities to corporate profits, and by his cavalier attitude toward the hollowing out of America's industrial base, labor, environmental and social-justice activists nationwide withdrew their energy from Democratic campaigns. This helped swing the election, much as the continued extension of these policies (particularly around dropping trade barriers with China) led just enough Democratic leaning voters in 2000 to help elect George Bush by staying home or voting for Ralph Nader.

No place saw a more dramatic political shift than my home state of Washington. In November 1992, Democratic activists volunteered by the thousands, hoping to end the Reagan-Bush era. On Election Day, I joined five other volunteers to help get out the vote in a swing district 20 miles south of Seattle. Volunteers had a similar presence in every major Democratic or competitive district in the state. The effort helped Clinton to carry the state and Democrats to capture eight out of nine House seats.

But by 1994 grass-roots Democratic campaigners mostly stayed home, disgruntled. In Washington State, there were barely enough people to distribute literature and make phone calls in Seattle's most liberal neighborhoods, let alone in swing suburban districts. Republicans won seven of our nine congressional races, and reelected a Senator known for baiting environmentalists.

The same was true nationwide. I spent that campaign season traveling to promote a book on campus activism, staying with friends long involved with progressive causes. Everywhere I went, critical races would go to the Republicans by the narrowest of margins. Yet my friends and their friends seemed strangely detached, so disgusted with Democratic politics that they no longer wanted anything to do with it. Surveys found that had voters who stayed home voted, they would have reversed the election outcome. Even a modest volunteer effort might have prevented the Republican sweep.

To prevail in close races, Democrats need enthusiastic volunteer involvement. This happened in 1992, and then again in 2006. If Hillary is the nominee, she's likely to significantly damp this involvement, especially among anti-war activists, many of whom are currently saying her candidacy would lead them to sit out the election entirely. She'll also draw out the political right in a way that will make it far harder for down-ticket Democrats in states like Kentucky and Virginia where the party has recently been winning. In a recent Pew poll, she had both higher unfavorable and lower favorable ratings than either Obama or Edwards. A July Fox poll (of citizens, not Fox viewers), 29% of voters (including 27% of Independents and 5% of Democrats) said they would "never vote for her under any circumstances," compared to just 6% overall saying the same about Obama, and less than 1% about Edwards. And a November 26 Zogby poll, (albeit one using some new methodologies) now shows her trailing the major Republican candidates, while Edwards and Obama defeat them. So she might not win at all, despite Bush's disastrous reign.

But even if she does, she is then strongly likely to fracture the party with her stands. She talks of staying in Iraq for counterterrorism operations, which could easily become indistinguishable from the present war. She backed the recent Kyl-Lieberman vote on Iran that Senator James Webb called "Cheney's fondest pipe dream." She supported at least one regressive version of the bankruptcy bill and the extension of Bush's tax cuts on capital gains and dividends. If her contributors are any guide, like those she courted in a $1,000-a-plate dinner for homeland security contractors, she's likely to cave to corporate interests so much in her economic policies that those increasingly squeezed by America's growing divides will backlash in ways that they're long been primed to by Republican rhetoric about "liberal elitists." And if Democrats do then begin to challenge her, the relative unity created by the Bush polities will quickly erode.

Because the Republican candidates would bring us more of the same ghastly policies we've seen from Bush and Cheney, I'd vote for Hillary if she became the nominee. But I'd do so with a very heavy heart, and a recognition that we'll have to push her to do the right thing on issue after issue, and won't always prevail. We still have a chance to select strong alternatives like Edwards (who I'm supporting) or Obama. And with Republican polling numbers in the toilet, this election gives Democrats an opportunity to seriously shift our national course that we may not have again for years. It would be a tragedy if they settled for the candidate most likely to shatter the momentum of this shift when it's barely begun..

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See To receive his articles directly email with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Theft of Our Airwaves

In what is truly a case of the privileged few versus the muzzled many, the FCC wants to further expand the consolidation of our media, which is already dominated by the broadcasting giants. Chairman Kevin Martin earlier this month proposed a relaxation of the rules against newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership within the same market area. And he's trying to rush its enactment before the holidays, by ending its comment period on December 11.

Martin is well aware that there is overwhelming widespread objection to media consolidation, as was evident at the last public hearing on the matter which I attended in Seattle on November 9th. Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Trent Lott (R-MS) have been leading the effort in the Senate to oppose the FCC's attempts at further consolidation.

Democratic FCC Commissioners Michael Copps & Jonathan Adelstein have been consistent voices at the FCC in favor of the public interest and against consolidation, but the Republican majority have ignored the overwhelming opposition even within their own party, and consistently sided with big media. Prior to Kevin Martin, it was Michael Powelll who did big media's bidding. But before you think I'm impugning only Republicans in the sellout of OUR airwaves to Big Media, consider that Powell was appointed to the FCC by Clinton in 1997, more than a year after Clinton himself signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a massive overhaul of the laws governing media ownership, which resulted in unprecedented consolidation of media.

Back in those days not too many people outside the industry were paying attention to the dry subject of media regulation, but Clear Channel Communications for instance went on a buying spree with the elimination of the 40-station ownership cap, and now owns over 1200. Rupert Murdoch, Disney Corporation, AOL-Time-Warner, and others have been subsequent beneficiaries of this monumental legislation. In the name of deregulation and "free" ownership, we have created a situation where smaller operations without huge capital are squeezed out, local stories get short shrift, and our news sources have become homogenized. It turns out those restrictions actually served to empower the little guys. Minority ownership is down; local ownership is down; and bots are running radio stations controlled from thousands of miles away, saving money for the owners, but not serving the needs of the public consumers of media.

Byron Dorgan of North Dakota has become a champion of derailing the consolidation train, in part due to a literal train derailment in his home state in 2002, when 210,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia was spilled near Minot. Authorities were unable to contact KCJB, the designated emergency broadcaster in a market where six of the seven commercial stations are owned by Clear Channel who typically pipe in broadcast material from elsewhere.

I'll warrant that the current deregulation is small potatoes compared to the monstrosity that Clinton signed into law, but it does include some back door provisions that make it worse in reality than it is on its face. We need to push lawmakers to go in the opposite direction and create incentives for more local and diverse control of all media. One step toward further consolidation is not the answer, no matter how Martin might spin it (pages 5&6). The time is short for contacting your members of Congress on this, or registering your comment at the FCC (click on Media Ownership ...-Docket 06-121.)

For more background on media consolidation, few have poured as much energy into this issue impacting our democracy as Bill Moyers, who offers a primer here. A great timeline of events related to media consolidation can be found on PBS's NOW website.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Troy Davis, Justice, and the Death Penalty

Innocence Matters!

So proclaims the website dedicated to the exoneration of one death row inmate in Georgia. Whether one believes that the death penalty is ever appropriate, or in the innocence or guilt of that particular inmate, we should all agree that indeed innocence does matter.

As we examine the case of Troy Anthony Davis, we should care very much whether an innocent man was convicted of a crime which substantial evidence seems to indicate was committed by someone else. It is also worth examining several broader questions. Does the desire to gain convictions skew investigations to buoy the first plausible solution to the exclusion of other possibilities? Once convicted of a crime, are the barriers to considering continued claims or evidence of innocence too steep? Should the certainty of guilt be even higher for the application of the death penalty? When if ever is the death penalty appropriate, or as the American Bar Association claims, do inconsistencies and flaws in our system of justice warrant a moratorium on capital punishment?

