Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dumb People Ruin Everything

"Wait wait wait--I'm a little weak on the whole 'good' and 'bad' thing. . . "
--Dr. Venkman, Bill Murray's character in the film 'Ghostbusters.'

On September 28 2008, thirty-three ministers who are part of the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian organization, decided to build a test case to challenge the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) restrictions on churches engaging in political activity. At issue is the 1954 amendment to the tax code at 26 USC sec. 501(c)(3), introduced by then Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson, which does not allow a tax-exempt church to "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." Coordinated by Mr. Erik Stanley, a tax attorney, the ministers endorsed by name a candidate for the up-coming United States Presidential election, and then notified the IRS of their actions. If the IRS chooses to enforce the limitation on political activity by taking away the churches' tax exempt status, then Mr. Stanley will bring the IRS to federal court, asking a judge to strike down that limitation as a violation on the ministers' first amendment right to freedom of speech.

I know I said Bill Murray--but I just like Sigourney Weaver, Okay?

As you can well imagine, everyone is very excited about this, making bold and important sounding statements about my two least favorite legal clichés: 'freedom of speech' and 'separation of church and state.' I really hate that. At another time, for those of you who really care, I will give brief rundown on what 'freedom of speech' and 'separation of church and state' mean, and how they apply in this context (and if you don't care: no worries. Only I care. I know this).

Instead, I want to comment on a curious aspect of censorship: the dangers of Dumb People.

'Censorship' means an authority has restricted some information, because the authority believes communicating that information is dangerous. Narrowing further, censored information poses a threat, either because it is true--or because it is false.

The former, censorship of information that is true, is the less controversial. Rightly or wrongly, our political system has determined that some information cannot be expressed publicly, because knowing that information poses a threat to society. For example, I cannot post technical information about how to best separate the two main isotopes of uranium (uranium 235 and uranium 238) necessary for building an atomic bomb.

Ms. Shirley Eaton. She used to work for Goldfinger, but now she works for the US Department of the Treasury

Censoring incorrect information ('incorrect' for whatever reason a person believes it to be false) poses an interesting question that touches on the foundations of a pluralistic liberal democracy. For example, placement of certain books in libraries, idiotic political advertisements, and opinions expressed by media pundits, all invite raucous comment--especially when whoever's commenting believes the opinion, advertisement, or book is 'wrong' or 'biased.' The offending information must be restricted or banned, so the argument goes, because its propaganda value will convince a significant portion of society to think the false information is in fact true. But if you were to ask the raucous commentators if they felt swayed by the false propaganda, they would assure you that had not. No one (that I am aware of) has ever said 'Please restrict this false information, because if I keep hearing it, I am going to believe it.' No, the people who want to restrict information are not worried about themselves--they are worried about the OTHER people who hear it: the Dumb People.

If everyone was 'smart' (meaning had the same judgment and values as the people advocating the censorship), there would be no need to restrict the information: all right thinking people would recognize the falsity, and dismiss it out of hand. But those who don't know better, they might believe the false information, to the detriment of the Smart People. Dumb People: they ruin it for everybody.

Take, for instance, a book that urges everyone to become gay, have a same-sex marriage, raise gay children, and live a gay life style. There is a portion of American society who would find that book offensive, and not want it placed in public libraries. But not because they are afraid that they might accidentally read the book, and become gay themselves. No--the worry is that Dumb People or impressionable children (i.e. Dumb Kids) will read the book, and become gay. Nevermind the fact that no one has ever chosen their sexual identity based on book learin', the Smart People still need to protect themselves from the Dumb People--you never know.

Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson. Would you buy a used car from this man? How about giving him $700 billion USD, no restrictions and no oversight?

Getting back to the Alliance Defense Fund ministers, if I attended one of their services, I imagine I would be told that God wanted me to vote Republican, because God is tough on national defense, abortion, and earmarks--just like Senator McCain. Or I would hear that God's platform includes national health care, increased funding for education, and a tax cut for middle class families earning less than $250,000 USD a year--just like Senator Obama. Or maybe God had come out for Ron Paul or Libertarian candidate Bob Barr. Or God is now on the side of Ralph Nader or Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney. Following the Divine Endorsement, what would I do?

I'll tell you right now: even if Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, the Gotama Buddha, Vishnu, and Bertrand Russell all gave a homily on how I needed to vote the McCain-Palin ticket--no soap, is all I have to say. On the other hand, even a below-average speaker could probably shame me in voting for either Mr. Nader or Ms. McKinney (if not both). Why? Because I am already favorably disposed towards the Greens, and have a tattoo of Ralph Nader across my chest.

My point is, I am skeptical of the value of endorsements: I think by and large, the people persuaded by hearing that God Is On Our Side, they were leaning that way already. Even the Dumb People.

Mr. Ralph Nader. We're still waiting to see if he will accept his pending endorsement from the Supreme Being

Of course, as President Lincoln famously warned, you can fool all of the people some of the time--to their great detriment. A classic example is what happened during the 2000 South Carolina Republican presidential primary. Just prior to that election, Senator McCain had beaten then Governor George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, and it looked like he would also win in South Carolina. Fearing the momentum would make Senator McCain unbeatable, Governor Bush launched one of the more disgusting campaigns of our time. For example, Bush covered the state with the rumour that Senator McCain fathered a BLACK CHILD out of wedlock with a BLACK PROSTITUTE. Senator McCain does have a dark-skinned daughter: he and his wife adopted an orphan from Bangladesh. Nevertheless, enough Dumb People believed Bush's smear campaign, and Senator McCain lost badly. The McCain campaign never recovered.

Would truth, justice, and democracy have been better served if George Bush had been prevented from lying to the Dumb People? I would say no, and for two reason. First, I cannot imagine any effective way to screen the truthful sleazeball campaigns from the lying sleazeball campaigns. One of the early principles that arose from the US Supreme Court freedom of speech litigation is that the better remedy for 'bad' speech is to encourage more speech, as opposed to restricting the bad speech. For example, instead of some South Carolina Caliph issuing a wholly unenforceable order for Governor Bush to 'stop lying,' the McCain campaign and independent local media should have passed the dual message of Senator McCain's adoption and Governor Bush being a lying pig face sack of goose goo. Did that happen? Obviously, not enough.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! Wait--What? Oh, not again!

Still, second (and for me the more important point), is that as a society with a republican form of democracy, we depend on an informed populace. While voters often make mistakes, on balance executive power must have a popular check on its authority. So how do we get informed plebs to make a good plebiscite? By letting them make mistakes. If anyone in South Carolina voted for George W. Bush, because they thought Senator McCain fathered a child with a black prostitute--then that person was a complete moron. However, I believe that morons eventually stop being morons, if their moron-ity is pointed out to them. Education--not unlike manure--happens.

Why do I believe that? Because I'm a gullible, bleeding heart liberal. But then again......On September 29 2008, the US House of Representatives shocked President Bush, the Democratic and Republican Leadership, Senators McCain and Obama--and probably even god--when they voted down the brokered compromise 'rescue plan,' giving Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson $700 billion USD of mad money. Is there a fiscal crisis, demanding immediate action and an outpouring of princely sums? Probably. But I was delighted to hear several representatives saying that the last time President Bush was declaring a national emergency, and he needed immediate piles of money and authority, it was for the Iraq War. Given that the last time this White House was handed a blank check, it turned out not only to NOT be an emergency, but President Bush went on to make a pig's breakfast of the whole situation. So--no soap, President Bush--as they say where I come from. You say you need seven hundred large--I mean EXTRA large? Show us--do some of that 'advise and consent' stuff. Then we can talk. The formerly Dumb People have spoken.
Ms. Vivian Leigh. Repeat after me, Wall Street: "As God is my witness, I'll NEVER be poor a-gain!"

In conclusion, do I disagree with the Johnson Amendment, and think ministers should be able to endorse political candidates from their pulpits, and keep their tax exempt status? Absolutely not. But not because I am worried about ministers unduly influencing the Dumb People. I object, because I am a cheapskate, and do not want to pay money to subsidize their political activity by paying for the infrastructure that provides their water, sewer, police and fire protection, and road maintenance.

You want to write childish things about Presidential candidates that no one cares about, then give up your tax breaks and get a blog like the rest of us losers---I mean zealots.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Bourgeoisie Always Wins

Following the Presidential debate of Senators Obama and McCain, I am less than stunned than most cognoscenti score the debate as a draw, and the public scoring the bout with the candidate they support prevailing in a split decision. I, on the other hand, score debates differently. Under the 'Bill System,' I pretend that I am reading a blind transcript of the debate, to see if I can tell who's the bleeding heart tax & spend liberal and who's the corporate tool spend & spend conservative. The easy way to do this is listen to what a candidate says, and then imagine if the opponent could have said the same thing.

Moderator Jim Lehrer. His hobby is asking

questions that people ignore.

