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(NeoProgBlog, The Neoprogressive, The Neoprogressive Magazine, and original material © 2005, 2006.)

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

An Excellent Alito Post-Mortem...

from Digby.

72-25 is bad. But it's not as bad as it seems, historically. Something's happening here, and the astounding amount of lobbying that went into getting 25 votes for filibuster are the start of a movement. And no, I'm not drinking this early, I'm serious. Read Digby.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Gear Up for $262/Barrel Oil. Soon.

Scary News from Davos. And guys like George Soros and the others attending the World Economic Forum aren't stupid.

For comparison, right now we've been running about $60/bl. So, we're looking at, say, $8/gal. for gas and home heating oil.

Yow. Add this my other Cassandra-like predictions of economic gloom.

Alito Filibuster: Up to Date Info On Where Each Senator Stands

Alito gameplan: who stands where, who's come back to the side of the angels, who's being a Vichy, and most of all -- who to call, what to say, and contact information. All at the VichyDems blog.

Independent Study: Abramoff Steered Donations AWAY From Dems!

Link here. Thanks to Josh Marshall.

And it's what I've been saying.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Things Change. But the Constitution Abides.

The Administration's basic argument in support of patently illegal, warrantless spying on American citizens -- when warrants were quickly and readily available -- is that "9/11 Changed Everything."

Yes: 9/11 changed everything. Foreign nationals killed over 3,000 Americans (and others) on American soil.


The fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War (15,000 American deaths from nuclear test fallout alone) changed everything.

Watergate changed everything.

Vietnam (47,000 American deaths) changed everything.

The assassination of JFK changed everything.

The atomic bomb (over 200,000 killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) changed everything.

Pearl Harbor (2,400 American deaths) changed everything.

The Crash of '29 changed everything.

The War To End All Wars (5 million Allied or "Entente" deaths) changed everything.

The War Between the States (618,000 American deaths) changed everything.

The British invading our nation and burning the White House in 1812 (2,260 American battle deaths) changed everything.

Things change. Yet the Constitution abides.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

In 2002, the White House Said It Didn't Need FISA Standards Lowered -- That Existing Law Was Just Fine, Thank You.

At least I'm still capable of being stunned.

As I've explained before, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act ("FISA") sets out a procedure for American intelligence agencies to quickly obtain a warrant to do surveillance on American citizens who may be having communications with terrorists. It's easy to get those warrants: out of over 19,000 applications, only 5 (not five thousand -- just five) have EVER been denied. The FISA court is located down the hall from the AG's office. And warrants can even be obtained retroactively when there's a time crunch. So there is NO reason for Bush to have permitted wiretaps of American citizens without going through the FISA process.

And now, an amazing revelation: in 2002, a bill was introduced in Congress to make it even easier to get FISA warrants -- like a 99.97% warrant-granting rate isn't enough! -- and ...

Wait for it...

The Bush Administration declined to support the bill, saying it was unconstitutional.

Yes: the Bush Justice Department argued, post-911, that lowering the standard for spying on Americans from "probable cause" to "reasonable suspicion" violated the Constitution. It even said that the Patriot Act and FISA were already loose enough, and it didn't need anything more to get the job done, thank you.

So what does that say about the SAME ADMINISTRATION doing warrantless spying on Americans without complying with FISA, and claiming now that it did so because FISA was too strict?

Thanks to Glenn Greenwald, who's doing a great job of untangling the legal issues surrounding the NSA/FISA controversy.

SUPPLEMENT, JANUARY 26, 2006: Another stunner: the Administration's explanations of WHY it opposed the proposed bill. According to David Savage of the L.A. Times, one Justice Department skokesman says '[t]here was a conscious choice not to have a public discussion about it." Others quibble about definitions: that "reasonable cause" equals "probable cause" but not "reasonable suspicion." It all sounds tres wonky, but it's significant to see the Administration wiggle and squirm to evade Glenn Greenwald's discovery -- without success.

Alito, the Filibuster, and Political Cowardice: A Prediction

Here is how the Alito nomination should, in a better world, play out:

1. One or more Democratic or Independent Senators would filibuster Alito.

2. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist would call a cloture vote (i.e., a vote to cut off debate, which in the Senate ordinarily is unlimited. Cloture would end a filibuster, which is actually nothing more than unlimited debate actually occurring.)

3. 41 Democratic and Independent Senators would oppose cloture. The filibuster would continue.

4. The mainstream press would have no choice but to cover at least some of the filibuster speeches, communicating Alito's problems to the American people.

5. The Republican party would do instant polling and, depending on the results, either back down and withdraw the Alito nomination or, as they have threatened to do, "go nuclear" -- Frist or Cheney (as President of the Senate) would declare that filibusters of judicial nominees are unconstitutional, turn off the filibustering Senators' microphones, and hold a simple vote to confirm Alito.

6. If the latter, Alito would become a Supreme Court justice, the Republicans would look bad, and the Democrats would keep the issue alive from now to next November's elections by effectively shutting down all Senate business (except for military and public health matters) by insisting on strict compliance with every. single. procedural. rule. in. the. book.

The two parties would have succeeded in distinguishing themselves from each other; both sides would have stood on principle; and the voters would, at long last, have a clear choice in November (instead of a choice between Republican and Vichy Democrat, as they have had in the past).

That's what I'd like to see: principled confrontation, backbones, and a decision of "who wins" by the voters in November.

Now here's what I predict will happen:

1. Since Democratic activists are increasingly calling for a filibuster, one or more Democratic Senators -- especially ones whose seats are susceptible to a primary challenge, like Joe Lieberman -- will mount a filibuster.

2. They will do so knowing, in advance, that there aren't 41 votes against cloture. Frist will call a cloture vote, several Democratic Senators (those up for re-election in largely conservative states) will side with the Republicans, and the filibuster will fail.

3. The Vichy Democrats will rail against the Right without actually having done anything concrete to stop it and without taking any political risk.

4. The Republicans will keep their Senate and House majorities in November.*

* Disclaimer: unless there are enough indictments of individual Republican congresspeople in connection with the Abramoff and Delay corruption trials, in which case the Democrats may win enough seats in the House despite their cowardice over Alito.

There. I'm on the record. Let's see how it plays out.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Yet Another "Texas Model" Federal Education Program. Yikes.

The federal "No Child Left Behind" program is based on a similar program implemented in Texas when George W. Bush was governor. Touted as "The Texas Miracle," the Texas version of "No Child" supposedly reduced dropout rates and improved student test scores astronomically.

As it turns out -- and this is old news -- the "Texas miracle" was more of a "Texas boondoggle." The numbers were cooked. The Columbia Journalism Review explains:

"We have no dropouts!” Robert Kimball declared in a sarcastic e-mail to his boss, the principal of Houston’s Sharpstown High School, in November 2002. Sharpstown had just reported that none of its 1,650 students had left without graduating or transferring elsewhere, and the assistant principal could not believe the math. “Amazing! We go from 1,000 freshmen to less than 300 seniors with no dropouts.”

*** Two other inner-city Houston high schools that ordinarily lost about half their students by graduation also reported zero dropouts. A dozen more schools reported losses of less than 1 percent.... Sharpstown’s teachers and administrators had received $75,000 in bonuses as accountability rewards for keeping children in school.

[But] [i]nvestigative reporters ... tracked down several actual dropouts, including a seventeen-year-old student who Sharpstown officials claimed was enrolled in a private school. In fact, she was working behind the counter at a Wendy’s. Following up on the story, Texas state auditors discovered that the district including Sharpstown falsely recorded nearly 3,000 high schoolers as “moved away” or “transferred” instead of as “dropouts.”

*** Houston was at the epicenter of the “Texas Miracle,” the standards and accountability reform movement championed by former Governor George W. Bush.... [Newspaper] stories revealed that scores of mostly black and Latino students in Houston were held back in the ninth grade for several years, enabling them to avoid taking the tenth-grade graduation exam, a test that had been diluted over time to include many questions better suited to sixth- through eighth-graders. Children who repeated ninth grade ended up dropping out in large numbers, and only half the students who did graduate went on to higher education. Not exactly the stuff of miracles.

In other words: the entire basis for "No Child Left Behind" was fabricated. A con job. An apparent miracle that actually involved smoke, distraction and piano wire, not real improvement. In fact, excellent teachers, with outstanding credentials, are being designated "unqualified" -- and their students' parents are being TOLD they are unqualified -- simply because "No Child" isn't flexible enough to recognize real excellence. Take the story of Oregon teacher Jonathan Steinhoff:

Last year I was a finalist for Teacher of the Year. Last year the National Geographic Society awarded me a $5,000 grant to help build an outdoor classroom with natural materials. Last year the Portland teachers association and school board asked me to mentor new teachers. Last year I trained a group of Portland teachers in the Tribes process, which nurtures supportive classroom communities.

Last week letters went home to the parents of my students telling them I'm not a "highly qualified" teacher. How can I fall so far in one year? Easy. I've been afflicted with the No Child Left Behind Curse.... In its push to "leave no child behind" the law disregards my license, even though it's issued by the state, which sets some of the toughest standards in the nation. My license says I'm qualified to teach English to speakers of other languages and bilingual education in specified subjects though grade 12.

