Sunday, December 07, 2008

Bush's new digs

Abandoning any pretense of being a brush-clearing "rancher" in Crawford, George Bush will be moving into the posh Dallas suburb of Preston Hollow after his term ends in January. The town, possibly the wealthiest in Texas, has a racial history that's apparently of no concern to the Bush family.

A racially-restrictive covenent in Preston Hollow prohibited nonwhites from using and occupying specified properties until 2000, when it was invalidated. The covenant, adopted in 1956, provided a useful exception:
"Said property shall be used and occupied by white persons except these covenants shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of different race or nationality in the employ of a tenant."
Though freestanding "servants quarters" were generously permitted, they had to be placed "to the rear of the lot."

Racial covenents have been legally unenforceable since the Supreme Court's decision in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), but Preston Hollow's was still on the books just eight years ago. Preston Hollow remains exclusive, however:
one local realtor boasts that the community has an "average household income of about $1.5 million a year."

Preston Hollow's elementary school was also in the news in 2006 after a federal judge found that the school district had attempted to undermine the desegregation decision in
Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954) by using discredited "separate but equal" arguments. Not surprisingly, most non-Hispanic white residents of Preston Hollow send their children to private schools.

With little brush to clear, what will ex-president Bush do with all his spare time in Preston Hollow? One clue: the wealthy investor who lives next door has just installed a pond stocked with trout on his 14-acre estate. Much of his time, no doubt, will also be devoted to making speeches for exorbitant fees and raising a half-billion dollars for a presidential "library" at Southern Methodist University. The library's principal function will be to put a positive spin on the worst presidency in modern U.S. history. Meanwhile, good luck with that Bush legacy project, Karl Rove...

PHOTOS: Preston Hollow non-servant housing (top); Bush hosting Angela Merkel at the "Western White House" in Crawford (bottom). (Wikimedia)

[H/T to The Raw Story]

Friday, December 05, 2008

Searching for acorns

Stock intended to eventually earn taxpayers a profit as part of the Bush administration's massive bank bailout has lost a third of its value — about $9 billion — in barely one month, according to an Associated Press analysis. Shares in virtually every bank that received federal money have remained below the prices the government negotiated.
Associated Press, December 5
This unsurprising report arrived, coincidentally, with similar news (on a somewhat smaller scale) from our latest 401K statement. The reality seems clear enough: markets for exotic financial instruments — especially bundled derivatives traded with minimal disclosure and even less regulation — have become so complex that they're beyond the understanding of those who are trying to set policy and salvage the economy.

The Bush administration is reduced to throwing hundreds of billions of dollars into a black hole in the hope that something will miraculously stimulate a positive response. When the meltdown of mortgage-backed securities began in September, you could easily detect the fear on the faces of congressional leaders, as much as they struggled to project calm to avoid provoking a panic.

Two months later, no one yet seems to have a minimal grasp of what's happening, much less a glimpse of the steps needed to avoid further collapse. The hope seems to be, as an old friend from Nebraska might say: Even a blind hog finds an acorn once in awhile. So far, the hogs are coming up empty.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Blues Break: Ben E. King - 'Stand by Me'

A vast international collaboration filmed and orchestrated by Playing for Change. Here are the lyrics, written by Ben E. King, with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, in 1961:

When the night has come And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we'll see
No I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me
And darlin', darlin', stand by me, oh now now stand by me
Stand by me, stand by me
If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
And the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry, no I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me
And darlin', darlin', stand by me, oh stand by me
Stand by me, stand by me, stand by me-e, yeah
Whenever you're in trouble won't you stand by me, oh now now stand by me
Oh stand by me, stand by me, stand by me
Darlin', darlin', stand by me-e, stand by me
Oh stand by me, stand by me, stand by me

[H/T Bill Moyers Journal and Laura Doty at Firedoglake]

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

'Taxi to the Dark Side' - See it!

Anyone who has doubts about prosecuting the highest officials of the Bush/Cheney administration for their roles in the torture regime of the last seven years should see this powerful film, which won an Academy Award and a Peabody Award. It should be required viewing for all incoming members of Congress and the new administration, especially Barack Obama and his Justice Department.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Blues Break: Toumani Diabate - 'Elyne Road'

The legendary Toumani Diabate plays his kora at the 43rd Cambridge Folk Festival in 2007. The song appears as the second track on his latest album, Mandé Variations (2008).

Friday, November 07, 2008

Bush's first (and last) selfless act

“For the next 75 days, all of us must ensure that the next president and his team can hit the ground running,” Mr. Bush said in an emotional speech to hundreds of employees of the executive branch on the South Lawn of the White House. He urged them to “conduct yourselves with the decency and professionalism that you have shown throughout my time in office.”

New York Times, November 6, 2008
No doubt President-elect Obama appreciates Bush's sincerity and generosity in offering full cooperation during the remaining days of his administration.

Bush's understandable concerns about his legacy could be slightly alleviated if he took one further step that would be wildly popular around the world: resign immediately. And take Dick Cheney with him. Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, that would leave Nancy Pelosi as regent until Obama and Biden can be sworn in.

Then the adults could take over immediately and begin to grapple with the wasteland that Bush/Cheney will leave as their true legacy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

'Unitary executive' theory runs amok

Sarah Palin appearing on KUSA in Denver on October 20, 2008. Replayed on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on October 22, 2008. Apparently she skipped her high-school civics class on the day that they discussed the constitutional role of the Vice President.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Party on

For American International Group (AIG) executives, the party goes on even after the corporate meltdown that required a $123 billion (and counting) federal bailout since September. A House committee recently examined the events leading up to, and following, AIG's collapse:
One of the key items discussed was AIG’s spending of no less than $442,000 for a corporate retreat at the St. Regis Monarch Beach resort in Dana Point, California, south of Los Angeles. This original amount was spent on Sept. 22, a week after the Federal Reserve attributed an $85 billion emergency loan to AIG in order to keep the company afloat, avoiding bankruptcy due to insurance liabilities.
This event was hardly unique, as New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo pointed out in a letter (.jpg) to AIG's Board of Directors dated October 15th:

In the last several months, as AIG was teetering toward bankruptcy, and operating with unreasonably small capital, AIG nevertheless made numerous extraordinary expenditures in the form of executive compensation payments, junkets, and perks for its executives.

