30 September 2008

The Presidential Candidates: "Mad Max" Riekse

Nice nickname, Riekse: that's exactly how I'd want my President to be called. But let's not judge the book by its cover, even if the cover infringes on someone else's intellectual property. The man has a website and we may as well look at it.

Riekse establishes the stakes as he sees them right away: "If Mad Max is not elected President of these United States and our Republic in 2008, the next four years will see Congress continue to tax our hard earned Social Security, pass legislation raising taxes, fail to protect our borders, give amnesty to over 25 million illegal aliens, ban and confiscate all guns and ammo, and continue the Wars, along with starting yet another war with Iran.Now what part of that don't you like or understand?"

With over 32 years of experience as an active-duty and reserve soldier, Riekse is a veteran of both the Vietnam War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the more recent episode, he served as a public communications officer and a deputy commander responsible for intelligence and security for the Iraqi oil infrastructure. He had his picture taken with President Bush at a Baghdad Thanksgiving dinner in 2003, but don't jump to conclusions. On his "Profile" page, Riekse reflects on George Washington's farewell warning against "entangling alliances."

The same people who will be heading the Republican and Democratic party ticket[s] in 2008 and 2012 will continue our many entangling alliances: favor some nations over others; punish others with sanctions and invasions; continue to meddle in the internal affairs of nations around the world where we have no business. And continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; along with starting a new, needless and expensive war with Iran.

This is a man who scanned the dust jacket for Gen. Smedley Butler's War is a Racket onto one of his web pages. If anything, it makes you wonder why he didn't throttle Bush when he had the chance. For the record, Butler, who learned the "racket" while fighting in American interventions in Latin America in the early 20th century, offers three steps to "smash the war racket:" take the profit out of war; let those who'd have to fight decide if we fight; and limit the military to a size sufficient for defense only. Riekse served in Iraq despite believing that "Both of the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan are illegal from a United States Constitutional standpoint." He holds that Congress cannot delegate its duty to declare war to the President.

Riekse composed a sprawling "Take Back America" platform last March. Much of it quotes favorably from Rep. Ron Paul, with Riekse adding his diagnosis that "Those that are doing their utmost to turn our Constitutional Republic into a perverse form of democracy, manipulated by an elite, wealthy few, at the expense of the majority of Americans, are traitors to the American dream and the future of our children, great grandchildren and generations thereafter. "

We can infer Riekse's opinion of the Paulson bailout plan from this plank of the platform: "Do we really need to bailout Wall Street and international bankers from time to time with our tax dollars when they make bad loans secured by the U.S. Government? That’s us folks! And who gave the President the authority to forgive foreign governments their bad loans of billions of dollars to these Wall Street bankers with the American taxpayers picking up the tab? "

Riekse wants to restore the country's manufacturing sector with support from protective tariffs and renegotiated trade deals all around. He prefers fair trade over free trade and doesn't seem to like the idea of trade with "Red" China at all. Riekse is a partisan of the Tibetan independence movement; I suppose since those people don't actually have a country of their own this doesn't count as an entangling alliance. While supporting Tibet might seem like a neocon stance, Riekse despises the neocons for their propensity to entangle us in alliances and their apparent enthusiasm for enriching China at America's expense through free-trade policies that encouraged outsourcing and factory relocation.

As a member of the National Rifle Association, Riekse is gun-nutty. He affirms an individual right to bear arms and would abolish the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He blames violent crime on illegal immigrants rather than on gun ownership. Again, lest you presume the type of guy he is, he throws you a curve by citing Black Panther leader Huey Newton: "An unarmed people are slaves or are subject to slavery at any given moment." On the other hand, would Newton say that an unarmed person is a slave or subject to slavery? There is a difference.

There's a lot more where this came from: a lot of libertarian, states-right sentiment, a little conspiracy theory here and there, a reasonable amount of concern for the environment, and the perhaps not so paradoxical combination of being pro-military and anti-war. In short, it's a hodgepodge of good ideas, common sense, and occasional craziness, with no hint of how "President Mad Max" would build relations with partisan legislators to enact any of his agenda. He'd have to do that since he has no supporting congressional candidates and has endorsed none (except, implicitly, Ron Paul) that I know of. Indeed, you almost get the impression that, if elected, he'd just turn the Oval Office over to Paul while reserving the right to schedule events for such festive occasions as Robert E. Lee's birthday.

It's all moot, I suppose, since Riekse has apparently sworn fealty to Frank E. McEnulty and the New American Independent Party, for whom he serves as a regional vice-presidential candidate. But in most places people can write in whom they will, so judge the relative merits of Riekse and McEnulty for yourselves.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday: A Dissenting View

Cal Thomas is a right-wing columnist who is often identified with the religious right. His column appears on Tuesdays in one of the local papers. I wasn't sure if he would have anything to say about the weekend's Pulpit Freedom Sunday experiment, in which preachers endorsed Senator McCain and other conservative candidates at the risk of their tax-exempt status and in defiance of a 1954 law. Thomas did address the subject, but not quite in the way I expected.

Thomas claims that conservative preachers suffer from a double standard, since liberal or radical black preachers, he claims, are never threatened by the IRS for their political utterances. He blurs distinctions, acknowledging that the "Johnson Amendment" forbids the explicit endorsement or denunciation of candidates, but describing it as a "law restricting political language." There are black preachers who use political language, but Thomas doesn't demonstrate that any of them have endorsed candidates from the pulpit. If he has proof that any did, he ought to take it to the IRS just as Americans United for the Separation of Church & State have reported the Pulpit Freedom Sunday preachers.

To be fair, Thomas's view is that leftists and rightists alike should be free to preach on political subjects without harassment from the government. At the same time, he isn't particularly enthusiastic about the Pulpit Freedom movement. Thomas is a religious rightist who became disillusioned with the Moral Majority and similar projects, believing that they became concerned with getting political power for its own sake. He's come around to the view that churches shouldn't try to reform society from the top down by seizing power or seeking to influence leaders, but from the ground up through their traditional ministries.

He phrases his viewpoint this way in his current column: "No matter how hard they try to protect the gospel from corruption, ministers who focus on politics and politicians as a means of redemption must minimize their ultimate calling and message. The road to redemption does not run through Washington, D.C. Politicians can't redeem themselves from the temptations of Washington. What makes anyone think they can redeem the rest of us?"

Thomas has arrived at the conclusion that it's not a pastor's business to tell people how to vote. "This pulpit rebellion also presumes that congregants lack a worldview or knowledge about candidates and politics that only a pastor can address," he writes, "In my church, we have many highly educated people, Republicans and Democrats, who would not take kindly to the pastor discoursing on politics anymore than they would accept legal or medical advice from their auto mechanic."

In Thomas's view, the Johnson Amendment "has done churches a favor, however inadvertent, by protecting most of them from the downside of electioneering....Whether the law is repealed, or not, churches and ministers would do better to keep their attention focused on the things above, rather than the things below, because politics can be the ultimate temptation and pollute a far superior and life-changing message."

Inevitably, Thomas takes his argument too far for my taste, but since he's arguing as a religious rightist to his brethren, his column should earn him a qualified amen from our quarter.

29 September 2008

The Presidential Candidates: Alan Keyes

Alan Keyes has already lost to Barack Obama once. In 2004, after Obama's Republican rival for the Senate had to drop out when "Seven-of-Nine" ratted out hubby's alleged deviant practices, the GOP ended up recruiting Keyes to run against him. Keyes briefly participated in the campaign for the 2008 presidential nomination, but now has a platform of his own, provided by America's Independent Party, which nominated him for president on August 21.

Not to be confused with the American Independent Party which nominated George Wallace for president in 1968 and won several southern states, the new AIP "is being built by Reagan pro-life, pro-family, “Peace through Strength” conservatives who believe that the Republican Party, with the pending nomination of John McCain, has abandoned the principles of Ronald Reagan – particularly the Reagan pro-life platform plank that recognizes the personhood of the unborn and their protection by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution." Given reports that McCain is a vehement pro-lifer himself, despite his announced willingness to consider a pro-choice running mate, the AIP's stance is mysterious.

The AIP also anathematizes McCain for campaign-finance reform, which it deems an attack on free speech and grassroots organizing, for his sometime support for "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants, for his recognition of global warming, and for his refusal to endorse a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as heterosexual monogamy.

Paraphrasing Jefferson, "we declare to the world that our first governmental premise is the self-evident truth that our rights to life, liberty and private property come from our Creator God and are therefore unalienable." So goes the AIP Platform. Note a slight difference in emphasis. Jefferson wrote that all men were "endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights" and in the final version of the Declaration replaced "private property" with "the pursuit of happiness." He did not need to identify the "creator" with the "God" of the Bible, and as a deist would probably have refused such a linkage. The AIP's language is more crude in more than one way.

Overall, the AIP is pro-birth, pro-gun, pro-state's rights and pro-limited government. It would repeal the 16th Amendment and end the Income Tax. More distinctively, it would repeal the 17th Amendment and presumably restore election of U.S. Senators by state legislators. "The protection of the life, liberty, and private property of the people is the primary reason for the existence of human government, and more particularly, our precious American republican form of self-government." the platform declares, "This is why we willingly accept no breach of the rights of the free exercise of religion, free speech, free press, free assembly, free association, and the right to petition government for the redress of grievances. We defend all of the enumerated rights listed in our Bill of Rights, and, in addition, all natural rights that are not enumerated, as per the Ninth Amendment."

