As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Power Of One Man

This activist Tim DeChristopher, who bidded up parcels of land sought by oil and gas interests for drilling is really a hero. I guess the Bureau of Land Management was all upset because an auction broke out at their nice little auction.

The process was thrown into chaos and the bidding halted for a time before the auction was closed, with 116 parcels totaling 148,598 acres having sold for $7.2 million plus fees.

"He's tainted the entire auction," said Kent Hoffman, deputy state director for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Utah.

Hoffman said buyers will have 10 days to reconsider and withdraw their bids if they think they paid too much.

Huh? Paid TOO MUCH? If a buyer is paying millions of dollars for oil-rich land, they obviously think it's worth it. What DeChristopher did was prove that the BLM was giving away federal land, basically owned by the taxpayers, to noncompetitive interests at obscenely low rates, and that the bidders would clearly pay more if forced. I thought these capitalists believed in the free market?

Now, DeChristopher did win some auctions, about 22,500 acres' worth, and he fully intends not to pay. Then again, this is hardly different from the oil companies who buy up these lands with no intention of using them, just to pad their stock price. The oil companies get enough tax breaks to cancel out their below-market payments for the land, and it merely becomes an asset in their list of oil reserves. It's the same thing.

Selma Sierra, who heads the BLM in Utah, said only 6 percent of lease parcels would ever see drilling because of the "costly and speculative" nature of the business. The federal government also typically imposes environmental safeguards on drilling parcels, Sierra said.

In other words, "Drill here, drill now" is a fiction. Thanks to this BLM official for making it so clear.

Considering how rapidly we're experiencing the effects of climate change, and considering how long this oil company racket has lasted without anyone inside or outside the government stepping up, I'd call this perfectly justified. Not only should the government drop charges against DeChristopher, they should thank him for resetting the market. And activists can learn a lot from the creativity of this guy.

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Dirty Coal Creates More Suffering

That horrible coal ash spill in Tennessee is proving to be even bigger than expected.

Officials at the authority initially said that about 1.7 million cubic yards of wet coal ash had spilled when the earthen retaining wall of an ash pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant, about 40 miles west of Knoxville, gave way on Monday. But on Thursday they released the results of an aerial survey that showed the actual amount was 5.4 million cubic yards, or enough to flood more than 3,000 acres one foot deep.

The amount now said to have been spilled is larger than the amount the authority initially said was in the pond, 2.6 million cubic yards.

A test of river water near the spill showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders, said John Moulton, a spokesman for the T.V.A., which owns the electrical generating plant, one of the authority’s largest.

Some would call it "larger" than the amount originally thought to be in the pond, others would say "twice as much." And now it's in the drinking water.

Coal ash (or fly ash) is really nasty stuff, with multiple carcinogens and heavy metals and even radioactive elements like uranium and thorium contained in it, all of which can create a public health hazard. In addition, it's generated when coal is burned, and no matter what is done with the carbon, the residue remains and must be put into landfills or captured and stored at the plant. Power plants generated 71.1 million tons of fly ash in 2005. Incredibly, some of it is recycled and used in things like footpaths, leading to contamination. But I don't think we've ever seen levels like this released, and certainly not into a reservoir. Scientific American has more.

Regardless of whether we have developed "clean coal" technology to mitigate the effects of carbon, the problem of fly ash would persist. Which is why it is so stupid for prominent politicians, including the President-elect to speak laudably of the promise of clean coal. I just saw an ad this week featuring Barack Obama put together by the coal industry, using campaign footage of him in coal country:

"Clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent!...We put a man on the moon in 10 years. You can't tell me we can't figure out a way to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work!"

There's campaign rhetoric that is relatively harmless and there's this validation of a dirty industry that has very real effects. Big Coal spent $45 million dollars this year to promote their product, which is currently to blame for one of the biggest environmental disasters in American history. Coal is not clean, nor will it ever be. Anyone who says otherwise is part of the problem.

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Best Country On Earth

This is your Bush legacy project right here.

By a vote of 180 in favour to 1 against (United States) and no abstentions, the Committee also approved a resolution on the right to food, by which the Assembly would “consider it intolerable” that more than 6 million children still died every year from hunger-related illness before their fifth birthday, and that the number of undernourished people had grown to about 923 million worldwide, at the same time that the planet could produce enough food to feed 12 billion people, or twice the world’s present population. (See Annex III.)

On the other hand, we have really amazing outdated weapons systems.

We waste more in war spending than it would cost to feed the world. But you know, kids starving doesn't tug at the heartstrings enough, I guess.


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One Last War Before 2008 Ends

You could see these Israeli strikes on Gaza coming.

Israeli warplanes retaliating for rocket fire from the Gaza Strip pounded dozens of security compounds across the Hamas-ruled territory in unprecedented waves of airstrikes Saturday, killing more than 200 people and wounding nearly 400 in the single bloodiest day of fighting in years.

Most of those killed were security men, but an unknown number of civilians were also among the dead. Hamas said all of its security installations were hit, threatened to resume suicide attacks, and sent at least 70 rockets and mortar shells crashing into Israeli border communities, according to the Israeli military. One Israeli was killed and at least six people were hurt.

With so many wounded, the Palestinian death toll was likely to rise.

Ehud Barak, the Defense Minister who as Prime Minister came very close to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, is quoted as saying "There is a time for calm and there is a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting." So this is going to go on, as Israel seeks to take Hamas out permanently. Expect assassination attempts of Hamas leaders and Hamas counterstrikes, maybe suicide bombs. The cycle of violence continues.

It's hard to have much else to say in these moments. This is the consequence of the United States pressing for elections when Hamas was fated to win, leading to a civil war inside Palestine. Israel's reaction, to wall off Gaza and turn it into a virtual prison, was a human rights disaster. This spate of attacks will ramp up anti-Israeli sentiment in the Arab world and destabilize the Middle East further. And full-scale bombing like this was insufficient to take out Hezbollah in Lebanon.

More here and here.

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Very Close

Dan Smith reports that we're nearing a deal on the work-around budget which would cover half of the state's projected deficit between now and mid-2010.

"The areas of negotiations have significantly narrowed, and on those issues we're very close," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, talked via videophone to Schwarzenegger, who is vacationing in Idaho. Talks will continue over the weekend, with leaders hoping lawmakers can be called back to Sacramento by the end of next week to approve a final deal.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said Democrats are "moving closer" to the governor's demands for deeper spending cuts and an economic stimulus package. "But we don't have any agreements," McLear said.

We know that the main sticking point issues were: 1) eliminating CEQA for certain infrastructure projects, 2) privatizing a lot of those public works contracts and 3) cutting state worker holidays and overtime. So the fact that Democrats are "moving closer" to those positions isn't exactly heartening, although it's contradicted somewhat later in the piece.

Bass said Democrats are trying to meet the governor's desire to stimulate private investment in public projects without hurting public employees by shifting their jobs to contractors.

The Democrats believe changes to state employee pay must be hashed out at the bargaining table between unions and the administration. "There's no question that state workers know that they're going to be part of the solution as well, but we also think it's very important to respect their ability to have a say in how that is done," Steinberg said.

Privatization is simply not the answer, it has no relevance on budget savings (cost overruns exist in the private world, too) and is just a way for Arnold to reward his Chamber of Commerce pals.

But what's notable here is that these are meetings between the Governor and the Democratic leadership, and the Republicans have been completely frozen out due to their inability to play nice with others. The byzantine plan for a majority vote on fee increases and tax shifts is still operative, and if it survives the subsequent legal challenge, suddenly the Yacht Party would be powerless. The Very Serious pundits have already turned against Yacht Party rhetoric on spending as the source of the problem, and even the most casual observer understands that the 2/3 rule is destroying the state. There ought to be a formal voting down of 2/3 (even this work-around will be insufficient to approve a new budget in June, which requires a 2/3 vote) but this is a creative solution to a crisis largely created by the rulemaking structure of the body and Republican intransigence (not to mention Arnold's vehicle license fee slash, the dumbest first act by a Governor in many a year).

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Traditional Christmas Movie Reviews

I have been seeing a movie on Christmas Day for several years now, and judging from the crowds at my local movie houses, a lot of patrons joined me. I managed to avoid the record-setting Marley and Me, but I did take in a double feature.