But the new law doesn't recognize my qualifications because I, like other bilingual teachers, was encouraged to take college courses focusing on bilingual and special education. That left me without a few teaching methods courses [that "No Child" requires before granting the "highly qualified" designation].

Here's the "news" part of this post:

When a huge, new federal program is based on a lie, fails to accurately identify the best teachers, and otherwise falls on its face, what's a responsible government to do?

Why, more of the same, of course!

When Republican senators quietly tucked a major new student aid program into the 774-page budget bill last month, they not only approved a five-year, $3.75 billion initiative. They also set up what could be an important shift in American education: for the first time the federal government will rate the academic rigor of the nation's 18,000 high schools.

The measure, backed by the Bush administration and expected to pass the House when it returns next month, would provide ... grants to low-income college freshmen and sophomores who have completed "a rigorous secondary school program of study"....

It leaves it to the secretary of education to define rigorous, giving her a new foothold in matters of high school curriculums.***

"I do not see this, at all, as an expansion of the federal role," Sally L. Stroup, an assistant secretary of education, said in an interview... Furthermore, states and communities can decide on their own whether their students will compete for the grants. "We don't force people to do anything," Ms. Stroup said.***

Like the No Child Left Behind law, the new grants are largely an effort to take a Texas idea nationwide. The legislation is modeled on the Texas Scholars program, begun during Mr. Bush's governorship, which enlisted certain Texas high schools and encouraged their students to take a "rigorous course of study."***

After Mr. Bush became president, his administration financed a Center for State Scholars, based in Austin, to spread a curriculum modeled on Texas Scholars nationwide. In the 2006 budget, he proposed supplemental Pell Grants for college freshmen and sophomores who had completed the "rigorous" curriculum outlined in the State Scholars initiative....

Democratic lawmakers said they were barely consulted.

"We were shut almost completely out of the process," said Representative George Miller of California, the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.***

[U]nder the proposal approved by the Senate, Department of Education officials would need to scrutinize high school courses of study and discuss curricular matters with local officials to a degree that Washington officials never have.

"We haven't actually sat down yet and decided how we're going to go about it," Ms. Stroup said.

A larger role for the federal government in local education. Vague standards that no one in the government has any idea how to apply. Students unable to even apply for federal college funding simply because they happen to attend schools that do not meet the (undefined) standard for "rigor." The Democratic Party, which though a minority still represents half of the American people and historically is strongly interested in education, completely left out of the process. More nationwide education policy based on the discredited Texas model.

What's not to like?

See why I believe conservatives and liberals have a lot in common, and should band together in a movement to bring back common sense and restraint to government?

As I've said before: this is no way to run a nation.

How To Fail In Government, Mental Health Edition

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: contrary to the ideologies of both liberals and conservatives, the Bush administration is giving us government that is functionally incompetent and fiscally incontinent. It's the worst of all possible worlds. Here's yet another example:

Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan drastically cut federal spending on mental health care. One of his initiatives was to discharge residents of mental health facilities who were fairly stable and whose conditions could be managed with medication. What he didn't realize was that many of those patients needed the structure and support systems provided by inpatient facilities in order to maintain their medications. Once on the outside, many of those patients slid downhill. Some forgot to take their medication. Some, as is common with the mentally ill, decided to stop taking their medication. (Sort of a microcosm of the entire Reagan mental health policy: if they seem better, then they no longer need the treatment that made them better, right?) As a result, a whole lot of relatively stable in-patients became highly unstable out-patients: many wound up homeless, developed serious physical illnesses and serious relapses of mental illnesses, used emergency rooms for primary health care, and clogged the criminal justice system. Once all the additional social program, criminal justice, and emergency room costs were factored in, the Reagan mental health system "cuts" cost the taxpayers more money than they saved.

But we all make mistakes, and we learn from them. For instance, if we decided to restructure the way that prescription drugs are paid for, we would remember what happened in the 1980s and make certain that as psychiatric patients were transitioned from one drug plan to another, their treatment wouldn't be interrupted. We'd do this because we've learned that even a few days without proper medication can cause people with mental illnesses to suffer serious relapses, requiring expensive hospitalization and other services. What's more, if we considered ourselves disciples of Ronald Reagan, we'd be especially careful to ensure that patients who were doing well with correct medication didn't wind up back in mental hospitals, because that would undo what President Reagan did. In short, we'd ensure continuity of medication care during the Medicare Drug Benefit transition. Right? If we were intelligent public servants concerned about the people's welfare? Right?

Yeah, right.

HILLIARD, Fla., Jan. 16 - On the seventh day of the new Medicare drug benefit, Stephen Starnes began hearing voices again, ominous voices, and he started to beg for the medications he had been taking for 10 years. But his pharmacy could not get approval from his Medicare drug plan, so Mr. Starnes was admitted to a hospital here for treatment of paranoid schizophrenia.

*** When [Mr. Starnes] gets his medications, he is stable. "Without them," he said, "I get aggravated at myself, I have terrible pain in my gut, I feel as if I am freezing one moment and burning up the next moment. I go haywire, and I want to hurt myself."

Mix-ups in the first weeks of the Medicare drug benefit have vexed many beneficiaries and pharmacists. Dr. Steven S. Sharfstein, president of the American Psychiatric Association, said the transition from Medicaid to Medicare had had a particularly severe impact on low-income patients with serious, persistent mental illnesses.

"Relapse, rehospitalization and disruption of essential treatment are some of the consequences," Dr. Sharfstein said.

The proper size and role of government is a legitimate ground for discussion. But big, bad government isn't acceptable. Government that fails the weakest among us -- children, the elderly, the mentally ill -- isn't acceptable. We're better than this.

Or at least, we should be.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Crunch Time: Here's Why You Need to Call and Demand a Filibuster of Alito

My Democratic Senator, Ron Wyden, after some inexcusable but probably politically expedient dillydallying, has finally announced that he will oppose the Alito nomination. So far, not many Senators have come out opposing Alito -- to their shame -- but only one Vichy Democrat has announced he will actually support it (Ben Nelson, D-NE). (The Senate switchboard, toll-free, is 888-355-3588. Call and bury Sen. Ben Nelson in shame.)

This morning, Sen. Wyden called the Eugene, OR Air America affiliate, KOPT, and spoke with the morning show host, Nancy Stapp. (Note: he called them, not the other way around, which should augur something good...) Nancy brushed past the floor vote question and went straight to the only one that matters: the filibuster. Wyden answered, "I am not ruling anything out this morning." He noted that several members of the "Gang of 14" were "not inclined to support" a filibuster, so that "it will be difficult to find 40 votes to sustain a filibuster."


There are enough Democrats in the Senate, even without Nelson, to sustain a filibuster. The Gang of 14 is irrelevant to that question. The Gang of 14 only has to do with whether there are enough votes to prevent Bill Frist from unilaterally and unconstitutionally declaring filibusters unconstitutional. And the political reality is, Frist probably can and will do just that.

The question before the Democratic Senators, therefore, is this: DO THEY HAVE THE COJONES TO FILIBUSTER, KNOWING THAT A CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS WILL RESULT?

I say they should. My earlier posts explaining why Alito is bad for America are here, here (see the Supplement near the bottom of the post), here (Alito takes a narrow view of the Government's power to regulate huge corporate monopolies), here (Alito, conversely, has a hugely expansive view of what the President is allowed to do under the Constitution), and here (Alito's evasiveness on the abortion issue puts him in opposition to 60% of Americans, who think nominees should just answer the damn question).

Don't get me wrong: Alito will be on the Court no matter what. If the Democrats filibuster, and muster enough votes to prevent cloture, then Frist will declare judicial filibusters unconstitutional and hold a floor vote anyway. Every Democrat (except maybe Nelson and Lieberman) will walk out, Alito will be elected, and the Democrats will then stall all Senate business other than military and safety legislation, at least until after the election in November.

So Alito gets on anyway, but the message a filibuster would send -- that Democrats DO, contrary to popular belief, have spines, and have the ability to affect the functioning of the Senate even though they're in the minority -- would reverberate through the press and the electorate and would yield strong Democratic gains in November. Just as Clinton won when he faced down the House Republicans over a budget bill and allowed the entire government to be shut down, the Senate Democrats will win if they face down the Republican majority over this issue. Alito's the smallest part of it: the issue is whether the Republicans can exclude the Democrats from every aspect of government, or whether they need to play ball a little. And the American people want to see both parties play ball.

America is not well-served when the Executive, both houses of Congress, and seven of nine Supreme Court justices are in Republican hands, especially when we have a President whose approval ratings are only a mere 40% yet who is trying to accrete more and more power, free of legislative or judicial oversight. America is best-served when both parties share power and the mutual "jealousy" the Founders described drives them to check and balance each other. Want smaller, more effective, less intrusive government? Then don't let either party have a monopoly. Today, that means: support the Democrats, and oppose Alito.

The Democratic caucus is meeting next week. Between now and then, we need to flood every Democratic and Independent Senator with calls, sending a clear and politically sophisticated message:

"It's not enough to oppose Alito. Senator [insert name here] needs to filibuster him, even if that means Frist 'goes nuclear.' The voters won't hold it against you. In fact, we welcome the fight!"

Call. Say exactly what I said above. Then call someone else, and repeat. Again, the Senate switchboard is 888-355-3588. There's a list of the Democratic senators, their individual phone numbers, and their emails, here.

