Monday, July 31, 2006

Clear Thinking

From Dan Savage, "Same Sex Marriage Wins By Losing:"

Both courts [in New York and Washington state] have found that my son’s parents have no right to marry, but what of my son’s right to have married parents?

A Fateful Symmetry?

Paul Krugman suggests that Israel's assault on Hezbollah and the American war in Iraq share the error of having failed to commit enough forces to achieve the result intended--with the consequence that many people have been killed and maimed for, at best, limited gains. (Or, in the case of Iraq, almost certain strategic defeat.)

As usual, Krugman is provocative, but it seems to me that there is an essential difference between the American and Israeli errors. The US never conceived of a viable insurgency, even as it failed to take the steps necessary to prevent one, and also neglected to foresee the civil war that now wracks Iraq. Israel, on the other hand, recognized the threat it faced (a real threat), but appears not to have recognized how deeply dug in Hezbollah forces were. History may judge the Israeli mistake to be as grave as the American, but the situation may yet be retrieved. Given the calls for a cease-fire from Syria--one of Hezbollah's chief sponsors--and from some elements of Hezbollah itself, the movement may have been hurt more badly than appears from the outside. Assuming, as seems likely, that the Israelis have cut off re-supply of missiles, Hezbollah has shot off a large part of its arsenal, and more has been destroyed by the Israelis. Israel also appears to have knocked out a number of launchers for Hezbollah's long-range missiles--items likely to be in short supply. And we do not know how many Hezbollah militants have been killed and wounded.

Remember, too, that the complex system of fortifications that Israel found in southern Lebanon shows that attacking Hezbollah before it could become even more entrenched was probably the right decision, even if more force should have been used. The world will pay no mind to that, of course, as it calls for a cease-fire--nor is the international community likely to have the backbone to demand a stand-still that does not allow the terrorists to rebuild their forces and their stocks of arms and ammunition.

I've Been Wondering.... the Republicans really think that the American people are dumb enough to accept the idea that the GOP is only willing to support raising the minimum wage if it also involves a tax break for multi-millionaires?

This is an issue the Democrats should really go to town on. Forget that stuff about "the death tax" (what better time to be taxed than when you're dead?). Just ignore. Simply point out, over and over and over, that Republicans would only support increasing the minimum wage in order to give millionaires a tax cut. That says it all.

Plan B

No, not for Iraq, though G_d knows we need one.

AP reports that the FDA is considering whether to allow over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill, known as Plan B. (Is this just a trial balloon to raise the hopes of pro-choice forces, but one that will be allowed to float without any follow-up?)

Think this has anything to do with the November elections?

Sunday, July 30, 2006

What is a Life Worth?

The Talmud says that he who saves one life saves the world; as far as I know, there is no comparable wisdom about the cost of a life.

Any life is priceless--at least to its possessor and those who value him or her. And yet, society values lives every day--whether an insurer assessing the likely cost of a claim or a political leader deciding how many people he or she is willing to lose in battle, or how many he or she is willing to kill.

Which leads me--cynic that I am--to wonder how many Darfurian or Congolese lives are worth one Lebanese. Without diminishing the tragedy of civilians killed in Lebanon, the numbers are minute compared with the corpses of those who have died of war, torture, rape, starvation and disease in the two most prominent African conflicts.

They cynic in me also observes that the world pays a lot more attention to Muslim lives taken by Jews than to those lost to fellow Muslims--as in Darfur--or to the depredations of those whose religion is secondary to their rapacious ambition, as in the Congo.

Having said that, I also realize that there is no answer to my original question--and that some of the reasons why the war in Lebanon (and as Jew I am happy that I do not have to write, "the war in Israel") has received so much more attention than the greater conflicts in Africa have nothing to do with religion. It's a lot easier to cover the Lebanese conflict, for one thing. And the Arab propaganda apparatus--fueled by oil wealth but having nothing necessarily to do with a particular faith--has been effectively keeping the world's attention.

Would the world pay as much attention if hundreds of Jews had been killed in Hezbollah and Hamas rocket attacks? Let's hope we don't have to find out.

Friday, July 28, 2006

A Dope?

I've been wondering. Did Floyd Landis really use banned drugs during the Tour de France? A sample tested after his amazing 17th-stage performance came up positive for testosterone, which is a banned steroid. Faith in science would tell us that that is strong evidence that the American was, indeed, employing forbidden compounds to help him win.

And yet....

Remember that many of the world's top riders were banned from the Tour on the eve of its start, because of a doping scandal. Remember that special pressure was on to make this tour clean. Remember that riders who win each stage, and the each day's Tour leader, are subject to drug tests. Remember that testosterone is an old drug--not one of the cutting-edge substances or techniques (like "altitude tents," which lower the air pressure so that the athlete's body becomes more efficient at using oxygen); it is hardly probable that a drug test would miss it in a rider's system. Now Floyd Landis may not be a brain-trust, but is he (or are his team mangers) dumb enough to use such a substance? Especially when he had dropped to 11th place and seemed to be out of the running for the overall title?