Slumdog Millionaire was a fine enough fairy tale, but I forgot everything about it the minute I left the theater. The art direction, cinematography and editing were excellent, but overall the story left me as cold as something like "Billy Elliott" or "The Full Monty" did (I wasn't too surprised when I saw it had the same writer from "The Full Monty"). It was your typical crowd-pleasing, coincidence-laden bit of treacle, without much beyond the surface and an interwoven Mumbai mob plot right out of your below-average B-level Tony Scott film. Also, I think the shaky-cam hyper-real look has worn out its welcome (although this could be because we were late to the crowded screening and sat in the third row). That said, I found it enjoyable when I was watching it, and the closing Bollywood musical number almost redeems everything.

Now, by contrast, The Wrestler is a grounded, authentic story, even if it is fairly archetypal. The acting, in particular by Evan Rachel Wood and the astounding Mickey Rourke, is top-notch, and the story of a past-his-prime wrestler living a rootless and searching existence was extremely compelling. The themes of loneliness, self-destruction and fame all make for a great crescendo, albeit a slightly predictable one. Darren Aronofsky is no stranger to style-over-substance flair (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) and yet the film's look is restrained while remaining oddly pretty.

Two additional things. The Arclight in Hollywood now has "21+" screenings where you can buy a drink at the café bar and bring it into the theater, which make so much damn sense I don't know why it isn't the rule across the country. It was a bit jarring to have the bartender unaware that we were headed into the screening 10 minutes before we began and giving us our order in glasses instead of plastic, however.

Second, the opening title sequence to The Wrestler consisted of a pan across a series of fliers and magazine articles and memorabilia for the career of Rourke's character Randy "The Ram" Robinson, and in it, title designer Kristyn Hume revealed my secret life as a fictional wrestling star:

I totally kicked his ass in that fight, although he brought a foreign object in the ring for the win. Let's just say that now you know why Randy the Ram needed all that creepy plastic surgery.

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Boxer Calls For Independent Commission on Bush Torture

It's expected for a lawmaker in the beginning of a new election cycle to get a little more active, with high-profile articulations of positions on key issues. So it is for Sen. Barbara Boxer. In the past week, she has released a report on the statewide recession, featuring interviews with local officials from all 58 counties; demanding that Attorney General Mukasey intervene to reverse a "blatantly illegal" memo by EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson claiming that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant (the Supreme Court has already ruled that it is); and most interesting to me, wrote a letter to incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry calling for hearings on the Bush Administration's use of torture, as well as an outside commission to investigate it:

I write today to raise an issue of the utmost significance -- the Administration’s use of torture against detainees held in U.S. custody. Despite widespread condemnation from Members of Congress, policy experts, and human rights advocates, Vice President Richard Cheney stated in a recent interview with ABC News that the torture policies used against detainees were appropriate and admitted that he played a role in their authorization. In fact, when asked if any of the tactics -- including waterboarding -- went too far, he responded with a curt “I don’t.”

I find Vice President Cheney’s response deplorable, particularly in light of a recent report released by the Senate Armed Services Committee following an eighteen-month investigation. In sum, the bipartisan report found that “senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees.” The report, led by Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, concluded that “those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.” I fully support Chairman Levin’s proposal for an outside Commission with subpoena power to investigate this matter further.

The whole letter is here. This is one step away from the needed call for an independent prosecutor to investigate Bush's war crimes, but it's as close as any Senator has been willing to go. This suggests that Boxer considers an investigation of this nature to not only be the right thing to do in a democracy, but not electorally damaging whatsoever. She should be supported in this belief and encouraged to go even further. I know that Senator Boxer has begun asking for contributions to her re-election campaign. Maybe a series of contributions of $9.12, signaling support for a "9/12" torture commission and an independent prosecutor, along with emails and letters explaining this, would relay the message?

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The CIA Endorses Marital Rape

Welcomed With Flowers, Sweets And Prescriptions

by dday

I suppose I shouldn't be alarmed by this, but I have to confess to being a little taken aback by the snickering and high-fiving in the blogosphere over the CIA's attempt to curry favor with Afghan tribal leaders by offering them Viagra.

The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, saw an opportunity, and reached into his bag for a small gift.

Four blue pills. Viagra.

"Take one of these. You'll love it," the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.

The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes -- followed by a request for more pills.

There's a certain logic to using personal items as barter (or bribery, if you prefer) for warlords and tribal leaders to extract information about the Taliban insurgency. At the same time, does anyone credibly think that those four women this guy is married to are entirely willing spouses, and the consequent sex performed as a result of the Viagra entirely consensual? One of the most persistent problems in Afghanistan - indeed, one of the ostensible reasons used by people like Laura Bush to justify the invasion beyond the need to root out al-Qaeda - is the terrible life circumstances for women. I fail to see how use of erectile dysfunction pills created by men and for men improves their quality of life. Megan Carpentier gives the explanation with which I concur:

SPENCER: So what should we understand to be the anticipated effects on Afghan women of this Viagra-based counterinsurgency effort?

MEGAN: Well, one could argue that by supplying the aging warlords with Viagra, you are depriving their wives of a needed and biologically expected semi-permanent respite from performing unwanted sexual acts that would otherwise be forced upon them. In the interests of fairness, I suppose its possible that these warlords attempt to treat their wives with the utmost care and respect and provide them with sexual satisfaction instead of using them as living, visible extensions of their power over people that the warlords can additionally stick their dicks into.

SPENCER: But that's not where we should take this discussion! Are we in a situation where the expected consequence of the CIA Viagra program is marital rape? Should everyone who isn't Dennis Prager find this problematic?

MEGAN: Well, are we in a situation where we would deny that such is a possibility? I don't think we make good policy by ignoring the consequences, nor am I saying that giving the dudes Viagra is not preferable to giving them, say, weapons. But is it possible that we're providing them with the means to force themselves on their wives (who likely had no choice in being their wives) that nature has otherwise denied them? Yes. Plus, I did have to go find a way to relate it to women's issues [...]

SPENCER: Right, but now that we've got that covered: what should we do next? Stop the program?

MEGAN: Well, I'm not exactly one to go around advocating marital rape. Nor are — one assumes — operatives on the ground in any position to survey the wives of the warlords to determine whether the dick pill sex is consensual or wanted. Nor do the women in question have the vocabulary — culturally speaking, that is — to likely describe the sex as coercive or forced. In a society in which wives are expected to submit to their husbands and sex is not intended for their benefit or pleasure, nor are their moods or desires taken into account, they probably wouldn't consider a formerly impotent husband with a handful of Viagra and some impotent time to make up for much more than their unlucky lot in life. And, if the benefit — as you stated above — is not only that the formerly impotent husband doesn't take said impotence out on our troops but also refrains from taking it out physically on the wives, are they substantively better off being unhappily sexed than physically beaten? The fact that women in America have those choices and the freedom to think about them is a great thing, and handing out or not handing out Viagra to impotent warlords doesn't give Afghan women those choices or freedoms. Nor does allowing a Taliban or al Qaeda-led insurgency to win back the government. But that doesn't mean that our choices should remain unexamined.

There's a top-rated diary on Daily Kos right now entitled Dennis Prager Endorses Marital Rape. Somebody explain to me how the CIA isn't doing functionally the same thing.

And there's a larger point. We barge into foreign societies without a coherent understanding of the underlying culture and try to use whatever means to get the locals on our side, and the unintended consequences that result are never examined either before or after the fact. They are considered prices to be paid for "success," whatever that means. I think it's actually fairly impossible for me to determine the full effects of giving Viagra to Afghan warlords, in much the way that introducing a change in where a butterfly flaps its wings in the past can alter the future. But I'm fairly certain that those effects are completely ignored by the elites who think they can control events thousands of miles away through little inducements and bribes. I haven't read all of
Legacy of Ashes but I wonder if I'd find anything if I searched the index for the part where anyone games out the ripple effects of the agency's actions. Probably not.

Maybe what should be considered, instead of the boner pills, is why we're in Afghanistan in the first place. Rather than social engineering, we could use local law enforcement and intelligence sharing to limit or remove the capacity of anyone in the region striking beyond their borders, and we allow local and regional actors to determine their own way forward instead of arrogantly assuming we know what's best for these people, and trying to install a central democracy where none has ever existed. Alternatively, we could figure out what other drugs they might like.