SUPPLEMENT, JANUARY 21, 2006: Conservative Presidents generally nominate justices who lean conservative. Liberal Presidents generally nominate justices who lean liberal. That's what the American people expect, and no sensible person has any heartburn over it.

But that's not what the Alito nomination is about. Alito is a radical conservative who has done a good job at avoiding being pinned down. He isn't mainstream, just evasive enough to look that way.

Here's a hypothetical question: what would conservatives say if a liberal President nominated a candidate who was not just progressive, but was conservatives' "worst nightmare"? Wouldn't that be over the top?

Bill Frist publicly has asserted, over and over, that Sam Alito is completely in the mainstream of American thought. But last night, in what he now wishes were a private conversation, Frist told fellow Republicans that Alito is not just conservative, but liberal Democrats' "worst nightmare."

The people don't want nominees who are anyone's "worst nightmare." Senate Democrats should take Frist at his word, and filibuster the good judge. Then, next time the White House makes a nomination, it might have the good sense to choose someone who is anathema to no one.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

New Bin Laden Tape Should Be Taken Seriously

Osama bin Laden purportedly has issued a new audiotape, offering an undefined "truce" and warning the American people that if they do not force a change in U.S. foreign policy, then he will attack the U.S. again.

May no nitwit wilfully misunderstand me and claim that I support terrorists. I hate bin Laden and wish him dead, dead, dead. And I have said before that America needs to be MORE courageous, not less, in standing up to al Quaeda.

Here, I'm just going on the record with a warning. Under Islamic ethics, a jihadist who is about to attack innocents must give them fair warning and offer a truce. Every major Islamic terror attack against the U.S. (both WTC attacks, the Cole, the embassy) were preceded by messages like this one, offering to negotiate or else.

So I take this seriously. Whether it's really bin Laden or another al Quaeda leader using his name, I predict that there will indeed be a significant, attempted attack on the U.S. or U.S. interests, and I fear that our government, which has spent over four years now with its eye OFF the ball, can do little to stop or mitigate it. If that happens, I will blame bin Laden. But I also will be looking closely at whether the people we elected to protect us fell down on the job. If bin Laden attacks us successfully, it will be their fault, too.

Let's pray that I'm wrong, and that our government, in pretending not to respond to terrorist threats, doesn't take a "called strike" on this one.

SUPPLEMENT, JANUARY 20, 2006: Bolstering my memory that prior attacks were preceded by warnings, that's exactly what terrorism expert Christopher Brown is saying, too. From The New York Sun:

A terrorism analyst in Washington and a fellow at the Hudson Institute, Christopher Brown, said yesterday that Mr. bin Laden's warning of an impending attack may not have been an empty threat, not because of Mr. bin Laden's statements, but because of a January 6 message from Mr. Zawahiri.

According to Mr. Brown, a pattern has emerged over the last eight messages from Mr. Zawahiri whereby every two messages are followed about 30 days later by an Al Qaeda attack - in Saudi Arabia, in London, and in Bali. If the pattern continues, Mr. Brown said, a new attack would be due in about a month. The analyst also pointed to recent postings on Al Qaeda Web sites threatening an imminent attack on "the land of the Romans," which Mr. Brown said could mean Italy or could be a figurative reference to America.
(America, of course, being the new imperial power and Crusader, in bin Laden's symbology.)

And this pleasant news, from

French terrorism investigators reported that an interrogation of al Qaeda suspect Abu Atiya revealed the group had allegedly procured advanced Russian-made man-portable missile systems and ricin, botulin and other toxins from Chechnya.

The missiles, which are especially made to avoid electronics-jamming defense systems, were known to be in Europe but may have been smuggled into the U.S.

So my pessimistic view? Sometime within the next 30 days or so, there will be a major al Quaeda attack, I'm betting either at the Winter Olympics (and intended to kill American athletes along with others) or here in the U.S. An attack connected to the upcoming Italian elections is a distant third.

Now is the time for our government to prove it can do the job. We have been warned, we've had four years to prepare, and there can be no excuses. Will the Bush Administration rise to the task? And if they don't, what will we, the People, do about it?

Damn damn damn, I hope I'm wrong.

Science in the Vatican

I'm pleased and, admittedly, a little surprised given the ideology of the new Pope, to read that the Vatican has given a clear, albeit indirect, nod of support to Darwin and science in general, and against the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools:

ROME, Jan. 18 - The official Vatican newspaper published an article this week labeling as "correct" the recent decision by a judge in Pennsylvania that intelligent design should not be taught as a scientific alternative to evolution.

"If the model proposed by Darwin is not considered sufficient, one should search for another," Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Bologna, wrote in the Jan. 16-17 edition of the paper, L'Osservatore Romano.

"But it is not correct from a methodological point of view to stray from the field of science while pretending to do science," he wrote, calling intelligent design unscientific. "It only creates confusion between the scientific plane and those that are philosophical or religious."

The New York Times explains the extent to which Professor Facchini's article represents the position of the Vatican itself:

The article was not presented as an official church position. But in the subtle and purposely ambiguous world of the Vatican, the comments seemed notable, given their strength on a delicate question much debated under the new pope, Benedict XVI. *** L'Osservatore is the official newspaper of the Vatican and basically represents the Vatican's views. Not all its articles represent official church policy. At the same time, it would not be expected to present an article that dissented deeply from that policy.

This does not mean that the Vatican disbelieves altogether in a divine role behind the mechanisms of evolution; Pope Benedict XVI himself appears to believe in something resembling Intelligent Design. But the article does suggest an impressive openmindedness, a fairly clear instruction not to confuse the science classroom with confirmation class, and, perhaps most importantly, a good example of how people with deep faith generally don't fear science (or anything else).

Why is this relevant to Neoprogressivism? Because while we don't insist on any position regarding the origins of life, we should insist that science not be confused with faith; that we treat each other not only with courtesy, but with real respect, the kind of respect that allows each his own, proper turf; and that we should stop fearing and fighting each other and start finding ways to work together, respecting each other's strengths and bailywicks.

Monday, January 16, 2006

How To Fail In Government Without Really Trying

I've preached before that all Americans should demand competent government -- effective government, government that succeeds in accomplishing what it sets out to accomplish. Liberals and conservatives can legitimately debate whether government should be big or small. But Americans of all stripes should demand that government, big or small, be effective. Effective government is the first and sturdiest plank of the Neoprog platform.

Under the current administration, the government succeeds at almost nothing it sets out to do. It spends money like a drunken 1970s Democrat, embraces global imperialism and foreign wars with the misplaced enthusiasm of a William Randolph Hearst, prostitutes itself to donors and lobbyists with the promiscuity of Ulysses Grant, and does less for the average American than Cal Coolidge. It has done almost nothing skilfully except gain office.

I should not be shocked, shocked at the fact that the Bush administration is so bad at governing, because there is nothing in its ideological underpinnings that would enable it to govern well. While it has abandoned traditional conservative values by expanding federal spending and involvement in state affairs, and by embracing the neoconservative passion for nation-building and military imperialism, many of its key players still subscribe (inconsistently) to the ultraconservative tenet that Government does almost nothing well. As Ronald Reagan famously said in his first inaugural address, they believe "government is not the solution to our problem; government IS the problem." Rather than empowering the government to succeed, as traditional liberals would, or reining in "the big bad Government", as traditional conservatives would, this administration is creating a government that is both big AND bad. We should not be surprised that such people, who fundamentally believe government is inept, will fall victim to "the soft bigotry of low expectations." They expect government to fail, and so it does.

And what colossal failures. This is an administration that was advised to focus on terrorism, was warned al Quaeda wanted to hijack airplanes, and knew that al Quaeda members were in the U.S. learning to fly airliners but not land them -- yet did nothing to prevent 9/11 from happening, and claims it was not preventable.

This is an administration that, following 9/11, knew that creating a competent interagency communication system was the top priority of law enforcement and emergency services organizations -- but had (and still has) no such system in place, which disabled FEMA and Homeland Security from coordinating relief efforts when a hurricane predictably hit New Orleans.

This is an administration whose spokesman, Gen. Erik Shinseki, told Congress accurately that "several hundred thousand" troops would be needed in Iraq, not to win the war but to secure the peace. That advice contradicted Donald Rusmfeld's "small army" gospel and made members of Contress question the wisdom of such a huge venture, so the Administration retired Gen. Shinseki early, told Congress to disregard his testimony, assured the nation that "Mission Accomplished" would come in mere weeks, and deployed too few troops -- and then had to send ill-equipped, ill-armored National Guard units overseas, for multiple tours of duty, when Gen. Shinseki proved right and not all Iraqis greeted us with candy and flowers. [SUPPLEMENT, JAN. 21, 2006 Even Colin Powell now agrees with this assessment: "[Powell said last week] that in retrospect he felt the Americans should have committed more troops to the Iraqi invasion and ensured that law, order and a functioning government were in place when Saddam's regime collapsed... [and that] 'when the insurgency started, we didn't act quickly enough to try to stop it'. But, he added, 'that's all history... the more important issue is what we do now'." (Funny, that phrase "in retrospect", since the administration was expressly advised to have more troops, and to prepare for insurgency, before the war even began.)