For example, in March 2008, ignoring the massive losses AIG was experiencing, the Board awarded its Chief Executive Officer a cash bonus of over $5 million and a golden parachute worth $15 million. Similarly, in February 2008, a top-ranking executive who was largely responsible for AIG's collapse was terminated, but still permitted by the Board to keep $34 million in bonuses. This same individual apparently continued to receive $1 million a month from the company until recently.

Moreover, even after the taxpayer-funded bailout of AIG, the company paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for luxurious retreats for its executives, including an overseas hunting party and a golf outing. We believe these expenditures and payments, made in the absence of fair consideration, violated New York law... which deems such payments to be fraudulent conveyances.

AIG, the world's largest insurance company, has been deemed "too big to fail." The corporate leadership seemed genuinely surprised by all the fuss, though a spokesperson said: "We regret that this event [the retreat at the St. Regis] was not canceled."

The sense of entitlement and heedlessness that AIG's behavior reflects have deep roots in recent economic history. Consider this chart, from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in D.C.:

The graph shows the ratios between the incomes of the highest 0.1% of earners (top line), the next highest 1% (second line), and the rest of us (bottom 90%). As EPI notes, the most telling line is the top one:
...when it comes to the wage income of the highest of the high earners, the staggering gap has become a chasm: in 2004 the upper one-tenth of 1% earned 70.4 times as much as the average person in the bottom 90% of the income scale. Just 25 years earlier in 1979, the ratio that was only 21.0-to-1.
During the postwar period from 1947 to Reagan's election in 1980, the ratio was fairly constant — even flattening during the '60's. For the highest earners, though, the party really begins around 1980 despite a nasty recession under Reagan. The red line steepens again during the 90's, only to fall under Bush II with the bursting dot-com bubble.

The EPI concludes: " 1979 it took the highest-paid earners 12.4 days to make what most other earners did in a year, but by 2004 that feat was accomplished in a mere 3.7days."

For the top 1% of earners (bottom line in the chart), the news is less dramatic but still very good: in 2006, they earned 20 times as much as the bottom 90% compared to 9.4 times as much in 1979.

Since it focuses only on "earnings," EPI's chart only tells part of the story. A more complete picture would include asset values and other indications of wealth.

John McCain and other Republicans howl reflexively about "class warfare" whenever anyone points out the gross inequalities in the distribution of wealth and incomes in the U.S. Considering the spectacular failure of "trickle-down" economics, and the obvious need to create a more equitable alternative, maybe we need more of it.

It hardly needs to be mentioned that such unequal distributions of income and wealth are a direct function of conscious public policies, notably in the tax codes, that privilege the highest 1% over the rest of the population. It's a form of social Darwinism
not a law of nature, but a failed system of political and economic organization that needs to be restructured.

Meanwhile, AGI's share price has fallen from about $70 one year ago to $2.10 on October 17th.

[H/T to
UPDATE: A relevant quote

Economist James K. Galbraith, writing in Harper's Magazine (November 2008) on the economic crisis of "casino capitalism:"
The rot comes from predators posing as conservatives and mouthing the rhetoric of “free markets.” They are not actually interested in free markets. Their goal is to use the government to build monopolies, to control resources, to block regulation, to crush unions, to divert as much as possible from taxpayers into private pockets. They have a reckless attitude toward war-making and they put the financial system in peril by failing to enforce standards of ethics and transparency. As a result, they imperil the country’s credit in the world.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Palinator meets Katie

Here's an excerpt from the actual CBS interview with Katie Couric in response to a question about using the $700 million bailout to help middle-class families. Note that it's repeated almost verbatim in the above SNL version:
That's why I say I, like every American I'm speaking with, were ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health-care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping the—it's got to be all about job creation, too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health-care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, scary thing. But one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we've got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is a part of that.
Okay, now I get it...

Monday, September 22, 2008

Into the tank = $2.5 billion bonus at Lehman

This is a stunning development, as reported by David Prosser of the London Independent:

Up to 10,000 staff at the New York office of the bankrupt investment bank Lehman Brothers will share a bonus pool set aside for them that is worth $2.5bn (£1.4bn), Barclays Bank, which is buying the business, confirmed last night.

The revelation sparked fury among the workers' former colleagues, Lehman's 5,000 staff based in London, who currently have no idea how long they will go on receiving even their basic salaries, let alone any bonus payments. It also prompted a renewed backlash over the compensation culture in global finance, with critics claiming that many bankers receive pay and rewards that bore no relation to the job they had done.

A spokesman for Barclays said the $2.5bn bonus pool in New York had been set aside before Lehman Brothers filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States a week ago. Barclays has agreed that the fund should continue to be ring-fenced now it has taken control of Lehman's US business, a deal agreed by American bankruptcy courts over the weekend.

Barclays is paying $1.75bn for the US operation of Lehman and is keen to retain its best staff. It said it had made no promises to individual staff members about how much they will receive but that the bonus fund would be paid out. In addition to the $2.5bn cash pool, Barclays is also in negotiations with about 30 executives it considers to be Lehman's best assets and plans to offer them contracts worth tens of millions of dollars. British employees of Lehman described the bonus payments as a "scandal" as they waited anxiously yesterday to see whether a deal could be struck with buyers circling the bank's European operations.

Many of Lehman's UK staff are particularly angry about the US payouts because it has emerged that in the days running up to the bankruptcy, some $8bn in cash was transferred out of the account of the bank's European business into accounts at the New York head office.

