Monday, December 31, 2007

Flag follies

Today the flag ban I wrote about earlier this year went into effect here in Minnesota. It is now officially illegal to buy an American flag made in a foreign country.

For the irony-challenged (like, say, the legislators who passed this piece of stupidity), that means you are now *not* free to buy our revered symbol of freedom from the vendor of your choice.

Puts a whole new -- indeed, Orwellian -- spin on "freedom isn't free", doesn't it?

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Happy Holidays and New Year!

I hope everyone had an enjoyable holiday season. If gifts are your thing, I hope you got what you wanted. But mostly, I hope you were able to spend time the way you wanted: Alone or with family; at home or traveling; quiet or boisterous. Time is the most precious gift we have, and as we get caught up in our work and social standing and other responsibilities, time to do just what *we* want grows achingly scarce. I hope you gave yourself a gift of at least a little time, amid all the noise and lights.

Be smart and drive carefully tonight, and may 2008 prove deserving of the hope we invest in it here at the beginning.

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Great moments in religion, 2007

As another holiday season winds to a close, we're reminded again why so many people look a bit askance at religion, and why conflating "religion" with "morality" is illogical. There are plenty of positives to religion -- as I've noted before. But as with any human institution, it's prone to abuse and misuse.

From the 2007 holiday season alone, we have the following cautionary tales:

HINDUS VS. CHRISTIANS
In India, home to many religious militants, Hindu attacks on Christians led to several days of riots and clashes. Though a small minority and initially the victims, some Christians went beyond defending themselves, engaging in retaliatory arson attacks against Hindu homes. The dispute began when a Christmas Eve show was perceived by hard-line Hindus as an attempt to encourage conversions -- a touchy subject in India: The state where the violence occurred, Orissa, even has a law requiring police permission before someone can change their religion.


CHRISTIANS VS. CHRISTIANS
What better way to honor the birthplace of Jesus than to fight over it? Sounds silly, but that's a not-uncommon occurrence at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over a grotto where many believe Jesus was born. The church is jointly managed by three different Christian sects: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic. It would seem to be a triumph of interfaith cooperation -- were it not for the pitched battles between priests over such weighty matters as who gets to clean what part of the building. And the peacemakers? Palestinian policemen, who broke up the fight.

JEWS VS. MUSLIMS
Down the road, in Nablus, masked Jewish settlers from an illegal West Bank settlement attacked four Palestinian farmers, spraying them with pepper gas and beating them with sticks. Hardline Jewish settlers believe they are divinely ordained to settle Palestinian land, which is often simply appropriated without compensation to the landowner.

MUSLIMS VS. EVERYBODY
It's been a busy week for Islamist extremists. Though putatively fighting a holy war against Christian and Jewish oppressors, their targets of late have been mostly Muslim: Sunni tribesmen opposed to Al-Qaeda, Benazir Bhutto and, of course, those heretical Shiites -- some of whom have violence issues of their own.

SIMPLE STUPIDITY
Here we have not one, but two examples of believers -- in this case, Christians -- putting faith ahead of brains.

The first is the urban legend that the song "12 Days of Christmas" is really a coded recitation of Catholic beliefs, apparently based on little more than the fact that the song is really old, and that both it and Catholicism manage to contain some elements numbered up to twelve. Never mind that the symbolism ascribed to the song involves elements embraced both by Catholics and their Anglican persecutors, which kind of renders the whole exercise pointless.

The second is a small movement that sees Biblical significance in Interstate Highway 35, which runs through Minnesota.

Some believe I-35 might be shorthand that links the interstate to Isaiah 35:8 of the Bible: "And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not pass over it, and fools shall not err therein."

I-35 = Isaiah 35... get it? Never mind that there doesn't seem to be any explanation for the eight. There's also the weird logic outlined by one supporter, who points to tragic events -- the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the 1963 assassination of JFK and killings and kidnappings in Laredo -- in arguing that I-35 is a "highway of holiness." Huh? If that's holiness, I don't want any part of it.

These folks don't represent the mainstream of their faith, of course. None of the examples here do. But they're a remarkably time-compressed compendium of all the ways that faith -- particularly partisan, unquestioning faith -- can lead to harmful results. Believe whatever works for you: but always be willing to tolerate the existence of, and interchange with, other beliefs. And always, always, always be willing to entertain the idea that more than one belief could be right -- or that you are the one who is wrong.

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Updates

I had all of Christmas week off -- and was down for most of it with various ailments, including the ever-popular stomach flu. I'm considering going in to work next week and asking my boss to convert those vacation days into sick time....

My Democratic in-laws gave me two political joke gifts: a Democratic Dream mug and a backward clock counting down the seconds remaining in the Bush presidency. (The Unemployed Philosophers Guild, where the mug came from, has a bunch of other fun political stuff. Like the Disappearing Civil Rights mug, Axis of Evil finger puppets and an Eleanor Roosevelt doll.

NO CAMERAS
Buhl, Minn., has decided against installing security cameras around town after enduring widespread scorn from the community.

A LITTLE CREDIT WOULD BE NICE
Didn't I say nearly the exact same thing a couple of weeks ago?

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Friday, December 21, 2007

A mixed ethics bag


Somedays, you get a clear picture that there's a Good Congress and a Bad Congress, and they are in a constant tug-of-war for control of legislators' souls -- sort of like the struggle between Barnes and Elias in the movie "Platoon."

Barnes (above, holding a gun to the head of the House ethics manual) popped his head up the other day, when the House ethics committee published its interpretation of the new ethics rules regarding convention parties -- in which they interpreted a section that bars lobbyists from sponsoring parties honoring members of Congress as only applying if members are mentioned by name. So it's just fine to attend lobbyist parties if they keep it vague -- honoring a state delegation, for instance, or a specific congressional committee.

Watchdog groups, naturally, are outraged. Me, I'll add in "bemused by the lengths the House will go to ensure they can attend parties."

But a couple of days later, Elias emerged from the jungle, running after the departing helicopter.

A "bipartisan" task force appointed to fix flaws in the House ethics system issued recommendations Wednesday without a hint of bipartisanship.

Only Democrats signed off on the plan. Republicans kept silent.

The proposal would change the way ethics complaints are initiated and handled. A six-person Office of Congressional Ethics, with no lawmakers as members, would be authorized to file complaints and start investigations of lawmakers and staff.

At least Republicans didn't actively block it. But the idea of a nonpartisan ethics panel is a good one, and long overdue.

Of course, any recommendations from that panel would still be sent to the ethics committee, which would have the final say over whether to pursue a complaint. And the panel lacks subpoena power. But it would be a little more sunlight into the process, and it would be a little more difficult for the committee to simply ignore a recommendation from such a panel.

So who will win, Barnes or Elias? In the movie, Elias loses the battle (Barnes kills him) but wins the war. A similar outcome seems possible here, where constant and successful efforts by House members to undermine the ethics rules effectively kill them, prompting such a harsh outcry from the public that even harsher rules end up getting installed. I'd prefer it not get quite so Oliver Stoneish, but if that's what happens, okay.

