Thursday, February 28, 2013

On Woodward: the unbelievable dishonesty of our media elites

Bob Woodward's tiff with the White House is now the biggest story in politics, trumping even the subject of that tiff, the coming Sequester. Yes, the Sequester, you know, that apocalyptic deal that will send the United States--and the world--spiraling into oblivion via cuts to the Federal budget that equal nearly 0.03% of our yearly GDP.

Some time ago--during election season, actually--President Obama claimed that the Sequester was something dreamed up by Congress. And despite a fact check at the time that proved the President's claim was false, he largely got away with it, as his media fanboys declined to criticize the President for openly lying in a Presidential debate (incidentally, if you really want to see how warped Politifact has become--despite getting this right--compare the above piece to this one). Since then, the Administration continued to push that lie, until Bob Woodward openly contradicted the White House by citing the facts in his own book, the ones utilized by Politifact last year, in a WaPo column. The meat of the column was the false narrative being pushed by the White House, especially by the President and Jack Lew (during his hearings before Congress for Secretary of the Treasury), wherein the Sequester supposedly wasn't a product of the White House but magically came into existence in Congress, though no one seems capable of pointing to the author or authors there of that part of the legislation.

Really, none of this is in doubt, despite the attempts of Obama panegyrists to say differently: the Administration came up with the sequester idea, suggested it to Congressional leaders who agreed to put it in the Budget Control Act of 2011. So when anyone in the Administration says the Sequester was Congress' idea or that the Republicans own it, they're lying. No way around it.

And clearly, the White House resents being made to look foolish. So they've been pushing back against Woodward, actually behaving like a bunch of obnoxious little worms (yes, Stephanie Cutter and David Plouffe, I'm talking about you). And that's to be expected, given that Obama is the most petty President to be in office since...well, Richard Nixon.

But the real shame of all of this are the reactions to this tiff from Woodward's fellow journalists, who are--in order to shame Woodward and protect their hero (even when they are mistreated by said hero)--openly engaging in intellectual dishonesty. Examples, you say? Sure. Here's the getting-smaller-by-the-second mind of Jonathan Chait:

Return to Dosadi: adapt or perish

The Dosadi Experiment is a science fiction novel written by Frank Herbert (of Dune fame) and published in 1977. It takes place in the distant future, in an interstellar civilization composed of many sentient species. In some ways, it is similar to the Star Trek universe, but without various empires on the verge of war. There is only the ConSentiency, which is governed by a vast and terribly effective bureaucracy and a computer program/system called the DemoPol that secretly manipulates events to maintain order.

In this universe, peace reigns by and large. There is still violence, still crime, still lying and cheating and stealing, but there is little possibility of true war, of rebellion. Simply put, the population is controlled, both overtly and subtly. Secret plots and the like are still hatched; government cannot be trusted, but all of this is carefully balanced.

One of the primary tools needed for this balancing act is BuSab, the Bureau of Sabotage, which functions as a sort of terrorist organization and internal affairs division combined. It works against the government and the manipulations of the DemoPol, but is nonetheless actually a department of the bureaucracy, an official government agency. In the novel, a BuSab agent is sent to the planet Dosadi--whose existence has been carefully hidden--to uncover a plot involving that planet and its hijacked population who have been living on the planet for generations.

Dosadi was set up outside of the DemPol's--and the general government's--control. The people there were the descendants of kidnap victims during interplanetary "jumps."  Dosadi is a harsh and terrible environment, mostly poisonous, and the vast majority of the population lives in one single gigantic city--Chu--which is shielded from the hostile and deadly environment of the planet. The orginators of this experiment--one of the ConSentiency races knows as the Gowachin--test various types of governments on Dosadi to understand the effectiveness of each.

The long and short of it: the Dosadi population is very different in nature from the rest of the ConSentiency. Harder, more perceptive, more productive, willing to do most anything to achieve a goal, and really more intelligent on average, Dosadi residents have deduced on their own the specifics of their situation, know they are being "kept" and that there are other peoples in the universe. And the BuSab agent sent there soon realizes what the consequences would be if these people are unleashed on the ConSentiency: it would be wolves among sheep.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I'm a Hawk, but come on Mr. President...

I really am a hawk. I can freely admit it. I believe the United States Armed Forces should be the best-equipped, best-trained military in the world, or at least those goals should be striven for. And I believe we should use our military to protect the nation at large and our interests (and citizens) around the globe when circumstances dictate its involvement.

Not only that, I was raised in Newport News, Virginia and worked for a time at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company (now just Newport News Shipbuilding). That's the company responsible for building and maintaining the Navy's nuclear aircraft carriers, along with many of its nuclear submarines. As such, I've known many people who work or have worked there, along with others whose livelihoods are closely linked to NNS.

Yesterday, President Obama was in Newport News, at NNS, and spoke to a crowd there about the consequences of the looming Sequester for the area:
“This work, along with hundreds of thousands of jobs, are currently in jeopardy because of politics in Washington,” the president told a crowd of several hundred at Newport News Shipbuilding, which employs 21,000 people in Virginia and is the state’s largest industrial employer. “These cuts are wrong. They’re not smart. They are not fair. They are a self-inflicted wound that doesn’t have to happen.”
So according to Obama, the Sequester jeopardizes "hundreds of thousands of jobs" and the entirety of the NNS business. Scary stuff. I don't want that, I don't want such pain inflicted on people I know. And given my inherent Hawkish-ness, I certainly don't want to see our Navy's abilities compromised to such an extent.

That's the play, the fear-mongering gambit on the part of the Administration. The idea is simple: people like me--conservative, capitalist hawks--will be outraged, will jump up and scream "No!" to the Sequester.

And truth be told, I don't much care for the cuts, as laid out right now. They could be done more effectively, smarter, with a better sense of fairness. But that doesn't make them wrong.

My friends at Cato are not, by and large, hawks like me. Still, their graphic on the consequences of these cuts for the military is worth sharing:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Organizing for Action: it's different when we do it

