Archive for February 3rd, 2009
1. I finished Billy Boyle, and the novel fully delivers on its promise. Very good, and I can’t wait to read the next two.
2. I’m watching Ghost Town, and it’s absolutely, laugh-out-loud hilarious. Wonderful movie!
I held off posting this link until you’ve eaten your lunch, as the process described is sickening. Glenn Greenwald writes:
When Tom Daschle joined the law and lobbying firm Alston & Bird in 2005, The Washington Post detailed the critical role played by Bob Dole — special counsel to the firm (who "has been reported to earn $800,000 to $1 million annually") — in recruiting Daschle to join (h/t). The article quoted Dole as explaining why Daschle would be such a valuable addition with a sentence that ought to be taught in every sixth-grade civics class around the country to explain how our Government works:
Dole said the Democrat would be a valuable asset to the firm even though Congress is run by the GOP these days.
"He’s got a lot of friends in the Senate, and I’ve got a lot of friends in the Senate, and, combined, who knows — we might have 51," Dole joked. "It’s going to work fine. You need some flexibility and diversity. I don’t think any successful firm is all Democrat or all Republican."
That about covers how Washington works: driven by sleazy, bipartisan influence-peddling. And it is, in particular, how the Senate works: members do nice favors for their "friends," who are lavishly paid for asking for those favors (and who ensure that their "friends" still in the Senate are rewarded for granting those favors), and the outcome is our set of laws.
Just to get a sense for how much sleazier this has all become, the Post quotes …
The party of no brain, just opposition. From ThinkProgress:
The Obama administration is reportedly capping the Pentagon’s 2010 budget for non-war spending at $527 billion, a level previously recommended by Bush administration officials. Despite the fact that this will represent an 8 percent increase over 2009 funding levels, conservative commentators are painting the cap as a budget cut. CQ’s Josh Rogin reports: …
Nebraska is a right-wing state, so even the Democrats from there are iffy. ThinkProgress:
College students sought financial aid in record numbers last year, leading even Bush administration officials to call for an increase in Pell Grant funding — “the most important form of aid to needy students.”
Yet Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) is arguing against the House version of the economic recovery package because of its funding for Pell Grants. Nelson says he wants to eliminate “non-stimulative” and non-“job creation” items in the bill:
Even some Democrats are speaking out against including popular programs — such as an almost $15 billion increase in funding for Pell grants for higher education — in legislation that is supposed to spark an economic recovery. “You don’t want to be against Pell grants,” said Sen. Ben. Nelson (D-Neb.). “But the question is: How many people go to work on Pell grants?”
Increasing Pell Grant funding is a key way to preserve jobs in this tough economy. As grant recipients pay tuition and buy books, college faculty and staff will stay employed at a time when the education sector is experiencing widespread job cuts.
Improving the skills of unemployed American workers and providing funds to allow lower-income students to work their way through college would provide a boost to the economy and improve the workforce skills needed when businesses begin to hire again as the economy improves.
Furthermore, because the recession has forced colleges to raise tuition and cut aid, students receiving Pell Grants will quickly spend their loans, providing a short-term stimulus to the economy. In the long-term, increasing access to higher education is an investment that will help alleviate a human capital-starved economy.
Although Nelson has championed Pell Grant funding in the past, he is echoing right-wing talking points in labeling parts of the bill as “non-stimulative.” Putting off the Pell Grant shortfall for a later date is something the economy cannot afford.
Update: Mike Connery has more on Nelson and higher education.
Update: Campus Progress has launched a take action campaign on higher education funding.
Lindsay Beyerstein has a good article, which begins:
Influence comes in many forms. Often, influencing the influencers is a smart strategy. Free food never hurts, either.
The head of public relations for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer makes free food a centerpiece of his “tips for managing journalists” an industry conference, Advertising Age reports.
In this video clip, Pfizer’s global public relations chief Ray Kerins explains his strategy for working with journalists, whose coverage, in the words of Advertising Age,”so heavily impacts the pharmaceutical giant’s reputation.” Kerins says: …
Three good articles:
Did Obama Really Create a Loophole for Rendition?, which begins:
This story that ran Sunday in The Los Angeles Times, “Obama Preserves Rendition as Counter-Terrorism Tool”, has caused quite a stir. Swirling ’round the blogosphere, it’s got all sorts of people in a tizzy that President Obama isn’t really ending torture and the Bush administration policy of “extraordinary rendition” of suspected terrorists to torturing countries.
