Thursday, November 30, 2006

Why atheism is not a religion

I've mentioned before that I'm an agnostic, for the usual reasons: I don't believe the existence of God can be definitively proven or disproven, so why waste time trying? Life's too short. And while I certainly hope there is an afterlife, I think that any God worth worshiping wouldn't base the entrance requirement on successfully picking the One True Faith out from the thousands of imposters.

I say that by way of explanation for linking to this thread over at one of my other homes, Blogcritics.org. It's the best explanation of why atheism isn't a religion I've ever read. And the comments discussion is outstanding.

I'm agnostic, not atheist, but since agnostics often get lumped in with their more-certain cousins I'm always glad to see a reasoned argument like this one.

My favorite paragraph:

One of the biggest selling points for the "atheism is a religion" trope is the common misperception that atheists know that there is no god. Certainly there are some who would say so, just as there are Christians who have no religious doubt whatsoever, but these are not (I hope) majority views. Insistence on the absolute correctness of your position is not a sign of either faith or rationalist purity; it's a sign of hubris and epistemological immodesty.

It echoes what I've said before: In matters of religion, it's always a good idea (and good for social harmony) to always consider the possibility that you are the one who is wrong.

Go give it a read. It's excellent.

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What one hand giveth....

Iran has offered to cooperate with the United States in Iraq, and hosted a conference with Iraqi and Syrian leaders to discuss ways to stabilize the country. Iran's president has also written a letter to the American people urging peace and cooperation.

Meanwhile, the other hand has been busy:

U.S. officials say they have found smoking-gun evidence of Iranian support for terrorists in Iraq: brand-new weapons fresh from Iranian factories. According to a senior defense official, coalition forces have recently seized Iranian-made weapons and munitions that bear manufacturing dates in 2006.

This suggests, say the sources, that the material is going directly from Iranian factories to Shia militias, rather than taking a roundabout path through the black market. "There is no way this could be done without (Iranian) government approval," says a senior official.

This goes along with previous reports that Shiite militiamen have traveled to Lebanon to receive training from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia that recently fought a short war with Israel.

These actions are not necessarily contradictory, nor even evidence that Iran is lying or is acting in bad faith. Helping an adversary dig themselves into a hole before offering to help them out of it makes perfect sense; it increases your leverage and raises the price you can exact for your help.

What they do point out is the urgency with which we must address the problem. Through confrontation or cooperation or some combination, the Iranian role in fomenting instability in Iraq must be dealt with. Because their ability to stir trouble far exceeds our ability to tamp it down.

Our options are few. There's no real way to stop the flow of arms or training without widening the war to include Iran -- a prospect that enjoys roughly zero support here at home. Never mind that such a move would by no means be a sure thing; Iran has three times the population of Iraq, a military that hasn't been sapped by years of sanctions, and some truly rugged terrain to fight in.

Galling as it may be, I predict we eventually will have no choice but to play ball with Iran. Unless we simply leave, in which case Iran also wins, because it is in the best position to pick up the pieces and expand its influence in the region.

Either way, it looks like we'll be witness to an ultimate irony: that our invasion of Iraq ended up strengthening one of the regimes we identified as part of the "Axis of Evil" when this whole thing started. That may turn out to be the ultimate legacy of Bush's foreign policy.

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Surplus time!

The state budget news is in, and the headline, anyway, is good: a $2.2 billion surplus.

Surpluses are good, of course. Especially if the state uses them wisely -- to replenish reserves, lower tax rates and pay down debt, for example, rather than blow them on rebates or expensive new programs.

But let's not forget how we got here. Gov. Pawlenty balanced the state budget largely on the backs of local taxpayers, and the effects are still being felt: on the same day the state announced its projected surplus, they also estimated that property taxes would rise 8.2 percent in 2007, for a three-year average of 7 percent per year.

So tone down the patting yourselves on the backs, guys. There was no magic here. The state technically held spending flat by cutting local aid -- but property taxes went up as a result. That had the effect of making taxes more regressive, since property taxes are essentially a flat tax, mitigated somewhat by the homestead exemption.

At least the governor has enough shame to suggest that part of the surplus should be used for property tax relief, as a way to undo some of the damage. But he suggested doing so through a one-time rebate. That's a bad idea: "Jesse checks", as Gov. Jesse Ventura's rebates were known, helped contribute to the huge deficit Pawlenty confronted when he took office, because the rebates drained state reserves.

DFL leaders, more sensibly, are pushing permanent tax relief instead. That would be more just, and have a more predictable effect on state and individual finances.

Finally, heed the caveats on that big number. Half of it is essentially a one-time deal, and the other half would be needed to cover inflation if state spending remains at current levels. Given that, the most prudent use might be to stick it into state rainy-day funds, to help avoid the surplus/deficit/surplus roller-coaster we've been on in recent years.

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Texas and ethics: an oxymoron?

Gotta say, this doesn't look good:

A Texas official who receives any sum of cash as a gift can satisfy state disclosure laws by reporting the money simply as "currency," without specifying the amount, the Texas Ethics Commission reiterated Monday.

Texas officials must report all gifts over $250. What this ruling says is that they don't have to say whether the check was for $250 or $250,000. It would be a massive understatement to describe it as contrary to the spirit of transparency that underlines most ethics laws.

Luckily, most observers have not been so restrained.

"What the Ethics Commission has done is legalize bribery in the state of Texas. We call on the commission to resign en masse," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, who heads Texas Citizen, an Austin-based group that advocates for campaign finance reform.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, said the "currency" interpretation would render it "perfectly legal to report the gift of 'a wheelbarrow' without reporting that the wheelbarrow was filled with cash."

In a letter to the commissioners dated Monday, Earle called such an analysis "absurd and out of step with both the law and current public attitudes and concerns about corruption in government."

The Ethics Commission has its defenders, who say the problem is the unclear law, not the Commission's interpretation of it. The commission, they say, is constrained by the language of the law, which nowhere specifies that the amount of the gift should be revealed. Indeed, Republicans have delighted in pointing out that the law in question was passed by Democrats in 1993.

(When reading the above law, be sure to pause at Subchapter C, lines 75-1 to 75-27, where there still exists a prohibition against communists running for office, except that the definition of "communist" has been changed to mean "anyone who commits an act reasonably calculated to further the overthrow of the government." Then skip ahead to line 77-8, where you'll find the law establishing the Texas Ethics Commission, and line 110-21, where you'll find the chapter discussing financial disclosure standards; line 124-3 is the particular language in question).

Republicans are right that the statute doesn't specify a dollar amount is required. But the law does require a "description" of any gift over $250, and if you read the chapter as a whole it's clear that dollar amounts are central to the process.

Isn't that the point of having an ethics commission -- to make such decisions when the law is silent on a particular detail? And shouldn't that decision take into account the purpose and function of ethics laws? Instead, the commission made a ruling that pulled its own teeth.

The good news is that the Texas legislature appears poised to fix the problem in the next session, by specifying that the disclosure must include the dollar amount. And governor Rick Perry has indicated he would sign it.

Maybe while they're at it they can specify the kind of behavior they expect from a commission charged with preventing corruption in public office. And foremost in that clause should be the following: "In its deliberations the commission shall seek to prevent corruption, not abet it."

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Remember rehabilitation?

The United States famously locks up more people per capita than any other country, with about 7 million people currently behind bars, on probation or on parole (2.2 million of them are actually in prison or jail).