This reminds me of the that the authorities in LA charged the great lawyer Clarence Darrow with jury-tampering. Darrow hired a well-known (and well-pickled) Los Angeles criminal lawyer named Earl Rogers to defend him, but as the trial went on Darrow took on more and more of the defense. He wound up giving the closing argument, during which he reviewed the state's case. The prosecution alleged that Darrow had stood on a street corner while his chief investigator passed a bribe to a juror, in broad daylight and in full view of several police and district attorney's investigators well known to both Darrow and his investigator. Darrow went over that with the jury and concluded, "Ladies and gentlemen, if you think I did that, then you should convict me. I certainly belong in some state institution!"

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Sign on the Line

There's been a lot of comment about presidential signing statements recently, including this post. I've been giving the matter some more thought.

The idea behind such statements is to create an executive counterpart to legislative history, the reports of congressional committees and statements by senators and congressman at hearings or on the floor that are sometimes used by judges to interpret the meaning of laws. In law school, I had a couple of truly eminent professors (one of them a giant in law teaching; his younger colleague later Dean of Harvard Law School) who thought that legislative history was, to use a technical term, hooey. There are 535 members of Congress, they said. How can the statement of one or a few of them really express what is in the minds of the whole body? Good point.

Be that as it may, however, the concept of deciphering legislative intent has some intellectual basis, because it is Congress that writes the laws. The President's interpretation of the law, as expressed in a signing statement, has not comparable intellectual weight. The President's responsibility is to sign the law or veto it; his role in debating meaning is fulfilled in a veto message, if any.

To a great extent, the president's signing statement is a guide to how his administration will interpret the law--which as the executive branch, it is entitled to do. There are, really, limited circumstances in which an administration is required to do something. The President cannot raise revenue--that's on of the bases of the separation of powers--but it's hard for Congress to force him to spend it. (About the only way to do that is to tell the President that he cannot spend money for something he dearly wants unless he spends the money for whatever it is that he's resisting.) Congress may make some act a crime, but the administration can decide to give prosecution a priority so low that for all practical purposes the offense will not exist.

There are, it seems to me, two great objections to signing statements. One is the possible use of them by future administrations or by courts in interpreting statutes. Now it is true that a court or government official may take the considered opinion of anyone into consideration--law review articles are a common example--in deciding what a particular provision means. But it is clear that proponents of signing statements mean to exalt them by attaching the prestige (low though it is these days) of the presidency to them. I do not believe this to be a matter of much significance, because I doubt that such statements will change minds--judges or later presidents are much more likely to quote signing statements as justification for doing what they are going to do anyway.

A much greater difficulty arises when the President expresses his intent to do something that Congress has forbidden. The example most often heard today is Bush's statement that the statute outlawing the use of torture on detainees will not limit his authority as commander in chief. If the President is saying that he considers himself free to go on abusing people in custody, there is a real problem. Still, the greater objection will arise when and if the government actually does torture a detainee.

In the end, I suspect, presidential signing statements will be seen as meaningless or, worse, dumb, in exposing the President's intent to do wrong to public view even before he does it.
They are likely to fade into history. (When they occasion some great constitutional crisis, one of you out there will be sure to remind me.)

Refreshing Clarity

The cause of same-sex marriage has suffered several blows in court recently, including this week's decision by the Supreme Court of the state of Washington. So it's refreshing to see a judge who can cut through the fog:

"Indeed, the true nature and extent of the discrimination suffered by gays and lesbians is perhaps best illustrated by the simple truth that each one of the plaintiffs could lawfully enter into a marriage of convenience with a complete stranger of the opposite sex tomorrow, and thereby immediately gain all of the myriad benefits an protections incident to marriage. Plaintiffs are, however, denied those rights because they each desire instead to marry the person they love and with whom they have created their family."

Judith Kaye
Chief Judge
New York Court of Appeals
Hernandez v. Robles
(Dissenting opinion)

'nuff said

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Minimum Wage and Immigration "Reform"

Michael Dukakis and Daniel J.B. Mitchell wrote in The New York Times that raising the minimum wage would make many of the jobs now held by undocumented aliens more attractive to Americans, reducing the demand for illegal immigration. They also explain clearly the problems--including intrusions on civil liberties and huge costs--with current proposals for immigration deform.

(Reading Mike Dukakis' reasoning, I realize what a different place the world would be if he had been elected President in 1998.)