[With a H/T to Digby at Hullabaloo.]

Standing small

In the most recent survey (September 16-19) on Bush's approval ratings, The American Research Group reports:

Overall, 19% of Americans say that they approve of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president, 76% disapprove, and 5% are undecided.

Among Republicans (33% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 48% approve of the way Bush is handling his job and 46% disapprove. Among Democrats (40% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 3% approve and 95% disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job. Among independents (27% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 8% approve and 87% disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job as president.

Overall, 17% of Americans say that they approve of the way George W. Bush is handling the economy, 78% disapprove, and 5% are undecided. Among registered voters, 18% approve and 78% disapprove of the way Bush is handling the economy.


Overall, 68% of Americans say they believe that the national economy is in a recession, 28% say they do not believe the economy is in a recession, and 4% are undecided.

With only 8% of independents approving, and Republicans getting the blame for the current crisis by a 2-1 ratio, this can only be bad news for John McCain and Sarah the Impalin.

[With a H/T to Paul Campos at Lawyers, Guns and Money, who notes that Bush's approval rating is "lower than Nixon's the week he resigned."]

Saturday, September 20, 2008

You pays your $700 billion bailout, you takes your pick...

Version #1 - An excerpt from an article [.pdf] by John McCain in the September/October 2008 issue of Contingencies, a journal for actuaries:
Opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products less burdened by the worst excesses of state-based regulation. [Emphasis added.]
From an interview in the Wall Street Journal (March 2008):
As far as a need for additional regulations are concerned, I think that depends on the legislative agenda and what the Congress does to some degree, but I am a fundamentally a deregulator. I'd like to see a lot of the unnecessary government regulations eliminated, not just a moratorium.
Version #2 - After his recent epiphany, the Wall Street Journal (September 17th) describes McCain's latest position:

"Under my reforms, the American people will be protected by comprehensive regulations that will apply the rules and enforce them to the full," Sen. McCain said in Florida Tuesday. "There will be constant access to the books and accounts of our banks and other financial institutions. By law, it will reduce the debt and risk that any bank can take on. And above all, I promise reforms to prevent the kind of wild speculation that can put our markets at risk, and has already inflicted such enormous damage across our economy."

The sentiment is a far cry from Sen. McCain's antiregulation record. On the stump, he didn't explain how he would distinguish legitimate investment from "wild speculation" or exactly what steps he would take to eliminate the latter.

His campaign announced a new TV ad with the senator saying: "I'll meet this financial crisis head on. Reform Wall Street. New rules for fairness and honesty. I won't tolerate a system that puts you and your family at risk."

Groucho Marx said it best: "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others."

McCain's latest about-face presents yet another variation on the perennial questions of U.S. politics:
  1. Will it play in Peoria? And, related to that,
  2. Is anyone outside the netroots really paying attention to this stuff?
[H/T to dday at Hullabaloo for the Contingencies link.]

Saturday, September 06, 2008

In case you missed it...

Fortunately these shameless performances didn't go completely unnoticed.

BTW, Wassila is hardly the "second largest city in Alaska," as Karl Rove claims. It's roughly one-third to one-quarter the size of Fairbanks (#2) and Juneau (#3). Depending on whose numbers you accept, Wassila is somewhere between 4th and 8th on the list. Question: can a town of 7,025 to 9,236 souls really be described as a "city?"

Monday, September 01, 2008

Escape to (and from) New York

A few weeks ago I traveled from Oregon to New York for the third time in the last year. This was my longest visit — a full two weeks including a brief excursion to Buffalo and Rochester for a family reunion. In Manhattan, we stayed with five friends from Geneva, Switzerland — two of whom had never been to the city before and spoke no English whatsoever. So I had the chance to practice my French and serve as an informal tour guide — an enjoyable duty, to be sure. Nearly four decades after moving away from the city, it's still a huge treat to go back.

The deterioration of New York's infrastructure has been abundantly recorded and condemned (most recently by the Times' Tom Friedman, whom I hesitate to mention in any context due to his disastrous misjudgments on other issues). So I'll confine myself to an anecdote that invites an extended comment on the state of our national transportation network.

On August 11th, we and our Swiss friends were scheduled to fly to Buffalo from JFK on separate flights. Severe thunderstorms developed that morning, as forecast, and dumped heavy rain on the NY region. At LaGuardia airport, for example, nickel-sized hail fell and winds reached 60 mph. There were tornado warnings farther out on Long Island.

Not surprisingly, a number of flights were canceled (including our friends' flight to Buffalo) or postponed. We were scheduled to leave later from JFK via JetBlue, but the flight was rescheduled three or four times. For reasons far too annoying and complicated to recount, we (like our friends) finally rented a car at the airport and drove the 450 miles to Buffalo.

The airport delays were inevitable, of course, given the fierce weather conditions. No blame there. Refugees from canceled flights roamed through JFK searching for alternatives, overwhelming the lines filled with people (like us) trying to board postponed departures. People were in tears and, at times, it looked like scuffles were about to erupt. The airlines did little, it seemed, to respond to these predictable frustrations.

In the midst of all the chaos, it occurred to me that there must be far better ways to transport large numbers of people. Many of the canceled flights on the boards were for short and medium distances: places like Boston, Washington, Richmond, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Albany and, of course, Buffalo — our destination.

And of course there is a better way: trains. In Japan, I traveled on the high-speed shinkansen system from Kyoto to Tokyo at 125 mph. Trains on a few routes that are unimpeded by Japan's typically mountainous terrain can reach 188 mph. Some 375,000 people travel on the shinkansen every day. The trains are quiet, comfortable, beautifully engineered and run on time almost without exception. A proposed maglev (magnetic levitation) version has, in tests, reached speeds of 361 mph. The shinkansen system has an impeccable safety record.

