Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Crackpot Realism" and Military Intervention in Syria

C. Wright Mills was a sociologist at Columbia University and a social critic with a strong impact on the New Left of the 1960s and 70s. If you haven't read Mill's The Power Elite, which Chris Hayes cites in his Twilight of the Elites, I highly recommend that you check it out. It captures the post-war emergence of a political-military-corporate elite and has incisive criticism with relevance and resonance today.

However, I want to address a different book by Mills, his The Causes of World War Three, because in that book he discusses his concept of "crackpot realism" in the context of foreign policy.

Mike Lofgren, the former Congressional staffer who recently wrote The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, published an excellent piece in the Huffington Post five months ago on "Syria and the Triumph of Crackpot Realism." Although war was not as imminent then as it is now, his analysis--with its integration of C. Wright Mills--is highly relevant, and I would like to highlight his salient points today.

Lofgren explains Mills' concept of the "crackpot realist" in the following terms:
Crackpot realists are amoral men and women of worldly affairs who possess exceptionally banal minds. These are the "serious people" who populate government, the higher tiers of corporate America, the think tanks, the televised political talk shows, and other props of the national power structure.

What they do best is perform alchemy: they take reckless and foolish ideas and transmute them into rhetoric that is perceived as the tough, pragmatic, and common-sense wisdom of purported experts.
And to quote C. Wright Mills directly:
They know of no solutions to the paradoxes of the Middle East and Europe, the Far East and Africa except the landing of Marines. Being baffled, and also being very tired of being baffled, they have come to believe that there is no way out -- except war -- which would remove all the bewildering paradoxes of their tedious and now misguided attempts to construct peace. In place of these paradoxes they prefer the bright, clear problems of war...
Lofgren discusses this concept in the light of the US's military escapades (or, more aptly, debacles) over the past decade:
The benefit of crackpot realism is that the ordinary prudence of advocating avoidance of war can be depicted either as sloppy and unrealistic sentimentalism or as the irresponsible avoidance of the burdens and duties of a superpower in a dangerous world. In its refined form, crackpot realism wears the camouflage of idealism: military invasions are really aimed at humanitarian rescue, spreading democracy, or peacekeeping. In those cases, the crackpot realist can even affect a morally censorious tone: How can any serious person be in favor of letting Saddam Hussein remain president of Iraq? Or Bashir al Assad in Syria? Or whoever the Hitler du jour might be.

One might have thought the claims and pretentions of crackpot realists would have been thoroughly debunked by the eight-year long invasion and occupation of Iraq. It was a disaster premised on high-concept crackpot arguments: Iraqis will love us; sanctions aren't working; weapons inspections are useless; Saddam Hussein cannot be militarily contained; Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's insinuation -- my favorite example -- that invasion and occupation costs might be less than those in the Balkans five years before, and could be paid for out of Iraq's oil revenues. At the pinnacle of this endeavor, of course, was President George W. Bush, the compulsive "decider," who was manfully willing to step up to the plate, make the tough decisions, and never look back or express regrets. It is much better for U.S. prestige and credibility to walk headlong into a catastrophe and keep at it than to weigh options -- that would be dithering -- or to admit a mistake and become a derided flip-flopper.
The foreign policy establishment in DC is brimming with such "crackpot realists." Democracy and diplomacy are too messy for them, too complicated, too uncertain, and they find refuge from this uncertainty, this lack of knowing, this lack of power, in calls for war. War eases such uncertainties and involves displays of unadulterated strength and of power. So war becomes, then, the only possible solution. The other solutions are "weak"; we must be "strong." The president must "lead." (Although the question of "lead where?" can often be ignored.) If there is a crisis abroad, the U.S. simply must do something, and that something being recommended always just so happens to involve the military, even if it is a problem that military intervention will likely make worse.

Of these "crackpot realists" and their quick resort to war, C. Wright Mills further noted,
Some men want war for sordid, others for idealistic, reasons; some for personal gain, others for impersonal principle. But most of those who consciously want war and accept it, and so help to create its "inevitability," want it in order to shift the locus of their problems.
These are good words to keep in mind as the administration rushes to war and the cable news pundits and editorial boards bang the war drums along with them.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Two Most Disturbing Exchanges from the WH Press Conference

First of all, I want to say that whoever runs Transcript Editors at DK does a great service.

Second of all, I wanted to highlight two exchanges from the Syria discussion at the White House press conference today that I found to be particularly disturbing.

Here, we have a reporter quoting Obama's 2007 self regarding the War Powers Act and how the president needs to seek congressional authorization for war. Jay Carney lies and hedges before he ultimately makes the bold and comically untrue statement that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is an imminent threat to the United States. We already know that the administration has redefined such language to the point of emptiness. This is just another example of such language games and an insight into a distinctly imperialistic worldview.

Last I checked, Syria was not planning to attack the U.S. homeland. Only then can one be justified in speaking of an "imminent threat." We haven't faced an attack from a foreign military since World War II and haven't faced a sustained attack from a foreign military since the War of 1812.

Q In 2007, the Boston Globe asked candidates running for president to answer a series of written questions, and one was in the context of Iran: Does the President have the constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use of force authorization from Congress? Candidate Obama said, "The President does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." Does the President still agree with that?

MR. CARNEY: Absolutely. But you're also trying to get me to engage in a discussion about a decision that has --

Q But it's not a hypothetical anymore.

MR. CARNEY: It is a hypothetical, Ed.

Q You have to admit the military option has been on the table for a year, a year and a half.


Q Now it's not about hypotheticals. We are maybe within days, if not hours, of the President making a decision, correct?

MR. CARNEY: It is correct that the President is working with his national security team reviewing the options available to him to respond to the clear violation of an international norm by the Syrian regime with the use of, on a significant scale, chemical weapons against innocent civilians. As I made clear, it is clearly in the United States' national security interests that that norm be maintained because the consequences of that standard dissolving are enormous and very detrimental to the interest of the United States and very detrimental to the international community, to our allies and partners in the region, and to the world at large.

Q But you're saying that's the standard today. But I'm saying the standard in 2007 to candidate Obama was an actual or imminent threat to the nation. Do you believe that exists right now, an actual imminent threat to the United States?

MR. CARNEY: I believe that absolutely allowing the use of chemical weapons on a significant scale to take place without a response would present a significant challenge to or threat to the United States' national security interests.

Q Not just to our allies in the region, but to the United States?

MR. CARNEY: Correct.
And, in the other disturbing passage, Carney, in essence, says that the U.S. is not a representative government, that the legislature has no power here, that Britain is more democratic than we are.

Q And then finally, British Prime Minister David Cameron is recalling Parliament this week. There’s going to be a motion put forward on Thursday, a vote on authorizing the British response. Is it fair to say that President Obama is not going to recall Congress to seek some type of similar measure before proceeding?

MR. CARNEY: Well, first of all, I don’t want to engage in speculation about a course of action that has not been decided upon. When the President has an announcement to make, he’ll make it. As this process is undertaken, we are consulting directly with House and Senate leaders in Congress. We are consulting directly with the leadership of the relevant committees as well as with other members of Congress who have a keen interest in this matter. I think you’ve seen that documented by some members who have spoken to it. And that process will continue. We think it’s very important that the consultation process take place in a matter like this of such gravity.