Proponents of immigration "reform" try to focus attention on the difference between those who come here legally--who "play by the rules" and those who don't. Fair enough. But that argument ignores the way we've allowed our immigration policy to be handled with a wink and a nod, turning a blind eye and allowing millions of undocumented aliens in to fill American jobs. Dukakis and Mitchell propose to work on the supply side of that equation--by attracting more Americans--but they do not really discuss how to keep employers from cheating and abusing workers, especially illegal immigrants. That will be a huge undertaking. Nor do they--or anyone else that I've seen--discuss the real solution to our immigration woes: raising income levels in other nations and so reducing the desire to emigrate.

Worse Than You Thought

Peter W. Galbraith has a piece in The New York Times that makes it clear the situation in Iraq is even worse than you thought. Galbraith--a former ambassador to Croatia--suggests that we should slowly pull our forces back to bases in Kurdistan--the only part of Iraq that is staunchly pro-American, and also the only region that is more or less peaceful and free of sectarian violence. The basis for this reasoning is that we can do nothing material to keep the warring forces in the rest of the country from each others' throats, nor can we impose the kind of national unity (breaking the grip of Shi'ite militias in the south, for instance) that was a keystone of American policy. Galbraith suggests that basing our forces in Kurdistan would have a number of advantages, including placing them close enough to the rest of the Iraq so that they could move in should Sunnite-based allies of al-Qaeda assume an upper hand in part of the country, and helping to defuse tensions that are rising between the Kurds and our ally, Turkey. The troops would also offer a counterweight to Iran.

It's an interesting idea. For one thing, it would keep Americans in the politically-sensitive area, relieving us--at least in part--from the stain of bugging out when the going got tough (see "Whose War Is It, Anyway?"). I realize that many people think that we should simply bring all the troops out of Iraq as soon as possible, but given Iranian militancy and the general instability of the region, a continued, perhaps prolonged, presence may be necessary.

On the other hand, there are distinct problems with Galbraith's proposal, one of which would be the relative isolation of Kurdistan. It was one thing to supply a few special forces troops there, another to provide food, fuel, munitions and all the other necessities for what would have to be at least several divisions through the use of aircraft or trucks proceeding through a southern and central Iraq without even the security that American forces now provide.

Still, it's an idea for a way out, and we certainly need both--ideas and a way out.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

About That Growing Economy

Every quarter, it seems, we see new figures on just how well the economy is doing. I don't know about you, but I don't see many signs of it. Oh, sure there are fancy buildings going up and expensive cars on the street and fancy boats in harbors, but I don't have one and I don't know many people who do.

We have heard the explanation for this over and over--the economy is good for the top tier, and not so good for the rest of us. Now there's more confirmation of this, and the evidence shows that the stratification is getting worse, not better. Specifically, for the first time in 30 years, wage stagnation is afflicting people with bachelor's degrees. In real terms, wages for people with college degrees fell 5.4% during the first Bush administration--and those figures come from the White House.

The picture under the Republican administration contrasts with what happened in the Clinton years, 1995-2000, when inflation-adjusted earnings for the same workers grew by 12%.

Can the economy keep advancing when so many Americans are seeing their real incomes decline? Sure it can. And I've got a piece of a bridge I'd like to sell you.

Monday, July 24, 2006

A Government of Laws

The Boston Globe reports that the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is being filled with lawyers who have no experience in civil rights, but strong conservative credentials.

This is not just another subtle power grab by the people in power; it represents a basic volte face in the way the Division is staffed. As The Globe's Charlie Savage (who has become one of the best political reporters in America) put it:

"[O]nly 42 percent of the lawyers hired since 2003, after the administration changed the rules to give political appointees more influence in the hiring process, have civil rights experience. In the two years before the change, 77 percent of those who were hired had civil rights backgrounds. In an acknowledgment of the department's special need to be politically neutral, hiring for career jobs in the Civil Rights Division under all recent administrations, Democratic and Republican, had been handled by civil servants not political appointees.

"But in the fall of 2002, then-attorney general John Ashcroft changed the procedures. The Civil Rights Division disbanded the hiring committees made up of veteran career lawyers."

Instead of using professionals to hire for this most politically-sensitive branch of the Justice Department, the Bush administration has turned to political appointees--meaning that the line jobs in the Division are also, in effect, political appointments. Worse, these political hirees are given civil service protection, so that it will be almost impossible for an administration that is actually devoted to civil rights to remove them.

This hiring pattern has led to--or, at least, been part of--a change in the way civil rights are defined by the Justice Departments. Savage reports, "At the same time, the kinds of cases the Civil Rights Division is bringing have undergone a shift. The division is bringing fewer voting rights and employment cases involving systematic discrimination against African-Americans, and more alleging reverse discrimination against whites and religious discrimination against Christians."

Now, anyone who thinks the primary victims of discrimination in this country are whites and Christians has a highly warped view of society.

And W wonders why Black American's aren't flocking to the GOP.