This is not a statistic to be particularly proud of. As with health care, where we spend more than anybody else and achieve mediocre results, we imprison more than anybody else and achieve mediocre results.

For some kinds of crime, of course, imprisonment is the only answer. But that's the most expensive and harmful way to do it. Not only does imprisonment cost tons of money; it takes people out of the work force and turns them into useless hunks of meat.

Maybe it doesn't have to be that way.

It is one of the least-told stories in American crime-fighting. New York, the safest big city in the nation, achieved its now-legendary 70 percent drop in homicides even as it locked up fewer and fewer people in the past decade. The number of prisoners in the city has dropped from 21,449 in 1993 to 14,129 this past week. That runs counter to the national trend, in which prison admissions have jumped 72 percent during that time....

For three decades, Congress and dozens of legislatures have worked to write tougher anti-crime measures. Often the only controversy has centered on how to finance the construction of prison cells.

New York City officials, by contrast, are debating whether to turn some old cells in downtown Brooklyn into luxury shops.

"If you want to drive down crime, the experience of New York shows that it's ridiculous to spend your first dollar building more prison cells," said Michael Jacobson, who served as New York's correction commissioner for former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and now is president of the Vera Institute of Justice, which studies crime-fighting trends worldwide....

New York was not the only city in which crime and imprisonment fell in tandem during the 1990s. From 1993 to 2001, homicides in San Diego declined by 62 percent while prison sentences dropped by 25 percent.

I'm sure the booming economy of the 90s had something to do with that -- which is another way of saying that a lot of crime is not the result of evil people but the result of lack of economic opportunity. So one way to fight crime is to increase economic opportunity.

But New York identifies another factor: drug treatment and mental-health counseling. In other words, by helping people with the problems that landed them in prison in the first place, you help them reach a point where crime is no longer an attractive option because they have better options and more to lose.

Another instructive statistic:

From 1992 to 2002, Idaho's prison population grew by 174 percent. the largest percentage increase in the nation. Yet violent crime in that state rose by 14 percent. In West Virginia, the prison population increased by 171 percent, and violent crime rose 10 percent. In Texas, the prison population jumped by 168 percent, and crime dropped by 11 percent.

The cause-effect there is unclear, of course. But it should certainly give us pause to think. Perhaps prisons should be reserved for those who truly need to be locked away. For the rest, attention should be focused on changing the conditions -- be they personal or societal -- that make crime an attractive option in the first place.

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Milestone

Right around Midtopia's 9-month anniversary, the 15,000th visitor has popped in.

Activity peaked at 2,400 visitors a month soon after launching, then fell as low as 1,000 visitors over the summer. Now visits are climbing again in what appears to be a sustainable trend toward and through 2,000 visitors per month, though we'll see what happens now that the November elections are past.

Beyond that, I have no idea how many people have the site on their RSS feeds.

It's just a humble little blog, but I like to think it's a quality one. Many thanks to everyone who has stopped by, particularly those that make Midtopia part of their daily routine and especially those of you that take the time to comment, making this more of a conversation than a publication.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Pahrump revisited

A week or so back I wrote about the town of Pahrump, Nev., and their effort to ban foreign flags.

Coyote Angry, a blog written by a Pahrump resident (and occasional Midtopia visitor) has an update.

Per the Las Vegas Review Journal, Sheriff Tony DeMeo is refusing to prosecute those criminal masterminds who dare to fly foreign flags. The good Sheriff even said the law was "unconstitutional" and crimes committed against persons over these issues would be prosecuted as "hate crimes"....

There's more fun at the link. Take a peek.

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Idiots Anonymous

Hi. My name is Dennis Prager, and I'm a moron.

Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress, has announced that he will not take his oath of office on the Bible, but on the bible of Islam, the Koran.

He should not be allowed to do so -- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization.

Why, you ask, does one's choice of holy book threaten our very civilization?

What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters are saying is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book; all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.

Forgive me, but America should not give a hoot what Keith Ellison's favorite book is. Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress.

In Prager's world, apparently, when an elected official takes the oath of office, he isn't only swearing to uphold the duties of that office; he's also swearing fealty to the Christian underpinnings of our country.

Prager might have a point -- an odious, xenophobic point, but a point nonetheless -- if he were actually correct. But he's not.

First, the use of a Bible in the oath-swearing process is a tradition, but not mandatory, as even the State Department points out.

As evidence of that, two presidents declined to use Bibles when they were sworn in. John Quincy Adams took the oath with his hand on a volume of law; Theodore Roosevelt simply used nothing.

Heck, if Prager had a clue he'd remember that the Founders specifically forbade any sort of religious test as a requirement for holding office. Article VI reads, in part:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

And the presidential oath of office is studiously secular. From Article II:

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:--"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

So Prager is wrong on the particulars. But he's also wrong on a general level. Because the point of swearing on a Bible is not to show support for the Bible -- it's intended to be a sign of taking the oath of office seriously by swearing on something important to you. It's akin to a blood oath, or "I swear on my mother's grave" or "cross my heart and hope to die."

So Christians swear on the Bible, because (the thinking goes) swearing on their religion makes them that much less likely to break their oath. But the oath, not the Bible, is the important thing.

And in that context, forcing a Jew or a Muslim or an atheist to swear on a Bible is not just obnoxious; it's pointless. Because to a Jew, for example, an oath sworn on a Bible is no more or less binding than an oath sworn on a telephone book.

Also, it's worth noting that the Founders provided the option of simply "affirming" their committment to their duties. And again, two presidents have done just that: Franklin Pierce and Herbert Hoover. This further demonstrates that the whole idea of "swearing on" something is simply a tradition, not something central to the process. Just like the words "So help me God" that most presidents add to the end of the oath.

Further, I believe members of Congress take the oath en masse, and nobody checks to see if they're swearing on a Bible, Playboy magazine or nothing at all.

Prager ratchets up the hyperbole later on:

Devotees of multiculturalism and political correctness who do not see how damaging to the fabric of American civilization it is to allow Ellison to choose his own book need only imagine a racist elected to Congress. Would they allow him to choose Hitler's "Mein Kampf," the Nazis' bible, for his oath? And if not, why not? On what grounds will those defending Ellison's right to choose his favorite book deny that same right to a racist who is elected to public office?

Note the logic: If it's not the Bible, it's the equivalent of "Mein Kampf."

That aside, the argument is fallacious. There are many religious objects and books that might be looked at askance if used in a swearing-in ceremony; but that has nothing to do with them not being the Bible. I doubt an Aztec would be allowed to take the oath while standing over a human sacrifice. And he definitely wouldn't be allowed to play soccer with the head afterward. But that says nothing about the use of something other than a Bible -- it merely demonstrates that some things are repugnant.

Ellison should be able to swear on a Bible if he wants to; he should be able to swear on a Koran if he wants to. He should be able to affirm his oath without swearing on a book at all if he wants to. The oath is the important thing, and his adherence to it is what he will be judged on.

Update: The Star Tribune did a cover story on the flap. It references a Eugene Volokh column at National Review Online that echoes many of the points I make above. While we both identified Pierce and Hoover as presidents who affirmed their oath rather than swearing it, he missed the fact that John Quincy Adams and Teddy Roosevelt didn't use a Bible at all. On the other hand he notes that Hawaii governor Linda Lingle, a Jew, was sworn in on the Tanakh.

Further discussion of Volokh's column can be found at a companion post on his blog.