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Pardon Them

This unpardoning story is not only bizarre in its own right, with its own set of legal questions, such as "when does a pardon become official?" But it shows a true flaw in Bush-era hubris, their failure to apply any of the mistakes of the past to themselves.

The reason for the unpardoning, I take it, is that the father of Isaac Toussie, the unpardoned, made a large political donation to the national Republican Party recently, and the subsequent pardon, done in haste and without going through proper channels, smacked of a corrupt bargain between elites. In other words, the change of heart was entirely for reasons of perception, not the fact that Toussie was a predatory lender who preyed on minority homebuyers.

Right now the right is gearing up to fight the nomination of Eric Holder for Attorney General, and his role in the Marc Rich pardon, which had similar allegations of corruption and political payback, is going to be prominent. So the Administration didn't want to gum up that looming fight with their own Rich-like pardon. Again, this has nothing to do with the competence of Holder, who even the prosecutor in the Rich case and former top Bush Justice Department official James Comey thinks is eminently qualified, but everything to do with perception.

But do the Bushies REALLY think that reversing themselves on ONE pardon will save them from any perception of cronyism? I mean, just today it was revealed that a different man pardoned the other day by the President, at the same time as Toussie, gave contributions directly to the President in 2004.

USA Today reports that Alan Maisse, a former gambling executive who was pardoned this week by President Bush, had made two contributions to Bush’s re-election campaign in 2003 and 2004 totaling $1,500. White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto declined to comment on the case but said “[w]e do not look into political contributions” in reviewing pardon requests. “We think it would be inappropriate to do that. They should have no influence over our decision-making,” Fratto added.

I mean, this is how the pardon power is used in contemporary America. There are always dispensations made for friends and friends of friends. I don't think anyone is blind to this. It is supremely arrogant on the part of the Bush White House to think that they could clean up their conduct by revoking one pardon. Furthermore, it's politically stupid, because it will just invite investigations into the background, and donations, of all the others pardoned during his tenure. I expect the Pro Publica report on contributions by pardoned criminals any day now.

The remedy for this is strict limits on pardon power. As for now, the right's Holder strategy is permanently disabled.

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Emanuel's Power-Grabbing Mistake

I agree with the consensus that the Blagojevich/Obama "scandal" was basically manufactured, and the media ran with it because scandalmongering is really all they know, but I find it hard to continue with the story without acknowledging that Rahm Emanuel is implicated, though on a level wholly separate from Obama's Senate seat. Indeed it is becoming more and more clear that Emanuel wanted help from Blagojevich in making sure Rahm's House seat would be available to him after he finished his stint as White House Chief of Staff.

In addition to talking with Gov. Blagojevich about who would fill President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat, Obama's newly minted chief of staff had something else on his mind: his own congressional seat.

Just after accepting the top post with Obama, Rahm Emanuel discussed with Blagojevich the possibility of keeping his congressional seat "warm" for him for a couple of years, the Sun-Times has learned.

Emanuel expressed interest in returning one day to his elected position because he was on track to become U.S. House speaker, the Sun-Times previously reported [...]

Days after Emanuel and Blagojevich spoke about Emanuel's seat, the governor is overheard telling aides on secret wiretaps he wanted Emanuel "to get the word today," about raising money for the governor and that when "[Emanuel] asks me for the Fifth CD thing, I want it to be in his head." The "Fifth CD" was a reference to Emanuel's 5th Congressional District seat.

Blagojevich couldn't appoint a successor to Emanuel. But he held the seat before Rahm did, and between the two of them, there is plenty of local power that could be leveraged.

This business with IL-05 wasn't included in the Obama transition report about contacts between their office and Blagojevich's. Marcy Wheeler thinks that was a real mistake because it's bound to come up more and more as this scandal drags on. In fact, Blagojevich's lawyers want Emanuel to testify in the impeachment hearings, where that contact could certainly re-emerge:

In a dramatic development in the ongoing impeachment proceedings, lawyers for Gov. Rod Blagojevich want two key aides to President-elect Barack Obama and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to testify before the House impeachment committee.

Sources tell CBS 2 that a letter sent by Blagojevich's lawyers to committee chairman, State Rep. Barbara Currie, asks that the committee subpoena Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Jackson.

Blagojevich is merely riding the scandal wave by pushing focus onto the more enticing aspects of the probe, like Emanuel and Jackson, rather than the repeated and numerous proposed pay-for-play schemes with local hospitals, the Chicago Tribune, etc.

The press clearly wants to extend this story and now they have a vehicle - focusing on Emanuel's conduct and trying to get that to rub off on Obama. I really hope that it was worth it to Emanuel to potentially damage an incoming President just because he was more interested in his personal aggrandizement and hopes for becoming House Speaker.

Fortunately, there's another committed progressive looking at the IL-05 seat, one who would be the polar opposite of Rahm Emanuel if he wins. Labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan is exploring a run, and he has a long record of fighting for working people and exposing Republican hypocrisy. His single piece of proposed legislation, to allow workers to sue management in court for union-busting activities, is enough on which to hang a whole campaign, if you ask me.

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World Report

Been a while since I got into this.

• Iraq: The speaker of the Parliament has been officially ousted in a move that doesn't seem to bother anyone, not even the speaker, who was kind of a loose cannon. But if anything, it's a symbol of the political power plays that have gripped the country for the past six months, leading into provincial elections. The Prime Minister is surely consolidating power, using a narrow amount of goodwill engendered by security gains to muscle his competition for power. Maliki wants a strong central government because he's at the head of it, while the Sunni and Kurdish factions want their own authority and independence.

“Maliki is monopolizing all the political, security and economic decisions,” said Omar Abdul Sattar, a Sunni member of Parliament. He listed political parties that he said were turning against the prime minister, including a powerful Shiite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is fighting Mr. Maliki’s drive to centralize power in Baghdad and pushing to give more to the provinces — where the party has important power bases, particularly in the south. “It’s simply the story of the transformation from a democratic prime minister into a dictator,” he said.

Given Iraq's history with dictatorships, and the fractious nature of ethnic and sectarian divides in the country, this is a natural state of affairs, which is why the hopeful talk of democratic transformation in the heart of the Middle East was always such rubbish. We invaded Iraq to remove a dictator so they could eventually install another one, this time with a more overtly religious cast. Not that Iraq was a threat to the United States beforehand, but it's hard to see how this made our country any safer, especially when factoring in the human and financial costs.

• Israel: I'm very worried that full-scale fighting is about to break out between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Hamas ended its cease-fire last week, and has been lobbing dozens of rockets into Israeli territory. Since Hamas' electoral victory, Israel has sealed off the Gaza strip, turning it into essentially a large prison. Egypt, which has been offering aid and assistance to the Palestinians in Gaza, wants to mediate a truce, but I don't think it's likely. There is a faction in Israel that sees crushing Hamas as part of the road to peace - and that's the LESS hawkish faction! This is going to explode in the next several days. Very worrying.

• Japan: The Pacific Rim nation is mired in another deep recession, as industrial output cratered and deflation appeared imminent. Japan was growing largely on the back of American consumption of their goods the past few years, and so this was inevitable. As America's rise back to prominence is tied to stimulating a home-grown industrial base, it's hard to see how Asian nations like this improve unless we give up and try to return to an unsustainable consumption model again.

• Somalia: The President of the transitional (read: powerless) government is resigning. By next year, I gather that you will see the Islamic Courts Union back in power here. Ethiopia will pull all their forces out in the next few weeks, and there is little to stop the ICU. And so a US-sponsored war will have produced nothing but more bloodshed and the rise of a powerful cadre of pirates, who reduced global economic trade through thievery. It was a shortsighted solution lacking a regional context, and it failed totally.

• Guinea: I'm not going to lie and say that I am perfectly well-versed about Guinea (not to be confused with Guinea-Bissau or Papua New Guinea), but they've had a coup by a military junta, which is the 10,834th of the military-led coups in Africa since, oh, last week. The latest in Guinea followed the death of a longtime dictator, Lansana Conte. The cycle of coups and state-sponsored repression is so commonplace on the continent, that it's hard to find a glimmer of hope. The African Union is simply not a strong enough institution to deter the practice.