Meanwhile, a prestigious committee of the ABA has castigated Bush for "flouting the Constitution and undermining the rule of law by claiming the power to disregard selected provisions of bills that he signed." The specific subject of the Committee's report is presidential "signing statements," the attempt by the executive (in fairness, not originated by Bush, but used by him more than all his predecessors combined) to interpret the laws that the President signs. The bar association committee likened these statements, as used by the present administration, to a line-item veto--a concept much beloved by certain Republicans, but declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The ABA committee is not some left-wing conclave. Its members include Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman, Bruce Fein, who was a Justice Department official under Ronald Reagan, and William S. Sessions, former federal judge and Director of the FBI.

And to think that Republicans used to present themselves as the party of law and order. Of course, that was before Watergate.

In an update on this story, Sen. Arlen Specter said he will introduce a bill that would permit Congress to sue the President, with the object of having signing statements declared unconstitutional. Given Specter's long record of spinelessness (if the junior senator from the Keystone State is Senator Sanctimonious, the senior is Sen. Spineless), I hold out little hope for this; most likely, the Republicans have already determined to shoot the measure down, or block it in the House. But, believing in the endless possibility of redemption happening, I must summon optimism that the sweet light of reason has shone upon Sen. Specter, and this time he really means it.

A Painful Admission

In the late 1970's and 80's I was friendly with a young woman who was always what today we would call politically correct. Except that she would say, from time to time, that we had to be ready for the next time "they" came for us--for the Jews. I was more politically mature than Sara--after all, I had a degree in politics from a first-rate university--and I would tell her that those days were past; the Holocaust had cured the world of such feelings.

I'm here to say that I was wrong. Without suggesting that the threat is anything like what it was in the 1930's and '40's, it is nonetheless clear that the kind of anti-Semitism that kills Jews--sometimes, large numbers of Jews--is no longer confined to a few fringe elements. There are people out there who want to kill Jews BECAUSE they are Jews, and those people have machine guns and rockets. They are backed by a nation--Iran--whose President denies that the Holocaust happened and has called repeatedly for the extermination of Israel.

And what will the world do? Apart from the United States, I suspect that the answer is, very little. Being old enough to remember when this country was neutral in the struggle between Israel and its Arab neighbors, I do not have a great deal of difficulty in seeing how events could develop to the point where the United States, too, could stand by while Israel fights for her life.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Indirect Means

The IRS has announced that it is cutting the staff of auditors who examine gift and estate tax returns by almost half. A deputy commissioner of the IRS " dismissed as preposterous any suggestion that the I.R.S. was soft on rich tax cheats. He said that the money saved by eliminating the estate tax lawyers would be used to hire revenue agents to audit income tax returns, especially those from people making over $1 million. " However, Sharyn Phillips, an agent in Manhattan who stands to lose her job, called the cuts a “back-door way for the Bush administration to achieve what it cannot get from Congress, which is repeal of the estate tax.”

Sounds right to me.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Bush's "Policy" on the War in Lebanon

A good analysis by Josh Marshal at


"Russian opposition threatens unity on Iran"

--Headline of an AP story on Yahoo.

I don't know why, but I have a vision of unruly members of the opposition in the Russian parliament (do they still call it the Duma?) threatening to agree with the government's policy on Iran unless their demands are met. I guess it's my warped sense of humor.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Whose War is it, Anyway?

Writing in today's New York Times, Ted Koppel quotes an unnamed senior Jordanian intelligence official as saying that, "The United States is already at war with Iran; but for the time being the battle is being fought through surrogates," mainly Israel and Hezbollah.

Koppel imparts a number of intelligent comments and I recommend that you read the entire article, but what struck me most forcefully was this: "According to the Jordanian intelligence officer, Iran is reminding America’s traditional allies in the region that the United States has a track record of leaving its friends in the lurch — in Vietnam in the 70’s, in Lebanon in the 80’s, in Somalia in the 90’s." The Jordanian went on to suggest that the belief that we will do the same in Iraq has already led people in the region to start appeasing the Iranians.

For those of us who believe that the United States should never have got into Iraq, and that there is no way in which we can prevail there--indeed, no way to know what prevailing would be--this is a sobering observation. While we might scorn the line of reasoning that we must give more of our blood and treasure to vindicate the sacrifices already made (which has become the President's primary justification for continuing our involvement), it is another thing to consider the moral effect of leaving Iraq on a region that we have destabilized so severely by our misbegotten adventure.