A few years ago, I also rode the French TGV (train à grande vitesse, or "train of great speed") system on the Lausanne-Paris-Geneva routes at speeds up to 200 mph. On the flat farmlands southeast of Paris, the TGV passed cars on the adjacent freeway like they were hardly moving at all. The TGV trains are even faster than the shinkansen. In 2001, a TGV traversed France from Calais to Marseille, a distance of 663 miles, in just 3 1/2 hours.

For short and medium distances, these speeds are highly competitive with air travel. Most train stations are in the centers of cities, avoiding long and often aggravating trips to and from airports. In a standard TGV, my trip to Buffalo would've only required about 2 1/2 hours.

High-speed trains are far less vulnerable to weather delays than airplanes and automobile traffic. Trains can run on electricity rather than aviation fuel, whose price has increased by 62.5% over the last year. Amtrak's engines, many of which are still diesel-powered, use only 2/3 as many BTU's per mile as cars, buses and airplanes. While the federal government subsidizes Amtrak at the rate of $40 per passenger each year (for a total of $1.4 billion in 2006), "highways are subsidized at a rate of $500–$700 per automobile."

In a rational universe, the U.S. would've invested in sytems like the shinkansen and TGV decades ago instead of defunding and neglecting Amtrak, the last vestige of a once-proud passenger rail system. The U.S. is now 31st in per capita rail miles per year, far behind other industrial and industrializing nations. Outside the northeast corridor, private automobiles account for 99.9% of all intercity passenger miles. Incredibly, cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Columbus, Tulsa, Nashville, Des Moines and Boise have no passenger rail service at all.

Not surprisingly, this year's enormous increases in the cost of oil have raised demand for rail service. Still, there is little evidence of the kind of strategic planning that produced the shinkansen, the TGV or the Transrapid maglev system that currently operates, with great efficiency, in Shanghai. Short-term thinking — the bane of the U.S. economy and political system — rules, as usual, in D.C.

[PHOTO by the author.]

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Redrawing the borders

From John McCain's interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC's Good Morning America (July 21st). A second gaffe comes at the very end, when McCain falsely states that Barack Obama advocates that the U.S. "attack" Pakistan.

To enlighten Mr. McCain on the geography of the region, I humbly offer this CIA map:

Note the rather large country that separates the borders of Iraq and Pakistan by approximately 800 miles. Iran hasn't gotten much attention recently, so it's understandable that McCain would overlook it.

MAP: Wikipedia Commons

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Blues Break: Keb' Mo' - "Dangerous Mood"

Keb' Mo' performs at the Piazza Blues Festival in Bellinzona, Italy, on June 30, 2001.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bastille Day: "Le jour de gloire est arrivé..."

In a letter to U.S. Foreign Secretary John Jay, Thomas Jefferson offered the following account of the seizure of the Bastille in Paris by a revolutionary mob on July 14, 1789. Jefferson was the U.S. Minister to France at the time.
This was the signal for universal insurrection, & this body of cavalry, to avoid being massacred, retired towards Versailles. The people now armed themselves with such weapons as they could find in armourer shops & privated houses, and with bludgeons, & were roaming all night through all parts of the city without any decided & practicable object. The next day the states press on the King to send away the troops, to permit the Bourgeoise of Paris to arm for the preservation of order in the city, & offer to send a deputation from their body to tranquilize them. He refuses all their propositions. A committee of magistrates & electors of the city are appointed, by their bodies, to take upon them its government. The mob, now openly joined by the French guards, force the prisons of St. Larare, release all the prisoneres, & take a great store of corn, which they carry to the corn market. Here they get some arms, & the French guards begin to to form & train them.

The City committee determine to raise 48,000 Bourgeoise, or rather to restrain their numbers to 48,000, On the 16th they send one of their numbers ( Monsieur de Corny whom we knew in America) to the Hotel des Invalides to ask arms for their Garde Bourgeoise. He was followed by, or he found there, a great mob. The Governor of the Invalids came out & represented the impossibility of his delivering arms without the orders of those from whom he received them. De Corny advised the people then to retire, retired himself, & the people took possession of the arms. It was remarkable that not only the invalids themselves made no opposition, but that a body of 5000 foreign troops, encamped with 400 yards, never stirred. Monsieur De Corny and five others were then sent to ask arms of Monsieur de Launai , Governor of the Bastille. The found a great collection of people already before the place, & they immediately planted a flag of truce, which was answered by a like flag hoisted on the parapet.

The depositition prevailed on the people to fall back a little, advanced themselves to make their demand of the Governor. & in that instant a discharge from the Bastille killed 4 people of those nearest to the deputies. The deputies retired, the people rushed against the place, and almost in an instant were in possession of a fortification, defended by 100 men, of infinite strength, which in other times had stood several regular sieges & had never been taken. How they got in, has as yet been impossible to discover. Those, who pretend to have been of the party tell so many different stories as to destroy the credit of them all. They took all the arms, discharged the prisoners & such of the garrison as were not killed in the first moment of fury, carried the Governor and Lieutenant Governor to the Greve (the place of public execution) cut off their heads, & sent them through the city in triumph to the Palais royal...

I have the honor to be with great esteem & respect, Sir, your most obedient and most humble servant.

Thomas Jefferson
On July 19th, Jefferson added, in another letter to John Jay:
I went yesterday to Versailles to satisfy myself what had passed there; for nothing can be believed but what one sees, or has from an eye witness. They believe there still that 3000 people have fallen victims to the tumults of Paris. Mr. Short & myself have been every day among them in order to be sure of what was passing. We cannot find with certainty that any body has been killed but the three beforementioned, & those who fell in the assault of defence of the Bastille. How many of the garrison were killed no body pretends to have ever heard. Of the assailants accounts vary from 6. to 600. The most general belief is that there fell about 30.
Vive la Révolution!

[Sample page in Jefferson's handwriting.]