Keyes and the AIP are full of platitudes and abstract principles, but it's harder to pin them down on specific policies on actual issues. Keyes has offered his opinion on the bailout bill, however. He sees it as an agreement between "bureaucratic socialists" (i.e. Democrats) and "corporate socialists" (i.e. establishment Republicans). Here's what he said about the latter on a radio program last week.

And on the other hand you have what I think of as the corporate socialists – the people who are pushing us down a socialist road because their corporate clients now see themselves as the kind of premiere recipients of the tax dollars of the American people and can operate in an environment where after they have made profit through risk taking that could not be justified on a sound business basis, they can then be rescued from the results with tax-payer dollars while keeping their profits intact. I think it’s important to note that. And it’s why some people have been so outraged that the failed CEO’s are trotting off with umbrellas that amount to tens of millions of dollars and it shouldn’t be surprising to us because in a lot of ways, whether it’s Lehman Bros. employees with their profits in a trust fund or others, they, along the way, have secured themselves so that in essence, the money that’s being spent on the bailout is just to bailout the rich investors who took the risk. It’s a way of redistributing that risk so that the American people, who didn’t realize that they were co-signing these investments, now have to end up footing the bill.

Keyes offers no alternative to the Paulson bailout, and his prognosis for the country is grim:

We ought to be debating not some bailout, not some so-called rescue plan, but whether or not we are in fact as a people, ready to accept socialism as our form of government. But since we have amongst our political elites so few voices—though some have been raised – that will tell the truth, the debate is not centering on these realities, but instead it is centering on a bunch of buzz words that act as if this is once again the government doing something for the rest of us, when in point of fact, all it is is the consolidation of a form of government that will leave the American people out in the cold, bearing the yoke, but no longer having the power to do anything that really determines the destiny of their country.

Keyes was once a U.S. delegate to the United Nations, but his party's website has just about nothing to say on foreign policy, and you can't seem to get far into Keyes's own site unless you make a contribution. There's plenty available online, of course, in both textual and video form. Here's one of his most recent manifestations, from early September, in which he waxes philosophical rather than political for the most part.

Keyes is an articulate and effective speaker, but he errs in believing that the only way that mankind will acknowledge limits on its will or power is by imagining a being of limitless will and power whose mere being imposes limits on us. True modesty should not require a god to enforce it. Since Keyes hasn't much to say on his website, I'm going to put the link to the AIP on the candidate list and let you look for more Keyes comments elsewhere.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday: Follow-Up

The Alliance Defense Fund will probably get the days in court it wished for when it embarked on yesterday's "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" project. As noted yesterday, a few dozen ministers across the country decided to give presidential endorsements from their pulpits in defiance of the 1954 "Johnson Amendment" which strips offending churches of their tax-exempt status. The Alliance wanted someone to sue so they could get a court to rule that the Johnson Amendment is unconstitutional. Predictably enough, and quite likely as planned, the Americans United for the Separation of Church & State has reported several of the preachers to the IRS, the body empowered by Lyndon Johnson's bill to rule on such cases.

Also predictably, since the Alliance divines had announced that they were going to endorse based on biblical principles of their choosing, most of them endorsed Senator McCain while denouncing Senator Obama for a variety of reasons. At least one exception elected to endorse Alan Keyes, who is running on the "American Party" ticket and is probably overdue for a profile. In fact, you'll probably see one above shortly. We might argue that out of all the candidates, McCain, being a Republican and thus dedicated to succoring the rich, and a neocon and thus dedicated to war, would be the last man Jesus of Nazareth would endorse, but the Alliance ministers were no doubt rendering unto Caesar in their own fashion. Now it will be up to the courts to decide whether they shall have to render in the original fashion.

Here's what Americans United has to say on the subject, and this is what the Alliance says. We'll be hearing more from both sides in the months to come.

Representing Me: The Bailout

My representative in Congress is Michael R. McNulty, a Democrat. He is as close to a lame duck as anyone in Congress gets, having announced his retirement, but he remains a soldier of his party, concerned to get his primary-appointed successor, Paul Tonko, elected in his place over a Republican challenger. He joined the majority of New York State Democrats and the party's House leadership by voting for the bailout bill, which failed by a 225-208 vote. He did not comment during the debate and has not issued a statement to the media. I was unable to access his website minutes ago. It has since come on line, but without any comment on the bailout. He has told television that he intends to return to Washington to take care of unfinished business.

The district neighboring mine is represented by Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat who unseated a scandal-scarred Republican in the 2006 election. She voted against the bailout bill, and issued a statement insisting that her constituents should not have to pick up the bill for Wall Street's failings. She also demanded a "a comprehensive plan that will minimize the effects that this economic fallout will have on the middle class and taxpayers."

Without commenting on the merits of the bailout proposal itself, it ought to be considered on its own without adding extra details. The bill under consideration is intended to stabilize the nation's banking sector and restore credit streams for necessary business. Nothing that isn't directed toward that end should be added to the bill, but there ought to be a bill in preparation for Gillibrand's priorities. It would be interesting, in that case, to see who voted for one bill, and against the other.

Certain Republicans, in my opinion, made a major mistake by blaming Speaker Pelosi's "partisan" speech for the bill's defeat. They argued that more representatives on their side were prepared to support the bailout, but were offended by Pelosi's remarks blaming the crisis on Republican policies. Leaving aside the truth of the argument, these Republicans can't help but look petulant and petty -- not to mention "partisan." You would think from their outrage that Pelosi's speech was embedded in the language of the bailout bill. I suspect that some of the representatives now nursing wounded sensibilities were never going to support the bill, but were looking desperately for a way to spin it so that they were voting against Democrats, not against President Bush. Whatever the real motives, their words should be publicized to the utmost, as should Rep. Frank's words chastising the Republicans for voting on the basis of hurt feelings. We should also learn as soon as possible what is being promised to holdouts from both parties in order to get them to vote for the bailout next time, amended or not. But the first priority should still be stabilizing the stock market, unless you think that a complete crash is the only thing that will push people toward genuine and necessary political change.

The System Works (for some)

Perhaps you've heard of Alan H. Fishman. He was the CEO who presided over the demise of Washington Mutual, though he can't be blamed for it, since he was on the job for less than three weeks. Even if he's innocent of that, can he claim to have earned the fortune he leaves with? Note the source: this is Fox News, so you can't call it liberal spin that distorts the truth. The reporter seems to be as appalled over Fishman's fortune as you are.

Is it too late to call Congress and ask that the bailout bill be amended to ban the whole idea of signing bonuses for CEOs? It's an idea I associate with free agency in sports, and it's often justified in that realm by the argument that a star player will increase revenues by attracting more spectators. These calculations seem irrelevant in large corporations that attract speculators rather than spectators,-- granted, the difference may not be great,-- and ought to be dispensed with. I would say more, but I feel my lack of training in economics quite keenly right now. I'll close by advising everyone to educate themselves on the subject as quickly as possible.

28 September 2008

The Presidential Candidates: James John Prattas

Prattas dropped out of the campaign on September 19th. Since it wasn't his fault that I didn't cover him in time, I'll do him the courtesy of reviewing his candidacy, but I won't add him to the main list of candidates.

Having fled to Switzerland, fearing as much an expected earthquake in his Hawaiian home as the impending economic catastrophe, Prattas issued this cry of distress:

I am sorry the White House, Senate and Congress and America have fallen to the dark forces of Wall Street's evil greedy ones, the Vader's of corruptions and treasons and conspiracy.
America is now just another 3rd world poor country, bankrupted, on schedule and on purpose, by Wall Street insiders, with the USA Treasury being raped and pillaged today by the Mongols of Evil giving them trillions of tax payers money, your money; the "evil money changers" as Socrates & Jesus talked about in Greece and in Israel over 2000 years ago, the evil dark force Hippocrates, The Wooer's that Homer also spoke about in the Odyssey.
Oh Odysseus, where art thou?

Prattas had "a Dream that we can all live in Peace, and in Harmony with Nature." He believes that "We Men and Women create chaos on Earth because of our political Agendas" and advises us to "improve our political agendas to Peace."

As his exclamation above hints, Prattas saw himself as a modern Odysseus, called to drive the usurping suitors from an American Ithaca. During his campaign, he called on Americans to become "Purple People," a merger of red, white and blue as well as "my artistic expression that we in America are a multi-colored racial society."

Prattas designed his website so you have to keep scrolling down to find his earlier policy statements. After descending past many pretty photos of Hawaii and portraits of the candidate, I learned that he advocated a massive infrastructure investment program, including the development of nanotechnology, an "Educated Holistic Healthy Life Style Program" emphasizing education and discouragement of junk food consumption, and returning American education to the basics: "Reading, Righting, Arithmetic." As you see, the task was a challenging one, and too much for poor Prattas. But his heart was in the right place. He wanted to give any student graduating with a B+ average or above a "free round-the-world education ticket" plus $5,000 traveling money. This was pure pie in the sky, of course, with no clue offered of how he would fund the scheme, but Prattas's entire campaign was a matter of the heart, much more than one of the mind. Perhaps he knew his limitations and knew that the country could do better. At least you couldn't accuse him of being anti-intellectual.