As I noted in my previous piece, President Obama and his team are setting up (have set up, really) an organization--called "Organizing for Action"--to push his agenda. I referred to it as a PAC of sorts, but that's not quite right. As the NYT piece I quoted notes, it's a 501(c)(4) organization, meaning it's set up as a not-for-profit organization on the basis of exception (4) for such orgs. It's worth noting the specifics of this exception in full. According to the IRS:
IRC 501(c)(4) provides for exemption of:
  • Civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.
  • Local associations of employees, the membership of which is limited to the employees of a designated person or persons in a particular municipality and the net earnings of which are devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.
The statutory terms disclose that IRC 501(c)(4) embraces two general classifications:
a. Social welfare organizations, and
b. Local associations of employees.
As a matter of law, 501(c)(3) organizations are prohibited from supporting candidates directly in any election. The rules for a 501(c)(4) organization in political campaigns are far less stringent:
  1. The promotion of social welfare does not include participation in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any political candidate. Reg. 1.501(c)(4)–1(a)(2)(ii). An exempt IRC 501(c)(4) organization may intervene in political campaigns as long as its primary activity is the promotion of social welfare. IRC 501(c)(4) organizations are subject to the tax imposed by IRC 527 on any expenditure for a political activity that comes within the meaning of IRC 527(e)(2). See Rev. Rul. 81–95, 1981–1 C.B. 332. 
  2. The rules determining what constitutes intervention in a political campaign for an IRC 501(c)(4) organization are the same as those governing IRC 501(c)(3) organizations. 
  3. An organization whose exempt status under IRC 501(c)(3) is revoked for intervention in a political campaign may not thereafter qualify for exemption under IRC 501(c)(4). See IRC 504.
How does one draw the line for promoting "social welfare," when it comes to political campaigning? Not all that long ago, Democrats and liberals were up in arms about this issue. Why? Because of Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity, two 501(c)(4) organizations that were funneling "dark money" into the election process:
Two conservative nonprofits, Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity, have poured almost $60 million into TV ads to influence the presidential race so far, outgunning all super PACs put together, new spending estimates show.
Here's Andrew Sullivan bitching about these orgs and dark money. Here's Gavin Aronsen at Mother Jones doing the same. And that's just a sample. The call--then--was to get these beasts under control, because these kinds of nebulous groups operating under subjective rules were a problem as a matter of course. Where are the complaints now, with regard to Organizing for Action? Crickets. Already, the org has begun targeting GOP politicians with ad buys. Pushing a social issue, sure, but the effort is politically one-sided.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Maoist revival: Obama's permanent revolution by PAC

The original Marxist theory of a "permanent revolution" was largely the product of Leon Trotsky's mind, though Marx and Engels had broached the subject to some degree. However, Trotsky's theory became the dominant one among most Marxist thinkers in the early part of the twentieth century, specifically because the Russian Revolution seemed to prove its validity in their minds.

Essentially, Trotsky believed--like Marx and Engels--that socialism must be a world-wide phenomenon for it to actually exist in its purest form. There could not be socialism in one country, alone. The problem was that many nations of the world had not reached the proper state of development for a full-scale proletariat revolution, for they had yet to undergo a successful bourgeois revolution, a necessary precursor--according to Marx--for a successful proletariat one. Trotsky argued that in Russia, a successful proletariat revolution was still possible--a permanent one--despite the lack of a fully successful bourgeois one, provided that revolutions proceeded outside of Russia to prevent the pressures of a capitalist world from prematurely aborting the proletariat revolution in Russia.

Ultimately however, after the death of Lenin, the ostracizing of Trotsky, and the rise of Stalin, the latter's idea of "Socialism in one country" became the dominant narrative. Trotsky's theory was simply ignored; it was assumed that there had been a fully successful proletariat revolution and socialism had been achieved.

Years later, however, Mao Zedong revived the idea of a permanent revolution--or a continuous revolution--during the Great Leap Forward, begun in 1958. He said then:
I advocate the theory of the permanent revolution. You must not think that this is Trotsky's theory of the permanent revolution. In making revolution, one must strike while the iron is hot, one revolution following another; the revolution must advance without interruption…
Mao obviously knew he was re-imagining the concept, but this fact is lost on many, who seem to think there is a distinct relationship between the two. For Trotsky, permanent revolution meant a successful proletariat revolution, one that could not be undone. For Mao, permanent revolution was a state of being for society; there was no single revolution, there necessarily had to be revolution after revolution, each undoing part of what came before.

Brave new world: Ronda Rousey and Danica Patrick

Two days, two huge moments for women, as Ronda Rousey and Danica Patrick sucked up a majority of the attention in the world of professional sports.

Last night at UFC 157, the main event featured "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey defending her newly issued UFC Women's Bantamweight Championship against Liz Carmouche. This was significant for a number of different reasons. Once upon a time, UFC president Dana White declared that there would never a women's division in the UFC, never ever ever. Obviously, he changed his tune. Once upon a time, women's combat sports were something of a side show; women competitors rarely got any press unless they were very attractive--like Gina Carano--or were viewed as freaks of some sort--as was the case for now-disgraced Cris "Cyborg" Santos.

Despite a number of heavily promoted pre-Rousey MMA contests in the now-defunct Strikeforce promotion, and despite a brief surge in popularity for women's boxing a decade or so ago, women have really not been taken seriously in combat sports. Even though there has been a steady rise in the recognition of the capabilities of women athletes in many, many sports, there remained a handful where the consensus of many fans--and participants--was that women just didn't have what it takes to be real competitors.

UFC 157 ultimately sold out. The Pay-per-view numbers are not yet in, but things are looking pretty good, according to insiders at the UFC. Local bars that carried the event did quite well (at least in South Florida). Like Rousey's title fight against Meisha Tate in Strikeforce, this card had the right match set for the end of the night. Unlike Santos-Carano, it really delivered the goods, ending with another first-round submission--via armbar, of course--by Rousey. But Carmouche was a game fighter, no walkover, who proved Rousey has to be at her best to keep winning. Exactly what a championship fight should be. In contrast, the co-main event of Henderson vs. Machida was a veritable snooze-fest (Machida won a split-decision).

Meanwhile, in another male-dominated sport--NASCAR--Danica Patrick made headlines by winning the pole position for the Daytona 500, the first woman ever to do so. Still, most experts gave her no real shot of winning the race. Here's one:
As historic as it'll be when You Know Who [Danica Patrick] leads the field to the green flag on Sunday, it's time to move on to drivers who have the best chance to finish the day in Victory Lane.
For these experts, Patrick's pole-winning was just something of a fluke; they all took it as a given that she couldn't really compete in the actual race, that she was just there as kind of a show and didn't have the necessary skill set. And yet today, compete she did, from start to finish. She was in the top ten for the great majority of the race and when the final five laps began, she was in third place. She ended up finishing eighth, probably due to a little risk aversion on her part, something she seemed to indicate in her post-race interview.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A busty Sequester

Incredibly, the DC pols are still arguing over the Sequester, with regard to whose idea it was and who will "own it," should no deal be reached to prevent the automatic cuts. I say "incredibly" because it's pretty clear that the Sequester was the brain child of the Administration, not the Republicans in Congress nor even the Democrats in Congress. True enough, Congress passed the bill making it law (and President Obama signed it, let's not forget), but it did so with the understanding that a deal was being made, a deal that the White House is now trying to pretend never happened.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 increased the debt ceiling and created the so-called Super Committee, a bi-partisan group tasked with coming up with a plan to reduce the deficit. Utlimately, the Super Committee was a complete failure, no agreement was reached by the drop dead date--November 23, 2011--and the committee was formally disbanded in January of 2012.

This left the Sequester "on the books," meaning that it should have happened in January of this year. But another bill--the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012--delayed it for three months, which it where we sit now. But note that this last bill included tax increases on the wealthy, the tax increases Republicans in the Super Committee refused to accept at the end of 2011. What it didn't include were the spending cuts that were supposed to accompany those tax increases. So when House Speaker Boehner talks about being owed the cuts because Obama already got his tax increase, he's 100% correct.