On PBS' Washington Week in Review, Gwen Ifill asked ABC's Martha Raddatz if we have been fighting the wrong war. Raddatz demurred, saying "that's water over the dam." But clearly, the answer to the question is yes, we have. It was apparent in 2003 that Saddam Hussein was no threat (even if you believed--as I did at the time--that he had some "weapons of mass destruction"). It was clear then that the Iranian mullahs did pose a real danger, as they were already pursuing their nuclear ambitions and actively sponsoring terrorism against American interests and our ally, Israel. And while it was not so clear that a post-Saddam would be dominated by Shiites as it seems today, or that the Shiites would be as close to Iran as they now seem to be (Iraqi Shiites had long looked down on Iranians as some kind of country bumpkins), the possibility of such developments was foreseeable, and should have been chilling.

Still, we cannot reverse history; we are stuck with post-war Iraq, and with an Iran that has grown steadily more hostile to American interests. Worse, we have reduced our options and our leverage for dealing with the Iranians. And, as it happens, this comes at a time--also foreseeable--when the value of Iran's oil gives it more power than ever.

So, shall we stay in Iraq to prove that Americans don't always cut and run? Or will we be stronger in the long run by recognizing our folly and leaving that nation to its people? In the ultimate irony, our best friends in Iraq (apart from the Kurds)--the ones we would be seen to be leaving in the lurch by rapid withdrawal--are the Shiite allies of Iran.

None of the options are good.

This is how empires decline: they make a mistake here and a mistake there. They enter upon erroneous adventures and then abandon them. Soon enough, the psychological power of the empire diminishes, and with it real power as well.

In the short run, we see how disastrous Bush's foreign "policy" has been. In the longer run--in concert with the rest of our history since 1945--we may view the present as the prelude to disaster.


Israel has been criticized in some quarters (including a speech by Kofi Annan) for using too much force in Lebanon and Gaza. Without meaning to excuse Israeli acts that have seemed to me to be insensitive, misguided or callous, that criticism is wide of the mark.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni got it right when she said, "Proportionality is not compared to the event, but to the threat." (A letter in The New York Times made the point in a more sardonic fashion: "This bizarre calculus implies that if only more Israelis had been killed by Hezbollah rockets, there would be no moral quandary. ") The fact--not disputed by anyone--is that Hamas and Hezbollah have the destruction of Israel as their basic policy objective. It is also undisputed that both of those groups committed what international law defines as acts of war by firing rockets into Israel and by coming into the country to attack Israeli positions, kill Israeli troops and take prisoners.

True, neither Hamas nor Hezbollah are close to their goal of wiping Israel off the map, but should that lead the Israeli response--fully justified in international law--to be held back? When would Israel be justified in using the force it has been employing these past weeks? When hostile forces are at the outskirts of Beersheba, Haifa and Tel Aviv? Would any nation--even one much larger than Israel--tie its hands in that manner?

At the risk of boring you, I'll repeat what the Isaelis have said time after time (but which much of the world does not seem to be able to assimilate, although it is undisputed): Israel voluntarily withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000, to a border recognized by the UN. In 2005, Israel withdrew from Gaza, to a line recognized by the UN in the armistice of 1948. The UN called upon the Lebanese government (of which Hezbollah is a part) to disarm Hezbollah. Lebanonn has not done so. (It is probably unable to do so, but does that excuse the fact that a hostile army is in Lebanese territory, on Israel's border?) Israel has no territorial designs on Lebanon and has signified its acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state. Hamas and Hezbollah have resolutely refused to take reciprocal positions vis-a-vis Israel.

News reports give casualty figures showing that a lot more Lebanese (and Gazan) civilians have been killed than Israeli citizens. Any death is a tragedy and I would not suggest that Palestinian or Lebanese lives are worth less than Israeli lives. But Israel has spent a lot more to protect its citizens than Arab nations have. After the First Gulf War, Israel instructed its citizens to construct "safe rooms" in every house and apartment. To deal with more serious threats, underground shelters have been built all over the nation. Those shelters are a big reason why more Israeli citizens have not been killed.

It strikes me that the world has stood by while Hamas and Hezbollah act like children reaching into a cage to tease the bear inside. The first twenty or thirty times, the bear may ignore them, or merely brush the bothersome hands away. But having done nothing to stop the teasing, the adults should not be shocked when the bear chomps down and takes of an arm.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Smoking Gun?

Has the revelation that W himself suppressed the Justice Dept.'s probe of warrantless wiretapping changed anything? The story got less play than I would have expected--I thought it would make above-the-fold headlines and lead the nightly news, neither of which happened. However, The New York Times did lead today's editorial page with "Tap-Dancing as Fast as He Can," criticizing Alberto Gonzales shoddy performance before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and linking it to the bill now before Congress that, as the blogosphere has noted, is simply a capitulation to the White House. (The Times itself has originally called the bill a victory by Specter over Bush; its the blogs that have put the matter in perspective.)

Slate, today, has an article on that bill, but no link to Gonzales' revelation. None of the blogs I consult seems to see a link either.

