Thursday, May 26, 2005

Bolton is a reformer? News to anyone

The latest Republican talking points regarding the nomination of John Bolton to the UN Ambassadorship are mind-boggling, to say the least. The first is that the UN is "plagued" by "extraordinary corruption", as George Allen just put it on CSPAN2 (10:58AM), and needs a strong reformer ambassador (as if that were a somehow logical combination of traits). Allen and others of his ilk are claiming that the American public is clamoring for reform of the UN, seeing the only body this world has for intercountry cooperation as a waste of money. I don't know about you, but I don't see that; where are the large-scale protest movements that usually characterize public unrest? Nowhere. Are there masses of letters to the editors screaming that the US should pull out of the UN due to its corruption or uselessness? No, except from right-wing isolationist-imperialists (meaning that the US should rule the world through unilateral military actions, an inherently unstable concept).
By all accounts, and even by admission from all the Republican speakers I've heard today (Allen, McCain, and Kyl), Bolton is an irascible, volatile, and singularly blunt individual--hardly the character traits one desires in a "diplomat", and certainly not the personality type that will succeed in that kind of post. This is, of course, what the Republicans want at the UN, and what all 3 of the speakers I heard actually noted as the main qualifications for Bolton's confirmation.
Undergirding their support for a wildly aggressive Ambassador to the UN (in itself an incredible failure to recognize what this job requires) is the nakedly stated second talking point: Bolton should be confirmed because the President named him. In essence, what Bolton's supporters are advocating is the complete subjugation of the Senate's role in the confirmation process to the whims of Smirky the Chimp, regardless of any nominee's qualifications, or even more saliently in Bolton's case, suitability for the position in question. There is so much evidence in hand that shows Bolton's sheer incompetence in the very attitudes and skills this post demands, even given all the suppression of documents and footdragging by the Administration in answering the Senate's rightful requests for more documents, that it is shameful that anyone, let alone someone elevated to such an important office as Senator, thinks Bolton would be anything but a disgrace to this nation as the Ambassador to the UN. He deserves this because Smirky the Chimp says he does? That's sad, and it is also unconstitutional. Republicans in favor of Bolton should be ashamed.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Compromise is spelled a-p-p-e-a-s-e-m-e-n-t

So, after all the hubbub, what do we have now? An agreement among the "moderate" Republicans and the most centrist of the Democrats. What's in this agreement? Well, according to, the deal allows for 3 of Smirky's judges to get the Republicans' only recently and conveniently cherished "up-or-down" vote, including the 2 most debated judges Owen and Brown. The other 2 choices (Myers and Saad) are still subject to filibustering. As far as principles go, "Democrats reserved the right to filibuster future judicial nominations in 'extraordinary circumstances.' Republicans kept the power to revisit the nuclear option if they believe Democrats are filibustering in circumstances that do not reach that standard."
Um, let me get this "compromise" worked out. The Democrats get to keep using the filibuster, but if they do, the Republicans can trot out the nuclear option again? How is this any different from where we were yesterday morning? In addition, the Democrats let 3 of the 5 judges bottled up by this threatened filibuster get to the floor for a confirmation vote in return for what? Do the Democrats really believe that these "moderate" Republicans are going to support their efforts to defeat the noxious Owen and Brown, let alone any other Smirky appointees? Does the phrase "2703-1" ring any bells? These are the same "moderates" that voted in lockstep with all of the far-right loonies in every single case since Smirky took office. Trusting them now to be independent thinkers seems like an awfully thin reed to hold onto as the major achievement for the Democrats in this deal.
Trusting the current crop of Senatorial Republicans to play fair is simply a waste of hope; is there any doubt that if the Democrats threaten to filibuster
even once, these Republicans will scream loud, long, and consistently that the Democrats are breaking the deal? What power does this really leave the Democrats that they didn't have before the "compromise", and under much more advantageous political conditions? All the polls seemingly favored the Democrats' handling of this situation; the public was actually getting the right idea about what the Republicans were trying to do. That they are trying to subvert the Senate rules in order to achieve total dominance over every process and aspect of our government for the foreseeable future. That they already control all 3 branches of the government, and by substantial margins, wasn't enough for them. That they are seeking to undo many (all?) governmental programs by any means necessary, this time through the overturning of the judicial nomination and approval rules. The public was getting it.
But now, it looks like all the public will see is that they can relax, "moderates" are once again "in control", and nothing bad will happen. If these judges get confirmed, and we have absolutely no evidence based on past voting practices that they won't be, the public will simply assume that they must be good judges. Just wait until there is some sort of class-action suit involving horrible disfigurements or deaths in front of Appellate Court Justice Owen and she tosses it simply because she believes that businesses shouldn't be punished for doing business. By then it'll be too late, because she'll be on that bench (or higher) for life. What will we have gained through this "compromise" then?