Again and again, the Government under this administration pretends to undertake great things, makes predictable mistakes, professes dismay at the bad results, then shrugs its shoulders and blames us for expecting too much from our government.

The latest news in this sad litany comes from the front lines in the War On Terror. We already knew that the President has authorized the National Security Agency to spy on the telephone conversations of Americans without obtaining the search warrants that the Fourth Amendment and the FISA law require. The claim that such spying isn't illegal is a lie: Congress passed a law setting forth a procedure for spying on terrorists here in the U.S., a President signed that law, and the Constitution obligates the President to abide by it. Similarly, the claim that warrants aren't readily available is a lie: FISA warrants are available on short notice, are granted in over 99.9% of cases (only 5 ever denied out of over 19,000 applications!), and can even be sought retroactively when time is short.

And now we learn that the warrantless spying was not merely illegal and unnecessary, but actually detrimental to our ability to fight terrorism:

President Bush has characterized the eavesdropping program as a "vital tool" against terrorism; Vice President Dick Cheney has said it has saved "thousands of lives."

But the results of the program look very different to some officials charged with tracking terrorism in the United States. More than a dozen current and former law enforcement and counterterrorism officials, including some in the small circle who knew of the secret program and how it played out at the F.B.I., said the torrent of tips led them to few potential terrorists inside the country they did not know of from other sources and diverted agents from counterterrorism work they viewed as more productive.

"We'd chase a number, find it's a schoolteacher with no indication they've ever been involved in international terrorism - case closed," said one former F.B.I. official, who was aware of the program and the data it generated for the bureau. "After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration."

This is no way to run a country. The few remaining conservatives in Congress are powerless to rein in the "big, bad government" neocons. The Democratic leadership in Congress lacks the moral fiber or strategic sense to demand accountability; instead of calling for government to actually do things, and do things well -- the traditional Democratic position -- they snipe from the shadows, watch the polls, and play to what they perceive as the "middle" of the electorate. We are not well represented by either side.

Here's a crazy idea: what if some prominent members of Congress stood up and said, plainly and loudly and most of all repeatedly: Government isn't the answer to all our problems, but it can sure as hell help out with some of them. And when government fails to protect us from foreseeable enemies, fails to provide competent relief in emergencies, and invades our liberties to no good end, then that government is not worthy of the American people, and needs to be replaced.

Now, was that so hard? Repeat 10,000 times and call me on the first Tuesday of November.


SUPPLEMENT, JAN. 18, 2006: Some may take issue with my assertion, above, that the warrantless NSA spying was unconstitutional and illegal. Attorney General Gonzalez, after all, is defending it as fully legal -- and, as the man who also opined that the Geneva Conventions were "quaint" and no longer applied to America, he should know, right?

So for those who may think The Neoprogressive is a thinly-veiled beard for just another liberal dove, here's some new input, via U.S. Newswire, from people with unassailable conservative credentials, people I generally detest but whose voices will serve to show what a deeply bipartisan -- what a fundamentally American -- thing it is to be outraged at what the NSA is doing:

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, chairman of PRCB, was joined by fellow conservatives Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR); David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union; Paul Weyrich, chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation and Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, in urging lawmakers to use NSA hearings to establish a solid foundation for restoring much needed constitutional checks and balances to intelligence law.

"When the Patriot Act was passed shortly after 9-11, the federal government was granted expanded access to Americans' private information," said Barr. "However, federal law still clearly states that intelligence agents must have a court order to conduct electronic surveillance of Americans on these shores. Yet the federal government overstepped the protections of the Constitution and the plain language of FISA to eavesdrop on Americans' private communication without any judicial checks and without proof that they are involved in terrorism."

When I'm saying the same thing as the man who lead the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton, the architect of disabling, "drown the baby in the bathtub" tax cuts, the founder of a group that thinks every American should own a fully automatic rifle, and two other arch-conservatives, then at least no one can assuse me of knee-jerk liberalism. The best proof that the ideas I'm advocating here at The NeoProg are deeply American and can be embraced equally by liberals, conservatives, and libertarians is that, in fact, they are.

Profiles in Cowardice

Whether you like the messenger or not, here's a message worth hearing:

Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of missiles poised to be launched against us and annihilate our country at a moment's notice? Is America in more danger now than when we faced worldwide fascism on the march-when our fathers fought and won two World Wars?

It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they. -- Al Gore, 1/16/2006

To which I say:

We do not have some much to fear as they did, but we are more fearful, and willing to sacrifice liberty for security in a way that our forefathers (and grandfathers) were not.

The way to fight "terror-ism" is to refuse to be afraid. And we, coddled cowards that we are, have failed that test.

What would a BRAVE nation -- one which refused to be cowed, which understood that living well (ie attending to domestic policy) is the best revenge, which treasured its freedom more than it fears a handful of extremists hiding in caves in Pakistan -- what would a nation like that act like?

Not like this.

Friday, January 13, 2006

How To Win Friends And Influence People.

Sometimes countries have strong economies, good control over their foreign debt, and the ability and discipline to rely on their own resources instead of bankrupting themselves by constantly importing things from overseas. Then, they have enough money to help their neighbors. Such "Good Samaritans" are safer militarily, because their neighbors like them. They make friends. They influence people. They can give the brushoff to bossier countries that want to dominate their affairs. In short, they can be influential and relevant and well-liked in the world. It would be nice to be such a country again.

Oil-rich Venezuela, having recently helped Argentina to pay off its debt to the International Monetary Fund, is floating the idea of a new "Bank of the South" that would offer no-strings loans in competition to the U.S.-backed IMF.

The scheme would be the latest in a series of moves in which Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has used his country's oil revenues to expand his influence and leftist philosophy through South America.

Argentina last week repaid $9.6 billion to the IMF -- a 184-nation institution with its headquarters in Washington -- clearing away the staggering debt it incurred with a spectacular default and currency devaluation in 2001 and 2002.

America is losing influence in the world faster than Jack Abramoff is losing influence in the GOP, and that's really saying something!

(I do hate citing the Washington Times, though.)

SUPPLEMENT, JANUARY 22, 2006: To be fair, I must admit that not everything is beer-and-skittles in Venezuela. While the country is awash in oil revenue and working hard to make friends in other countries -- even offering to subsidize heating oil for poor Americans -- Venzuela's infrastructure is suffering. Chavez has work to do at home. My point above isn't that Venezuela is a better country than the U.S. -- Lordy, no! -- but that we should pay attention to the fact that other countries are moving quickly to occupy the "influence vacuum" created by our neglect of routine foreign policy, love affair with neoliberal trading policies, and unhealthy obsession with Iraq. We're losing influence to countries like Venezuela, which can't even keeps its roads open. That's a sad statement about how far we've fallen since 9/12.

Israel 1, Charlatans and Demagogues 0.

I'm a Christian. A liberal, openminded, Zennish sort of Christian, maybe, but a sincere follower of Jesus, a believer in God, and an elder in a mainline Protestant church. When I defend Christianity against the kind of "Christian" demagogues the Bible warns against, I'm not just making fun of the faithful, but seriously defending the faith. Just to get that out in the open.

Here's a fun, ethical question:

What do you call someone who states a view, stands by that view, refuses to apologize -- but, when the people he insulted get so angry that they decide not to let him guild his $50 million theme park on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, suddenly realizes he was unthoughtful, apologizes, and asks for his $50 million deal back?

Answer: Either incredibly cowardly, or an utter charlatan. I won't pretend to judge.

Pat Robertson is bold in stating his extreme views to a friendly and financially generous TV audience. But when his views start costing him money, he backs away from them right quick. If this is how he acts about theme parks, I wonder how he would have handled the choice between affirming his faith and, say, being fed to lions?

US TV evangelist Pat Robertson has apologised for saying Israeli leader Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine retribution for leaving the Gaza Strip. Mr Robertson wrote to Mr Sharon's son Omri to say he now realised his remarks were "inappropriate and insensitive".

He asked for forgiveness, but there is no suggestion the Israeli authorities will overturn a decision to block a tourism deal with the preacher.

Israel said on Wednesday it would no longer sign a $50m contract with him.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Tom Delay and the Ungrateful Gerrymander

Tom Delay is thinking, as have many demagogic pols before him: darn that stupid "democracy" thing!

Yet another central tenet of the original Progressives was an intense "direct democracy" populism. The Progs effected two major changes to the political system: the addition of initiative and referendum to many states' electoral laws (so that citizens could vote directly on laws instead of acting only through representatives), and direct election of U.S. Senators (who previously had been appointed by each state's legislature).

I'm generally a fan of representative rather than direct democracy, because I've lived in states where, in recent times, the initiative process has empowered demagogues more than citizens. The indefensible Supreme Court decisions giving corporations the same free speech rights as humans, and holding that spending money to influence elections, even dishonestly, is "speech" protected by the First Amendment, need to be corrected if direct democracy is to keep functioning as the Progressives intended.

But the larger concept of "power to the People" is as central to the American experiment, and to the Progressive legacy, as anything can be, especially when it comes to how elections themselves are organized and conducted. Fair, unrigged elections so that real people have real voices: good thing. Gamesmanship and gerrymandering that disempower real people but ensure that incumbents can remain in power: bad thing.