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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Noting the obvious

When the Marines throw in the towel, you know things are really out of hand.

The U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq or counter al-Qaeda's rising popularity there, according to newly disclosed details from a classified Marine Corps intelligence report that set off debate in recent months about the military's mission in Anbar province.

The Marines recently filed an updated version of that assessment that stood by its conclusions and stated that, as of mid-November, the problems in troubled Anbar province have not improved, a senior U.S. intelligence official said yesterday. "The fundamental questions of lack of control, growth of the insurgency and criminality" remain the same, the official said.

This a fuller version of a report I first wrote about back in September. What's stunning is that the update is even bleaker than first thought, and shows that things are getting worse, not better.

But never mind all that. Remember, Bush says everything is going fine, and we'll win unless we quit.

The Baker report can't come too soon. Not because we expect great pearls of unexpected wisdom from them, but because the administration is apparently content to wait for the report before making any changes to its Iraq "strategy."

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Another blow for civil liberties

A Los Angeles judge has ruled that President Bush has too-broadly asserted his authority to designate groups as "terrorist organizations", a designation that allows the government to freeze the assets of such groups and any individual associated with it.

Lest anyone think that the judge, Audrey Collins, is simply a liberal activist, think again:

The judge's 45-page ruling was a reversal of her own tentative findings last July in which she indicated she would uphold wide powers asserted by Bush under an anti-terror financing law. She delayed her ruling then to allow more legal briefs to be filed.

Part of this case would seem to be a no-brainer: the sanctioning of people "associated" with a designated group. That's such a broad designation that it amounts to guilt by association.

The designation of terrorist groups is more tricky. Clearly, there ought to be a mechanism for identifying such groups, and then targeting them with whatever pain we can muster. But "because the president says so" really isn't a very good standard. Which was the judge's point when she found the executive order to be vague and overbroad. Collins upheld the order's definition of a terror group; the problem was that it was solely up to Bush to decide if a given group met that definition, with no published criteria for doing so.

Which is really, in a nutshell, the Bush approach to security. He doesn't do nuance; he doesn't do balancing. He uses a shotgun to kill an ant. He takes a decent basic idea -- "must identify terror groups" -- and then goes into overkill mode, shrugging off competing concerns and asserting more-or-less-unbounded personal authority, thus provoking a backlash that ends up causing even more damage and distraction to his cause and our security.

As an aside, the plaintiffs -- the Tamil Tigers and the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group -- handily illustrate the truism that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Both have used terrorist tactics, but terror is neither their goal nor their primary weapon. I have little use for either group, but they have (or had) at least some legitimate grievances. Such complexity is why there needs to be some clear, objective criteria for designating a terror group to avoid including every paramilitary group or guerrilla army on the planet.

I'll put up a link to the text of the decision as soon as I can find it.

Update: The ruling can be found here (pdf).

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Walking the walk, so far

Okay, so there was the embarassing spectacle of Nancy Pelosi, corruption buster, supporting Jack Murtha for majority leader. Jack Murtha, king of the earmarks, the only unindicted Abscam target, the man who referred to reform proposals as "total crap" -- though he later said the comment was taken out of context, and he noted that he would support the proposals because Pelosi wanted it.

And then there was the prospect of the plum Intelligence chairmanship going to Rep. Alcee Hastings, who before becoming a Congressman was one of only six judges in U.S. history to be impeached and removed from the bench -- on charges of bribery and perjury.

Yes, definitely a few hold-your-breath moments there for the anti-corruption forces.

And yet....

Murtha was overwhelmingly rejected as majority leader, and Pelosi has finally decided that Hastings will not get the post -- not an easy decision, as she risks running afoul of the Black Caucus.

So push comes to shove, the Democrats so far are doing the right thing.

Truth be told, the Hastings chairmanship didn't bother me too much. Not that I approve of corrupt judges, but Hastings was acquitted in his criminal trial (granted, a key witness refused to testify), and by all accounts has kept his nose clean for the entire 14 years he's been in Congress. At some point forgiveness and redemption must be considered.

But by ditching Hastings Pelosi not only deprives critics of an easy target, she demonstrated a willingness to stand up to some powerful interests within her own party. Let's hope she continues to demonstrate such things.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, Harry Reid laid out his priorities: ethics and stem cells.
So far, so good. Passing the ethics reforms will be one test. A bigger one is whether they can pass the nine overdue appropriations bills without the larding of pork they currently contain.

We shall be watching.

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Monday, November 27, 2006

A spirited special interest

There's an old debate starting up again here in Minnesota: should grocery stores be allowed to sell wine?

You'd think it would be a no-brainer. Why not? 33 other states allow it. It would be more convenient for shoppers, and the competition would help keep prices down. Is there any good reason not to do it?

Let's see if you find these arguments persuasive.

1. Cities really like the revenue they get from their municipal liquor stores;

2. It will cut into liquor store profits;

3. By making wine easier to buy, it will worsen the social problems linked to alcohol;

4. Grocers will promote low-priced wines, hurting the market for fine wines.

There's more at the liquor association's web site on the issue.

Persuaded? I'm not. My answers:

1. Too bad. You'll still get revenue; you just won't be able to overcharge for wine anymore.

2. Too bad. Welcome to capitalism. And liquor stores haven't been driven out of business in the 33 states that currently allow it.

3. An interesting argument for a liquor purveyor to make. Beyond that, we're talking about wine. Most minors don't go out and knock back a few bottles of merlot when they drink. Grocery stores sell cigarettes, another controlled substance, and they already sell 3.2 beer. There's no reason to think they can't handle the comparable responsibility of selling wine.

4. Huh? So what?

That about exhausts the public arguments against letting grocery stores sell wine.

So why has it been such a battle to make it happen? It's a classic case of a protected industry not wanting to give up its protected status. For legislators, it's a classic case of serving a special interest instead of constituents.

I used to live in Florida. There the issue wasn't wine; it was beer. Florida law -- a law pushed by large domestic brewers like Anheuser Busch -- required that all beer be sold in specific size bottles: either 8, 12, 24 or 32 ounces. That was fine for domestic brewers, but forced craft brewers and most imports to either produce a bottle specifically for the Florida market or simply not sell beer in the state.

Defenders of the law made arguments as specious as the ones above, claiming a rash of different bottle sizes would confuse consumers, bankrupt beer distributors and raise beer prices.

The arguments didn't stand up to scrutiny. In 2001, Florida eliminated the container law.

Florida, by the way, is one of the 33 states that lets you buy wine in grocery stores. If Florida can do it, surely a state as progressive as Minnesota can. Especially because polls show Minnesotans favor the idea by a 2-1 margin.

It's not the most burning issue in the world, but it's an easy one. Call your legislator or visit the grocery association's web site.

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Movement, but progress?

Lots going on in the Mideast, but is it leading anywhere?

A week after talks over a proposed Palestinian unity government collapsed, Israel and Palestine concluded a shaky truce meant to put an end to Israeli incursions and Palestinian rocket attacks. And on that uncertain ground, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is trying to build a new peace process.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reached out to the Palestinians on Monday in one of his most conciliatory speeches yet, saying he was prepared to grant them a state, release desperately needed funds and free prisoners if they choose the path of peace.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was receptive, but Hamas militants were suspicious.

"This is a conspiracy. This is a new maneuver. Olmert is speaking about the Palestinian state without giving details about the borders," said Ghazi Hamad, a government spokesman.