But civil rights lawyers who’ve read Obama’s orders think the concerns are overblown, and the plain language of the executive orders Obama issued in the first 48 hours of his presidency suggest just the opposite. …
A ‘Phony’ Ban on Torture?, which begins:
In his op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Congress’s Phony War on Torture,” William McGurn takes congressional Democrats to task for not immediately proposing a law to ban waterboarding. Never mind that President Obama has already banned it and new Attorney General Eric Holder has clarified that it is, indeed, a form of torture.
But what caught my eye in McGurn’s piece is his suggestion that intelligence leaders who claim that torture has succeeded in extracting critical information from U.S. captives and “helped save innocent lives” ought to testify about those claims to Congress. (Behind closed doors, of course.)
I think I made the case pretty strongly in my piece today on why the failure of the stimulus bill to protect private contractor whistleblowers, and the omission in the Senate version to even protect federal employees, is a serious problem.
Now a coalition of good-government and whistleblower advocacy groups has written a powerful response to an editorial that appeared in The Washington Post on Monday bashing the entire purpose of including whistleblower protections in a stimulus bill at all. According to that editorial, which I cited in my piece and has gotten lots of attention from others (including this terrific post from emptywheel), federal employee protections don’t belong in a stimulus bill at all…
Eric Holder Vows End to ‘Inappropriate’ Secrecy, which begins:
The Secrecy News Blog, published by the Federation of American Scientists, notes that Attorney General Eric Holder has made some promising statements on the issue of government secrecy.
In response to questions from Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Holder wrote:
I will review significant pending cases in which DOJ has invoked the state secrets privilege, and will work with leaders in other agencies and professionals at the Department of Justice to ensure that the United States invokes the state secrets privilege only in legally appropriate situations.
And also: …
I was thinking a couple of days ago (as I looked at the on-line USPS store and saw passport wallets) that one would these days want a passport wallet lined in copper foil to act as a Faraday cage. That would mean that the Customs people couldn’t use the RFID chip in your passport (the foil would block it off), so they would have to ask for your passport and take it out of the wallet—that’s fine by me. I can put it back in the wallet before I walk away.
And now this, via AmericaBlog:
Think of it this way: Chris Paget just did you a service by hacking your passport and stealing your identity. Using a $250 Motorola RFID reader and antenna connected to his laptop, Chris recently drove around San Francisco reading RFID tags from passports, driver licenses, and other identity documents. In just 20 minutes, he found and cloned the passports of two very unaware US citizens. Fortunately, Chris wears a white hat; his video demonstration is meant to raise awareness to what he calls the unsuitability of RFID for tagging people. Specifically, he’s hoping to help get the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative — a homeland security project — scrapped. Perhaps you’ll feel the same after watching his video posted after the break.
UPDATE: Scott Feldstein, in the comments, points to Glenn Greenwald’s column that says that the story below is inaccurate and overblown.
The problems with using illegal kidnapping are twofold: 1) it’s illegal, and 2) the CIA occasionally kidnaps the wrong person—they’ve done it before and they’ll do it again. I think Obama should drop this one immediately. Try legal means—they have the benefit of being legal.
The CIA’s secret prisons are being shuttered. Harsh interrogation techniques are off-limits. And Guantanamo Bay will eventually go back to being a wind-swept naval base on the southeastern corner of Cuba.
But even while dismantling these programs, President Obama left intact an equally controversial counter-terrorism tool.
Under executive orders issued by Obama recently, the CIA still has authority to carry out what are known as renditions, secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries that cooperate with the United States.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said that the rendition program might be poised to play an expanded role going forward because it was the main remaining mechanism — aside from Predator missile strikes — for taking suspected terrorists off the street.
The rendition program became a source of embarrassment for the CIA, and a target of international scorn, as details emerged in recent years of botched captures, mistaken identities and allegations that prisoners were turned over to countries where they were tortured.
The European Parliament condemned renditions as “an illegal instrument used by the United States.” Prisoners swept up in the program have sued the CIA as well as a Boeing Co. subsidiary accused of working with the agency on dozens of rendition flights.
But the Obama administration appears to have determined that the rendition program was one component of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism that it could not afford to discard.
