Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Fits of whimsy

Apparently frustrated by no longer having his every childish whim treated as imperial demand by the House and Senate, The Worst President In History is now planning to increase his use of Executive Orders to implement his ludicrously unpopular policies.

So ... what does this mean?

First of all, the Supreme Court has ruled (in this case) the President can't use orders to create new law. Since that time, Presidents have typically noted some law they were abiding by when issuing an order, to give it at least a veneer of legality. Most orders aren't controversial, and it's worth noting only two have ever been overturned in court (the above case and one issued by Clinton in 1996).

That limitation, however, still leaves plenty of room for misuse and abuse. Perhaps the most infamous Executive Order in our history was #9066, which resulted in tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans (and German- and Italian-Americans as well) being rounded up after the US entry into WWII and spending years in internment camps.

Given this administration's history of ignoring constraints on its power, it's quite easy to envision scenarios where it issues Executive Orders privatizing social security, drilling in the ANWR, or whatever - pushing policies Bush knows he no longer has any chance at all of getting through Congress. As a practical matter, any order would be virtually impossible to overturn - lawsuits would be appealed past the end of his term of office, and any attempt to counter his order by passing a bill in Congress would be vetoed, said veto upheld by the Republican minority.

Something we won't see, however, is an Executive Order to attack Iran. The administration thinks it already has sufficient authority to do that, regardless of what the Constitution might actually say.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Now for something completely different

Apropos of virtually nothing I have discussed in this blog, if this technology pans out it will change all our lives unimaginable ways.

That's a pretty big if though. I'll have to remember to check back on this in the summer of 2009.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Feeling a draft

Apparently things are going so well in Iraq the US State Department is having to turn away applicants in record numbers, as hundreds of young staffers surge to be associated with the ongoing success in Baghdad.

"A lot of our personnel, particularly the younger staffers, see an Iraq posting a a prestigious resume-enhancer," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. "We don't have one-tenth of the positions it would take to fill all the requests. Honestly, being able to pick-and-choose the best-of-the-best is a nice problem to have."

Oops ... my bad ... that's not our reality .... that's some other reality the Republicans created.

In our reality, which is, unfortunately, the only reality we all share, matters are slightly different .... as in up to 300 diplomats were recently informed they were being considered to fill one of 40 to 50 vacancies in Iraq, and refusal on their part would be grounds for dismissal.

Now, outright refusal to do something your boss tells you to do, assuming it's legal and relevant to your job, is usually a perfectly reasonable basis for getting fired. On the other hand, most of us who took "civilian" jobs don't expect to get sent to war zones involuntarily either.

I've said before I am not, in principle, opposed to a draft - one constant throughout this war has been the administration's absolute refusal to spread the impact of it across the nation as a whole. Instead of raising taxes to help pay for the war the President pushed through massive tax cuts, primarily for the wealthy (yeah, that makes sense - we know we're going to have to layout billions of dollars we didn't originally budget for, lets pay for it by decreasing our incoming revenue). As the strain on our army has become increasingly apparent, the administration has responded not by re-instituting a national draft, but rather by increasing the length of time units stay on rotation overseas.

This might have made sense four years ago, when we were going to be greeted by rose-throwing natives and the total cost of the war was going to be $50 billion. Four years down the road, however, as the only thing the natives are throwing at us are grenades, and the cost approaches $1 trillion, it makes no sense whatsoever.

If you're going to institute a draft for the state department, lets be fair about this and open it up to everyone - including the children of wealthy Republicans, sitting Senators and Representatives even.

Let's see how long we stay in Iraq then.

Once more, with feeling!

Congress passed a revised version of the SCHIP bill this past week, with the Senate expected to pass a similar version next week. The bill would come up before the President shortly after, and he is expected to once again apply the veto stamp ... at which time the Kabuki show will start once again.

The new bill addresses several issues Republicans had given to explain their votes against the original bill:

* The income cap to qualify is lowered to 300% of the poverty level for a family of four, or about $60,000, down from a 400% cap in the original bill.

* Adults covered under the current program would be phased out over a one-year period, instead of the two years in the original proposal.

On one point, the Democrats didn't budge however - the bill still allocates $35 billion over five years. The administration said it could see it's way to spending $20 billion (up from $5 billion), but not a penny more.