Ironically, it may be his death row status which ends up triggering a new trial for Davis, with the possibility of exoneration. Yesterday, the Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments for and against granting such a trial, with an expected decision to be rendered sometime early next year. This observer sees a real need for re-examination of the process for granting new trials in cases where either faulty investigations, over zealous prosecution, coerced testimony, recantations, or new evidence casts doubt on former convictions - whether or not the death penalty is involved. That doesn't mean opening every case where an inmate claims innocence, or making it too easy for outside organizations to force trials when the case is not strong. But justice is not served by keeping the innocent behind bars in the name of having "someone" pay for the crime, upholding the standing of police or prosecutors, or appearing tough on crime.

The Innocence Project is doing great work in using DNA testing from former convictions to exonerate many who have been unjustly imprisoned. But physical evidence is not always available, as in the case of Davis, and common sense suggests that wrongful convictions are at least as high in such cases where eye-witness testimony is likely to have played a major role.

I am not claiming to know that Troy Davis is innocent. My window on the case is limited to what I've heard on radio, read online, and heard in conversation with Laura Moye, who is deputy director of Amnesty International's Southern regional office. I acknowledge that I am a long way away, and may have been swayed by the fact that "Davis' supporters were good at 'marketing' their cause", as DA assistant David Lock told Georgia's justices. Still, based on what I have learned, it seems more plausible that alternative suspect Sylvester "Redd" Coles is the actual perpetrator. And it is very difficult to accept that a new trial should not be granted in light of the recantations of 7 of the 9 original eyewitnesses. From a Savannah Morning News account
"If the prosecution witnesses are recanting to that extent and that they possibly perjured themselves, then the Supreme Court is doing the right thing [in considering whether to grant a new trial]," said William "Rusty" Hubbarth, vice president of the pro-death-penalty Justice For All in Austin, Texas. "I have never heard of a case like this where you have five or six witnesses recanting."

A Tragic Night

When off duty police officer Mark MacPhail responded to a commotion near a downtown Savannah Burger King at 1 AM on Aug. 19th of 1989, he discovered a homeless man, Larry Young, being pistol whipped. Before he had a chance to draw his pistol from his holster, Larry Young's attacker, seeing the officer's badge, shot and killed him. Witnesses hearing the shots saw three men fleeing the scene. This account, one of a series of five recent articles about the case appearing the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, gives what appears to be a fair summary about what is known about the sequence of events that evening, and what Troy Davis and Redd Coles each claim to have occurred. Davis' proximity to the site of two shootings on the same evening understandably directed suspicion his way, but the wantonly murderous behavior he is accused of, seems to fit better with Coles prior and subsequent behavior than with that of Davis. And two of the recanting witnesses have signed affidavits declaring that Coles was also present at the party earlier in the evening near to where another man was shot and injured. Why would Davis brutally assault the homeless man, when even Coles admitted that it was he who had the initial argument (over a beer) with him? Why did Coles show up at the police station with a high paid lawyer to finger Davis in the crime? Why did Davis so readily return from his subsequent trip to Atlanta when he discovered he was the subject of a manhunt, unless he felt confident that he would be absolved of the charges.

7 of 9 Recant

But the most compelling case for granting a new trial comes from the sworn affidavits recanting earlier testimony which implicated Davis, and suggesting police coercion in obtaining that testimony. The unfortunate homeless man who was the victim of the beating was detained by police for over an hour when he most needed medical attention. In pain and somewhat inebriated he finally signed a statement written by police without reading it, in order to gain his own release. Reading the details of each recantation, it is difficult to believe prosecutor's claims that Davis' family was able to pressure all of these witnesses to recant earlier testimony, risking perjury, not to mention the wrath of the still free Coles, simply out of sympathy for a man on death row.

Troy Anthony Davis has been in prison now for 18 years. That alone would be an extraordinary sentence for what, if his story is true, may have been a case of keeping bad company and using poor judgment in the aftermath of gunfire. And yet a new trial is all he currently is asking for.

The appeals process has been yet another story in this case, where procedural reasoning seems to trump new reasonable doubt, whether in the state's habeas court denial of his petition in 1977, or the impact of provisions of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 signed into law by Clinton, which restricted the power of federal courts to correct constitutional error in criminal cases, or the Federal 11th Circuit Court's denial of Troy's appeal in 2006, or the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear his case.

This case has now gotten strong media attention, yet it is still not clear that a defendant who likely deserves at least a second trial will get one. How many other cases languish in obscurity where innocent prisoners will never receive a fair trial when they were originally denied one? In many cases - hopefully a large majority of them - our justice system where one is innocent until proven guilty works beautifully. We have a justice system which on the whole is worth fighting for, and is far better than that which existed in earlier centuries, or does exist in many places around the world. But two factors which stand as a threat to proper justice remain the inordinate influence of money and connections on the process, and the growing simplistic tough on crime attitude which vilifies the accused too early in the process, values numbers of convictions over certainty of justice, and turns a blind eye all too often on instances of police or prosecutorial misconduct.

Process matters. Complexity matters. Motive matters. Truth matters. Certainty matters.

Innocence matters.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

We Are All Socialists!

Or at least a vast majority of us are.

I could have as easily titled this piece "We Are All Capitalists!", with an identical qualification.

The point is, that with the exception of a few rigid extremists on either side, most of us acknowledge by our daily activities some acceptance of the fact that the capitalist model works quite well for many things in life, while a socialist model works for others. Too many, especially on the far right, but also on the far left, have tried to make this into an either/or dilemma, when it really ought to be about AND.

Here in the United States and much of the Western World, we have settled on an economic model which is predominately capitalist, with a few socialist elements. I happen to think that is probably the best choice. I love pointing out to those who find my views to be radical, that this ought to place me - in an economic sense, at least - a little to the right of center.

But for many, the commitment to an economic model has become imbued with a moral element which simply isn't appropriate. It is quite true that economic models, if they become grossly imbalanced, can allow ghastly things to happen which DO have a moral element. Such awful scenarios have been played out many times in history. China's Cultural Revolution and the Indonesian extermination of the East Timorese are but two examples abetted by economic imbalances of different origins.

We need to be more concerned about what works, and be willing to draw from models which have succeeded before, without ascribing evil intent to any suggestion which can be remotely associated with an ideology that we disagree with. The public sector of our economy exists for a reason, and most Americans agree that it has its place. Schools, the Post Office, police, fire departments, parks, and resource management are integral parts of our society which operate predominately on a socialist model, with some incentive-based balancing elements. That doesn't make the participants in that part of the economy radical commies foaming at the mouth, any more than those working for or running our corporations must be evil capitalists intent on stealing from the poor to line their own pockets.

We operate in a mixed economy, and should be wary of those whose commitment to an economic model trumps practical considerations in determining how to structure our various institutions. It seems that the folks at the Heritage Foundation would have us privatize every institution rather that acknowledge that occasionally (often!) the public good is better served by public institutions with public accountability. It's not that privatization is NEVER a good idea, but that it's certainly not ALWAYS a good idea.