The decision underscores the fact that the battle with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups is far from over and that even if the United States is shutting down the prisons, it is not done taking prisoners.
“Obviously you need to preserve some tools — you still have to go after the bad guys,” said an Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing the legal reasoning. “The legal advisors working on this looked at rendition. It is controversial in some circles and kicked up a big storm in Europe. But if done within certain parameters, it is an acceptable practice.”
One provision in one of Obama’s orders appears to preserve the CIA’s ability to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects as long as they are not held long-term. The little-noticed provision states that the instructions to close the CIA’s secret prison sites “do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.”
Continue reading. If they really think they need this—kidnapping and imprisonment without due process—then try for a Constitutional amendment that spells it out.
Interesting story from the Hartford [CT] Courant:
In his ruling on a pioneering Internet free speech case last month, U.S. District Judge Mark R. Kravitz offered something of a plea to higher courts: Revisit the boundaries of free speech for students.
Kravitz was siding with Burlington school administrators accused of violating the First Amendment rights of a student they disciplined for a blog post she wrote off school grounds. And he offered an argument for why, in the Internet age, the old boundaries of what schools can regulate might not apply.
"Off-campus speech can become on-campus speech with the click of a mouse," he wrote.
Now, state lawmakers are staking out a different side in the debate. They are considering a law that would prohibit schools from punishing students for any non-threatening electronic correspondence transmitted outside school facilities and not on school equipment.
"There shouldn’t have to be a bill, but I think we should put something in there to clarify that [the student] does have rights," said state Sen. Gary LeBeau, a former civics teacher who proposed the bill.
The proposed change in state law wouldn’t directly affect the federal case of Avery Doninger, the now-graduated Lewis H. Mills High School student at the center of the case before Kravitz.
But it would put the state’s weight firmly on her side in a dispute that eventually may reach the U.S. Supreme Court, a contest that raises questions about the nature of students’ right to expression, the boundaries of what schools can regulate and whether the Internet can fundamentally change those things.
"This is really the sharp cutting edge of disputes about the extent to which young people should be permitted to have freedom of speech and the extent to which schools can intervene in speech between students out of school, which is a very grave question," said Stephen Nevas, executive director of the Law & Media Program at Yale Law School. "Particularly when the Internet has become a dominant mode of communication."
Thirty years ago, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals offered a clear stance on what types of student speech schools could regulate…
Waste and corruption that marred Iraq’s reconstruction will be repeated in Afghanistan unless the U.S. transforms the unwieldy bureaucracy managing tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects, government watchdogs warned Monday.
The U.S. has devoted more than $30 billion to rebuilding Afghanistan. Yet despite the hard lessons learned in Iraq, where the U.S. has spent nearly $51 billion on reconstruction, the effort in Afghanistan is headed down the same path, the watchdogs told a new panel investigating wartime contracts.
"Before we go pouring more money in, we really need to know what we’re trying to accomplish (in Afghanistan)," said Ginger Cruz, deputy special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. "And at what point do you turn off the spigot so you’re not pouring money into a black hole?" …
Time to take another look. Annette Fuentes begins:
"Our schools fail too many," he said, in his inaugural address.
One big reason for that is No Child Left Behind.
Seven years ago, President Bush signed it into law, and there is probably no public school in the United States that hasn’t been shaken by the changes it set loose.
It requires a system of testing and standards that is supposed to raise student achievement in reading and math, especially for the lowest-achieving students (Latino, black and low-income students of all backgrounds). Schools have to maintain statistics, broken down by race, gender and income level, on which students passed proficiency tests. Supposedly, no longer can bad teachers or poor administrators hide their failures.
But from its beginning, No Child Left Behind has promised more than it can possibly deliver. It has failed to consider the reality of most classrooms, it has ignored how most children learn and it has underestimated the challenges teachers face. And if student scores haven’t jumped up, it has strangled the schools’ funding.
The arrival of a new Congress and a new president means the opportunity to enact real education reforms, not simply make a few adjustments here and there.
Obama and Congress should subject No Child Left Behind to the same idea of accountability that it has imposed on students, teachers, school districts and state education agencies.
Where’s the proof that, after $100 billion in federal spending, it has helped students achieve and closed the gaps among different groups? …
It’s a little like comparing vulgarity and obscenity, but Jonathan Chait gives it a good shot:
I fully realize that few complaints are more tiresome than "your party’s scandal is worse than my party’s scandal." But indulge me for a moment. I can’t think of a good reason why Rod Blagojevich has become the most hated man in America while Norm Coleman still walks the streets with his head held high.