Ok, I'll go it alone. Gonzales' testimony changes everything, or should. By admitting that Bush himself was directly involved in stifling the DOJ's investigation, the Attorney-General has knocked whatever props there were from any apologists for the way that the administration went about creating the spying program or the operation itself.

Remember, when Nixon was revealed to have taken part in covering-up the Watergate break-in, that was the smoking-gun that did him in. Without saying that the situation is the same today (it isn't), isn't this another smoking gun?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Truth Comes Out

You may recall that the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility undertook to investigate the administration's warrantless wiretap program. This led to widespread derision at the spectacle of the administration investigating itself, although the professionals in the OPR (who are highly regarded) were almost certainly determined to do a proper job. Their efforts came to a premature end, however, when the office announced that it could not carry out the probe, because its people had been denied the security clearances needed.

Well, guess who was behind that? None other than W himself. The Attorney-General, Alberto Gonzalez (who calls into question the value of a Harvard Law School education every time he appears in public) revealed as much to the Senate Judiciary Committee today. (Apparently, no one asked Gonzalez how come he didn't resign in outrage when this happened.)

Ironically, it was Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a man whose spine is almost as deficient as Gonzales', whose questioning brought out Bush's role in frustrating the Justice Department's probe. Now, as you probably know, last week Specter announced a cozy "compromise" that would have provided for a fraudulent "review" of the warrantless spying program by the FISA court. (The Washington Post's editorial board cut the proposal to ribbons.)

Will Specter now see the light and stand up to the President? Will he strike a blow for our system of checks and balances? Will he be a champion for the rule of law? Don't hold your breath waiting.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Tipping Point

No, not the one that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about so memorably. (So memorably, in fact, that I haven't had to read it.) I'm talking about the increasing frequency with which we are confronted with subtle, or not so subtle, requests for tips.

There used to be pretty clear rules about this kind of thing: If you sat in a restaurant, you tipped. If you stood at the counter for service, no tip was expected. In a bar, you tipped whether you sat or stood. Now, you don't know where you stand--or whether to tip.

Does every Starbucks have a tip dish? Maybe. But one Dunkin Donuts that I patronize has a large cup seeking tips "for exceptional service," while another has signs in front of the registers reading, "No tips, please."

Tips used to be a reward for your server (back in the days when servers were waitresses and waiters). Increasingly, however, tips are pooled, so if you leave 25% on the table for a terrific waitress/waiter, it will just get thrown in the pot. And if you leave a nickel for that person who couldn't have cared less if you were there, that gets thrown in, too. Really, the incentive is only to avoid getting a dirty look as you depart or, if it's a place that you go to frequently, to be remembered when you sit down. (Or stand at the counter.)

Being as burdened with change as most Americans, and never having seen a rich server, I generally throw some money in the pot. But I also know what I'm doing: while I am adding to the income of the people working in the restaurant, coffee place or whatever, I am also reducing pressure on the owner to raise wages. Economists would tell us that by expanding the number of workers who expect tips, we are "externalizing" the cost of doing business. We customers pay wages either through the price of the food or through tips, but we don't think of tips as a rise in prices. Where my lunch used to cost, say, $5.50 (OK, I'm cheap) at the soup-and-salad place across from my office, it's now $5.75 to $6.00, because I throw in change to the tip bowl. I view the tip as "voluntary," although it is less and less so as the trend toward tipping increases. The owner of the business has effectively given his employees a raise--at my expense--while maintaining the image of low prices.

Krugman Nails It

"March of Folly" in todays New York Times:

"'Peacekeeping requirements in Iraq might be much lower than historical experience in the Balkans suggests. There’s been none of the record in Iraq of ethnic militias fighting one another that produced so much bloodshed and permanent scars in Bosnia.' Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense and now president of the World Bank, Feb. 27, 2003

'West Baghdad is no stranger to bombings and killings, but in the past few days all restraint has vanished in an orgy of "ethnic cleansing." Shia gunmen are seeking to drive out the once-dominant Sunni minority and the Sunnis are forming neighborhood posses to retaliate. Mosques are being attacked. Scores of innocent civilians have been killed, their bodies left lying in the streets.' The Times of London, July 14, 2006


“'My fellow citizens, not only can we win the war in Iraq, we are winning the war in Iraq.' President Bush, Dec. 18, 2005

“'I think I would answer that by telling you I don’t think we’re losing.” Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, when asked whether we’re winning in Iraq, July 14, 2006"

And much more.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Trial of the Century

Valerie Plame, the CIA operative outed by Bob Novak on information fed to him from the White House, has filed a civil lawsuit against Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and a bunch of John Does said to have aided in the scheme.

Cheney and Rove will certainly move heaven and earth trying to get the case dismissed, but if it survives it should be a barnburner. Any trial lawyer worth the name would pay good money for the chance to depose Deadeye Dick and Rove. Presumably, the depositions will be on videotape so that the nation may enjoy them in the same way that Clinton's discomfort during the Paula Jones matter was displayed.