We are also, as we’ve made clear, engaging with our international partners. There’s a substantial list of communications that the Secretary of State has had. The President himself, as we’ve read out to you, has had consultations with Canadian Prime Minister Harper today, and in recent days with British Prime Minister Cameron, French President Hollande, and Australian Prime Minister Rudd. And I would anticipate that the President will continue to make calls to his counterparts throughout the week.

When it comes to processes -- I think which goes to your question -- I’m not going to -- it presupposes a course of action that hasn’t been decided upon.

Q But that fact that Cameron is in a position to recall his Parliament, says he’s going to put forward a motion on Thursday, seems to suggest that there is something that's been decided.

MR. CARNEY: Well, let me just make a broad statement. Obviously, this is a different country with a different form of government. There is --

Happy 10th anniversary, Iraq War! Our Nobel Peace Prize winner president might be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by starting an aggressive war, something pacifist (and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner) Martin Luther King Jr. would have vigorously opposed. Although, considering that reports indicate that the strike will happen on Thursday, Obama will be polite enough to wait until after he delivers his MOW speech before engaging in acts of aggressive war--you know, to reduce the dissonance a tad.

Note: And, as a quick but important aside, the money that the government is considering spending on military strikes could be, you know, spent on helping the one million child refugees that have fled Syria and need food, education, etc., lest they become a "lost generation" as the UN has said because of the lack of funds for the relief efforts. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

When Did the Democratic Party Platform Abandon Full Employment?

If you are, like me, somewhat of a history geek, then you will love the resources of USCB's American Presidency Project, particularly the database of past party platforms. You can learn a lot about the evolution of our political parties by reading their platforms--seeing which issues rise and fall, seeing how frames and principles change.

A study of the relationship between the Democratic Party platform and the goal of full employment, for example, is quite revealing.

The term "full employment" refers to the economic state in which everyone who is eligible and willing to work is gainfully employed.  Unemployment would only be "frictional," i.e. that resulting from transitions between jobs. The term "full employment" is most commonly known as the goal of Keynesian economic policy, and as a goal, it was a defining feature of the post-war economic consensus. Unsurprisingly, mentions of "full employment" began in 1944.

For the next four decades, full employment was featured as a prominent part of the economic agenda presented by the Democratic Party platform. The first year that the Democrats abandoned discussion of full employment was 1992. The term "full employment" has never been mentioned in a Democratic Party platform since.

The abandonment of "full employment," perhaps unsurprisingly, aligns with the ascent of the Clintonites of the Democratic Leadership Council and the so-called "New Democrat" or "Third Way" wing of the Democratic Party, who sought to move away from the New Deal liberalism of the past and embrace the fundraising potential of an affinity with Wall Street.

Read the rest on my Daily Kos page

Sunday, August 25, 2013

NYT Editorial Board Endorses Christine Quinn for Mayor. You Should Not.

New York City will be holding the primaries for its mayoral race in just over two weeks (September 10th). Today, the New York Times editorial board finally announced its widely-coveted, long-awaited endorsement: Bloomberg's right-hand woman, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Their endorsement begins...
Mayor Michael Bloomberg is almost gone. At year’s end there will be nothing more he can do to shape, alter or improve the City of New York. It’s the end of 12 years of governing under one man’s singular, often inspiring, sometimes maddening priorities, which were as big as a rising ocean and as small as your soda cup. It was a vision that succeeded brilliantly, but incompletely. But don’t worry, New York. Mr. Bloomberg’s is hardly the only way to run a city, and the excellent news is that there is a candidate who is ready to carry on at least as well as he did. 
 Actually, it is quite untrue to say that Bloomie's influence will be over. Bloomie is very wealthy. The wealthy do not need to be in office to have influence.

Is it too much to ask for a mayor who would be better rather than "at least as" good as Bloomberg? Especially concerning issues of civil rights and social justice.

Okay, now let's move to the heart of the endorsement:
She is one of seven Democrats who have been toiling for months in the primary race, standing before voters day and night in a marathon of civic engagement. A common complaint is that this year’s candidates look small, like dots on the slopes of Mount Bloomberg. But that isn’t fair; all but a few are solid public servants running substantive campaigns. Though the race was crashed, and distracted for a few irritating weeks, by the unqualified Anthony Weiner, it has since sobered up, and voters are paying attention. It is clear by now — and last Wednesday’s debate made it even clearer — that the best in the group is Christine Quinn.

Ms. Quinn, the City Council speaker, offers the judgment and record of achievement anyone should want in a mayor. Two opponents — Bill de Blasio, the public advocate, and William Thompson Jr., former comptroller — offer powerful arguments on their own behalf. But Ms. Quinn inspires the most confidence that she would be the right mayor for the inevitable times when hope and idealism collide with the challenge of getting something done.

Ms. Quinn has been an impressive leader since her days as a neighborhood advocate and her early years on the City Council. We endorsed her for the Council in 1999 as someone “who can both work within the system and criticize it when necessary” — a judgment she has validated many times since. She has shepherded through important laws protecting New Yorkers’ health, safety and civil rights, including measures banning public smoking, protecting tenants and small businesses, and battling slumlords. She sponsored the sweeping 2007 legislation that made the city’s exemplary campaign-finance laws even stronger. She pushed successfully for a state law making kindergarten mandatory for 5-year-olds — giving thousands of poor and minority children a better start on their educations.

As speaker, Ms. Quinn has been a forceful counterpart to Mr. Bloomberg, and has turned the Council from a collection of rambunctious, ill-directed egos into a forceful and effective legislative body. In wrestling with budgets she has shown restraint that runs counter to lesser political instincts. She fought, for example, for a Bloomberg plan to keep a year’s surplus as a rainy-day fund. There was fierce opposition from Council members who wanted to spend the money. Ms. Quinn was right, and the city had a cushion when the recession hit.

Mr. Bloomberg has raised expectations that hard decisions should be made on the merits — that the city needs a mayor who is willing to say no. More than with the other candidates, that description fits Ms. Quinn. As an early leader in the campaign, with a target on her back, she has faced anger and derision without wavering. We admire her staunch support for the city’s solid-waste management plan, which is good for the whole city but bitterly opposed in some neighborhoods. She has been willing to challenge the mayor’s misjudgment and insensitivity, as when he tried to require single adults to prove their homelessness before they were allowed to use city shelters.
 Bloomberg "raised expectations that hard decisions should be made on [their] merits"? Really? A man who compared a living wage bill to Soviet communism and red-baited Elizabeth Warren does not fit such a description.

I would also take issue with the claim that Quinn has offered strong opposition to Bloomberg. On the paid sick leave bill, for instance, she offered more opposition to her fellow Democrats, constantly delaying the legislation and only allowing a weakened version to pass. Quinn also voted against the City Council's racial profiling ban. She is also the single person most responsible for undermining NYC's law on mayoral term limits. And there's her strong support of the racist, Islamophobic, Constitution-shredding police comissioner Ray Kelly. (That'll get discussed later.)