Honourable Mention for Mentioning of Honours--and Other Empty Gestures

Moderator Jim Lehrer, the forces of random probability and natural selection bless him, tried his hardest, but both candidates, like the oak growing by the river, they shall not be moved. When asked what changes their administrations would make following the $700 billion USD bail out of Wall Street (on top of $500 billion USD in guarantees to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, $85 billion USD to AIG, and lots of massaging for the takeovers of Bear Sterns and Washington Mutual. Then there's the $560 billion USD (so far) in the Iraq war--all yet to be paid), both candidates took blood oaths to make sharp reductions in the Department of Unspecified Deadwood. Other than that, Senator Obama waxed eloquently on the importance of health care, education, development of alternative energy sources, and tax relief for families making less than $225,000 USD a year to pay for the high cost of energy (all excellent in points--had the question been about the high cost of energy, tax cuts for families making less than $225,000 USD a year, development of alternative energy sources, education, or even health care. But it wasn't.). Senator McCain made broad sweeping gestures with his pen, bragging on how he would use his veto super power against out of control spending (viewers watching with the sound off may have wondered why Mr. Lehr asked which candidate had the best impression of Zorro).

Senator McCain did offer one specific suggestion: an across the board spending freeze--except for military spending, entitlements, and veterans' benefits. That was the night's comic highpoint. After adding up the above mentioned federal hand outs, interest payments on the existing federal debt, 'entitlements,' and 'military spending,' a McCain administration might be left slashing the budget for Federal Allocation of Paperclips & Misc Paper Fasteners, Other Than Staples--but not much else.

Both candidates' responses were shameful, and frankly dishonest. Each candidate dusted off penny ante examples of how their personal intervention on some specific program saved some large sounding amount of money, that is actually peanuts compared to the budget numbers. Senator McCain dusted off his old saw about the $3 million USD the US Geological Survey allocated to study grizzly bear DNA, and

Ms. Ingrid Bergman. She was not present for the debate. But if she had, she would have been candid about how the Wall Street bail out would limit a Bergman Administration.

how he doesn't know if that's a paternity issue or a criminal issue. Ho ho ho (it's actually a 'paternity' issue, whether the bear should be covered by the endangered species act). That little ditty has been in Senator McCain's bag of tricks so long, he's probably spent more than $3 million just in the telling.

For individual voters and game shows, $3 million USD is lots of money. It's not. Even under the most conservative estimates, the United States spends $15 billion USD a month on the Iraq War. Assuming a thirty day month, $3 million will pay for just over eight and half minutes of the Iraq War. How big is the federal budget? On September 28 2008, the US Congress passed and sent to President Bush a budget of $634 billion USD, to fund the government for four months--through the end of January 2009--and that does not include payments for any of the above bail outs. For Senator McCain to repeatedly highlight a $3 million expense, as if that was the source of our budgetary woes, is ridiculous. If Senator McCain and his busy veto pen thinks nixing $3 million programs will balance the budget--well, he's going to need to find over 5,000 of them, just to pay for one month of a war that's been going on for over five years. On the other hand, if Senator McCain can eliminate a mere 187,000 programs at $3 million per--that would pay for the Iraq War!

In terms of differences between the candidates, Senator McCain insisted he would cut taxes more than Senator Obama, but was not specific regarding renewing President Bush's steep tax cuts for the top two percent of taxpayers. Senator Obama won some credibility by insisting that not EVERYONE could get a tax cut--but more than lost it by insisting that 95% of the population (his figure) COULD get a tax cut. Other than that, the candidates' platitudes on the economy were interchangeable.

Guess Who Supports This Issue--It's Easy and Fun!

A. Offshore Oil Drilling

Rather than repeat Mr. Thomas Friedman's arguments as to why Drill Baby Drill is not just mistaken, but idiotic, I urge you to read his columns at nytimes.com. Nevertheless, both candidates supported offshore oil drilling.

B. Nuclear Power

Senator McCain stressed how he was way more in favor of building nuclear reactors than Senator Obama, but for all of Senator Obama's half-hearted reservations, Senator Obama still supported more reactors. Senator Obama did express concern about where nuclear waste should be stored, mentioned the controversy over the proposed facility in Yucca Mountain Nevada. Senator McCain had no such reservations, but made no mention where waste should be stored.

Senator Barack Obama. He's not a Republican--but he frequently plays one on TV.

There are three problems with nuclear energy, and both candidates are well aware of them. First and foremost, there is no permanent storage facility for nuclear waste. The closest we have is a proposed storage site in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The enabling legislation to complete this facility is affectionately known as the 'Screw Nevada' bill. Residents of the Silver State remain skeptical this nuclear trash can will in fact safely store the most toxic substances on earth for the projected 10,000 years the waste will remain harmful, and that there is no danger in trucking waste from all over the lower 48 to southern Nevada. If Senator McCain is sincere is his strong implication that we need nuclear power now, and we cannot wait for a permanent facility, then he needs to do one of two things. Either he must endorse the Screw Nevada bill, and push for completion of Yucca Mountain; or he must say where else a facility should be built, what needs to be done to complete that facility, and how waste can be safely stored until completion. Senator McCain's unspecified assertion that we are already safely storing waste, or that 'we'll find a way' is disingenuous.

Senator Obama, on the other hand, hardly scores better. He gets no points for mentioning the Yucca Mountain controversy. He only mentioned it as a controversy, without taking a position. In fact, Senator Obama gets negative points by trying to have it both ways: he's solidly *for* nuclear power--but maybe he's *against* nuclear power (kind of), because there is no permanent storage facility.

The second problem with nuclear power is the tremendous start up costs. Nuclear reactors generate electricity the same way coal-fired reactors do. Both boil water, and the resulting steam spins a generator, and out pops electricity. The difference is in how the water is heated: the former uses heat from a nuclear reaction, while the latter burns coal. Regardless of how much water is boiled or electricity generated, no nuclear reactor has generated enough money to pay for the cost of its construction and operation (nevermind storage costs of waste). Neither a McCain nor Obama administration will be in a position to spread economic largess to build enough of these economic rat holes to make a difference in America's energy picture. However, Senator McCain gets a special markdown, for the ever popular and always irresponsible crowing of 'job creation'--as if building nuclear power plants were a New Deal era Works Progress Administration (WPA) project.

Finally, there is the problem of lost opportunity costs. Both candidates paid lip service to the holy grail of 'alternative energy sources' in the same wistful tones Ronald Coleman used to describe Shangri-la in Lost Horizon. But anything more specific than the obligatory invocation of 'wind, solar, geothermal, biodiesel, and other sources' would wait until another day. Looking at where the United States will get the best use out of its energy dollars, investments in those technologies and even mass transit would be far more effective than another nuclear reactor.

On the issue of energy, Senator McCain did win extra points for specifically opposing continued subsidies for ethanol production ('Go for Huckabee, will ya? Well, SCREW YOU Iowa!'). I don't know whether cutting those subsidies is a good idea or not--but it was an point of difference between the two--maybe. Senator Obama did not take a position on ethanol production.

C. 'Clean' Coal

Both candidates love coal, and consider something called 'clean coal' an 'alternative energy.' Because burning coal predates even burning oil, I am curious how burning coal is an 'alternative.' More importantly, coal fired power plants do tremendous environmental damage, as sources of both carbon dioxide and acid rain--regardless of how 'clean' the coal is.

I cannot help but rank the 'clean' in clean coal in the same category as the 'fruit' in Froot Loops.

D. Missile Defense

The judges were divided on this issue, as to whether the candidates were deluding themselves or if they were simply pandering. Ultimately, we decided it did not matter, because either way both candidates were marked down.

Both candidates supported the $60 plus billion USD program building anti-missile systems in Poland (and even expanding the program at additional cost), to protect against 'rogue states.' Both candidates also gave the impression that such a system would be effective. Senator McCain even boasted that he supported President Reagan's proposed SDI system, 'even before we knew whether it would work.' Well, anti-ballistic missile systems (ABM) do not work for two reasons. First, we cannot hit the proverbial bullet with a bullet. The technology does not exist. Both candidates disgraced themselves by leaving the impression that technology does exist, and can protect against missile attacks. Second, and more importantly, even if and when we are able to hit a bullet with a bullet, those bullets will not disappear. During the 1970s debates over the ABM Treaty (broken by President George W. Bush), one of the most persuasive arguments against ABM Systems (and in favor of the Treaty) was that the people behind the 'missile shield' would die if the ABM missiles missed--but would still die from the resulting explosions if the ABM missiles did hit their targets.

Given the weak economic position we were in prior to this current real estate, banking, and Wall Street collapse, the fact both candidates still endorsed these rat-hole systems is a disservice to the country.

However, both candidates did score ahead of President Bush in their Chicken Little warnings about Rogue States. President Bush prefers to leave the identity of his Rogues unspecified, in that maybe someday, somewhere, someone will suddenly jump out of Zeus's forehead, fully armed with intercontinental ballistic missile systems, ready for battle. In contrast, both Senators Obama and McCain agreed on the boogeyman: not Russia, India, or Pakistan (who actually HAVE both atomic bombs and missiles), but instead pointed to Iran and North Korea. Unfortunately, they both lose points, because while insisting we need to live in fear and trembling of North Korea, both also acknowledged that North Korea could hardly generate electricity and was wholly unable to feed its own people. Senator McCain even mentioned on average, North Koreans were three inches shorter than their Southern counterparts, due to malnutrition. Neither mentioned that during North Korea's bomb 'test,' the yield of the explosion was substantially smaller than what should have resulted from a working atomic bomb, creating doubt that they actually have such a weapon--let alone the ability to place it on a missile.