Mea Culpa

When Joe Lieberman (W's favorite Democrat) declared that he would collect signatures to run as an independent in case he lost his primary against Ned Lamont next month, I said that this was just another example that it's all about Joe: he'd rather give Republicans a seat in the Senate than accept the verdict of Connecticut Democrats.

Well, it appears I was wrong. Given what's come out about Republican candidate Alan Schlesinger, it looks like the Democrats have little to worry about, even if it turns out to be a 3-way race in November. Most notably, we now know that Schlesinger used an alias to gamble professionally and was banned from at least one casino. At the time that he was polishing his skills at Foxwoods Casino, he was a state legislator and admittedly voting on issues of interest to those who operate it.

Connecticut Republican Jodie Rell, who should be an ally of Schlesinger, has suggested that he should step aside, a course he angrily rebuffed. "What's your problem? Worry about your race and I'll worry about mine," Schlesinger told his fellow Republican.

This guy is beginning to look like a male Katherine Harris, the GOP candidate in Florida
The two are clearly in the running for Most Embarrassing Senatorial Candidate.

Could it be that we're returning to the good old days, when we could count on Republicans to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

In the Shadows

Early in the Nixon administration, John Mitchell (who later became the first Attorney-General to go to jail) made the all-too-revealing quip, "Watch what we do, not what we say." The comment bears remembering. Much of the evil that the Bush administration does is carried out beyond the spotlight, often in the form of government regulations and rulings from administrative agencies that have been packed with loyalists ready to carry the administration's water.

Case in point: Sometime in the near future, the National Labor Relations Board is expected to rule that thousands of registered nurses are working as managers and so are ineligible to be part of unions. The logic of the ruling could affect a large number of industries, forcing foremen, for instance, into management and--not coincidentally--further hollowing out unions.

The idea of a National Labor Relations Board that is anti-union may seem like a contradiction in terms; the agency, after all, was created in the 1930's to bring some balance to labor-management relations. But for the Right everything is political and there is no overarching public good that transcends partisan interest. I am hopeful that the political climate is changing and that the purveyors of this cramped view of public policy will pay a price at the polls for it, but even if they are thrown out, many years will pass before new regulations and the appointment of new members to agencies, boards and commissions can undo the harm that we have suffered already.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Partners in Crime

Yesterday, The New York Times editorialized against a sneaky move by House Republicans that would bar the use of federal funds to enforce a law requiring that childproof trigger locks be supplied with every gun sold.

The chief sponsor of this idiocy is Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R.CO), who is the House's answer to Sen. Rick Sanctimonious as the chamber's best imitation of the south end of a north-bound horse. Rep. Musgrave argued that trigger locks make "personal protection more costly."

This is another example of the gun lobby at work. It's good to see The Times editorializing forthrightly against that lobby, but the paper did not go far enough.

While there are many good people who join the NRA and similar organizations because they are hunters or gun collectors (as your editor was for a time in his youth) or target shooters, it is time to stand up and say bluntly that the leaders of these groups are the witting or unwitting allies of gun runners, drug dealers, organized crime and yes, even terrorists. And so are the members of Congress and other elected officials who run to do their bidding.

Another Administration Failure

As you probably recognized a long time ago, the administration's most important policy--far more important than its hard-right social agenda, or even the "war on terror" is to build up the wealth and power of those who already have wealth and power. Mindless tax-cutting has been one of the most important tools in this effort.

Well, guess what: They are failing at this, too. As The New York Times reports, "An unexpectedly steep rise in tax revenues from corporations and the wealthy is driving down the projected budget deficit this year, even though spending has climbed sharply because of the war in Iraq and the cost of hurricane relief." Actually collecting taxes from rich people and corporations? What's going on here?

Not only that, but rising government revenues will make it harder to keep money out of the hands of those who could benefit from social programs.

These guys can't do anything right.

Friday, July 07, 2006

US Exports

Who says we can't export democracy? Just look at Mexico.

Another Plot Uncovered

The FBI has uncovered a plot to attack tunnels in New York! Sen. Chuck Schumer (D.NY) said, "This is one instance where intelligence was on top of its game." Well, actually, I hope that's not true.

How did our sleuths cotton on to this dastardly plan? According to the AP, by "monitoring Internet chat rooms used by extremists." Now if someone was really planning to set off bombs--or anything else of a dangerous nature--in the tunnels under New York, I'm happy that they were found out before they could do so. But let's face it, the really dangerous people out there aren't going to use Internet chat rooms to develop their schemes, are they? Sure, the FBI has to monitor those rooms, and that might lead to valuable intelligence, but is that being at the top of the intelligence game? Isn't it the kind of routine surveillance that's vital but hardly exceptional?