Former House Speaker Tom Delay (R-TX) oversaw a concerted effort in 2003 to redraw Texas' Congressional districts several years before such a redistricting was scheduled, in order to ensure the election of more Republicans. It was an exercise in raw power, purely partisan, and it changed Texas' electoral landscape in a major way. Texans, some may be shocked to learn, have a history of being fairly bipartisan: they tend to vote Republican for President, but they've elected Democratic governors and Congressmen. And that, of course, was anathema to Delay, so he and the Texas Republican Party redrew the districts to dilute Democratic votes and ensure Republican victories. Wherever there was a largely Democratic district, they expanded the adjacent conservative districts so that the Democrats became a minority in the new districts instead of a majority in the old one. That's "gerrymandering."

Now, I'm pleased to see, Delay's machinations may be biting him back. Delay's in serious legal trouble for violating Texas election laws (in 2003, same nefarious enterprise), he's been forced to give up his House leadership post, and now even his reelection is in trouble. Why? Because in his old district, there were almost no Democratic voters. In his new, gerrymandered district, there is a minority of Democrats -- not many, but enough that, joined with moderate Republicans disgusted at Delay's lack of morals, they may be able to defeat him at the polls next November.

Sweet irony, sweet justice, sweet Schaudenfraude. This is one of the glories of the American system: every time someone thinks they've succeeded in gaming the system entirely, their own actions eventually pull them down. We're far from perfect, but this part of the system does work. Thank God. Not for partisan reasons, but because Americans, and Neoprogs, really do want democracy and not merely the pretense of it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A Tale Of Two Nations

I had a dream last night. It was about two nations. One nation had the largest trade deficit in its history; the other tripled its trade surplus in just one year, 2005. One was losing manufacturing capacity and calling it good; the other was rapidly increasing its industrial capacity and was described by an international economist as "the factory of the world." One was fighting a discretionary war overseas that was ballooning its annual deficit; the other was at peace and running a balanced budget. The first nation constantly borrowed money from the second nation, but the second nation was starting to become more tight-fisted. One had economic growth of 3.5%, effectively zero when inflation and a flat worker standard-of-living were factored in; the other had economic growth of about 9%. One was experiencing a bond yield inversion, which is almost always a predictor of an economic downturn; the other was not. One's economy was based largely on a constantly-growing housing sector; the other owned a large percentage of the first nation's mortgages. One was on a trend of trimming civil liberties; the other, while not as free as the first, was in the process of liberalizing.

In my dream, I was asked which nation I thought was stronger; which was more likely to dominate the world economy, and thus the world's politics in all the ways that economics affect politics. And I answered: The second nation. The second nation is stronger, and has a bright future, and the first nation does not.

What makes this otherwise-boring a dream a nightmare is this: when I woke up, I was still in it. And I was living in the first nation, and the second nation was China.

SUPPLEMENT, JAN. 18, 2006: In a comment to one of my earlier posts on the Fed, M3, and the Money Supply, my reader ql in ny made a prescient comment. She said: "[T]he one thing that will prevent a complete breakdown is that the Chinese need Americans to buy their goods. So I don't fear an immediate depression, or even one in the next ten to twenty years. It will happen gradually. Once the Chinese can buy their own stuff, that is when the shit will hit the fan."

Which made me wonder: what if the Chinese start buying their own stuff, creating a self-sufficient economy? What signs will there be when China shifts from relying on exports to creating its own consumer class, freeing itself to assert real power and influence in the world?

And then I saw this from China's Xinhua news agency:

"HSBC economist Qu Hongbin said... China faced an urgent task to tilt growth toward consumption and away from investment. *** Qu told a news conference in Beijing that the government should take the lead by redirecting its own spending from physical infrastructure to areas like education and healthcare. This could help boost China's consumption-to-GDP ratio by 3-4 percentage points and give consumers a reason to spend more and save less. *** Weaning the economy off exports and related investments would reduce China's vulnerability to... trade tensions"

Hmmm again. I'm just a country lawyer/mediator, not an economist, but I dream of living in a country that considers a 9.1 growth rate to be a "cooling" economy, has the cash to spend on physical infrastructure, education, and healthcare, and is trying to get its own people to stop saving so much and start spending more.

And I am more than a little fearful when an economically powerful nation, that currently subsidizes our own debtor economy, starts to withdraw that support and (exactly as ql said) is intentionally cultivating its own consumer society -- i.e., taking the step that will enable it to stop propping up our economy and instead assume its own dominant world role.

The U.S. is "the lone superpower"? Don't make me laugh. The sheriff with the fast six-gun has nowhere near as much power as the banker that keeps buying everyone's mortgage. Rich bankers like China buy and sell sheriffs like the U.S. I'm sorry to say this, but we can either start taking lessons from China, or start taking orders from them. We have time to regain REAL power, but we're not taking any of the necessary steps right now. This is just one more way in which our current government is childishly playing make-believe instead of really keeping America safe and preserving our way of life.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Alito Clearly Opposes Roe v. Wade. Why Can't He Say So, And Let the Chips Fall Where They May?

I know politics is a game, but I dislike disingenuity, and I wish our representatives would stop playing games with issues that directly affect people's lives.

In his testimony yesterday and today before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito has argued that legal positions he has taken in written documents in the past reflect his work as an advocate, not necessarily his personal views. However, in 1985, in a job application (not a brief or a legal memorandum), Samuel Alito said this about his views on Roe v. Wade:

“I am and always have been a conservative.... I believe very strongly in... the legitimacy of a government role in protecting traditional values. *** Most recently, it has been an honor and a source of personal satisfaction for me ... to help to advance legal positions in which I personally believe very strongly. I am particularly proud of my contributions in recent cases in which the government has argued in the Supreme Court ... that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.” Link. [Caution: PDF]

Also in 1985 -- when he was 35 years old, not just a kid fresh out of law school -- Judge Alito wrote a memorandum proposing a step-by-step approach to obtaining the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Again, this was a memo privately giving legal advice to his client, not an argumentative document filed with a court.

Today, Judge Alito was presented with a fair and direct question: did those documents accurately reflect his view back in 1985? He answered: yes, they did. But when he was asked whether they still represented his view today, he was evasive. His most telling exchange was with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

SCHUMER: *** Judge Alito, in 1985, you wrote that the Constitution -- these are your words -- does not protect a right to an abortion. You said to Senator Specter a long time ago, I think it was about 9:30 this morning, 9:45, that those words accurately reflected your view at the time.

Now let me ask you: Do they accurately reflect your view today? Do you stand by that statement? Do you disavow it? Do you embrace it?

SCHUMER: It's OK if you distance yourself from it, and it's fine if you embrace it. We just want to know your view.

ALITO: Senator, it was an accurate statement of my views at the time. That was in 1985.

And I made it from my vantage point as an attorney in the Solicitor General's Office, but it was an expression of what I thought at that time.

If the issue were to come before me as a judge, if I'm confirmed and if this issue were to come up, the first question that would have to be addressed is the question of stare decisis, which I've discussed earlier and it's a very important doctrine. And that was the starting point and the ending point of the joint opinion in Casey.

And then if I were to get beyond that, if the court were to get beyond the issue of stare decisis, then I would have to go through the whole judicial decision-making process before reaching a conclusion.

SCHUMER: But, sir, I am not asking you about stare decisis. I'm not asking you about cases. *** Regardless of case law, in 1985, you stated -- you stated it proudly, unequivocally, without exception -- that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.

Do you believe that now? *** It was a statement you made directly. You made it proudly. You said you're particularly proud of that personal belief that you had. You still believe it.

ALITO: And, Senator, I would make up my mind on that question if I got to it, if I got past the issue of stare decisis after going through the whole process that I have described.

I would need to know the case that is before me and I would have to consider the arguments and they might be different arguments from the arguments that were available in 1985.

SCHUMER: But, sir, I'm not asking you about case law. Now, maybe you read a case and it changed your view of the Constitution. *** [I]t's still important to know your view of what the Constitution contains. ***

ALITO: But the only way you are asking me how I would decide an issue...

SCHUMER: No, I'm not. I'm asking you what you believe is in the Constitution. ***

ALITO: The Constitution contains the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment and the 14th Amendment. It provides protection for liberty. It provides substantive protection. And the Supreme Court has told us what the standard is for determining whether something falls within the scope of those protections.

SCHUMER: Does the Constitution protect the right to free speech?

ALITO: Certainly it does. That's in the First Amendment.

SCHUMER: So why can't you answer the question of: Does the Constitution protect the right to an abortion the same way without talking about stare decisis, without talking about cases, et cetera?

ALITO: Because answering the question of whether the Constitution provides a right to free speech is simply responding to whether there is language in the First Amendment that says that the freedom of speech and freedom of the press can't be abridged. Asking about the issue of abortion has to do with the interpretation of certain provisions of the Constitution.

SCHUMER: Well, OK. I know you're not going to answer the question. I didn't expect really that you would, although I think it would be important that you would.
I think it's part of your obligation to us that you do, particularly that you stated it once before so any idea that you're approaching this totally fresh without any inclination or bias goes by the way side.

But I do have to tell you, Judge, you're refusal I find troubling. And it's sort as if I asked a friend of mine 20 years ago -- a friend of mine 20 years ago said to me, he said, you know, I really can't stand my mother-in-law. And a few weeks ago I saw him and I said, "Do you still hate your mother-in-law?"