Now the President wants to double dip on tax increases, insisting that there must be a "balanced plan," and that the Republican refusals to go along with this means they are standing in the way of a deal to avoid the Sequester. Sure. Let's fire up the Wayback Machine...

The President's words, in November of 2011 (my boldface):
In September, I sent them [Congress] a detailed plan that would have gone above and beyond that goal. It's a plan that would reduce the deficit by an additional $3 trillion, by cutting spending, slowing the growth of Medicare and Medicaid, and asking the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share... 
In addition to my plan, there were a number of other bipartisan plans for them to consider from both Democrats and Republicans, all of which promoted a balanced approach... 
But despite the broad agreement that exists for such an approach, there's still too many Republicans in Congress who have refused to listen to the voices of reason and compromise that are coming from outside of Washington. They continue to insist on protecting $100 billion worth of tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans at any cost, even if it means reducing the deficit with deep cuts to things like education and medical research. Even if it means deep cuts in Medicare... 
One way or another, we will be trimming the deficit by a total of at least $2.2 trillion over the next 10 years. That's going to happen, one way or another. We've got $1 trillion locked in, and either Congress comes up with $1.2 trillion, which so far they've failed to do, or the sequester kicks in and these automatic spending cuts will occur that bring in an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction.

Now, the question right now is whether we can reduce the deficit in a way that helps the economy grow, that operates with a scalpel, not with a hatchet, and if not, whether Congress is willing to stick to the painful deal that we made in August for the automatic cuts. Already, some in Congress are trying to undo these automatic spending cuts.

My message to them is simple: No. I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off ramps on this one.

We need to keep the pressure up to compromise -- not turn off the pressure. The only way these spending cuts will not take place is if Congress gets back to work and agrees on a balanced plan to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion.
The two big takeaways here: 1) Obama suggested three things for a "balanced" plan and he's already gotten two of them; the one missing is spending cuts, and 2) he was clearly all in for the Sequester at this point in time, categorically refusing to consider getting rid of it.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The hubris of the Europhiles

Anne-Marie Slaughter--once a part of the U.S. State Department and now a professor of political science at Princeton--offers an essay over at Project Syndicate humbly entitled The Coming Atlantic Century. Written on the heels of the annual Munich Security Conference, the essay argues that American and European economies can still continue their worldwide dominance, that the addition of South American economies--like Brazil--into the mix can create an even larger, Atlantic-sized, sphere of Western influence:
Western fortunes are rising, slowly but surely. Together, Europe and the US account for more than 50% of global GDP, have the largest military force in the world by many multiples, and control a growing proportion of global energy reserves. They also have a formidable diplomatic and development-assistance capacity, representing a peaceful community of democracies that share a common commitment to the rights, dignity, and potential of all human beings.

Imagine that community spreading down the east coast of Latin America and the west coast of Africa. It might be an Atlantic century after all.
The rising fortunes bit is based on the idea that things are getting better in the U.S., the Eurozone is at least stabilizing, and the assumption that liquid natural gas will redefine world energy markets (to the pronounced benefit of the U.S. and Europe):
Equally important, the panelists reported on the rising importance of liquid natural gas relative to pipeline gas, which has enormous geopolitical implications. In a nutshell, if gas is exported in liquid form, it is fungible. In other words, if Russia restricts the flow of gas to Ukraine for political reasons, but the rest of Europe has gas from other sources, they can simply resell their gas to Ukraine and export it via the Baltic Sea.
I can't decide what troubles me the most here: the profound hubris inherent in these articles, or the somewhat unbelievable ignorance required to make them. I'm all for rah-rah moments, but realism need always be front and center. Western fortunes--relative to the rest of the world--are not rising. They just aren't. This isn't to say they are tumbling or the like, but they most definitely are on the decline with respect to any sort of serious historical perspective.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Saint Obama Stylites

The President laid out the facts--as he sees them--on the Sequester the other day, why it was put into law, who did it, and what the consequences will be if it actually takes place:
Now, Congress, back in 2011, also passed a law saying that if both parties couldn’t agree on a plan to reach that $4 trillion goal, about a trillion dollars of additional, arbitrary budget cuts would start to take effect this year. And by the way, the whole design of these arbitrary cuts was to make them so unattractive and unappealing that Democrats and Republicans would actually get together and find a good compromise of sensible cuts as well as closing tax loopholes and so forth. And so this was all designed to say we can't do these bad cuts; let’s do something smarter. That was the whole point of this so-called sequestration.

Unfortunately, Congress didn’t compromise. They haven't come together and done their jobs, and so as a consequence, we've got these automatic, brutal spending cuts that are poised to happen next Friday...

So these cuts are not smart. They are not fair. They will hurt our economy. They will add hundreds of thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls. This is not an abstraction -- people will lose their jobs. The unemployment rate might tick up again.
And he's right about the "why": the Sequester was supposed to be a threat, something that neither Party would ever allow to happen. Of course, this was all his idea, not that of Congress. He leaves that part out. And in that regard, it wasn't just Congress who was supposed to compromise, it was also the White House.

As to the consequences, Obama's take is arguable, to say the least. But let's allow that the consequences would be as Obama outlines. The way to avoid them is simple: compromise. Obama lays out what he means in this regard, casting himself as the Patron Saint of Compromise:
Now, for two years, I’ve offered a balanced approach to deficit reduction that would prevent these harmful cuts. I outlined it again last week at the State of the Union. I am willing to cut more spending that we don’t need, get rid of programs that aren’t working. I’ve laid out specific reforms to our entitlement programs that can achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms that were proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission. I’m willing to save hundreds of billions of dollars by enacting comprehensive tax reform that gets rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well off and well connected, without raising tax rates.

I believe such a balanced approach that combines tax reform with some additional spending reforms, done in a smart, thoughtful way is the best way to finish the job of deficit reduction and avoid these cuts once and for all that could hurt our economy, slow our recovery, put people out of work. And most Americans agree with me.
Who could oppose such a thoughtful plan? Only people who want to punish the middle class, apparently:
And I know that Republicans have proposed some ideas, too. I have to say, though, that so far at least the ideas that the Republicans have proposed ask nothing of the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations, so the burden is all on first responders or seniors or middle-class families. They double down, in fact, on the harsh, harmful cuts that I’ve outlined. They slash Medicare and investments that create good, middle-class jobs. And so far at least what they’ve expressed is a preference where they’d rather have these cuts go into effect than close a single tax loophole for the wealthiest Americans. Not one.