• Europe: European leaders are talking about accepting some Guantanamo detainees as a gesture of goodwill toward the new President. Obama is going to have a global honeymoon period where he can really get a lot accomplished, and closing Gitmo should be at the top of that list as pertaining to foreign policy. One possible red flag is the persistence of Robert Gates at the helm of the Defense Department. He is being sued by Guantanamo detainee lawyers for signing a false affidavit that allowed him to sidestep disclosure of torture. That will not help any charm offensive. Pro Publica has a good roundup of the year in Gitmo here.

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California's Reverse Stimulus and How To Reverse The Reverse

The national media is starting to pick up on the developments with the California budget, and their potentially devastating impact on the larger economy. Bloomberg has an article on the shutdown of infrastructure projects and the impact statewide:

Just $5 million of work is needed to complete a new California Court of Appeals building in Santa Ana. The state may not have the money, and come July judges may be writing opinions in their living rooms.

“I’ve been on the bench for 23 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said David G. Sills, the presiding justice for the Fourth District Court of Appeals, Division Three, in a telephone interview.

California’s worst budget crisis has held up $3.8 billion in spending on public works, possibly including the courthouse adjacent to Santa Ana City Hall. Sills and his seven fellow jurists had planned to move in before the lease on their temporary offices expires June 30.

“Everyone will have to work from home,” said Sills, 70, “and we’ll have to rent a place for when we hear arguments.”

The story ticks off all of the projects lying unfinished - highway improvements, bridge and levee repairs, a hospital at San Quentin, a middle school in South Gate. The delays are not only a threat to the soaring unemployment rate and the state's economic future, but public safety.

South of downtown Los Angeles, a delay finishing a school building could put children in danger, said German Cerda, principal of South Gate Middle School. About a third of his 2,900 students are scheduled to move into the new building a half-mile away in 2012, relieving overcrowding inside and making nearby streets safer, he said.

On Dec. 2, a 14-year-old South Gate student was killed when a car stuck him a block away, an accident Cerda attributed to congestion.

“The biggest complaint we get from parents is what happens when the bell rings at 2:42 p.m. each day,” Cerda said. That’s the time that his students are dismissed and 3,000 more are leaving a high school down the street. “They don’t want to see another tragedy.”

Then there are the expected cuts to state Medicaid programs, at precisely the time when more Californians qualify for services.

Among the states with the gravest financial problems -- and pressures on Medicaid -- is California. In July, Medi-Cal, as the program there is known, slashed by 10 percent the rates it pays hospitals, nursing homes, speech pathologists and other providers of health care. It tried to lower payments to doctors and dentists, too, but they have sued to block the decreases.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has asked the state legislature to approve other cuts, including an end to dental care for adults, about 1 million of whom use it now, and a sharp reduction in care for recent immigrants.

At two hospitals run by NorthBay Healthcare, midway between San Francisco and Sacramento, about one patient in five is on Medi-Cal. The rate cuts translate into a $4 million loss this year. In September, the health system closed a rehabilitation program for children that provided physical therapy, speech therapy and other help to about 300 young patients at a time -- with 100 more usually on the waiting list.

"It was heart-wrenching to have to go out and announce," said Steve Huddleston, NorthBay's vice president of public affairs.

The Obama campaign is weighing options for both backfilling Medicaid for the states and jump-starting infrastructure spending through cash infusions. However, the biggest thing the federal government could do right now is what John Chiang describes in a letter to the Obama transition team and California's congressional delegation - guarantee the financing for infrastructure projects. The reason they cannot be funded right now is that the market for revenue anticipation notes and bonds is locked. Though California has never defaulted on these securities, investors are nervous that the careening budget crisis will cause them to do so. So putting the full faith and credit of the US government behind the notes, which if California does repay its creditors would cost the feds next to nothing, would immediately allow the infrastructure projects to begin again. That's the short version - here's Chiang with the greater plan, including incentives for banks to lend.

This proposal is simple, straight forward and cost effective:

1) Develop a federal guarantee program of limited duration for state and local debt issued to fund new infrastructure construction and renovation. Each state could designate a state commission or agency to disburse the state’s allocation of federal guarantees in accordance with the program guidelines;

2) Allocate these benefits, or guarantees, in the amount of $500 to $1,000 per capita to states. The allocations can be based on unemployment or 2000 census population, with a minimum “baseline” allocation to low-population states; and

3) Furthermore, the proposal would greatly benefit from abolishing the limit on the amount of deductible interest costs for commercial banks related to the purchase of these particular state and local infrastructure bonds during the term of the program. This restriction has been in place since enactment of the Tax Reform Act of 1986.

This would mean the restoration of up to 200,000 jobs in California alone, as well as $16 billion in economic activity. Those are numbers that an incoming Obama Administration cannot afford to lose as they begin implementing a recovery package.

Obviously, the biggest remedy to show confidence to the markets and gets the lending flowing again would be to pass a budget and prove to investors that California is getting its financial house in order. That is up to the Governor to decide, and 200,000 jobs hang in the balance.

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Algiers Point Update

Following up on a previous item about white vigilante killings of black residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Police Superintendent of New Orleans says he is "looking into" the allegations. Given the seriousness of that statement, I'm certain it'll be entirely thorough.

In a press release sent to the media and local government officials, Riley said, “he is currently looking into the allegations, and asked if anyone has substantial information relative to any incidents of this type call to the New Orleans Police Department Bureau of Investigations.” [...]

Riley said the NOPD was unaware of this violence prior to the story’s publication. The department, according to Riley’s statement, “did not receive any complaints or information to substantiate any of the allegations of racial conflicts or vigilante type crimes in the City of New Orleans including the Algiers Point on the west bank of the City.”

That's just simply not true. Not only did the authors of the recent report contact the NOPD during the 18-month investigation, but this is not a new story. It was featured in the Spike Lee documentary "When The Levees Broke," for example.

Needless to say, I'm unimpressed that Riley will be "looking into" the incidents, but public pressure will likely leave him no choice. If you haven't yet, sign the Color of Change petition.'s the companion video to the Nation/Pro Publica story.

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Most Dangerous Trouble Spot In The World Update

I know there are new Oscar contenders in the theaters, and Obama showed his pecs and all, but two nuclear powers are moving toward war and you'd think people would begin to pay attention to that, what with the potential for radioactivity to spread across the Earth and all.

Pakistan began moving thousands of troops away from the Afghan border toward India on Friday amid tensions following the Mumbai attacks, intelligence officials said.

The move represents a sharp escalation in the standoff between the nuclear-armed neighbors and will hurt Pakistan's U.S.-backed campaign against al-Qaida and Taliban taking place near Afghanistan's border.

Two intelligence officials said the army's 14th Division was being redeployed to Kasur and Sialkot, close to the Indian border. They said some 20,000 troops were on the move. Earlier Friday, a security official said that all troop leave had been canceled.

These are not two countries known for their restraint - they have fought three wars since Pakistani independence in 1947. In the post-nuclear era, they almost started a fourth war in 2001, after militants attacked the Indian Parliament. Earlier in the week, Pakistan scrambled fighter jets over its own cities to protect them from an Indian attack, after the Indian foreign minister ratcheted up the rhetoric.

"We have so far acted with utmost restraint," Pranab Mukherjee told the more than 120 envoys from posts around the world. But he added, "We will take all measures necessary as we deem fit to deal with the situation."

A senior government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, later called Mukherjee's tough talk "an expression of political will that India will not take this lying down." He added that the option of "precision airstrikes" on terrorist training camps in Pakistan would remain on the table if Islamabad did not act effectively against groups fomenting terrorism against India.

There was a point in this renewed conflict after the Mumbai attacks, when Pakistan was rolling up elements of the Lashkar-i-Taiba extremist group and cooperation between the two South Asian countries appeared possible. Things have deteriorated since then, as India is accusing Pakistan of playing games with their homegrown militants:

In a background briefing, another senior government official said India is tired of the conflicting signals from Pakistan.

"We hear different voices from different places in Pakistan. Every day, different stories are floated. First we heard that Masood Azhar is arrested, then they say they do not know where he is," he said, referring to one of the fugitives India has demanded that Pakistan hand over. "If Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa have been proscribed, then why is their Web site active and operational?" the official added.