He said, "Well, I'm now married to her daughter for 21 years, not one year."

I said, "No, no, no. Do you still hate your mother-in-law?"

And he said, "I can't really comment."

What do you think I'd think?


Two-thirds of the American people believe that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned, and over sixty percent believe Supreme Court nominees should clearly state their position on Roe before being confirmed. Samuel Alito has written that he believes Roe was wrongly decided and that there is no protection for abortion in the Constitution. He declines to say whether he believes that today, but he scrupulously does not disavow his earlier position. He'll say openly that the Constitution protects free speech, but not whether it protects abortion. Even his mother has told reporters, “of course he’s against abortion.”

So the question before our Senators is simple: Will you confirm, to a swing seat, with lifetime tenure, a judge who not only has consistently and proudly opposed a well-established legal ruling that is supported by the overwhelming majority of the American people, but who also lacks the intellectual and moral courage to tell us, openly and clearly, what his position is?

We deserve better. If Judge Alito wants an honest up-or-down vote, then he should tell us honestly what he believes, and be prepared to defend it. If he does so with intellect, energy, and honor, then our Senators may find him worthy of the job even if they disagree with his particular stance. But if he lacks the courage even to state what he stands for, then he certainly does not deserve our trust.

That is not hard for any regular American to understand. It's how we live our own lives. But for some reason, Judge Alito and his supporters do not seem to understand that, and if they don't get the message soon, then we should give them clearer instructions -- by filibuster, if necessary.

Samuel Alito and the Abortion Debate

The nomination of Samuel Alito involves much, much more than the binary abortion issue. In particular, I'm concerned about his views on executive power, which is a proxy for government power in general; I don't think someone who believes in a "unitary" or imperial presidency, as he has written he does, can truly be considered "conservative" or can honestly honor the Constitution, as Justices swear to do.

But abortion is one large issue. I'll have more to say about the entire scope of issues raised by the Alito nomination, but while his hearings are on-air on C-Span, I'll settle for linking to my prior discussion of the abortion issue from last November. It's a long read, but hopefully an interesting and educational one.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Back to Free Press Issues.

Innocent? Nefarious? I say it depends on whether the tapes are returned intact.

American troops in Baghdad yesterday blasted their way into the home of an Iraqi journalist working for the London daily, The Guardian, and TV's Channel 4, firing bullets into the bedroom where he was sleeping with his wife and children.

Ali Fadhil, who two months ago won the Foreign Press Association young journalist of the year award, was hooded and taken for questioning, the newspaper reports. He was released hours later.

Fadhil is working with and the newspaper and Guardian Films "on an investigation for Channel 4's Dispatches programme into claims that tens of millions of dollars worth of Iraqi funds held by the Americans and British have been misused or misappropriated," the paper reports.

"The troops told Dr. Fadhil that they were looking for an Iraqi insurgent and seized video tapes he had shot for the programme. These have not yet been returned."

The director of the film, Callum Macrae, said yesterday: "The timing and nature of this raid is extremely disturbing. It is only a few days since we first approached the US authorities and told them Ali was doing this investigation, and asked them then to grant him an interview about our findings.

SUPPLEMENT, JANUARY 20, 2006: Ali Fadhil's firsthand account of the troops destroying his home and terrorizing his 3-year-old daughter -- and seizing his tapes. Nevertheless, The Guardian will air what they have later in the year.

More Mind-Numbing But Important Economic Stuff

Every recession in modern U.S. history has been preceded by a phenomenon called "bond yield inversion", in which the interest rates on short-term bonds becomes higher than that on long-term bonds. And, conversely, 94% of all bond yield inversions have been followed by either a severe economic slowdown or a recession. Bond yield inversion is considered the best early predictor of future economic troubles.

Guess what? In December, the U.S. entered a bond yield inversion.

Could be just a blip, caused by the Fed's recent increases in interest rates (which should stop soon). Could be that China's decision to cut back on borrowing U.S. government bonds will cause an increase in long-term bond rates, correcting the inversion. Could be, as Alan Greenspan says, that history won't repeat itself because America is special.

Could be.

But I doubt that America is any specialer today than it was before the last eight recessions, and I keep wondering why, near the end of his life, Greenspan keeps going back on everything his pre-2000 career stood for.

And I also wonder why, if we're not approaching a global recession or worse, England's bond yields have also inverted, and Japan's and Germany's are flattening.

So now we have China backing away from its continued financing of U.S. government deficit spending; an impending demographic surge putting new strains on Social Security and Medicare; corporations bailing out on their pension obligations left and right; GM closing plants here and opening them in India; an economy that's "booming" only on Wall Street but accompanied by steadily declining real-dollar incomes for working Americans; the Fed creating the right conditions for big players to game the stock market without small investors knowing; and the bond yields of the major industrial nations either inverting or flattening.

Want to know the difference between Progressivism and classic Political Liberalism? The economic climate. In good economic times, people can afford to be generous. Those are the best conditions for Progressivism, or Neoprogressivism. In bad economic times, people can't afford to be generous; rather, they're in desperate need of it themselves. Those are the best conditions for government paternalism. And, in some cases, the same conditions can lead to fascism, as in Weimar Germany. Now, I'll choose liberal paternalism over fascism during a Depression: FDR instead of Hitler. But neither a welfare state nor a fascist state is on my wish list for America.

Anyway, buckle your seat belts, folks, 'cause we may be in for a bumpy ride. I'm thinking 1929, not 1980. Hope I'm wrong.

Thanks to Holden Caulfield for the bond yield tip.

SUPPLEMENT: Plus, Americans may have had a negative net savings rate in 2005 -- for the first time since the Great Depression. Thanks to rorschach.

Boy, I'm cheery today.

Trustbusting in the Modern Era: Not?

One lasting legacy of the original Progressives, and of Teddy Roosevelt in particular, is the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which is still used to keep companies from conspiring to artificially raise prices about market level. Although many neoconservatives pretend that government regulation of business is anticapitalist, the Sherman Act shows how good laws can protect true capitalism by leaving the "invisible hand" free to move.

Normally, the Act is used against two or more companies that conspire to fix prices. Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear a case involving Shell, Texaco, and Saudi Refining Inc., on whether the Act also can be used against a single legal entity (a joint venture) that was used by its members to fix prices, especially when the joint venture was initially created for a lawful purpose. It's like asking whether the Mafia itself is a bad organization or if only its members are, or whether the Mafia is a bad organization now if it originally was created to raise money for an orphanage.

Sound like a stupid "angels on the head of a pin" question? It is -- and it's not. It's in cases like this that the Supreme Court either protects American values like free markets and "Main Street" rather than "Wall Street" economics, or empowers crony capitalism and the consolidation of wealth in ever-fewer hands. Do consumers win, or do Texaco, Shell, and Saudi Refining Inc.?

Five people make that decision, case-by-case. Any questions about why the Alito nomination is important, or why abortion isn't the only issue at stake?

Here's a summary from the nice folks at the Willamette University College of Law in Salem, OR:

Texaco Inc. v. Daugher and Shell Oil Co. v. Daugher (consolidated)
Argued: 01/10/06
Nos. 04-805; 04-814
Court below: 369 F.3d 1108; unavailable

SHERMAN ACT (Whether It Is A Violation Of The Sherman Act When The Two
Parties To A Joint Venture Set A Price For Gasoline Which Is Followed By The Joint Venture And Both Parent Companies)

The issue is whether it is in violation of the Sherman Act when the twoparties to a joint venture set a price for gasoline, which is followed bythe joint venture and both parent companies.

Daugher filed a suit against Texaco, Shell Oil (petitioners), and Saudi Refining Inc. (SRI) on the grounds that the companies were using two joint ventures to create a price fixing scheme in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, 15 USSC Sec. 1 (Act.) The United States District Court for the Central District of California granted summary judgment in favor of the petitioners and SRI, finding that the joint venture was not created in order to cover up a price fixing conspiracy. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (Ninth Circuit) affirmed the summary judgment in favor of SRI. However, the Ninth Circuit reversed the summary judgment in favor of Petitioners, finding that there was enough evidence for a reasonable juror to believe that the petitioners may have violated the Act. On appeal to the United States Supreme Court, the petitioners will argue that the Act does not apply to a single firm when the two companies legitimately formed a valid joint venture. Petitioners will
argue further that even if the Sherman Act is applicable, the price setting should not be per se illegal because the per se rule is an exception to the reasonable person standard and should be used only if the evidence shows the companies are plainly anticompetitive. [Summarized by
Meghan Erickson]

Gozar's Coming Ho-ome!!

Here's small yet infinitely good news: my kid brothers' friend Joey is coming home from Iraq, where he's been for a year with the Oregon National Guard. There's one! His blog isn't deep philosophy but it's still wonderful, especially the way this young American bonded with the beautiful Iraqi children near his base, started a drive back home to get them shoes, etc. His blog has wonderful photos.

Gozar's coming home! La la la la la! Pray for a safe flight.