Monday, May 23, 2005

Out of it

I'm sorry I've not posted in awhile; I tore a muscle in my neck and I have been struggling to stay on an even keel for work. The pain is nearly constant, regardless of how I move (or don't move) my head and neck. I'm not here to complain, but I thought I'd let you all know why I disappeared for a week. I've been listening to the Senate debates over the last week or so as well, and my first impression is that Rick Santorum is a rabid dog and needs to be put down. His self-righteous anger is palpable and polarizing beyond all common decency for such an august body as the Senate.
The Senate was designed originally to be a more patrician, thoughtful, almost elitist chamber of debate and compromise. Senators are in office for 3 times as long as House members, theoretically so that they can vote their consciences more often and spend more time researching and thinking about issues. This status, however, has eroded to where the Senate is no more elite or thoughtful than the House. While Senators only run for office every 6 years, apparently they also need more money to do so, meaning that their campaigns are just as constant as those of Congresspeople, and their voting is (potentially) just as compromised by donor money.
One would like to think that even so, those skilled/fortunate enough to be elected to the Senate would be more inclined to think and vote as individuals rather than party hacks or automatons, if only out of respect for the country they all profess to love so much. One would be wrong, however, about the current members on the Republican side "of the aisle". The most persuasive argument I've seen for this lack of independence was the statistic Sen. Schumer of New York has shown on a number of occasions. The Republicans have voted 2703-1 in favor of Smirky's judicial nominations. That is ridiculously clear evidence of the mindlessness of Senate Republicans; it is impossible to believe that these people have given any thought at all to those votes, and that is shameful indeed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

HR hits an HR

Harry Reid's speech on the Senate floor yesterday, found here (May 16, S5197, beginning on page 2), was filled with righteous truths and incredibly well-written phrases. While no one would argue that Reid is not playing politics, I also hope no one will argue that it's about time that somebody for the Democrats began doing just that in opposition to the 11 years of politics that the right wing has been subjecting the American public to. Reid stressed the truly revolutionary aspects of the Republican "nuclear option", making it quite clear that getting rid of any impediments to the current Administration's power to appoint lifetime judges lays behind this move. And not just any judges, since Reid has persisted in approaching Majority Leader Frist with futile compromises allowing for "up-or-down votes" on some of the less obnoxious nominees--it's clear that Frist is simply the hatchet man for Smirky and company's desires to pack the entire judicial system with far right-wing nutcases.
Reid also points out the lies that Smirky and the boys have been spreading about their behavior in this matter, stating that although "[s]everal weeks ago the President assured me that he would play no role in this debate[,] [s]hortly after that, Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove was quoted as discouraging any middle ground. Then Vice President Cheney gave a speech in which he encouraged the nuclear option. On Friday the Washington Times said that White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan 'flatly rejected any talk of a compromise that would confirm only some of the president's seven blocked nominees.'" Rarely has anyone in the media noted these kinds of slick inconsistencies (to put it extraordinarily mildly!); it's gratifying to see someone in office finally do so.
Reid noted the fact that 95% of Smirky's nominees have been approved, giving the lie to the oft-stated Republican complaint that Democrats are being in any conceivable way "obstructionist", and also stressed that the Dems weren't doing anything new or against the rules. "As the Majority Leader admitted during his debate with Senator Byrd last week, there is no constitutional right to an up-down vote on judicial nominees. If there were, more than 60 of President Clinton's nominees had their rights violated. In fact, the Senate has rejected hundreds of judicial nominations over the years, some by up-down votes, some by filibuster, and some by simple inaction. In each case, the Senate was acting within its authority under the Advice and Consent Clause of the Constitution." Yeehah! Someone is getting all the points down on paper correctly!
Reid couched his speech not in anger, though, which could have made him seem shrill, but rather in terms of patriotic fervor, showing his political skills off to good effect. The Democrats aren't seeking to overthrow the government, but instead are simply trying to maintain the time-honored and Constitution-blessed system of checks and balances, hoping that there are enough "responsible Republicans" out there who wish to do the right thing as well. Reid concluded by making the claim that "[t]he eyes of the Nation are upon the Senate. There have been few moments of truth like this one. The American people will see whether the Senate passes this historic test." Here's hoping that the press and the public are indeed paying attention . . .