Pakistan has at the very least tolerated, and at the most actively supported through their military and intelligence services, the existence of extremists for a while. Not only has that partially been funded with the copious amounts of US aid that goes toward the Pakistani military, but this recent activity at the Indian border is being financed by our tax dollars as well. So instead of using American treasure to fight terrorism, it's being used to underwrite it, as well as raise tensions between nuclear powers.

The Indian Prime Minister has called for calm but there is no reason to expect that either side will comply. Just add this onto the pile of major foreign policy crises that the incoming Obama Administration will face. And of course, it's intimately connected to Afghanistan, since each Pakistani soldier moving to the Indian border is one less stopping insurgents and Taliban from crossing over and carrying out attacks.

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Still Negative-1 Shopping Days Left Until Christmas

On Christmas Day, the Washington Post tried to spin some retail sales numbers, noting with pride that they had risen month-to-month in November for the first time since May. Apparently the idea that the holiday shopping season started in November, and October was a real cratering on retail sales, weren't enough context for them to stop writing the story, not to mention the fact that retailers were offering huge discounts just to get people in the store. A better judge of the retail market is probably year-over-year sales than month-to-month, and on that score, the news is as bad as ever.

U.S. retailers' sales fell as much as 4 percent during the holiday season, as the weak economy and bad weather created one of the worst holiday shopping climates in modern times, according to data released on Thursday by SpendingPulse.

The figures, from the retail data service of MasterCard Advisors, show the 2008 holiday shopping season was the weakest in decades, as U.S. consumers cut spending as they confront a yearlong recession, mounting job losses and tighter credit.

"It's probably one of the most challenging holiday seasons we've ever had in modern times," said Michael McNamara, vice president of Research and Analysis at MasterCard Advisors.

As holiday sales often make up for a lot of retailers' entire yearly profit margins, expect a fair amount of bankruptcies and store closings in Q1 of next year. We are not even close to being on the upswing. The hope is that it can't get too much worse.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Hajj!!!

Why this isn't being run on a loop now on Fox News, I have no idea.

There was no fanfare, no press release when Keith Ellison made the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca last week.

"We weren't really trying to turn this into a political thing," said the Democratic congressman from Minneapolis. "This is just me trying to be the best person I can be."

Downplaying his role as the first member of Congress to make the Hajj, as the pilgrimage is known, Ellison called the experience "transformative."

He's the scariest Muslim in the history of Muslims. First Koranobama, and now this. The women will be wearing burqas by midnight.


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...and he's not wrong.

Ahmadinejad brings Christmas greetings.

LONDON, Dec. 24 -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is offering season's greetings to Christians in a British TV address and suggesting that if Jesus were alive he would oppose "bullying, ill-tempered and expansionist powers" -- an apparent reference to the United States and its allies [...]

According to a transcript released in advance, Ahmadinejad says most of the world's problems stem from leaders who have turned against religion. The Muslim president doesn't refer to rival nations or leaders by name or mention Israel, despite his past calls to wipe it out.

"If Christ were on earth today, undoubtedly he would hoist the banner of justice and love for humanity to oppose warmongers, occupiers, terrorists and bullies the world over," Ahmadinejad said, according to the English translation of the Farsi-language speech. The broadcast will air with subtitles.

Not that the President of Iran is the greatest messenger - his country just took human rights advocate Shirin Ebadi into custody - but the teachings of Christ that this Jew is aware of do reject war, violence and intimidation. But Ahmadinejad is wrong that the world's problems stem from "leaders who have turned against religion." Indeed, most of these leaders use religion to further their own expansionist ends, and whether or not they are perverting religion in the process, this dynamic has repeated itself enough to make the "true meaning" of religion as it relates to the state to be indistinguishable.

And a Merry Christmas to you.

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A Christmas Story

I'm sick on Christmas. That's my story.

Enjoy your Virginia ham.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Smart Spending

I never expected a massive Keynesian stimulus to be easy. But the fact that the Obama transition needs to allay fears about the package is worrying. What economy are these neo-Hooverists looking at? Jobless claims keep jumping - expect another half-million to be out of work by next month. The housing market is still crippled with no sign of recovery. And even the lead economist of the IMF, no left-wing liberal, is warning of another Great Depression if governments don't replace consumer spending with massive spending of their own.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF, is pushing governments to increase their own spending in order to support growth. The IMF has always been a big enemy of deficits. Why the reversal?

We are facing a crisis of an exceptional breadth, the basis of which is a collapse of demand. The consumer and business confidence numbers have never fallen this much since they've first been recorded. We've NEVER seen this!...

It is imperative to curb the this loss of confidence, to relaunch it and, if necessary, replace private demand, if we want to avoid a recession that turns into a Great Depression. Of course, in normal times, we would recommend that Europe reduce its budget deficits. But these are not normal times.

The fears that the Obama team is responding to are largely about limiting pork-barrel spending in the final bill. I think the nation can survive if a pet project makes its way into a trillion-dollar bill. Somebody has to build that pet project, too, and the whole point is to get money into people's hands in exchange for public works. However, that's not to say that we shouldn't be careful about the spending. On the contrary, I believe that funneling money to build more highways and roads that perpetuate unsustainable suburban sprawl is a bad idea. The opportunity of the stimulus is that we can create new economic opportunities based on building green industries and projects that can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

"We've let our infrastructure crumble for a long, long time from water to roads to bridges. It makes sense to invest in them now," Biden said.

But environmentalists and their allies view old-fashioned highway construction as encouraging longer commutes and increasing the energy-consumption crisis of the past year. "They're going to put a bunch of money through a broken system to stimulate the economy. That doesn't make sense to me," said Colin Peppard, a transportation expert for Friends of the Earth.

Peppard's group recently began a "Road to Nowhere" campaign, saying that new roads would lead to "new pollution -- keep the economic stimulus clean."

This doesn't mean that existing infrastructure shouldn't be upgraded in the meantime. But projects like rail, smart energy grids, building out broadband, and developing alternative energy need to get their share of the pie. And there are examples of where "old infrastructure" and "green infrastructure" can work together. The best example is in the building trades. The commercial real estate industry wants their own bailout, and they're going to be the next of many industries seeking one. Now, just handing over money to developers who bought high and are underwater, when the default process works perfectly well and wouldn't disrupt the greater economy much at all, makes no sense. However, if we offered developers a deal like the Architecture 2030 proposal, which would save money in energy costs and have a societal good, that would be worthwhile. And it could be extended to ordinary homeowners as well.

An outfit called Architecture 2030, founded by Edward Mazria, suggests that we offer homeowners not just low-interest loans, but a sliding scale of low-interest loans that's conditioned on renovating their homes to increase energy efficiency. Their proposed scale is on the right. The nickel explanation is below:

"Mazria walked me through a hypothetical example that highlighted the huge incentives the plan could unleash. Say you're a homeowner with a $272,000 mortgage at 5.55%, paying about $1550 a month. You decide you want your mortgage rate to drop to 3%. In order to qualify for the reduction, you have to improve the energy efficiency of your home 75% below code, and it's going to cost you a pretty penny: about $40,000.

Existing tax credits would take care of about $10,000 of that cost. The rest would get tacked on to your existing mortgage, bringing it up to $302,000. But, at 3%, you'd be paying only about $1280 — saving almost $300 a month on the mortgage alone, plus another $150 in reduced energy costs. The value of your home rises, you have more disposable income, you've given work to someone to do the upgrades for you — and s/he's now paying federal taxes, and you've reduced your carbon footprint."

The Architecture 2030 folks claim that their program (which has a component for commercial buildings as well) would cost a mere $170 billion over two years, and in return would create over 8 million new jobs, jump start a new $1.6 trillion renovation market, save consumers a boatload of money, and reduce CO2 emission by about half a billion tons. What's not to like?

I think they're being a little sunny about the positive impact, but not very much.

We definitely need to be smart like this, but it's a tough job. There are a lot of competing interests at play, and nobody's going to be totally happy. At the very least, however, this cannot look like a highway bill.

...Matt Stoller has a good piece on the politics of this. The Blue Dogs appear to favor highway and road projects, but the question is whether they have enough clout to get what they want. Also, a bill like this includes Congresscritters seeking money for their districts that split ideological lines. For instance, the major green jobs repositories in California are Bakersfield and Palm Springs, which have Republican members. I don't think the Blue Dogs are going to be able to dictate this so easily.

