Friday, August 31, 2007

Liberal Seagull reads...

Liberal Eagle has a list of links in the sidebar, but I don't, so I figured I'd post some here.

Who I read:

Who I listen to:

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Mother Teresa, atheist?

Frankly, I don't know what to make of this one.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the nun who devoted her life to helping the poorest of the poor in India, severely doubted the existence of God, according to her letters and diaries.

She wrote things like this (emphasis mine):

The damned of Hell suffer eternal punishment because they experiment with the loss of God.

In my own soul, I feel the terrible pain of this loss. I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God and that he does not really exist.

I have a couple different reactions to this. In one sense it makes me admire her more. I mean, as an atheist, I too find the universe pretty cold and unwelcoming, and while I've come to terms with that, I'll admit that on some level I envy people who are so confident of an eternal reward for goodness that they can spend their lives sacrificing for the good of others and find joy in that. I always assumed Mother Teresa was in that category--but, apparently, she spent her life helping the destitute with no expectation that she'd actually ever get a thing out of it. That's pretty laudable.

Where I run into trouble is some of the other religious gibberish she went along with. She was extremely anti-birth-control, a significant fact when you consider that she was doing her work in one of the most overpopulated places on the planet. And she spoke out forcefully against abortion, calling it, absurdly enough, the worst humanitarian crisis going on in the world.

It's one thing to believe these things from a position of religious faith. I mean, yes, it's destructive, but at least I can see where it's coming from.

But, if God doesn't really exist, that inescapably means that the Vatican is nothing but a bunch of sex-starved octogenarians in funny hats, trying to divine meaning from a very flawed bronze-age text. Why on earth would someone who did not think there was an omnipotent being guiding John Paul II's hand deny birth control to a starving, overpopulated place purely on his say-so?

Busting the myth of privatization

There are some things the government can do more efficiently than the private sector.

I'm sure few people reading this blog will find those words shocking, but you wouldn't know that to listen to Republican pundits and the mainstream press. It's often taken as given that the private sector is always more efficient than big, clumsy old government -- so much so that it's rare for anyone to actually look back and see if privatization has provided any of the savings it promises. Hence, when a counterexample comes along, I think it's important to point it out.

James Surowiecki points out just such an example in the New Yorker. He writes that private student loans cost the government four times as much as the government-run Direct Loan program. Effectively, the government is subsidizing a whole industry that makes money off students and taxpayers while taking on very little risk.

Similarly, the much heralded Medicare Modernization Act, which partially privatized Medicare, has failed to create any cost savings for the government. The private plans are subsidized to the point where they cost the government 12% more than just providing the same services directly.

The lesson here is that privatization is not a cure-all, and it needs to be looked at very skeptically whenever it's proposed. It can work, but only in circumstances where there really is the potential for a true free market -- and generally the lack of an effective free market is why the government started providing these services to begin with. Student loans, for example, are not something a free market provides well, because in a truly free, unsubsidized lending market, no one would lend anything to students -- they have no credit history and no collateral.

When private industry is brought into an area where market forces don't work well, the government is forced to heavily subsidize it. When this happens, two things occur -- the government ends up paying for shareholder profits, as well as services rendered; and the industry becomes a powerful lobby for maintaining the new, inefficient status quo. This has happened over and over, and we can't afford to continue to let the myth of guaranteed cost savings from privatization go unchallenged.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Another one bites the dust

Gonzales is out of here.

Gonzales will announce his resignation in a 10:30 a.m statement in Washington. President Bush was expected to discuss Gonzales' departure at his Texas ranch before leaving on a trip to western states.