But Olmert's suggestions are tantalizing. He essentially said Israel would withdraw from large parts of the West Bank, including uprooting long-established settlements, in exchange for recognition of Israel's right to exist, a renouncing of violence, and giving up any Palestinian refugee "right to return" to Israel.

That last could be a serious sticking point, but I don't see any real alternative. A negotiated compromise might work -- perhaps refugees could use a pool of repatriation money to buy their property back from the current owners -- but it's simply unworkable to suggest that large numbers of refugees can simply reclaim property that has been in other hands for nearly 60 years. They are, in essence, trading that land for a viable Palestinian state.

It's a reasonable offer. Many details remain to be worked out, of course, any one of which could sink the whole thing. And there will be the usual extremists who will try to scuttle the deal at all costs. But the Palestinians should look at this as the opportunity it is. If they are serious about improving the lot of their people and forging a peace that would let prosperity return, now is the time to prove it.

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The first investigation

Amazing what a little change of control in Congress will do.

The Justice Department's internal watchdog said Monday it has opened an investigation into the agency's use of information gathered in the government's warrantless surveillance program.


That should really say "re-opened":

Earlier this year, Fine's office said it did not have jurisdiction to open an investigation into the legality of the administration's domestic eavesdropping program. At the time, Fine's office referred calls for an inquiry to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, which reviews allegations of misconduct involving employees' actions when providing legal advice.

The Office of Professional Responsibility was denied extra security clearances to conduct an investigation that would include looking at some classified documents and other information that the Justice Department already possesses.

But now, after the election, the administration has given Fine's office -- not the OPR -- the necessary clearances.

It's a start.

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Score one for the GOP

Well, not the GOP leadership. But the opening salvo in the war against earmarks has been fired -- by a pair of Republican senators.

GOP Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina have decided to take a stand against overspending by objecting to the nearly 10,000 earmarks, or member-sponsored pork projects, larded throughout the spending bills Congress is currently considering.

Their obstinacy has convinced the leadership of the departing Republican Congress that they probably won't be able to pass spending bills in next month's short lame-duck session. Instead, they are likely to pass a stopgap "continuing resolution," which will continue funding all programs at last year's level until the new Democratic Congress passes its own versions of the funding bills.

Mr. Coburn says the decision not to pass earmark-stuffed catchall spending bills could save taxpayers a cool $17 billion. All 10,000 earmarks in the pending bills will expire if they aren't passed by the end of the year.

I'm guessing Coburn and DeMint aren't too popular with their colleagues right now -- but those colleagues also know better than to push for passage of the pork.

The loss of the pork aside, it's also a nifty political move because it puts the corruption ball squarely in the Democrats' court. It will now be up to Democrats to pass the actual spending bills -- and the whole country will get to see if they're serious about cutting back on the earmarks.

Shame on the GOP leadership for trying to pass the pork-laden bills. But kudos to Coburn and DeMint for objecting, and some props are due to the leadership if they listen and realize that Coburn and DeMint are right. Then we can turn to the Democrats and see if they're listening, too.

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Moderate muslims, Part II

As an addendum to my original post, we have two more examples.

In Pakistan, the lower house of Parliament amended the country's rape laws. Extramarital sex is no longer a capital offense, and rape victims no longer have to produce four witnesses to prove their case.

Senate approval is expected.

The picture is not wholly sanguine: Pakistan's law remains barbaric by Western standards, and radical Islamic and traditionalist groups protested. I would bet this law is observed more in the breach in Pakistan's tribal regions. But it shows moderates turning back extremist laws, a show of moderate power in a region where moderates can seem thin on the ground.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, a conference of Islamic scholars declared female "circumcision" -- a euphemism for removing the clitoris -- to be unIslamic, and said those who practice it should be punished.

The conference included Egypt's two top clerics.

Baby steps, perhaps, condemning obvious cases of injustice and barbarity. But it's a start.

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Power to the fusion!

Under the category of "playing catchup from the long holiday weekend", this was a really cool development:

Nations representing half the world's population signed a long-awaited $12.8 billion pact last week for a nuclear fusion reactor that could revolutionize global energy use for future generations.

The ITER project will build a small-scale tokomak reactor, which uses a magnetic field to contain a plasma within which the fusion reaction occurs. It's the most promising of various proposed designs for a fusion reactor.

It's not something to hold your breath over. The reactor will take eight years to build, and even if it works a prototype power plant would not be built until about 2040.

But it's good to see countries putting serious money behind a project that could revolutionize energy production and even space exploration. This is thinking big. And while if it fails it will be called a boondoggle, if it succeeds it could mean seeing a working fusion plant in my lifetime -- something I frankly never expected.

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China's global reach

China, obviously, will be our strongest long-term competitor in the world, both economically and militarily. But the form that competition will take isn't always clear.

A lot of alarmists like to point to China's growing military muscle. They're modernizing their army and air force, expanding their navy and improving their missile technology.

But while the numbers can be impressive, most people overestimate China's military strength because they underestimate the effects of technology and the more prosaic arts of transport and logistics, both of which fall under the heading of "force projection."

Let's look at technology. China's air force, for example, contains about 2,000 fighters, bombers and attack planes, and is being modernized. But as you may notice from the link, that's largely because obsolete planes are being dropped from the inventory, not because large numbers of advanced planes are being added. And the technology of those "advanced" planes still trails ours by a generation or more. The backbone of its fighter fleet, for instance, remains the MiG-21, a design that is more than 50 years old.

Similarly, the Chinese navy is trying to build the first Chinese aircraft carrier. Sounds impressive until you realize it's based on the never-finished hull of an old Soviet carrier, the 67,500-ton Varyag. Meanwhile, we've got 12 carrier battle groups, built around 100,000-ton Nimitz-class and CVN-21 ships. That doesn't even count the various minicarriers we've got, like our amphibious assault ships.

And while the Chinese Army musters an impressive 2 million or so, it's mostly infantry, without decent transportation options. And their heavy units are armed with largely obsolete tanks and artillery.

Where does force projection come in? Well, in order to fight a war in the Middle East, for example, a military needs to be able to get the troops there and then supply them with food, ammunition and equipment. That takes a staggering number of ships, airplanes and trucks, not to mention the warships, fighter planes and security troops needed to protect the supply routes.

It's such a staggering job that there is currently only one country with the ability to fight a war anywhere in the world: the United States. China may be growing powerful, but they simply are unable to invade, say, Canada. And they will remain unable to project serious force for a long, long time.

So militarily, China poses only a regional threat. Fight in the Mideast? We win. Fight in countries neighboring China? More of an even match, with quality and long supply lines squaring off against quantity and short supply lines. Invade China? We lose. The initial fighting aside, there's simply no plausible way to occupy and pacify 1.3 billion people.

But if China isn't a serious military threat, it still poses an interesting economic and diplomatic challenge.

There is no way that China can provide a U.S.-style standard of living to all of its people. 300 million Americans consume a quarter of global GDP doing so; lifting 1.3 billion Chinese to that level would take more than the global economy currently provides.

But the Chinese leadership is sitting on a powder keg of divisions: ethnic, regional, rich/poor, rural/urban, coastal/interior. China may look solid, but it's really more of an unstable empire than a unified nation.

That empire is held together with a promise: As long as nobody challenges the ascendancy of the Communist Party, they will provide improved standards of living. The populace has essentially agreed to trade political freedom for economic freedom.