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The beyotch goes on

Condoleezza Rice is visiting Iraq, in an surprise attempt to shore up the shaky foundations of the Iraqi government. She is counseling patience to the Iraqis, while urging the heads of state to continue building the "momentum" of the political process by writing a Constitution by August. All of this is incredibly ironic, given the Bush Cabinet's total lack of either patience or regard for our own Constitution since their assumption of office in November 2000. Rice also continued the horrendously inaccurate spin on our motivations for attacking Iraq, telling our own troops and diplomats that "[t]his war came to us, not the other way around." I would have thought that given the increasing lack of domestic support for our military presence in Iraq, Smirky and his goons would have begun coming up with another new story to tell us about why it has been a good thing for us to make war on the world.
Could it be that Master Puppeteers Cheney, Rumsfeld, and all the other psychopaths from PNAC have run out of ideas? Or are they simply "waiting" for a second "9/11" (or would that be a "third Pearl Harbor"?) to engineer a new wave of public paranoiac "patriotism"? I'm surprised they haven't begun to sound the alarms about Iran's seeming intransigence in refraining from pursuing nuclear energy. Could it be also that Rove and his pony pal Smirky too are realizing the public might not be the ignorant fools we've been played for over the last 3 3/4 years? It took us a while, guys, but maybe, just maybe, most Americans are coming to realize that having the entire world hate us is not such a good thing. Enlistments in the armed forces are waaaay down, recruiters are being "retrained" so as to not act like thugs, and journalists and even some Republican Congresspeople, columnists, and conservative groups are beginning to wake up to the fact that the far right wing is trying to destroy our government from within.
Keep talking Condoleezza; somebody might still believe you out there . . .

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Democratic "Party"?