"Better late than never," was John Edwards' apparent response, and I suppose that's the way I feel about it too. Probably there was no one more ill-suited for the job than Gonzales. He came into this position with all the gravitas and authority of a five-year-old stage performer being fed his lines by his mother. I can only imagine Bush and his advisors giving warm reassurances to Gonzales after the latter had to face the big bad men on Capitol Hill:

ALBERTO GONZALES: I prepare for every hearing, Senator.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Do you prepare for all your press conferences? Were you prepared for the press conference where you said there weren't any discussions involving you?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I’ve already said that I misspoke. It was my mistake.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I’m asking you: were you prepared? You interjected that you’re always prepared. Were you prepared for that press conference?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Sir, I didn’t say that I was always prepared. I said I prepared for every hearing.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, then, I’m asking you: do you prepare for your press conferences?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, we do take time to try to prepare for the press conference.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: And were you prepared when you said you weren't involved in any deliberations?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I’ve already conceded that I misspoke at that press conference. There was nothing intentional. And the truth of the matter is, Senator, I --

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Let's move on. I don't think you're going to win a debate about your preparation, frankly.

Perhaps Gonzales now will move on to the relative kindergarten of civilian law practice, but frankly, I wouldn't want him as my lawyer.

Now, what's left in place is for the Democrats not to get railroaded into confirming another Bush puppet. Get the job done right, guys. Not as quickly as possible.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Octan Drew This: "None dare call it education"

This week's IDT comic is a guest strip, drawn by reader, writer and forumite Octan. Go over to the forum and show him some love, whydontcha.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A bit of reader insight on my "four truths" post.

Katherine in Australia wrote in with this bit of insight about third parties:
In Britain they have a thriving alternative party known as the Liberal Democrats. The Libdems didn't start out by aiming for power in Parliament, they went for power in the local councils and townships. As they became well known and well respected, it made it possible for them to move up into federal power as well.

The third parties in the US tend to go straight for Federal power, rather than doing any long term planning. Let's say we revived Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party. Let's say the Progs managed to eventually start capturing some power at the county and state levels. Let's also say that this party was then able to prove itself as a positive and effective force that generated great voter loyalty. Eventually, the possibility would be there for them to move up into Federal politics. If nothing else, their popularity might cause the Federal parties to become more left leaning.

This is an excellent point. This is how you build a national party -- by starting on the local, grass-roots level. This is really what the Green Party and groups like them should be trying to do, instead of trying to get a shortcut to relevancy by running Presidential campaigns.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Liberal Seagull's Four Truths About Voting

  1. Third parties are irrelevant (except as spoilers).

    The nature of the U.S. electoral system is to create two-party rule. In the case of Presidential elections, this is simply a function of how voting works -- two candidates with similar ideologies will split the vote, causing the remaining candidate to get a plurality and take the election. This same principle operates in Congressional elections, as well -- with the added feature that the rare independent or third-party candidate who does manage to get elected will have to caucus with one of the two major parties in order to accomplish anything. This is because of the committees, where much of the work of legislating actually gets done, and which the two major parties divide up based on who currently has a majority.

    Voting for a third party as a protest vote is easy, and feels good. Since your candidate has no chance of winning, no matter what happens you get to disclaim any responsibility by saying, "don't blame me -- I voted for the other guy!" In the end, however, it really only helps the candidate that least reflects your views.

  2. Change comes from within.

    So if voting for third parties is ineffective, what can you do? Work within one of the existing parties. Write letters. Make phone calls. Donate money to primary candidates you like. This is a lot more work than voting for a third party, but it can accomplish so much more.

    The actions of conservatives can be instructive, here. When they didn't like the Immigration Reform Bill, they didn't go off in a huff and vow to vote for the Constitution Party. They wrote letters and made phone calls to Republican politicians, and they got results -- within a week or two that bill wasn't just dead, it was radioactive.

  3. Politics is a game of numbers.

    To accomplish anything in the House, a party needs a majority. To accomplish anything in the Senate, a party needs 60 votes. (If they have a truly hostile President to overcome, they might need a two-thirds supermajority in both houses.) If these thresholds aren't reached, it doesn't matter much how ideologically pure and united they are; nothing will get accomplished without significant compromises. For that reason, sometimes it's necessary to hold your nose and vote for someone you don't like in the general election, just because it'll nudge the party you prefer closer to those magic numbers. No one likes doing this, but sometimes it's the lesser of two evils. And...