When I look around me in 2007, there's not much left that hasn't been privatized or partially privatized that needs more privatization. I'm far more often alarmed by the extent of privatization that has occurred already. Naomi Klein, recent author of "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism", appearing on Democracy Now yesterday, said
The last frontier for the privatization of the state is the privatization of ... core state functions. You know, the only thing left that hasn’t already been privatized and outsourced is -- and this is pre-Bush administration -- is the army, is the police, are the fire departments. And these core state functions are really seen as the last great privatization free-for-all. It’s already entered healthcare. It’s already entered water. It’s already entered electricity, the media.
Those of us who are inclined to argue for de-privatizing some of that which has suffered from over privatization are frequently accused of being "far left" even when what is sought is simply movement back towards the way things were 20, 40, or even 80 years ago. And when someone like me suggests that in certain arenas, such as health care, we should simply acknowledge the net public good which could come from moving more fully to a socialist model, then in the eyes of some I might as well have suggested selling their children to work for Kim Jung Il.

Among the current crop of Presidential candidates, only Dennis Kucinich is bold enough to suggest that we need a single payer system for health insurance, even though in countries where such systems are standard, even political conservatives generally acknowledge the public good which they serve. I supported Kucinich's bid for the Democratic nomination four years ago, but recognizing that his selection would be undeservedly polarizing, was rather excited about the possibility that Obama might be less beholden to corporate interests than someone like Clinton, while speaking the language of unity which we desperately need, and hence center us. It is rather sad to me that Obama is obliged to take an improved but still timid approach to health care when it seems clear to me that something bolder is called for.

So call me a socialist if you like - I'll not deny it. But don't be surprised after we spend some time together, if I call you one too.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Writing Chuck about Mukasey

Occasionally I feel the need to engage in probably futile exercises, just so I can go on record. Today I sent the following web email to Senator Charles Schumer:
Change your mind - vote against Mukasey!

Neither Senator from my state of Washington is on the Judiciary Committee, so I feel compelled to write you on the matter of Michael Mukasey's nomination to be the chief law enforcement officer of our nation. Regardless of how nice he may be, Mukasey's equivocations under questioning demonstrate that he is unfit to take over as Attorney General, where a clear moral compass is needed more than ever in the wake of the errors left behind by Alberto Gonzales.

Arlen Specter and Lindsay Graham know Mukasey is not fit, but they will likely capitulate to the pressure of being Republicans. You do not have that handicap. Listen to your mother, talk to those like Sheldon Whitehouse who have made the necessary decision, and bring along others like Dianne Feinstein, in order to keep Mukasey's nomination from having to even go to the floor of the main Senate.

It's not just the bit about waterboarding. Mukasey has been equivocating all over the map, and you know it. Admit you were wrong, and do the right thing!

Thanks to you and your staff for taking the input of concerned American citizens such as myself.
Charles Schumer seems to exemplify for me exactly the wrong way to be a liberal. He's strident and stubborn in defending entrenched party positions, while he bends in exactly the places where liberalism can best take the moral high ground. Nonetheless, he's pretty effective and powerful, and we cannot lightly brush him off.

Why must Russ Feingold and his kind be so rare?

Friday, 14 September 2007

Mountaintop Pillage

The naked land reveals the naked truth. The greed of millionaires trumps the health of the poor, the purity of the water, and even the beauty of the hills. In an under-reported story, the Bush administration has made yet another rule change assaulting the environment and enriching the polluters. The practice of mountaintop removal will no longer be hampered by those pesky environmental rules designed to protect our waters.

Photo courtesy Vivian Stockman /
Flyover courtesy

Couched in language which might initially incline a reader to think it is protecting the environment, the new proposed rules actually redefine terms, and reinterpret former acts of Congress, in such a way that mining operations which engage in the surface coal mining technology known as mountaintop removal are exempt from the 1983 requirement that prohibits mining activity within 100 feet of streams. In fact this practice routinely buries streams and valleys by tons of rubble, known as "excess spoil", which is stripped off the top of coal seams running through the tops of hills and mountains in West Virginia, Kentucky, and western Virginia.

The current rule change is subject to a 60-day comment period which will expire on October 23, though those looking for a response to their comment had best post it to before September 24. Folks at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition have created this page of suggestions for citizen action.

So if the rule change is new, then how is it that about 1200 miles of streams have been tainted by this process (700 miles simply buried) since 1992? According to Vernon Haltom of Coal River Mountain Watch,
What happens is the permitting agencies grant variances, and they grant variances just pretty much willy-nilly. All the coal operator has to do is request a variance, and they’re granted pretty easily. Unfortunately, you know, this rule change would remove even that requirement.

The latest rule change is simply the latest in a series of changes which further undercuts environmental safeguards of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). The lengthy new document, which is actually surprisingly readable, arguably does remove logical ambiguities from the original act, but ever in the direction of allowing practices which are suggested as possible where another part of the Act would logically prohibit them.

Viewing photographs of this obvious desecration, one might wonder why it isn't front page news, frequently reported by the mainstream press. Alternatively one wonders, "Well what's the other side of the story?" In fact Google searches of CNN, ABC News, CBS News, MSNBC, and Fox News consistently turn up surprising few hits on "mountaintop removal", in spite of the fact that is the acknowledged name of the practice. Neither can one find any bevy of editorials supporting this indefensible practice, though occasional editorial support of coal liquifecation technologies implicitly approve the practice, as mountaintop removal (MTR) provides much of today's raw materials for that process.

Furthermore I scoured the online versions of the local press from such places as Beckley, WV and Pikeville, KY. Very little in the way of articles on the process appear, though there were numerous letters to the editor almost unanimously in staunch opposition to the process. The Charleston Gazette did a better job of covering it, with an earlier series, and a recent editorial by Allen Johnson declaring the destruction of the mountains to be a moral issue. Johnson, of Christians for the Mountains, was featured on a recent episode of Bill Moyers' Journal which investigated the issue.

Well then, is it the jobs MTR is providing which is producing such silence on this destructive practice? In fact, it has the opposite effect on employment as the process uses bigger machines and fewer people than traditional mining practices. Vernon Haltom again:
You know, we hear about coal being cheap. Well, coal is not cheap when you consider all the externalized costs that are borne by these communities. It’s really -- it is unbearable. And so what you have, you have depopulation, you have decreased jobs. Mountaintop removal requires fewer miners, and therefore fewer jobs.
Really it boils down to wealth and influence. Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, has no lack of ties and connections to government and the regulators, while Ed Wiley, citizen of West Virginia, walked all the way from Charleston, West Virginia to Washington, DC, and still could get no hearing. Carmelita Brown can look up the hill at Blankenship's home, and yet her water frequently ran dark brown with contaminants from ground water ruined by Massey's irresponsible mining practices. Only after thirteen years of documenting the contamination and battling the authorities, did Brown and 300 other families get clean municipal water piped into their homes. Of course that doesn't fix the ground water contamination which continues apace, and will only accelerate when this rule takes effect. It doesn't fix the air pollution caused by the blasting which exposes the seams of coal, to the tune of 474,000 metric tons of explosives used in West Virginia alone in 2005.

The Administration's own report (page 3) acknowledges that there were 1079 excess spoil fills approved in Kentucky, 375 in West Virginia, and 125 in Virginia between October 2001 and June of 2005. These are those exemptions already granted for filling in creeks, which will no longer be necessary when the new rule goes into effect. The new language may remove ambiguity about what is and is not allowed (pretty much the polluters can do as they please), but the constraints, now often amount to vague suggestions that excess spoil and adverse environmental impacts be minimized, rather than enforcing specific standards. There remains the constraint that the spoil not be dumped into valleys lower in altitude than the lowest part of the seam to be mined, but that's easily skirted by making sure some mining occurs in a seam lower than the intended dumping area.