What, you say–Norm Coleman? Yes, Norm Coleman! Let me explain. The soon-to-be-former senator’s scandal is pretty simple. Nasser Kazeminy, a wealthy businessman and close Coleman friend, allegedly paid him $75,000 under the table.
And by "allegedly," I mean "almost certainly." Here’s how the almost certainly true alleged scheme worked. The payments to Coleman came in the form of what Tony Soprano would call a "no-show job." One of Kazeminy’s companies is called Deep Marine Technology. Kazeminy allegedly ordered Deep Marine’s CEO, Paul McKim, to make a series of $25,000 payments that would go to Coleman’s wife. According to McKim, Kazeminy was utterly blatant. He said the reason for the payments was that Coleman needed the money and McKim should disguise them as a legitimate business transaction.
The intermediary they picked was an…
In one of her first acts as the new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton named a special envoy for Arab-Israeli affairs, George J. Mitchell, who was the chief peacemaker on Northern Ireland and briefly worked on the Middle East at the end of President Bill Clinton’s and the start of President George W. Bush’s terms. In the latter role, his commission on bringing an end to the so-called Second Intifada produced eventually the so-called Road Map, which has never really gone anywhere. What can he accomplish off the bat?
I think what’s possible is to create what I call "station identification"—let the world know that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are serious about achieving Arab-Israeli peace, and they are going to devote a good part of the administration’s attention on foreign policy dealing with this issue. Number two, it’s clear to me that they’ve substituted at this stage process for substance. They have no intention of making major changes in America’s approach to the Arab-Israeli issue, because right now, the prospects of any sort of conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palenstinians are slim to none.
Gaza has so many moving parts–antismuggling, opening the crossing points, dealing with securing a longer-term arrangement between Israel and Hamas on the security side, the prisoner issue, which is now higher priority for the Israelis than ever before, and of course, the tricky issue of reconstructing Gaza and providing enough humanitarian relief. All of this is going to prove a very contentious issue for the new administration. These things are going to absorb most of Mitchell’s time and become the focal point of the Obama administration’s efforts. And the truth is, because you are on the eve of a new government in Israel—the Knesset elections take place on February 10—there probably will be no visit from the new Israeli prime minister, whoever he or she is, to Washington, which is customary and traditional, until April.
How can you really deal with Gaza without having some contact with Hamas?
You can deal with it but not very effectively, and it’s safe to assume that there will be no change—none, absolutely none—in the administration’s approach to Hamas…
From Vanity Fair, which does a LOT of good political reporting:
Many believe the government-backed mortgage giants known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were major culprits in the economic meltdown. But, for decades, Fannie Mae had been under siege from powerful enemies, who resented its privileged status, its hard-driving C.E.O.’s, and its huge profits. Surveying Fannie’s deeply dysfunctional relationships with Congress, the White House, and Wall Street, the author tells of the long, vicious war—involving most of Washington’s top players—that helped propel one of the world’s most successful companies off a cliff. …
The chairman of the universe.”
“Washington, D.C.’s Medici.”
“The face of the Washington national establishment.”
“One of the most powerful men in the United States.”
All those phrases were used to describe a man you may never have heard of: Jim Johnson, the C.E.O. of mortgage giant Fannie Mae in the 1990s. Fannie was then one of the largest, most profitable companies in the world, with a stock-market value of more than $70 billion and more earnings per employee than any other company in America. (By comparison, G.M. at its peak, in 2000, was worth only $56 billion.) On one level, Johnson, now 65 years old, was just another businessman with a lot of money and multi-million-dollar houses in desirable locations from D.C. to Sun Valley, Idaho, to Palm Desert, California. Chairman of D.C.’s premier arts venue, the Kennedy Center, and one of its top think tanks, the Brookings Institution, Johnson was out “wearing white-tie and black-tie every night,” says Bill Maloni, Fannie’s former chief lobbyist. “Everyone wanted a little bit of Jim.”
But Johnson was also a political force, because the company he ran had a public mission—literally. It had been chartered by Congress to help homeownership. Johnson liked to paraphrase the old motto about General Motors: “What’s good for American housing is good for Fannie Mae,” he’d say. Accordingly, he built Fannie into what former congressman Jim Leach, a Republican from Iowa and longtime Fannie gadfly, calls “the greatest, most sophisticated lobbying operation in the modern history of finance.”