Eric Alterman's column, usually dedicated to excoriating the media's inability to do its job, covered a different agenda on 5/10. Alterman asked his readers/writers to put together some definitions on what (presumably American) "liberals" actually believe in. This is quite naturally a response to the perceived drift of the Democratic party away from any rich ideological moorings as they have been hammered in election after election over the last quarter century by the politically astute arch-ideological Republicans. The Democrats have begun to fall into the trap that the Whig Party never escaped in the early-mid 19th century: playing the part of the abused minority party reacting to the harsh dictates of its stronger and better organized foe, in their case. The Whigs never found a unified voice of principles or ideas, which made them less able to withstand the natural political doldrums between campaigns that most of the electorate feels; the Whigs existed mainly as a party during campaign seasons, latching onto whatever promising candidate would have them, regardless of what he believed. (While this is somewhat of an exaggeration, any party that could have contained the likes of Henry Clay [probably the most ideologically pure Whig, Clay stood most of his life for a strong federal government that would promote internal improvements and unity], John Tyler [a nakedly opportunistic schemer who attempted to destroy the party once he gained the Presidency, and returned shortly to the Democratic Party whence he came], and Zachary Taylor [who, while an honest and fairly skilled politician, made no bones about being a man "above party"] can scarcely be seen as having a strong identity.)
While the current Democratic Party has its share of characters, I think Alterman is correct in asserting its lack of a unifying vision. Much like the Whigs back then, the Democrats since the days of LBJ are successful on the national level only in the face of a severe opposition meltdown. Watergate, the most egregious and public political scandal between the 1920s and 2000, "destroyed" the Republicans for all of 4 years. Smirky's dad's total and wildly ignorant inability to recognize how out-of-touch he was with anyone not in government (ours or the Saudis) or making a zillion bucks a year as the economy tanked gave rise to Clinton's initial win. Clinton was the most successful centrist of our times, who, although nominally a Democrat, could hardly be seen as someone with a liberal vision. While Gingrich and his allies in Congress had yet to alienate the populace by 1996, Bob Dole was hardly an inspiring candidate to go up against a youthful, energetic, and a so far Monica-free incumbent. If a Democrat wins in 2008, that pattern will definitely have continued, given Smirky and the gang's dramatic and deadly incompetence and arrogant, elitist disdain for anything resembling the truth or concern for the well being of our country.
The Whig Party finally dissolved when the unifying policy of slavery expansion became the overriding issue of the day after 1854. Essentially, those people in favor of expansion remained in (or returned to) the Democratic Party, while those against combined to form the Republican Party. Will something similar happen now to reconstruct our party alignments? Until Smirky's ascendancy, both parties since Watergate have tried to publicly position themselves in the "middle" against extremists on both sides, although Reagan and Bush showed their true right-wing colors once in office. Clinton (and to a much lesser extent, Carter) showed that a Democrat can accomplish that task and be a successful candidate for President; no Republican has honestly succeeded similarly--although if Nixon's beliefs and policies could be divorced from his loathsome character, most people would be able to see that he had been fairly centrist as well. (I think that if Nixon were to run today on his platform, he would be ridiculed and probably punished by the current Republican party heads as being too "liberal"!) Is capturing the center really what the Democrats hope to achieve? Almost by definition, the center of the political spectrum is an ideological desert--a chaotic wasteland of constantly shifting pluralities and temporary attitudes. Who would have thought, just 30 years ago, that evangelical Christians would become the dominant political force driving our current Republican party farther and farther to the right, when those same people had been relatively politically inert, "residing" much closer to the center for decades? How can anyone know what issues will radicalize those of the center in the future, causing new disruptions to the body politic? Inhabiting the center is a pipe dream for any political party. It's time for the Democrats to revisit the land of FDR and LBJ, update their voter lists, reclaim the good name of "liberalism", and come to a quick definition of what it means to want social and economic justice in our society and the world. The time is ripe, people . . .

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Insurance? Yikes!