Apparently, the would-be terrorists in question were not too bright. According to the AP's report, they wanted to blow up the Holland Tunnel in hopes of flooding the financial district like New Orleans was flooded by Katrina. Attacking the tunnel, especially at rush hour, could cause horrific casualties and be highly disruptive to traffic patterns for a long time. But flood lower Manhattan? Not likely: the streets are above the level of the Hudson River.

And where were the bad-actors? Not even in the outer boroughs. Again according to AP, one of these chat-room conspirators was arrested by Lebanese police. And no, not Lebanon, New Hampshire.
Hi Mom!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

How Do You Say It?

This afternoon, I had a chance to hear Geoff Nunberg on NPR's Fresh Air. His new book is Talking Right, subtitled "How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show."

Nunberg is a perceptive analyst. Several times in Terry Gross' interview, he pointed out inaccuracies in right-wing slurs of liberals; as one trivial example, he noted that most people who buy Brie are Republicans, not liberal Democrats.

What Nunberg hinted at but did not say outright is that "conservatives" have a built-in advantage in the debate: many of them--including most of the more influential--are unconstrained by mere truth. In other words, they lie. A lot. And when their lies are exposed, they just repeat the falsehoods, but in louder voices.

Should liberals fight fire with fire? It's tempting to say yes, but I don't think so. The President's low polls and the national disenchantment with the Republicans are directly related to the wisdom first enunciated by one of the first Republicans, Abraham Lincoln. You really can't fool all of the people all of the time.

This doesn't mean that Democrats shouldn't sharpen their message, and re-think the policies they have been championing. They should. (We'll deal with that shortly.) But they should tell the truth. As one of David Mamet's characters says, "It's the easiest thing to remember."

Trapped in Texas

You may recall that before resigning from Congress, Tom DeLay won the Republican primary for his now-former House seat. That presented Republicans with a problem, because Texas law permits replacing a candidate only under rare circumstances. Although DeLay announced that he had moved to Virginia, Texas Democrats sued to keep his name on the ballot, so that Republicans have no actual candidate to run against the Democratic nominee, former-congressman Nick Lampson (a victim of the DeLay-inspired gerrymandering of Texas congressional districts).

Republicans moved the case from state to federal court, where it was assigned to Judge Sam Sparks, who had been appointed by the first George Bush. The move did no good, however, when Judge Sparks ruled that DeLay's name must stay on the ballot.

Judge Sparks was openly critical of the Republicans' tactics, and skeptical of the evidence presented. He noted that the letter in which DeLay announced his move to Virginia had been edited by the chair of the Texas Republican Party. The judge wrote that permitting DeLay to be replaced on the ballot, "would be a serious abuse of the election system and a fraud on the voters, which the court will not condone." He also held that "Political acumen, strategy and manufactured evidence, even combined with a sound policy in mind, cannot override the Constitution." (On the matter of "manufactured evidence," Democrats noted that DeLay's "new" Virginia home is a condominium that he has owned for 12 years, and that his wife continues to occupy their house in Texas.)

Oh, irony of ironies if Tom DeLay's parting shot should be to victimize his fellow Texas Republicans by presenting them with another Democratic congressman.

Just Thinking

Am I the only one who thinks that maybe we've been misinterpreting the North Korean missile firings? Could that strange nation be signaling a willingness to negotiate by firing off its entire stock of missiles?


In addition to her other faults--such as a complete disregard for truth--right-wing attack dog Ann Coulter has been caught plagiarizing.

Hello again

After two weeks out of the country, you might have thought that the editor would get his act together and post regularly. So did he. But the press of other matters has prevented him from posting the past few days. And no, it was not a 4th of July BBQ or the lure of the beach.

OK, back to our regular sharpshooting, nit-picking and hell-raising.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Too Much Justice

As soon as the Supreme Court rebuked the President and his administration in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Mr. Bush and his allies vowed to seek congressional authority for the military tribunals that the court had ruled against. (The court held that tribunals would have to be authorized by Congress.)

Given that the detainees at Guantanamo are held by the United States military, and are being detained in connection with military operations, why not try them before courts marshal? (Hamdan conceded that a court martial, operating under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, would have the authority to hear the charges against him.)

The answer, simply put, is that a court martial would give too many rights to detainees. As The New York Times reports: "The White House has considered military courts unpalatable because of the due process they afford. Officials there said Friday that they were generally against leaving the combatants to the military justice system, not only for its degree of due process but also for strict standards of evidence to which prosecutors are required to adhere."

And W still maintains that we are fighting for freedom. Perhaps he can explain how we can have freedom without justice.

War Powers?

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in a suit against major telephone companies over their participation in the NSA domestic spying program allege that the agency sough AT&T's participation on the project months before 9/11.

Maybe we were in a war on terror before we knew it.