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ATM fixed, PAYGO discarded

Yay, team....

There was broad agreement in Congress that lawmakers should approve a patch to stem the AMT's reach for another year. But agreeing on how to do that put House Democrats and Senate Republicans at loggerheads.

Under their pay-as-you-go philosophy, House Democrats had insisted on raising revenue to offset the $50 billion in tax relief resulting from the one-year fix. Much of the revenue would have come from closing a loophole on offshore tax havens and increasing the tax rate on income earned by hedge fund managers and venture capitalists.

But Senate Republicans blocked the Senate from taking up legislation that included tax increases, and President Bush threatened to veto any bill that raised taxes.

Just put it on the credit card. What a principled stand those Republicans made.

The Dems share blame, too, for misplacing their spine -- and after getting my hopes up, too. Alternatively, they could have sought a compromise that included a mix of spending cuts and tax increases, putting pressure on Bush and the GOP for looking unreasonable by insisting on $50 billion in tax cuts after years of tax cuts and yawning deficits, and in the face of Democratic compromise offers.

Instead, we got the worst of all worlds. Either spending cuts or a tax hike would have been more responsible than the credit-card solution.

Bleh.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Political groaners

These two items read like punchlines to a political satire. But they're not.

MITT AND MLK
Mitt Romney is in a minor kerfuffle because he said he watched his dad march with Martin Luther King in 1963. Only one problem: there's no evidence it ever happened, and some evidence to suggest it couldn't have. This could end up being an interesting insight into the fallibility and malleability of human memory, in which a story told to a young Mitt transforms into an actual memory of an event that never happened. Or maybe Mitt just lied. That seems unlikely, however.

MCKINNEY FOR PRESIDENT
Think Hillary is the only woman running for president? Think again. The much-vilified former Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney has thrown her hat in the ring, seeking the Green Party nomination. Oh, joy. I'll give you this: if she were the only other choice, it'd be enough to make me support Ron Paul. He, at least, wasn't raised by wolves.

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Political justice

People concerned about the politicization of prosecutions in the Bush Justice Department now have this feel-good story to look at:

The Justice Department delayed prosecuting a key Republican official for jamming the phones of New Hampshire Democrats until after the 2004 election, protecting top GOP officials from the scandal until the voting was over.

An official with detailed knowledge of the investigation into the 2002 Election-Day scheme said the inquiry sputtered for months after a prosecutor sought approval to indict James Tobin, the northeast regional coordinator for the Republican National Committee.

They're referring to this case, which led to the near bankruptcy of the New Hampshire GOP.

There's more:

The official said that department officials rejected prosecutor Todd Hinnen's push to bring criminal charges against the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Weeks before the 2004 election, Hinnen's supervisors directed him to ask a judge to halt action temporarily in a Democratic Party civil suit against the GOP so that it wouldn't hurt the investigation, although Hinnen had expressed no concerns that it would, the official said.

Excellent.

Bad as that looks, there's a legitimate conundrum: How to handle election-related charges on the eve of an election? I appreciate not wanting to drop last-minute indictment bombshells, which could influence an election even though the underlying facts don't ultimately support conviction. Ignoring that reality could lead to sham indictments of opposition party members.

In this case, the underlying facts seemed pretty clear. But considering that Tobin's conviction was overturned on appeal this year and he now awaits a retrial, perhaps some caution was called for -- even though the verdict was overturned on a technicality, not because the court thinks Tobin didn't do anything wrong.

It'd be tempting to adopt one of two objective positions: prosecute without regard to the calendar, or don't file politically-related indictments within 30 days of an election. Either would remove the second-guessing about motive that this case engenders; but both have their flaws -- either the risk of politically-motivated indictments, or the risk of justice delayed and voters kept from having relevant information.

There are no real good answers here. Only the observation that when someone on your team screws up, it's probably better to err on the side of prosecuting too early than it is to delay and risk allegations of a cover-up.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Holy Hannah....


I once lived in Jersey City, so I know about rats. Big rats, even. Rats so husky you're afraid that three of them could pick you up and carry you off.

So all I can say about this is.... Yikes!

If a couple of those ever stows away in a cargo ship bound for Manhattan, New York City is doomed.

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Why I don't support Ron Paul


Update: I cross-posted this over at Donklephant, where the comment count is up to 83 and counting.

Caracarn, a regular Midtopia reader and commenter who I've known for a long time and greatly respect, took me to task in this post for curtly dismissing Ron Paul as a nutty libertarian. It's a fair point, so I decided to go into detail about why I think Paul is too far out there to be considered a good presidential candidate.

I think Ron Paul is great in some respects. I've got enough libertarian leanings that I voted for Jesse Ventura, and I certainly respect Paul's commitment to principles. But I think he often follows those principles out the window. Further, he's a strongly conservative libertarian, with whom I disagree on substantive policy issues.

Let's just go through the positions he admits to holding, on his campaign web site:

FREE TRADE
He opposes free-trade agreements as infringements on American sovereignity. He specifically sees NAFTA as part of a master plan to form a North American Union with Canada and Mexico. He opposes the International Criminal Court, World Trade Organization, GATT, etc. He in effect opposes any practical agreement that will work in a multilateral world, where the only way you make progress is if you get buy in -- and enforceability -- from dozens or hundreds of nations. He also opposes nearly all forms of foreign aid, which besides providing humanitarian benefits is a crucial diplomatic tool.

BORDER SECURITY
He's strongly anti-immigration, which is fine, and his proposals aren't actually nutty. But he elides over the cost of his plan, and I think his proposal to "eliminate welfare for illegal aliens" will have unintended and self-damaging consequences, particularly because he defines "welfare" as using hospitals, schools and roads, as well as social services.

DEBT AND TAXES
He supports low taxes and low spending, but he fetishizes the former as an absolute good and doesn't spell out how he's going to cut spending. He opposes the Federal Reserve system, mirroring conspiracy and gold-bug arguments that misunderstand the nature and function of the system and the money supply. He would return us to a gold standard, which is good for retirees but bad for economic growth unless it is jiggered to be essentially a fiat currency system like the one he decries.

EDUCATION
Paul would abolish the Dept. of Education and end all federal involvement in funding or regulating public education, except for offering a tax credit to pay for private school -- essentially a direct federal bribe to pull kids out of public school. Stuff like that makes it appear that he opposes public education in general, despite some statements to the contrary. Never mind that a consequence would be an increase in education inequality, with kids in poor states and poor areas receiving far worse educations than those in rich states or rich areas -- which can afford to fund their schools properly.

ENVIRONMENT
Here he takes a swat at Caracarn's favorite issue. A quote: "The key to sound environmental policy is respect for private property rights." While he does support renewable energy, opposes logging on federal land and doesn't believe in subsidizing polluters, his solution to environmental issues would be to let property owners sue each other over environmental damage.