Most of my life I’ve been interested in politics and philosophy. During our train up for our part in this war I had myriad opinions and criticisms. But to paraphrase a line from the book "Jarhead," once you’re here politics and opinions don’t mean a thing. I witnessed both the terrible and the grand. I learned of the compassion and generosity of the Iraqi people and the beauty and innocence of their children. My personal barometer of success in Iraq no longer relied on the larger picture of a stable government, reduced troop levels, or number of dead insurgents. My goal has simply been to leave my little piece of this country a little better than when I found it. And by that standard I can say with pride that we accomplished our mission here. Not only have we been able to affect the lives of many people but they have had an enormous impact on us. I remember first thinking how different Iraqis were from us, how strange their behavior and customs were from what we’re used to. Now I see just how similar we are. It’s cliché but true. The children are just as cute and playful as any others. The men and women have the same dreams that we all have; to provide for their families and live happy, fulfilling lives.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Privatizing the Marketplace of Ideas

I know, this is a little technogeeky for some readers. And I know, private individuals can do what they want with their own property, the marketplace adjusts itself and is working here too, blah blah. I still see this story as a serious cautionary tale about the philosophical inclinations of the corporate right (i.e., essentially anticompetetive and controlling, not really dedicated to free markets in either ideas or commerce), and as a good example of why people generally are safer relying on a democratic government, in which they have a stake, rather than big business, in which they do not, to preserve their liberties and a degree of control over their own lives.

The original Progressives were freedom-loving trustbusters. I suspect a lot of kids on MySpace could become NeoProgs if the ideas ever reached them.

Thanks again to Atrios for the lead.

NeoProgBlog readers: chime in! I'm getting increasing numbers of hits but my voice still is sorta echoey in here!

Saturday, January 07, 2006

A Word From Our Sponsor

"I love this sweater. I think it's a beautiful sweater, but I also think it's an ugly sweater, and I hate it. I think I'm going crazy."

This is the same delightful and intelligent child I lauded so lavishly for coming to my defense against a Bill O'Reilly fan. Someone please explain 11 year old girls? Please?

Mind-Numbing Stuff About the Fed, Money Supply, M3, and the Possible End of the World As We Know It

Reader Morrighan forwarded this link concerning the Federal Reserve's decision to stop publicizing a "bottom line" figure on total money supply, and exploring the ability the government and the Fed will have to manipulate the money supply -- and even to spend public money on individual stocks -- without the rest of us knowing.

I'm not sure whether I think this is perfectly consistent with my fears about our ballooning debt and trade deficit and China's ability to threaten us with a "Debt Bomb" more destructive than any nuke, or whether it's tin-hat conspiracy nonsense.

Three points come to mind as I chew on this:

1. If the U.S. starts madly printing money, our overseas debt shrinks in real dollars. Creating hyperinflation this way would be a sort of economic, instead of nuclear, mutually assured destruction: if the Chinese start selling our bonds and cripple our economy, we print money like Weimar Germany and make the world's U.S. holdings worthless. It's actually not a stupid idea, at least no more than nuclear counterstrikes were -- if it's intended as a threat to keep the peace, and not actually implemented. But making such machinations secret by discontinuing reporting of M3 doesn't really make that threat more credible; it just makes it more likely, which is different.

2. The new Fed chairman is said to be less inflation-averse than Greenspan was. And now the Fed seems to be setting itself up to create inflation without public knowledge of its role. I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

3. Some people seems to be hell-bent on having the government start investing in the stock market, which would both prop it up and enable insiders to earn tremendous illicit profits by boosting the prices of specific stocks. Social Security privatization would have done this, but that's dead in the water. So, shortly afterward, the Fed Board sets up a mechanism that allows semi-governmental agencies to do the same thing, without public knowledge? That's a little scary.

I don't think there were two shooters in Dallas. I don't think there was a nefarious bulge underneath one of the airliners that hit the WTC. I don't think a cruise missile hit the Pentagon on 9/11, I'm not afraid of the Elders of Zion and I like my brother in law even though he is a Mason. In other words, I do not generally cotton to conspiracy theories. But I do know that the world is a complex place, and that conspiracies and plots do occur.

NeoProgBlog readers: please help me out here. I'm just a country lawyer/mediator, not an economist. Is there a story here?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Supporting The Troops

A conservative friend of mine accused Democrats of playing political games when they started calling for our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to be better-armored. But as we now know, the timing of this war was entirely discretionary -- it could have waited six months or a year if the President chose -- and our troops could have had adequate body armor before deployment if that had been important to the Administration. And, even after they were deployed, they could have been up-armored faster, especially when the growing insurgency -- which military experts had predicted but the Administration refused to acknowledge until it was well under way -- forced us to deploy more National Guard troops with older gear.

Has the quality of armor made a difference? According to the Pentagon, yes. Thanks to the New York Times (via Atrios), a secret Pentagon study has been made public. It finds:

A secret Pentagon study has found that at least 80 percent of the marines who have been killed in Iraq from wounds to their upper body could have survived if they had extra body armor. That armor has been available since 2003 but until recently the Pentagon has largely declined to supply it to troops despite calls from the field for additional protection, according to military officials.

The ceramic plates in vests currently worn by the majority of military personnel in Iraq cover only some of the chest and back. In at least 74 of the 93 fatal wounds that were analyzed in the Pentagon study of marines from March 2003 through June 2005, bullets and shrapnel struck the marines' shoulders, sides or areas of the torso where the plates do not reach.

Thirty-one of the deadly wounds struck the chest or back so close to the plates that simply enlarging the existing shields "would have had the potential to alter the fatal outcome," according to the study, which was obtained by The New York Times.

For the first time, the study by the military's medical examiner shows the cost in lost lives from inadequate armor, even as the Pentagon continues to publicly defend its protection of the troops. Officials have said they are shipping the best armor to Iraq as quickly as possible. *** [But the] vulnerability of the military's body armor has been known since the start of the war, and is part of a series of problems that have surrounded the protection of American troops. Still, the Marine Corps did not begin buying additional plates to cover the sides of their troops until this September, when it ordered 28,800 sets, Marine Corps officials acknowledge.

The Army, which has the largest force in Iraq, is still deciding what to purchase....

But It's Just a SMALL Hole In the Dike, Right?

One hundred years ago, America was a creditor nation. We exported much more than we imported, our people had an ever-increasing standard of living, and that prosperity -- not the "Paris-Hilton-rich" kind, but the "My-family-is-safe" kind -- enabled middle-class Americans to build a truly great, and generous, country. The original Progressives were, essentially, middle class people who had enough and felt a moral obligation to give others a hand up.

Today, America is the world's largest debtor nation. We are running unbelievably huge deficits, and facing even larger deficits as we confront a demographic bump that will require the government to start paying back all the money it borrowed from the Social Security system and to fully fund Medicare. Our government borrows money by selling bonds to foreign governments, including China, and our people borrow money, largely in the form of mortgages, a large percentage of which ultimately are bought in the secondary market by, again, China.

So what happens if foreign governments, especially China, decide to stop investing in the U.S.? The cost of borrowing money skyrockets. The interest payments on the national debt become so huge that other government prorams can't be funded. Mortgage interest rates increase to late 70s levels. The construction industry tanks, and the jobless rate increases. Ignore everyone who tells you that our country's financial position is strong, or that there's nowhere else for foreign countries to put their money. We are not invulnerable; we are increasingly beholden economically to other countries, and that weakness makes our military strength irrelevant. He who owns our debt, owns our policies and our destiny.

Well, here's bad news: it's happening. China has announced it will start selling off U.S. bonds. Which, of course, means that it won't be buying as many of our new offerings. Which could be really, really bad news.

And, as if to confirm that institutional investors are seeing the same thing I am, gold futures just topped $540/ounce.

If China stops buying our debt, it could be a perfect storm that brings down the entire U.S. economy, domino by domino. It won't happen suddenly -- foreign investors will want to pad our landing somewhat to preserve the value of their investments as much as possible -- but it will still be severe and longlasting, not just a cyclical recession but a complete structural change to our economy, and to our position in the world. The end game may not come for another decade or more, but we can see it coming.

I love my country and I hate the fact that our leaders, of both parties, have not positioned us to avoid what's coming. Being able to say "I told you so" will be no solace at all if what I fear comes to pass. In the time we have left, the U.S. needs to rapidly rebalance its budget, strengthen our domestic manufacturing base, educate our people for a more diverse and self-sufficient economy, create tax disincentives for U.S. companies moving jobs overseas, dump wads of cash into an Apollo program to end our dependence on foreign oil and make us energy-self-sufficient, disentangle ourselves from our expensive overseas commitments (including Iraq, which is costing $2 billion per week that we cannot afford), and bolster Social Security and Medicare while we still have the leverage to do so. We need to be self-sufficient again, and we need to have something to sell to the rest of the world, neither of which we can claim at present.

No pithy conclusion. I hope I'm wrong. But we may not have three more years to start making significant change to salvage our position in the world, and we all need to WAKE UP a.s.a.p.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Mine Safety

Government oversight of working conditions to ensure worker safety was a big part of the Progressive platform 100 years ago. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where factory owners had locked the doors to make sure their workers didn't duck outside for a break from time to time, resulted in hundreds of deaths, and while corporate interests tried to argue that working conditions were a matter of contract between employer and employee, public -- Progressive -- outrage forced the creation of the first workplace safety laws.