Well, that’s not balanced. That would be like Democrats saying we have to close our deficits without any spending cuts whatsoever. It’s all taxes. That's not the position Democrats have taken. That's certainly not the position I’ve taken. It’s wrong to ask the middle class to bear the full burden of deficit reduction. And that’s why I will not sign a plan that harms the middle class.
Note the illogic of the shift: because Republicans don't want to increase taxes on the wealthy or on big corporations, they want to harm the middle class. It's nonsensical thinking, it's disingenuous, it's outright fabrication. But Obama is getting away with it, by and large. And why? Because he's not getting called on it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Whip me, beat me, call me trash

In an extensive piece at Politico the other day, Politico's executive editor Jim VandeHei and its chief political correspondent Mike Allen argue that the Obama Administration is so skilled at manipulating the media and creating its own content for social media that the national press--as a group--is losing power:
The results are transformational. With more technology, and fewer resources at many media companies, the balance of power between the White House and press has tipped unmistakably toward the government. This is an arguably dangerous development, and one that the Obama White House — fluent in digital media and no fan of the mainstream press — has exploited cleverly and ruthlessly. And future presidents from both parties will undoubtedly copy and expand on this approach.  
“The balance of power used to be much more in favor of the mainstream press,” said Mike McCurry, who was press secretary to President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Nowadays, he said, “The White House gets away with stuff I would never have dreamed of doing. When I talk to White House reporters now, they say it’s really tough to do business with people who don’t see the need to be cooperative.”
But the overall point of the story is not so much to detail these "transformational" techniques employed by the White House as it is to dispel the notion that the mainstream media is, by and large, wholly in the tank for the Obama administration (with some exceptions, to be sure):
Not for the reason that conservatives suspect: namely, that a liberal press willingly and eagerly allows itself to get manipulated. Instead, the mastery mostly flows from a White House that has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting). And it’s an equal opportunity strategy: Media across the ideological spectrum are left scrambling for access.
VandeHei and Allen go on to detail some instances of reporter frustration, like this past weekend's Presidential golf outing, along with specific examples of content creation and dissemination by the White House, like the picture of the President shooting skeet. And they seem particularly annoyed by things like this:

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

EPA business: top secret, double-o, for their eyes only business!

Near the end of 2012, a mini-scandal of sorts enveloped the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Perez Jackson. The basis of the scandal was simple: Republican lawmakers accused Jackson--and other EPA employees--of conducting official business via secret, non-agency e-mail accounts in an effort to avoid public scrutiny of their activities and decisions:
Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa complained in July that for some officials, “Gmail or Hotmail was a convenient way to be out of the limelight, if you will, or accountability.” But another former DOE official, Jonathan Silver, said it was simply a matter of convenience — that when working outside the office, his government-issued BlackBerry was “so cumbersome that it’s virtually impossible to work with documents and long-form pieces.”
The excuse from the DOE official above really doesn't work, as evidence came to light that showed Jackson was operating a fully active secret account under a pseudonym--"Richard Windsor"--on multiple computers, in the office and out of it. The CEI (Competitive Enterprise Institute) filed a lawsuit to have the contents of the e-mail exchanges on this account and others made public, in accordance with the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act). The EPA later agreed to release all of the data, beginning on January 14th of this year. Jackson resigned at the end of last year, supposedly to look for a new challenge. Sure, that's the reason.

Last week, the EPA released its second batch of e-mails--some 3,000 of them--in accordance with the agreement approved in court. But guess what? There's nothing, or almost nothing, there. As the Washington Free Beacon reports:
EPA officials heavily redacted Friday’s release, omitting all but the most mundane communications. Meeting schedules, discussions of media coverage, and nearly all other content were redacted.
Wait, come again? "Redacted"? Were there nuclear launch codes in these e-mails? Locations of top-secret government installations? Perhaps the CIA's NOC List? Perhaps we need to get the IMF team in on this. Where is Ethan Hunt when you need him?

The basis for the redaction, as the above piece notes, is a provision of the FOIA that provides exemptions for certain information. The nine exemptions:

How much will Obamacare really cost the Democrats?

On August 6th, 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was a landmark piece of legislation; it was sorely needed to address severe inequities in the country's voting processes. To this day, Democratic leaders trumpet this law as one of their great successes, owing to the fact that the man who signed it into law was a Democrat, himself. And in that regard, the Act has become something of a tool used to curry favor among minority voters, the basis of a now-familiar strawman: "vote Democrat because the Republicans want to take away your right to vote." And this is perhaps an entirely predictable thing, given what Johnson supposedly said sometime after signing the Act into law (in a signing ceremony, flanked by the likes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King):
I'll have those niggers voting Democrat for the next two hundred years.
That's Lyndon Baines Johnson, champion of minority interests. To be fair, the quote is only attributed to him, but it does sound like something he would have said in my opinion. And whether or not he said it, there is--I think--little doubt that he and other Democrats (then and now) knew this would be a great political weapon. And that it is, even though the majority of opposition to this Act came from Democrats (71 Democrats in Congress opposed it, 21 Republicans did), even though the legislation was introduced by a Democrat and a Republican (Senators Mansfield and Dirksen). Such is the course of history, of panegyrists and propagandists, of critical moments and critical pieces of legislation and critical government actions.

Now we have before the altar of history Obamacare. Is it another huge moment for the Democrats, one they can use over and over again to prove their concern for those in need, those millions upon millions who suffered without healthcare before Obamacare? I'm sure they hope this will be the case, but things aren't looking good in this regard.

(Don't Fear) The Sequester

Teen-age love, true love, first love, the love of Romeo and Juliet. It always seems special, a moment caught in time to be preserved forever. And when outside forces threaten such a moment--be they Capulet, Montague, or the vicissitudes of life--it is only natural to oppose those forces, to seek a way around them or a way out, altogether. The moment seems to be more important than anything else, worth any risk, even that of death.

But suicide pacts are for suckers by and large, for people with limited world views because of age or mindset. Most simply push on, work through the problems, and accept that life cannot be perfect, that love is often lost. Still, the feelings are not so easily dismissed; they linger on, reminding us of what was, what could of been, or what we only imagined things to be.

In 2011, as I detailed previously previously, Congress and the President made their own pact which many believed was something of a suicidal one. Certainly the President and his advisors (Jack Lew played a prominent role here) who dreamed it up thought so; they took it as a given that the Sequester-made-law would guarantee Republican capitulation to the President's agenda:
The coming sequester is a consequence of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which passed in the House by a vote of 269-161 and in the Senate by a vote of 74-26. President Obama signed it into law on August 2nd, 2011. It was sponsored by Tom Harkin, but was itself produced by the White House and a number of Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle.  
The idea--from the point of view of the White House--was simple: we'll set up this mechanism to trigger automatic cuts to enable the ramming through of our agenda (i.e. tax increases). It will work because the Republicans will back down every time the sequester approaches, in fear of the massive cuts in defense spending that it would entail.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Kenya sues Virginia over rights to "Birthplace of Presidents" moniker

The nation of Kenya filed suit in U.S. District Court today, alleging that Virginia's use of "The Birthplace of Presidents" as a slogan is a violation of international trademark law, as the Kenyan government had previously trademarked the phrase in 2008.