That is not really a solution, being expensive, time-consuming and impractical. It ignores the hassle of suing, the difficulty in placing a monetary value on environmental harm, and the fact that environmental harm can be small on a given parcel but large in aggregate, or can affect a commons rather than an individual private property. Or that harm may not become apparent until it's too late, as with overgrazing or loss of topsoil. It also ignores the history of land use and degradation, which has shown way too many people willing to make a short-term buck in exchange for long-term harm. It doesn't address side issues, either, like how to save endangered species, or problems like preserving water quality where there's often no single, clear culprit available to be sued.

HEALTH CARE
He opposes universal health care, which is fine. And he has some good ideas here, like making all medical expenses tax deductible and making health savings accounts easier to use. But that won't help the people who can't afford health care in the first place: they either don't make enough period, or they don't pay much in taxes anyway. It won't address the problem of your health care being tied to your place of business, with many small employers (the engines of economic growth) either not offering it at all or offering expensive plans that provide lousy coverage. He ends up railing against bogeymen: HMOs, big drug companies and government bureaucrats. That's a screed, not a reasoned analysis.

HEALTH FREEDOM
That's his term, not mine. It mostly means doing away with the FDA to as great an extent as possible and preventing it from having any power over "alternative" medicines and treatments. I support his opposition to forced vaccinations, even though I think that in most cases refusing to get vaccinated makes no statistical sense.

HOME SCHOOLING
He will protect the right to home schooling, and demand that home-school diplomas count just as much as regular diplomas when it comes to college-admission and scholarship time. That's fine as far as it goes.

But he opposes any federal regulation of home-school activities or national standards or testing for home-schooled kids.

So he demands parity, while opposing any means of determining if they are, in fact, comparable. Never mind that his commitment to guaranteeing admission parity amounts to federal interference in a private decision (a college deciding whom to admit), something he claims to oppose everywhere else.

LIFE AND LIBERTY
Or, as we say in the rest of the world, "Abortion." He opposes it. He would repeal Roe v. Wade and leave such decisions up to the states -- while also authoring bills that would define life as beginning at conception. Such contradictions aside, it's a pretty standard anti-abortion stand.


NO TAXES ON TIPS
This is a minor issue, but the philosophical aspect is interesting. He, rightly, criticizes the unfairness of taxing estimates of tip income. But his solution is simply to exempt tips from federal taxes. Considering that wait staff, for instance, typically are paid a sub-minimum-wage hourly rate and make most of their money on tips, his solution would create a special class of worker whose income is largely tax-free. I'm curious to know why he thinks such people deserve such special treatment.

PRIVACY AND PERSONAL LIBERTY
This is Paul's strongest area. He opposes a national ID card, and wants tighter control on medical and financial information. He strongly opposes the Patriot Act. All good things, but he's an absolutist about it. For instance, one of the things he opposes is the rule that banks must report currency transactions of $10,000 or more -- a law that has proved very useful in uncovering fraud, money laundering, drug rings, terror financing and the like. I support greater privacy rights, but I think Paul takes it too far.

PROPERTY RIGHTS
He opposes abuses of eminent domain, which is good. But he's vague about where he draws the line. Many dogmatic libertarians, for instance, think zoning laws are a violation of sacred property rights. If your neighbor wants to put up a 24/7 metal-shredder on his property, your only recourse would be to sue him -- on what grounds I can only guess, because there wouldn't be any law prohibiting him from doing so. That's a recipe for clogged courts, well-paid lawyers and completely chaotic community growth.

RACISM
I agree with nearly everything he says here, although I think government has a role in combating racism: They can't legislate attitudes, but they can criminalize the most damaging expressions of racism so that minorities do not suffer unnecessarily for their skin color.

SOCIAL SECURITY
Here, oddly, is a program that Ron Paul doesn't just accept, he defends it like a lioness defends her cubs. Well, sort of. He says a "sacred promise" has been broken, and we're underfunding Social Security. So he'll propose laws ending taxation of SS benefits and requiring that SS taxes only go to fund SS -- in other words, the "lockbox" idea that would prevent the government from borrowing the surplus.

He also would prevent illegal aliens from getting SS benefits -- which is a fine idea, except that that's already the law, and illegal aliens almost certainly pay far more into the system than they take out.

But then it gets weird. Because he would also cut payroll taxes and let younger workers invest some of their SS payments in the private market.

This, then, is essentially Bush's plan for partly privatizing Social Security. Paul doesn't explain how he'll protect that "sacred promise" to retirees while also cutting payroll taxes, nor does he mention the $1 trillion to $2 trillion transition cost that would result.

SECOND AMENDMENT
He's a gun-rights absolutist. He opposed the assault-weapons ban, which is fine, and has sponsored various bills to allow guns in specific situations: national parks and airline cockpits.

But he also would repeal the Brady Bill -- the one that requires background checks before you can buy a handgun. He would also repeal the 1993 Firearms Licensing act, which required that recipients sign a receipt when receiving firearms in the mail and tightened licensing requirements for gun dealers, both moves intended to close loopholes that could dodge the Brady Bill requirements. He lumps in his efforts to end our membership in the United Nations, viewing them as a major threat to gun ownership.

WAR AND FOREIGN POLICY
He says, rightly, that we shouldn't go to war without a Congressional declaration, and that too often our foreign policy has led us to support despised rulers, such that we, too, became despised.

He opposes foreign aid, because it has backfired on us before.

He would bring all of our troops home from wherever they are.

He seems to think it's easier to fight wars that are thrust upon us than to dispatch troops overseas to prevent wars before they reach us. He also completely ignores the diplomatic and political benefits of providing financial and military assistance to friendly countries.

Or the military realities: had we not intervened in South Korea, for instance, North Korea would have overrun its neighbor. Had we not remained there for decades, they might have done it again. These days, South Korea is an economic tiger and has a large, modern, professional military. So it's completely reasonable to discuss whether it's time to bring our troops home from there (my answer: yes in isolation, but no if you take into account our interest in keeping tabs on the growth of Chinese power in the region). But Paul's isolationist enough that I'm not sure he would have intervened in the first place, much less kept troops there for more than a couple of years afterward.

In my opinion, being fully engaged in the world is a requirement for our own security, and serving as the world's policeman is a calling to which we are uniquely suited. Our challenge is to pick our battles and conduct ourselves in such a way that we do more good than harm, and do not simply throw our weight around for our own selfish interests. Paul would simply turn his back on the whole thing, which is appealing in its simplicity but would be appalling in its consequences.

All of the above is why I dismiss Paul as a serious candidate, and classify him more toward the nutty end of the libertarian spectrum. Some of his ideas have a certain resonance to them, particularly in a nation fed up with partisan bickering, perpetual crisis and a host of nagging problems that have no easy solutions. But he's vague on unpleasant details, and many of his ideas sound good in theory but would be disastrous in practice.

I look forward to the hail of rabid Ron Paul supporters who will show up to call me a dunderhead once this post hits the search engines....