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Fat Lady Warming Up In Minnesota

Today the Minnesota Supreme Court denied flat Norm Coleman's lawsuit seeking to roll back certain precincts to pre-recount numbers because of a belief that certain ballot may or may not have been double-counted. If this is dealt with at all, it will be after the Canvassing Board has certified a winner.

This means that the only ballots in question before that certification are absentee ballots that were wrongly invalidated. Keep in mind that FRANKEN's campaign has sought to get those ballots counted, as the absentee ballots in general have favored him. The two campaigns, per court order, have to agree on a framework for counting those ballots, and the Supreme Court has offered an extension for that framework to be approved. There's been a tentative agreement on that framework, but it involves each campaign having a veto power over ballots, and the result is probably going to be with very few of those ballots getting counted. So I don't see how we move out of certification without Al Franken being awarded the seat.

What this whole process shows is how fragile and tenuous our election process really is. In close races like this, the flaws in the system are brought into view. That can't be changed for the purposes of this election, but should be a part of the future. Nevertheless, Franken's going to win this seat. Coleman's lawyers are talking about contesting the election, but their chances of succeeding are very, very slim.

Al Franken, D-MN.

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Several Unrelated Items About Food

I like the blogosphere around this time of year because you can easily figure out who the Jewish bloggers are (the ones posting). Anyway, since all Jewish holidays are devoted to food (and pretty much only food), here are a few musings about that which we eat.

• There's some kind of mini-uproar about Barack Obama ordering spam musubi on the golf course in Hawaii this week. Not only is there a very good Hawaiian restaurant on the Westside of LA that serves spam musubi, but they sell T-shirts which read "What the hell is spam musubi?" that will hopefully start flying off the shelves now that the delicacy has a Presidential imprimatur. For the unenlightened, it's basically sushi with Spam instead of fish.

• I am breaking with all known Jewish traditions this Christmas and not going to a Chinese restaurant, but instead a potluck for wayward members of the tribe. My contribution will be butternut squash soup, perfect on this unusually cold California day.

• It's not too late to give to your local food bank. Demand is up significantly over the past several months as the recession deepens. Second Harvest is a good place to connect with the food bank that needs the most help in your area. I did a little work at the Westside Food Bank in Santa Monica over the weekend, and it was a good feelings.

• Speaking of food assistance, and turning to a food-related story that has actual policy implications, the Obama transition is considering using food assistance programs to encourage better nutrition.

For decades, the government has treated hunger and obesity as unrelated phenomena. But at a news conference last week in Chicago, Tom Vilsack, President-elect Barack Obama's choice for agriculture secretary, said he would put "nutrition at the center of all food assistance programs," a signal that he will get involved next year when Congress moves to reauthorize nutrition programs that support school breakfasts and lunches as well as summer food for children.

"For a long time, we've looked at hunger and obesity separately," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the committee that will draft the legislation. "It's not a zero-sum game."

This is a great idea. The tragedy of being poor is that your food options are typically cheap, high-fat products that end up leading to obesity. By offering major discounts to the purchase of produce with food stamps, for example, we help to solve both a hunger problem and a public health problem. There is a reasonable concern that the government becomes too paternalistic over this, but the very real concern about obesity among the poor outweighs it. I would also encourage farmer's markets in low-income communities that accept food stamps; much of this is a problem of access, as only fast food restaurants and convenience stores seem to proliferate in depressed communities instead of full-service groceries.

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The Strangling Tourniquet

We're starting to see some consideration put to the planned escalation in Afghanistan, and a lot of people are finally getting around to asking the "why" instead of accepting that Obama will fulfill a campaign promise by sending 20-30,000 more troops into that hostile environment and a rapidly deteriorating occupation. The first person asking why is, interestingly enough, Afghan President Hamid Karzai:

President Hamid Karzai pressed America's top military leader Monday on the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and preparations to pour up to 30,000 more forces into the country, reflecting Karzai's concerns over civilian casualties and operations in villages. Karzai asked Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, what kinds of operations the newly deployed troops would carry out and told him that the Afghan government should be consulted about those missions.

The Afghan president, stinging from a series of civilian casualties in U.S. military operations in recent years, said he doubts that sending more American forces into Afghan villages will tamp down the insurgency, and he has questioned a U.S. plan to deploy 3,500 U.S. forces in two provinces on Kabul's doorstep next month.

Karzai told Mullen that U.S. troops must take more care during operations in Afghan villages and stop searching Afghan homes. He asked the chairman to investigate allegations that U.S. forces killed three civilians in a raid last week in Khost province, a reflection of increasing concern about civilian casualties. The U.S. says three militants were killed.

This is the central problem. A larger footprint for occupiers will do nothing for security and is likely to turn the population further against an effort they are after seven years beginning to resent. Karzai acknowledges a possible need for border protection, but troops in major Afghan cities and villages is counterproductive.

Indeed any option in Afghanistan is fraught with pitfalls right now. A surge of troops would have made sense when the population was still behind the effort and the Taliban wasn't reconstituted as an insurgency force. Now the Taliban pretty much controls the countryside and the amount of troops needed to perform a counterinsurgency campaign cannot be brought into the country without much resentment and hatred.

“We may have missed the golden moment there,” said Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official who has long advocated an increased U.S. focus on Afghanistan.

The tension between the short-run need for more muscle to thwart the Taliban and the long-term trap of becoming the latest in a long line of foreign intruders bogged down in Afghanistan forms the core of the dilemma confronting Obama.

There are efforts underway to recruit local tribal militias to bolster the paltry amount of native security forces in a kind of "Afghan awakening," but they are likely to have little or no control from the central government, not historically a factor in the country, and more likely to rule over their own areas and increase bloodshed among ethnic rivals.

“There will be fighting between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns,” said Salih Mohammad Registani, a member of the Afghan Parliament and an ethnic Tajik. Mr. Registani raised the specter of the Arbaki, a Pashtun-dominated militia turned loose on other Afghans early in the 20th century.

“A civil war will start very soon,” he said.

NATO forces would like to stem the poppy trade that is funding the insurgency and encourage alternative crop development, but many member nations are wary of involving themselves in counter-narcotics actions.

NATO officials in Brussels declined to list the nations that have opposed widening the alliance mandate to include attacks on drug networks, and no nation has volunteered that it has legal objections.

But a number of NATO members have in broad terms described their reluctance publicly, including Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain. Their leaders have cited domestic policies that make counternarcotics a law enforcement matter — not a job for their militaries — and expressed concern that domestic lawsuits could be filed if their soldiers carried out attacks to kill noncombatants, even if the victims were involved in the drug industry in Afghanistan.

There are discussions about splitting off Taliban elements and causing a rift in the insurgency through negotiations and entry into the government, but there's absolutely no sign that any Taliban fighter would be amenable to it.

Overall, everyone knows that a major strategic shift is needed, but there's simply no evidence that any of these shifts would produce something resembling success, or any indication that anyone knows what "success" means. In fact, "success" is most likely defined as "an end to total failure."

"Right now there is a sense you need to apply a tourniquet of some kind," said a senior Defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing contacts with the transition team. "You need to control bleeding at the site of the wound, you need to stabilize, and you need to see what you need to do next."

After a record number of U.S. deaths in Afghanistan this year, national security officials consider it crucial for the new administration to act soon after taking office. The senior Defense official said Obama would have a limited time period to announce a new strategy for Afghanistan and build up the troop strength.

"Over time, it will be harder to put more stuff in," the official said. "You have a window where you can do dramatic things. But the opportunity to do dramatic things reduces over time."

But what are those "dramatic things" and how will they produce improvements in both American security and the lives of the Afghan people? If the goal is now to tread water and not fail so badly I can't see how staying makes sense. Tourniquets can be refashioned into nooses, after all. The plans for Afghanistan 2.0 are all based on such wishful thinking, and suffused with so many potential drawbacks, that it almost looks like they are designed to do nothing but draw our military further into an intractable conflict. There are regional diplomatic solutions that make sense at providing space for a withdrawal without leaving behind any group that can project power beyond their borders. That does not have to include thousands more troops of dubious effectiveness.