The champions of the free market love to claim that market forces can work to protect our environment, but when the distribution of wealth is so extremely skewed it just doesn't work that way. Billionaires buy the regulations they want, and the impoverished are left with no leverage. This isn't supply and demand; it's corruption pure and simple. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are on the take, but there is little question that the Bush Administration is front and center when it come to cementing the advantage for the wealthy elite.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007


We were shaken.

We felt united.

We reflected on what was really important.

I say we, because in many ways it felt like "we", however individual and personal my own reaction may have been on that Tuesday morning six years ago. My own resolve to recommit myself to a greater purpose than simply making money and entertaining myself was a personal one, and yet in the days that followed our national tragedy, I held to the notion that out of this tragedy, comparable personal transformations throughout the nation and beyond were planting seeds for transformative movements of which few of us were even yet conceiving.

Much of my usual political filtering was dropped. When President Bush spoke, I really listened, believing that our shared loss transcended our partisan differences. It's not that I expected Bush to become liberal, or suddenly share my views on domestic policy, the environment, social issues, and so forth. But surely tragedy might beget honesty, and shared values could become our focus in response. And I was heartened by much of what I heard. The words were sober. The call on Americans to refrain from scapegoating those of Arab descent were welcome words, worthy of Presidential speech.

We needed a leader, and for the moment, in spite of our political differences, I believed we had one.

Six years later, after more contentious elections, dirty politics, and the usual influence of money on power, it is easy to be cynical and dismissive of the notion that individual transformations, borne of personal reactions to 9/11, might hold any hope for a brighter future. Certainly Karl Rove opportunistically played the 9/11 card to spawn divisiveness, rather than to inspire unity, and others on both sides of the political aisle responded in kind. But in 2006 Rove's plan finally backfired, and while reactions on the surface may all look to be partisan posturing, and the red vs. blue of a divided nation, I wouldn't sell short the power of memory.

I'm not giving up on the idea that personal transformations rooted in one moment may bring fruit in another. Ask not what ideology spawned the transformation or the activity which grew out of it, but rather whether it contributes to a brighter tomorrow. There are now over 300 million Americans. Our potential remains unknown. In the words of Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

America, remember! You are not perfect, nor never have been, but you have long represented the land of the possible. Terrorists and ideologues cannot crush our spirit. Neither should a few missteps in response. Let us respond as befits a great people. Keep hope alive, work together, engage in open dialog, innovate, and thrive.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

The Radicalism of Rigidity

What makes an idea, an ideology, a politician or a political party too extreme or too radical? The language of left, right, and center applied to politics reinforces a misapprehension that there is a linear measure against which any idea or politician can be measured to determine whether they are extreme or "centrist". But dangerous radicalism can raise its head anywhere along the mythic spectrum, as can worthy concepts.

In great works of art, it is the interplay of darkness and light, of bright colors and muted tones which lend to their wholeness and beauty. Some masterpieces are dark, others light, but regardless of where the overall tone of the piece lies, it is the variation within it which give it meaning and make it work for the viewer. And so it is with politics. Ideas are our color pallet, society's institutions, whether government or private, are our paintbrushes. Precious few ideas by themselves are terribly dangerous, but any idea over applied with rigid fanaticism will likely have bad results. It doesn't matter whether the idea comes from Karl Marx, Milton Friedman, John Locke, Adam Smith, or John Keynes; rigidity and the unbending application of any narrow set of precepts to solve every problem is dangerous and almost always bound to have disastrous, even if unintended, results.

I am unabashedly liberal, and by some accounts in certain areas - extremely so. But I recognize that truth can come from anywhere, and I KNOW that certain conservative ideas have far too much merit to be ignored or dismissed out of hand simply because they are conservative. I'm a big believer in using a full pallet in painting our democracy. Let's work together and see what works, don't be afraid to try new ideas, or to mix old ideas in new combinations. As they say the devil is in the details, and reasonable people will disagree with each other on how to proceed. I wouldn't presume in a single article to provide THE answer to solving our problems. What I will suggest with some confidence is that we should be wary of those who prescribe adherence to a rigid agenda in addressing those problems. And rigid agendas can come not only from the far right or far left, but can just as easily come from the center, from libertarians, neoliberals, neoconservatives, etc. etc.

A recurring theme in my criticism of the Bush administration has been that it's not how far right they are, it's how far wrong they are. Well, my belief is that what has been so wrong is precisely that rigidity in applying a narrow set of precepts, from a canned set of talking points to every policy on every front. When you're a hammer everything looks like a nail.

Monday in the Democratic column at Watchblog, Paul Siegel wrote a commentary arising from his reaction to the coal mining tragedy in Utah, in which he attacked the rigidity of the popular ideology which holds sacred the primacy of the free market in determining government policy. I remember being struck by how "on target" the piece was, only to discover how utterly repulsed some readers were by that article, declaring disgust and an inclination to vomit because of it. Upon rereading the article, I understood better this reaction, and realized that Paul and his commenters approached the subject with different understanding of the particulars of this case (and I think the exposure of the those particulars will largely vindicate Paul), but also see that Paul erred in seeming to imply that the rigidity he attacks might be applied generally to all conservatives. I'm confident that Paul would agree with me that such is not the case, but rather that the talking points of the conservative movement in this country over the last three decades, as encapsulated in the commentary of such ideologues as Rush Limbaugh, do attempt to prescribe such dangerous rigidity.

Limbaugh in fact is a master at exploiting the misapprehension I spoke of at the beginning of this article in leading his listeners to assumptions about the reasonableness of some ideas and solutions as opposed to the "radicalness" of others. People on the left are just as guilty of the same technique and honestly that bothers me just as much. But let's look again at some of Paul's specific language to see why his suggestions are in fact the moderate ones. In his key summary paragraph, Paul acknowledges that "Ownership, free markets and self-reliance are all good." That statement certainly does not come from the radical left. He goes on to say "But they must be modified occasionally. Ownership cannot get anywhere without people to do the work. Free markets must be regulated for the interest of the average person. Self-reliance must yield to working as a community for the common good." In other words, Paul wants us to use a full pallet of ideas in working out solutions that - well - work! Now some were offended that Paul put words into the mouths of conservatives in parodying the rigidity which he and I see have dominated the conservative movement, but for many movement conservatives those words are all too close to what they are trying to imbue into the conservative American psyche. When someone in all seriousness comments that "If the government has no power to regulate the economy, their(sic) is no corruption", it is evident that in many cases they have succeeded in implanting such rigid thinking.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Save SCHIP for Children's Sakes

Nearly everyone professes a desire to renew the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), set to expire in September. Disagreement persists on funding levels & sources, qualification thresholds, and state discretion for variances. Is this a healthy policy debate, or a platform for ideological grandstanding? For the sake of children's health, let's hope SCHIP is funded at levels to protect the truly vulnerable.

There is a policy debate here worth having, but hold on there and look at the scope and the big picture before allowing the ideologues to drag us into minutiae. SCHIP (pronounced ess-chip) is a program which America's governors agree across party lines has benefited the hard working families most deserving of health insurance for their children that they otherwise simply couldn't afford. Everyone agrees that renewing the program for five years at the current level of $25 billion for five years is not enough. The White House wants to limit the expansion to an additional $5 billion, the Senate's bipartisan version expands the program by $35 billion and the House version (HR 3162) by $50 billion. Co-author and conservative Republican Senator Orrin Hatch's made this statement on the floor in favor of the Senate version (S 1893).