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Tuesday small change

Closing out the night with some interesting links that don't require extended commentary:

PRESERVATIONISM RUN AMOK
A Christian Scientist church in Washington, D.C., is a badly designed, ugly and deteriorating pile of concrete that is hideously expensive to maintain. It's the kind of unfriendly, uninspired building that helped create the modern preservationist movement. But now, ironically, it's old enough to draw preservationist protection of its own -- to the dismay of the church that has to cope with it. The writer's rhetoric is over the top -- the church isn't that ugly, and it doesn't even own the building anymore -- but he's not alone and he raises some good points about the clash between preserving history and protecting property rights.

GREENSPAN: IRAQ ALL ABOUT OIL
That's apparently what he says in his memoir, which hit the streets yesterday -- along with a scathing critique of Bush's economic policies. This should surprise no one. You don't have to believe that we invaded merely to seize control of the Iraqi oil fields to realize that the only reason we care about what happens in the Middle East is because a lot of our oil comes from there. If there were no oil in the Arabian peninsula, we'd treat it with the same casual indifference and neglect that we treat most of Asia and Africa. There are plenty of unpleasant tyrants around the world, but only Saddam was sitting on large proven oil reserves. It's not just a weird coincidence that he's the one we decided to knock over. I'm not being moralistic here; after all, securing our energy supplies is a legitimate national interest. But I think we ought to be honest about the root causes of the war, because our involvement of Iraq is a significant externalized cost of our dependence on oil. Until we admit the true cost of that dependence, we will not take the steps necessary to kick the habit.

HOMOSEXUALITY AKIN TO PEDOPHILIA, BUT NOT QUITE AS BAD AS NECROPHILIA
Or something like that. An aide to Mike Huckabee tried to explain away Huckabee's 1998 statement that "It is now difficult to keep track of the vast array of publicly endorsed and institutionally supported aberrations—from homosexuality and pedophilia to sadomasochism and necrophilia." Let's put aside the wild-eyed nature of that comment for the moment (pedophilia and necrophilia are publicly endorsed and institutionally supported?) The aide said what Huckabee meant was that while same-sex sex and screwing a dead body are both aberrant behaviors, homosexuality is at one end of the spectrum while necrophilia is at the other. That might make sense, given the sentence structure -- except that then you have to draw the conclusion that in Huckabee's world, sadomasochism is worse than both homosexuality and pedophilia. You know what I want to see? I want to see Huckabee draw a diagram of his aberrance spectrum, so we can see clearly where he rates each act. BTW, the first commenter at TPM has a great line: "So torture is okay as long as it's not in a loving bed?"

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Hoyer: AMT might not get fixed this year

Okay, this may just be a trial balloon or an attempt to put pressure on the White House. But if you want to read something that could provoke a mob march on Washington and burn it down, consider the words of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer:

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) hinted Tuesday that Congress may not be able to stop a big tax increase from hitting 23 million Americans.

Hoyer, pressed on whether Congress would resolve disputes over the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), said, “Maybe.”

Now the question isn't as simple as it seems. President Bush has demanded that the AMT be fixed -- but has vowed to veto any measure that raises other taxes to make up for the lost revenue. Easy for him to say, because he doesn't have to craft the legislation to deal with the problem.

Democrats don't have the votes to overcome a veto, and apparently don't have the stomach to stand firm on this issue. Thus the current compromise, such as it is, is a Senate plan to simply add the missing millions to the federal deficit. That's what passes for fiscal discipline in Washington, and it ignores Congress's own "pay-as-you-go" rules in the bargain.

Indeed, Minority Leader John Boehner gets today's award for partisan disingenuousness:

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) pounced on the news, calling Hoyer’s remarks “another reminder that the Democrat majority’s priorities do not reflect those of the American people.”

“Democrats created the AMT, repeatedly voted against Republican efforts to abolish it entirely, and have failed to stop it’s impending assault on 23 million middle-class American taxpayers,” he said.

Right, because the American people want to keep running up the deficit.... Never mind Boehner ignoring the Republican role in blocking a deficit-neutral fix.

There's plenty of blame to go around here, starting with Bush's Catch-22 and Democratic cowardice. But there are two things that absolutely have to happen for Congress to have any credibility:

1. The AMT must be fixed, at least for this year;

2. PAYGO rules must be followed.

Whether #2 happens with tax increases or spending cuts, I don't much care. But Republicans should be ashamed of their "add it to the credit card" alternative, and Democrats should be ashamed that they don't have the guts to stand up to Republicans on this. Deficit-fighting rules like PAYGO don't have much teeth if they can be tossed overboard on something like this.

Hoyer's comments offer some hope that the House won't take the easy way out, setting up an interesting three-way confrontation between the House, Senate and White House. May the interests of the nation win.

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BBC bleeps Shane

The 1987 classic "Fairytale of New York," by the Pogues, is hands down the favorite holiday song at our house -- though we try to keep the kids from listening too closely. It's irreverent and foul-mouthed, but surprisingly sweet, too. And it's a great tune. Really, who couldn't love a song that begins "It was Christmas Eve, babe.... In the drunk tank"?

But I understand why the BBC -- amid a national grassroots campaign to make the tune Britain's #1 song for the holidays -- decided it had to censor the lyrics during radio play.

The word they bleeped -- faggot -- is easily the most offensive word in the song. But there are enough others -- scumbag, arse, "cheap slut on junk" -- that it's hard to imagine the song ever getting mainstream airplay in this country. First Amendment or no, our Puritanical roots tend to put the kabosh on things like that.

Which is why I'm a bit bemused at the torrent of criticism the BBC's decision has unleashed. You'd think the BBC had declared war on Christmas or something.

In the end, the outcry led the BBC to reverse its decision. So a song that couldn't possibly be played uncut in this country is once again being broadcast in full in Britain.

Somewhere, Shane McGowan is smiling and downing his third pint of bitter.

Fun "Fairy Tale" fact: In Britain, when the song was performed live on BBC's "Top of the Pops", producers made the band change the word "arse" to "ass", which they apparently considered less offensive. The reverse, of course, is true here.

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Public documents are -- get this -- public

You may recall that in January, we discovered that the White House's penchant for secrecy had reached such an extreme that they had classified the White House visitor logs, elevating West Wing visits to the level of state secrets.

At the time, I hoped that Bush would be forced to retract the move. Today, I get my wish.

White House visitor logs are public documents, a federal judge ruled Monday, rejecting a legal strategy that the Bush administration had hoped would get around public records laws and let them keep their guests a secret.

The administration, true to form, is expected to appeal the ruling. In addition, they went venue shopping:

The Bush administration had sought to have the case moved to another judge by consolidating it with a similar lawsuit before U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer, an appointee of President Bush.

Lamberth, who served in the Justice Department before President Reagan put him on the federal bench, has roiled Democratic and Republican administrations alike with rulings rejecting government secrecy claims.