But let's get back to the NYT:
Mr. de Blasio has been the most forceful and eloquent of the Democrats in arguing that New York needs to reset its priorities in favor of the middle class, the struggling and the poor. His stature has grown as his message has taken root — voters leery of stark and growing inequalities have embraced his message of “two cities.” He has ennobled the campaign conversation by insisting, correctly, that expanding early education is vital to securing the city’s future. And yet, Mr. de Blasio’s most ambitious plans — like a powerful new state-city partnership to make forever-failing city hospitals financially viable, or to pay for universal prekindergarten and after-school programs through a new tax on the richest New Yorkers — need support in the State Capitol, and look like legislative long shots. Once a Mayor de Blasio saw his boldest ideas smashed on the rocks of Albany, then what? 
 So the opposition to DeBlasio amounts to a skepticism that he could get funding for his proposals. However, if he is "forceful and eloquent" in his argument, wouldn't you think he would succeed as a mayor, adapting his plans in light of obstacles without sacrificing core principles?
Mr. Thompson, meanwhile, who nearly defeated Mr. Bloomberg four years ago, has run a thoughtful campaign grounded on the insights he gained in important elective and appointed posts in New York City. A former president of the old Board of Education, Mr. Thompson argues that he is the best candidate to fix the city schools, but his close ties to the United Federation of Teachers, not always a friend of needed reforms, give us pause. The teachers’ union is one of the municipal unions itching for retroactive pay raises in contracts that expired under Mr. Bloomberg and need renegotiating. 
 The NYT editorial board hates teachers' unions. What else is new?
For all the growing testiness of the campaign, the Democrats share much common ground. All agree on equality, opportunity and fairness. They concede that the best of the Bloomberg years — the economic diversification and growth, the astounding drop in crime, the transit innovations, the greener and cleaner public spaces, and big plans for the future — must be preserved. And they agree that the worst must be corrected — starting with the Police Department’s unconstitutional use of stop-and-frisk, which has abused and humiliated hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers. "Equality, opportunity, and fairness" (Sorry, NYT ed board, I'm going with academic, not journalistic, style and putting in the serial comma) are abstract concepts. You can't say that they all agree on those because they all have different definitions of what those words mean.

Ms. Quinn has no specific plan to require the richest New Yorkers to pay more in taxes in service of important civic goals (she says she will raise taxes as a last resort), but neither has she made a long list of unrealistic promises. The biggest challenge has not been talked about much — next year the new mayor will have to confront a budget crisis with no money to spare and all those expired municipal contracts to settle. The mayor we will need then will not be the police reformer or education visionary, but a skilled and realistic negotiator.

Some positions Ms. Quinn has supported are unwise or objectionable. She has been too strong in supporting Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, the architect and stoutest defender of stop-and-frisk. She has supported, too blindly, Mr. Kelly’s practice of spying on Muslims at prayer, a similar false choice of public safety over the Constitution. She can become mumbly when talking about things that the real estate industry opposes, like changing zoning laws to require construction of affordable apartments. She has a reputation for shouting, but has shown a capacity to listen, and to be persuaded to change her mind — attributes we will count on seeing more of if she is elected. 
 Shorter NYT: Civil liberties are so passé.
We had already made up our own minds in favor of Ms. Quinn, but the Wednesday debate would have clinched it anyway. Candidates were asked what legacy they wanted to leave after two terms. “More people in the middle class,” Ms. Quinn said. It was a perfect answer, and she could have left it there. But, Quinn being Quinn, she threw in supporting details. She wants 40,000 more apartments the middle class can afford to live in. She wants to repair crumbling public housing, providing “quality conditions” for 600,000 people. She wants to make the school day longer and replace textbooks with electronic tablets. At the buzzer, she threw in: make the city “climate-change ready.”
I watched that debate, and I didn't think Quinn sounded that impressive. She lacks sincerity when delivering a message.
A lot of good ideas that, in Ms. Quinn’s case, add up to an achievable vision, and one we would be glad to see come to pass.
But if keeping Ray Kelly--along with illegal spying and unconstitutional search & seizure-are part of that vision, do you really want it to come to pass? I guess we can assume that the NYT doesn't really mind Quinn's coziness with business interests because the ed board touted that as an asset in their endorsement of Silicon Valley and Wall Street's good friend Cory Booker for the NJ Senate race.

The downplaying of civil liberties and social justice as considerations should disabuse you of the belief that the NYT editorial board is particularly "liberal." Its fairly establishmentarian and left-of-our-political center, but it's "liberalism" only goes so far (and not far enough).

The NYT editorial board also endorsed Joe Lhota for the Republican primary. Do any Republicans really care about what the NYT editorial board has to say?

Friday, August 23, 2013

It feels weird to say this, but Michele Bachmann is right here: Exec power and the TPP

Yesterday, POLITICO reported on a group of unlikely allies working to reassert congressional authority:

What could conservative Republican Reps. Michele Bachmann and Walter Jones and liberal Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro possibly agree on?

They all want to limit President Barack Obama’s ability to “fast-track” international trade deals.

The three representatives are gathering lawmakers’ signatures on letters that seek to block Obama from using the fast-track process called Trade Promotion Authority, which limits Congress to up-or-down votes on free-trade agreements and bars all amendments.
First of all, I'd like to highlight this as a rare example of constructive bipartisanship in the public interest. Normally, I adhere to the principle of "Beware of Congresspersons bearing bipartisanship" because bipartisan gangs tend to indicate that the parties are joining together to screw over people at home or abroad. But here we see bipartisanship in the public interest. And as strange as it feels to say so, Bachmann is right, and Obama is wrong here.

Why is "fast track" authority an important issue right now? Well, Obama wants to use that authority to continue to ignore Congress and sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal before Congress even gets to see it.

Why should you care about the TPP? The Nation's Zoe Carpenter spells it out for you:

Those who say these deals are going to create thousands of jobs and increase exports, they don’t talk about imports—which are just as important, if not more so,” said Robert Scott of the Economic Policy Institute. According to his analysis, in the year after Obama’s recent agreement with South Korea was finalized, US exports fell, South Korean imports rose and the US trade deficit to South Korea increased by nearly 40 percent, costing some 40,000 jobs. The TPP could worsen income inequality, too.

Significant as its economic impact could be, the TPP is only marginally about trade. Just five of the twenty-nine draft chapters cover traditional trade matters, according to Ben Beachy, the research director for Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. The rest of the deal, he said, “could rewrite broad swathes of domestic policy that affects our daily lives, from Internet browsing to what we eat for dinner.”

“For corporations, the TPP is a convenient back-door means of undermining public interest policies that they oppose but are not able to undermine through domestic legislation,” Beachy said. If enacted, all existing and future US law would have to comply with the treaty, or the US could face trade sanctions. Environmental, health, food safety, human rights and Internet freedom protections could all be limited by the TPP. The deal could derail attempts to rein in Wall Street, making it impossible to regulate risky financial products, implement a “Robin Hood” tax on financial transactions or enforce size limits on big banks and capital controls.

Corporations, meanwhile, would gain vastly expanded privileges over federal, state and local government. A draft chapter leaked last year detailed the inclusion of a legal structure, called an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, that would essentially allow multinationals to sue a government if they believe a policy infringes on their rights. A tribunal unaccountable to any electorate would decide the case and the damages owed, with no option for appeal. Similar investor-state rules have been included in a number of other free-trade deals, including NAFTA, and cases are surging, as are the damages awarded. Last year corporations won 70 percent of disputes. 
Bachmann and Jones are reaching out to the Republican caucus with their letter. DeLauro is reaching out to Democrats with hers. POLITICO excerpted part of DeLauro's letter:

In light of the broad scope of today’s trade agreements, it is even more vital that Congress have a fulsome role in shaping these pacts’ terms,” DeLauro’s letter says.