GRAPHIC: Prise de la Bastille, by Jean-Pierre-Louis-Laurent Hoüel (1789) - Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The weavers at work

"We love our forests and benefit from them in so many ways. Our forests help filter our drinking water, provide habitat for diverse animal and plant species, supply us with oxygen, moderate temperatures and rainfall and store atmospheric carbon. They provide an active playground and quiet retreat. They supply renewable resources for building materials, paper and heating, along with jobs that support families and communities."
— Oregon Forest Resources Institute brochure. The OFRI was created by the Oregon legislature "to improve public understanding of Oregon’s forest resources and to encourage sound forest practices."

"Everybody in the whole town talked about the precious cloth. At last the emperor wished to see it himself, while it was still on the loom. With a number of courtiers, including the two who had already been there, he went to the two clever swindlers, who now worked as hard as they could, but without using any thread.

"'Is it not magnificent?' said the two old statesmen who had been there before. 'Your Majesty must admire the colours and the pattern.' And then they pointed to the empty looms, for they imagined the others could see the cloth.

"'What is this?' thought the emperor, 'I do not see anything at all. That is terrible! Am I stupid? Am I unfit to be emperor? That would indeed be the most dreadful thing that could happen to me.'

“'Really,' he said, turning to the weavers, 'your cloth has our most gracious approval;' and nodding contentedly he looked at the empty loom, for he did not like to say that he saw nothing. All his attendants, who were with him, looked and looked, and although they could not see anything more than the others, they said, like the emperor, 'It is very beautiful.' And all advised him to wear the new magnificent clothes at a great procession which was soon to take place. 'It is magnificent, beautiful, excellent,' one heard them say; everybody seemed to be delighted, and the emperor appointed the two swindlers 'Imperial Court weavers.'"

The Emperor's New Clothes, Hans Christian Anderson (1837)

PHOTO: Cape Lookout State Park, northern Oregon coast, by M.J. O'Brien. [See also here, here and here.]

Monday, July 07, 2008

Friday, June 27, 2008

Originalist sin

"It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed."
So wrote Antonin Scalia in his dissenting opinion in Boumediene v. Bush (as noted earlier), which permits detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere to challenge the legality of their imprisonment by filing writs of habeas corpus in federal courts.

A few days later, with no apparent sense of irony, the Supreme Court released Scalia's opinion for the 5-4 majority in District of Columbia v. Heller, which invalidated D.C.'s ban on handguns. Scalia neglected to mention that the result in Heller is absolutely certain to "cause more Americans to be killed."

While I can't say I've gotten through all 157 pages of Heller, it's interesting to see how Scalia has parsed the 2nd Amendment's reference to "[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..." In it he finds, through breathtaking contortions, an individual right to bear arms rather than a collective right, as the phrase would plainly suggest.

It's a familiar display of sophistry and outcome jurisprudence, armed to the teeth (bad pun) with cites to often-obscure sources (including a "Linguists' Brief") over two centuries. It's as if Scalia thinks an opinion creaking under the strain of so many sources would compensate for the feeble logic of his position.

Scalia's meticulous resort to centuries of legislative history in Heller directly conflicts with his long hostility to reliance on legislative and historical sources:
It says to the bar that even an "unambiguous (and) unequivocal" statute can never be dispositive; that, presumably under penalty of malpractice liability, the oracles of legislative history, far into the dimmy past, must always be consulted. This undermines the clarity of law, and condemns litigants (who, unlike us, must pay for it out of their own pockets) to subsidizing historical research by lawyers. The greatest defect of legislative history is its illegitimacy. We are governed by laws, not by the intentions of legislators. . . . But not the least of the defects of legislative history is its indeterminacy. If one were to search for an interpretative technique that, on the whole, was more likely to confuse than to clarify, one could hardly find a more promising candidate than legislative history. [Conroy v. Aniskoff, 507 U.S. 511 (1993).]
Or, as Scalia wrote a few years earlier, "the main danger in judicial interpretation of the Constitution — or, for that matter, in judicial interpretation of any law — is that the judges will mistake their own predilections for the law." [1]

Scalia's contortions evoke Harry Frankfurt's notion of bullshit:
"His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose."
Scalia's textualism, it seems, depends entirely on the context.


[1] Antonin Scalia "Originalism: The Lesser Evil," 57 University of Cincinnati Law Review 849, 851 (1989) [as quoted here].

[A version of this entry was cross-posted as
a comment on Lawyers, Guns and Money.]

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Another whiff of hypocrisy

John McCain continues to distance himself from these comments by strategist Charles Black, who seems to be ambivalent about the benefits and burdens of terrorism:
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December was an "unfortunate event," says Black. "But his knowledge and ability to talk about it reemphasized that this is the guy who's ready to be Commander-in-Chief. And it helped us." As would, Black concedes with startling candor after we raise the issue, another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. "Certainly it would be a big advantage to him," says Black.
But there's a familiar whiff of hypocrisy from the McCain camp, as revealed in this excerpt from an Associated Press analysis by Glen Johnson:
The day Bhutto died in a bombing and shooting attack, McCain told reporters, "My theme has been throughout this campaign that I'm the one with the experience, the knowledge and the judgment. So perhaps it may serve to enhance those credentials to make people understand that I've been to Pakistan, I know (President Pervez) Musharraf, I can pick up the phone and call him. I knew Benazir Bhutto."
If any uproar ensued over this comment, it failed to attract much attention from the media.

It's clear that Republicans, and particularly McCain, are trying to position themselves so that terrorism becomes a win/win proposition, at least in their fevered imaginations. Either:
  1. There will be no attack, in which case Bush/Cheney/McCain can claim that "we kept you safe" assuming we're willing to overlook the 4,104 U.S. deaths and nearly 30,000 wounded in Iraq; or,

  2. There is an attack and McCain can be hyped as more experienced, with more defense cred, than Obama -- hey, it's a tough world out there.
The ongoing attempt to "feminize" Obama, as developed by Maureen "Obambi" Dowd and many others, plays nicely into this grand, and unspeakably cynical, strategy.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Monomania in the White House

In the face of abysmal poll numbers, Bush and Cheney will again have to recalibrate and redefine the standards for passing historical judgments on their administration. No doubt they will declare their years in office to be a grand success if no additional terrorist attacks occur within the U.S. on their "watch." The boast would be simple enough: "we kept you safe."