A co-worker and I were looking over the new plans our employee association is being offered by the City, and beyond the bewildering array of "options", the salient fact is that neither of us felt assured that we were actually being taken care of. My plan is nearly doubling in cost, and while I feel lucky enough to have coverage at all, I know for a fact that serious scamming is occurring all over this system. Last year I decided to take advantage of my supposedly "good" plan, and underwent a battery of tests to discover if there was anything severe going on with my body. At no point did I feel comfortable with any of the people that were administering these exams--the most interested doctor I saw was clearly a student, because her diagnoses and suggestions were all overridden by a senior physician who examined me for all of 5 seconds. No one figured out what was going on, though, even after a CT scan and a very painful and invasive exam.
What I found most intriguing, though, was the billing and payment process. The amounts presented to the patient are far different--staggeringly so--from what are given to the insurance company, and no one seems to care. It's nice that I didn't have to pay the exorbitant fees listed, but that they are bilking the insurance company is clearly symptomatic of what's so wrong with our health care system. The doctors love it because they get paid whatever they want. The insurance companies love it, because they get to complain about how outrageous the costs are, all the while raising premiums and copays and deductibles through the roof to cover them anyway. No insurance company is going out of business in this field; have you ever heard of one that has? The cost of health care in this country is psychotically out of control, and that's because no one benefits from lowering costs. No one that matters, that is. The agency that is responsible for making sure this "market" is regulated, our federal government, has been hamstrung by Republicans into impotence since 1994, as all of the hogs get to feed from the public trough. Mergers and acquisitions have made a mockery of what used to be capitalism in this country, due solely to the relaxation and elimination of regulatory guidelines pressed by Republicans since 1980. We are now faced with little real choice for services (internet, especially broadband, connectivity) and goods (as Wal-Mart is systematically destroying the retail world); no options at all in some cases (think local cable, for example). The only beneficiaries from deregulation were the businesses themselves. Why am I so unsurprised that Republicans run most of them . . . ?

Friday, May 06, 2005

Book review--Cronies

Robert Bryce's Cronies is a sickening and sordid tale of the decline of honest government free of corruption. Bryce focuses on how energy companies' money and desires have taken over our national vision, while its executives have become our leading politicians. The crux of the matter is that these companies and their leaders did not gain their money, positions, and power by hard work, necessarily, but rather because they had great connections.
The story begins in the early years of the 20th century when oil was first discovered in Texas, as first the state government and then Texan representatives in Congress passed laws overly favorable to the oil bidness. The key piece of legislation was the "depletion allowance", which reduced the taxes oil businesses paid immensely, allowing companies to make tons of cash quickly. Big oilmen would then use part of this cash to procure support among national political leaders to continue legislating on their behalf. This vicious cycle of good 'ol boy corruption and influence peddling created an atmosphere of exclusion and cronyism among the "Big Rich" as Bryce puts it, including, most importantly of course, the Bushes, who have repaid their political debts with an unholy largesse. The central figure is James A. Baker III, who functions as a Mephistophelian guru--whenever the Bushes need something, they turn to Baker, who has always come through for them. Since most of the key players in this disgusting story are either lawyers (with their accompanying legal claims of privilege) or high government officials (who are able to utilize the power of the Presidency or Congress to claim "national security" or "executive privilege" exemptions to hide their actions), the true extent of this corruption may never be known.
What we do see is frightening enough, of course, and is a familiar tale to those of us who keep score. Halliburton, all of Big Oil, Baker Botts, and the team of Bush, Rove, Cheney, and a host of less popularly cited names like Clements and Hunt form a crow's nest of interconnectedness as they cackle over the dying carcass of the American political system. Even though this cronyism has its roots in the Democratic regimes of Rayburn and LBJ, Bryce points out that both of those Texans used their power for good as well, passing some of the most socially progressive legislation of the 20th century. This stands in distinct opposition to what the Republicans are doing, which is entirely selfish; the Bushes et al are only concerned with themselves and their cronies, and use their power without regard to any larger vision of social justice or fairness.
In business, earning money is the core value, and any steps to that end are considered "fair". The severe problem is that what they consider "fair" is only sometimes consonant with what is "legal", and rarely in line with what is "right". The role of our government since the late 19th century has been to rein in business practices to follow some legal definition of ethics. When businessmen control the government, however, and deliberately choose to blur the lines between the two, our entire record as a country dedicated to real fairness and opportunity is jeopardized. Killing people is not "fair", and it most certainly is not "right", and that is what these men have become proficient at lately, all in the name of keeping their pockets lines--even though they are already so rich they couldn't begin to spend it all anyway. Government should not be run like a business; it is not a profit-driven enterprise, but instead is supposed to be our bulwark against the profit motive in favor of more enlightened pursuits. That we are being ruled over by these black souls is a nightmare from which we'll be lucky to awaken.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Boss