“Given our concerns, we will oppose ‘Fast Track’ Trade Promotion Authority or any other mechanism delegating Congress’s constitutional authority over trade policy that continues to exclude us from having a meaningful role in the formative stages of trade agreements and throughout negotiating and approval processes,” it adds.

Back in June, Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke out against the administration's secrecy in the TPP negotiations, noting that the Obama administration has been even less transparent than the Bush administration on such issues. Congressman Alan Grayson has also been a vocal opponent.

Also in June, Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin organized a letter from 36 freshman Democrats demanding more transparency from the White House. The following signed onto this letter:
Ron Barber (AZ-02), Joyce Beatty (OH-03), Ami Bera (CA-07), Julia Brownley (CA-26), Tony Cárdenas (CA-29), Matthew A. Cartwright (PA-17), William L. Enyart (IL-12), Bill Foster (IL-11), Lois Frankel (FL-22), Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02), Pete P. Gallego (TX-23), Joe Garcia (FL-26), Alan Grayson (FL-09), Steven A. Horsford (NV-04), Jared Huffman (CA-02), Hakeem S. Jeffries (NY-08), Joseph P. Kennedy III (MA-04), Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-01), Annie McLane Kuster (NH-02), Alan S. Lowenthal (CA-47), Michelle Lujan Grisham (NM-01), Daniel B. Maffei (NY-24), Patrick Murphy (FL-18), Gloria Negrete McLeod (CA-35) , Richard M. Nolan (MN-08), Beto O’Rourke (TX-16), Donald M. Payne Jr. (NJ-10), Raul Ruiz (CA-36), Carol Shea-Porter (NH-01), Kyrsten Sinema (AZ-09), Eric M. Swalwell (CA-15), Mark Takano (CA-41), Dina Titus (NV-01), Juan Vargas (CA-51), and Marc A. Veasey (TX-33) 
 In 2002, Congress last voted to re-authorize fast track authority. The Trade Act of 2002, as it was called, barely passed the House--a close vote of 215 to 212. 25 Democrats broke from party line to support it, and 27 Republicans broke from their party line to vote against it. Only six of the defecting Democrats are still in Congress:

Susan Davis (CA-53)
Ruben Hinojosa (TX-15)
Rick Larsen (WA-02)
Jim Matheson (UT-04)
Jim Moran (VA-08)
Adam Smith (WA-09)

Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer both voted against giving fast-track authority to Bush. Will they be willing to do so under Obama?

The Senate back in 2002 was even more willing to concede authority to the executive, passing the Trade Act of 2002 by a vote of 64 to 34. 43 Republicans, 20 Democrats, and 1 Independent (Jeffords) voted for it. 29 Democrats and 5 Republicans voted against it. The Democrats who voted for fast-track back in 2002 that are still with us are Diane Feinstein (CA), Tom Carper (DE), Bill Nelson (FL), Mary Landrieu (LA), Max Baucus (MT), Ron Wyden (OR), Maria Cantwell (WA), and Patty Murray (WA).

Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, and Chuck Schumer voted "no" back then. Would they do so again under Obama? I recommend giving a call to your representative and senators in Washington and encouraging them to vote against giving up their authority as a deliberative body on this issue.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

JP Morgan's Sponsoring a Tent at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington Because...Wait, what?

Financial journalist and former Senior Policy Advisor to Alan Grayson Matt Stoller tweeted a link to a rather interesting press release earlier today.  As it turns out, JP Morgan---yes, that JP Morgan---and that JP Morgan--and that JP Morgan--is sponsoring a tent at the event in DC this weekend commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and MLK Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Here's the text of the press release:
JPMorgan Chase & Co. is partnering with Drum Major Institute, Inc. and
Martin L. King, III in Washington, DC for the 50th Anniversary of the March
on Washington and the I Have a Dream speech. We will have a tent with
The King Center Imaging Project on the Mall at the Martin Luther King, Jr.
Memorial from August 24 – August 25.

Please visit our tent for the following:

August 24 | 9:00 AM – 8:00 PM
March on Washington
The King Center Imaging Project

August 25 | 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM
The King Center Imaging Project

National Mall in DC
900 Ohio Drive, SW
Washington, DC 20024
Apparently, the King Center Imaging Project was started by JP Morgan down in Atlanta two years ago. Here's how the King Center website describes it:
The King Center Imaging Project

The King Center Imaging Project brings the works and papers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to a digital generation. JPMorgan Chase & Co. began the project in April of 2011 with the intent to preserve, digitize and make publically available some of the extensive holdings of The King Center Archive collection.

Through the JPMorgan Chase's Technology for Social Good program, a team of highly skilled individuals has been organized to help digitize more than 1 million documents. The team consists of imaging and archival experts, as well as students from Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, the King family's alma maters and US Veterans from the US Veterans Curation Program.

The digital archive is a dynamic collection. Visitors are encouraged to check back regularly, as new content is always being added to the site.
JP Morgan, remember, ranked #3 on Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)'s list of top corporate tax dodgers:
3. JP Morgan Chase CEO James Dimon

Taxpayer Bailout from the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department? $416 billion

During the financial crisis, JP Morgan Chase received a total of more than $391 billion in virtually zero interest loans from the Federal Reserve and a $25 billion bailout from the Treasury Department, while Jamie Dimon served as a director of the New York Federal Reserve.

Number of Offshore Tax Havens in 2010? 83.

In 2010, JP Morgan Chase operated 83 subsidiaries incorporated in offshore tax havens.

Amount of federal income taxes JP Morgan Chase would have owed if offshore tax havens were eliminated? $4.9 billion

In 2011, JP Morgan Chase stashed $21.8 billion in offshore tax haven countries to avoid paying income taxes. If this practice was outlawed, it would have paid $4.9 billion in federal income taxes.
It is thoughtful (I would not go so far as "generous") of JP Morgan to donate a tiny portion of its record profits to such a noble project. However, JP Morgan--through the actions to which I linked above and so many others--is part of the problem, part of the obstacle to achieving MLK Jr's vision of a future of freedom and justice. JP Morgan's acts of charity deserve no praise when they are stealing from the poor and the public at large with one hand, padding their pockets, and then giving back a few pennies in the form of a branded project.

Clean up your act, first, and then--only then--will your charity mean something.

As it stands now, though, JP Morgan's involvement with the event commemorating one of the US's premier historical champions of social justice just feels like a sick joke.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Walton and Wall Street Cash Flooding into the Boston Mayor's Race for City Councillor John Connelly

NYC isn't the only major Northeastern city whose long-serving mayor will be retiring next year: Boston's Tom Menino will be ending his twenty-year reign. His retirement, unlike Bloomie's, is voluntary. I'm sure Bloomberg would have run again if he could steamroll the City Council--or cajole Christine Quinn--into letting him.

With a lot of pent-up ambition in Boston (especially among Democrats), we have a kitchen sink primary coming up next month. There are 12 candidates, 11 Democrats and 1 Republican, even though only nine of them are seen as having a chance to make it to the runoff.

John Connelly, an At-Large Boston City Councillor, was the first to declare his candidacy. He did so on February 26, a month before Mayor Menino announced his retirement. Since the start, Connelly has been trying to bill himself as the "education mayor." But whose idea of education?

If it hasn't been clear yet in the race so far, it is now--Connelly's idea of education is that of Wall Street, the Walton Family, and Bain Capital.