For Project VoteSmart, back in more confident days, Prattas summarized his top priorities: "1. Bring home the troops.2. Close the borders.3. Rebuild all of our city and states infrastructure and our means of production.4. Improve our water and air and food safety standards.5. Greatly improve and fund our education, arts, sciences and research for a better and healthier America." The very least he could do is find a candidate, not necessarily a kindred spirit, but someone similarly committed to the things Prattas himself considers important. Failing to do this, having perhaps abandoned his country, he confessed his unfitness for the office, though you might find his website confession enough. However, should you hear of a major earthquake in Hawaii next month, remember that you read it there first.

"Pulpit Freedom Sunday"

The Alliance Defense Fund has declared today Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Members will exercise their pulpit freedom by preaching on political subjects. Their intention is to force a legal fight, through which they will challenge the 1954 law that forbids tax-exempt groups from explicitly endorsing or denouncing political candidates.

It surprised me to learn that a law governing such cases was passed so recently. The law in question is called the Johnson Amendment. "Johnson" was none other than Lyndon B. Johnson, then a Democratic floor leader in the U.S. Senate. Most accounts of the measure that I found on-line are ideologically hostile; they agree that Johnson pushed the measure as a political ploy because Texas preachers were denouncing his re-election campaign from their pulpits. Opponents hope that legal challenges that may arise from Pulpit Freedom Sunday will result in the Johnson Amendment being deemed unconstitutional. The Alliance Defense Fund argues that the IRS, which Johnson empowered to make the determination, shouldn't have the right to strip churches of tax-exemption because they're too "political." They argue that preachers routinely commented on elections and other political topics without controversy up to that time, and they're probably right about that.

Here's a point-counterpoint article featuring an enemy of the Johnson Amendment and a well-known "wall of separation" advocate. The latter makes an effective argument that preaches have not been excluded from political activity by the law -- witness the actions of everyone from Jerry Falwell to Jeremiah Wright. He claims that a line is crossed when preachers explicitly endorse candidates from the pulpit, and I understand his concern. The real reason to discourage that sort of thing, apart from Lyndon Johnson's allegedly petty motives, is to prevent voter intimidation. No voter should go to the polls believing that he or she will have less standing with the local congregation by voting against the will of the pastor. Since the present opponents of the Johnson Amendment baldly claim the right to apply so-called biblical standards to political candidates, we can assume that their endorsements or negatives will have the force of religious imperatives, the implicit assumption being that you won't be a good Xian if you vote for so-and-so. The rights of conscience aren't the issue here; the real issue is abuse of power, so striking at tax-exempt status strikes me as a fair way to hit offender where they live. That being said, I encourage the Alliance Defense Fund in their venture in the hope that it will prove an educational experience for all Americans, and I hope they lose.

* * *
As far as I could tell, Robert Caro, the most critical and complete biographer of Lyndon Johnson, has nothing to say about the "Johnson Amendment" in his massive volume on LBJ's years as "Master of the Senate." He disposes of Johnson's 1954 re-election campaign in one paragraph, noting that his only challenger was a crackpot. I don't mean to suggest that the amendment is falsely attributed to Johnson, just that his definitive biographer must have considered it no big thing.
I half-expected to learn, given the date, that the Johnson Amendment was a product of the McCarthy era, intended to prevent preachers from espousing "social gospel" style dogma in favor of Democrats or parties further left. That doesn't seem to have been a factor for Johnson, but that's hard to verify since the amendment advanced without any debate on its motives or merits. Some writers have noticed, however, that Johnson's proposal followed fairly closely on the findings of an entity called the Cox Committee, which was constituted in 1952 to investigate whether Communists or "Communist front" groups had infiltrated the sort of tax-exempt foundations, both religious and secular, that Johnson later cracked down on. From what I could learn, the committee found no evidence of infiltration, but noted that the tax-exempts were vulnerable. To the extent that these findings were well publicized, they may have provided a pretext for the Johnson Amendment, but given the stealthy manner in which Johnson pushed the measure, it's hard to tell whether any senator even consciously endorsed the idea. That might be reason enough to have the matter brought before the public and the Supreme Court today -- so that we'd all get a chance to take a stand on the subject.

Nostalgia in California: Do You Recall?

Back in 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California when he received the most votes in a crowded field of candidates on the day incumbent Grey Davis was recalled. Now a powerful correctional officers' union has launched a recall campaign against Schwarzenegger, who was re-elected in a proper election in the interim. The union now condemns the original recall as a mistake and declares Schwarzenegger the worst governor the state has ever had. Union leaders suspect Schwarzenegger of having a grudge against them. They've worked without a contract since 2006 because the governor won't sign a pay raise. They feel personally dissed because the governor wouldn't exempt them (unlike some other public employees) from an executive order reducing state workers' salaries to the federal minimum wage.

By no means the largest public employee union in California, the CCPOA is the state's second largest political action committee, pumping out money to favored candidates. It appears determined to get the signatures needed to put their recall proposal to a popular vote, and capable of advertising their demands. Conservative Republicans are apparently tempted to sign on, resenting Schwarzenegger's recent budget-balancing measure of increasing the state sales tax, but a local conservative organization has postponed voting on whether to support the recall on the advice of a former governor.

Live by the sword, die by the sword, I say. The recall option has been proposed across the country for more than a century as a way to hold elected leaders more directly accountable to the people, with California being one of the few places that actually adopted the practice. It seems designed to give people time to think, since recall proponents must first conduct a petition campaign, then an actual recall campaign. If Schwarzenegger remains popular with most Californians, he would most likely survive a recall attempt even if the prison guards get the signatures they need to force a vote. It strikes me as a reasonable and responsible process, regardless of the sideshow that resulted from the ease with which people could get on the ballot to replace the recalled governor. Other states might benefit from the idea, but if the current scheme builds momentum, expect more mocking commentary about those crazy Californians. A lot will seem crazy when you're used to what we've got.

Piracy in the 21st Century

For more than a decade, Somalia has been one of the lawless regions of the planet. One result has been what the Russian TV report below describes as a "renaissance" of international piracy. It's been going on for years, but the audacity of the raid that captured a Ukrainian ship laden with Russian tanks and other weapons has captured the world's attention.

Why is Somalia lawless? Is it because no side can seize and hold power there, or because other forces don't want any one group to hold power? Read the recent history section here and see if you can figure it out.With an "Islamist" faction one of the strongest forces in the country, it's no surprise to find foreign meddling, with Ethiopia likely acting as a proxy for other interests. But no side seems capable, or willing to take the fight to a finish, and that's what Somalia seems to need: the imposition over the whole country of a stable government capable of enforcing laws and suppressing piracy. Any force that impedes this process is guilty, in some sense of the word, of abetting piracy. The United States ought to make its stand clear.

26 September 2008

The first "Debate"

It started slowly and fitfully, with Jim Lehrer trying to force answers from both candidates on what cherished programs they would have to jettison due to the impending bank bailout. Properly, neither man offered more than common-sense generalities, since there still isn't an actual bailout bill to force the issue. It finally assumed its originally intended form as a discussion of foreign policy. Here Senator Obama won, but not in a manner that will convince anyone who already has an ideological predisposition in favor of the Iraq War. Senator McCain simply didn't want to discuss the origins of the invasion or restate the rationale. All he could do to justify the venture was to say that his hero, Gen. Petraeus, and his enemy, Osama bin Laden, agreed that Iraq was the central front of the war on terror. Both men, of course, could be wrong, but the way McCain let his mancrush show for Petraeus, I doubt he thinks the "great general" could be wrong about anything. Indeed, I found myself wondering why McCain didn't step aside and nominate Petraeus for the presidency. Obama's best moment was when McCain denounced him for irresponsibly threatening to "attack" Pakistan. The Democrat replied that, given McCain's threats to destroy North Korea and his song about bombing Iran, his criticisms weren't credible. Obama also had the upper hand regarding the propriety of negotiating with Iran, unless you agree with McCain that Ahmadinejad is such an unclean creature that I guess he can only be killed. Unfortunately, once we turned to Europe and the Caucasus, the candidates were in agreement on Georgia's saintliness, despite McCain's attempt to minimize Obama's outrage at the Russian aggression against Georgia. Obama's position is probably marginally preferable to McCain's because he, at least, doesn't propose an alliance (the "league of democracies") that is designedly hostile to Russia. But both candidates have a tendency to moralize foreign relations, especially in defense of Israel that might be congenitally American. Since neither man really had anything new to say on the subject, it would probably have been no great loss had McCain stayed in Washington -- except, perhaps, for the economy.

The Bailout Ate My Homework

Here's my pre-debate analysis. Senator McCain has spent the past two days drastically lowering everyone's expectations about his performance tonight, now that he's decided to perform.The only problem is that everyone knows that Senator Obama was up in Washington, too. Unless the organizers are determined to stick with the national-security theme, the first question they ought to ask tonight is: what the hell went on up there? The answers ought to be interesting.