Question for my readers: are those laws a good thing? Is adequate staffing of OSHA and similar agencies that protect workers a good use of taxpayer dollars? And when employers violate safety rules repeatedly, should the fines be significant, or just slaps on the wrist?

For example, what would you think if you learned that the West Virginia mine where twelve miners just died had received 208 safety violation citations last year, but hadn't fixed the problems -- maybe because the largest penalty for not fixing them was only $440?

In my law practice, I defended plenty of employers who were being cited for inconsequential safety violations. I'm not saying that all bureaucracies always do good. But in places like mines, where every incremental gain in safety has a high monetary cost, it's natural for the owners to set a lower bar for safety -- "good enough" -- than the miners' families might like, and it makes good sense for government agencies, which make rules in a public process that takes all sides' concerns into account, to enforce minimum standards, like a referee.

My constant refrain: the issues I'm writing about -- this time, keeping miners and other workers reasonably safe -- aren't based on specifically Democratic or Republican values. Hard work is an American value, and keeping workers reasonably safe is an American value. It should be on the Neoprog radar.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?

Simple question: are we planning on leaving Iraq eventually, as the President says, or are we building a dozen or so hardened, permanent bases there, as the Army admits when pressed?

We all know what the answer should be: if I go there will be trouble, if I stay it will be double. (Everyone remember their Clash?) I don't want double trouble in Iraq. But it appears that the administration may be planning on rockin' the casbah for decades to come.

As I said in a post back on November 27, right after Democratic-but-hawkish Congressman Jack Murtha put the troop withdrawal issue front and center, our construction of permanent bases undercuts the administration's assertion that significant troop reductions are planned for 2006 (something they didn't mention until Congressman Jack Murtha finally put the issue on the public's political radar). In November I said:

This Administration, in particular, had no and still has no intention of withdrawing substantial numbers of troops from Iraq. They are still building 14 permanent bases on Iraq's sandy soil, and a permanent presence in Iraq -- to replace the airmen and other soldiers we pulled out of Saudi Arabia in capitulation to Osama bin Laden's demands and to secure a backup oil source in the event the Saudi royal family is overthrown -- is a key part of the neocon foreign policy and energy strategy. They will, of necessity, rotate exhausted, three-tour units home, but they will not willingly do more. If they do do more, it will be a capitulation to Congressional Republicans worried about their seats, and is not likely to last past next November.

The idea that we invaded Iraq, in large part, to establish a base of operations in the Middle East is consistent with the fact that we have vacated our bases in Saudi Arabia (much to bin Laden's pleasure), and with President Bush's statement recently that even knowing that Iraq had no WMDs and knowing there would be an active insurgency he still would have gone to war. The continued construction of permanent bases in a country where our troops are dying, where the insurgency is growing (90 people killed today, according to this morning's news), and where 80% of the people say they want us to leave, will be a good test of what the real motives for war were.

And if we ramp up troop strength again after our midterm elections next November, I won't be happy, even if I am able to say "told ya so!"

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Abramoff and Delay Links Grow

In case anyone failed to realize the links between lobbyist Jack Abramoff's fraud and bribery charges and the looming criminal trial of House leader Tom Delay, the AP is reporting that Ronnie Earl, the Texas prosecutor prosecuting the Delay case, has subpoenaed Abramoff records relating to Delay today -- the same day that Abramoff pled guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Coincidence? I think not.

As I said before, Abramoff is a loose thread that will unknit a lot of sweaters, and I'm betting Delay is one of those hoping they keep the thermostat up in his jail cell, 'cause he won't have a lot of cover in the months to come.

Fans Of Good Government: A Good Day

Here's a novel idea for a Neoprogressive plank: good government. You know, the kind where our representatives remember they work for us and not for lobbyists, and put the interests of the American people before the interests of a handful of plutocrats. That kind of thing.

So it's a good day for Neoprogs, not just for Democrats, when uberlobbyist Jack Abramoff is finally indicted, and an even better day when we learn that he has been naming names and will continue to cooperate with prosecutors. He is a loose thread that may unravel a lot of sweaters.

A couple points to keep in mind as all of this unfolds:

1. The press is reporting that Abramoff's maximum exposure is ten years in jail, which will be reduced the more he spills the goods. Actually, his maximum is 17 years, because he's facing ten years for his political crimes (the D.C. investigation) and another seven years for his fraud concerning ownership of a cruise ship line (the Florida investigation). Part of his plea deal is that if he cooperates, the two sentences will run concurrently -- but if he doesn't actually deliver the goods, then that deal could still fall apart and expose his to consecutive sentences. That's a pretty big motivator. I think he'll sing.

2. At this point, this is a Republican scandal, not a bipartisan one. Abramoff was, above all else, a Republican lobbyist. He mainly dealt with Republican bigwigs, participated in the Republican "K Street Project" to cut off Democratic access to lobbying money, and personally gave money to Republican candidates. He never made any direct contributions to any Democrats. However, he covered his tail by having his clients make contributions to some prominent Democratic politicians, presumably because they would be more likely to take the money if they didn't know Abramoff was behind it. The press is doing its best to make sure everyone remembers that Democrats may be involved as well, which I suppose is "balanced" but isn't really "fair" based on the currently-known facts. Politicians generally say "yes" to campaign contributions; that's not a crime. (It should be, but I'll discuss public financing of elections later.) No: it's only a crime if you (a) violate the (relatively lenient) rules governing the kinds of contributions you can take and what reports you must make, or (b) take a contribution in exchange for a particular vote on a particular matter (which transforms the contribution into a bribe). There's no evidence, yet, that any Democrats did anything illegal. There IS evidence that some Republicans did. If any Dems broke the law, then they deserve what they get. Bad apples of either party must be tossed in the compost bin. But it's premature, and bad journalism by the MSM, to paint Abramoff as a bipartisan scandal yet.

In case anyone's interested, here's a link to Abramoff's criminal information (basically, his indictment). [CAUTION: PDF!] Ohio Congressman Bob Ney is implicated all over the thing, but reading between the lines, there are a lot of other players, as well.

NEOPROGBLOG READERS: Any thoughts on campaign finances, the "K Street Project", Abramoff, Delay, or good government in general?

SUPPLEMENT, JAN. 7, 2006: I said above that Ohio Republican Bob Ney, who holds a minor leadership post, is one of the unnamed Congressmen likely to be caught in Abramoff's tentacles as he goes down. Here's some confirmation.

SUPPLEMENT, JAN. 8, 2006: I noted above that despite glib claims to the contrary, this appears to be solely a Republican scandal, with no Democrats involved other than as the unknowing recipients of contributions from Indian tribes who coincidentally were also Abramoff's clients (and, it turns out, his victims). Did Abramoff direct those contributions? Doesn't matter, so long as the recipients didn't know and didn't offer any quid pro quo.

This morning, DNC Chair Howard Dean not only made the above clear, but also underscored how badly the mainstream media (represented, in this case, by CNN's Wolf Blitzer) misunderstands this story:

BLITZER: Should Democrats who took money from Jack Abramoff, who has now pleaded guilty to bribery charges, among other charges, a Republican lobbyist in Washington, should the Democrat who took money from him give that money to charity or give it back?

DEAN: There are no Democrats who took money from Jack Abramoff, not one, not one single Democrat. Every person named in this scandal is a Republican. Every person under investigation is a Republican. Every person indicted is a Republican. This is a Republican finance scandal. There is no evidence that Jack Abramoff ever gave any Democrat any money. And we've looked through all of those FEC reports to make sure that's true.

BLITZER: But through various Abramoff-related organizations and outfits, a bunch of Democrats did take money that presumably originated with Jack Abramoff.

DEAN: That's not true either. There's no evidence for that either. There is no evidence...

BLITZER: What about Senator Byron Dorgan?

DEAN: Senator Byron Dorgan and some others took money from Indian tribes. They're not agents of Jack Abramoff. There's no evidence that I've seen that Jack Abramoff directed any contributions to Democrats. I know the Republican National Committee would like to get the Democrats involved in this. They're scared. They should be scared. They haven't told the truth. They have misled the American people. And now it appears they're stealing from Indian tribes. The Democrats are not involved in this.

Dean's statements are absolutely accurate. If any Democrats turn out to be nefariously involved with Abramoff, they should fry. But we shouldn't let our desire for evenhandedness cloud the truth: as I have said before, neoprogressivism is different than mindless centrism, and sometimes one side is right.

SUPPLEMENT, JAN. 13, 2006: Bob Ney continues his slide to oblivion as the first Republican caught in the Abramoff net, as House Majority Leader Denny Hastert asks him to relinquish his leadership post. Adding insult to injury is the reason: that Ney is crooked and tainted: "A source close to Hastert said the Speaker does not want to unveil lobbying reform legislation with Ney still in possession of a senior House position." And his troubles are far from over: he has a long and nefarious history that's only beginning to be unraveled.

Again: this is, so far, a purely Republican scandal. And again and again and again: I don't care about that fact because I'm a partisan, I care because I care about good government, and the media reporting the truth (instead of the constant, unsubstantiated refrain that this is somehow a bipartisan scandal) is absolutely indispensable to holding the bad guys responsible.

SUPPLEMENT, JANUARY 26, 2006: Even the editor of the conservative National Review thinks Abramoff is a Republican, not bipartisan, scandal!