Corporate reform group Stand for Children has pledged to throw over $500,000 behind a "full-frontal assault" on Connolly's behalf---advertising on broadcast and cable TV, direct mail, phone banking, and door-to-door canvassing.

The Boston Globe noted some of Stand for Children's past advocacy work in Massachusetts:

Last year, Stand for Children’s ballot committee spent $400,000 pushing for a statewide ballot measure that would have emphasized classroom performance in school decisions about teacher retention.

Opposed by labor unions, that ballot initiative was withdrawn after Stand for Children and the Massachusetts Teachers Association negotiated a compromise prioritizing teacher evaluations over teacher seniority in staffing decisions.

In 2010, the group helped advocate for a law that lifted the moratorium on charter schools in Massachusetts’ urban districts.

Stand for Children is no local Massachusetts-based nonprofit. It finds its home in Oregon, where it evolved from a civil rights group to a darling of the hedge fund managers. Education historian and prominent advocate for public education Diane Ravitch explained the past and present of Stand for Children on her blog earlier today:

Stand began its life in Oregon as a civil rights group, but then discovered that there was a brighter future representing the interests of equity investors and Wall Street.

Subsequently, many of its original members left, but the budget greatly expanded, allowing them to be a major presence in states like Illinois and Massachusetts, where they promote charter schools and the removal of teacher tenure.

In Illinois, they bought up all the best lobbyists and got passed a law that made it illegal for the Chicago teachers to strike unless they got a 75% approval vote.

The Chicago Teachers Union got more than 90% and went on strike, much to the surprise of the big-money funders who thought they had crippled the union

She also highlighted recent comments by Stand for Children CEO Jonah Edelman that show how unabashed the corporate leanings of the group are:

Edelman boasted at the Aspen Institute Festival about how he had “outfoxed” the teachers’ union by working with the state’s wealthiest hedge fund managers, buying up lobbyists, and winning anti-union legislation.

Stand pretends to be a “progressive” organization. It is, in fact, as Edelman boasts on the Aspen video, a mouthpiece for the 1%: Pro-privatization, anti-union, anti-public education.

In light of the recent news, Chris Faraone of the Jamaica Plain Gazette called Connelly the "biggest threat to BPS." 

After seeing the disasters-in-progress in Philly and Chicago effected by the school privatizers and profiteers--and their willing accomplices in elected offices, I don't want the same to happen in Boston as well.

If you are in Boston and want someone truly committed to ensuring equitable, high quality public education, then opt for the other At-Large City Councillor in the race: Felix Arroyo.

Obama Sacrifices Public Health, Backs Big Tobacco in TPP Negotiations

The Obama administration, which has always proven to be a good friend of Big Pharma, is proving itself to be a good friend of Big Tobacco, too. The president may have--thankfully--broken his past bad personal habits, but not the embrace of Big Tobacco by the US government.

The administration has backed down from a proposal to protect public health from Big Tobacco in the negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, often referred to as "NAFTA on steroids."

Action on Smoking and Health reported on the new developments:

The draft TPPA benefits tobacco companies with zero tariffs, expanded investor rights, and greater limits on regulation of tobacco advertising and other services,” said Robert Stumberg, director of the Harrison Institute for Public Law at Georgetown University Law Center. “The revised U.S. position inserts the word ‘tobacco’ without touching the benefits for tobacco companies.”

The tobacco industry has a long history of using trade agreements to attack public health measures aimed at reducing tobacco use. Last year, the United States lost its final appeal in a suit brought under World Trade Organization rules by Indonesia over a U.S. ban on flavored cigarettes, including candy flavors clearly aimed at children. The case was a wake-up call for the U.S. public health community about the dangers to tobacco regulations posed by a web of trade obligations.

The draft TPP will make it even easier for governments to be sued for their tobacco regulations. Unlike the WTO, corporations will have the right under the TPP to directly sue governments, without the need of a state sponsor. Similar suits have already been leveled against a number of countries, including Australia, Uruguay, Norway and Turkey.

In May 2012, the United States Trade Representative announced a draft “safe harbor” clause to protect tobacco measures under the TPP. While the legal impact of that draft was quite narrow, the public health community applauded it as a good starting point and urged the administration to propose it in the TPP negotiations. However, the reaction from industry and pro-tobacco politicians was loud, negative and sustained. After 15 months and eight negotiating rounds, the “safe harbor” had still not been proposed.
Here are some more details from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, especially regarding the ramifications:

The new USTR proposal does not recognize tobacco as a uniquely harmful product or provide a safe harbor for nations to regulate in order to reduce tobacco use, as the initial proposal would have done. The new proposal states the obvious – that tobacco control measures involve public health – and then directs public health officials from the countries that are party to the trade agreement to consult each other before launching tobacco-related trade challenges.

The end result is that the Obama Administration's strong commitment to reducing tobacco use in the United States will remain vulnerable to international trade challenges, and other trading partners will remain vulnerable to such challenges as well.

The tobacco industry and its allies in government increasingly use trade and investment agreements to challenge legitimate tobacco control measures.....Tobacco companies and several countries have filed trade challenges to Australia's law requiring that cigarettes be sold in plain packaging, while Philip Morris International has used an investment agreement to challenge Uruguay's tobacco control laws, including its requirement for large, graphic health warnings. These costly challenges are aimed not only at defeating tobacco control measures, but also at discouraging governments from enacting them in the first place.
I wrote about the Trans-Pacific Partnership back in June after the confirmation vote for Michael Froman for US Trade Representative, commending Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for their "no" votes. There's also a good piece up now on Truth-Out, entitled "NAFTA on Steroids: The Transpacific Partnership and Global Neoliberalism." 
  The White House has been fiercely secretive about the TPP negotiations, even more so than the Bush administration was with trade negotiations (which I note in the diary linked above). All of the information we've gained through leaks so far hasn't been pretty.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sorry, Mr. President, But The Affordable Care Act Did Not Make Insurance a "Right"

In the weekly address President Obama delivered this morning, he focused on the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (often just "Affordable Care Act"). He concluded with the following line:
So I’m going to keep doing everything in my power to make sure this law works as it’s supposed to.  Because in the United States of America, health insurance isn’t a privilege – it is your right.  And we’re going to keep it that way.
If only that were true. 
First of all, the insurance exchanges and corresponding subsidies have not been fully implemented yet. The individual and employer mandates do not go into effect until 2014 and 2015, respectively. Only 26 states have accepted the Medicaid expansion so far. Some are still debating it. So, no, as of this moment, health insurance is not a right

But, more importantly, even if the ACA were fully implemented, would health insurance then be considered a "right"?  The answer is, unfortunately, no.

In March 2012, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the ACA would bring insurance to 30-33 million people, leaving 26-27 million still uninsured in 2016. Taking into account the effects of the Supreme Court ruling (i.e., the optional status of the Medicaid expansion), a group of health policy wonks in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs estimated that at least 29.8 million would be left uninsured.

Almost 10% of the population uninsured?  That doesn't look like a "right" to me.

Had the ACA implemented a Canadian-style single payer system, a British-style NHS, or a model akin to one of the social democratic systems in most of the Continent, then, yes, we could say that health insurance is a "right"--or, at least, that it would be upon implementation.