As for Iran, both candidates joined the Bush White House assumption that Iran was actively building an atomic bomb, and neither mentioned the recent CIA report to the contrary. Neither also mentioned that Iran--like North Korea--is unable to feed its own people, and despite having one of the world's largest oil reserves, they cannot produce enough gasoline for domestic use.

If a Presidential candidate wants me to lie awake at night, shaking with fear, they need more than the spectre of two of the most dysfunctional governments on the planet--one even being one of the poorest.

E. Invading Pakistan to Get Bad Guys

This point is a little more subtle. Senator Obama said several times that we need to find and kill Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11 2001 attacks, as well as leaders of the Taliban and anti-American forces in Afghanistan. If the United States knew where these bad guys were--even if it was inside of Pakistan--we should go kill them. Senator McCain was appalled, and expressed indignation that a US President would ever say anything like that. Moreover, the fact that Senator Obama said something like that out loud was proof of Senator Obama's inexperience and naivety.

Now, you could say that I agree with Senator McCain: I think violating Pakistan's territorial integrality to kill people death-squad style is irresponsible--but you'd be wrong. Senator McCain thinks invading Pakistan (or anyone else, for that matter) to kill people he does not like is a great idea. What Senator McCain is vehemently against is saying so OUT LOUD.

Ostensively, such operations should be kept secret--which leads to the logical question of 'secret from whom?' Certainly not secret from the Pakistanis (or whoever else is invaded). Buildings blowing up all around is a dead give-away. No, the only ones left in the dark are the American people. Senator McCain wants the freedom to blow up and kill all the people he wants, while still preserving Americans self-delusion that we don't blow up and kill people. Senator McCain wants to make sure that Americans still have no idea why 'they' (unspecified) hate us.

Both candidates lose points for naive military adventurism, but Senator McCain gets a severe mark down both for intellectual dishonesty and wanting to keep Americans the dumbest people in the solar system.

F. Georgia: Capital of the Universe!

Both Senators had a spirited pander off, to see who could say the bestest and nicest things about Georgian President Saakashvili (I scored it a tie). Not surprisingly, both strongly condemned Russia and Vladimir Putin; insisted the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia should remain part of Georgia; wanted Georgia, the Ukraine, and pretty much anyone else not named 'Russia' to join NATO; wanted Russia to obey the terms of the truce--if not withdraw from Georgia completely; the United States should send money to rebuild Georgia's infrastructure; and Russia was not going to get away with bullying its neighbors--not on President McCain or President Obama's watch!

At this point, I also declared a tie for the 'Blowing Smoke Up Your Ass' award. What, pray tell, would the United States really do if Russia did something to Georgia that we did not like? Launch an amphibious invasion of the Kamchatka Peninsula? Air strikes on the Crimean winter homes of the Russian elite? Call for a worldwide boycott of stacking dolls?

This is what I wanted to hear about Georgia: The Russian invasion was certainly bad, but to think there is anything the United States can do besides symbolic and meaningless gestures is delusional. Georgia should not be a member of NATO, because Russia would not tolerate that any more than we would tolerate Mexico or Quebec joining the Warsaw Pact.

Ms. Sophia Loren. While not a candidate for Vice President, she knows a lot about Iraq--mainly because Italy is much closer to Iraq then either Arizona or Illinois.

Right now, United States is no position to condemn anyone for invading another nation in violation of the UN Charter, until we get our own house in order about how we violated the UN Charter by invading Iraq. Rightly or wrongly, the rest of the world will just dismiss us as hypocrites. Nor can the United States glibly insist that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are Georgian territory, and should not be autonomous regions, after the United States's strong support of Kosovo's independence from Serbia.
Like it or not, Russia is still a nuclear power and has missiles that work. The United States will not just push Russia around. Of course, the Georgia invasion had everything to do with pipelines and selling energy to Europe, and virtually nothing to do with the supposed oppression of South Ossetia--but so what? At this point, the Russian people have lost pretty close to everything they had since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and their democracy is in a precarious situation. Any windbag belligerence from the United States will only strengthen the totalitarian, anti-democratic forces, and do nothing to help the Georgian people.

The only effective action the United States can do is to take is take a backseat to the European Union, supporting their efforts to bring Russia to heel, and rebuild our standing in the United Nations, helping to broker a resolution through that body. To do anything else would be pointless grandstanding, in an effort to pander only to American voters.

Next, I'd mention New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's article about his pleasant surprise on seeing a headline about $1 billion USD going to rebuild Georgia's crumbling infrastructure--followed by his biting disappointment that it was Tibilisi and not Atlanta.

And I'd also point out that Mr. Putin was now the Prime Minister, and even if you believe Mr. Putin is still pulling the strings, you will not get anywhere if you don't even acknowledge Mr. Dmitry Medvedev, the current President.

G. We Love You Henry!

There was a meaningless dust up about Henry Kissinger, of all people, but the bottom line was that both candidates cited the old War Criminal favorably, and as an authority for their positions.

While both candidates deserve praise for breaking with President Bush's foolish refusals to meet with people he does not like--like the Iranians--Senator McCain repeatedly tried to invent a difference between the two candidates, by insisting that Senator Obama wanted to have discussions with Iran 'without preconditions.' To do so, Senator McCain went on to say, would be an express endorsement of everything that Iranian President Ahmadinejad ever said--especially all that nasty rhetoric about Israel. That was just childish, and Senator McCain knows better.

Unless there are areas of disagreement to resolve, there is no reason for nations and their representatives to meet. Moreover, simply meeting with the representative of a nation--even the nation's chief executive officer--in no way endorses everything that leader says and believes. For example, did all the nations who engaged in the multi-party talks with North Korea agree that Kim Jong Il is a quasi-divine being? It's doubtful that prior to meeting, there was a 'precondition' that everyone could maintain their own opinion of the Beloved Leader's godhood.
Iranian President Mohmoud Ahmadinejad. He may hate Israel--but rumour has it he loves NASCAR.

More importantly, Senator McCain knows that meeting with President Ahmadinejad does not mean accepting Iran's views on Israel. If Senator McCain is sincete in his refusal to speak with any nation, absent a prior agreement that Israel can and will exist as a Jewish religious state, best of luck with the Muslim world. Does anyone think Iran's views of Israel are not shared by Saudi Arabia? How many of the Afghan Mujideen 'freedom fighters' supported Israel's right to exist? (Hint: It rhymes with 'zero'). Will a President McCain refuse to meet with Iraq Prime Minister Al-Maliki--or a representative of that government--until Iraq agrees that Israel has the right to exist?

That point of the debate was Senator McCain at his most dishonest.

H. Who Loves Ya, Veterans! Oh, and We're Sending More of You to Afghanistan

Both Senators openly pandered to veterans, trying to outdo each other in praise for their great job, successes on the ground, and their soulful sacrifices. I give Senator McCain the edge in effusiveness of pandering, almost getting misty in his insistence that veterans 'knew' a President McCain would 'take care of them.' However, I felt neither candidate did enough to separate themselves from the disgrace of President Bush's VA healthcare.

And in the 'Sucks to be You!' news, both candidates are sending lots more of Americans to Afghanistan.

I. There's No Home like Homeland Security

Sadly, both candidates endorsed the wrong-headed premise that we are fighting a global war on terror, and love the job that the Department of Father--WHOOPS! Homeland Security is doing. At a later date, I will explain my objections to the War on Terror model. Senator McCain made a quick 'both ways' play, at separate times crediting the federal government for Homeland Security and cursing the federal government for expanding by more than 40% during the Bush administration (I hate when that happens).

J. Torture is Bad

With all the strum und drang I'm bringing to my review, there was a singular high point. On his own initiative, Senator McCain said that we must stop torturing people. There were none of President Bush's disgraceful dodges about how 'we don't torture,' and 'torture is whatever the law says it is--and we don't do it.' Without breaking his arm while patting himself on the back or making a song about it, Senator McCain acknowledged we have engaged in torture, and that torture is wrong. Even Senator Obama took a moment to thank Senator McCain for Senator McCain's longstanding and vocal opposition on this basic violation of human rights.

You Say I-rack, I say IR-rack; You say Afghan, I say Afghani. I-rack! IR-rack! Afghan! Afghani! Let's Call the Whole Thing Even....

To the extent there was a material difference between the two Senators, it was over our twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After the dust settled, I had to give the edge to Senator Obama for two reasons. First, Senator Obama was more candid (ie honest) than Senator McCain, and more importantly, Senator McCain took a position that was largely indefensible.

I was pleasantly surprised that Senator Obama stuck to his guns with his strong insistence that the Iraq War was a mistake from the beginning, and the United States should never have invaded in March 2003: Iraq had no WMDs or nuclear program, Iraq had no connection with the September 11 attacks or with al Qaida, and Iraq was not supporting terrorist movements. While that certainly is all true, that position invites the question: 'Does that mean my child died in Iraq, pretty much for nothing?' Yes it does.

Senator John McCain, explaining how he coulda been a contenda.