The White House is attempting to don the garments of fiscal restraint in threatening a veto of excessive Congressional expansion of SCHIP. Ahem...

In 2003, Bush famously signed into law the most expensive health bill in our nation's history. That bill with a stated price tag of $400 billion over 10 years, almost didn't pass, as Tom DeLay had to coerce one fiscal conservative with a political threat against his son to get the necessary vote. Later we learned that the administration already knew that the price tag was being understated by over $100 billion, but the actuary with that information was being muzzled by his boss, so Congress might pass it. Never mind that the biggest beneficiaries of this bill were the pharmaceuticals and HMOs, much more than the seniors it was supposed to benefit, who in spite of all that government spending were actually going to have their out of pocket costs increase. Multiple sources now tell us that the actual cost to taxpayers of this gargantuan largesse to big pharma and HMO will exceed $1 trillion dollars, though the White House denies them. Note, however, the quiet admission that the cost is over $500 billion.

Yes some perspective is in order.

So this administration wants to trim $30-45 billion off of a program which directly benefits the underinsured in the name of fiscal responsibility, when four years ago it was willing to lie about the cost of a program it supported to the tune of $135 billion, when many of those dollars are an indirect benefit, which simultaneously lined the pockets of the executives who really have Bush's ear.

Yes I understand that the 2003 program is showing a 10 year cost, whereas the 2007 SCHIP graph is showing a 5 year cost - but still look at the difference between columns 5 and 6, which the Administration is declaring a willingness to veto over, compared to the difference betwee columns 2 and 3 which the Administration was willing to LIE over. When it comes to cost control this administration has no credibility whatsoever. It simply says whatever it wants for political reasons, with no apparent regard for the public good.

When all is said and done, this war the President started will likely cost us over $2 trillion dollars, dwarfing further the bars on the graph above - and that doesn't even attempt to assign a value to the lost lives of soldiers and civilians, or the damage to our national image across the globe.

Yes there is a policy debate worth having about SCHIP. From Kaiser to the AARP to pundits to policy journals, folks are weighing in with the specifics. Maybe the House version needs to be scaled back or includes earmarks which don't belong there. I'll take Orrin Hatch's word for it that in the Senate version, "my Democrat colleagues made sacrifices in endorsing this bill and in sacrificing program expansions they so dearly advocated". I personally might prefer the House version, but this President ought to be convinced to sign some compromise - perhaps close to that bipartisan effort in the Senate. I would urge my Congressman to work to present a bill that can be quickly approved, but one which accounts for the realities that the working poor and the working lower middle class must face in health care. Some states have already run out of funds, and in instances children may be literally dying because their parents can't afford the procedures they require.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Republicans are correct about one thing

The Democratic overnight session forcing Republicans to engage in a real filibuster was more theater than substance. Nonetheless it was theater which afforded the Democrats the opportunity to show the 60% of Americans who believe that funding of the war SHOULD be tied to deadlines for withdrawal, that they- Congressional Democrats - finally get it.

A lot of the commentary from pundits about the war and American opinion misses the point, but when you hear that the Congress is "tone-deaf" or that they are "behind the American public" on this issue, that's essentially correct. Back in late May, the Congressional Democrats in both houses capitulated, and gave Bush pretty much the funding bill he wanted, instead of relentlessly insisting on including a deadline, and forcing Bush to continually veto funding in order to avoid any deadline. The erroneous thinking was that the public would ultimately blame Congress in such a standoff which risked resulting in the troops not being funded at all. My argument at the time was that among the majority who oppose the war, Bush would take the blame in such a standoff. The contrary view seemed to be based in part on public reaction following the government shutdown of 1995 in which Clinton would not sign a bill with Republican conditions he did not want, and the government temporarily shutdown. The public blame at the time went to Congress. I say such reactions depend on the particulars, and the recent CBS/NYT poll suggests a majority of Americans would have approved of Congress insisting on deadlines in May, in spite of April polling which suggested the opposite. Clearly the Democrats' lack of spine in standing up to Bush is the major factor in bringing Congressional approval levels so low.

Now let me be perfectly clear. Majority opinion does not make that opinion correct. In February 2003 I was part of a vocal minority within America opposing our invasion of Iraq. We were correct.

If some action is right, then time will vindicate standing firm in spite of public opinion. Bush still hopes for such historic vindication in spite of all evidence and common sense which suggest otherwise. In May the Democrats did not need to fund this madness, and should have stood firm because it was right, not because the public would approve. Instead they guessed about public opinion, and allowed Bush to deepen the quagmire without conditions. Now that they are down to the low 20s in public approval, maybe they're finally getting it.

Bringing cots into the Senate chamber was most definitely political theater. It was welcome theater, and long overdue.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Stop-Loss: Bush's Ugly Draft

One courageous soldier, holding vigil in Bellingham, Washington (more coverage here), is discovering that most of the people he talks to don't even know what "stop loss" is, or believe that it only refers to a certain kind of stock trade. In fact the Bush administration's indefensible and immoral use of the military's stop loss policy is a despicable mistreatment of the volunteers who comprise our armed services.

The stop loss policy allows the military to retain soldiers past the time of their contract in times of national emergency. In a real national emergency that makes sense. The only national emergency we have now is one of Bush's own creation, and it is not going to be addressed - indeed it is only being exacerbated - by forcing our volunteer soldiers to remain in the line of fire past the time of their contract. The only emergency being addressed is the political emergency of Bush vainly attempting to save face while denying the reality that his "liberation" of Iraq has been a colossal failure.

Soldiers are being called back to third and even fourth tours of duty, and kept past the time stipulated on their contracts for one simple reason. There aren't enough volunteers to support this boondoggle, and no one other than Charlie Rangel has the gumption to suggest an honest draft to supply the fresh troops that would be necessary to support keeping the former level of troops in the Middle East, much less a surge. Meanwhile Ahmadinejad laughs while we rattle our sabres, because he knows our military is now stretched too thin to provide any real threat against Iran.

When news of the stop loss program first broke, I was surprised by the lack of outrage and coverage of it. Still, outside of the military, it is a little known necessity for fueling this insane war. There are signs that it is gaining traction as an issue, though, as it erodes support for the war in the very camps where support has traditionally been strongest. In fact it has generated such a spate of lawsuits and backlash in the ranks that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is ordering that plans be made to minimize its use.

The surge and the widespread objection to it has been well reported. Some have suggested that if we really want to give the military option a chance to succeed we would need a far greater surge than the President has ordered. The elephant in the room is that we CANNOT supply such a huge surge without a real draft, and that we can only support the current levels, surge or no surge, by mistreating the very soldiers we supposedly honor.

We must demand that President Bush support our troops by bringing them home in an orderly fashion - and soon.

Friday, 25 May 2007


Unfortunately there is nothing else to call it.

It's being said a million times in a million ways - and hopefully the media and the Democratic leadership will wake up to the fact that it's not just the "loony left" who want to see Congress stand up to this Administration and insist that we begin exiting from their insane and failed military boondoggle in Iraq.

An accidental similarity in title of one of my posts of a year ago with a recent opinion piece by Mark Buchanan published by the New York Times, has led me to that article which seeks to explain the disconnect between the media's "conventional wisdom" about the feelings of the American people and the breadth and depth of what they really feel. It's an interesting read, but with the Times odd policy of making opinion available only by subscription, I can point you instead to this reproduction of it.