Were we to see health insurance as a right, we might treat health care similarly to how we treat education. There would be a national health service that would offer a robust package of basic coverage, available to all whether citizen or not. A public option would have at least moved us closer to such a system.  But, alas, that is not the law with which we ended up. Through a complex system of regulations, rebates, subsidies, and program expansions, the ACA (despite its flaws) has expanded coverage and will continue to do so upon implementation. However, it will not be fully universal, it will not make health care into a public good, and it will not treat health care as a basic human right.
You don't buy your rights on the private market.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

"A Mayor Who Puts Wall Street First"

I've been happy to see the recent surge in the polls by NYC mayoral candidate and current Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, who is the most progressive candidate in the race (with the exception, perhaps, of John Liu). With his "Tale of Two Cities" narrative, emphasis on economic inequality, and opposition to stop-and-frisk, DeBlasio has been positioning himself as a clear break from the Bloomberg years.

With the twelve-year reign of Lord Bloomberg in New York City coming to a close, we'll likely see a number of pieces discussing what legacy he'll leave behind in our nation's largest city. I recommend checking out Gina Bellafante's critical take in the New York Times aptly titled "A Mayor Who Puts Wall Street First."

The best line, in my opinion, has to be this one: "Do any wounds require avuncular tending quite like those of an investment banker?"

However, I want to highlight two few key longer passages and recommend that you check out the full piece on the NYT's site.

This line encapsulates Bloomberg's blend of genteel urban liberalism with support for the most rapacious manifestations of American capitalism:
Among the various enduring images of the Bloomberg years, many are positive and some perhaps even blessed: bike lanes, smokeless restaurants, new expanses of green space, the increased presence of ferries on the city’s waterways. But to my mind, this gesture of therapeutic outreach to an institution that defrauded its own clients is unmatched in its symbolic weight, so clearly encapsulating the mayor’s most devoutly held allegiances and the civic repercussions accompanying them, the tireless coddling of the overclass.
And this passage highlights the economic stratification of NYC ushered in by Bloomberg's reign:
Mayor Bloomberg, who did nothing to elevate the status of teachers, an exercise that might have helped draw the most talented to that profession, has done a lot to elevate the status of people who make things, or rather the people who make the right things intended to be sold to the right MacBook-carrying-Martha’s Vineyard-vacationing people.

To the graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who can create $13,000 copper bathtubs (of the kind the mayor recently imported from France for his home) or cerused cocktail tables commissioned by uptown decorators, New York is an increasingly hospitable place. If what you make is more pedestrian, Stella D’oro cookies once sold in places like Key Food, instead of $6-a-piece shortbread of the type you might find at Chelsea Market, the mayor’s subliminal message winnows down to this: “Good luck, and send us a postcard from Ohio.”

Friday, August 16, 2013

No, Wonkblog, this chart does not make me feel better about American inequality

Yesterday morning, Dylan Matthews had an article in WaPo's Wonkblog entitled "This chart might make you feel better about American inequality."

You can see the graph mentioned here.  It comes from a working paper by Branko Milanovic, the lead economist at the World Bank’s research group.
 photo Graph_zps82de2be1.png
As you can see, the poorest 5% in the United States have higher incomes than all of India except (roughly) the top 5% and everyone in China except (roughly) the top 15%.

Should that make you feel better about American inequality?  No.

First of all, the argument "Don't feel as bad about poverty here because our poor are doing fine compared to the world average" sounds like something a Koch brother would say to gloss over poverty and rationalize reactionary policy.  That's because it is.

Gaping global inequality should not be used to whitewash the state of economic inequality at home.  Inequality is a problem within nations and between nations, and both domestic and global inequality demand more political will from our elected leaders and more rigorous policy efforts and experimentation.

Let's take a look at how the U.S. fares next to its peers in the OECD on the issue of income inequality.

Here's a chart of the Gini coefficients in OECD countries. The Gini coefficient is a measure of income inequality. It ranges from 0.0 (flat equality) to 1.00 (one person has all the income). The US is more unequal than every OECD country except for Mexico and Turkey. Unsurprisingly, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden all rank in the top 5 least unequal although, unfortunately, a turn towards neoliberalism has increased inequality in Sweden and Finland over the past two decades.
 photo GinicoefficientsOECD_zps8d8c4774.png
You might say that "this chart makes you not feel better about American inequality."

The disproportionate affluence of the top 1% in the U.S. and growing corporate profits show the need for both redistributive (steeper progressivity in taxation) and predistributive (higher minimum wage, better labor protections, stronger unions) policies.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Journalistic Malpractice in Reporting on Drone Strikes

Reuters, Wednesday, August 7
A U.S. drone killed at least six suspected al Qaeda militants in southern Yemen on Wednesday, officials said, a day after U.S. and British embassies evacuated some staff because of growing fears of attacks.
Retuers, Friday, August 9
Five suspected al Qaeda militants were killed in an air strike in eastern Yemen, the Interior Ministry said on Friday, in an escalating campaign against the militant group's Yemeni branch after recent warnings of possible attacks.
Associated Press, Saturday, August 10th
A suspected U.S. drone strike killed two alleged al-Qaida militants in southern Yemen on Saturday, military officials said, making it the ninth such strike in just two weeks.
Over the past two weeks, the U.S. has launched at least nine drone strikes on Yemen, killing at least 36 individuals. I'm sure that Obama is engaging in moral introspection before each strike while he's out golfing in Martha's Vineyard. 
Why did I cite the snippets from the Associated Press and Reuters, which provide the narratives that get replicated and disseminated throughout the news media?  Because we need to look at why they are all misleading.

Each one speaks of either "suspected" or "alleged" militants.  Such language merits one key criticism on form and one key criticism on substance.

Reuters and the AP both employ the passive voice when using words such as "suspected" and "alleged."  Left out of the picture is who is doing the suspecting or alleging. The CIA?  The Pentagon?  The Yemeni government? Someone else? We have the allegation and the alleged, but not the alleger.

The Reuters article is an even bigger offender against the gods of good composition and lucid writing. The individuals in question "were killed" according to Reuters.  Well, who killed them?  Who conducted the air strike?  Reuters leaves this out of its lede, conveniently hiding the role of the United States at this key moment of interaction between reader and writer.

(One must also note the difference between "suspected" and "convicted."  The drone operator maintains the right to be judge, jury, and executioner here.)

More importantly--and dangerously, these articles leave out information we've already learned about the labeling of individuals as "militants."

In the "kill list" article that Jo Becker and Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times in May of last year, we learned the following:
It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”
The CIA, in other words, labels individuals as militants ex post facto and post mortem. We have known this information for over a year, but the wire services have developed amnesia or--perhaps more likely--willfully choose to parrot the information that the authorities give them. 
The fact that the names of those killed by U.S. drone strikes rarely ever appear should inspire at least a dose of skepticism towards the claim that drone strikes are only hitting militants.

The other day, I came across an article in the Huffington Post that offers a marked contrast.

Joshua Herst, in the Huffington Post, wrote an excellent article "Yemen Drone Strikes Bring New Round Of Terror To Embattled Country" (8/10) that looks at the effects on the ground of the U.S.'s current reinvigorated drone war. Here is how he frames the wire service reports:
At least 36 people, all of them immediately deemed "suspected militants" by the Yemeni government, were killed, according to wire service counts.
Notice the difference? Even though we still have passive voice (""), we now know who is making the allegation. Additionally, Hersh puts quotation marks around "suspected militants" to underscore the contrast between allegation and conviction--and reality---and to encourage a healthy skepticism.  The quotation marks make "suspected militants" into what the term is--a quote given by an authority figure, not a known fact.  Hersh also provides first person accounts of the effects of the strikes to show the human impact:

For Farea al-Muslimi, that's meant a week of fear and anger. "You can tell how frustrated the people here are," al-Muslimi said, when reached by phone late on Friday.