I would have preferred Senator Obama draw an express admission of the above three points from Senator McCain, because a significant percentage of the Republican base STILL believes those assertions are true. Republicans even today are pimping on that misinformation, most recently during Governor Palin's good bye speech to her son's Iraq deployment. Senator McCain tried to dodge the issue, popping the trusty blue smoke of 'regardless of how we got in Iraq, the next President will have to consolidate our recent gains.' Senator McCain then stripped open his shirt, and carved the word SURGE! across his chest. Wow! The Senator hardly had the words to express his personal outrage that Senator Obama had the temerity to OPPOSE the surge when it was first proposed. Senator Obama, according to the GOP Nominee, does not understand the difference between a 'strategy' and a 'tactic.'

While both candidates were happy to proclaim the surge a success (McCain more so than Obama), and pledged undying love for General Petraeus (again, McCain more than Obama), I was very disappointed with Senator McCain's assertions. The basis for my view is from Mr. Steve Coll's article on General Petraeus, 'The General's Dilemma,' in the September 8 2008 edition of the New Yorker magazine.

As I wrote in my Un-Valentine to Bob Woodward ('All the President's Stooges'), what is identified as the 'surge' is actually two separate entities. First, there is the large influx of American troops. But second, there is also the complete change of strategy, from a heavy firepower and incarceration of massive numbers of Iraqi 'suspects,' to a counterinsurgency strategy. Under General Petraeus's direction, the US forces stopped "fighting" and became peacekeepers. Instead of large bases, Americans maintained a presence in Iraqi neighborhoods. That part of the surge strategy has been successful: many Iraqi neighborhoods have been pacified.

What Senator McCain did not mention, was the reason why the surge strategy was so controversial, and initially opposed by almost everyone. The problem the United States was having with Iraq was that the Maliki government was refusing address real problems. Years had passed, and yet there was no legislation on allocation of oil revenues (allowing easy misallocation of money based on ethnic grouping or corruption), no movement on opening the political process to the Sunni minority, and no efforts to deal with the tensions between the Kurds' and the Shiites' desire for regional autonomy--and the rest of the nation's desire to address endemic corruption facilitated by this 'autonomy.' The question was, how to get the Iraqi Parliament to step up? The clear majority (The Iraq Study Group, majorities in Congress, Ms. Condeleeza Rice and the State Department, the Pentagon, etc. etc.) took the position that if the Shiite government had not done it by now, they weren't going to do it as long as the United States was there, holding its hand. Therefore, the numbers of American troops needed to be reduced. Just in case the message is too subtle: Start governing Maliki government--or you're going to die.

A typical disorganized meeting of the Iraqi Parliament. No wait--I forgot: this is a bowl of Froot Loops. My bad.

The minority view (President Bush, General Petraeus, and yes: John McCain) was that the Maliki government could not govern, because the country was out of control. What was needed was more American troops to reduce the level of violence, and THEN the Parliament would rise to the occasion, making like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

Right now, what General Petraeus is taking great pains to do is 1) NOT proclaim the surge a success, and 2) NOT appear to be taking sides in a partisan dispute. While important gains have been made in terms of reducing violence, those gains will be disappear, unless the Shiite government does what it has what it has consistently refused to do since Paul Bremer's Coalition of Provisional Authority (CPA) 'handed over' the keys to the kingdom. So far--it's not looking good.

General David Petraeus. He wants you to know he only GRINS like Howdy Doody. But there's no strings on him--Just like Pinocchio!

I am disappointed in both Senator McCain and General Petraeus, the former for using and abusing the latter's authority, and the latter for allowing Senator McCain to continue doing so.

The candidates also differed on where the next President needed to focus. Senator Obama (correctly) pointed to Afghanistan, because that's where al Qaida (with the Taliban) has their leadership and structural apparatus. Senator McCain, name dropper par excellence that he is, announced he, General Petraeus, and Osama bin Laden all agreed on one point: Iraq was the lodestone in America's war on terror. It's not.

My final point on the Iraq-Afghanistan issue, is another note of disappointment at Senator McCain. General Petraeus's promotion to Commander, US Central Command, will have him calling the shots in both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Senator McCain said (implying he got the straight dope from his close personal friend General Dave hisself) that General Petraeus will be using the same 'surge' tactics that were so successful in Iraq in Afghanistan--so in no time, Afghanistan will be all better. That was shameful. Senator McCain knows that the counterinsurgency tactics that General Petraeus implemented in Iraq are primarily geared for urban areas. Afghanistan presents a far different environment than Iraq: the terrain is more rugged, and there are far fewer urban centers. If (and it is a big if) the United States is going to succeed in Afghanistan, it will be with a different strategy. If you are interested in more information, I strongly suggest reading Mr. Michael Scheuer's 'Imperial Hubris' about the difficulties of war in Afghanistan.

. . . And the Winner is:

What do we know about Senators McCain and Obama that we did not know before the debates? For me, I was shocked that with a little trimming here and there, Senator Obama could pass for a moderate Republican. Outside of that revelation, a President Obama generally appears more likely to spend money on the 'butter' side of the guns v. butter continuum than a President McCain, but a President McCain would probably spend more overall than a President Obama, because a President McCain wouldn't hesitate to re-gild the gilded lilies at the Pentagon. Of course, a President Obama would not exactly be one to tell the Pentagon 'no.'

Senator Obama has a slight edge in telling the truth (very slight), but both candidates still promise the sun, the moon, the stars AND LOWER TAXES at the drop of a hat.

On the other hand, at this debate Civil Discourse was a clear winner. Even the few times when the candidates interrupted each other, or mumbled 'That's not true!,' there weren't any of the bald-faced lies or blinding personality attacks made popular by George W. Bush.

Losers, though, have to include the American people. The Presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush have driven the United States economy beyond bankruptcy. For us to pay our bills, the next four years will really hurt. Heck, it's going to hurt even if we DON'T pay our bills. What we need is a candidate who will take off the rose coloured glasses, and stop telling us we CAN have everything--we deserve everything!

Still, the big winner was the Military-Industrial Complex. They always win. What else could you expect in a contest between two people able to each raise over $100 million USD in private funds? But that's another rant.

Ms. Elizabeth Taylor. She is standing in for the United States Military-Industrial Complex.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Oscar Arias in Iraq

Peace is not something you reach or don't reach. Peace is a process. It's an outlook, a way to live. You can never say that peace is lost, or that hopes for peace are lost. Peace is always waiting for us. Dialogue is the only way to resolve problems. Sooner or later, even Nicaraguans recognize that.
---Oscar Arias, 1987 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, quoted in Blood of Brothers, by Stephen Kinzer

President Oscar Arias, showing off how SOME hot chics go for the skinny nerd-type

During the 1980s, Nicaragua was torn by a vicious war. The Contra armies were not strong enough to overthrow the Sandinista government, but were too strong to be destroyed. President Ronald Reagan and his administration were both completely obsessed with and wholly ignorant of the people, history, culture, and current happenings in Nicaragua. William Casey, Reagan's CIA director, in his Congressional testimony could not even pronounce "Nicaragua,' calling it 'Nicawawa.' Oliver North, is his televised testimony to Congress, predicted that if the Sandinista government was not overthrown, 'you will see democracy perish in the rest of Central America, a flood of refugees crossing the American borders, and potentially the construction of a Berlin-type wall across the Rio Grande to keep people out...' Which is especially ironic, given that the Sandista government was not overthrown, none of Mr. North's parade of horribles came to pass, and yet we are still building a 'Berlin-type wall' along the US-Mexican border.

Despite millions of legal funding from Congress, and untold millions more of illegal funding for the Contra armies--from Saudia Arabia, cocaine trafficking, arms sales and shipments to Iran, US military 'manuevers' in Hondouras for the sole purpose of constructing air fields and supply bases for the Contras, etc--the combination of pressure from Lawrence Walsh's Iran-Contra Investigation and Congress's 1988 refusal to extend more US aid finally sapped the Nicaraguan Democratic Front (FDN)'s ability to fight. The cut off of aid to the Contras finally allowed Costa Rican President Oscar Arias's peace process, with the nominal heads of state of Honduras, Guatamala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua to move forward. While the goal of the process would be the removal of the Sandanista Commandantes from power, the Reagan and Bush administrations did all they could to prevent the agreement from suceeding. Nevertheless, the Sandanistas adhered to the agreement, signing a peace treaty with the FDN on March 23, 1988, ending the war. Contrary to American delusions, on February 25 1990 Nicaragua staged its first fair and free elections in history, and Violeta Chamorro became President.

And President George HW Bush stopped caring about Nicaragua, not even engaging in a pretense of rebuilding what America had destroyed, and completed the cover up of the Iran-Contra Scandal by pardoning any and all who were involved.

While reasonable minds can differ as to whether the Nicaraguans have recognized that dialogue is the only way to resolve problems, and that (in the words of Mr. Arias) peace is an outlook, a way to live--no one can say Americans have recognized that simple truth.

Why do Americans refuse to learn? During a debate of the 1980 GOP candidates for President, the rough dozen hopefuls were asked what was their biggest regret. For the most part, the candidates all mouthed the usual platitudes about not looking back. However, Illinois Congressman John Anderson paused briefly, and said that the one vote he regretted the most was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the Johnson Administration to escalate the Vietnam War. President Johnson had claimed--falsely--that on August 4, 1964, two US destroyers had been under attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats.