  4. It's always the lesser of two evils.

    Unless you're voting for yourself, there isn't a politician out there you won't disagree with on some issues. Representative democracy is about picking the person who will best represent your interests out of the choices available; it accomplishes nothing to hold out for perfection.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

I Drew This, August 15, 2007

Monday, August 13, 2007

Other news of the world

Beagle already said all there is to say about Karl Rove leaving, which of course is today's big news (so far).

But I want to mention a couple other things other bloggers have said that intrigued me.

1. Glenn Greenwald links to, quotes, and discusses one of those staggering right-wing blog posts in which the author actually asserts that if we don't throw every resource we have (this includes suspending any and all freedoms Dear Leader deems necessary) at the threat of "Islamofascism," then Osama bin Laden is going to take over the country, force us all to convert to radical Islam, and make us live under a caliphate where--well, I'll just quote the Roger Simon post Glenn links to.
"Because if we lose and fall under religious law, there not only will be no gay marriage, there will be no women's rights, no freedom of the press, no basic human rights, not even – as in the case of Iran – any music."

I honestly hope I do not have to explain why it's so stunning to me that anyone could seriously believe this is a risk. The "Islamofascists" (god I hate that term, which manages to be unfair both to Islam and fascism) have no army, no measurable political support here--no means of taking over even a local schoolboard, let alone the country.

I mean, I too think we should do what we reasonably can to stop them from killing people, but they're not Hitler or Stalin. And, might I add, we didn't suspend Habeas Corpus or submit to warrantless domestic spying back then, and yet, somehow, we never even came close to a Nazi or Soviet takeover. And those guys had, you know, the means to actually attack us with something other than suicide bombings, and ideologies that might have resonated with more Americans than living under sharia law. I don't see that getting any traction.

I realize that thinking that only they have the ability to nobly stare down the existential threat of our times makes them feel like GI Joe or something, but it's hard to imagine a more ridiculous worldview. I don't even know how to talk to these people. They're not being rational; they're thinking with a part of their brains that predates logic by hundreds of millions of years.

2. Kevin Drum wonders about the media's habit of reporting every issue as a "he said/she said" affair, even if one side is clearly and objectively lying. He points out that this means that the system, in practice, gives a heavy advantage to liars, as I pointed out myself in this 2004 cartoon.

But, Kevin also says he doesn't know what the solution is:

In theory, everyone agrees with this. The problem is, I haven't yet come across a single person who's proposed a workable solution. Who gets to decide whether an issue is still debatable? The reporter? But most reporters aren't subject matter experts. Would you trust the average reporter to take on this role on a daily basis? And even if we do believe reporters should be routine arbiters of the truth, how exactly should they express this? Flatly call things lies? Insert contrary evidence in their own voice whenever they decide someone has crossed the line? Something more subtle?

Well...look. I think it's simplistic to say there is any single answer that's "the" solution. Of course there isn't, and no one is ever going to come up with one, because the truth is a complex affair.

But clearly lines are already being drawn. They always are. We all joke about Bush claiming that up is down, but if Bush gave a speech where he actually declared that up and down were the same direction, in those words, reporters wouldn't actually report this as a credible claim and then say "some Democrats claim that up and down are opposite directions." If Bush claimed tomorrow that he was black, or that the earth was only seventeen minutes old, or that he could flap his arms and take off, reporters wouldn't treat those claims as if they had factual merit.

The "solution," then, is just for reporters to draw the line in a different place. They need to be more skeptical about things powerful people say, and when they know a politician is objectively lying to them, to report that that politician has lied. No, it won't be perfect. Yes, some lies will always get through. But in the last seven years, way too many easily-checkable lies have been getting through unchallenged. And we don't have to wait for someone to come up with a perfect everything-is-fine-now-forever solution to do something about it.