Earlier in the week, he said, when an American P-3 Orion spy plane circled over Sanaa for nearly 10 hours, loudly buzzing as residents tried to celebrate the start of Eid, residents stopped in their tracks to protest. "People were standing in the street and screaming at it," he said.

Mohammed al-Qadhi, a Sanaa-based Yemeni journalist, said that so far there is no conclusive evidence that the current attacks killed innocents. Others, including Bafana, who tracks the strikes through his own network, said the first strikes last week in Hadhramauat killed at least four civilians, including a child.

Either way, al-Qadhi said the latest strikes are producing an uptick in popular discontent and protest -- on Facebook and Twitter, in the targeted villages, and at the now-vacant American embassy in Sanaa.
"People feel they don't have a government anymore," al-Qadhi said by phone. "They feel we don't have a government to attack the militants, so the Americans are handling it for us, and they are encroaching onto the sovereignty of Yemen."

The killings, he added, "may be good for Americans but in the end it doesn't solve the problem completely, especially if some civilians are killed. It just creates a kind of sympathy with al Qaeda. And I think al Qaeda will not stop attacking. I think they will retaliate, and they will fire back again in retaliation to these attacks."

To al-Muslimi, the return of drone warfare almost reflects an aimlessness among American policymakers. "Just like troubled teenagers with bad parents might run to the addiction of drugs and alcohol when it has problems, Americans are running to drones when they have terrorism problems," he said. "Alcohol makes you forget your failures, and for the Americans it seems like drones are for when they want to forget their counter-terrorism failures. It's senseless."The way the press chooses to present this information has the power to shape public opinion on U.S. foreign policy.  Consider, for instance, a poll conducted by the Huffington Post and YouGov back in February. 

When the survey asked whether people approved of using drones to kill "high-level terrorism suspects," 54 percent approved and 18 percent disapproved. However, when the survey reframed the question to acknowledge that "innocent civilians may also be killed in the process of targeting terrorism suspects," support tanked. Only 29 percent now approved, and 42 percent disapproved. Democratic support fell more steeply than Republican support when asked the more accurate question.

The public support for the drone wars heavily depends on the belief that the drone strikes are only targeting terrorists.  But we already know that such a belief is unfounded.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Richard Dawkins's Islamophobic Tweets and the Root Problem of the New Atheism

Continuing a sad descent to Internet trolldom, British biologist and outspoken New Atheist Richard Dawkins decided to wish the world's Muslim population an unhappy Eid yesterday by tweeting the following:
All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.
I want to go through some of the glaring problems here and then get at the heart of the matter. First, someone of Dawkins's intellectual background should not be comparing items from unlike categories. Trinity College is an institution of higher education.  "All the world's Muslims" are the adherents of a religious faith. They are not proper items for comparison. Nesrine Malik notes in The Guardian,
To wearily engage with his logic briefly: yes, it is technically true that fewer Muslims (10) than Trinity College Cambridge members (32) have won Nobel prizes. But insert pretty much any other group of people instead of "Muslims", and the statement would be true. You are comparing a specialised academic institution to an arbitrarily chosen group of people. Go on. Try it. All the world's Chinese, all the world's Indians, all the world's lefthanded people, all the world's cyclists.
Dawkins also clumps together "all the world's Muslims" as though they were a homogeneous population, devoid of any other identities such as nationality or class. Jakarta, Tehran, Baghdad, Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Istanbul, and Lahore are seemingly not separate cities with their own cultures and histories to Mr. Dawkins. They are just places filled with Muslims.

Moreover, Dawkins has a very narrow understanding of what it means to do "great things" if only those who won Nobel Prizes can be said to have done "great things." No single award is the be-all, end-all of either category specified--whether an institution of higher learning or a religious faith.

The Nobel Prize has only been around since 1901, and Dawkins doesn't address the wide time frame between (circa) 1500 and 1901. A lot of stuff happened between those periods, including a fair amount of violence against the "world's Muslims" by Europeans. (Remember a thing called colonialism?) And that violence continued past 1901 as well.

He also ignores the Eurocentrism of the Nobel Prize Committee that enabled individuals like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to receive Peace Prizes despite the War in the Philippines and the occupation of Haiti, respectively.

There's also, of course, the irony of Dawkins's invoking a university with such a blatantly Christian name. One Twitter commenter pointed this out to him: "The full name of Trinity College is 'The College of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity'."

But engaging with such comments often amounts to naught, and it doesn't get at the heart of the problem with New Atheists like Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.

The problem with the New Atheists is that they are atheists without being humanists. And the denigration of the humanistic values of pluralism, appreciation (rather than just tolerance), and the respect for the equal dignity of all are what make New Atheism as hostile, obsessive, and genuinely unpleasant as it so often is.

And there are plenty of individuals who are both atheists (or non-theists) and humanists. For instance, you could look at Ethical Culture or the New Humanism. Non-theists who are also humanists are often among the strongest champions of social justice and progressive change, and they find common ground with liberal, humanistic believers from various faiths. New Atheists, on the other hand, find common ground with the neo-cons and the xenophobes opposed to pluralism and mutual respect.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Chris Christie's Ego is So Big that He Took $2m from Sandy Victims So He Could Be in a Commercial

Yesterday, we saw Chris Christie rank as the "hottest" politician (followed closely by HRC) in a Quinnipac survey. The support Christie gets from Democrats continues to vex and confuse me--as I have written in past diaries (here and here, for instance).

Christie's politics regularly show him to be a conservative Republican--his vetoes of marriage equality legislation and a minimum wage increase, his taking NJ out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and gutting environmental regulations, his torpedoing of the ARC project, his repeated efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, his attempt to cut public education spending so much that the state Supreme Court ruled the cuts unconstitutional, his support for privatizing education, his incessant vilification of public workers (especially teachers)---the list goes on. Christie is no "New England moderate Republican."  He's solidly conservative.

His efforts at coordinating disaster relief merit praise only insofar as one merits praise for doing one's job.
But rather than continuing with that rant, let's get to the new stuff.

Today, the editorial board of New Jersey's Star Ledger delivered a scathing attack on Chris Christie for his ego-gone-wild.  Christie, you see, spent $2 million extra from the hurricane relief funds so that he could be in the commercial promoting tourism to the Jersey shore. That's right, he took $2 million that should have gone to hurricane victims for his favorite pastime, hearing the sound of his own voice (and seeing his face on the teevee).

The Star-Ledger editorial board begins,
Gov. Chris Christie’s habit of using his public office to promote his presidential ambitions has reached a new low.