So much for my planned last-minute suggestion that Obama find some minor celebrity to argue with and have the organizers change the name of the event to "Debating With the Stars." I was only hoping to increase public awareness of the issues, but now we'll never know.

25 September 2008

Suspension of Disbelief?

My alarm clock is set to WAMC, the National Public Radio (or as they put it, Northeast Public Radio) station for the Albany area. There's a pledge drive going on this week, which means Alan Chartock is on in the morning declaring the Republic in danger. Every time he sets out to raise $800,000 or so, and he is one of the most effective fundraisers I've ever heard, Chartock scarifies listeners with the prospect of public radio getting snuffed out as Republicans gloat. On a certain level this is a calculated ploy and most likely an exaggeration of Chartock's objective estimate of his station's prospects. This morning, however, he took his tactic to a new absurd extreme.

Chartock was worked up over the fact that Senator McCain had "suspended" his campaign yesterday and had called for a "suspension" of the Friday debate. He was disturbed by the word "suspended." What does that make you think of, he asked between snippets of Arlo Guthrie songs. His suggestions: "suspension" of the laws; "suspension" of democracy; "suspension" of the Constitution. All bad. McCain's gesture was inflated into an attempted coup against the democratic process itself.

I would have thought that Chartock would rejoice at McCain's news, but instead he seemed or pretended to be tone-deaf to political jargon. He affected great concern over the word "suspend" when the phrase that should have jumped out to any listener was "suspend the campaign." How often have we heard that term in the past year? The answer is: plenty of times -- in fact, every time a presidential candidate dropped out of the primary race. Remember? John Edwards Suspends Campaign. Romney Suspends Campaign. Clinton Suspends Campaign. Were these blows to democracy? Only insofar as each action resulted in less choices for voters in future rounds of the campaign. So if one was to make a wild inference from McCain announcing that now he had suspended his campaign, the one to make would be that the Republican had admitted defeat and was capitulating to Senator Obama. That, of course, would not have lent any urgency to Chartock's appeals for money. So instead of merely being dumb, which he would have been, honestly speaking, had he taken my retroactive suggestion, Chartock opted for dumb and crazy, and kept replaying the same damn Arlo Guthrie record. And it got the phones ringing. So congratulations, Dr. Chartock: you've played the politics of fear, and won.

Governor Palin: Our Sentinel Against the Giant Floating Head of Vladimir Putin

The Governor of Alaska attempts to establish her foreign-poilcy credentials to Katie Couric. Remember: our neighbors are foreign countries!

I would love to see someone animate Palin's nightmare vision of Putin's head looming across the Bering Strait and menacing our airspace. I recommend this as a subject for cartoonists, collagists and video artists. Let me know if anyone finds anything and I may post it here.

The Bailout: Independent Viewpoints

Early reports of a bipartisan agreement on the proposed bailout of the banking sector are breaking down under pressure from a Republican faction that opposes the Bush administration's plan, preferring a free-market option in defiance of the failure in confidence that appears to make a bailout necessary. Senator Obama reportedly probed the Republicans for details of their alternative proposal, but wasn't satisfied with the response. It also remains unclear how much the Democrats will get of what they want, including a homeowners' bailout and a promise of rebates for taxpayers if the assets acquired by the government appreciate in value. Meanwhile, news has broken that the Washington Mutual company has failed, was taken over by the FDIC, and its assets sold. The stock market could be teetering on a precipice in the wake of this news and in anticipation of tomorrow's.

There is an establishment impulse toward a bailout deal, and ideological resistance from conservative (as in "limited government") Republicans. What do people think outside the Bipolarchy? Are there other options that you can actually vote for? I've made a quick survey and will summarize the opinions I've found.

Chuck Baldwin (Constitution Party): "So far, the only solution being talked about is more of the same failed monetary policies that got us into this mess in the first place – more fake money, more debt, more usury. It is time to demand a return to sound money. None of the other “Big Box” candidates is even talking about the most obvious place to begin the road to recovery, which is a return to the constitutional principal of sound money."

Bob Barr (Libertarian Party): "The financial crash is not a "crisis of capitalism." It is the result of foolish federal policies manipulated by private interests -- precisely how Washington always operates. Giving Washington more power is no solution.The federal government cannot eliminate financial losses and should not attempt to do so. It can only shift the burden -- in this case from irresponsible borrowers, lenders and investors -- to taxpayers. Keeping the walking dead on economic life support will only slow down necessary adjustments. The federal government's principal responsibility at a time of financial stress should be to maintain liquidity for use by otherwise sound institutions....Congress must address the causes of the current crisis; most of which stem from government missteps. Take the Federal Reserve, for example, which has untrammeled discretion--of the sort being sought by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson--to mismanage the money supply.The Fed's easy money policy helped create an economic bubble. Everyone from consumers to investment banks over-extended themselves. Prices for commodities, and especially houses, rose dramatically. We must hold the Fed accountable--or even replace it--to ensure sound money that is safe from political manipulation.Second, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were used by Congress to simultaneously expand mortgage lending and enrich politically influential interests. The two entities must be fully privatized, and left with no federal support, guarantees, or dictates.The Community Reinvestment Act is used to force banks to make bad loans to poor credit-risks in inner-city neighborhoods. Some of the politicians who now denounce "predatory lending" previously attacked those same banks for not lending. The CRA should be repealed."

Gloria LaRiva (Party for Socialism & Liberation): "Working people didn’t make this crisis, why should we be the ones who have to suffer? We didn’t create the housing bubble, create predatory lending practices, gamble away billions of dollars in the Wall St. casino. Now the government is creating a fund with our money to take over the bad debts of the bankers and corporate capitalists. For the rich, it’s “heads we win tails you lose,” showing once again that the “free enterprise system” is nothing more than a myth. ...Make the greedy capitalists who created the crisis pay. Their vast fortunes should be expropriated and used to provide jobs, housing and healthcare for the people who go to work every day, who make this country run."

Frank McEnulty (New American Independent Party): "People need to go to jail. People need to lose everything they own and I'm not talking about the borrowers/homeowners here. I'm talking about the people who created this mess solely because they could earn larger and larger fees and huge incomes....When the federal government bailed out AIG, it did so by giving the company an $85,000,000,000 loan and it took ownership of 79.5% of the company. That looks more like an investment than a bailout to me and should probably be called such. It also gives us, the American taxpayer a chance to get a return on the investment. It may even turn out to be a good investment and make us, the American taxpayer, some profit.
That's the type of bailout we need. All amounts given to rescue financial institutions must have some expectation of being recaptured through future profits and loan recoveries."

Cynthia McKinney (Green Party): "The Federal Reserve is becoming the lender of last resort. This means that the people are becoming the owners of the primary instruments of U.S. capital and finance. This now means that the people have a say in how these instruments are to be used and what their priorities ought to be. The people should now have more say in how their tax dollars are spent and what the priorities of government and the public sector must be. We the people must now set our demands to ensure and promote the public good....The case of the AIG bailout is particularly curious as Merrill Lynch was denied taxpayer largesse. I wonder if AIG was the selected company for bailout because of its relationship to the U.S. intelligence community and what others would discover if AIG's books were opened in an audit. The last person to get close to AIG and its shady operations was Eliott Spitzer....The Federal Reserve should operate in the interests of the U.S.taxpayer and not the interests of the private, international bankers that it currently represents. This, of course means that The Federal Reserve, too, must undergo a fundamental ownership and mission change.This crisis does not have to be treated as merely a "market correction," or the result of a few rotten apples in an otherwise pristine barrel. This crisis truly represents the opportunity to introduce fundamental changes in the way the U.S.economy and its political stewards operate. "

Ralph Nader (Peace & Freedom, etc.): "[The Paulson proposal] recklessly empowers a government appointee with no accountability. It's clear that till the bitter end, the Bush/Cheney approach to government is one of unconstitutional over-reach, coercion, secrecy and zero accountability, with corporate comfort first, and the best interests of the American people. Something has to be done, says Nader, but not in secrecy and not without a Constitutional brace of protections for the American people added to the bill, including appropriate sunset provisions....changes to the bill [should] include: Provisions for homeowners to stay in their homes in default, or rent them at market value;A cap on executive compensation and disgorgement of ill-gotten gains;A stimulus package for infrastructure repair and upgrade to generate new community jobs; Comprehensive regulation of and disclosures by the financial industry and Wall Street to prevent this from occurring again;Prudent margin requirements on derivatives trading and a tax on securities derivatives transactions; Shareholders control over the corporations they own;Tougher criminal enforcement against culpable firms and executives."

That sums up the leading independent candidates that I've already covered in my alphabetical survey. I will update this post as I discover more comments from the other candidates.

* * *
Friday: My Google news gadget picked up some comments from a candidate I haven't covered yet due to his rank in the alphabet. Here's Jerry White of the Social Equality Party: “The government’s plan to take over the nearly worthless mortgage-backed securities being held by the banks and big investment firms will, in the end, make even richer the financial aristocracy whose anti-social and no doubt criminal activity has brought the US and indeed the world economy to the brink of financial collapse on a scale not seen since the Wall Street crash of 1929....There will be massive resistance to the efforts to return working people to the days of the Great Depression. Many of the lies and myths that have been used to convince people that there is no alternative to the free market are being exploded. The great ‘innovators’ and masters of the financial universe have turned out to be con men and criminals.”