Goodbye, Karl Rove

Karl Rove is to quit at the end of August.

According to Turd Blossom, he was not "forced to quit," he simply is resigning to be closer to his family. No, I'm sorry, he's resigning to write a tell-all book about how his scare tactics and immoral counsel screwed the country ten times over. Or, wait, he just wants to "teach politics at the university level." That's going to be an interesting class. The prerequisites would probably be Losing Your Soul I and II.

Goodbye, Karl. Maybe now the Senate can get you to show up, but I doubt it. I don't think your influence on the White House will disappear, anyway. Bush will run out the clock on your playbook because it's all they know how to do.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Conservatism is a death cult

You know how conservatives are always accusing us of wanting the U.S. to "lose" in Iraq so Bush can look bad (as if he needed anyone's help looking bad)?

At least we don't go around fantasizing about another 9/11 because that would be good for the country.

Can you imagine the kind of warped "everyone must agree with my worldview and it'd be good if another 3000 people died in order to convince them" mentality?

Also, as Atrios points out:

The conservative cult's mass death wish is obviously based on a faulty premise, that if there's a terrorist attack they and Dear Leader will somehow be vindicated. Of course the reverse is true. When it comes to "the war on terra," George Bush and the conservative movement have pretty much gotten everything they've wanted. Democrats and dirty fucking hippie bloggers, despite complaints, haven't managed to stop the Bush administration from doing what they think is important.

So if a massive terrorist attack happened, it wouldn't be a vindication of what they've been doing, it would be proof that they failed to do what George Bush claims is his most important job.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Senate Roll Call: Terrorism Surveillance

A lot of us are angry about the Democrats being steamrollered on the terrorism surveillance bill. But we need to make sure we're targeting our anger at the right people. With that in mind, here's a list by state of how Senators voted on the bill. Find out how your Senators voted, and either thank them or give 'em hell.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Penny wise, pound foolish?

An interesting bit of perspective on the Minneapolis bridge collapse, submitted to Risks Digest by Sidney Markowitz: would have cost a little over 10 minutes of Iraq war expenditures to have repaired the I-35W bridge before it collapsed, and now it will cost about 100 bridges worth of preventative maintenance to repair this one bridge after the fact.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

I Drew This, August 7, 2007

Y'all know me. And you know I'm a card-carrying Democrat, and believe our best hope for getting some good done in this country is to support the Democratic Party.

I want to stress that this cartoon, while it does express my current frustrations with the party, does not negate that.

Glenn Greenwald makes a point I can't believe even needs making, but apparently it does: this is not 2002, and Democrats have no earthly reason to fear Karl Rove accusing them of being "weak on terrorism."

We do not need to wonder or speculate about what might happen if Democrats obstruct warrantless eavesdropping legislation and Republicans are then able to make an issue of it politically. That already happened in 2006. That was Rove's whole strategy. It failed miserably, across the board. And yet the Democratic leadership just permitted, and many Democrats supported, a wild expansion of George Bush's warrantless eavesdropping powers based on a jittery fear of this already-failed tactic, if not based on actual support for these increased eavesdropping powers.

In D.C. it may still be 2002, but out here where we actually vote, it's 2007 and people hate Bush and the war. I don't see what's so hard about this.

Friday, August 3, 2007

How they're going to try and steal 2008

This is a story that should be getting more coverage.

Republicans in California are pushing a ballot initiative that would distribute the state's electoral votes according to the winner of each congressional district.

At the moment, California, the single biggest state with 55 electoral votes, grants them all to the statewide winner, as do 47 of the other 49 states. The winner, of course, is always a Democrat, which offsets the fact that the winner of a state like Texas is always a Republican.

This plan would give the 2008 Republican nominee as many electoral votes, potentially, as carrying a big state like Ohio. This would, essentially, guarantee that a Republican will be "elected" in 2008, regardless of who wins the popular vote.