There's no question Democrats organized the vote so soon after the President's veto in an attempt to keep the issue in front of the voters, and they can be expected to keep pounding away at it as long as the administration keeps vetoing bills - even Republicans who vote against the bill acknowledge their votes are hurting them.

As this poll points out, the President's approval rating on health care, 22%, is 4% less than his approval rating on Iraq. Further, not only did 81% of respondents favor expanding the S-CHIP program, but 74% are willing to pay higher taxes to do so.

Tom Price (R-GA) defended his vote against the bill by labeling it "a massive tax increase". The program would cost $35 billion over five years. That's not a massive tax increase ... this is a massive tax increase - any bets on which way Price votes when it comes before Congress?

Representative Robert Harper once said, in 1798 (referring to a naval conflict with Barbary Coast pirates), "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." Modern Republicans apparently have updated that to "Billions for needless wars, but not one cent for children!".

Doesn't have quite the same ring, does it?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

It's supposed to be "safe FOR democracy"

"Where can anybody be safe from Bush's democracy?"

- Mohammed al-Samarrae, discussing the death of his pregnant cousin in a US air strike in Iraq.

Two borders

(1) Over at x4mr's blog he has invested a number of posts in discussing what he refers to as "the border", a state lying somewhere between sleep and alertness. In more technical terms, it's the boundary between alpha and theta sleep, and also the point at which our brainwaves reach the same frequency as the lowest-frequency version of the Schumann resonance.

For those who visit it, the border is apparently a weird, wonderful and terrifying realm, a place where life-changing events can and do occur for those lucky, or unlucky, enough to experience them.

For whatever reason I have never been to the border ... apparently my sleep habits preclude it, and I just ram on through without ever noticing the border is even there. I seem to be in the majority in this regard.

Anyhow, what brought this to mind was an article in this morning's NY Times discussing the role sleep apparently has in helping us remember things ... and now I am wondering what it is those who have made journeys to the border remember that the majority of us do not, and why they have a need to remember it.

(2) Salon has an article (you may have to sit through a brief ad to get access) today about the more physical border to our south, and the possibility some of the same mercenary companies involved in Iraq may shortly be assisting along the US-Mexico border as well.

Blackwater, which is seemingly about to be evicted from Iraq for killing civilians and lying about it, is planning to open a large military-style training facility in the desert east of San Diego. Meanwhile, the company has been been lobbying for at least a couple years to get a stake in the border protection, as has rival DynCorp.

Maybe I'm being illogical here, but if we as a nation feel we need to spend more money on border security, why don't we agree to spend it on, you know, hiring and retaining more border patrol agents rather than funding private security companies with dubious track records? Or is national security yet another thing the administration thinks should be privatized, even if it costs more? (Which, presumably, would relegate the Border Patrol to yet another form of "socialized welfare".)

I'm not sure we need more guys with guns running along the border shooting at people while being outside any formal chain-of-command. That niche is already filled ... and while I think those guys are extremist kooks, at least they aren't taking millions of my tax dollars to provide their "services".

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Framer at Arizona8th has an excellent post last night concerning the SCHIP debate, and I wanted to respond to it.

As to the question of using children in advertising, both parties have done so in the past when they felt it would help make their point, and both parties will continue to do so in the future. However, Framer actually missed the point of having the Frost and Wilkerson families in the ads.

As Framer correctly notes, both the Frosts and the Wilkersons qualify under the current SCHIP standards. However, the point of using both families in the ads was the original funding increase proposed by the President was not sufficient to even maintain coverage for all children currently in the program - an estimated 700,000 current participants would have been cut. The Frosts and the Wilkersons have legitimate concerns they might lose the benefits if the proposed bill is not passed.

Framer also points to a poll indicating a majority feel most of the benefits should go to families with income leves less than 200% of the poverty level -- and hey, what do you know, they would under the proposed bill!

The Congressional Budget Office notes 84% of the 3.8 million otherwise uninsured children who would gain insurance under the program qualify under current state standards, with "a large share" living under the poverty line.

Further, while lower-income families do not pay premiums within the program, those with incomes closer to the program limit do pay some form of monthly premium, helping insure those who need the most help get the most help.