While Rep. Anderson learned something (so he said), what were the lessons America learned from the Vietnam War? That peace is a process, waiting for us? Not exactly. Forty years later, another White House insisted another backward, undeveloped nation on the other side of the planet posed a serious threat, telling the American people a documented 935 lies about how we needed to act, so the smoking gun would not be in the form of a mushroom cloud.

General David Petraeus, watching the clock, waiting to see if the gains from the 'surge' will stay in place--at least until he transistions authority over to General Odierno

And still, after five years of war, seemingly everyone not named General Petraeus are falling all over themselves, rejoicing in the success of the 'Surge,' despite the fact that 'success' in Iraq remains illusionary. Life in Iraq may better today than it was a year ago, but for both Americans and Iraqis, we are still worse off than before the March 2003 American invasion. There are more American troops in Iraq today, than were estimated by General Shinseki as necessary in post war Iraq--a number that Paul Wolfowitz called 'far off the mark.' Currently, there are sixty-one American bases and approximately 250 smaller outposts and facilities throughout Iraq. To give you an idea of scale, Victory Base Complex, which is the headquarters for the Multi-National Force-Iraq, is home to over 50,000 people--and that's just one base.

For Iraqis, life remains grim. In a nation with an estimated population of 28,221,180 (CIA estimate, July 2008), the best estimate death toll is 1,220,580 Iraqis. To that number, there are an estimated two million refugees who have fled Iraq, and another three million who are 'displaced' inside the country. As a percentage of the population, a staggering 22% of Iraqis have either been killed or driven from their homes. Using an American population base of 303,824,640 (CIA estimate, July 2008), 22% Americans would mean roughly 66.8 million Americans killed or displaced. That's equal to the entire populations of California, Texas, and half of New York: the three most populous American states.

By any objective measure, the qualitity of life for Iraqis is still worse than it was prior to the invasion. Iraqi streets are still more dangerous than they were under Sadam Hussein: at least 500 Iraqi civilians a month are dying violent deaths. Production of potable water, electricty, and oil are still below the pre-invasion levels of an Iraq crippled from ten years of sanctions. The Maliki government is still profound Shiite partisans, refusing to take even basic steps to reunite the country. The goals of allocation of oil revenues and reintegration of Sunnis into the government remain largely ignored, despite the 'breathing space' created by American troops.

Grace Kelly, who has nothing to do with this note--but she is way better looking than Oliver North, Paul Wolfowitz, and William Casey combined, even on their best days

In fact, the situation in Iraq is arguably worse today, after the surge: the gains in pacification of Iraqi streets have been at the expense of the central government. When America turned over 'Iraqi control' of neighborhoods, the turnover was to local Sunni forces. For all practical purposes, those troops are autonomous of the Maliki government. If the Shiite dominated Parliament continues refusing to build an Iraq for all its peoples, the Sunni minority will be in an even stronger position to reignite the civil war.

Oscar Arias, I am sure, would still say that peace in Iraq is still waiting for us, and that hope for peace is not lost. I want to share his confidence.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Shaken; Not Very Mixed

I was just thinking about an old Boondocks comic. Cesar, who usually plays the straight man, accuses Huey--the surly, militant black nationalist socialist--of never laughing. Huey insists he laughs at lots of things. Cesar then insists that laughing at Ari Fleischer (the then White House spokesperson) doesn't count, over Huey's loud protests that laughing at Mr. Fleischer certainly does count. Like Huey, I certainly got my share of yuks at Mr. Fleischer's expense, but I'm not sure how to handle Ms. Perino's most recent comments about US economy.

On the morning of September 17, Ms. Perino said the state of the economy was 'not clear cut,' but rather 'very mixed.' For example, housing prices are going up in some parts of the country, and going down in other parts--like Florida.

Ms. Dana Perino, telling a few knee slappers.

Just how mixed is 'very mixed'? The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DIJA) is the cumulative value one share from each of a representative group of companies on the New York Stock Exchange. For example, if the selling price of one share of Microsoft stock drops one dollar, and the price of General Electric stock goes up two dollars per share, then the Dow Jones Industrial Average goes up one dollar (assuming the share prices of every other company stay the same). On October 9 2007, the DIJA hit a record high of 14,164.53. Eleven months later, on September 17, the DIJA was 10,609.66--a loss of more than 25% of its value. This week alone, the DIJA dropped 504 points on September 15, climbed 141 points on September 16, and lost 449 points on September 17. For the week (and this is only Wednesday), by the DIJA measure, the stock market has lost seven percent of its value.


Another measure of economic health is charting the number of new houses built in a certain period of time. Housing and apartment construction fell by 6.2 percent in August 2008, the weakest level of construction in seventeen years. How bad is that? The number of building permits issued in August dropped 8.9 percent, giving for the year a projected total construction of 854,000 units. The last time the US built less than 1 million new homes in a one year period was more than sixty years ago.

'Not clear cut'?

When the 'bank' Lehman Brothers begged for a federal bailout, they were told (words to the effect) there was no room at the inn. 'Market forces' responded to Lehman filing bankruptcy, with the selling price per share of stock dropping .17 (that's seventeen cents) per share to a price of thirteen cents. Mailing a one ounce letter first class costs more than three shares of Lehman Brothers stock. However, there was room at the inn for AIG, to the tune of a federal loan guarantee of $85 billion USD. Eighty-five billion? Pocket change. When the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) put Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into conservatorship, the federal government was placing itself on the hook for the two companies combined outstanding $5 TRILLION USD in securities, and a debt of $1.6 trillion.

'If you spend a billion here, and a billion there, pretty soon--you're talking about real money.' Senator Stuart Symington, during quieter & gentler times.

Not to worry: on July 30 2008, President Bush signed into law the Housing and Recovery Act of 2008, which anticipated the Treasury Department's need to dump money into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. How much money could Treasury Secretary Paulson give? I'd say 'the sky's the limit,' only it's more than that: the US Treasury is authorized to advance funds to the two mortgage lenders, limited only by the total amount of debt the entire federal government is permitted by law. How big is that? The new law raised that debt ceiling by another $800 million USD to $10.7 trillion USD.

So--am I saying that the federal government is $10.7 trillion USD in debt? No, I would never say anything like that, In the immortal words of Gene Autry: figures don't lie, but liars figure. US Presidents for years have simply decided that some expenses are 'off budget.' That doesn't mean the debt isn't real; it just doesn't count. For example, President Bush is trying his best to make sure the Freddie and Fannie bail outs are off budget, along with the $555 billion (and growing) spent on the Iraq war. So, the federal debt is more--much more--than the 'official' debt ceiling of $10.7 trillion.

I'd never thought I'd live to see the day that I missed Ari Fleischer.

Ms. Carmen Miranda. She has nothing to do with this note, but she is much better looking than Treasury Secretary Paulsen.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sarah Palin: Vice President for the Rest of Us

'It has been held against this nominee that he is mediocre. Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they? And a little chance? We can't have all Brandeises, Cardozos, and Frankfurters and stuff like that there.'

--Senator Roman Hruska

Imagine you walk into some restroom, and find a briefcase leaning against the wall. You open it with secret key, and with the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE! theme pounding in your ears, you discover your mission: justify the appointment of a woefully unqualified candidate to a high office. What do you do? In April 1970, Nebraska Senator Roman Hruska was tasked to do just that, with then President Nixon's attempt to nominate G. Harrold Carswell to the US Supreme Court. Judge Carswell, on his best days, was barely mediocre. Instead of just closing the briefcase, changing his name and moving to a new state, good soldier Hruska boldly walked on the Senate floor, and deftly carved his niche in Senate history by making what is largely regarded as the dumbest statement ever on the Senate floor.

Rum luck for Senator Hruska: He was just ahead of his time. 'So I don't have a big fat resume. So what?' Governor Palin told a surprised Charles Gibson. So what? So how about not being such an arrogant, misguided knucklehead, that's what. Just because half of all Americans are below average, that doesn't mean half the Supreme Court--or half the executive branch--should also be below average. We've already had a State Department and a Justice Department filled with inexperienced, ignorant, partisan hacks--look how well THAT worked. You want to see inexperienced people who take jobs 'without blinking,' take a gander at Rajiv Chandrasekaran's 'Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone.'

Mr. Chandresekaran paints a vivid portrait of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and the gang of incompetents recruited to run post-invasion Iraq. There's a reason the military referred to the CPA as 'Can't Produce Anything.' For example, during Robert Gates's confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense, he was asked what he viewed as the biggest mistakes the US had made in Iraq. He didn't hesitate: Dissolving the Iraqi army, and eliminating all former members of the Ba'ath Party from employment by the Iraqi government. Now guess what were the first two directives issued by Paul Bremmer, the head of the CPA?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Me, Erin Brockovich, and the Importance of Reading the Fine Print

One of the niceties of living in both the dawnings of the 21st century and the age of Aquarius is that I can write my own editorials, post them on the internet for the world to see, and still delude myself than anyone else cares. I mean, look at those poor folks who painted pictures of horses and cows in the Lascaux Caves in southern France. If they knew their work would lie unseen for 16,000 years, until four teenagers and a dog named 'Robot' stumbled over them in 1940, would they have gone to all that effort?