The move came as no surprise to insiders in the World Intellectual Property Organization at their UN offices, which had approved the Kenyan application unanimously at a secret meeting in early 2009. Said an inside source, "the State of Virginia has no business using the phrase as it has never submitted an application to this office." According to attorneys for Kenya, the nation had--in good faith--given the State several years to come up with a new phrase, but came to the conclusion that legal action was necessary, due to Virginia's inaction.

Virginia State officials could not be reached for comment.

International law expert Karl Parsnips said "It's wholly appropriate for Kenya to use the moniker. All of their presidents were born there, after all."

The lawsuit seeks an immediate cease and desist order against the State of Virginia.

This is, of course, satire. Happy Presidents' Day!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Hobbesian power: our restless desire

People tend not to like Thomas Hobbes' writings, his ideas, very much. When Hobbes was alive and publishing books and essays, people then didn't like him; he was more or less chased out of England for a time, was accused of heresy and promoting atheism, and was criticized by one philosopher after another. Even after he died--in 1679--his ideas were attacked, again and again and again. René Descartes, who was a contemporary of Hobbes and with whom Hobbes corresponded--characterized Hobbes' philosophy as "wicked."

In a real sense, Hobbes' ideas represent the starting point of modern political thought, largely because of how he articulated the social contract theory and the idea of sovereignty. Hobbes delved into many other subjects as well, like optics (where he made significant contributions), physics, geometry, and history. And in some instances, he made some glaring errors (his proof of squaring the circle being the most obvious). Indeed, even within his political and social philosophies, there are most definitely things we can say he got wrong. But many critics wrongly--or dishonestly--focus on these errors as a means of dismissing the totality of Hobbesian thought.

Still, Hobbes has not gone away; the bulk of his political philosophy simply cannot be dismissed out of hand. Thus political thinker after political thinker is forced to grapple with the ideas Hobbes laid down, either directly or indirectly. Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Marx, Hegel, Arendt, Rawls, and most other significant political theorists went down this road. Some made it a point to disagree with Hobbes, others agreed with him, and some sought to tweak or rephrase Hobbesian theory so it might receive a better reception (Locke, for instance).

Hobbes--and his chief work, Leviathan--is an integral part of any course on political theory, to this day. Thus, most everyone with some amount of college education has been exposed to his ideas to some degree. And frankly, that's a serious problem. Leviathan--along with Hobbes' other books--is not something one skims through to understand. It requires much more than that. Hobbes has many quotable passages, but taking such quotes out of context can be perilous. Indeed, taking portions of Leviathan as stand-alone pieces is just as dangerous (intellectually speaking).

Even seasoned academics can fall prey to such errors, as I fully demonstrated in my criticism of George Weigel's essay that equated Barack Obama's vision of society with that of Hobbes. As I noted then, Weigel--like many others--over-simplifies Hobbes' notion of the sovereign in service to an agenda:
The simplification of Hobbes into a proponent of an all-powerful sovereign whose actions can never be legitimately opposed by the citizenry for any reason whatsoever has become all to common in academia, but it fails to capture a number of finer parts and wrongly suggests Hobbes wanted such a situtation, come hell or high water.
This basic assumption--that Hobbes was some sort of fan of authoritarian or even tyrannical rule--has filtered down into everyday discourse about Hobbes. Those who announce this to be the case do so on the basis of a handful of quotes pulled from Leviathan, again missing much of the context, which is that of a complete and interdependent philosophy, not only of government, but of man and society.

When it comes to quotes from Hobbes, one of my own personal favorites is the following:
So that in the first place I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Jesse Jackson, Jr. update

On November 21st, Jesse Jackson walked away from his duties as a Congressman serving the 2nd Congressional District of Illinois. As I noted at the time, he was already on an extended leave of absence for "health reasons" and was pretty much a non-entity in DC for the majority of 2012.

The reason cited for his quitting was health of course, but it had become common knowledge that the criminal probe into Jackson's activities was going to bear fruit...and charges. What Jackson said at the time:
For 17 years I have given 100% of my time, energy, and life to public service," Jackson wrote. "However, over the past several months, as my health has deteriorated, my ability to serve the constituents of my district has continued to diminish. Against the recommendations of my doctors, I had hoped and tried to return to Washington and continue working on the issues that matter most to the people of the Second District. I know now that will not be possible.
We couldn't really fault him for his deception then, as the magnitude of his offenses was unknown. But that's no longer the case:
Jackson Jr. is accused of diverting $750,000 in campaign funds for personal use.

Federal authorities allege that Jackson Jr. used campaign funds to purchase a $43,350 men’s gold-plated Rolex watch, $5,150 worth of fur capes and parkas, and $9,588 in children’s furniture. The purchases were made between 2007 and 2009, according to the criminal information, which authorities noted is not evidence of guilt.

Other expenditures listed by prosecutors include $10,105 on Bruce Lee memorabilia, $11,130 on Martin Luther King memorabilia and $22,700 on Michael Jackson items, including $4,600 for a "Michael Jackson fedora."
And note that this is only the stuff investigators believe they can prove, stuff that's limited in scope to only three years. As Jackson noted, he's been at this for 17 years, though obviously the "public service" he was giving all of his time and energy to included serving his own needs and desires. There's also sufficient evidence to charge Jackson--and his wife--with tax fraud for six years, 2006 through 2011. What about 1995 through 2005? That's eleven more years likely filled with the same sorts of activity (smoke, fire, and all that). There's no reason to assume otherwise, given the dollar figures involved.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Cultural Transformation, the USDA, and millions of dollars

Watch this (and let me know if you understand any of it):

That's a clip from a USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) "cultural sensitivity" training workshop. The man speaking is Samuel Betances, a partner in a Chicago-based company called Souder, Betances & Associates. What they do:
For over a decade Souder, Betances and Associates has been a leader in the field of diversity training and consulting. Do you think you have a diversity-related challenge we can't tackle?
According to Dr. Betances' biography, he's a "citizen of the world" with a doctorate from Harvard, who was a professor for decades, and is now the "foremost communicator on the challenge of casting away barriers to success," as well as being a "consultant to U.S. Presidents." That is some heavy stuff. His partner--Dr. Laura M. Torres Souder--at this company has an impressive biography, as well. She has multiple degrees, is another world traveler, acknowledged expert, and "has recently been elected president of the Board of Directors of the publishing company, New Century Forum, Inc."

I'll get to what's in this nutty workshop in a moment, but first I want to note a couple of red flags--huge red flags--that have gone up as I've looked into this company and its principles.

As a struggling writer, I'm familiar with a couple of writing sites that make it their business to help writers avoid scams, when it comes to both agents and publishers (interested in knowing more? Go here). Thus, I couldn't help but be curious about this New Century Forum publisher, as I've never heard of it.