I try to regularly watch Washington Week in Review, largely because it keeps me in touch with the DC pundits' "conventional wisdoms", but I frequently bristle at what they choose to cover or ignore, and at the characterizations of perfectly reasonable beliefs as being "fringe". Dan Balz is particularly nauseating - but I digress. Of course if you pay attention to the sponsors of this "public television" offering, one quickly sees big oil, big agribusiness, and military contractors. Who are we kidding? Brancaccio's NOW and anything Bill Moyers does in contrast is funded solely by foundations or socially conscious businesses.

So I sit here heartsick and dismayed that the Democratic leadership was so gutless that it could not come back with a bill that mandated a sane exit as a contingency to funding. It's even more sickening that so many Democrats voted for this capitulation - both in the House and the Senate.

Certainly I called both my Senators (Murray and Cantwell) to express my dismay, and my Congressman (Inslee) to applaud his courage.

Still, I think it is important not to come unhinged. By all means, let us point out that people are dying due to these decisions, but let us be aware that this is but one vote, and our continued engagement can still play a role in subsequent votes. I am not abandoning the Democrats over this, nor will I drop out. The voice of dissent is growing. To use it effectively we must continue to be involved - not drop out in disgust.

The Democratic leadership has sadly ceded the Republican talking point that a vote against an unreasonable funding resolution is a vote against the troops - we must not cede the talking point that only the leftwing fringe would do otherwise. That is provably not the case, but the more of us who come unhinged, the easier it will be for the opposition to paint us as such.

Choose hope - stay resolute - adopt a calm anger

We are here to stay.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Recycling Thugs & Ideologues

John Fife's interview on Democracy Now a couple of weeks ago got to the crux of the criminality and inhumanity of the Bush administration. It's a simple reflection of the criminality and inhumanity of the Reagan administration. Reagan was Commander-in-Chief for eight years and is now largely celebrated, while being reviled only by a few of us. If Reagan could get away with it and be so honored, Bush figured he should be able to do the same. It is really at the heart of why I'm so saddened and perplexed at what is accepted behavior by our leaders in this country which celebrates values of liberty and opportunity for all.

The ideologues and thugs from the Reagan era are just being recycled by Bush. Fife brings up the prime examples of John Negroponte and Elliott Abrams. When will we ever learn.

Fife's interview was preceded by a report on the arrests and charges being brought against members of the humanitarian aid group, No More Deaths. I highly recommend both the report and the interview.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Democrats: Don't Be Timid!

The veto on the war spending bill is now official, and the ball is in the Democrats' court.

Now is the time to pressure our Democratic lawmakers not only to hold their ground but to be even more assertive. Bush has already refused your compromise: take something away.

When a petulant child misbehaves, no one advises the parents to compromise with him. That would reward the bad behavior and encourage more mischief. Bush may not be a child, but he certainly acts like one. Frankly I'm happy for this veto. The embedded timelines in the bill gave Bush far too much latitude to simply ignore them. The American people are fed up. If the Democrats can get a tougher bill to pass, it will be the President who is then up against the wall. As time is running out his veto would become the thing that denies support for the troops.

It has always been this president and his administration who is most guilty of not supporting our troops:

Insufficient body armor(Just one of many reports)
Stop-loss extensions of tours of duty(example of a mother's protest)
Recalling soldiers for third redeployments(current search of Google news for sample stories)
Insufficient training for national guard sent for service
Not taking care of our returning veterans(Fox News, no less)

If the Dems can't get sufficient support for making the redeployment out of Iraq mandatory, then they should add more conditions IN SUPPORT OF THE TROOPS based on the foregoing. They should not remove language calling for redeployment out of Iraq, also IN SUPPORT OF THE TROOPS, in order to make Bush's signing more likely.

The conventional wisdom says the timetable will be removed in favor of more solid benchmarks. That is based on the reality that the vote on the last bill was close, and some Senators seem unlikely to be willing to hold their ground. The conventional wisdom can change if enough of those Senators and Congresspeople hear from their constituents demanding that they not cave in to a president intent on defying the will of the people. If the Democrats stay tough, the charge that they are not supporting the troops will not have sticking power.

It has become quite evident that it is Bush who will not support the very troops who he is asking to risk their lives for his misadventure. Support our troops. Demand that they be brought home!

Monday, 30 April 2007

Kucinich is right - Cheney must go

It's a sad fact that politics frequently results in the appointment of people unfit for the duties of their office. Libby, Rumsfeld, Bolton, Safavian, Foggo, and Mike Brown, are among the Bush appointees who have already left under a cloud of disapproval and/or scandal. But the most dangerous of the lot is only a heartbeat away (if that) from the Presidency. Congressman Dennis Kucinich is right: It's time to remove Cheney from power.

Mere growing disapproval of Cheney is not sufficient cause for removing him from office, but Kucinich details plenty of supporting documents for all three articles of impeachment in his House Resolution 333. It's a shame that only candidates mocked by the media, or retired politicians, seem to have the courage to speak the truth.

Immediately after the election, I cautioned restraint, suggesting that a positive agenda must come before recriminations against our outlaw executive branch. Today I still agree with Woody Mena that positive legislation needs to be front and center of the Democratic Congress' agenda, and must be advanced at least as aggressively as investigations into Republican wrongdoing.

Nonetheless, we cannot continue to ignore the elephant in the room. It remains clear that the Vice President is stubbornly committed to a reckless and violent foreign policy. His approach has permeated the disastrous decision making which has been the hallmark of Bush's foreign policy. Bush asks for us to give their "new strategy" a chance, but there can be no real new strategy until he clears house. Gates has been a huge improvement over Rumsfeld, but the attack dog is still pulling the levers.

The Bush apologists will insist that "even the Democrats" were convinced that WMDs were there. But if there was anyone in the White House who had reason to doubt it, it was Cheney. His repeated trips to CIA headquarters were an obvious attempt to collect exactly the intelligence which suggested the worst, while ignoring all intelligence to the contrary. Perhaps Bush was misled, but Cheney continues to push the case for an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection, long after all serious scholars have dismissed the possibility.

Then there is the probable criminal conduct surrounding the blown cover of Valerie Plame. The day Libby was indicted, it was an outrage that Cheney did not resign. The second in command should be above suspicion. An honorable man could have spoken of the need to avoid the appearance of impropriety. A guilty man needs to stay put to cover his tracks. Patrick Fitzgerald may not have found the smoking gun to prove Cheney's criminality in a court of law, but he didn't mince words when he stated "there is a cloud over the vice president."

If this vice president is not lying, then he is seriously self-deluded. Either way, he ought to go.

Friday, 13 April 2007

EPA Action: Tardy, not Premature

If the Bush administration were honest, they would have renamed the Environment Protection Agency as the Corporation Protection Agency. Last week the Supreme Court sided with Massachussetts and other states in declaring that the EPA may regulate greenhouse gases. Yesterday EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said the agency was looking at options, but it was premature to talk about it.

Premature indeed! When it comes to protecting our environment, this administration has always been a day late and a dollar short. It's a shame too. Even now the EPA is loaded with good people committed to protecting our environment, but often when scientists are ready to issue reports contrary to wishes of corporate big wigs in bed with the administration, those scientists are muzzled. When enforcement threatens the profits of companies too cozy with the Republican establishment, enforcement is defunded. And when regulating greenhouse gas emissions might cost Detroit too much, well the EPA Administrators assigned to rein in the environmental "excesses" of the rank and file declare that EPA lacks the authority to do so.