I don't look kindly on suggestions that we "must do something dramatic" in cases like this, on the grounds that something dramatic always and forever works to our benefit. I agree with Spencer Ackerman on this one - we need to at least pretend to think about the interests of the Afghans at some point.

What I did see was an overwhelming desire for security among the population. Lots of people said something to me that boiled down to, “When the Taliban were in power, the roads were safe, food was cheap and gas is cheap. Now the Americans are here and none of that is true.” The major factor that made the tribal revolt in Anbar work was that the population, including the extremists, understood that Al Qaeda offered them a bleaker future than even the occupation. Nothing like that exists in Afghanistan — or, at least, there is an alarming lack of evidence for that crucial proposition.

People need to take a very deep breath. To judge by the available evidence, the Afghan population wants security. It does not want more militias. The Afghan Senate has actually rejected this proposal explicitly. Is there any actual appetite among Afghans for a Sons-of-Afghanistan program? Or is this a case of hubristic Americans coming into Afghanistan and imposing a template from Iraq upon an overwhelmingly different country and overwhelmingly different set of conditions? You can tell what I suspect from the way I framed the question.

My fear is that we aren't looking at the concerns of Afghanistan policy through the lens of "is this policy good or bad" rather than "does this make us look like we are responding to the problem." That way lies disaster.

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We Need A Bigger State Department

I would have thought that the cable shoutcasts would have been all over yesterday's New York Times story about Hillary Clinton seeking to increase the role of the State Department. I figured they would read it strictly in the terms of personality politics and despair over how Hillary is "taking over the government" and somehow impinging on Obama's authority. I guess the Blagojevich report and the shiny object known as Caroline Kennedy must have mollified them, because there was nary a peep.

And that's a good thing, because an expanded State Department with a bigger budget and a greater balance with the Defense Department is pretty much what I voted for - more diplomacy and less state-sponsored killing.

Mrs. Clinton is recruiting Jacob J. Lew, the budget director under President Bill Clinton, as one of two deputies, according to people close to the Obama transition team. Mr. Lew’s focus, they said, will be on increasing the share of financing that goes to the diplomatic corps. He and James B. Steinberg, a deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration, are to be Mrs. Clinton’s chief lieutenants [...]

The incoming administration is also likely to name several envoys, officials said, reviving a practice of the Clinton administration, when Richard C. Holbrooke, Dennis Ross and other diplomats played a central role in mediating disputes in the Balkans and the Middle East [...]

The steps seem intended to strengthen the role of diplomacy after a long stretch, particularly under Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in which the Pentagon, the vice president’s office and even the intelligence agencies held considerable sway over American foreign policy.

I can quibble with the names of those envoys, but having people committed solely to finding peaceful solutions in global trouble spots is change I can believe in. The last eight years have seen very little use of focused envoys in this regard, and the one (sort of) exception, Christopher Hill in North Korea, has had among the best diplomatic results of Bush's tenure. In addition, allowing State Department officials to do civilian-type work, like reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of the Defense Department, makes perfect sense.

Keeping this kind of expanded portfolio requires a bigger budget and expert management, and so the inclusion of former OMB director Jacob Lew to insure that budget increases and that the State Department bureaucracy is reorganized, and James Steinberg, who called for withdrawal from Iraq very early, as a top lieutenant, is very powerful and encouraging.

I'm less enthused by Clinton pushing for a role for State in the global economic crisis, however.

Mrs. Clinton’s push for a more vigorous economic team, one of her advisers said, stems from her conviction that the State Department needs to play a part in the recovery from the global financial crisis. Economic issues also underpin some of the most important diplomatic relationships, notably with China.

In recent years, the Treasury Department, led by Henry M. Paulson Jr., has dominated policy toward China. Mr. Paulson leads a “strategic economic dialogue” with China that involves several agencies. It is not yet clear who will pick up that role in the Obama administration, although Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is frequently mentioned as a possibility.

There certainly is a role to play for State in China policy, but I'd prefer that we decentralize power and focus these federal agencies on their core missions rather than carving out new jobs for themselves.

Overall, a larger, more robust State Department sends the signal to the world that we are out of the empire business and are instead interested in rebuilding relationships with allies and use multilateral institutions to foster conflict resolution instead of bombs and tanks. This got lost during a campaign that was focused on economic issues, which was probably to the liking of Democrats who habitually shy away from foreign policy. But Clinton's role at State can signal a new direction, where Democrats actually articulate principles in dealing with the world, and act on them. Obama was willing to hint at this during the campaign, but it got swamped by the recession. I think a major diplomatic initiative early in the term could really change the tone.

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Budget Hell - Grassroots Reinforcements

You don't have to constantly refresh or check your RSS feeds for the next couple days - budget talks have been called off for Christmas. There is a meeeting between the Big Three tentatively scheduled for Friday.

In my view, just that we're talking about a Big Three instead of a Big Five is progress, suggesting that the Gov will go along with the work-around budget if he can save face on a few "stimulus" items (like, you know, taking people's overtime and meal breaks away. They can eat while working!). The Governor never appeared in a movie about schizophrenia, but that's how he's been acting the past few days, holding press events at key sites where infrastructure improvements are being shuttered (a levee in Sacramento, the 405 Freeway in Karen Bass' district in LA) blasting the legislature, while at the same time claiming that progress is being made toward a budget solution.

During a press conference along Interstate 405 in Los Angeles, the Republican governor said he and Democratic leaders made "some great progress" Sunday and that it may only take two more meetings of the same sort to reach a compromise this week. Schwarzenegger had been calling for a solution by Christmas, though he acknowledged Monday that a legislative vote would not take place until next week at the earliest.

"It could easily be that before Christmas Eve or Christmas Day that we have an agreement, that the legislators can be brought back between Christmas and New Year's to vote on it," Schwarzenegger said.

(UPDATE: Kevin Yamamura reports that the negotiations have come down to three issues: "rollback of environmental review for construction projects, greater use of private investment and contractors, and deeper spending cuts, including those affecting the state work force." These have almost no impact on the budget as a whole - you're talking about cutting two state worker holidays - and are designed only to reward private business interests. Arnold has always been in the pocket of the Chamber of Commerce.)

You'll notice that none of these press events are being held in front of any state employee offices. That's because, in general terms, people don't look kindly on mass layoffs and cutbacks right before Christmas. It gives them the impression that the person making those layoffs is kind of a Scrooge. Of course, the immediate halt to all public works projects, at a time when we should be encouraging stimulus projects of this type, also have an impact on jobs. Not only does every contractor working on those projects get fired, but vendors get stiffed for work that they've already completed, leaving the state open to lawsuits. The Governor should kind of be ashamed to stand in front of any backdrop with cancelled projects behind him, considering his epic mismanagement is partly to blame. This is particularly true when considering that the voter-approved infrastructure work is vital to public safety and the state would undoubtedly be liable in the event of catastrophe.

Communities nationwide have repaired fewer than half of the 122 levees identified by the government almost two years ago as too poorly maintained to be reliable in major floods, according to Army Corps of Engineers data.

State and local governments were given a year to fix levees cited by the corps for "unacceptable" maintenance deficiencies in a February 2007 review that was part of a post-Hurricane Katrina crackdown. Only 45 have had necessary repairs, according to data provided in response to a USA TODAY request. The remaining unrepaired levees are spread across 18 states and Puerto Rico — most in California and Washington.

The Governor is cleverly casting this as a problem of "the legislature" hoping nobody will notice that he performed the veto, he blocked the very plan that could get these projects restarted.

Fortunately, grassroots Californians are noticing, and you can see the contours of a coalition forming, perhaps resembling the 2005 special election coalition only with more staying power. Groups like Courage Campaign and the local blogosphere have the reach to engaged communities starving for information. The California Budget Project provides the statistical heft. Labor and environmental groups have the ear of the legislature. And there's a new member of the coalition - former Obama organizers in California who are moving with unusual speed to support a sane budget solution and slam the Governor for his intransigence. At Schwarzenegger's 405 Freeway presser, you can hear a small band of protesters in the background noise. That was organized by Obama volunteers through their new Facebook-like application, Pam Coukos distributed a letter-writing tool urging a budget solution. California for Obama has done the same in an email blast, asking it to be distributed to the various volunteer teams. And there is already talk about veterans of the Obama movement running for state and local office.