Framer also has issues with the funding mechanism, and here I partly agree with him. I am not opposed to higher cigarette taxes - if it helps encourage people to stop smoking that is just an ancillary benefit in my mind. However, I would like to see some other form or forms of funding involved as well, so that it's not entirely based on cigarette taxes.

Finally, Framer accuses Democrats of addressing the issue emotionally ... and again he has a point ... but to which I say yeah, Democrats are going to continue to pound Republicans over SCHIP emotionally as well. Remember all those (logic-laden, unemotional I am sure) "you don't support the troops" charges levied for years at liberal lawmakers? Consider "you don't support the children" a response to that.

I realize it's petty, but it's nice to let conservative lawmakers have a taste of their own medicine for a change. It's even nicer when one is on the better side of the argument both emotionally and from a policy standpoint.

A slightly unrelated point - Framer is careful to not call the vetoed bill "bi-partisan", instead quoting an article which refers to it as "the bill written by Democrats and some Republicans would allow".

There have been a number of votes in which every Republican + Joe Lieberman voted one way, and every other Democrat voted the other way, and the administration has never hesitated to use that one vote to apply the label "bi-partisan". A lot more than one Republican voted in favor of this bi-partisan bill, and the longer the minority continue to block it, the more it's going to hurt in 2008.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Money matters

For some reason there has been a lot of griping about Tim Bee not resigning his position to run in CD 8 ... griping I don't understand. If Bee feels he can run a credible, substantive race while also retaining his influential seat in the Arizona Senate, more power to him -- as blogger ThinkRight regularly notes, it may be a long, long time before a Baja Arizonan leads the Senate again.

As long as Bee files financial reports, I don't see how his remaining in the Senate can hurt anyone else in the race, most notably Democratic incumbent Gabrielle Giffords. If anything, the extra demands on Bee's time can only help her.

Well, the reports are out. The Star has an article this morning discussing AZ 8 fund-raising figures for both Giffords and Bee, and x4mr already has a post up about the matter. The early scoreboard shows Giffords raising $250K last quarter, with $1.1 million tucker away, while Bee raised $135K, with $120K on hand.

A pair of posters have already (as I write this) thrown in their $.02, with ThinkRight opining Bee's early fund-raising figures are quit good for an exploratory campaign, while Roger feels the figure is disappointing for the Bee camp.

Count me firmly on Roger's side of the debate.

Calling Bee's campaign "exploratory" is sophistry at its finest. Everyone knows Bee will run, and any claims from his staff to the contrary are purely to allow Bee to retain his position as head of the state Senate for as long as possible. Being "exploratory" didn't hurt or help his fundraising in any way, shape, form or fashion.

Bee did suffer from some handicaps, in that his campaign was just getting underway as the quarter began. However, if memory serves the comittee was formed in June, meaning Bee had the entire quarter to raise money.

Furthermore, the first quarter of fundraising is the "easy" quarter. This is the money you get from all your friends, contacts, business associates, etc., the money you use to build the foundation of your campaign organization. From this point on, raising money only gets harder. For a comparison, in her first quarter of fundraising, a period in which she only had five weeks (having declared in late Nov. 2005), Giffords raised over $250K.

Another comparison - the $250K Giffords raised last month was, by far, her worst quarter of the year. You can expect to see that figure kick up again as 2008 turns the quarter. At this time last campaign Giffords was six weeks from even declaring ... she went on to raise $2.5 million for the race.

Bee and his campaign will never admit it ... but if I were a betting man I would lay a lot of money that yes, they are very disappointed with their initial fundraising efforts. If they hope to unseat Giffords, they are going to have to do better.

Correction: ThinkRight, in comments, notes the Bee exploratory committee did not officially kick off until late Aug. As such, fundraising efforts only cover the last five weeks of the quarter.

It doesn't change my opinion the amount raised remains disappointing, both for reasons noted above and in the comment thread, but it does attenuate it good bit.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Are we done yet?

The Washington Post has a story today about a debate within the army and the administration over declaring "victory" against al-Qaeda in Iraq. The consensus seems to be AQI has taken some heavy hits in recent months, severely damaging its capacity for terror operations, and some folks want a public declaration to the effect, while others, having seen similar "Mission Accomplished" and "Last Throes" statements turn out poorly in the past, are taking a more cautious view.