I'm happy to report, however, that that move failed:

On Monday, Collyer and Lamberth agreed to consolidate the two Abramoff-related cases before Lamberth, even though Collyer, in accordance with long-standing courthouse practice, would have dealt with both because the case she was hearing was the older of the two.

I suspect Collyer didn't want the hassle of ruling on a case involving the man who appointed her.

In any case, the principle of open records has been preserved for now. We'll see if the administration decides to push it further up the ladder. They may decide to give it a try just to string the case out until Bush's presidency ends, after which interest in Bush's visitor list will shrink significantly. That's obnoxious, but it's their right. My main concern is that the openness be preserved in the end, so that future inhabitants can't pull the same shenanigans.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Northstar Line moving forward

Lots of good mass transit news will be arriving in Minnesota in time for the holidays, all of it having to do with the soon-to-be passed transportation bill.

The three big items contained in it:

1. $195 million to help rebuild the collapsed I-35W bridge.

2. $55 million for the Northstar commuter rail line, part of about $162 million in federal money that will eventually come our way to help pay for the $320 million project. It's on track to break ground in 2008, with a scheduled opening in 2009. And once the new Twins stadium is built, Northstar riders will be able to use the stadium station to switch to the Hiawatha light-rail line, giving them carless access to downtown Minneapolis, south Minneapolis, the Mall of America and the airport.

3. Speaking of light-rail, the bill also contains about $10 million for the planned Central Corridor extension of the system, which will connect downtown Minneapolis with downtown St. Paul.

By the way, the Northstar line, besides easing the need for additional highway lanes in the northern suburbs, is expected to produce about $1 billion in economic development along its route.

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Cameras proposed to fight non-existent crime

Welcome to Buhl, Minn. Population 1,000. It's a small, sleepy community where nothing much ever happens. Indeed, it disbanded its police force in 1999.

Which is why it clearly needs surveillance cameras to keep the peace.

Local law enforcement officials are pushing a plan to place six surveillance cameras around this Iron Range town of less than a thousand people.

Sgt. Pat McKenzie of the St. Louis County Sheriff's office, which has overseen law enforcement in Buhl since the city disbanded its police department in 1999, said it'd be a tool for solving and deterring crime. But some residents are asking: What crime?

The main plan is to put cameras on the three roads into town, to ensure that any out-of-town criminals are caught in videotape as they arrive. But they'd also put cameras at City Hall, the city beach and an industrial park.

If the good citizens of Buhl want cameras, of course, they can have them. But does anyone here think the surveillance society has gotten a little out of hand?

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A principled stand on gay marriage

A handful of liberal churches are taking a principled step in support of gay marriage -- refusing to perform civil ceremonies for anyone, gay or straight.

These churches, and a handful of others around the country that took the same step, will still hold a religious ceremony to bless the unions of straight and gay couples -- but straight couples must go separately to a judge or justice of the peace for the marriage license.

In other words, they're taking the first practical step toward separating religious marriage and civil marriage, which have become intertwined to the detriment of both.

I've argued before that the way to settle the gay marriage debate is to get the government out of the marriage business: civil unions (and the benefits thereof) to everyone who qualifies, and religious marriages for people who want one and can find a church to perform the ceremony.

Now these churches have taken the first step toward making that a reality.

Right now, it's just a handful of liberal churches. But there should be a compelling interest among conservative churches, as well, who may want to start refusing civil ceremonies in order to avoid association with gay marriage, or pressure to perform same-sex ceremonies.

"I know there are clusters of conservative pastors in Massachusetts who have discussed refusing civil ceremonies so as not to be under pressure to perform same-gender ceremonies," said Runnion-Bareford, who himself believes that government and the church have a joint interest in promoting traditional marriage as a societal good.

One can only hope. I don't support (or anticipate) pressure on conservative denominations to perform same-sex marriages. But I do think that gay marriage will become more and more accepted, and in the end the only way opponents can "protect" the word "marriage" is to decouple it from the civil ceremony and make it a purely religious undertaking. So as time goes on, I think you'll see an odd coalition of churches supporting such a move.

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New Jersey abolishes the death penalty


New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine signed a law, passed last week by the legislature, abolishing the death penalty in that state.

I have no problem with the death penalty in principle, as long as its use is restricted to very clear, very extreme circumstances. Timothy McVeigh, for instance, was a perfect candidate for it. As are serial killers and the like.

My problems with it are entirely practical. First, it is applied to far too wide a spectrum of crimes. Second, it's irreversible. Throw a guy in prison for life, and if he turns out to be innocent, you can release him. Execute a guy, and if he turns out to be innocent, all you can do is apologize to the family.

Neither of those problems would be fatal if it weren't for the third problem: the fact that innocent people are sentenced to die far too often. Our judicial system is fallible; it seems silly to rely on a fallible system to determine whether someone lives or dies.

Corzine invoked a moral opposition to the death penalty:

"This is a day of progress for us and for the millions of people across our nation and around the globe who reject the death penalty as a moral or practical response to the grievous, even heinous, crime of murder," Corzine said.


But New Jersey's decision was mostly decided on practical grounds. From the legislative report accompanying the bill:

New Jersey has spent at least a quarter billion dollars ($253.3 million) on its death penalty system since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1982. Since that time there have been 197 capital trials and 60 death penalty convictions in the state of which 50 were reversed. There have been no executions, and currently 10 men are housed on New Jersey’s death row.

In 25 years the state has spent $250 million, and all it has to show for it is 10 men on Death Row. But it hasn't managed to actually execute anyone since 1963.

Death-penalty proponents will say that the problem is the lengthy appeals process, which makes cases both expensive and ensures that it can take decades to execute someone. They have a point -- but then the argument goes back to problem #3: the fallibility of the justice system. Unless you're willing to execute a few innocent people along with the guilty, death cases will always be expensive and drawn out. Complaining that it is so is tantamount to complaining about making sure someone is really, truly guilty before offing them.

So, good for New Jersey. I predict that this move will have exactly zero effect on the state's crime rate. And while some evil people will live instead of die, they will do so in the confines of a brutal prison system from which they will never leave. That hardly strikes me as coddling.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Torture is in the eye of the beholder

President Bush declares "we don't torture." But that's only true if you accept his definition of the term -- which apparently doesn't include several techniques that most other people consider torture. Dan Froomkin writes:

The bill would require U.S. intelligence agencies to follow interrogation rules adopted by the armed forces last year....

Those rules explicitly prohibit "forcing detainees to be naked, perform sexual acts, or pose in a sexual manner; placing hoods or sacks over detainees' heads or duct tape over their eyes; beating, shocking, or burning detainees; threatening them with military dogs; exposing them to extreme heat or cold; conducting mock executions; depriving them of food, water, or medical care; and waterboarding."

Okay, I'll side with Bush on the forcing to be naked and sexual posing. That's humiliating, and shouldn't be allowed, but it's not torture.

But the rest?