The Bush administration seems to have no problem exceeding its authority when it comes to abbrogating individuals' civil liberties in the so-called war against terror, but exercises illogical restraint on its authority when curbing corporate behavior that may risk our collective future.

The Supreme Court dealt a rebuke to that logic last week, when it instructed the EPA that it did have authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and would be required to defend lack of such regulations on a scientific basis.

With all due respect to Linda Greenhouse, coastal dwellers in future generations will be far less concerned about John Roberts' trepidation about the legal doctrine of 'standing' than they will about excess corporate control of government if that is not reined in before their communities are inundated.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

My Apologies to Senator Byrd

In a post on March 7, I lambasted the Senate for its silence back in February and March of 2003, when it had become apparent that Bush was determined to invade Iraq in spite of unfinished inspections by the UN, widespread global disapproval, and wealth of evidence that it was an awful idea. I cited Russell Feingold of Wisconsin as the sole voice of reason. Well after making essentially the same post yesterday at Watchblog, reader Phillipe called my attention to this speech by Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, which concludes:
... to turn one's frustration and anger into the kind of extremely destabilizing and dangerous foreign policy debacle that the world is currently witnessing is inexcusable from any Administration charged with the awesome power and responsibility of guiding the destiny of the greatest superpower on the planet. Frankly many of the pronouncements made by this Administration are outrageous. There is no other word.

Yet this chamber is hauntingly silent. On what is possibly the eve of horrific infliction of death and destruction on the population of the nation of Iraq -- a population, I might add, of which over 50% is under age 15 -- this chamber is silent. On what is possibly only days before we send thousands of our own citizens to face unimagined horrors of chemical and biological warfare -- this chamber is silent. On the eve of what could possibly be a vicious terrorist attack in retaliation for our attack on Iraq, it is business as usual in the United States Senate.

We are truly "sleepwalking through history." In my heart of hearts I pray that this great nation and its good and trusting citizens are not in for a rudest of awakenings.

To engage in war is always to pick a wild card. And war must always be a last resort, not a first choice. I truly must question the judgment of any President who can say that a massive unprovoked military attack on a nation which is over 50% children is "in the highest moral traditions of our country". This war is not necessary at this time. Pressure appears to be having a good result in Iraq. Our mistake was to put ourselves in a corner so quickly. Our challenge is to now find a graceful way out of a box of our own making. Perhaps there is still a way if we allow more time.

The whole speech is worth a read. Byrd was not some brilliant prognosticator -- he was merely stating the obvious. There are quite a few other Senators who should be hanging their heads in shame.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Another Day to Let Your Opposition Be Known

Find a rally, vigil, or protest in your area!

Responsibility for Sweatshops and Child Labor

When I hear stories, such as the awful conditions under which young teenagers in Guatemala are forced to work to prepare products for export to the United States market, I feel despair that objections to the facilitation of such outrages by lauded free trade agreements are dismissed as the ravings of lefty loonies.

I don't claim to know that such abuses would be less in the absence of these agreements. Indeed that is a question not sufficiently answered by the Democracy Now report. But I don't believe the pretense of ignorance on the part of the corporations in this country about these abuses. At some level it is appropriate that we be bothered by the extent to which our comfort is made to depend on the misery of others.

If free trade can be used as a lever to force changes and better conditions for the oppressed in distant lands, I'll gladly hail that. But the extent to which these stories must find their expression in the alternative media suggest a willing complicity in need of greater exposure. Thank you Amy Goodman, for your role in making these stories more widely known.

Whatever you may believe about what make the best trade policies, it is not extreme to decry the abuse of under aged workers, or any workers, in the service of providing cheaper goods for the privileged among us. If that's how capitalism works, then capitalism is broken.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Looks Good So Far

Following up on my Mauritania post, the news so far is promising.

The final paragraph speaks to the uncertainty yet ahead:
The critical moment will come when the army must return to the barracks, according to Cedric Jourde, a political scientist at Ottawa University who closely follows Mauritanian politics. He said it remained to be seen to what extent the military would "accept to be subordinated to a non-military head of state" and civilian government.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Good Luck, Mauritania

And sometimes luck has more to do with outcomes than people like to acknowledge.

In just a few hours the West African nation of Mauritania will begin holding its first legitimate presidential election. In this case Mauritania's good fortune was the good will and integrity of Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, who took the reins of power in a military coup in August of 2005, ousting strongman Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya who was in Saudi Arabia at the time, attending King Fahd's funeral. Vall pledged to bring democracy, liberate the press, and hold national elections within two years.

True to his word, the press is no longer muzzled, an independent judiciary appears to be established, and a constitution is in place guaranteeing basic liberties and intended to prevent dictatorships. Many involved in the overhaul have urged Vall to stay, but like our own George Washington who refused to stay in power, Vall will not hear of it.
"The problem for Mauritanians is that for the first time in their lives, they don't know what the outcome of the election will be ... Psychologically it's very hard. It terrifies them," said Col Vall, who before the coup headed the country's national police."But it's a fear that must be overcome."
Promises are cheap, and dictators frequently refer to their nations as democracies, holding phony elections periodically to fabricate legitimacy. It's no wonder Mauritania was presumed to be no different, showing as red for undemocratic on this map I created a year ago based on the research of OTFord at the Stewardship Project. Perhaps it can follow in the footsteps of Liberia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Malawi which have made progress toward democracy in the last 15 years, and soon be colored blue.

What I really don't know is whether the institutions Vall has created in 17 short months are strong enough to withstand the temptations of a newly elected president to return autocratic rule to a country where such has been the norm. A dense field of 19 candidates (none constitutionally allowed to be associated with previous dictators) complicates the equation as this West African nation approaches its new day of hope.

Mauritania, good luck!

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Bill Moyers speaks again

Regular readers (those few of you) know that I'm a huge devotee of Bill Moyers. But if you're looking for his recent speech on income inequality which he delivered at the National Conference for Media Reform, you probably want to go here. I'm pleased to find out about it myself - not because I saw it featured somewhere on TV or a major publication - but because my blog has suddenly been hit predominately by folks looking for it.

If that's you, you're probably looking at my set of posts referencing Moyers, so come back and visit. I had the pleasure of attending a lecture he gave here in Seattle two years ago. You can read my report several articles below.

And remember, if there's any way to do so: always choose hope!

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Loving & Hating the U.S. Senate

Equivocation must be one of the defining qualifications for a career in politics. Learning how to take a stand while not offending those who disagree is often a hallmark of any successful politician, but with few exceptions Senators have elevated this skill to an artform.

As we approach the four year anniversary of the disastrous decision to invade another country with insufficient provocation or planning, I've been thinking of the Senate's role in that disaster, and searching for documentation about just what they were up to in the weeks before the invasion.

In October of 2002, by a 77-23 vote, the United States Senate authorized the President to use the U.S. Armed Forces against Iraq. So 23 Senators shared my distrust of this President to prudently make such a decision. That said, I can understand the concerns around reports of Saddam's weapons program and a complete lack of trust in his government which could lead some Senators plenty wary of war to legitimately feel it was in the interest of national security to give our President latitude to make that decision without the ordinary Congressional restraint. I disagreed then, and I think history has already proved me and the 23 right, but there is a difference between the authorization (an act of trust) and the decision to invade (an abuse of that trust).