Skirmish on the Durand Line

This BBC report summarizes conflicting accounts of an incident on the disputed border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is a reason to have a national security debate as scheduled tomorrow night, or as soon as possible. Pakistan is entitled to respect, and has a right to defend its borders, but Afghanistan also has a right to pursue insurgents across the border, with or without American help. Pakistan also has as much responsibility as any nation to deal with international terrorists within its own borders. If it can be proved that bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders are there, the government should not be protecting them.

There's a line of argument that suggests that Afghanistan should be conceded to a Pakistani sphere of influence. You can find that viewpoint expressed here (as the author debunks "Myth 3"). I don't care for this argument because it seems to take Pakistan's side unconditionally in its disputes with India. Pakistan has supposedly always wanted a compliant government in Afghanistan so that its army can maneuver there in the event of a war with India. I see no reason to give Pakistan an advantage in any such conflict. Nor do I think that Afghanistan thus automatically becomes an ally or client state of India. The country ought to be capable of neutrality, or at least should have the opportunity to choose its allies for its own reasons.

On the other hand, there is an ethnic affinity along the border region among the Pashtun tribes. While this suggests a natural friendliness between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it should be remembered that Pashtuns are not the only ethnic group in Afghanistan, and that many others feel no affinity for Pakistan at all, even though Pakistanis are fellow Muslims.

All that being said, maybe it should be up to India to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a Pakistani puppet. To the extent that there is an American interest in the region, it's limited to pursuing and capturing bin Laden, and this really shouldn't require an army in Afghanistan. But I'd like to think that Senator McCain and Senator Obama are better informed on the subject than I am, and I'd like to see them discuss the topic, tomorrow or soon.

California Homophobes: Go Ahead and Starve!

Read this story and see if you don't have the same response.

I've probably written this before, and I'd like not to write it again, but no one is proposing that religious officials be compelled to administer the sacraments of their faiths on homosexual couples. Homosexual couples, as I understand the case, simply want the same legal rights as heterosexual couples -- the same right to share benefits, transfer properties, etc. Whoever has a problem with this is a homophobe. If that's too big a word for some of you, it means you're a bigot. It may be a tradition, it may be two or three thousand years old, but it's still bigotry. It may be an expression of conscience, but it's still bigotry. Perhaps it ought to amuse me, but instead it disgusts me to see you mortify yourselves in order to deny someone else what they ought properly to enjoy. It strikes me as a passive form of suicide terrorism: a similar means to a similar end. Perhaps God would be more impressed with your sacrifices if you exploded yourselves, or if you immolated yourselves like Buddhist monks in Vietnam. If your present tactics don't work, why not try those options? Sometimes I really wish you would.

24 September 2008

"Petropolitics" in Palin's Alaska

The newest issue of The Nation has an interesting commentary by Michael Klare on Governor Palin's ambiguous relationship with Alaska's oil industry. Klare credits Palin with "some commendable efforts to dilute her party's ties to Big Oil" and with raising taxes on oil and gas producers. A law she supported sets a profit threshhold above which the companies must pay a "progressive surcharge" -- 0.4 percent for every dollar of net profit over $30. The oil companies can get much of this back through tax credits earned through investments in infrastructure and further exploration.

This doesn't sound bad at all, nor does the fact that Alaska can do without an income tax thanks to oil-tax revenues. Klare suggests, however, that Alaska's situation is so exceptional that it unsuits Palin for national office. "Palin is simply unqualified to deal with the demanding economic realities of any nation that it is not a petrostate," he asserts. He equates Alaska with some Arab emirates, these being states that subsist on revenues from oil and thus become susceptible to political corruption. This is "because of the close ties that naturally develop between government officials and energy executives" and because citizens freed from income taxes tend to scrutinize politicians less closely. Such states also tend to resist the development of alternative resources, being skeptical of their ability to generate comparable revenue for the state. Palin is on record questioning incentives for developing new resources while oil is still available.

"Surely, at this moment in history -- with global oil output facing imminent decline and global warming an inescapable reality -- anyone opposed to government support of renewable energy should be considered stupendously ill equipped for national office," Klare concludes. This is probably true if we leave the debate at this point. It should be possible, though, to split the difference. If Palin's interest is in generating revenue for the state from energy producers, and she's willing to offer incentives to get producers started, why couldn't she advise a theoretical President McCain to emulate Alaska's arrangements with the oil industry on a national scale for the development of alternative resources? McCain is as confident as Obama that a national conversion to alternatives will create millions of jobs and stimulate the entire economy. If so, why can't this new sector become a major source of revenue to the federal government, or the individual states? One reason she wouldn't make such an argument, Klare suggests, is that Palin wants Alaska to benefit from the nation's dependence on oil. Would she feel the same way, however, were she no longer directly responsible to her state? More to the point, would McCain ever feel that way? It'll be his decision to make, unless you think he'll owe Palin so much for helping him win that he has to give her real power, so he might want to use his hiatus from campaigning to studying the Alaska situation more closely.

McCain's Gambit

The Republican candidate would probably resent, or make a show of resenting, my description of his call to postpone Friday's debate with Senator Obama as a "gambit." But Senator McCain is a gambler, and has probably played out the possible outcomes in his head. In almost every scenario, if not all of them, he ends up looking more "statesmanlike" for putting the country's needs before the presidential competition. If Obama agrees, McCain looks statesmanlike. If Obama refuses and goes on alone, or (one might hope) with another candidate or two, McCain again looks statesmanlike. If Obama at all remarks about the irony of McCain calling for a postponement after accusing Obama of ducking him all summer, McCain still looks statesmanlike. After all, what matters more: solving the financial crisis or doing a debate? It is a valid question, and the only question that might knock McCain off the perch he wants to climb on is this one: Where were you yesterday? Where were you last week? And his only defense is the fact that we can ask Obama the same questions.

You might argue that it would be a proof of presidential competence that a candidate could do his duty in the Senate and debate his opponent on the same day, and Obama might be able to make such an argument if he hurries to Washington to do his duty, but honesty compels me to say that I won't regret a postponement or cancellation of the entire debate series. They are plainly biased toward the American Bipolarchy because they exclude Baldwin, Barr, McKinney, Nader and their running mates. They barely qualify as debates in the first place, being more like joint press conferences controlled by media moderators. Lincoln and Douglas would laugh at such an affair being called a debate.

On one level, McCain is most certainly ducking the debate he has long asked for. After last week's debacle on the Miami radio station, he's probably terrified of making a gaffe, even if it's as innocuous a statement (as it must have seemed to him) as "the fundamentals of our economy are sound." The financial crisis has given him an opportunity to opt out with an excuse intended to deter the charge of cowardice. The media ought to accept the excuse, on this condition. If McCain intends to contribute to resolving the crisis, then anytime he appears on the Senate floor or in a committee, the networks should go to live coverage, and should do likewise whenever Obama shows up. Depending on how things develop, we might yet have a debate in the hallowed halls that neither man has haunted much of late.

The 5:00 news shows Obama saying that this crisis is the exact time when the public should hear the candidates on the issues. That sounds like he still intends to show up on Friday night, but he'll look rather foolish if he goes alone. If McCain stands his ground, I predict that Obama will bow out himself within the next 48 hours.

Idiot of the Week: Global Edition

The moment I saw this story on the MSNBC website I knew I had a winner for this week. The assailant in this case could be the Idiot of the Year if we judged on stupidity alone rather than consequences. For some reason I'm reminded of the old campfire game where kids in a circle whispered a sentence into each other's ears until it came back to the original whisperer utterly garbled. Here we have an American novel adapted into an American movie, then translated into Italian for TV broadcast, and the message reaches this fellow in the final form: "I am the Antichrist, so I must kill a priest." I'm sure we'll learn that the man is mad and thus not responsible for his deductions or the actions that followed from it, but the line separating madness and stupidity is a thin one, and we can see through it easily enough. When someone is so easily suggestible, does that make him merely mad or supremely stupid? The distinction is semantic and legalistic, but whether it is relevant readers should decide for themselves.

23 September 2008

The Unacknowledged Legislature of the World (But Don't Look For Poetry)

Another autumn brings another session of the United Nations General Assembly, and with it the world's more talkative leaders to New York City to sound off on the issues of the day. Among these once again is President Ahmadinejad of Iran, whose remarks can be read in full here. His comments are predictable enough, and predictably earned denunciations from Senator Obama, Governor Palin (who ignorantly called the Iranian a "dictator") and everyone in between. His alleged anti-Semitism is old news, but what appalled me was the frankly evangelical character of much of his speech. He makes President Bush sound like a secular humanist.

Speaking of whom ... his speech delineates a different world than the Iranian. Where Ahmadinejad sees a clique of bullies hoarding resources, imposing their will on others, and failing to show "obeisance to God," Bush sees a benign world threatened by terrorist aggression. It's the terrorists, not the great powers, who seek to impose their will on people. Bush remains convinced that the terrorists are trying to wait him or his country out, and are poised to strike if our resolve wavers. He assumes that "the terrorists" subscribe to an ideology opposed to religious freedom, women's rights, and dissent. For extra measure, he condemns the "self-serving condescension" (on whose part?) that "question[s] whether people in certain parts of the world actually desire freedom." The various "color" revolutions, including Georgia's, are hailed to prove the contrary, which leads into a defense of Georgia's territorial integrity, with no mention, of course, of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. To sum up, Bush has learned nothing in seven years, but he still sounds marginally more civilized, as a person if not a statesman, than his Iranian counterpart.