Early Blogger, complaining of the low MPB
(miles per bushel of grain) for many SUFs
(suburban utility farm animals)

Fortunately for me, my ghost will not have to wait so long for me to be discovered. The good news is that one of my previous posts, 'Desperately Seeking Sarah' (which attacked Governor Palin for avoiding press interviews), drew the attention of a real, live famous person: Erin Brockovich. Be still my beating heart! Now here's the bad news. This is what Ms. Brokovich had to say about my post:

I am still Me

A recent blog post touched on a topic which gets me all worked up.

"America is in love--again. Remember how we loved Vivian Ward, the pretty woman in Pretty Woman? And who could forget Maggie Carpenter, the runaway bride in Runaway Bride? Or Tess Ocean, the twelfth ocean in Ocean's Twelve? But then there's my personal favorite: Erin Brockovich, who was Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich."

People keep confusing Julia/Erin. That's the first time I've ever seen "Erin who was Erin in Erin..." Excuse me, but there IS an actress in there somewhere. Doesn't an actor have to play a character for 30 years (like Captain Kangaroo) to become such an icon that they become their character?

My name is Governor
Sarah Palin . . .

And--Excuse me!--I'm not fiction. I exist. Julia can't be me because I am me.

"America is in love--again. Remember how we loved.....But then there's my personal favorite: Erin Brockovich, who was Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich." What is that sentence even supposed to mean? I had to look up all of those roles...

Vivian Ward, (Pretty Woman)
Maggie Carpenter, (Runaway Bride)
Tess Ocean, (Ocean's Twelve)
Erin Brockovich, (Erin Brockovich)

... to figure out that ALL of them are Julia Roberts. Maybe they can do a movie about Julia Roberts's life and I can play
Julia. Then someone can write an erroneous blog ostensibly about me, that says "Julia Roberts, who was Julia Roberts in Julia Roberts."

That would really confuse them.

MY name is Governor Sarah
Palin . . .

by Ms. Erin Brockovich, September 10 2008, on 'The Brokovich Report' (http://www.brockovichblog.com/2008/09/i_am_still_me.html)

* * * * * * * * * * *

Umm.....Well....You see, Ms. Brockovich, the point I was trying to make is that just as some people confuse actors and the different roles they play, I feel that many people are confusing the real Governor Palin with the 'role' she is playing. That is why (in part) I selected four different roles played by the same actress. The line about '. . . Erin Brockovich, who was Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich' was to emphasize how silly it is to confuse actors and real people.

But how can you tell the difference between Ms. Julia Roberts and Ms. Erin Brokovich? How to tell who is the REAL consumer advocate? Not by how well they read off a teleprompter, or deliver prepared speeches at orchestrated photo opportunities. To tell the truth, the only way to know who's the real McCoy is by having both of them face the nation on Face the Nation or meet the press on Meet the Press. That is why I drafted those questions: someone needs to ask the hard questions in an effort to sort out the vague generalities from the distortions from the flat out lies Governor Palin enjoys parroting. The role of the press is to split the actor from the role, and give voters a picture of the real Sarah Palin--as opposed to Sarah Palin, star of GOP produced stage & screen roles.

I'm not the only one who thinks thusly about Governor Palin. Completely independent of me, New York Times columnist Ms. Maureen Dowd wrote a similar article, also complete with a list of sample questions ('My Fair Veep,' Sept. 9 2008. Available at NYTimes.com).
Can Charles Gibson play Charlton Heston playing Moses, divide the Republican Red Spin from the person, and lead the Children of Israel--or at least the forty percent or so of registered voters who will vote--out of our intellectual captivity by Pharaoh Image Consultants?

We'll have to see Thursday night.

In the meantime---don't forget the fine print.

My NAME is Governor Sarah Palin!
Looks like this is a job for Bill
Cullen, Kitty Carlisle, Peggy Cass,
and Charles Gibson

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

All The President’s Stooges, or ‘The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008,’ by Bob Woodward

(left, all his friends call him 'Larry')

This is not a book review of a book I have not read. This is a review of the author of a book I have not read. On September 7, 2008, Bob Woodward descended from heaven to make an appearance on 60 Minutes, to obliquely discuss his newest book: ‘What I Did on my Summer Vacation at the White House,’ or something like that.

This is Mr. Woodward’s fourth book on the Bush White House, brought to you by and for Mr. Woodward’s unusual access to the Bush White House. Through it all, I doubt I am alone in suggesting that Mr. Woodward has both gotten too close to President Bush, and second, allowed all that special access go to Mr. Woodward’s special head. But we digress.

During his 60 Minutes interview, Mr. Woodward roughly detailed three main points. First, in 2006, the Iraq war was close to being lost—yet President Bush insisted that we were winning. Second, President Bush stood alone against Congress, the Pentagon, the American People, the Mole People—you get the idea—insisting the surge would win. And finally, Mr. Woodward bragged about some new technology against Al Qaida that was as successful as the surge in putting down ‘terrorists.’

Going point by point:

A. Man Bites Dog! Also in the news: President Bush Lies

I find less than earth shattering the fact that when President Bush repeatedly insisted how we were ‘turning the corner’ in Iraq, he knew we weren’t. This is the same President whose administration told a documented 935 lies (as well as destroying Colin Powell’s integrity) to win support for the March 2003 invasion. After the invasion, the White House went so far as to manufacture a letter claiming that 9/11 mastermind Mohammed Atta was connected to Saddam Hussein’s Intelligence agency—and oh yeah! Iraq was importing yellow cake uranium for a nuclear weapons program as well (See ‘The Way of the World’ by Ron Suskind), when the Administration had proof of the contrary on both points.

In short, President Bush is a liar, with his most despicable lie being ‘we don’t torture.’

But Bob Woodward goes further, suggesting that President Bush had to stand tall and lie, otherwise the ‘American People’ would lose faith in the war, and the war would be lost. For the greater good, President Bush needed to keep a brave face on a bad situation. Now THAT’S leadership, Woodward appears of say. But is it?

From the Neo-Conservative perspective, what could have happened if President Bush had told the truth? The ‘smart people’ (ie folks who tow the neo-conservative party line) would have said ‘Don’t worry. Democracy, we know, is messy and needs tidying up a bit when we don’t like the results (cough cough). Stay the course.’ So, the worry about telling the truth is not about smart people; it’s what the ‘dumb people’ will say and do. Dumb people will want to cut and run, without looking at the bigger picture.

I will argue the bigger picture next, but Presidents (and governors, mayors, teachers, captains of high school sports teams, the cool kids in pre-school, etc) do us a disservice when they ‘protect’ Americans by not telling us the truth. Ask anyone outside of the US what they think about Americans. The response will be that as individuals, Americans really are nice, pleasant people. However, we’re all dumber than dirt; we know nothing. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that everyone thinks that of Americans—notwithstanding a significant portion of Americans STILL believe that Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 attacks, that Iraq supported al Qaida, and the Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and an active nuclear program in March 2003. But again, we digress.

I’m not saying that Americans are morons because President Bush is a moron (we were dopes before, and we’ll still be dopes when he’s long gone). But as they said in Animal House: ‘Being fat, drunk and stupid—while actively feeding your people disinformation—is no way to go through life.

Informed people, making informed decisions, need to be first and foremost….well, you know. So no, the fact President Bush kept a brave face in a bad situation while lying out his keyster is not ‘leadership.’ Sorry Bob.

(Only Bob Woodward gets to call him 'Moe,' right)

B. Bush qua Martin Luther: I cannot and will not recant anything . . . Here I stand; I can do no other.

Doesn’t President Bush deserve credit—maybe even a little—for the ‘surge’? Woodward seems to think so. Bush doesn’t.

First and foremost, why have a ‘surge’ anyway? How about because in planning the initial invasion, Donald Rumsfeld, Tommy Franks, and Donald Wolfowitz seriously screwed up? Maybe if on February 28 2003, Wolfowitz did not say that General Shinseki’s estimate that several hundred thousand troops for postwar Iraq was ‘wildly off the mark’ (the Pentagon actually request 100,000), post-invasion Iraq civil society would not have collapsed, creating a frenzy that looted an entire nation. Five years after you blow it, you don’t get any credit for trying to fix it without saying 1. ‘Wow. I really screwed the pooch,’ and 2. ‘Sorry I took so long to pull my head out of my butt.’ I’m still waiting on the White House, and the National Security Counsel, to issue that press release (I’m even holding my breath).