Deception and fantasy rule in stories about North Carolina

North Carolina's state legislature passed a bill on Wednesday, February 13th intended to address the problem of the State's now-bankrupt Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. The lack of funds for UI benefits has forced North Carolina to borrow from the Federal Government and it is now $2.7 billion in debt to the same. To this end, the bill will do three primary things:
  1. Cut the maximum length of time one can receive UI benefits from 26 weeks to 20 weeks. 
  2. Reduce the cap on benefits from $535 per week to $350 per week. 
  3. Increase employer contributions to UI by $21 per employee per year until the debt to Uncle Sam is paid off.
Needless to say, this bill's passage has sparked some serious outrage from the Left and from the Administration. That outrage--predictably--is focused on points 1. and 2., above. Most stories in the mainstream media fail to note point 3 at all, or at best bury it in the story. Like this one at the New York Times. And this one at HuffPo. And this one at the Washington Post.

Reading these stories, one cannot help but conclude that unemployed people in North Carolina are getting the shaft, not once but twice, as the amount of their benefits is reduced along with the number of weeks they can receive them, while businesses are getting off scot-free. Indeed, the article at HuffPo even tries to pin the problem on businesses:
In a new paper addressing such cuts, the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, said the poor shape of states' unemployment trust funds isn't due to "generous" benefits for recipients; instead, it's due to the low unemployment insurance tax rates facing employers.
As does the one at the Washington Post:
The loans were needed because many states had neglected their unemployment funds during the economic expansions that preceded the bust, cutting taxes on businesses and reducing balances.
The HuffPo piece cites this study as evidence for the claim--low UI tax rates for employers created the problem--which in turn cites this study. Neither one actually provides any evidence whatsoever to justify this claim, as regards North Carolina. And again, neither bothers to note that the bill being criticized increases these tax rates, which presumably would be the right thing to do. Moreover, neither piece notes that North Carolina had already raised UI tax rates on businesses in the past year, moving it from $42 per employee to $84 per employee, in an effort to help fund the seemingly endless extensions of UI benefits enacted in Washington.

So now the State legislature proposes to increase taxes on businesses yet again, but that point is ignored, so the State can be criticized for daring to cap how long benefits can be received and how much those benefits can be. And in this last regard--caps on maximums per week--the criticism is particularly silly. North Carolina's current cap of $535 per week is one of the highest in the nation, the eighth highest to be precise, exceeded only by (in descending order) Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Washington, and Hawaii. Lowering the cap down to $350 per week puts North Carolina in the middle of the pack. Hardly an outrageous move for a State with such a large debt.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Facebook is getting old, right before my aging eyes

The other day, I asked two of my kids--aged twelve and fifteen--if they had seen the picture I had posted on their Facebook walls. Both said no, they hadn't seen it. And I was a bit taken back. "Really?" was my response to each (I asked them this question separately, at different moments). Both answered my incredulity in much the same way, with something like "Dad, we don't check Facebook every day." Wait, what?

Just for a point of information, here is the picture I shared with them:

I shared it with them because my daughter--the fifteen year old--enjoys the My Little Pony show on occasion, while my son likes the Chuck Norris stuff that is so rampant on the internet. But let's get back to the idea that they don't check their Facebook page every day.

This really caught me by surprise. Both have computers, both have iPhones, and they use these devices every day, no doubt about it. How could they not check Facebook every day? Indeed, how could they not be checking it multiple times every day? I do...

And that got me to thinking. I assumed parallel activity to mine was taking place on Facebook among people like my kids, along with college-age people and young adults (for the record, I am 47). I assumed that many people in such age groups were doing what I did, keeping up with friends, sharing quips and funny pictures, and so on.

Apparently not.

Let's go to the data. A study compiled by Pingdom and released in August of 2012 breaks down ages--and genders--for some twenty four popular social media sites. According to this study, Facebook has the third highest average age at 40.5, surpassed only by Yelp and LinkedIn (which is not surprising in the least; I'm sure the LinkedIn folks are thrilled with this).

If you're wondering what sites my kids do frequent every day, those would be Twitter (for the oldest) and YouTube (for the twelve year old). Really, my teen-aged daughter is on Twitter constantly. I tweet links to my blog posts, but spend little time there otherwise (it moves too fast for me). And this is consistent with the study, as well. Twitter (YouTube was not included) has an average age of 37.3, much removed from the sites with the highest average ages.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The minimum wage hustle

From President Obama's State of the Union Address last night:
We know our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages. But today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong. That’s why, since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, 19 states have chosen to bump theirs even higher.

Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. We should be able to get that done.

This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead. For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets. And a whole lot of folks out there would probably need less help from government. In fact, working folks shouldn’t have to wait year after year for the minimum wage to go up while CEO pay has never been higher. So here’s an idea that Governor Romney and I actually agreed on last year -- let’s tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.
What does it say about this President and his ideas, his economic and political acumen, that he would present an increase of the minimum wage as a centerpiece for promoting economic growth and lowering unemployment?

Once upon a time--back in 2008--Senator Obama campaigned on the idea of raising the minimum wage all the way up to $9.50 an hour by 2011. Indeed, such steps were a part of the official Democratic Party platform for that election year (my boldface):
In America, if someone is willing to work, he or she should be able to make ends meet and have the opportunity to prosper. To that end, we will raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation, and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit so that workers can support themselves and their families. We will modernize the unemployment insurance program to close gaps and extend benefits to the workers who now fall outside it.
So what happened to that plan? According to the President now, raising the minimum wage not only helps individual workers make ends meet, it also creates more economic activity and saves the government money. Brilliant! With all of these positives, one would think jacking up the minimum wage as quickly as possible would have been the best thing to do back in 2009, when the recession was at its worst.

And yet the President--when he had a fully Democratic Congress--failed to move forward with this plan. The last increase of the minimum wage occurred in 2009, it is true, thanks to the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007, signed into law by President George W. Bush. That law moved the minimum wage up from $5.15 an hour to where it now sits at $7.25 an hour in three steps. And clearly, the economy benefited mightily from those increases. Didn't it? Well, okay the economy started to flatten out and spiral downwards, but maybe the increase in the minimum wage helped soften the collapse? Yeah, right.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The meme that never dies: Jews control the world

I've always been a big fan of Saturday Night Live, going back to the glory years of Chase, Belushi, and Murray, and on in to the current iteration. Some of the best skits are--in my mind--the political ones. The Bush-Gore debate springs to mind, along with various Carter skits and G.W. Bush ones. More recently, there was China Cold Open, wherein the Chinese President demands his money back from President Obama.

What really makes these skits funny is the mocking of mannerisms, coupled with the hyperbolic restatements of what political leaders actually say.

But there are limits.

One skit produced for the last episode of SNL ended up not being used, but someone at NBC decided it would be a good idea to release it over the internet. And given the attention the skit is now getting, I guess maybe it was a good idea, from the standpoint of pure publicity. The subject matter of the skit is Chuck Hagel's hearing before the Senate Armed Service Committee, wherein Hagel was grilled on the subject of Israel. Here's the skit:

The skit portrays a number of Senators as being so deeply "in the pocket" of Israel as to allow the obvious conclusion: Israel controls the U.S. government, or at least a good chunk of it. The obvious corollary to that: the Jews control the government. That's the implication, and it's crystal clear; that's the message many will take from the skit, they'll see it as pure truth, even if presented in a supposedly comedic way.