But to make such a claim, they'd have to ignore the 4,102 U.S. troops who have been killed in Iraq and another 30,000 who have been wounded. Not to mention the tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties. They'd also have to dismiss the greatly increased long-term risk of attacks that their disastrous policies have created. Such short-term thinking, in one form or another, has long been the bane of U.S. politics. For Bush and Cheney, all that matters is deferring the consequences of their mistakes until after their term has ended.

On domestic issues, their only consistent policy has been to maximize the influence of — and minimize the restrictions on — multinational corporations. In this effort, and often with the assistance of a nominally Democratic congress, they have enjoyed some modest successes at the expense of the economy and the political process.

On his recent visit to the U.K., Bush again tried to insulate himself from contemporary judgments about his "legacy" by declaring, in his inimitable way:
“Well, first of all, just so you know, I’m not going to be around to see it. There’s no such thing as objective short-term history,” [Bush] said. “It takes a while for history to have its, you know, to be able to have enough time to look back to see why decisions were made and what their consequences were.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald offered a far more telling judgment on the Bush/Cheney administration's legacy in this description of two main characters from The Great Gatsby:
"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…"

Scalia: A legend in his own mind

In his dissenting opinion in Boumediene v. Bush, which conferred the right of judicial review on detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere, Antonin Scalia flatly declared:
The game of bait-and-switch that today’s opinion plays upon the Nation’s Commander in Chief will make the war harder on us. It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.
In support of this contention, he claims:
In the short term... the [majority's] decision is devastating. At least 30 of those prisoners hitherto released from Guantanamo Bay have returned to the battlefield.
He goes on to cite several incidents from the GWOT "battlefield" a very flexible concept for Scalia as alleged in such sources as the minority report of a Senate committee and several articles from WaPo. Most of the alleged incidents occurred in 2004.

Mark Denbeaux, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law (SHUSL), with the assistance of several law students, deconstructed Scalia's claims in a detailed 22-page report that found:
"Justice Scalia’s reliance on the these sources would have been more justifiable had the urban legend he perpetuated not been (one would have thought) permanently interred by later developments, including a 2007 Department of Defense Press Release and hearings before the House Foreign Relations Committee less than two weeks before Justice Scalia’s dissent was released.


"Justice Scalia’s claim of 30 recidivist detainees is belied by all reliable data. Such a statement simply repeats, without appropriate judicial analysis or skepticism towards the statements of parties before the Court, inaccurate data disseminated by the Department of Defense. Despite being repeatedly debunked, this statement has been reflexively accepted as true by Members of Congress and much of the American public. Justice Scalia is only the most recent disseminator of an urban legend that refuses to die."
The SHULS study found that only one released Gitmo detainee (designated "ISN 220") later took up arms against U.S. forces or their allies, and he was not released as a result of any legal process. In fact, the report found that "the decision to release ISN 220 was made by political officers in the Department of Defense and was contrary to the recommendations of the military officers."

Scalia's false claims go to the heart of the rationale for holding detainees without judicial review: if any doubt exists, keep them locked up indefinitely for fear that they might attack the U.S. or its allies [1]. This falsehood will be repeated many times by October 8th, when the first Gitmo trial begins.

Scalia's dissent is yet another variant of the Willie Horton Syndrome (see below and here) in U.S. politics. No politician or member of SCOTUS wants to be blamed for the release of a prisoner who later attacks U.S. troops or civilians. While this impulse may be understandable, an opaque system that includes torture and indefinite detentions is not the solution. A transparent judicial process is better able to balance legitimate security considerations with the due-process rights of those who have been unfairly accused and imprisoned.


[1] Unless there's enough international pressure to force their release, of course.

[H/T to Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money
and M. Duss at Think Progress]

Friday, June 20, 2008

Blues Break: Two by Blind Willie Johnson

Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground

A great "moaning" piece by Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945), born in Brenham, Texas. This song is one of the tracks on NASA's Voyager Golden Record. Launched in 1977, Voyager left the outer limits of the solar system in 2004.

Trouble Soon Be Over
Performed with a wonderful young singer whose name isn't available.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

McCain on Vietnam (but not Iraq)

In his 2001 foreword to the late David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, John McCain wrote the following about the war in Vietnam:
"It was a shameful thing to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through god-awful afflictions and heartache, to endure the dehumanizing experiences that are unavoidable in combat, for a cause that the country wouldn’t support over time and that our leaders so wrongly believed could be achieved at a smaller cost than our enemy was prepared to make us pay. No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the nation and the government lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone...

"For anyone who aspires to a position of national leadership, no matter the circumstances of his or her birth, this book should be mandatory reading. And anyone who feels a need, as a confused former prisoner of war once felt the need, for insights into how a great and good nation can lose a war and see its worthy purposes and principles destroyed by self-delusion can do no better than to read and reread David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest."
Yet this is the same candidate who has declared victory in Iraq, some five years (or 10.0 Friedman Units) in advance. And if that doesn't work, he'd embrace a whole century of U.S. occupation. Go figure.

But there's a deeper consistency here. McCain, after all, has complained that the U.S. didn't "fight to win" in Vietnam due to a lack of political will. This lack of "unshakable resolve," in turn, resulted from the failure of the civilian political leadership to rally support on the home front. Responsibility falls most heavily on liberal politicians in Washington, notably LBJ and Robert McNamara, and the antiwar movement.