Second, what was the ‘Surge’? Well, is was NOT just sending more Americans into Iraq. Thomas Ricks, in his book ‘Fiasco,’ detailed two separate strategies by American commanders in Iraq. The predominant school of thought was keeping American troops in large bases. Troops would then go out on the proverbial search & destroy missions, using lots of helicopters and howitzers, and then return to the base and watch movies or something. General Petreus took a minority view, and instead operated from the Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual (available at fine bookstores everywhere). Instead of large bases, Petreus set up several smaller posts throughout the cities, and had troops engage in street patrols—walking the beat—as opposed to kicking in doors and shipping everyone to Abu Gharib. General Petreus switched American troops from ‘soldiers’ to largely ‘peace officers.’ If the ‘surge’ was simply sending in more troops to build more large bases, and blowing up more neighborhoods (as the Americans had been doing for four years), Iraq would be worse today. So first and foremost, Iraq is better off (clearly a relative measurement), because of a decision to not stay the course, and fight the insurgency with fundamental counterinsurgency (as opposed to ‘military’) tactics. (See also ‘Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam’ by John Nagl).

But what if President Bush had folded like an umbrella? What if he listened to all those Dr. Dooms? Wouldn’t Iraq be worse off today? I would argue no; Iraq would not be worse off, and might even be better. At the time the surge was ordered, what was the consensus opinion of the cognoscenti? Reduce American troop involvement. Why? Because everyone supporting troop reductions were all chickens who cut and run? No. The Iraq Study Group Report, as well as every observer who took the time to look at Iraq, came to the same conclusion: the biggest problem facing Iraq was the then Prime Minister Allawi, now Maliki, and the Iraqi Parliament were not stepping up. After Congress fought like a tiger with the White House to set SOME benchmarks to measure political ‘success’ in Iraq, the Iraqi government went on to accomplish what a fat boy ought to have for lunch.

In fighting an insurgency, what is the most important step? Make sure you’re assigned to the Texas Air National Guard. I mean after that. The first step is political: remove the issues driving the population to support an insurgency. I don’t care how much money you throw at the problem, or how brilliant (or bloody) you manage your counterinsurgency, if the government you’re supporting is headed by Nguyen Cao Ky or Nguyen Van Thieu, you’re going to lose. Were Allawi and Maliki going to be Ky and Thieu? Before committing more troops and money to the Iraq government, the majority view was Iraq needed to get its own house in order. With a seemingly limitless supply of troops and dollars (from the Iraqi Parliament’s perspective), there was no reason to address problems.

General Petreus, on the other hand, again took a contrary view. He wanted the US needed to send more troops to support his new strategy, in order to calm the streets and allow the government to extend its authority. That was a minority view, because the Iraqi government hadn’t done anything to suggest they would step forward and begin governing. The Iraq Study Group (and apparently, most of the Pentagon according to Woodward) wanted to reduce US troops to give the Iraqi Parliament no choice but to start governing in a responsible manner.

Now that the summer of surge is seemingly over, America is reducing its troop commitment in Iraq, and the Iraqis are (ostensively) ‘taking over’ for those Americans. Will the Iraqi Parliament begin acting responsibly? That’s the theory. We’ll see. But while I’m holding my breath on a White House apology for not sending enough troops in the initial invasion, I’m not holding my breath waiting for the Iraqi George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.

Nevertheless, what would have happened if there hadn’t been a surge? Would Iraq still be the shooting gallery it was in 2006? I’ll say no for three reasons.

First, a key reason for the success of the surge was the number of Iraqi sheiks who left what Americans called the ‘al Qaida’ forces, and decided to work with the Americans. Why? A strategic failure on al Qaida’s part. Four years of a strategy of ‘Sunnis blow up Shiites—and Americans, when you get the chance’ begins to wear on a population. After awhile, the Rodney King rule starts to take effect (‘Can’t we all just get along?’). Surge or no, al Qaida and the forces opposed to the American invasion played their hand poorly, and would have lost support of key segments of the Iraqi population, regardless of American action.

The other two reasons have to do with the sheer magnitude of five years of American effort. To their undying shame, both the US and Iraqi governments have refused to take any efforts towards a population census, to document the extent of Iraqis killed or dislocated because of this invasion. One of the few people who have done ‘on the ground’ studies are the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In October, 2006, their study concluded that between May 2003 and July 2006, 645, 965 Iraqis died—above and beyond the expected number of 143,000 deaths per year. 91.8 percent of the deaths were caused by violence. Other estimates, extrapolating from the Johns Hopkins study, media reports (Iraq Body Count, for example), and surveys by the British polling agency ORB, place the current number at 1,220,580 Iraqi deaths.

Now, the CIA World Factbook estimates the Iraqi population at 28,221,180 (July 2008). Using that population number as a base, since the March 2003 invasion, between 2.3% and 4.3% of Iraqis have died. By way of comparison, the CIA World Factbook lists the population of the US at 303,824,640 (July 2008). In other words, for the United States to suffer a proportional number of deaths, that would mean roughly an additional seven to thirteen million Americans would be killed over a five year period.

Look at the national trauma we suffered in the 9/11 attacks—and there only 2,819 people died. Imagine seven million Americans dead from a foreign invasion.

Moreover, I’m not even taking into account the numbers of people who have fled Iraq, or are internally displaced refugees. Just by the sheer numbers of those killed, the population must be exhausted.

Finally, if the number of deaths weren’t enough, look at the dollar amounts the US has dumped into Iraq. The National Priorities Project gives a conservative estimate of money spent on the war (not including money for permanent military bases or the US Embassy, for example) at $552.5 billion USD, which also doesn’t include money spent by America’s ‘Coalition’ partners. Using the CIA’s July 2008 estimate of Iraq’s population, that breaks down to over $19,500 per Iraqi. That amount of money, as well as five years of constant war, will beat down any population after awhile.

All of that said, despite the gleeful assertions of the GOP convention, Bill O’Reilly, what Neil Diamond would call ‘The Brother John & Sarah Love’s Traveling Salvation Show’ (Pack up the babies! Grab the old ladies! Everyone goes!), and hosannas from the proverbial usual gang of idiots to the contrary, General Petreus is pointedly not saying the surge is a success. To say the least, the General is very guarded: the situation in Iraq could continue to improve, or get worse. ‘Worse,’ in this context, is the Iraqi government continues to be the poster child of incompetence and nonfeasance, or the Iraqi government moves much closer to being an Islamic Republic. As it is, the Iraqi Constitution places Sharia law as the supreme law of the land.

There are two other potential problems with the surge. First, there were other options that could have been taken in Iraq, besides sending in more troops. Had those additional troops not been sent to Iraq, they could have gone to that OTHER war in Afghanistan. Even if conditions improve in Iraq, from the perspective of the US, that won’t mean much if the Taliban and al Qaida control large parts of the country, opium trafficking war lord bandits run the rest, leaving Hamid Karzai a ten square block in downtown Kabul.

Second, in my opinion, the human cost on the individual soldiers, sailors, and marines have not been taken into account. Too many members of our military are doing too many tours of duty, and not receiving enough support when they come home. The callous and offhand manner this administration treats our veterans is a national disgrace. How many more families will be irreparably harmed, because of extra tours as part of this surge?

In conclusion, contrary to Bob Woodward’s suggestion, I am arguing it is far too early to give President Bush credit for surge success.

(Everyone calls him 'Darth Curly,' and he has the greatest James Earl Jones impression ever)

C. Bob Woodward Presents: Marvin the Martian & his Fabulous Death Ray!

At the conclusion of the interview, Bob Woodward couldn’t contain himself: America has a new weapon that is tippy top secret. But Bob knows ALL about it! Wowsers! No, Bob said, he can’t talk about it; IT IS SECRET! But he knows the secret. What a smart guy Bob is.

But Bob can say this: this new SECRET SECRET will change the nature of war—like the tank did. Like the machine gun did. This weapon—did he mention it’s a big secret?—if only the al Qaida bad guys knew about it (but they don’t, because the weapon is SECRET), then they’d get out of Dodge (Woodward may even have said ‘they’d get out of Dodge’).

Mr. Woodard is supposed to be a reporter. Call me old fashioned, but that means you ‘report,’ or you ‘shut the hell up.’ I couldn’t care less what you know (because you and The Supreme Being play golf every other Wednesday), if you’re not going to tell me what you know. You want to show off, because you know something I don’t? Then stop being coy. Settle this once and for all: just whip ‘em out & grab a ruler. Otherwise, see supra re ‘shut up.’

But what could this new weapon be? Here’s what I think. I’m guessing ‘super weapons’ break down into two general areas: bigger booms (tanks and machine guns, for example), or better finding, such as radar. In Iraq, we don’t need bigger and better bombs: we’ve already leveled a disproportionate amount of their buildings. So, I’m guessing this new ‘weapon´ better allows Americans to single out the bad guys.

How do you do that? I think the military is using some form of either a portable MRI or thermal imaging camera, that can see inside buildings. The camera would be able to distinguish between individuals, maybe individual body ‘signatures.’ Moreover, the military in Iraq would have sophisticated computer technology, to the point that individuals would be identified, and associated with an area. For example, say there are one thousand specific people who have been identified and associated with one Baghdad neighborhood. Subsequent scans show an additional fifty men congregating in a few houses—and there go the Army guys, hitting those houses. Or the military receives intelligence identifying a certain individual, with this ‘body print,’ believed to be in one of the neighborhoods in this area. Helicopters (or street soldiers or satellites—whatever) begins sweeping the area, until a fix is placed on the person with that body print. Once placed & identified, a missile, a bomb, or a unit of soldiers is off to level the area where the bad guy is.