He may be right. John McCain was …
Continue reading. Also, check out these:
Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz explains the financial mess.
Capitalist Fools, January 2009
Reversal of Fortune, November 2008
The $3 Trillion War, April 2008 (with Linda J. Bilmes)
The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush, December 2007
Progress has been achingly slow. There have been some notable exceptions—like a blog on the Transportation Security Administration Web site, open to comments and manned by five agency staffers, and NASA.gov’s numerous social media initiatives, including Twitter feeds from 20 missions and projects. But the successes are rare and isolated. "We know that there are a lot of people advocating for more open government," Godwin says. "We’re saying, absolutely, put the data out there. But I think we have to be realistic."
For example, many of Obama’s online campaign techniques would be impeded by a collection of obscure and well-intentioned rules. Amendments to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, for example, require that all government Web content be made reasonably accessible—in real time—to disabled users. Also, six months of negotiations between the General Services Administration and Google to establish a federal YouTube channel have stalled over similarly intricate legal issues. Meanwhile, a Clinton-era law called the Paperwork Reduction Act requires that an agency undergo a laborious approval process any time it "surveys" more than 10 people. The result: "Agencies tend to avoid doing these kind of surveys," Godwin says. Would having users submit information to a social network or wiki count as a survey? Nobody knows.
Even triumphs like Obama’s 2006 Google for Government bill, cosponsored with Republican senator Tom Coburn, have been caught up in red tape. The bill led to the creation of FedSpending.org, a site allowing the public to track federal contracts and grants. Instead of building it in-house, the Office of Management and Budget decided to license something similar from a nonprofit watchdog group, OMB Watch—for just 4 percent of what the government had expected to spend. It was a striking victory for government efficiency, but the process behind the scenes "was extremely difficult," says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch. After floating the idea of donating the system to OMB ("the government can’t take things for free," Bass quickly learned), the nonprofit had to sign on as a subcontractor and undergo three rounds, and six wasted months, of bidding before the deal was complete…
I never liked the organization. And now this:
For nearly a century, the Boy Scouts have worn a self-adorned badge as campsite conservationists and good stewards of the land.
"The Boy Scouts were green before it was cool to be green," said the organization’s national spokesman, Deron Smith.
But for decades, local Boy Scouts of America administrations across the country have clearcut or otherwise conducted high-impact logging on tens of thousands of acres of forestland, often for the love of a different kind of green: cash.
A Hearst Newspapers investigation has found dozens of cases over the past 20 years of local Boy Scout councils logging or selling prime woodlands to big timber interests, developers or others, turning quick money and often doing so instead of seeking ways to preserve such lands.
"In public, they say they want to teach kids about saving the environment," said Jane Childers, a longtime Scouting volunteer in Washington who has fought against Scouts’ logging. "But in reality, it’s all about the money."
Scouting councils nationwide have carried out clearcuts, salvage harvests and other commercial logging in and around sensitive forests, streams and ecosystems that provide habitat for a host of protected species, including salmon, timber wolves, bald eagles and spotted owls.
Boy Scout councils have logged and sold for development properties bequeathed to them by donors who gave the lands with intentions they be used for camping and other outdoor recreation.
In some cases, councils have sought to use revenues from logging or land sales to make up for funding lost because of the organization’s controversial bans on gays and atheists from membership and employment rolls…
The battery in my APC UPS seems to have given up the ghost: continuous beeping. So I’m now working with computer and monitor plugged into a surge protector and, for now, no printer. I have ordered replacement battery, which might arrive even by Friday.
Went out early for fasting blood draw. Again, totally painless. Then a stop by Safeway to pick up limes (see altered pepper sauce recipe below). They had a 2-for-1 sale on bags of pistachio, and someone had left a $1 off coupon in addition, so I fell for it. I also checked the discard bin in the meat department and picked up three boneless pork chops at 50% off—six meals, with greens-centered cooking. There was a lovely boneless rib-eye steak there as well, but I still couldn’t bring myself to buy beef. Cf. King Corn.
Now I’m waiting for cereal to cook and drinking a big mug o’ white hot tea (not, you notice, white-hot tea—hyphens are important).