But if the Party cannot keep holding up its end of the bargain -- and it can't, as I explained above -- that agreement will come into question.

So even though it's impossible to keep raising living standards, the Party will try for as long as possible. And that will take resources -- a staggering amount of it.

We've already seen some of the effect of this policy: bottomless Chinese demand has driven up prices for a range of commodities, from oil to steel to shipping. We can expect that to continue into the future, raising the prospect of regional conflicts over scarce resources.

Beyond that, though, Chinese diplomacy is shaping up as a tool China uses to secure the resources it needs to fuel its growth. And that is posing challenges to our interests that go beyond economics.

For instance, China appears to be well on its way to supplanting the West as the biggest aid provider to Africa. How is it doing it? By being cheerfully amoral about how and with who it does business. The West tends to tie aid to structural reform, like transparency, rule of law, elimination of corruption. There are many cogent criticisms of this approach -- not least that it sometimes hurts more than it helps, at least in the short term -- but at least it is attempting to reform broken systems.

China, by contrast, simply doesn't care. They've signed aid and construction agreements with a range of corrupt African governments, pouring billions into the continent, all for two things: business for Chinese companies, and building relationships with countries that have resources China will need in the future.

So China is rebalancing the world. Countries rich in natural resources suddenly find themselves with more negotiating power, as they can play China and the West off against each other while enjoying high prices for their exports thanks to the increased demand.

It can be viewed as a positive thing to see power shift from the developed countries to the Third World. But it can also be viewed less benignly, as power shifting from generally transparent and democratic economies to generally corrupt ones, overseen by tyrants, with very few of the benefits trickling down to the general populace.

That's how the world operated for much of human history, of course. But whatever damage China's rise may do to our own interests, the greatest loss may be the bungled opportunity to reshape the world in a way that increases justice and human happiness.

It may be inevitable. That "opportunity" might have been ephemeral, judged against the long march of history. But as the world plunges back into a modern version of the Great Game -- where the United States and China, along with Europe and possibly India, vie for economic and military supremacy around the globe -- it pays to reflect on how we need to adjust our goals and tactics. Not simply to survive and remain relevant, but also to see if we can achieve some part of that vision even as we compete, bare-knuckled, with a country that doesn't seem to share it.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Romney moves right

Mitt Romney has stirred some bipartisan excitement when considering 2008 presidential candidates. He's smart and interesting; he was a successful Republican governor of a heavily Democratic state (Massachusetts), showing he can get things done when bipartisanship is called for; and he took a solid stab at reforming his state's health-care system.

He's a Mormon, too, which is neither here nor there, but it would make him our first Mormon president.

However, the man who ran for governor as a moderate in 2002 has decided that he wants to stake out the right wing of the Republican primary race.

n an interview with The Examiner, Romney described himself as more conservative than Republican rivals McCain, R-Ariz., and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani on a variety of issues. “We’re in a different place on immigration; we’re in a different place on campaign reform; we’re in a different place on same–sex marriage; we’re in a different place on the president’s policy on interrogation of detainees,” Romney said.

“I’m a conservative Republican, there’s no question about that,” he said. “I’m at a different place than the other two.”

Now, it's not too hard to be a Republican and be to the right of McCain and Giuliani. And placating the GOP's conservative base is often seen as a necessary part of winning the nomination.

And he's a bit hard to pigeonhole. I like some of his policies: Besides his health-care proposal he came up with some excellent education initiatives, spent a lot of time and energy on environmental issues (though he opposed the Cape Cod wind farm and favors drilling in ANWR) and has been maverick enough to support such things as affordable housing, the minimum wage and an assault-weapon ban.

But the picture that's emerging is not a candidate I could vote for.

He balanced his budget the same way Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty did -- on the backs of local governments -- which simply made the overall tax system more regressive.

And he's a fairly conventional social conservative: hardline pro-life (he supported the South Dakota bill that would have banned all abortions, with no exceptions for the rape, incest or the health of the mother). He opposes the "morning after" pill because, even though it's just high-dose contraceptives, it could conceivably prevent a fertilized egg from implanting. He opposes stem-cell research that uses cloning as a lab technique.

He wants to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage, and has already asked the Massachusetts state legislature to do the same thing to the state Constitution.

Beyond the merits (or lack thereof) of such positions, it signals a willingness to use the same old wedge issues as part of his run -- something I (and, I hope, most voters) are heartily sick of.

Bleh. I have little use for McCain, so that leaves Giuliani as the only current Republican candidate that could earn my vote. I'm still willing to give Chuck Hagel a listen, but in many ways he's even more conservative than Romney. He'd have to paint a pretty compelling picture to make me overlook that.

Update: Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi weighs in, with more details of the contradictions between Romney then and Romney now.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

The weirdos in charge

Over at CBS, Dick Meyers has an interesting -- and revealing -- essay on how the media does and does not cover politicians -- in this case, the Republicans that took over the House in 1994 and ran it for the next 12 years.

This is a story I should have written 12 years ago when the "Contract with America" Republicans captured the House in 1994. I apologize.

Really, it's just a simple thesis: The men who ran the Republican Party in the House of Representatives for the past 12 years were a group of weirdos. Together, they comprised one of the oddest legislative power cliques in our history. And for 12 years, the media didn't call a duck a duck, because that's not something we're supposed to do....

The iconic figures of this era were Newt Gingrich, Richard Armey and Tom Delay. They were zealous advocates of free markets, low taxes and the pursuit of wealth; they were hawks and often bellicose; they were brutal critics of big government.

Yet none of these guys had success in capitalism. None made any real money before coming to Congress. None of them spent a day in uniform. And they all spent the bulk of their adult careers getting paychecks from the big government they claimed to despise. Two resigned in disgrace.

Having these guys in charge of a radical conservative agenda was like, well, putting Mark Foley in charge of the Missing and Exploited Children Caucus. Indeed, Foley was elected in the Class of '94 and is not an inappropriate symbol of their regime.

He goes on, recounting Gingrich's piousness even as he cheated on and divorced two wives, the spectacle of Dan Burton and Robert Livingston and Henry Hyde and the rest.

What you take away from this piece probably depends on what you bring to it. On the one hand his description of the House GOP leadership is spot on, as far as it goes, as is his noting that the media undercovered the contradictions and personal pecaddillos of a group that was, after all, running on a moral slate.

But you could also point to this as evidence of liberal media bias ("See? He harbored secret dislike for Republicans!") or conservative media bias ("See? They covered for the GOP for years!"). Or perhaps simple incompetence, because providing the public with unvarnished images of their leaders is one of the roles of the media, and Meyer is admitting to a manifest failure.

That's not entirely fair, of course: in a world where journalists are supposed to be objective, it can be difficult to sort out what personal observations are legitimate news and which are not, and most reporters will err on the side of caution. But that can breed a general timidity that serves nobody well. And few people are well-equipped to deal with the spin and criticism and outright threats (to access, to livelihood, to reputation) that come with covering politics. If you know your every decision will be criticized by someone, it's easy to start second-guessing yourself all the way to self-censorship in the name of politesse.

Still, that's a known risk, and while I don't wish to minimize the size of the problem, it's really no excuse. Develop ways to navigate those shoals or get out of the business. Or become a columnist, where there's less need to separate one's reporting from one's personal beliefs.