Evidence? Simply look at the comments on YouTube. The Anti Defamation League released a letter to Lorne Michaels--who is himself Jewish--in response to the skit being released. From the letter:

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Sequester: Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

The alarm bells are ringing furiously in Washington D.C. as the unthinkable appears to now be a real possibility: massive spending cuts--including ones in Defense--will automatically occur on March 1st. President Obama addressed this possibility today in his weekly address:
And right now, if Congress doesn’t act by March 1, a series of harmful, automatic cuts to job-creating investments and defense spending – also known as the sequester – are scheduled to take effect. And the result could be a huge blow to middle-class families and our economy as a whole. 
If the sequester is allowed to go forward, thousands of Americans who work in fields like national security, education or clean energy are likely to be laid off. Firefighters and food inspectors could also find themselves out of work – leaving our communities vulnerable. Programs like Head Start would be cut, and lifesaving research into diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s could be scaled back. Small businesses could be prevented from getting the resources and support they need to keep their doors open. People with disabilities who are waiting for their benefits could be forced to wait even longer. All our economic progress could be put at risk.
That sounds pretty ominous, doesn't it? Who set up this catastrophic mechanism know as "the sequester," anyway? No doubt, it was a bunch of evil conservatives and tea-baggers, right? After all, there's no way any sane person would have proposed such a thing. Wait, what's that? Obama is the one who set it up? No! Say it ain't so!

The coming sequester is a consequence of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which passed in the House by a vote of 269-161 and in the Senate by a vote of 74-26. President Obama signed it into law on August 2nd, 2011. It was sponsored by Tom Harkin, but was itself produced by the White House and a number of Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle.

The idea--from the point of view of the White House--was simple: we'll set up this mechanism to trigger automatic cuts to enable the ramming through of our agenda (i.e. tax increases). It will work because the Republicans will back down every time the sequester approaches, in fear of the massive cuts in defense spending that it would entail.

Thus, the sequester was intended to be a sort of Sword of Damocles, forever hanging over the heads of congressional Republicans, insuring that no meaningful cuts to Federal spending would ever occur. Indeed, the plan was to continually use the sequester to avoid cuts while raising taxes.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Krugman and O'Donnell play "kick the can"

There's nothing quite like watching two limp intellects discuss serious issues. In this bit, we have Paul "listen to me now, hear me later" Krugman and Lawrence "bring that shit to me" O'Donnell talking about the idea of spending cuts, which includes a re-imagining of the past, some serious stroking by O'Donnell, and culminates with Krugman saying the following:
The reality is that we should do nothing. The reality is that the best thing to do right now is to kick the can down the road. We should not be having any spending cuts right now.
The economic acumen of a six-year-old: do nothing and maybe the problem will go away. Brilliant.

The lead-up to that opinion includes a series of strawmen and total fabrications about both the Clinton and Reagan administrations, wherein the two geniuses seemingly agree that there had been real, significant spending cuts throughout both periods. A simple look at Federal Spending across time demonstrates what a colossal lie such a claim really is:

True enough, spending flattened out in the last years of Reagan, but that was after years of big increases (which say more about Congress than Reagan, to be fair). Spending cuts under Clinton? Please. It is true that spending under George W. Bush accelerated far more rapidly, however. And this is because of 9/11 and it's aftermath, a Democratic Congress who--domestically--Bush was more than happy to pacify with new spending, and finally the financial crisis.

The point is, two periods of strong economic growth were not used to make substantial adjustments  (real cuts) to spending. The resulting reductions in the debt under Clinton--the surplus years--followed a period of huge deficit increases. And at the end of the day, those reductions were more or less forced on Clinton by a Republican-controlled Congress, because we need to remember that Clinton--prior to then--was more than prepared to go forward with a hug healthcare initiative that would have wiped away all of those reductions and increased the debt significantly. And then some. So this idea that Clinton was some kind of spendthrift is just silly. Again, spending increased under Clinton, but a booming economy drove revenues up and thereby led to budget surpluses, at least until the economy slowed down. Then, we were right back where we started.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Review: Mea Maxima Culpa

Updated February 11th, 2013

HBO has produced some great documentaries in the past, along with some not-so-great ones. The latest--which premiered on HBO this last Monday, February 4th--definitely belongs with the former group. Entitled Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, the film is specifically about four deaf men from Wisconsin who attended the Saint John School for the Deaf in Milwaukee and who were presumably (I say "presumably" but there really is no doubt) molested by the priest in charge of the school, one Father Lawrence Murphy.

The case is regarded as one of the first--if not the very first--in which a priest was publicly accused of serial child molestation, of using his office to that very heinous end. Some of the men whose ordeals the documentary is built around--Terry Kouhut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn and Arthur Budzinski--began their pursuit of justice by simply putting flyers on car windows, essentially accusing Murphy of being a pedophile and warning the public about him. They notified the police and the local DA, as well, along with the greater Catholic Church.

But for decades nothing happened, partly because they were simply not taken seriously or believed; the accusations were--at that point in time--simply outlandish in the minds of many. Murphy died in 1998, having never been defrocked by the Church, much less charged with a crime.

Interwoven within this story is the more general one of the rise of sex-abuse scandals in the Church, from Boston to Ireland to Italy. And in delving into many of these cases--the one in Ireland, that of Father Tony Walsh, is particularly disturbing--the filmmakers learn that from the very beginning, Rome was well aware of what was happening in each case. And Rome--moreso than local Bishops--was the entity forcing a doctrine of secrecy over all such matters.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger--now Pope Benedict XVI--was himself the head of the arm of the Church responsible for overseeing the sex scandals of the clergy.

Apart from the rather direct assault on a sitting Pope, the above represents something of a narrative reversal. As the scope of the scandals grew through the eighties and nineties, it was generally accepted that the extensive efforts to cover up such things and protect the accused priests--by moving them from parish to parish--were undertaken by local Church authorities, such as Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, without directives from Rome, proper. Many doubted this narrative all along it is true, but they were in the minority.

That is likely to change, for this film presents more than enough evidence to doubt that narrative, if not simply dismiss it outright.

Needless to say, the film has not been well-received in Catholic circles or in some Christian circles. There, the film is being heavily criticized for its "anti-Catholic" message, for jumping to conclusions, and for ignoring evidence that is inconsistent with the film's supposed agenda.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Droning on about drones

NBC News has gotten hold of a so-called "white paper" on drone strikes, a non-binding and unofficial document that lays out the arguments justifying the targeting of terrorists with drones, even if those terrorists happen to be American citizens. Needless to say, the story has re-animated the debate on the subject, a debate which is somewhat unique in that both sides of it have proponents from both sides of the political aisle.