We’ve seen him do it before. He closed down six Planned Parenthood clinics to appease right-wing primary voters. He’s dragged his feet relentlessly over medical marijuana and dismissed concerns over climate change for the same reason. This fall he is wasting taxpayer money by holding an election in October, in addition to the regularly scheduled November election, solely to protect the large victory margin he expects for his party.
But, as the editorial board says, he's now "outdone himself":
This time, he siphoned off money that was intended for victims of Sandy to promote himself in a series of TV ads. That is a new low, one that should play prominently in his campaign for re-election.
Here’s what’s new: It turns out the Christie administration turned away a qualified low-bidder seeking to produce the series of TV commercials promoting tourism at the Shore, titled “Stronger Than the Storm.”
Instead, Christie’s appointed cronies chose to spend $2 million more for a campaign produced by MWW, a public relations firm based in East Rutherford that’s known for its abundant political connections in both parties.
Why? The governor’s office dances and shuffles around this point, and the woman in charge of this selection process, Michele Brown, wouldn’t comment.
But know this: MWW proposed a series of ads featuring the governor and his family, a move that would be illegal in New York state and should be here. The firm with the lower bid, the Sigma Group, did not.

What makes this so offensive is that the money comes from federal aid intended for storm victims.
So maybe Sigma’s plan was flawed in other ways? No, not even according to the committee of insiders that reviewed it. According to records obtained by the Asbury Park Press, Sigma’s bid “addressed the tasks and deliverables specified in the RFQ (request for quotations) ... (and) could effectively meet the requirements of the RFQ.”

Brown, for the record, worked in Christie’s inner circle at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and is now head of the Economic Development Authority. In 2007, while working for Christie, she borrowed $47,000 from him for personal reasons.
Are we supposed to believe this was a detached and unbiased review? That a Christie loyalist happened to pick the ad campaign that featured the governor and his family, and is set to broadcast in other states where he will need votes to win a presidential primary?
Sorry, we are not buying it. This stunt is legal, but it is as sleazy as can be.
It is true, as Christie’s blind defenders will say, that former Gov. Tom Kean was featured in tourism promotions. That was a mistake, too, but on a much smaller scale.
What makes this so offensive is that the money comes from federal aid intended for storm victims. So the next time the governor visits the Shore to take credit for Washington’s help, maybe the families and small business owners who are still on their knees can ask the governor why he ranked his own self-promotion as a higher priority than their relief.
And besides — no offense — Springsteen would have made a much better star in these spots anyway.
(Emphasis added) 

Barbara Buono, Christie's Democratic challenger, is a committed progressive in a state whose Democratic Party is often a model of corruption.  And unlike the Norcross-owned 'Christiecrats" in the state legislature, Buono has actually fought Christie's conservative agenda.

If you are in New Jersey, make sure to go out and vote in November. You can check out Buono's website here.  Unlike Christie's campaign site, it actually has an issues page--and a good one at that.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

I would like to feel surprised.....

From the BBC:

The Conservative Party has hired Barack Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina for its general election campaign team, BBC Newsnight has learned.
....The Tories are hoping to emulate Mr Obama's re-election against a backdrop of economic problems. Many other governments that have sought re-election during economic turbulence have been punished by voters at the ballot box. 
The Conservatives are also thought to hope that Mr Messina will bring to their operation the same binding marriage of social media and political organisation that many in the US credit with securing Mr Obama a second term. 

Because nothing says "forwards, not backwards" like the party that is probably the West's most stalwart defender of monarchy.

And nothing says "middle-out economics" slashing welfare programs and embracing a TINA approach to austerity, regardless of the damage done to the country's population and economy as a whole.

It is *almost* as though Messina is nothing but a soulless hack with no core principles except a desire to make more money.  (Although that *almost* might be generous.)

However, it's difficult to feel that surprised.

First of all, there's Messina's "father-and-son-like" relationship with corrupt ConservaDem Max Baucus.

And then there's the ad he designed for Baucus that's considered the "epitome of homophobic demagoguery" in political circles.

Then, there's this gem from the campaign:

Jim Messina, President Barack Obama’s campaign manager, assured a group of Democratic donors from the financial services industry that Obama won’t demonize Wall Street as he stresses populist appeals in his re-election campaign, according to two people at the meeting.

Messina also recently spoke (for big $$$) at a forum in Azerbaijan, which the Institute for Reporters' Freedom described as a “publicity stunt for an increasingly authoritarian regime.”

So, Messina's record shows signs of crude social conservatism, fealty to the moneyed interests, and a neutrality-if-not-support for authoritarian policies.  Why, he's a perfect Tory!

Friday, August 2, 2013

House Republicans--and a Handful of Democrats--Vote to Block the EPA from Doing Its Job

Yesterday, the House voted on legislation that would allow the Energy Department to veto EPA rules with $1 billion or more in costs if DOE thinks that such rules would harm the economy.  This bill, deceptively titled the Energy Consumers Relief Act of 2013, is just the latest episode in the GOP's war against the EPA, one of its governmental bête noires, and against science, more broadly. The House GOP is angry because the EPA recently increased the social cost of carbon for federal agency rule-making.

I want to get through the amendments to the bill, and then I'll report on the final vote on the bill itself.
Rep. Tim Murphy (PA-18) proposed an amendment to block the EPA from weighing the benefits of curbing carbon emissions when crafting major energy-related regulations.  The House passed this amendment 234 to 178. 15 Democrats voted with the Republican caucus (save three members) in favor of this anti-science amendment.

The three Republicans who stood up against their party's anti-science and, frankly, anti-human position were Chris Gibson (NY-19), Walter Jones (NC-03), and Dennis Ross (FL-15).

Here are the 15 Democrats who should be shamed for their anti-science and anti-human vote:

Sanford Bishop (GA-02)
Bob Brady (PA-01)
G. K. Butterfield (NC-01)
Andre Carson (IN-07)
Mike Doyle (PA-14)
Bill Enyart (IL-12)
Marcia Fudge (OH-11)
Gene Green (TX-29)
David Loebsack (IA-02)
Jim Matheson (UT-04)
Mike McIntyre (NC-07)
Gregory Meeks (NY-05)
Collin Peterson (MN-07)
Nick Rahall (WV-03)
Albio Sires (NJ-08)

Bob Brady's vote doesn't make much sense to me considering he represents a deep blue district including Philadelphia and its suburbs.  He deserves a call.

Henry Waxman offered an amendment striking language allowing the Department of Energy to veto EPA rules.  It failed 183 to 230. Only 1 Republican--Dana Rohrabacher (CA-48)--voted for it. Eight Democrats shamefully voted against it.

Here are those eight:

John Barrow (GA-12)
Sanford Bishop (GA-02)
Henry Cuellar (TX-28)
Pete Gallego (TX-22)
Jim Matheson (UT-04)
Mike McIntyre (NC-07)
Collin Peterson (MN-07)
Nick Rahall (WV-03)

Democrat Gerald Connolly (VA-11) offered an amendment preventing a section of the bill from affecting air and water quality. It failed 182 to 224.

Only 1 Republican--Chris Gibson--voted for it.

And here are the 5 Democrats that don't care about clean air and clean water:

John Barrow (GA-12)
Sanford Bishop (GA-02)
Jim Matheson (UT-04)
Collin Peterson (MN-07)
Nick Rahall (WV-03)

The final bill passed 232 to 181.   Every Republican voted for it. Nine Democrats joined them.

John Barrow (GA-12)
Sanford Bishop (GA-02)
Henry Cuellar (TX-28)
Pete Gallego (TX-22)
Jim Matheson (UT-04)
Mike McIntyre (NC-07)
Collin Peterson (MN-07)
Nick Rahall (WV-03)
Filemon Vela (TX-34)
Shame on all of them.

Thankfully, this legislation wouldn't make it past the Senate. However, it shows how strong the hold of the fossil fuel interests is on the GOP--and on too many Democrats.