Of course, there is another reason to not declare victory as well, which the article mentions but I am going to discuss here anyway ...

It's unquestionably a good thing that AQI has been significantly reduced in effectiveness by our recent operations there. Hopefully the pressure on the organization really has cracked it, to the point of being irrecoverable. If so, however, it raises two points in my mind:

1. What, exactly, does it say about our occupation that "declaring victory" over a terrorist organization in Iraq which never existed prior to our occupation is seen as a sign of progress and optimism? I mean, AQI only ever came about in the first place because we decided to invade Iraq. No invasion, no terrorists.

It's like saying "this was an offshoot of our bad planning and poor decision-making, but we've mostly fixed the direct problem (although it's true a multitude of other, related problems still exist), so lets declare victory. Huzzah!"

2. As the article notes, one reason given for not declaring victory is if there are no terrorists left it opens up the question of why we still need troops there. I.e., if it's not the terrorists doing all the shooting and killing and bombing, aren't our troops just trying to referee a civil war?

Of course, it has been true for a considerable time the vast majority of violence perpetrated in Iraq has had nothing whatsoever to do with AQI or any other recognized terrorist organization, and has had everything to do with factional conflicts within Iraq. This can't be admitted, however, or what little public support still remains for keeping our troops over there would collapse even further.

It's all a pipe-dream. The chances our troops are going to exit Iraq within the next two years is roughly the same as our cars being pooped on by dive-bombing pigs. Endless rationalizations for the war follow the same life-cycle: creation, promotion, prove to be false, discard in favor of yet another rationalization ... and the cycle of death continues unabated.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Maybe kids ARE better off without insurance

A new study has been released with some startling conclusions -- even when children do have insurance and see doctors, the quality of care they receive is quite poor, particularly in regards to preventative care.

Now the President and all those shrieking right-wing bloggers who have been stalking the Frost family to the point even Time magazine has noticed have another reason to support their misguided case against expanding the SCHIP program - they are trying to save them from poor medical care.

As various sites have noted, Malkin herself was singing another tune a few years ago when she found her family in a situation similar to what the Frost's are in now (minus the two handicapped children within the Frost household).

Digby responds:
"Apparently, that's not enough. Malkin and her husband are lucky enough to qualify for wingnut welfare and have healthy children. Bully for them. They got theirs and are now railing against the "choices" made by two working parents who make 45,000 a year. But I think she and her stalker squad are going to be surprised to find that most people don't see things their way --- this smug judgmentalism and rank callousness is not the American way. That's not what freedom is all about."

There remains the open question as to whether or not the entire anti-Frost campaign was originally orchestrated from the offices of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell ... although the email mistakenly sent to a Democratic staffer sure seems like compelling evidence.

Conservatives are in a losing position on health care, and somewhere, deep in what remains of their hearts, they know this, so they respond in their usual, time-tested manner - yell louder, smear the messenger and ignore inconvenient details which conflict with their made-up reality. By now, it's a Pavlovian reflex.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Well, she's right in one instance at least

Ann Coulter is flogging a new book, and in doing so did an interview with the New York Observer, some snippets of which are available here.

Coulter of course is known for her outrageous statements, but one really leaps out at me.

"If we took away women's right to vote, we'd never have to worry about another Democrat president. It's kind of a pipe dream, it's a personal fantasy of mine, but I don't think it's going to happen. And it is a good way of making the point that women are voting so stupidly, at least single women.

It also makes the point, it is kind of embarrassing, the Democratic Party ought to be hanging its head in shame, that it has so much difficulty getting men to vote for it. I mean, you do see it’s the party of women and 'We’ll pay for health care and tuition and day care -- and here, what else can we give you, soccer moms?' "

One can, of course, turn this around and ask why the Republican party has so much difficulty getting women to vote for it, and I am sure there a joke just waiting to made there about Coulter's own gender and voting propensities, but I'll leave that to the pros.

Really, though, the statement is a good, brief summation of what values are important to Republicans, or to leading Republican pundits at least - and apparently issues like health care and education don't make the list because they aren't "manly" enough.