For your added amusement, here's the speech by President Saakashvili of Georgia, whining about those mean old Russians and promising a "second Rose Revolution" to make his country still more democratic (it has a long way to go, from what I've read) and still more worthy of NATO membership and UN support against a permanent Security Council member with veto power. He rails on about how separatism is a bad thing, as if the wars against Yugoslavia hadn't happened a decade ago and that country hadn't been dismembered to the stormy applause of the West. Saakashvili was going to solve all his country's ethnic problems, we're assured, all of which, apparently, were caused by Russian provocation. Again, there's nothing new here if you've followed the story, but some people do like to talk.

It was Percy Shelley who called poets the "unacknowledged legislators" of the world. I know he meant something different, but I've heard poets who certainly acted like self-acknowledged legislators. The General Assembly is a forum with little real authority, an unacknowledged legislature in its own fashion that provides a bully pulpit for essentially the same flights of rhetoric you might expect from some "people's poet" ranting on a street corner. There's a lot of sloganeering and self-righteousness but little lyrical about any of it. Maybe something gets lost in translation, but from the likes of Ahmadinejad or Saakashvili, I doubt it,and from the likes of Bush, translated from speechwriterese, I know it's hopeless. If this is what world government looks like, it doesn't inspire much confidence in the future.

The Presidential Candidates: Barack Obama

The September 10 issue of The New Republic includes a story by John B. Judis that portrays a moment when the future Illinois Senator seemed to become disillusioned with the vocation of a community organizer. Obama's crisis came at a 1989 symposium,

He had a litany of criticisms of [Saul] Alinsky-style organizing that he wanted to put forward. He objected to community organizers' disregard of charismatic leadership and of movements. Instead of making the point directly, he recalled a friend telling him of an IAF trainer who complained that 'movements are rotten with charismatic leaders.' Obama said his friend had responded, 'That's nonsense. We want a movement. I would love to have Martin Luther King here right now.' Obama argued that charismatic leaders and movements bring 'long-term vision,' and that community organizers cannot be effective without such vision.

This sounds like someone itching to make a speech, and Obama eventually rose to fame through his oratory. As a state legislator and mere candidate for the U.S. Senate, he was probably the lowest-ranking person ever to give the keynote speech at a major party convention. That speech and his victory over an incompetent rival, along with Senator Kerry's defeat, made him a prospect for the 2008 campaign.

Obama went on to prevail in a grueling primary campaign, very much thanks to his oratory and to widespread dislike for Senator Clinton. It is probably no coincidence that he has found it hard to break away from Senator McCain now that the news networks have no reason to broadcast his speeches live and in full. Nor should it have surprised us to see reactionaries question Obama's background and his ultimate loyalty. But these are familiar topics. We should turn to what the Democrat proposes for the country.

As with most candidates, let's start with Iraq. Obama famously opposed the war before it began, and has infamously (to some people) refused to applaud the "surge" with the vehemence demanded by McCain. Here's what his website says: "Our troops have heroically helped reduce civilian casualties in Iraq to early 2006 levels. This is a testament to our military’s hard work, improved counterinsurgency tactics, and enormous sacrifice by our troops and military families. It is also a consequence of the decision of many Sunnis to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq, and a lull in Shia militia activity. But the absence of genuine political accommodation in Iraq is a direct result of President Bush’s failure to hold the Iraqi government accountable."

Obama promises a "responsible and phased" withdrawal from Iraq over a 16-month period, but will leave behind "a residual force ... in Iraq and in the region to conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions against al-Qaeda in Iraq and to protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel." The website says the U.S. "must apply pressure" on the Iraqi factions, but appears satisfied that the phased withdrawal will exert sufficient pressure, combined with an "aggressive diplomatic effort" including Syria and Iran, to set the Iraqis straight. Meanwhile, Obama will spend $2 billion on humanitarian aid to Iraqi refugees.

Clinton and McCain in turn have criticized Obama's willingness to negotiate with "anti-American" regimes, as if those who most disagree with us must capitulate unconditionally as a precondition for negotiations over -- what, exactly? Whatever they think, the Obama website says that the candidate will "do the careful preparation necessary" in advance of any such encounter, but doesn't hint at what those preparations might involve. Overall, "To make diplomacy a priority, Obama will stop shuttering consulates and start opening them in the tough and hopeless corners of the world – particularly in Africa. They will expand our foreign service, and develop the capacity of our civilian aid workers to work alongside the military. "

On the energy front, Obama proposes to wean us off Venezuelan and Middle East oil within ten years. He'll use consumer incentives, including a $7,000 tax credit for purchasing "advanced vehicles," as well as imposing efficiencies through a "use it or lose it" policy on existing drilling leases. He promises to create "millions of new green jobs" through conversions to renewable-source industries and weatherization projects. He offers short-term relief in the form of a $1,000 energy rebate to be paid for by windfall profit taxes.

Turning to taxes, Obama repeats the windfall-tax promise and emphasizes the middle-class and working-family tax cuts he'll propose. He believes that his $500 "Making Work Pay" tax credit will benefit small businesses as well as ordinary working folks. Small business will also benefit from ban on capital-gains taxes for start-ups and "small" businesses -- how small may remain to be determined. If Obama intends to raise anyone's taxes or roll back any of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, you won't learn about it here.

Like McCain, Obama is a big believer in national service. He'd nearly triple the size of AmeriCorps and put young people to work on education, health, clean-energy and veterans' care projects. He'll encourage retirees to volunteer for public service and will send multilingual Americans abroad to "show the world the best face of America" through the "America's Voice Initiative." This sounds suspiciously like a volunteer propaganda program, when if anything the world needs to hear America's Voice less than Americans need to hear the world's voices.

"Amid the partisanship and bickering of today's public debate, [Obama] still believes in the ability to unite people around a politics of purpose," the website says, "a politics that puts solving the challenges of everyday Americans ahead of partisan calculation and political gain." This is the same sort of thing McCain says, though with different nuances. McCain tempts independents with the notion, still half-plausible, that he might wage war against his own party, whether on principle or out of moral vanity. Obama doesn't promise the wild action one might be led to expect from a "maverick," but his talk of transcendence is as much belied by his dependence on the Democratic party as McCain's pretense is refuted by his acceptance of the Republican nomination.

On his own merits, Obama is probably one of the best candidates for the presidency, but in most states, if not all, you can't vote for him without also endorsing the Democratic party. Even the Obama website dissuades you from thinking of him as his own man. Almost every idea and initiative I've quoted from the website is credited to "Obama and Biden," not Obama. Any vote for Obama inevitably perpetuates the American Bipolarchy, but the logic of the Bipolarchy points to the necessity of defeating McCain. If the only thing that matters is preventing McCain from becoming President, than there's nothing to do but support Obama, unless you live in the safest "blue" states. Likewise, if you're less plausibly convinced that Obama is the worst thing that could befall the country, there's no choice but to support McCain. But is either an Obama or a McCain presidency a worse option than the perpetuation of the Bipolarchy that will result from Americans' refusal to consider alternatives? Each reader must decide this for himself, bearing in mind that there is still more than a third of the alphabet to go.

As is customary, here's the Obama website. One of its more interesting features is the "People" menu, which targets a wide range of demographic possibilities, including a would-be "Generation Obama." Meanwhile, Obama's YouTube channel has a staggering 1,350 videos to choose from. I picked one that presents Obama as a shadow president, replying last January to Bush's "State of the Union" address.

Obama's remark about banks running amok sounds timely, but his aspiration to earn the applause of both sides of the aisle by transcending partisanship already sounds far out of date.

Bob Barr in Texas: Shot Down

So much for Rep. Barr's challenge to McCain and Obama's ballot status in Texas. The court dismissed his petition without comment. After all, how can you comment on such presumption? How dare someone suggest that neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate should be on the ballot because they broke a rule? Wouldn't that be like saying that the House and Senate are illegal conspiracies?

I exaggerate, but what we see here is a clear case of deference to the Bipolarchy when both parties were caught with their pants down due to holding their conventions so late. Since the court will have nothing to say, I'm left to conclude that Texas regards the Bipolarchy as above the law -- ballot laws, existing, after all, mostly to make it hard for others to challenge the big two. In many ways, the concept of the ballot as a physical list of legitimate candidates is the leading obstacle to independent voting. Independent candidates are forced to waste assets fighting for ballot access and against challenges from Bipolarchy lawyers. But hasn't technology brought us to a point where we could actually do without the ballot by adopting voice-recognition voting or something similar, with proper provisions made for deaf-mutes? That way, in effect, everyone would be a write-in candidate and no candidate could depend on brand-name recognition inside the voting booth. This would be just one of several reforms needed to level the playing field, but each of them is essential if we really want to be rid of the Bipolarchy.