This is pretty new and early. But you can see how this network of committed organizers can gradually become a state political force, especially if the coalitions are built and networks made between the groups mentioned above. I have long said that what is missing in California is a popular grassroots movement that can go around the media filter and whip up support for progressive values through direct action. It is said that California is too big for such a movement to catch fire, but in political terms, we all know that the state is very small, and a committed movement can make an outsized difference. This won't happen overnight, but we're moving in the right direction. Now we just need a gubernatorial candidate to ride the grassroots wave...

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Coal In The Stocking - And The Drinking Water

The water main break in Montgomery County, Maryland had some compelling visuals to it, with water pouring from the ground and drivers trapped in their cars, so it received some treatment on the cable shoutcasts today. It's a good thing, too, because the rupture of a 44 year-old pipe causing this kind of chaos does show the need for infrastructure repairs, not only as part of a larger fiscal stimulus, but to avoid catastrophes and their ancillary costs, and to maintain vital services which will have tangible benefits for years to come.

But a massive coal ash spill like we saw today in Tennessee - the result of a burst dam at a private coal processing plant - is actually far more dangerous with far more lasting consequences, even if the visuals aren't as stellar.

You're talking about hundreds of acres of toxic sludge, the residue plants create by burning coal to produce energy, which includes mercury, arsenic and lead, spilling into the tributaries of the Tennessee River, poisoning the water supply for multiple communities, including Chattanooga.

And it's a direct result of our continued reliance on an industry that makes us sick but uses slick PR terms like "clean coal," happily parroted by politicians of both parties, to maintain viability.

“This spill shows that coal can never be ‘clean,’” said Kate Smolski, Senior Legislative Coordinator for Greenpeace. “If the Exxon Valdez was a symbol of pollution 20 years ago, the Tennessee Coal Spill of 2008 is the symbol of it today.”

Incredibly, this spill occurs at a time when the Bush Administration is trying to loosen environmental rules that would allow the coal industry to dump rock and dirt from mountaintop mining into nearby streams. In other words, they want to make a disaster like this the norm. Environmental groups are suing to stop them, but what will stop the coal companies from their inattention to basic safety?

It's key that we use the opportunity of major fiscal stimulus to improve crumbling infrastructure. It would also be nice if, in the process, we started taking a critical look at companies whose very existence threatens public health and the future of a sustainable planet. And making sure that existence doesn't continue. Coal is not clean.

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The Lower 48

Who knows when this is all said and done, but if it were to end right now, Al Franken would be the next Senator from Minnesota by a spread of 48 votes.

The Minnesota Canvassing Board today allocated the rest of the withdrawn challenged ballots, and Al Franken now unofficially leads by 48 votes. Crazy shit.

The Coleman campaign tried to get the board to reconsider some of its decisions, but was rebuffed.

Left to be decided -- 1) the claim by the Coleman campaign that some absentee ballots were counted twice (Nate discusses that issue here), and 2) the fate of over 1,000 improperly excluded absentee ballots.

The duplicate ballot issue looks to be unlikely to bear fruit. Franken's campaign has signed affidavits from election officials stating that they never counted ballots twice, and the Coleman campaign is trying to cherry-pick which precincts it wants to look at on this issue (and conveniently reverse those counts to their original Election Night numbers, which would benefit him). The absentee ballots are something that Franken's campaign has wanted to count for a while, as they feel it will ultimately help their count. The two sides are supposed to get together and come up with a counting standard, and they have a couple weeks to do so - the canvassing board doesn't meet again until January 5, which means that a winner won't be declared until next year, and possibly not until after the next Senate first convenes.

It looks bleak for Coleman, however. He's running out of options, and calling in Bush's head lawyer from the Florida recount isn't likely to help. For his part, Coleman is getting kind of philosophical about the whole thing.

“I feel fairly confident. In the end, the good Lord’s going to decide,” Coleman told the local Fox affiliate. “The numbers look good to us. Certainly there’s uncertainty. I’m not worried about it. I’ve done everything I can do. I’m not really agonizing about the outcome.”

Coleman went on: “Life goes on, regardless of what your job is. I certainly love what I do. If I can keep doing it, I’ll be thrilled, and if not, I’m sure we’ll do something else.”

Plan on doing something else, Norm. You can play out every challenge, but it's increasingly apparent that the next Senator from Minnesota is Al Franken.

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And the Story Is?

I don't know what to say about the Obama transition report about his team's contacts with Gov. Blagojevich. They claimed there was nothing untoward on their part and the report confirms it. It's an internal report and so if it said anything different then we'd have a whole new kind of self-incriminating elite running things in the White House come January. At the same time, the whole speculation is tiresome, and while a continuance of it is concerning, I think this is a case of the traditional media punching themselves out. The futile search for "questions" to be followed by more "questions" is dwarfed by the severity of the financial crisis, and the fact that Patrick Fitzgerald moves at his own deliberate pace means that this is not a story that will be fed by a trickle of leaks.

I'm sure I'm not contemplating the lengths to which the traditional media will stoop to undermine a new President, or how they can spin endless amounts of bullshit about essentially nothing, but this story isn't really poised to catch fire from my viewpoint (though I could be wrong). Before this report came out, sizable amounts of people think Obama's team was "involved" (whatever that means) in discussions with Blago's people and it didn't change their opinion of Obama a bit. What will constrain Obama's ability to govern is a Republican phalanx dedicated to obstructionism, not this non-event.

UPDATE: See also. I don't know if AdNags is necessarily right, but what's important is that he THINKS he's right, which means there's a possibility that the enduring narrative will be "The GOP can't lay a glove on Obama." This furthers a "Republicans in disarray" meme as Nagourney extracts quotes of them sniping at each other. And people like me will be able to say "keep trying with this stuff, it's not working."

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The Strange Disappearance of Howard Dean

This is a great piece by Ari Berman of The Nation about Howard Dean. For all the thoughts in early 2005 that Dean would be an erratic chair of the DNC, he came in with a very tightly focused plan and he enacted it brilliantly. He wanted to strengthen state parties, implement the technology necessary to reach voters, and put organizers in the field throughout the country, surmising that most of life is showing up and that you have to offer Americans everywhere a choice. It succeeded pretty well.

It almost feels like ancient history, but "four years ago the Democratic Party was in a very different condition," Doctor Dean says at the beginning of his talk at the Y. Republicans had just retained the White House, gained four seats in the Senate and three in the House, and held twenty-eight governorships. Bill Frist was Senate majority leader, Dennis Hastert was House Speaker, George Bush's approval rating was at a healthy 50 percent and Karl Rove planned a "permanent Republican majority." It was "not a fun time to be a Democrat," Dean cracks.

How quickly things change. Four years later Democrats elected Obama with 67 million votes. They picked up seven seats in the Senate (with Minnesota still pending at press time)and twenty-one in the House, and they hold sixty of ninety-nine state legislative chambers. Obama's extraordinary campaign and Bush's remarkable mishandling of the country's domestic and foreign policies deserve much of the credit for the Democratic Party's resurgence, but so does Howard Dean. Before virtually any major politician, Dean not only sensed that the era of Republican ascendancy could be stopped but also how to do it, first through his trailblazing though unsuccessful presidential campaign of 2004, and then through his forceful stewardship of the party as DNC chair since 2005. "Dean gave the party a mission and a focus," says Paul Tewes, a top Obama strategist who ran day-to-day operations at the DNC during the general election. "That's a big deal when you're out of power." DNC member Donna Brazile calls Dean "one of the unsung heroes of this moment."

So unsung, in fact, that he has nothing to do now. Dean was never well-liked by the Beltway press (it's shocking how little he appeared on television despite being the DNC chair) or the Democratic establishment, and with people like Rahm Emanuel (who publicly sparred with Dean) back in power, Dean has basically been nudged out. The organizers in the states are on a leave of absence and nobody knows if that investment will continue. Obama basically emulated Dean's 50-state strategy and he might feel he can do it by himself now without any use of the former chair's strategies (I think the states like having the organizers, and the state party chairs will be very vocal in asking for it to continue).

It would be a mistake. Dean not only has a continued following among the grassroots, but he obviously has the skill to recognize how to pull off a national strategy to take back the country for Democrats and progressive values. That would come in handy as a governing strategy, don't you think?

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