Bush relies on the sophistry of "not telling our enemies what methods we use" as his excuse for opposing such clear bills. But that makes little sense. Yes, you don't publish a manual of interrogation methods. But if you can't label a given technique torture, then you can't meaningfully apply a law that outlaws torture -- and thus any claims that "we don't torture" are meaningless and unenforceable.

Froomkin also covers the contempt of Congress citations issued to Karl Rove and Josh Bolten for refusing to turn over documents related to the U.S. attorney firings. Interestingly, Republican senators Arlen Specter and Charles Grassley voted in favor of the citations -- deflating to some extent accusation that the charges are purely politically motivated.

For its part, the White House repeated its meaningless offer to let Rove and Bolten be interviewed without oaths or transcripts. And it vowed that the Justice Department would not enforce the contempt citations, preventing the issue -- which, questions of right or wrong aside, boils down to a separation-of-powers spat -- from being heard in the courts.

As Froomkin writes:

The White House position, of course, exposes an amazing conundrum: That the same Justice Department whose politicization is being investigated is also in a position to hand out get-out-of-testifying-free cards.

This may be within the executive's power, but it's not right. Both sides should agree to have the matter reviewed by the judiciary, which can rule on whether Congress has the power of oversight in this matter. If so, the documents must be turned over; if not, they don't.

But the scorched earth stonewalling by the White House serves no legitimate purpose.

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Iraqi oil production hits prewar levels


Put increased oil output down as yet another benefit of the improving security situation in Iraq.

The IEA said Iraqi crude production is now running at 2.3 million barrels per day, compared with 1.9 million barrels at the start of this year.

This could be a biggie, for two reasons.

1. Oil infrastructure -- consisting as it does of a lot of pipelines running through the middle of nowhere -- are particularly susceptible to sabotage. Security measures help, but a sustained decline in such sabotage only comes about when fewer people feel like sabotaging the equipment. So it's an indicator of changing attitudes among Iraqis, not just tighter security measures.

2. Increased production means increased oil revenue, which means increased revenue-sharing between Sunni, Shiite and Kurds. A sustained increase and equitable sharing would give all sides a big financial incentive to seek peace in order to keep the largesse flowing. And payments to Sunnis and Kurds help buy goodwill and give the minority groups -- particularly the Sunnis, who have few oil deposits in their territory -- incentive to remain a part of Iraq rather than attempt to go their own way.

As I've noted before, the improved security is only as strong as the allegiance of key Sunni tribal leaders. Recently discovered mass graves in former Al-Qaeda strongholds graphically demonstrate why those tribal leaders switched sides -- AQ is as self-destructively deadly as Ebola. But there's nothing keeping them from resuming their own insurgency if they are not satisfied with the benefits of cooperation. Keeping them on board remains the key task in Iraq.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is privatization really cheaper?

Buck Naked Politics has a great post exploring the idea that privatization always saves money. A taste:

Why does anyone still blindly assume that corporate employees are more efficient?

Enron employees, for example, thought a corporate art collection would be a fine use of 20-million shareholder dollars. Former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski spent a million shareholder dollars on his wife's weekend birthday bash (he relocated to prison after looting Tyco of $600 million).

Examples such as those, which are hardly uncommon, should cast doubt on the notion that corporate employees are, by nature, more careful than government employees with other people's money.

Moving on to actual government contractors, it continues:

contractor profits -- even reasonable ones -- add to the taxpayers' costs of privatizing government services. Consider Booz Allen Hamilton, a major contractor in intelligence and defense. Booz Allen charged us taxpayers $42 - $383 per hour for its employees to do the same work that government employees would do for about half that pay range.

Blackwater CEO Erik Prince told a congressional committee that about 10% of its roughly $1 billion in State Department security contracts was profit. (See hearing video.) That's $100 million. Blackwater paid its security guards about $600 a day and billed the government about $1,200. Basically, Blackwater acted as an employment agency. If the State Dept. directly hired those same security guards for $600 a day, the taxpayers' costs would drop significantly.

The critique leaves out one main motivation of hiring contractors: when the work goes away, it's easier to dismiss a contractor than to fire government employees. And contracting can give you access to a higher quality of talent than you can sometimes find on a government payroll. In addition, sometimes contractors have a particular expertise that is worth paying for because it's either unavailable within government or saves money in the long run. That's why we hired Red Adair to put out burning oil wells after the end of the first Gulf War. We don't tend to keep Hellfighter teams hanging around the federal services building.

But the overall point is solid. Outsourcing work sometimes makes sense. It can sometimes save money. But it doesn't always. And it certainly isn't true to the extent that some people have fetishized it into a mantra -- along with the idea that the answer to any fiscal problem is to always cut taxes.

The former turns the reasonable principle of "a government only as big as necessary" into the unreasonable "always shrink government." Similarly, the latter turns "taxes only as high as necessary" into "always cut taxes."

Privatize when it makes sense. But make sure it makes sense.

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Follow the money

Christmas has come early for political bloggers, in the form of USASpending.gov, a new web site that contains a searchable database of every federal contract -- including who got paid, when, how much and what for.

It's a government site, but it's the result of a remarkable bipartisan effort by the conservative Heritage Foundation and the liberal group OMB Watch to make government more transparent and accountable, which culminated in Senate passage of a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to create the site.

Combined with new databases on FEC reports and earmarks, we now have an unprecedented ability to follow the money trails that wind in and out of government. It isn't perfect -- it still takes a fair bit of legwork, and the databases aren't linked -- but it's far better than what existed (or rather, didn't exist) before.

One hitch is that you have to search by contractor name, which is usually a company, not a person. For instance, you need to know that Sen. Dianne Feinstein's husband, Richard Blum, owns Perini Corp. -- a construction contractor -- before you can plug the company name into the database and find out that the company lands millions of dollars worth of federal contracts every year: from a low of $24 million or so in 2002 to a high of $459 million in 2004 (and declining since).

But once you know that, you can freely dream up conspiracy theories that the contracts are somehow related to Feinstein's Senate perch.

There's also an "Assistance" tab, which lets you find out who are the recipients of federal grants, loans, etc. You can search by name, congressional district, type o recipient and other criteria.

So thank Santa for the gift and go investigate your favorite politician or company. I've added the link to my "Resources" list in the sidebar so it's easy to find.

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Sharpton under scrutiny


The FBI is taking a close look at the finances of the Rev. Al Sharpton, subpoenaing 10 aides and associates and demanding to see his financial records for the last six years.

The subpoenas are in support of two separate probes:

The FBI and IRS are investigating whether Sharpton improperly misstated the amount of money he raised during his 2004 White House run to illegally obtain federal matching funds, a source familiar with the probe said....

The feds are also looking into allegations of tax fraud, including whether Sharpton commingled funds from his nonprofit National Action Network with several of his for-profit ventures, the source said.

The first charge doesn't appear to be all that serious -- the major penalty would be forcing Sharpton to return some matching funds. But the second could be a biggie. The IRS has had a lot of its teeth pulled in recent years, but it can still deliver a nasty bite when aroused. But a lot will depend on whether the impropriety, if any, was deliberate or simply negligent.