At least Barr got his name in the news a little bit more than normal, -- and who has a problem with that? Barr is no more an attention seeker, as some have suggested, than Senator McCain or Senator Obama or anyone else in the race. As a candidate, Barr's job is to call attention to himself. To condemn his efforts is really to question his right to run for President. If anyone would care to do that, step right up.

Mass Murder in Finland

For the second year in a row Finland has witnessed a mass shooting. This time the perpetrator killed ten people, by the latest count, before killing himself. Matti Juhani Saari was a thoughtcrime suspect shortly before the killings because he had posted videos on YouTube showing himself carrying a gun and issuing general threats. The local authorities found no cause to detain him, however. Before you draw zero-tolerance conclusions from this, we ought to know how many people in Finland or any other country are questioned for provocative videos and statements, and how many of those, in any given country, live up to their threats. My hunch is that the great majority are just venting through their creativity, such as it may be, and thus make themselves harmless to society as a whole. People who want to crack down on such exhibitionism might want to consider how subjects will respond if they're denied that outlet.

The MSNBC report notes that Finland has the third-highest (reported) gun ownership rate in the world after the United States and Yemen. This site shows that Finland is not so highly rated in the category of per-capita murder, -- nor, for that matter, is the United States, -- but by scrolling down the page you'll see that the statistics are vigorously contested for a variety of reasons. I'm not sure if per-capita is necessarily the most accurate way to show the impact of violent crime in any particular country. Murders as a percentage of the total population might tell a different story, for instance. I don't know if Finland would go up the chart by that measurement, but by any standard two massacres in two years is an alarming statistic, a warning that your country is going the mad way of the United States.

Stories like these are a problem for gun-rights advocates because they don't really fit their preferred categories. For the NRA and similar entities, the paradigm that justifies gun ownership is crime in the conventional sense of the mugger on the street or the home invader. Mass shootings don't fit this model of crime. As I've argued in the past, they come closer to terrorism, albeit with cultural differences expressed in the object, mode and tools of attack. Much as we imagine the suicide-terrorist to be, the mass shooter is "undeterrable." He is not a rational actor who will calculate the costs and benefits of his scheme. Often he is determined to commit suicide or "suicide-by-cop" to climax his adventure. He wants to see people die and is willing to die to make it happen. The only solution the gun-nuts can propose is to arm the public more generally in the hope that someone in a threatened crowd will be able to pick off the shooter with deadly accuracy without sparking a Wild West shootout that only adds to the casualty list.

Rather than risk exacerbating the violence, more reasonably people ought to ask every time how many people the latest shooter would have killed if he couldn't shoot? I don't deny that people had murderous impulses, perhaps even mass-murderous ones, before the invention of firearms. But how many would Juhani Saari have killed if he only had a knife or even a sword, before someone or some group of targets summoned the courage to jump him? After all, unarmed people on board United 93 on September 11, 2001, were willing to fight terrorists armed with box-cutters, even though some had guessed that they were doomed one way or another. They did not need guns to save the White House or whatever those hijackers were targeting. All they needed was the courage to do what was necessary, which perhaps some people can't summon without guns in their hands. Concede that point and you might also admit that many murder-minded people wouldn't have the courage to embark on their dreamed-of massacres without guns that let them strike from afar. Mass shootings like the atrocity in Finland are the best argument for greater gun control, but the argument shouldn't have to be made so often. You'd think most people would get it after the first few times, but some live just as completely in a fantasy world as do the killers they imagine themselves gunning down.

22 September 2008

Bob Barr's Texas Showdown

Read all about Rep. Barr's lawsuit to take Senator McCain and Senator Obama off the Texas Presidential ballot. I'm no lawyer, but at first glance his case has merit, and it wouldn't surprise me if there are plenty of precedents in cases where independent candidates were knocked off the ballot. You may not think that Barr has a realistic chance of winning, and you're probably right, but ask yourselves why you think so, and whether your opinion has anything to do with the merits of the case or the law of the state. The next question you should ask, no matter whether you live in Texas or another state, is: why do you tolerate this?

Financial Advice

Mr. Peepers, perhaps the office's most dedicated Democrat, claims to be a conservative in most things. He plays the stock market more enthusiastically than anyone else in the building, as far as I can tell. Before I could even ask him what he thought of the proposed bank bailout, he gave me a hot tip almost as soon as he came through the door.

"Put all your money in Sealy and Serta," he said.

Then, perhaps lacking confidence in his own joke, he added, "you know, -- mattresses."

So lump him with the libertarians who think the bailout is a bad idea. I got the feeling that libertarians, or at least Ron Paul and Bob Barr, got more time on cable news this past weekend than they normally do. That's probably because the news media believe there have to be two sides to every story. Usually that boils down to the Republican and Democratic, or "conservative" and "liberal" sides, but when the American Bipolarchy speaks as one on an issue, or at least on this issue, with the Democrats looking only to attach more populist measures to the plan, the media seemed to make an extra effort to find dissenting viewpoints. It's too bad they don't do that more often on foreign policy, a topic where the Bipolarchy often seems to speak out of both sides of its mouth, but speaks as one more often than partisans acknowledge.

I could endorse the bailout myself if I were assured that CEOs and other high-ranking, highly-paid people would pay their just share of the burden that will now fall on all taxpayers -- wipe them out if necessary -- and if it came with a thorough reform of the stock market to restore its legitimate role as a means to invest in actual productivity and economic growth and reverse its transformation into a casino where anyone can make a killing by betting against success through short selling and other gimmicks. This should be a bailout of the banking system, not of the bankers themselves.

20 September 2008

Islamabad: "Not the act of a Muslim"

The above were the words of the president of Pakistan, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, regarding the truck-bombing of the Islamabad Marriot hotel shortly after his inauguration, and a short distance from where he was holding a reception. Since the morning news there's been no update of the official death estimate, but most observers expect it to rise from "more than 40," possibly into the hundreds.

The president probably didn't mean to hint that a Hindu had done the deed. More likely he meant the same thing you'd hear from most Christians in this country the next time one of their number commits a mass killing or other publicly heinous crime. The perpetrator may pretend to be a believer, according to this line of argument, but the deed belies the belief. No true Muslim or Christian could do such things, just as no true Communist would build a gulag and no true Capitalist would cause an economic depression.

Time will tell whether this event will take Americans' attention away from the economy, now that Wall Street is rejoicing over the government's impending bank bailout. On Fox News this morning, Bob Barr was being interviewed as the Islamabad story broke. He warned that renewed attention to national security (especially since that's the topic of the first McCain-Obama debate next Friday) might distract the public from what Barr described as a takeover of the banking industry by government bureaucrats. Barr disapproves of the bailout, and when asked by the Fox interviewer whether financial security wasn't just as important as national security, he replied with the hope that wiser decisions are being made on the latter front than on the former.

In any event, Pakistan is likely to be a lively debate subject. Senator Obama has generally endorsed President Bush's incursions and drone attacks into the frontier provinces, in keeping with his concern with destroying the al-Qaeda leadership. Without criticizing Bush himself, or noting that Obama had applauded an aggressive Bush policy, Senator McCain during the primary debates criticized the Democrat for an irresponsible, immature approach to Pakistan that failed to appreciate the delicate realities of the situation. He could point to today's atrocity as proof that he is right about Pakistan, that the attack was a consequence of the provocative moves that Bush has undertaken and Obama has approved. Obama, on the other hand, could argue that the news from Islamabad merely underlines the priority of stabilizing the frontier region and driving out or capturing bin Laden and his gang. He could remind voters that McCain has never, to my knowledge, submitted a strategy for pursuing the terrorists into Pakistan, which he must do if he is to follow bin Laden "to the gates of hell." The most I've ever heard from McCain on this subject is that he'll negotiate with the country's leaders, but given how little law prevails in that hillbilly Pashtun country, negotiation seems to amount to a do-nothing strategy. It's possibly even less than Bush is doing at this point.

Pakistan is also a useful debate subject because the Islamabad incident should tell us that the Iraq "surge" is old news. Obama remains correct that it has failed in its political goals, and it remains little cause for applause that we had to clean up a mess that we created for no good reason in the first place. The main front against terrorism is Pakistan and Afghanistan, and this seems like a good time for Obama and any other opponent of the Iraq adventure to tell the public that this has always been the case, no matter what Bush and the Republicans believed.

* * *
A YouTube subscriber has posted a photomontage of the Islamabad Marriot as it was and as it has become. I don't find anything profound here, just an interesting mix of images and music. Have a look for yourselves.

18 September 2008

He Thinks You're Stupid

Mr. Right had been on vacation for the past two weeks, so he must have missed the memo from Bushie HQ. That's the only explanation I can think of for this outburst.

"I wish we could make people take a test before they vote to show that they have a clue about how this country works," he opined today.

"Are you saying you want to bring back literacy tests?" I asked.

"No, but in a democracy people ought to know what they're voting about," he answered, "But voting is a right, now, when it used to be a privilege."

I agree that that's how it ought to work, but I didn't think conservatives still thought that way. I thought it was the elitist liberal intellectuals who would want to winnow out the ignorant unwashed conservative masses before Election Day. But Mr. Right wouldn't even dream of such a test unless he thought it might exclude ignorant unwashed liberals, would he?