Most importantly, though, Meyer (and other reporters) need to learn from their mistakes and don't make them again. Man up, take a deep breath, and call it as you see it. Because integrity is ultimately a reporter's only asset, and the only thing they'll look back on with pride in later life. Don't sell it out because you don't want partisans to say bad things about you.

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Anyone want Syrian help?

It comes down to who you believe, and what you think their motives are.

Syria yesterday offered to help stem the violence in Iraq, a move that Iran supported by inviting Syrian and Iraqi leaders to a conference in Tehran.
Good news, right? Well, it depends on how you view those two countries.

There's no doubt that Syria and Iran could be influential in quelling the violence in Iraq, since they both have bases of support in the country and their borders contain the infiltration routes that insurgents use for supplies and recruits.

It also seems logical that both have an interest in stabilizing the situation before the violence spills over their borders.

But the United States has accused both Syria and Iran of helping to stir up the violence in the first place, and both are major supporters of Hezbollah, which besides vowing the destruction of Israel has proven to be a major destabilizing force in Lebanon.

In addition, we have WMD-related concerns with both countries -- and you can be certain that Syria and Iran will seek slack on those matters in return for cooperation.

And while both countries may be interested in a stable Iraq, they're not particularly keen on a powerful or democratic Iraq, either of which could end up working against their long-term interests.

So when weighing their offer, a lot of variables get factored in: How sincere are they? Should they be rewarded for stirring up trouble in the first place? How much slack are we willing to give them on WMDs and Hezbollah? What final result are they really working for? How badly do we need their help? How do we judge whether they're fulfilling their end of the bargain?

However it turns out, we should certainly be talking to them. Anything that might reduce outside support for the violence should be pursued. But this is just another example of the complexity of diplomacy in the Middle East, where everyone shares a link or an interest with everyone else, even mortal enemies, and sifting out the reality from the blandishments can be maddeningly difficult.

And perhaps it will serve as one more reminder of the deadly naivete with which the war in Iraq was planned and pursued, where "they'll welcome us with flowers" constituted almost the entirety of postwar planning, revealing a shocking ignorance of the many forces at work in the region.

While I disagreed with the premise for Iraq, I don't have a fundamental problem with the idea of taking down really bad rulers simply because they are really bad. But next time -- if there is a next time -- I hope that at least we go in with our eyes open. If so, then maybe learning that lesson is one silver lining of the Iraq debacle.

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Iraq roundup

What is to be done about Iraq?

Democrats want a timetable for withdrawal, which critics say is tantamount to surrender and will lead to a full-scale civil war.

The latter point is probably true. But the alternatives aren't particularly persuasive.

Part of the problem is the administration, which still refuses to concede anything to reality.

Dick Cheney: "We'll win this war by staying on the offensive — carrying the fight to the enemy, going after them one by one if necessary, going after those who could equip them with even more dangerous technologies."

President Bush: "We'll succeed unless we quit."

Such sentiments prompted this response from former Republican leader John Kasich: "They were totally obstinate in the end. To keep going around and saying that everything’s great and how it’s all going well in Iraq was ridiculous. There’s such a thing as being firm, and then there’s such a thing as ignoring reality.”

And other influential war supporters are speaking up, too, saying the war has become a disaster.

Kenneth Adelman: "This didn't have to be managed this bad. It's just awful."

Richard Perle: "If I had known that the US was going to essentially establish an occupation, then I'd say, 'Let's not do it.' It was a foolish thing to do."

Then the godfather of realpolitik himself spoke up.

Henry Kissinger: "If you mean by 'military victory' an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets the civil war under control and sectarian violence under control in a time period that the political processes of the democracies will support, I don't believe that is possible."

Such talk prompted a rebuttal, from Lindsey Graham: "We do not have security in Iraq. The only way you'll ever get a political solution to the differences that exist among the Iraqi people is to control the violence."

Well no kidding. I've been saying the same thing since this blog started. Where has Graham been for the last couple of years?

But note how his response does not even try to defend the administration's handling of the war -- an increasingly common occurence. Everyone seems to recognize the administration's ineptness -- except the administration. Given the ongoing happy talk from Bush and Cheney, it raises one big question: Whatever strategy we eventually settle on, is victory possible as long as this administration is in charge of running it?

What does the military think? Notwithstanding last week's Senate hearings, where the top general in Iraq argued against a withdrawal, the Pentagon sees three stark options, dubbed "Go big, go long or go home."

"Go big" would send hundreds of thousands more U.S. and Iraqi troops into the fray. But it's pretty much a nonstarter, because there simply aren't enough soldiers to do that.

"Go home" was also rejected, with the Pentagon predicting it would push Iraq into a full-blown civil war.

That leaves "Go long", a hybrid approach that would cut U.S. troop levels while expanding their training and advisory role.

"Go long" doesn't strike me as a solution as much as a disguised withdrawal. The eventual goal is to cut U.S. troop levels to 60,000 from the current 140,000. I just can't see how 60,000 troops will obtain better results than 140,000. An immediate withdrawal may lead to spiraling violence, but "go long" just seems like a way to draw out the pain, not a serious attempt to win.

That's why my argument has always been to either get serious ("Go big") or go home. If "go big" is impossible, that doesn't leave too many options. But nobody is eager to sound the retreat.

So what can we do?

The problem is fundamental: corruption in the central Iraqi goverment and infiltration of the Iraqi security forces by sectarian groups. I wrote about problems with the Iraqi army a while back; here's a parallel story on the Iraqi police.

The Iraqi policemen begged the Americans not to make them go out. They peeled off their clothes to reveal shrapnel scars from past attacks. They tugged the armored plates from their Kevlar vests and told the Americans they were faulty. They said they had no fuel for their vehicles. They disappeared on indefinite errands elsewhere in the compound. They said they would not patrol if it meant passing a trash pile, a common hiding place for bombs.

The Iraqis eventually gave up and climbed into two S.U.V.’s with shattered windshields and missing side windows, and the joint patrol moved out. One Iraqi officer draped his Kevlar vest from the window of his car door for lateral protection. During a lunch break, the officers tried to sneak away in their cars.

This is not an example of Iraqi cowardice; it's a rational response to being sent out into a war zone in unarmored vehicles and light kevlar vests, backed by a corrupt and inadequate support network that is unable to pay, equip and supply the field units.

What it does show is just how far the police are from being an effective counterinsurgency force. And since they make up a large portion of Iraqi security forces (perhaps 140,000 police compared to 130,000 Iraqi troops), it's easy to see just how far we are from having the hundreds of thousands of well-trained, well-equipped Iraqis needed to secure the country.

And the biggest obstacle to creating those Iraqi soldiers is not the number of U.S. trainers, although that's a factor. It's the Iraqi government. Until the government demonstrates an ability to keep its house in order, victory is impossible.

If "go home" is unpopular, "go long" isn't a winning strategy and "go big" is impossible, we're left with one alternative: a timetable for the Iraqi government to shape up. The only real question is how much time and wiggle room we give them.

Pull out immediately? No. Pull out unless the Iraqi government can show it can field an effective nonsectarian security force? Yes. And require that proof sooner rather than later.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

New look

I've finally taken the time to tweak the overall look of the site, for the first time since launching back in February. Nothing huge: just took off the background screen and replaced the title bar with something a little more professional looking.

Let me know what you think -- especially if something (like the title bar!!) doesn't load correctly in your browser.

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Where are the moderate Muslims?

Here.

In Indonesia, gangs of Islamic radicals on "anti-vice" patrols (to bust up bars and movie theaters), are increasingly running into groups of cops, or pissed off citizens, who chase off the radicals (or arrest them.)....