Now, I should say here that I think this would be a perfectly good proposal if it were instituted nationwide. It would decrease the chances of a candidate who loses the popular vote becoming president, as happened in 2000 with unspeakably hideous results.

For that matter, I'd be all for abolishing electoral votes completely and just electing the president by popular vote.

But this is not a good-faith attempt to make the process more democratic. In fact, it's the exact opposite of that--it's something Republicans are proposing in an attempt to guarantee victory in an election which, on a level playing field, would be very, very bad for them.

I call on readers to make as much noise as they can about this, especially readers in California. This has to be stopped.

What's the Matter With Bush?

Thomas Frank, in his 2004 book "What's the Matter With Kansas?" famously asked why so many people in middle America vote against their own self interests.

Perhaps it's time to ask, "What's the matter with Bush?" For some time now he's shown a puzzling tendency to do things that work against his own best interests.

Exhibit A would have to be his continued support for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales's troubles have built to the point where he's now not just an embarrassment to the White House, but a genuine obstruction to getting things accomplished. Most recently, debate on Congress's revision of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) bogged down over a clause that would have given the Attorney General the ability to determine whether surveillance properly targets people overseas, and not in the U.S. The White House wants Gonzales to have this authority, but as Sen. Charles Schumer put it, "nobody believes he has any independence." (Most Democrats favor having the FISA court make the determination instead.)

Another good example is the puzzling decision to fire massively unpopular Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld after the 2006 elections. Firing him in October, instead, could have tilted some races in the Republicans' favor, but Bush held on to him until there was no political capital to be gained from doing otherwise.

There was a time when most of us would have assumed that there was some hidden political logic to Bush hanging on to Gonzales -- some clever scheme hatched by Karl Rove. But it apparently turns out these guys aren't political geniuses; they just got lucky a few times.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Back to the future

So, earlier this year, the Democratic Congress passed a bill that funded Bush's war with no strings attached. Word at the time was they were worried that if they didn't, Bush would accuse them of being "weak on terrorism."

Now, I see, via the NY Times by way of Digby, that the Democrats are preparing to give Bush additional wiretapping powers. Guess why?

Under pressure from President Bush, Democratic leaders in Congress are scrambling to pass legislation this week to expand the government’s electronic wiretapping powers.

Democratic leaders have expressed a new willingness to work with the White House to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to make it easier for the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on some purely foreign telephone calls and e-mail. Such a step now requires court approval.


In the past few days, Mr. Bush and Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, have publicly called on Congress to make the change before its August recess, which could begin this weekend. Democrats appear to be worried that if they block such legislation, the White House will depict them as being weak on terrorism.

You have got to be effing kidding me.

Have the Democrats noticed that it is not currently 2002? That everyone hates George Bush, and that the Republicans tried the "Democrats are weak on terrah" line in 2006 and got their asses handed to them in the election?

These people live in a time warp. It's the only possible explanation.

Women's de-lib redux

Back in May, Liberal Beagle posted about a Supreme Court decision in which the Court ruled that a woman could not sue for two decades' worth of pay discrimination because the 180-day statute of limitations had expired.

Yesterday, the House considered a bill that would change the law so that the 180-day clock is restarted each time a paycheck is issued that's affected by discrimination.

Under current law, as interpreted by the Supreme Court ruling, the worker has 180 days from the initial discriminatory decision. Given the difficulties of discovering and proving pay discrimination in most workplaces, this is a very high bar to clear.

The bill passed on a nearly party line vote, but the Bush Administration has promised a veto. The National Association of Manufacturers also opposes the bill, saying that employers "would be forced to defend against an avalanche of decades-old, frivolous claims." House Republicans characterized the bill as a give-away for trial lawyers.

Honestly, this bill sounds like common sense to me. It's not as if employers would be asked to defend claims from people who hadn't worked for them in years -- only employees who had received a paycheck within the last six months would be eligible. It doesn't seem reasonable for an employer to be completely off the hook for good just because they've managed to hide discrimination from an employee for six months.

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