I guess it would all depend on who wrote the test. The Mr. Right test, I suspect, would include questions of economics, with the supply-side laissez-faire answers the right ones. Others might propose a constitutional test with the "unitary executive" answers the wrong ones. That's a big reason why we got rid of literacy tests in the first place; it's hard to avoid their becoming biased, exclusionary instruments designed to exclude particular groups. As I said to Mr. R., part of the deal of living in a democratic republic is that you get to vote pretty much just by virtue of showing up.

In his defense, this topic came up while Mr. Duff was expostulating on the subject of the "Moose-lim" candidate for President. Mr. Right had been scoffing that the Obama campaign had begun playing the race card, blaming racism for the Democrat's failure to lead McCain by a landslide margin. I suggested that, should Obama lose, some people will say that anyone who believed in the Obama-as-secret-Muslim conspiracy theory was a racist. Here Mr. Duff insisted that Obama was indeed a Moose-lim. "Do you know where he gets those millions of dollars from?" he asked, only to answer for himself: "Iran, Egypt, Syria. They know the score."

Mr. Right and I regarded him as if he had six heads. Whatever your political biases, sometimes you have to agree that some people are, indeed, stupid.

McCain: Senior Moments?

Senator McCain gave an interview to a Miami radio station Wednesday. He was asked about his attitude toward Venezuela and Bolivia and responded with criticisms of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales respectively. So far so good, depending on your viewpoint. His comments on Cuba were equally predictable. The interviewer decided to change the subject to Spain, where the leader elected following the Madrid bombing took the troops out of Iraq. This happens about halfway through the excerpt you will hear below.

Everybody makes gaffes, -- Senator Obama once said there were more than 50 states in the union, for instance, -- but there are different kinds of gaffes. Here's a sample case involving McCain that's gotten more mention following the radio debacle. I judge this one a mere slip of the tongue.

The radio interview, however, shows an inattentive, if not ignorant candidate. The interviewer told him that she wanted to talk about Spain, but McCain clearly drew a blank at the mention of Zapatero's name, muttered generalities, and returned to his most likely memorized talking points on Latin America. Prompted several times, McCain couldn't manage to mention Spain or any specific issues between that country and ours. He betrayed a lack of spontaneity and simply sounded slow on the uptake. His handlers and surrogates can make any excuses and offer any clarifications they want, but the evidence tells us that McCain did not know who Zapatero was despite being told that the topic was Spain. There are better reasons to denounce the Republican, and there are worse things he's said this week, but this is pretty bad, and it ought to sound that way to an objective listener.

17 September 2008

Carly Fiorina, You're Fired!

In completely predictable news, former CEO Carly Fiorina has been "disappeared" by Senator McCain's campaign after publicly doubting his qualification to do the job she used to do for Hewlett-Packard. As I wrote yesterday, Fiorina had only stated common sense, but I concede that she should have anticipated how people would interpret her words. All I want now is for some reporter to ask a McCain spokesman or surrogate whether it's now the official position of the campaign that, yes, the Senator certainly could run a corporation if he wanted. It would be even better if Senator Obama, or any other candidate, would come forward and admit that, "No, I couldn't run a corporation, because you need these and those academic qualifications and this kind of background, but that has nothing to do with being President!" because that would make the McCain campaign look all the more like idiots.

The Presidential Candidates: Ralph Nader

I voted for Ralph Nader in the 2000 and 2004 elections. In 2000 I was convinced by his argument that there was no meaningful difference between the Democratic and Republican parties on issues meaningful to me. I was also convinced that George W. Bush could not ruin the country in four years, and so I felt no imperative to vote for Al Gore. Also, I lived in a safe Democratic state, so no one could accuse me of throwing the election to the Republican. This third fact remained true in 2004, so I voted for Nader again as a gesture against the entity I had not yet labelled the American Bipolarchy.

This year, Nader is running on a variety of state party lines, as well as the Natural Law and Independent-Ecology Party lines, the Greens having abandoned him for Cynthia McKinney. If age is an issue for you, it must be noted that Nader is older than Senator McCain. He has been a public figure, or as his website biography says, a "public advocate," for more than 40 years, earning early fame for his expose on the auto industry, Unsafe At Any Speed. Since then, he has been a lobbyist and founder of institutions, a long list of which runs down his bio page.

Nader's narrative of achievements runs out in the 1980s. Then, his biographer writes, "with the election of President Reagan, powerful corporate interests gathered momentum and became increasingly assertive in the pursuit of their narrow interests, throwing up roadblocks to Nader’s efforts to advance the well-being of the American people. " These roadblocks were apparently made of money: the campaign contributions that kept Democrats as well as Republicans from seeing the true public interest.

With the two major parties dialing for the same dollars, their differences dwindled on most major issues (single-payer healthcare, living wage, replacing fossil fuels and nuclear with many practical variants of solar power, and a foreign policy that wages peace instead of war).
After working for 40 years on behalf of the health, safety and economic well being of the American people, Nader took stock of the situation: “I don't like citizen groups being shut out by both parties in this city -- corporate occupied territory -- not having a chance to improve their country.”

However, the biography is silent on Nader's previous campaigns, perhaps because his present supporters don't wish to mention the Green Party. Ironically, in that case, Nader's running mate is one of the country's most successful Green politicians. Matt Gonzales is a past president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. His biography credits him with the adoption of Instant Runoff Voting in city elections, one of the nation's highest municipal minimum wages, and the empowerment of neighborhoods to ban big-box chain stores.

The campaign site includes a list of "Political Issues that Matter," including 14 proposals which both Senator McCain and Senator Obama want kept "Off the Table." Both senators might dispute that they want "Aggressive crackdown on corporate crime and corporate welfare" off the table, but in most other instances, the chart seems correct. Nader's priorities include single-payer health insurance, military budget cuts, a reversal of Middle East policy, taxes on carbon pollution and securities speculation, and an end to "corporate personhood" -- the notion that corporations have the same civil rights as individual people. The Nader campaign also wants to impeach President Bush and Vice President Cheney, but this would be a moot point once Nader or anyone else is elected in Bush's place.

Electoral reform is understandably a high priority for the Nader movement. Their proposals include Instant Runoff Voting, predictably enough, mandating "paper trails" for electronic voting machines, and lowering the voting age to 16. Nader's team opposes initiatives in California and Washington that would institute "blanket" non-partisan primaries on the ground that they would force voters in some areas to choose between two Republicans, and in others two Democrats, in the general election. I'm not as troubled by this prospect as Nader seems to be, since ambition would drive at least one of the candidates in such a scenario to break from party orthodoxy. It matters to Nader that Wal-Mart has financed advertising supporting the initiatives while Jesse Ventura has opposed them. Nader may be right that the proposal might impose greater costs on all candidates, but that would be the media's fault, not the laws'.

Nader rather baldly states that he has had no new ideas on foreign policy since 2004, and posts position papers and letter columns from that campaign in his Foreign Policy section. His point is that nothing has changed since then, but the fact that his only two Foreign Policy subjects are Israel and the Middle East suggests that Nader is losing track of events. The campaign ought to have positions on Russia and China. Nader had this, at least, to say about Russia and Georgia recently:

More bad news: clicking on "Market & Economic Issues," I found more 2004 position papers. This is lazy. It's fine if it's your opinion to say that "nothing has changed except to get worse," but a Presidential candidate ought to give us some idea of where he thinks current developments are pointing. On the economic front as well as in the international realm, conditions seem to be in dramatic flux. In the face of it, Nader's position looks suspiciously like complacency, as if recent developments don't require him to rethink anything.

Nader isn't exactly out of touch. Two months ago, he wrote a letter to Senator Dodd questioning the FDIC's ability to meet its obligations to depositors in the event of multiple major bank failures. Last week, he signed on to Ron Paul's proto-platform and appeared with him to advocate curtailing debt expansion, ending corporate subsidies and bailouts, halting illegal wars, prosecuting corporate malefactors and restoring civil liberties. While noting his differences with Paul on the scope of regulation, Nader declares his agreement that foreign policy, civil liberties, and ending "reckless waste financed by deficit spending" are the top priorities for 2008.

Nader is guaranteed a certain minimum of coverage because of his celebrity and his "historic" role in the 2000 election. He depends on free TV time because his campaign is poor. It's sad to read about Obama raising $66 million in a month, or McCain hauling in $47 million, while Nader is straining to raise $100,000 for media buys. Nevertheless, Nader's is a national campaign, with appearances all over the country scheduled for upcoming weeks. Nader is on the ballot in 45 states as of this writing and is likely to contest Bob Barr for third place in the popular vote. Time may have passed him by, however. The Nader website gives the impression that its candidate rests on his laurels, as if he had all the answers in 2000 and they all still apply today. A lot of them probably do, but there's room to doubt whether the elder statesman is capable of responding knowledgeably to a world order that few might have imagined at the turn of the millennium. An ideal administration might make Nader its Attorney General or Secretary of Commerce, and any administration ought to heed his advice, but the Nader 2008 campaign hasn't really convinced me that he is the man for this moment in history. That doesn't mean he isn't, of course, and it doesn't mean that anyone else I've profiled so far, or anyone yet to come (recall your alphabet and figure out who's next) is more qualified. The best way to close this chapter is to show you Nader at the Ron Paul event from September 10, so you can judge his relevance for yourselves.