Me, I consider Al to be an occasionally substantive blowhard whom I still haven't fully forgiven for his antics in the Tawana Brawley case -- though he has grown up a bit since then. It wouldn't surprise me much to find out he played fast and loose with his finances.

But he still deserves his day in court. If that ever arrives; given the complexity of things, I'd expect any charges to eventually be settled out of court unless Al pisses someone off.

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The terror plot that wasn't


You knew it, I knew it, now finally the government knows it: The doofuses known as the "Liberty City Seven", who were arrested last year and charged with plotting to blow up the Sears Tower, were not exacly poster children for terrorism. Their trial ended today, with one acquittal and deadlocks on the remaining six defendants.

I'm all for stopping terrorist plots before they get anywhere near the operational stage, but from the beginning it seemed obvious that these jokers not only weren't anywhere near operational, it would have taken a minor miracle for them to have gotten there -- if indeed that was their goal.

That being obvious, it was exceedingly foolish of the government -- in the personage of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who personally announced the "foiling" of the plot -- to put its credibility on the line with this case, insisting that the group was "emblematic" of the future face of Al-Qaeda, practically Public Enemy Number One.

Even back then, the flimsiness of this case -- and the apparent incompetence of the defendants -- led many to conclude that the government's description of the terror threat was overblown. Today's verdict will simply reinforce that, and mean the government will have a harder time getting people to take real threats seriously.

To be sure, the verdicts weren't an exoneration of the defendants. The acquitted man, Lyglenson Lemorin, had left the group months before the arrests. The deadlock over the other six is neither conviction nor exoneration. Clearly, at least some jurors thought there was enough evidence to convict each of them. And the government has vowed to retry them.

If the government seriously believes they were a threat, then it should do so. But it should take a good hard look at the evidence and decide if that's truly the case. High-profile prosecutions of ineffective wannabes undermines the fight against terrorism in the long run.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Water and weirdness on Mars


Our Mars program has made two interesting discoveries.

SILICA-RICH ROCKS
So what, you ask? Because high concentrations of silica form under only two known conditions: a hot spring, or a fumarole of acidic steam. On earth, both areas teem with life. In other words, conditions on Mars were once favorable for supporting life.

"SPIDERS"
That's the name for multi-legged gullies like the one in the picture above, which radiate out from a central point.

Turns out the gullies are caused by carbon dioxide ice thawing and then flowing *uphill* to concentrate at the center, where they erupt in geysers, then freeze and fall back to the ground as carbon dioxide snow.

Just a reminder that, however Earthlike Mars might have been in the past, it sure isn't now.

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Muslim saves Jew

For those who view Islam and Muslims as the problem, I bring you this: A Muslim man who saved a Jewish man from a religion-related beating on a Brooklyn subway.

A Brooklyn man whose "Happy Hanukkah" greeting landed him in the hospital said he was saved from a gang of Jew-bashing goons aboard a packed Q train by a total stranger - a modest Muslim from Bangladesh.

Walter Adler was touched that Hassan Askari jumped to his aid while a group of thugs allegedly pummeled and taunted him and his three friends. So Adler has invited his new friend over to celebrate the Festival of Lights.

The two new pals - Adler, 23, with a broken nose and a fat lip, and Askari, 20, with two black eyes - broke bread together and laughed off the bruises the night after the fisticuffs.

You gotta love the religious ignorance of the attackers:

One of the group immediately hiked up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of Christ.

"He said, 'Happy Hanukkah, that's when the Jews killed Jesus,' " said Adler.

No, that would be Good Friday, Braniac.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

The problem with Creationists....

.... is that many of them are stunningly ignorant.

Which is why Mike Huckabee's professed support for creationism, however cautiously expressed and however carefully separated from his political policies, is going to keep causing him political trouble. It might not be totally fair, but such a position makes it hard not to wonder about his judgment in other matters.

Meanwhile, click on the link above and enjoy the stupidity.

And if you want more, follow author John Scalzi on his tour of the Creationism Museum. The essay is okay; the pictures are the real ticket.

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The Death of the K Street Project?



The Hill has an interesting bit of lobbying news: Trent Lott, the former Republican senator, appears to be joining forces with former Democrat Sen. John Breaux to create a new and powerful lobbying firm in Washington.

Sen. Lott recently indicated a partnership is likely: “John Breaux and I have been friends for 38 or 40 years. We were both staff members in the ’60s. In the ’70s and ’80s, we lived across the street from each other. Our children played together. They were at each other’s weddings.

“A bipartisan firm would be fun,” Lott said.

Not only would it be fun, but it might also represent a final knife in the back of the K Street Project. When two politicos as powerful as Lott and Breaux form a bipartisan lobbying firm, it's going to be difficult to tell other firms that they have to toe a party line.

Which is a good thing. While there are plenty of problems with the role of lobbyists in our politics -- namely, they allow the interests of the few-but-highly-interested to trump the interests of the many-but-unaware -- it's better to have lobbying firms that are independent and bipartisan than to turn them into wholly-owned, money-making subsidiaries of the two main political parties. Otherwise you're never sure whose interests the firm is actually representing, a potential conflict of interest that would undermine whatever public trust the system still has.

The K Street Project was a bad idea. If Lott and Breaux become one reason that it dies and never returns, more power to them.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

An easy, if illogical, appeal

There's a big global-warming conference getting underway in Bali, with 10,000 attendees from around the world.

Whatever you think of the conference subject -- or the likely results, if any -- I'm getting tired of one easy-but-ignorant criticism routinely aimed at such conferences. To wit:

Critics say they are contributing to the very problem they aim to solve.

"Nobody denies this is an important event, but huge numbers of people are going, and their emissions are probably going to be greater than a small African country," said Chris Goodall, author of the book "How to Live a Low-Carbon Life."

It's an interesting datum, made more interesting in that it's coming from someone who clearly thinks global-warming is real and serious. But as far as ethics or policy, such a criticism is mindless.

The implication is that the attendees are hypocrites, because they're preaching global-warming alarm while jetting around the world.

But such a stance is nonsense. If we were to accept the premise, then people concerned about global warming could never hold global discussions because of the emissions involved in putting such meetings together. Apparently, the effort to combat global warming is supposed to be fought by people meeting locally in outdoor venues reached only by bicycle or on foot. Or handled entirely by telephone and e-mail.

Which is utter bilge, of course.

For one thing, the amount of emissions involved are relatively small -- as the story notes, the 12-day conference is expected to produce about as much carbon as the city of Marseilles produces in one day. That one-time bump in emissions isn't even a rounding error in the scheme of things.

For another, few if any of the people involved are advocating a return to caveman days. These aren't zero-emission fanatics, who think that taking a ski vacation in Colorado is an unforgiveable crime against the planet. There's a reason it's called emissions "reduction," not "elimination"; emissions are an unavoidable part of human activity. So expecting delegates to be entirely carbon-neutral in every aspect of their lives is silly.