I wish I could say I’m making this up, but I’m not. During the Vietnam War, the US and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) initiated a program called ‘Operation Phoenix.’ If you asked an American what was the purpose of ‘Phoenix,’ he (usually ‘he’) would tell you the program was to identify and isolate members of the Vietcong or North Vietnamese cadre (or soldiers) who were working in villages in the South, organizing support for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). In reality, Operation Phoenix was what we call in South America ‘death squads:’ individuals—usually civilians--would be identified by some process, and soldiers would be sent out to kill them. Not arrested, not detained—just killed. Sometimes tortured first, but still killed. It’s a war crime by the way, a crime against humanity.

So that’s my guess as to Bob Woodward’s SECRET SECRET weapon, that will change the face of war: an imaging system that can identify individuals, no matter where they are, making death squads more efficient. It makes one proud to be an Amerikan (sic).


Judging by his interview, Bob Woodward is just a little too proud of being a tool. Not only that, I think he’s too proud of being the fly on the wall, and can’t help but accentuate the importance of where he is & what he sees. As we said in my econometrics classes: Artists and economists tend to fall in love with their models. Bob’s in love as well. Will I spend $32 USD retail to read all about how close Bob Woodward has his nose to the wheels (and I do not really mean ‘wheels’) of power?

So—President Bush lied, which as I argued about Mr. Woodward may excuse, but I cannot. The ‘surge’ was really much more than a surge—but was it successful? Anyone who insists that it was, they need to spend some time talking to General Petreus and looking at Afghanistan. Finally, Mr. Woodward suggests (at least to me) that American Death Squads are alive and well and doing better than ever.

No wonder President Bush made such a point of keeping the US out of jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court: we’d clog up all the dockets, defending our war crimes.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Desperately Seeking Sarah

Not the GOP nominee for vice president, but she could play one on TV

America is in love--again. Remember how we loved Vivian Ward, the pretty woman in Pretty Woman? And who could forget Maggie Carpenter, the runaway bride in Runaway Bride? Or Tess Ocean, the twelfth ocean in Ocean's Twelve? But then there's my personal favorite: Erin Brockovich, who was Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich.

But none of those women--not Vivian, Maggie, Tess, nor Erin--none of them have touched our collective heart with their honesty, integrity, their sheer 'niceness' like Sarah Palin has. I mean come on! This hockey mom who puts lipstick on a pit bull has embraced us all to her discreet (yet still alluring) bosom. We love her. And why shouldn't we love her? In the immortal words of Billy Crystal: 'It's not how you are--it's how you look. And you look Mahvelous!'

And yet--not to be Captain Alienation--but as charming and groovy as Erin, Tess, Maggie, and Vivian were, those were not real people (Okay, Erin was a real person, but I mean the MOVIE Erin. YOU stop Captain Alienation). It was the person who played Vivian, Maggie, Tess and Erin who hit all her marks, and spoke her lines brilliantly, that was the real person. Who can say for sure if that ACTRESS really is all that? Similarly, in accepting the GOP nomination for Vice President, Sarah Palin read her teleprompter almost flawlessly, and hit all her marks. But is that Sarah the hockey mom cum a heartbeat from the most powerful person on earth that we think she is? How can we know for sure? Just because she looks mahvelous, does that mean she really is mahvelous?

Here's an idea: why not just ask her? Now, I know what you all are thinking: Big Genius, like no one's thought of THAT before. What might surprise you is that apparently, no one at the McCain-Palin campaign has thought of it (start writing those apologies for making fun of me). How many interviews has Governor Palin given, since she was named John McCain's vice president? It rhymes with 'zero.' At all her press conferences, media events, speeches, etc. etc., how many questions has she taken from the legions of press? Hint: It's what a fat boy ought to have for lunch. On September 7, three people are on a battery of news shows getting their grills grilled by miscellaneous news hawks: Senator Obama, Senator McCain, and Senator Bidden. Where's Waldo?

But I'm not the only one thinking along these lines. Since naming Governor Palin as Veep, the McCain campaign is receiving between 80-100 requests a day for interviews from news organizations all over the world. But for some reason, they can't find one they like. There is one publication that will be reporting a brief Q&A, along with a 'lifestyle feature on the Governor's life as a working mother running a statehouse and her own house.' The publication? No, not Foreign Affairs. It's People magazine. Larry Hackett, managing editor of People, was quoted as saying 'we have a different job' than political publications. 'Are we going to ask about Pakistan?' Larry asked rhetorically. To save you the suspense, Larry went on to explain that no, People Magazine would not be asking about Pakistan, because Pakistan is not a focus for their readers. I guess the assembled commentators and reporters forgot to ask Mr. Hackett which country armed with nuclear weapons whose government just collapsed and could erupt in civil war had the 'focus' of People magazine readers.

Now, I KNOW Governor Palin isn't going to Washington to win the good opinion of all those commentators and reporters. Unfortunately, Governor Palin won't take my calls, forget about answering a couple of questions. Believe you me, I got a few. So, like it or not, both me and Governor Palin have to depend on all those reporters and commentators--regardless of opinions good, bad or otherwise--as matchmakers.

So------Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make me a match! If and when La Belle Sarah deigns to have a tete-a-tete, here's my shopping list--better known as 'Everything You Want to Know About Governor Palin, and Shouldn't Be Afraid to Ask:

1. During the GOP convention, you said that you told congress 'thanks, but no thanks' on building the bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, the so-called 'Bridge to Nowhere,' and that if Alaskans want to build a bridge, you'll build it yourselves. Did you send that $220 million in federal funds back to the treasury? Or did you spend it on some other public works project in Alaska?

2. In both your speeches and Senator McCain's speeches, congressional earmarks were singled out for particular scorn. Don't you think it's somewhat unusual for the Governor of Alaska, the state that receives over twice the per capita national average in earmark funds to be speaking out against the system?

3. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens expressly fought the criticism of Senator McCain to secure funding for the 'Bridge to Nowhere.' Senator Stevens is up for reelection this year. Will you endorse his reelection? Are you aware the web site for his campaign features a photo of you standing next to him, implying that you do support him?

4. Senator Stevens is currently under a seven count federal indictment, facing trial over a 'remodel' that nearly doubled the size of the Stevens' family home. Are you endorsing Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, the Democrat running against Senator Stevens? If you don't endorse Mayor Begich, how do you reconcile your support of Senator Stevens with you being a 'reformer'?

5. Your campaign continues to bill you as a 'hockey mom,' and that you solidly support 'family values.' Because your family is a strong basis of your appeal to America, why do you think it's improper to ask about your seventeen year old daughter being five months pregnant, or why your son spent his high school senior year not in Wasilla, but in Michigan--ostensively to play hockey in front of 'college scouts'? Why isn't your son going to college?

6. When Alaska Representative Don Young comes up for reelection, will you endorse him?

7. You and Senator McCain are running on a campaign to 'change' Washington. Do you think it's unusual that you are endorsed by President Bush, the sitting President for the last eight years? Would you ever consider rejecting his endorsement?

8. You are critical about high federal spending, specifically attacking the $3 million allocated for study of grizzly bears. How do you feel about the $12 to $15 billion a month being spent for the war in Iraq? Since the March 2003 invasion, over $550 billion has been spent on the war. Mr. Joseph E. Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist, has conservatively estimated the Iraq war will cost over three trillion dollars. As a reformer, what dollar amount is the point when you would decide that enough is enough, and stop that level of spending?

9. You are on record as opposing abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, only allowing abortion if the life of the mother was threatened. In a McCain-Palin administration, would you appoint federal judges who disagreed with your view? Will abortion be a litmus test for any potential Supreme Court appointees?

10. Studies have shown that schools with 'abstinence only' sex education programs have a higher pregnancy rate than programs that include contraception. Wouldn't you agree that abstinence only education is not sufficient to reduce teen pregnancy (cough cough)? Would you block federal funds to health care agencies, either here in the US or internationally, that gave family planning counseling?

11. What is your plan for rebuilding New Orleans, and replacing the lost wetlands that formed a natural break for hurricanes?

12. Do you think our balance of trade payments with China is a problem? If it is a problem, how do you propose to address it?

13. Regarding health insurance, Senator McCain has presented what he calls a market based solution to address the problems of the uninsured. However, many people do not have health insurance, because no company will insure them at any price. Do you have a plan to address that?

14. President Bush wants to build 'anti-missile' missile batteries in Poland, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe to protect against 'rogue states.' Do you endorse that program? Do you believe those missiles will work ie stopping a bullet with a bullet? Who are the rogue nations that you believe have developed ballistic missiles to the point justifying such a system?

15. President Bush unilaterally abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Do you agree with his action?

16. I know People meant to ask you this, but what is your opinion about Pakistan? What can be done to stabilize that democracy?

17. Of the 774 'worst of the worst' that were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, over half have either been released, or are awaiting release because they are innocent. To date, two have been convicted, and only of relatively minor charges. Will you close that prison camp?

Oh, you get the idea.....I really could go on forever. And I will---if anyone asks me to....waiting.....waiting...still waiting...It's not too late......

But here's my last question:

Governor Palin, are you ever going to do anything with those glasses? They really bug me.