In Bosnia, an Arab religious leader, a follower of the very conservative Wahhabi sect, accused a popular local religious leader of being a communist (that is, a Moslem leader that was less than truly Islamic during the decades of communist rule). This caused a major uproar, and the radical cleric felt compelled to make a public apology.

And here.

"The leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, recently issued a decree to its supporters: Kill at least one American in the next two weeks 'using a sniper rifle, explosive or whatever the battle may require.'

"Well, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, I am an American too. Count me as the one of those you have asked your supporters to kill.

"I am not alone, there are thousands of Muslims with me in Las Vegas, and many more millions in America, who are proud Americans and who are ready to face your challenge. You hide in your caves and behind the faces of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. You don't show your faces and you have no guts to face Muslims. You thrive on the misery of thousands of Muslim youth and children who are victims of despotism, poverty and ignorance.

"During the past two decades, you have brought nothing but shame and disaster to your religion and your world. .

And here, too.

Even the Saudi government is getting into the act, though their complicity in spreading radical Wahhabism sort of undermines their credibility.

If someone says they haven't heard Muslims speak out against these acts committed in their names, it's because they haven't been listening.

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Contra-contraception

So you're President Bush. You've just been shellacked by the voters, and there's a chorus of calls for compromise and bipartisanship. So what do you do?

Besides his previously reported efforts to get controversial nominations and bills through the lame-duck Congress, how about continuing the culture war -- this time by putting an opponent of contraception in charge of the federal program charged with providing affordable contraceptives to the poor.

Eric Keroack, medical director for A Woman's Concern, a nonprofit group based in Dorchester, Mass., will become deputy assistant secretary for population affairs in the next two weeks, department spokeswoman Christina Pearson said yesterday.

Keroack, an obstetrician-gynecologist, will advise Secretary Mike Leavitt on matters such as reproductive health and adolescent pregnancy. He will oversee $283 million in annual family-planning grants that, according to HHS, are "designed to provide access to contraceptive supplies and information to all who want and need them with priority given to low-income persons."

On its website, A Woman's Concern says "commercialization and distribution of birth control is demeaning to women, degrading of human sexuality and adverse to human health and happiness."

Sure sounds like the people who should be put in charge of distributing them.

The position does not require confirmation, and is subordinate to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt. But Leavitt himself has not been notably friendly to contraception, famously delaying a decision on the Plan B "emergency" birth-control pill for a year, in violation of his agency's own rules and with total disregard for the recommendations of his advisory panels.

I yearn for a future where the people put in charge of programs actually support the goals of those programs, where science is judged on its merits rather than its political implications, where policy is driven more by evidence than ideology, where serving the nation is more important than servicing a tiny partisan constituency.

Two more years.

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GOP chooses more of the same

As predicted by Robert Novak earlier this week, House Republicans chose John Boehner as their minority leader and re-elected Roy Blunt as whip, returning the same leadership that led them into this year's disastrous elections.

In doing so they follow the lead of Senate Republicans, who did the same thing on Tuesday.

The Republicans seem awfully complacent for a party that just lost Congress.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Another Minnesota first

Something you wouldn't (really, couldn't) have seen 40 years ago.

The Minneapolis Aquatennial Queen of the Lakes is trading her tiara for a kevlar helmet and the sands of Iraq.

Jessica Gaulke, chosen in July as Queen of the Lakes for a year, is giving up her title because her National Guard unit has been activated for duty in Iraq. Gaulke, 22, a sociology student at Augsburg College who visited Japan as part of her Aquatennial ambassador duties, will be going to the Mideast as a diesel generator mechanic.

As far as anyone knows, it's the first time an Aquatennial queen has been in the military, much less called to active duty during her reign.

Good for her. And us. Not because we're in Iraq, but because of what it says about the military, increasing opportunities for women and changing societal attitudes toward them.

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Constitutions are for Communists

In the spirit of "patriots" who want to criminalize flag-burning (thus missing the whole point of what the flag represents), I give you the small town of Pahrump, Nev.

The elected town board in the remote Mojave Desert community voted 3-2 on Tuesday to enact an ordinance making it illegal to fly a foreign nation's flag by itself.

Flying another country's flag, whether it is a British Union Jack or the flag of Mexico, is punishable by a $50 fine and 30 hours' community service, unless it is flown below an American flag.

Let me tell you, all the folks up here in Minnesota that fly Swedish and Norwegian flags are going to be a tad upset.

The flag measure wasn't the only piece of silly legislation to pass. Pahrump also made English the city's official language, and outlawed town benefits to illegal immigrants -- which cuts such immigrants off from.... nothing.

"We don't have any" benefits, town manager David Richards says. "If we ever have any, they'll be denied to illegal immigrants."

So what sparked this muscular show of contempt for constitutional rights?

The ordinance's sponsor, Michael Miraglia, a retired Illinois state worker, said the flag restriction was a reaction to nationwide demonstrations in May against a crackdown on illegal immigration. He said he didn't like seeing protesters waving Mexican flags and demanding immigrants not go to work that day.

"In Pahrump, we had Mexican restaurants closed that day," he complained. "Only one restaurant stayed open."

I see his point. Perhaps the board's next move should be to establish city-mandated hours of operation for all Mexican restaurants, to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.

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Hoyer beats out Murtha

Dealing a blow to Pelosi and the netroots, but showing the Democrats as a group have some common sense.

The vote wasn't even close: 149-86.

Snarky aside: What does that say about Murtha's nose-counting ability (a key job of the whip)? Seeing as how he said yesterday that he had the votes to win (besides saying that the furor over ethics was "total crap"). So maybe Hoyer won simply because of his superior math skills.

The netroots aren't batting so well in this election, with the repudiation of Ned Lamont and now Murtha. Although it's not clear to me why Murtha was ever a darling of theirs in the first place. Sure, he's antiwar. But on many other issues he's rather conservative. And on the key issue -- corruption -- his record is just too tarnished.

Sure, so is nearly every senior member of Congress. And maybe a guy like Murtha is the best one to clean up the place, like Nixon going to China, because he knows how to game the system (and thus how to fix it), and it would demonstrate that things really are changing.

But all in all, the Democrats voted for sanity today, as well as retaining a moderate voice in their senior leadership. The personal animus between Polosi and Hoyer could lead to trouble, but they've worked around it for years now and probably will be able to continue doing so. The lopsided vote total also strengthens Hoyer's (and thus moderates') hand; Pelosi would be foolish to seek an unnecessary confrontation with the man who is emerging as the voice of the new moderate majority in the Democratic caucus.

Common sense has (for the most part) prevailed for more than a week now. That's got to be some kind of record as far as Congress goes. Let's hope it lasts.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Back to Iran

All the election excitement has taken some of the spotlight off of Iran in recent weeks. But things are heating up over there. A recap:

Both Iran and Syria have said they're willing to enter into talks with the United States over Iraq, though their sincerity is open to question.

Democrats support direct talks with the two. But the administration's response was curt: Talk is cheap. It insists Syria must first stop harboring militant Palestinians and meddling in Iraq and Lebanon, while Iran must freeze its nuclear activities.

Speaking of which, UN inspectors found traces of plutonium and enriched uranium in an Iranian waste facility, yet more evidence of Iranian ambitions in that area.