McCain invokes the central tenet of right-wing mythologies about the Vietnam war: The troops were defeated at home, not on the battlefield. The various military outcomes over a dozen years may be debatable, but in this view the blame falls squarely on the civilian leadership and lack of popular support at home. Never mind that military successes are meaningless unless they achieve the political goals that are used to justify a war.*

The lack of "unshakable resolve" is McCain's variant on the infamous Dolchstoßlegende, or "stabbed in the back legend," from World War I. By that account, Germany lost the war due to the lack of will and duplicity of its politicians rather than any failures on the battlefield. Hitler later blamed the "November criminals" of 1918 including German Jews and the socialists who agitated against the war for Germany's betrayal. The Rambo series is a Hollywood version of the same mythology, which will certainly be resurrected by the right to account for failure in Iraq.

The fundamental problem, in this right-wing fantasy, is sheer lack of will as if "will" is a pure abstraction, a unique virtue unrelated to the actual political motives that caused the U.S. to wage war in Vietnam and Iraq. It seems this flawed ideology of "will," the legacy of two world wars and Vietnam, is very resilient.

For McCain, "unshakable resolve" magically assures success in war. But the deeper issue is always: resolve to do what, exactly? If the end is morally flawed or morally ambiguous, the war is unlikely to generate "unshakable resolve" on the home front and within the military itself. Tactical successes in combat become irrelevant or even, as in Iraq, counterproductive. High casualties, for no defensible purpose, combine with the slaughter of civilians to undermine any initial "resolve" that an invasion may have generated.

Colonel Kurtz aptly describes McCain's version of "will" in Apocalypse Now:
"You have to have men who are moral... and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling... without passion... without judgment... without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us."
If there's anything that describes McCain's policies on Iraq and the Middle East, it's that one simple phrase: "without judgment..."


* The far right likes to think that the U.S. was never "defeated" militarily in Vietnam (or in Iraq for that matter). The Tet offensive of 1968 is often invoked as proof of that claim. While it's true that the Vietcong and North Vietnamese were unable to hold many of their initial objectives, it can't be denied that Tet was an enormous political victory for their forces. Contrary to the Johnson administration's specious claims, Tet demonstrated that the insurgency, and not the U.S., held the strategic initiative in the war.

[H/T tip to The Cunning Realist and Digby]

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Blues Break: Shamisen with taiko

Virtuoso performances on the 3-stringed shamisen and taiko accompaniment. From Japanese television, but sadly the names of the performers and date are not available.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Missing from the cable news loops

Here's the Reverend John Hagee, the bigot whose endorsement was sought and welcomed by John McCain earlier this year.

In a recent interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Hagee shared his thoughts on divine retribution:
"I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans...I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are -- were recipients of the judgment of God for that...There was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades.... The Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment."
Back in 2006, Hagee succumbed to pangs of nostalgia for the good old days of slavery:
To help students seeking odd jobs, his church newsletter, The Cluster, advertised a "slave" sale. "Slavery in America is returning to Cornerstone," it said. "Make plans to come and go home with a slave." Mr. Hagee apologized but, in a radio interview, protested about pressure to be "politically correct" and joked that perhaps his pet dog should be called a "canine American."
McCain has lately distanced himself from Hagee's most extreme anti-Catholic remarks. A campaign lackey stated:
"While we welcome [Hagee's] support, it shouldn't be seen as a wholesale endorsement of all of Mr. Hagee's views."
Barack Obama has gone a lot further in renouncing Reverend Jeremiah Wright's most inflammatory rhetoric. Yet we don't see CNN or Fox endlessly looping the many outrageous videos of Hagee on subjects as diverse as homosexuality, eschatology and a Christian jihad against Iran. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other (in the words McCain once used) "agents of intolerance" also get a free ride. As Frank Rich writes in today's NYT:
Even after Mr. Hagee’s Catholic bashing bubbled up in the mainstream media, Mr. McCain still did not reject and denounce him, as Mr. Obama did an unsolicited endorser, Louis Farrakhan, at the urging the urging of Tim Russert and Hillary Clinton. Mr. McCain instead told George Stephanopoulos two Sundays ago that while he condemns any “anti-anything” remarks by Mr. Hagee, he is still “glad to have his endorsement.”

I wonder if Mr. McCain would have given the same answer had Mr. Stephanopoulos confronted him with the graphic video of the pastor in full “Great Whore” glory. But Mr. McCain didn’t have to fear so rude a transgression. Mr. Hagee’s videos have never had the same circulation on television as Mr. Wright’s. A sonorous white preacher spouting venom just doesn’t have the telegenic zing of a theatrical black man.

In case there's any question, here's how a President McCain's religious views will influence his political appointments (hint: Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Catholics and non-Baptist Christians need not apply):

Friday, May 02, 2008

Update: 71% and counting

Here's an update on our related blog entry for April 24th:
A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Thursday indicates that 71 percent of the American public disapprove of how Bush is handling his job as president.

"No president has ever had a higher disapproval rating in any CNN or Gallup Poll; in fact, this is the first time that any president's disapproval rating has cracked the 70 percent mark," said Keating Holland, CNN's polling director.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sunday trail blogging: Larch Mountain, Oregon Cascades

During the summer and fall, the 4,000-ft. summit of Larch Mountain is easily accessible by road from Portland. In the winter and spring, it's an altogether different experience: skis or snowshoes are required. If the snow level is low, as it is now, a very long trek (6 miles or more, one way) may be required. The reward is an expansive view from the summit pinnacle, including Mt. Hood (above) to the east, the Columbia Gorge and the Washington Cascades to the north and the Willamette Valley and Portland (below) to the west. Skiers can finish the day with a glorious downhill run through dense forest that, on rare occasions, opens onto fresh clearcuts. [Warning: the road is open to snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles, but so far I've been lucky enough to avoid them.]