No, no, all that seems to matter is the seemingly endless capacity to demand more war, more military spending, more death, destruction and devastation without any apparent plan for actually bringing things to an end. Oh, you'll hear platitudes - "we'll make things safe for Democracy", or "War on Terrorism" or whatever, but any set of actual, realistic, measurable metrics which would denote final success or failure ... not so much.

Heck, even when such metrics are set, then found to not be met, the results are simply ignored. Witness the events of last month.

If I had to choose between providing funding for health care, tuition and day care for working mothers, or funding for the continued armed occupation of a nation which had nothing to do with terrorism before we invaded it, I'll take the former, thanks ... if that places me in "the party of women", I can live with that.

It's better than being in the party of corrupt, fear-mongering, war-mongering, minority-bashing, gay-bashing, mostly white men ... and Ann Coulter.

I don't know if women in general, or even single women in general, are voting stupidly ... but I do know one specific single woman who is.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Some interrelated data

The NYTimes has an article today describing what it has found concerning the now infamous Blackwater incident last week in Baghdad. The article goes out of its way to point out not all information is known, but the information which is known, largely from eyewitnesses, paints a pretty damning picture.

This is the latest of a number of incidents involving Blackwater, and has sparked a number of investigations, both in Iraq and the United States. One big issue has been the sheer number of mercenaries our government employs in Iraq. An idea can be gained by looking at how rapidly Blackwater's government contracts have escalated: from roughly $750K in 2001 to over $600 million last year.

That's a lot of soldiers, outside any formal chain of command, costing up to six times what a member of the US military does ... and at the same time lets the government get away with claiming we "only" have around 150K troops in Iraq, instead of the 300K plus actually there.

Meanwhile, as Liza points out in a comment here, things are looking up in Basra:

"BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - Residents of Iraq's southern city of Basra have begun strolling riverfront streets again after four years of fear, their city much quieter since British troops withdrew from the grand Saddam Hussein-era Basra Palace.

Political assassinations and sectarian violence continue, some city officials say, but on a much smaller scale than at any time since British troops moved into the city after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.


"The situation these days is better. We were living in hell ... the area is calm since their withdrawal," said housewife Khairiya Salman, who lives near the palace."

This ties in nicely with Iraqi opinions about the surge and the US presence in Iraq. As this BBC article notes, 70% of Iraqis polled last month think the surge has failed, roughly 60% think attacks on US forces are justified, and a plurality, 47%, want US forces to leave Iraq immediately (Lets not even mention the majority of Americans who want the same thing).

Of course, all those defeatists hadn't seen last months casualty numbers when the poll was ocnducted - I am sure their views are very different now, and most of them are singing Hosannahs for the US troops, and writing poetic odes lauding the occupation.

Meanwhile, our elected leaders are condemning newspaper ads and arguing over whether Rush Limbaugh should be scorned or hailed for his remarks concerning "phony" soldiers. Hopefully House Appropriations Committee chair Dave Obey will stick to his guns ... maybe something will actually get done.

Monday, October 1, 2007

A good month in Iraq

I've spent much of the summer making posts, both on this blog and in comments at other forums, about the ineffectiveness of the "surge" in limiting casualties both among American troops and Iraqis. Therefore, it is only fair I point out this past month bucks the trend.

There were only 64 US soldiers killed in September, the lowest monthly figure in 14 months, and the first time this year a given month had fewer US soldier fatalities than the same month the prior year (by comparison, 72 US soldiers were killed in Sept. 2006).

Meanwhile, the initial figures for Iraqi civilian deaths in September is 922, a more than 50% decline from August, and the lowest figure in 15 months.

Before the "see, the surge is working!" brigades get going full force, however, there are several things I would like to point out:

* In Sept. 2005 there was a relatively low number of US fatalities (49 in Sept. 2005, compared to 85 in Aug. 2005). There were some comments then about "turning the corner". We all know how that turned out.

* Regardless of how many or how few casualties there may have been, it remains true on the political front there has been no further progress. Without political resolution, events in Iraq can not be termed a success.

Given we've had single-month periods like this before, I'll give it some more time before declaring a trend is in progress. Call me back in two months if casualty counts continue to decline. If they do, though, that much-vaunted "breathing-space" the surge is supposed to be creating may actually come into existence.