The paper concludes that targeting an American citizen would be lawful, based on three specific conditions, summarized in the NBC article:
As in Holder’s speech, the confidential memo lays out a three-part test that would make targeted killings of American lawful: In addition to the suspect being an imminent threat, capture of the target must be “infeasible, and the strike must be conducted according to “law of war principles.” But the memo elaborates on some of these factors in ways that go beyond what the attorney general said publicly. For example, it states that U.S. officials may consider whether an attempted capture of a suspect would pose an “undue risk” to U.S. personnel involved in such an operation. If so, U.S. officials could determine that the capture operation of the targeted American would not be feasible, making it lawful for the U.S. government to order a killing instead, the memo concludes.
To reiterate, the proposed target--if an American citizen--must be seen as an imminent threat (a very subjective standard), capturing the target must be infeasible or otherwise overly difficult (also subjective), and the strike must adhere to basic principles of warfare (which again can involve a great deal of subjectivity), at least according to this white paper.

The white paper, or legal brief as it were, is itself undated, but I think it likely to have been composed sometime in late 2010 or early 2011, in anticipation of American citizens who were openly working with al Qaeda or similar groups ending up dead in a drone strike. And sure enough, this is exactly what happened to Anwar al-Aulaqi and Samir Khan on September 30th, 2011. Al-Aulaqi had actually been on a CIA target list--people the CIA was authorized to kill--since April, 2010. His father even filed suit to have his son's name taken off that list, but it was ultimately dismissed (and rightly so, because the father had no standing to bring the lawsuit).

Thus, a little less than a year and a half after being named on the CIA target list, al-Aulaqi was located via intelligence measures in northern Yemen and--with the permission of the Yemeni government--two Predator drones fired missiles that killed al-Aulaqi, along with Khan (who was not on the target list, but certainly knew of his companion's situation). There was outrage--again, from various political "sides"--over this; the action was cast as an assassination of a U.S. citizen ordered by the President that lacked any legal justification, whatsoever.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Superbowl prostitutes: growing an urban legend

It's Superbowl Sunday and we all know what that means: it's time to use a national event to advance an agenda. The agendas of choice for Superbowl weekend: prostitution and human trafficking for sex. Thus, we have the following article at HuffPo, which says:
"The Super Bowl is the greatest show on Earth, but it also has an ugly underbelly," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told USA Today in 2011 when his state was gearing up to host the event. "It's commonly known as the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States."  
The influx of fans fosters the optimal breeding ground for pimps looking to boost their profits. Experts say that the sheer number of men looking to pay for sex substantially increases demand and the massive crowds allow for pimps and victims to essentially go unnoticed, reports.
A year ago, I addressed this urban legend with reference to the Indiana AG and legislature, who used the event in their State to get a human trafficking law passed. As I noted then, the law in question might very well be a good thing, but that doesn't justify lying and exaggerating the truth in order to get it passed:
The law Daniels signed may be a good one, but the tools used to force it through were just wrong. And Zoeller should be ashamed of himself, as should everyone else that knowingly repeated the urban legend of Superbowl prostitutes.
Then, as now, the 2011 Superbowl in Dallas was cited as evidence to support the legend. But there is something else going on here, as well. The fabrications are not only being repeated, they are being expanded. From the HuffPo article:
According to Forbes, 10,000 prostitutes were brought to Miami for the Super Bowl in 2010 and 133 underage arrests for prostitution were made in Dallas during the 2011 Super Bowl.
Got that? According to the author, 133 underage arrests for prostitution were made during the 2011 Superbowl. The Forbes article cited by the HuffPo piece is here, and sure enough it says:
Some call it an enormous urban legend, but Super Bowl weekend is considered to be the largest sex trafficking event in the United States each year, a number estimated by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children who says the 2010 Miami Super Bowl brought 10,000 prostitutes to the city. By the same group’s measure 2011’s Dallas Super Bowl resulted in 133 underage arrests for prostitution.
I addressed the nonsense of the 10,000 prostitutes in Miami for the 2010 Superbowl in full last year, but what about the 133 underage arrests? According to the Miami New Times, the total number of prostitution arrests in Dallas for the Superbowl came in at 105:
Sure enough, when it was all over, cops had made only 105 arrests metrowide, mostly by rousting the local talent. Twelve women faced penalties no greater than for speeding tickets. Only two arrests involved human trafficking.
So where are all these underage arrests? What's the source for that number?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Terrorism by definition

On Friday, February 1st of 2013 at the U.S. embassy in Turkey, a suicide bomber blew himself up near the entrance gate to the facility, also killing a guard and wounding another person (both Turkish). Before the day was out, the Administration had labelled the action a terrorist attack. Needless to say, various pundits and news orgs were quick to point out an obvious dichotomy here, as compared to the Administration's immediate response to the Benghazi situation last year: the bombing in Turkey was immediately called a terrorist attack, unlike the attack in Benghazi.

Let's be crystal clear on the facts in this regard. According to, the Septmber 11, 2012 attack on the Benghazi consulate that resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. citizens was not referred to as a "terrorist attack" by Jay Carney, President Obama, nor anyone else in the Administration until September 19th:
Matt Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, was the first administration official to call it “a terrorist attack” during a Sept. 19 congressional hearing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did the same on Sept. 20. Even so, Obama declined opportunities to call it a terrorist attack when asked at a town hall meeting on Sept. 20 and during a taping of “The View” on Sept. 24.
That's a full eight days after the attack. The next day, spokesmodel Jay Carney referred to Benghazi as a terrorist attack for the first time, as well. Up until this moment, the Administration seemingly avoided that descriptor--along with avoiding calling the attack "pre-planned" or "pre-meditated"--at all costs, generally by noting that "the incident was still being investigated" or some such thing. So yeah, there's an obvious inconsistency from the Administration and it's pretty easy to chalk it up to Election concerns and to protecting a phony narrative about the Middle East.

Be that as it may, what interests me more are Carney's comments about Benghazi on September 26th--over two weeks after the attack--as compared with his comments about the bombing in Turkey. On September 26th, Carney said the following, after being asked if there was a reason why Obama would not refer to Benghazi as a terrorist attack (my boldface):
The President spoke eloquently I believe about the attack that took the lives of four Americans at the United Nations General Assembly, and I think made very clear that it is wholly unacceptable to respond to a video, no matter how offensive, with violence, and it is wholly unacceptable, regardless of the reason, to attack embassies or diplomatic facilities and to kill diplomatic personnel.

The President -- our position is, as reflected by the NCTC director, that it was a terrorist attack. It is, I think by definition, a terrorist attack when there is a prolonged assault on an embassy with weapons.
Now, here is Jay Carney speaking about the bombing in Turkey--again, on the same day it occurred--after being asked if the President considered the bombing to be a terrorist attack (my boldface):
The act--a suicide bombing on the perimeter of an embassy is by definition an act of terror. It is a terrorist attack. However, we don not know at this point who is responsible or the motivations behind the attack. The attack itself is clearly an act of terror.
Set aside the obvious game-playing we all know is going on here with the attempt to retroactively make "act of terror" and "terrorist attack" qualitatively the same, as to justify over a week of hedging by the Administration with regard to Benghazi. Instead, focus in on the use of the term "by definition" by Carney.