My own Democratic Senator, Maria Cantwell, who voted for the authorization very capably equivocated in her press release at that time, declaring among other things:
If, for some reason, the U.N. Security Council does not act, I will expect the President to make a major and aggressive diplomatic effort to enlist other partners around the globe in doing the right thing to stop the Hussein threat. ... Mr. President, my vote for this resolution does not mean that I am convinced of the Administration has answered all the questions. I believe the following issues must be addressed before the U.N. or the U.S. move forward with military action.

First: Continued Multilateral Approach. [followed by details...]
Second: Successful Military Strategy. [followed by details...]
Third: A Postwar Commitment Strategy. [followed by details...]
Fourth: Fighting the Broader War on Terrorism. [followed by details...]
Fifth: Maintaining Middle East Stability. [followed by details...]
Sixth: Protecting Iraqi Civilians. [followed by details...]

Mr. President, I hope our vote tonight and the President's multilateral efforts lead to a successful result where we would not need to use them. But if we do, these men and women will meet the task with professionalism, conviction and resolve.

Mr. President, I do not now, nor have I ever believed that military action is a preferred method to address international conflict. But sometimes it is necessary.
Cantwell covered her tracks, and could rightly claim that the President's actions in taking us into war in March of 2003 did not meet the test she found implicit in the resolution. In my view more of those constraints needed to be explicit within any such resolution at the least. Sadly though, in the final days leading up to the invasion when it became increasingly clear that the administration would not wait for the UN Inspectors who had not yet finished their job, there was far too little outcry from Senators (e.g. exhibit Cantwell's lack of outcry here or here) objecting to the administration's abuse of their authorization. I'm not impressed by the claim that they were rolled by Powell's act at the U.N., or Bush's lies at the State of the Union address. In spite of sharing the general sense that Colin Powell was honorable and upright, the whole business smelled fishy enough to me that February of 2003 saw me thus:

There were Senators on both sides of that vote who should have been crying foul, but as has too often been the case, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin gave us the lonely voice of reason,
I believe that the administration has not made clear to the American people, however, the magnitude of the task the country is setting for itself – not only with regard to the military engagement, but with regard to occupation and reconstruction.
His resolution called on the President to further report to congress before sending troops to war, explicitly calling out many of the same requirements Cantwell found implicit in the resolution. Feingold's resolution was read twice then referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.

Most of our Senators are extremely bright. I believe most of them really do care about serving the interests of our nation. But this invasion didn't pass the smell test for me or millions of people around the world, and yet this body was strangely mute.

Many in the anti-war crowd have damned them for the October resolution, but I damn them even more for their February-March 2003 silence. How could it be so blazingly obvious to this citizen and millions of others around the world, and yet draw scarcely a peep out of the senior legislative body of the republic leading the charge to war?

We can speculate that those who voted for the resolution felt obliged to accept the Administration reports, and that they and others who voted against it chafed against the possible repercussions of appearing less than fully supportive of the troops whose lives would be on the line. Fear that the campaign might be fully successful and draw to a nice conclusion no doubt muted some who figured their political careers would come to an abrupt end if they questioned Bush and ended up on the wrong side of what might become a wildly popular war.

Oh, the timidity! Have they learned nothing? They can't even adopt a resolution against a "surge" in 2007 that clearly does NOT have popular or congressional support.

Feingold remains the shining star

You may surmise that I dislike every other Senator, but it's not true. Many garner my admiration for one reason or another. But when it comes to speaking one's truth without equivocation, Russell Feingold stands alone.

The PATRIOT Act: 96-Russ

It's pretty sad that only one Senator could bring himself to vote against a massive bill being rushed through the chamber before anyone had time to read it. Feingold hadn't had time either, but he read enough to find Constitutionally questionable provisions that many now agree should never have become law.

I'm not the only person out here who finds strength of character appealing. Feingold should be the standard. And look - he doesn't even come from one of the solidly blue states. Wisconsin has elected and re-elected this darling of progressives across the country, not because he is liberal, but because he is genuine.

Senators, your job is not to worry about the political calculus of every move you make and every word you say or write. Your job is to take care of our nation and represent your values honestly to your constituents. Show your character and your voters just might surprise you.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007

The Stench at Justice Expands

We can now add Western Michigan's Margaret Chiara to the list of U.S. Attorneys who have been forced out by the White House and Alberto Gonzales. Watchblog's American Pundit put two and two together last month when San Diego's Carol Lam, who helped put Republican crook Duke Cunningham behind bars, was forced out. Gonzales may insist that no ongoing investigations are being jeopardized, but why then are we seeing the wholesale replacement of their own appointments by Bush loyalists? I smell something rotten.

And then there's the lies, and of couse the innuendo. Sure these positions are by nature political appointments, whose holders serve "at the pleasure of the President". They were appointed originally by this administration and have stepped down gracefully. But Bud Cummins of Eastern Arkansas, the first to go last year to make room for a Karl Rove aide, broke his silence after testimony in January by Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the six U.S. attorneys in the West and Southwest had been dismissed for "performance-related" reasons:
They're entitled to make these changes for any reason or no reason or even for an idiotic reason. But if they are trying to suggest that people have inferior performance to hide whatever their true agenda is, that is wrong. They should retract those statements.
Six of the seven earlier fired attorneys had positive performance reviews. Cummins is scarcely alone in his reaction to McNulty's insulting testimony.

You can visit ePluribusMedia for more fine articles detailing the recent firings and their implications: The Gonzales Seven; Gaming the System; and links to separate articles about each one.

Speculation about Chiara's departure include that it had something to do with previous clashes with the administration on the death penalty which she opposes. From the Grand Rapids Press article:
Federal prosecutors serve at the discretion of the president and may be dismissed for any reason, or no reason at all. Most serve for the duration of the president's term and expect to be replaced when a new party sweeps into office.

"The timing is suspicious for anyone to leave on their own will and in the middle of a term when they were appointed by the sitting president. That alone makes it unusual," [Grand Rapids lawyer, Jon] Muth said. "I can't imagine it being performance-related."

James Brady, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District, is concerned by the possibility Chiara could be connected to the recent dismissals.

"There's no question we're concerned that politics may be involved in these types of decisions," he said. "In the (other forced resignations) there was nothing but praise until some political trouble started."

Chiara opposes capital punishment, although she has vowed to uphold such laws.
The PATRIOT Act has a provision which gives the current Attorney General authority to appoint any provisional replacement U.S. Attorney for the remainder of the Presidential term without Congressional approval. Alberto Gonzales was confirmed in a controversial Senate vote back in January of 2005. He came in with the odor of being a primary architect of the policies that weakened our government's previous strong stance against torture, calling the Geneva Conventions quaint prior to the exposure of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Even Republican Lindsey Graham of the Senate Judiciary Committe hearings during that confirmation expressed his dismay at a published Gonzales memo, stating:
when you start looking at torture statutes, and you look at ways around the spirit of the law, you're losing the moral high ground
Graham lacked the cojones to stand behind his principles and deny Gonzales' nomination, as he or Arlen Specter or any single Republican had the power to do, in what ended up being a 10-8 committee vote along party lines to forward the nomination to the full Senate.

And now that same morally crippled chief law enforcement officer of the land defends his capricious firings of 8 U.S. Attorneys in recent months, on shaky grounds. Gonzales is the one who should be fired. The stench smells from coast to coast.