So where does it all leave us? The preconditions on Syria are a bit silly, seeing as how achieving those actions would be the whole point of talks. Just talk already. If they go nowhere, we're no worse off than we were before. Removing Syrian support for Hezbollah would be worth the sort of concessions they're likely to demand, notably security guarantees, warmer diplomatic ties and the launch of a peace process with Israel that could lead to the return of captured Syrian territory.

An excellent article on the subject is in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, though you need a subscription to read the whole thing.

Iran's a bit of a different case, because they've stalled long enough over demands they either abandon their nuclear program or make it far less proliferation-friendly. A harder line, with screws applied, is appropriate there. But a lot depends on how badly we want Iranian help in Iraq. Iran wields its regional influence as a bargaining chip, and if we bleed enough in Iraq, it may be a chip we need to buy.

Our best bet there is to maintain a hard line on the nuclear issue: Iran must not get the impression they can wear us down on that, or stall for an appreciable length of time. Meanwhile, dangle a few carrots -- not just direct tit-for-tat arrangements in return for nuclear pliancy, but signaling our willingness to deal favorably on a range of issues if Iran abandons its nuclear ambitions and helps out in Iraq.

What sort of issues? Improved diplomatic and political ties, technological exchanges, an affirmation of Iran's role in the region, economic agreements -- the list of possible inducements is a long one.

By combining an unwavering opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran with a reasonable deadline for compliance, we ensure the nuclear question will be resolved, one way or the other, before Iran gets the bomb. By offering fair and generous carrots as well as the unsmiling stick, we give Iran all sorts of positive inducements to cooperate. The key is to make continuing to pursue a bomb an unattractive option, while providing them a face-saving way to abandon that pursuit.

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Carville goes for Dean's throat

Rhetorically, anyway.

Carville ... said Democrats could have picked up as many as 50 House seats, instead of the nearly 30 they have so far.

The reason they didn’t, he said, is the Democratic National Committee did not spend some $6 million it could have put into so-called “third tier” House races against vulnerable Republicans....

Asked by a reporter whether Dean should be dumped, Carville replied, “In a word, do I think? Yes.”...

He added, “I would describe his leadership as Rumsfeldian in its competence.”

I refer you to my earlier post on the subject, which is that Carville frankly needs to get some perspective. Dean argued all along that it was foolish to compromise the party's 2008 chances in order to pick up a few extra seats in 2006. And he's right. The money he might have spent in this election cycle he is now free to put toward building out the party's infrastructure for 2008. That will do more to solidify the Democratic majority than would picking up a few extra seats while riding a tide of anti-incumbency.

Carville keeps trying to float this argument, and he keeps getting smacked down. Maybe someone should ask him politely to shut up.

Oh, wait. They are. Meanwhile, in the blogosphere, the request is not phrased quite so daintily.

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Senate Republicans opt for more of the same

Yesterday the Senate Democrats made some odd leadership choices. Today it's the Senate Republicans' turn. They elected Mitch McConnell as their leader, and brought back Trent Lott to be his deputy.

McConnell was the deputy to retiring GOP Senate leader Bill Frist. So the Republicans essentially decided to retain their existing leadership -- the same leadership that cost them their majority status.

Further, McConnell is one of the most earmark-happy members of Congress, providing millions (and in some cases, billions) of dollars worth of federal help to specific projects.

In this he doesn't differ much from Harry Reid or John Murtha, two Democrats who know their way around the earmark process. But just as the ascension of those two don't exactly build confidence in Democratic committment to reform, McConnell's rise suggests Republicans don't really take it seriously, either.

As with Reid and Murtha, though, let's suspend judgement for now. The past is past; what's important is what steps they take now to curb the abuses that swept the GOP out and the Democrats in.

Lott, meanwhile, brings his own baggage. He was forced to give up the post of majority leader in 2002 after he inexplicably praised Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential run.

You can argue that Lott has paid his penance, and that he's too skilled of a backroom politician to sit in the cheap seats forever. But his reappearance certainly won't do much to help the GOP's relationship with black voters, already turned off by dirty campaigns in Tennessee and Maryland and the ongoing failure of Republican legislators to address relevant issues. For example, the NAACP gave 98 percent of Republicans an "F" in their most recent scorecard.

I'm not arguing the merit of the NAACP's policy positions. But I think it does demonstrate that Republicans are a long way from winning over black voters, and rehabilitating Lott -- who, besides praising Thurmond, got a 5% grade from the NAACP -- doesn't help matters.

Tomorrow, we find out who will lead the House Democrats. On Friday, it's House Republicans.

Update: Once again, conservatives are not happy. Michelle Malkin has a more thorough roundup of conservative opinion. My favorite comes from the Free Republic: "We suck."

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Health care tsunami

Amazing what a Democratic sweep of Congress will do. Suddenly, everyone is talking about health care.

On Monday, the insurance industry outlined a plan to provide insurance coverage to the 47 million uninsured Americans. They propose using tax credits and government programs to buy the insurance, at an estimated cost of $300 billion over 10 years.

And yesterday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- facing a Democrat-controlled state legislature -- said he wants to extend health insurance to all children, a startling about-face for a man who threw people off of MinnesotaCare in his first term as he struggled to close the state's budget deficit without raising taxes.

Call me cynical, but do you suppose either of those two things would have occurred had the Republicans kept control?

No matter. Pawlenty's willingness to reconsider long-held positions is one reason I said it wouldn't be a disaster if he were re-elected. And with businesses, the insurance industry and prominent Republicans all suddenly producing plans to improve health coverage, it's going to be very hard for opponents to claim a solution -- however partial -- is impossible or socialist or the like.

There are a lot of questions to be answered, notably cost controls and the increasing shifting of costs from employer to employee. But that's what debate is for. The discussion looks to be healthy, and likely to lead to something productive. Finally.

Score one for divided government.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

As seen by the FAA

I don't normally post simple eye candy, but this is way cool. And it's not just eye candy.

Have a look.

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Democrats and corruption

The Democrats made some leadership choices today, and it sends a few confusing messages about their committment to fighting corruption.

I'm actually less worried about the House, where Nancy Pelosi has been criticized for publicly favoring John Murtha over her current deputy, Steny Hoyer.

The criticism is twofold: that Pelosi is waging an unnecessary battle that she can only lose -- either dividing her caucus or suffering an intramural defeat -- and that Murtha has long been linked to questionable ethical moves, ranging from enthusiastic use of earmarks to the Abscam bribery scandal a quarter century ago.

But frankly, Pelosi and Murtha's leadership will be judged on their deeds, not their past. The political wisdom of picking an early and public fight aside, Pelosi backing Murtha doesn't signal anything about her anti-corruption drive.

Over in the Senate, though, the Democrats have made another odd choice. The main Senate leadership team is unsurprising -- Harry Reid will be majority leader, with Dick Durbin as his assistant. But they also named Terrance Gainer as sergeant at arms for the Senate.

Why is that odd? Because Gainer resigned as chief of the Capitol Police in April after hiring his son-in-law as a police officer in violation of nepotism laws. What's even weirder was that it was repeated confrontations with congressional Democrats that eventually led to revelations of the hiring and thus his ouster.

I suppose one can view this as a form of reaching across the aisle, or simply take the view that the nepotism case really wasn't that big a deal. But it's still sends a mixed message on the corruption front.

The true test of Democrats' devotion to clean government still lies in what Congress does about lobbyists, earmarks and openness. But these moves don't exactly fill me with hope.

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