It's much like a dieter, who is trying to reduce -- but not eliminate -- his caloric intake. Do you call him hypocritical if he stays within his caloric goal but eats a sugar cookie? No. Doing so relies on a crabbed definition of dieting that completely ignores the big picture.

The way to look at emissions reductions is from a cost-benefit angle. If the conference adds 1 percent to this year's emissions, but results in agreements that cut long-term emissions by 5 percent, it clearly is an emission-friendly endeavor.

Naturally, the real picture is more complex than that, because emissions-reduction is a slow, slow process. It's more like this conference, plus the next one and the next one and the next one, will, over a period of years, lay the groundwork for the next Kyoto-like agreement, expected in 2012. But the logic is the same.

One can question whether the effort is worth it, or is likely to produce anything of value. And there are legitimate criticisms of this conference in particular -- why Bali, for instance, instead of a more accessible location? Though that answer is not simple, either, because there are issues not only of emissions but also relative wealth: it's economically more feasible to have wealthy Westerners fly to Bali than to have poor Asian countries send people to Europe, even if the latter is better for the carbon balance sheet. And, of course, there are political reasons to hold meetings of global importance all over the globe in question.

But it's simply silly to expect the effort itself to be carbon-neutral from the get-go.

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A little humor goes a long way

You gotta hand it to Mike Huckabee. He didn't bobble the priceless opportunity that fell in his lap, although he's about as funny as a marble statue.



A few more commercials like this might make the primaries bearable.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Catching up


Some quick thoughts on current events:

IRAQ
The surge is working from a military perspective. With all due credit to our troops and Gen. Petraeus' solid planning and execution of a competent strategy, however, the turnaround is mostly due to thousands of Sunni tribesmen switching sides, joining the U.S. to fight Al-Qaeda militants.

The switch is partly due to AQ's self-destructive tendency to attack other Sunnis. When AQ stepped up attacks against fellow Sunnis, it marked the beginning of the end of their fall. Particularly because Iraqis are not, by and large, extremist material.

But because the improvement is largely based on a change of allegiance, the improvement is fragile: if the Sunni tribes switch back, the improvement could disappear as quickly as it appeared.

Which underscores the main challenge remaining in Iraq: achieving the political changes that will make the security improvements permanent. And progress there has been slow.

Whether the invasion, even in hindsight, was justified or worth the cost is not the question here; we're concerned only with achieving the best end we can now that we're in Iraq. In that context, Petraeus and Bush have achieved enough to stave off demands for withdrawal; they've earned a chance to demonstrate that they can make the changes stick. I hope they can, but it's way too early to declare victory.


IRAN
The CIA has thrown the administration's Iran rhetoric into disarray with a new intelligence estimate that indicates Iran's nuclear weapons program has been frozen since 2003.

Some blindsided neocons, like Norman Podhoretz, were reduced to floating conspiracy theories -- that the new NIE is an attempt by the CIA to undercut the administration for political purposes, as if the CIA is so politicized that they're willing to let Iran get nukes if it lets them make Bush look bad in the short run.

For my money, though, this doesn't really change things much. It's good news if true, and it certainly short-circuits the premature (and hopelessly naive) drumbeat for war that was being beaten in certain quarters. Fact is, thanks to the ongoing mess in Iraq, this country has no appetite for war with Iran unless and until they actually drop a bomb on somebody.

But Iran still has a program, even if it's in mothballs. And we still need an intrusive inspection regime and other concrete assurances that Iran cannot and will not develop a nuclear weapon. So all the NIE does is put the ball firmly in diplomacy's court, where it should have been all along. I support limited military action to avoid a Persian Bomb, but that necessity is still a long way off.

As an aside, I love watching how people accept or don't accept the NIE as credible based on its contents. Up until now, many administration critics have all but accused Bush and Cheney of making up the NIEs to support their policy -- while administration supporters pointed to the NIE as authoritative grounding for our Iran policy. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and the roles are reversed. Not everyone is playing that game, of course -- Hot Air is doing a pretty good job, for example, despite linking to lots of people who aren't. But those who do demonstrate that partisanship has pickled their brains.

THE ELECTION
I'm still not seeing anything to love. My biggest fear is that we'll get a Rudy-Hillary matchup in the general. On the one hand this wouldn't be too bad, because they're both basically centrists. On the other hand, they have the highest negatives of the candidates, and both can be fairly criticized for blowing with the political winds. So if they clinch the nominations, we will see perhaps the most negative presidential campaign in history, and the lowest voter turnout in decades.

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What century is this?


What finally tipped me over the edge into resuming posting was the announcement that Mitt Romney will be making a major speech on faith in a couple of days, hoping to neutralize his Mormonism as a campaign issue.

Regular readers know that I'm no big Mitt Romney supporter, and as an agnostic I often take a jaundiced view of religion in general. But c'mon: Have we learned nothing from history, or even the last five years?

We're deeply engaged in an overseas war, ostensibly to fight religious extremists who wish to impose their brand of faith on everyone. One way we're doing that is by attempting to persuade Iraqis, Afghanis and everyone else that a person's race and religion does not matter: Sunni and Shiite can live together peaceably, ruled by a government representing all of them. In particular, we're trying to persuade Sunnis that it's quite all right to be ruled by a Shiite majority.

But at the same time, here at home, a longtime governor and serious presidential candidate feels compelled to make a national speech in order to advance the argument that it's okay to elect a Mormon as president.

Like, duh.

Seriously. What century is this? And what sort of mixed message are we sending to the people abroad whom we presume to instruct in tolerance? Sure, "refusing to elect" is a far different thing than "executing as infidels". But the philosophical underpinning is too similar to dismiss.

If Romney were a religious nut, that would be one thing. I would never vote for Pat Robertson, for example, because he holds extreme, often apocalyptic views and seems all too willing to try to put those views into practice. But that doesn't mean I would refuse to vote for any evangelical Christian candidate. And I tend to oppose conservative Christians because I disagree with their politics, not because they're Christian. Just like I oppose conservative Jews, Hindus and Muslims.

Grow up, people. Vote or don't vote for Romney because you agree or disagree with him, not because of where he goes to church on Sunday (or Saturday, or whatever).

And Republicans? Consider this event as further proof of the excessive and damaging hold that the religious right has on your party.

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The return of Sean

Hey everyone,

I apologize for the nearly three-month absence here at Midtopia. I'm not dead, but I have been very, very busy with other things -- and not Halo 3, as has been rumored....

I was simply overwhelmed by a tidal wave of real-life commitments:

1. The start of another school year, which meant both more volunteering time and time spent helping the kids with homework;

2. My wife launching a new business, for which I've provided technical support and graphic-design help, as well as picking up more domestic duties;

3. Serious flux at work;

4. Getting ready to return to school for a Web-design certificate.

I've still got all of the above, but I've gotten something of a routine down now, so I can squeeze in blogging again.

I don't promise to be as prolific a poster as I was before, but there shouldn't be any more three-month breaks.

On to the good stuff!

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