The Beautiful One and I got to see Bruce Springsteen last night, and lemme tellya, he's as intense a solo performer as he is with the E Street Band. The setlist was pretty unique--see here for the complete lists for the tour--Springsteen unveiled 6 "tour debut" songs, opening not with "Reason to Believe" for the first time as well. His thoroughly deconstructed versions of the two "Nebraska" songs ("Reason" and "Johnny 99") are sung with near-unintelligibilty through a mic not made for vocals, making them sound like nothing other than severely scratched old 78s from somebody's Appalachian attic, "Johnny" especially coming across as a wild blues song that way. Given the setlists so far, this would have easily been the one I would have wanted to see. My own personal highlights were "The River", "Racing in the Street", "All the Way Home", and "Tougher Than the Rest", all done on piano except for "All the Way"; all but "Racing" debuts, luckily. "All the Way Home" was marked by some terrific rhythm playing, as Springsteen seemingly discovered how to distill an entire band's worth of sonic energy into one guitar.
The Beautiful One was inspired by some of the newer songs as well. "Reno", "Jesus Was An Only Son", and "Matamoros Banks" all benefit from live presentation, as do the cuts from "The Rising". His Christian upbringing is infrequently covered in his writing, but he found a way to introduce the topic of Jesus Christ that can be appreciated by anyone. "Jesus Was An Only Son" looks at the story (in a timely manner) of his crucifixion from the standpoint of his relationship with his mother. "Long Time Comin'" was an instant fave for The Beautiful One.
Bruce's singing was phenomenal, as he unleashed some of the most beautiful falsetto wails from "The River" on through the rest of the set. The raw emotionality of these performances makes one wonder how on earth he does it night after night, year after year. This man has a passion unquenched by either personal upheaval or triumphs, which is a rarity in the music biz, imho, and the standards he sets by his live act are tough to beat. Each time I see him, I am left pleasantly drained, uplifted, and anxious to see him again, because there is no way he can keep this up forever, is there? An amazing show!
As The Beautiful One pointed out, Springsteen has the kind of patriotism we should all have. His support for the forgotten and forlorn, especially in times of national crisis, informs both his songwriting and his between-song chatter, making him a true heir to the populism of Guthrie and Seeger. Like Dylan before and beside him, though, the man has to rock as well, even if it's just solo, and the music world is all the greater because of it . . .

Monday, May 02, 2005

Book review--Out of Gas

David Goodstein's Out of Gas is a quick-and-dirty (ha ha) explanation of the science behind our country's (and the world's) energy consumption practices. In it, Goodstein describes how energy is converted to fuel, and how we then use fuel to do work (as a physicist would define that term). Goodstein's book is aimed at the lay public, and he does a reasonably good job in showing the historical background to our coming energy crisis, in addition to analyzing the possible outcomes of ignoring that crisis. He reviews the various potential untapped (or underutilized) sources of power for the world, but unfortunately, Goodstein is less clear about what courses of action might be best for the US and the world. Blithely continuing to consume as much oil as we currently do is obviously not recommended, but neither returning to a coal-based energy policy nor expanding/restarting a nuclear one seem to hold much promise either. The problem, as Goodstein sees it, is the entire concept of using nonrenewable resources at all, because eventually, we will use them all up.
Goodstein is very much a proponent of solar energy (the one resource that, for all intents and purposes, is unlimited), but unfortunately, his analysis only touches briefly on practical ways we can actually harness the sun's rays. This drawback, though, is more than counterbalanced by what is in Out of Gas, and it would be unfair to criticize Goodstein for not having come up with a workable solution to a problem that has been bedeviling physicists for decades in a book not designed as such.
This is a great book to have on the shelf of any person's home who is unclear on why relying on anything other than renewable energy is foolish, and its brevity (the book is only 123 pages long!) and clarity make it a short-term investment in learning the ins and outs of the physical aspects of energy use.