PHOTOS: M.J. O'Brien

Pique of the week: Road signs

The two-lane country road that links my Oregon town to the nearest freeway is lined with 73 traffic signs over its 10-mile length. Some of the signs are clearly indispensable, including such standbys as Stop, Entering School Zone, several speed-limit signs and a few directional signs. But most of the signs are so obvious and redundant as to be worthless. Is it really necessary, for example, to have No Passing signs when there's already a double yellow line clearly painted on the pavement? By my reckoning (and I'm admittedly not a traffic engineer), at least two-thirds of those 73 signs could be removed without endangering or even confusing anyone.

The result of all the unneeded road signs is visual clutter that is distracting, ugly and, quite possibly, unsafe. The safety concerns have been reinforced by a "Shared Space" study that was recently conducted across the Atlantic:
"The experiment, funded by the European Union, began in 2004 in seven villages, towns and municipalities in Denmark, Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands. One Dutch town, admittedly tiny with a population of 1,000, has not only taken down stop signs and directional signs but has yanked its parking meters and scraped off the lines on its streets.

"While the experiment has generally been tried in areas of smaller populations, the city of London conducted a similar experiment on one of its most crowded shopping streets - and saw a 40 percent reduction in accidents. In response, the city next will yank out traffic signals on a main street in its busy museum district."

Traffic signals work best, it seems, when they're separated by at least a quarter mile--a principle often violated in U.S. towns and cities.

The Shared Space innovations have attracted considerable attention around the world. Maybe similar experiments could be conducted here, although we have a long history of government paternalism in regulating our highways. In brief, transportation planners assume that drivers in the U.S. are complete dolts. The Shared Space designers took a different approach:

"The theory behind the philosophy: Drivers will speed, run yellow lights and generally drive like idiots when they think they are protected from the consequences of their actions because they assume other drivers will follow the rules.

"Throwing in a little anarchy sharpens drivers' senses, say advocates of the Shared Space philosophy.

"Or, as the German magazine Spiegel put it in a story on the experiment: 'Where the situation is unclear, they're forced to drive more carefully and cautiously.'"

The goal of the Shared Space experiment is paradoxical:
"The assumption is that drivers are accustomed to owning the road and rarely pay attention to speed limits or caution signs anyway. Removing traffic lights and erasing lane markers, the thinking goes, will cause drivers to get nervous and slow down.

"'Generally speaking, what we want is for people to be confused,' said Willi Ladner, a deputy mayor in Bohmte [Germany]. 'When they're confused, they'll be more alert and drive more carefully.'"

The benefits of the Shared Space approach may extend beyond the streets and highways:
"There is another underlying assumption to Shared Space: Without signs and signals telling motorists what to do, they will revert to the courtesy and good manners they show in other parts of their life. That means watching and adapting to the movements of other drivers and peering into the eyes of pedestrians and bicyclists to reach some unspoken accommodation with others on the road."
It's easy to imagine nightmare scenarios in the U.S. involving drivers on cellphones without traffic signs to guide or inhibit them. But the experiment hasn't produced mayhem in Europe. Quite the contrary: accident rates have fallen dramatically in most locations.

So and it may be worth a try here. To date only West Palm Beach, Florida, has undertaken a similar approach to traffic signs.

In many communities across the U.S., on the other hand, New Urbanist designs (like "skinny streets") have successfully achieved traffic calming in neighborhoods and reduced the aesthetic impacts of an autocentric culture. But traffic engineers, by and large, remain convinced that the principal goal of a street or highway is to move vehicles as efficiently as possible from point A to point B.

The local 10-mile freeway connection was upgraded a couple years ago by the addition of two roundabouts at a couple dangerous intersections. The traffic flow has slowed considerably, reducing accidents and making them less harmful when they do occur.

But the number of road signs, alas, hasn't changed. They're just a small part, easily overlooked, of the aesthetic nightmare that the built landscape of the U.S. has become.

PHOTO: Traffic-light sculpture in the U.K.

Blues Break: NIN - "Discipline"

A change of pace: this single was released for free by Nine Inch Nails on April 22nd. This "video" consists of just a few still photos. Ghosts, Trent Reznor's instrumental album, was released last month.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A record high (but not the Dow)

According to the latest Gallup poll (April 18-20), George W. Bush has received the highest disapproval ratings of any president in the 70-year history of the organization. Fully 69% of those who responded disapproved of his performance, while 28% approved. Fewer than 4% expressed "no opinion," and extraordinarily low number.

Prior to the latest survey, the highest disapproval rating
67% belonged to Harry S. Truman in 1952. Even Richard Nixon had a 66% rating at the time of his resignation in 1974.

The latest Gallup result offers more evidence to support the growing consensus that Dubya is the worst president in U.S. history.

The Gallup result is consistent with's current "trend estimate" for 19 national polls that show an average approval rating of 28.3%.

Meanwhile,'s trend estimate for the Democratic race shows Obama with a 50-40% lead as of April 21st, the day before Clinton's 10-point win in Pennsylvania.

[H/T to D at Lawyers, Guns and Money.]

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Guest poet : Carol Ellis - "Clear-cut"


When the quiet forest has been taken down
to bare earth, the brown hills stand like soldiers
shorn, every bump and crevice visible, dark stubble
where Douglas fir made a canopy and trillium opened
in early spring.

Memory continues, green hills scarved in mist, dog tooth
violets yellow on the forest floor, silence shattered only
by bird song or the rush of a small stream.

When the last truck leaves with its burden of logs
there’s a new silence, the brown earth heaped up like fresh
graves, slash piles smoldering, the stillness of a battlefield
when only the dead remain.

Carol Ellis' poems have been published in Windfall, Fireweed, Voice Catcher and Verseweavers. She lives in Forest Grove and is an active member of the Oregon State Poetry Association.

PHOTO (M.J. O'Brien): Fresh clearcut in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, southern Washington Cascades; this hillside is hundreds of feet high.