31 August 2009

American Royalty

If we were ruled by an aristocracy, it wouldn't look much different than this.

First, the Republican royal family, the Bushes: Jenna Bush joins "Today"

I just wonder about those who will never get a chance to move ahead because their fathers were not president.

Some are ready to give in and face the music: It's time to embrace American royalty
We're obviously hungry to live with royal and aristocratic families so we should really just go ahead and formally declare it.
Then, we have the Democratic royal family, the Kennedys, who after their funeral fit for a king, a debating who among the royal family will inherit the Senate seat.

Boston Herald: Will Vicki Kennedy fill Ted Kennedy’s shoes?

Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Edward Kennedy who won America’s hearts over the course of her public mourning, is being urged by family and friends to consider her late husband’s Senate seat, even as a field of contenders waits for the right moment to launch their own campaigns.

A Democratic operative with Kennedy contacts told the Herald yesterday Vicki Kennedy is “very much interested” in occupying the seat to see his life’s work completed. A family friend said nephew Joseph P. Kennedy II also is being urged by friends and family to run.

Boston Globe: Senate field hinges on Kennedy decision

All eyes now are on Joseph P. Kennedy II, the former US representative, with family members and political allies expecting him to make a decision very shortly on whether to enter the Democratic primary.

No other Kennedy of his generation with the political stature to step into the role has signaled interest in it, according to Democratic insiders and people close to the family.

Ugh. We have really got to take our country back.

I wonder if people's attitudes have shifted, or it is just our media? Like ravens attracted to shiny objects, our media certainly seems attracted to power. And what is more gilded than a powerful family?

There was more competition for seats in Parliament from rotten boroughs in England than we have for Senate races.

Our nation moves further away from its egalitarian roots, and embraces the values and attitudes our forefathers scorned.

I'm Not Holding My Breath

A summary of allegations against Rep. Rangel (D-NY), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee: The Absent-Minded Chairman

Finally! Calls for his resignation. He won't of course. He is in for life, and is Pelosi's buddy.

From the Buffalo News: Rangel should resign

Newly-filed disclosures show that Rangel failed to report at least half a million dollars in assets in 2007. They also show that his net worth is between $1 million and $2.5 million, or about twice what he claimed in 2008.

This would be cause for uproar over any elected official, but when that official heads Congress’ finance—and tax— committee, it is intolerable. Once could be a mistake; an unlikely one, to be sure, but it is possible. The odds of simple error fall to near zero when it happens twice, and when both times are in your financial favor. We’d feel better about it if he accidentally paid taxes on more than he is worth, rather than less.

This is no longer just a problem for Rangel. It’s a problem for Pelosi and all House Democrats, including Brian Higgins of Buffalo and Louise Slaughter of Fairport. It’s a management problem now because Rangel’s shortcomings can— and will—be used to undermine the Democratic majority’s claim to power. And why not? If Democrats are willing to put up with this kind of behavior from one of the chamber’s most powerful members, they will have asked for an Election Day spanking.

This is Pelosi’s sternest test. She should give Rangel a week to do the right thing and then, if he doesn’t, she must.

Shamefully, the Democrats in Congress are moving to protect him.

Holding Teachers Accountable in New York

One of the best articles I have read about problems with public education and the destructive effect of teacher's unions, in The New Yorker: The Rubber Room: The battle over New York City’s worst teachers. Go read the whole thing. It is excellent.

By now, most serious studies on education reform have concluded that the critical variable when it comes to kids succeeding in school isn’t money spent on buildings or books but, rather, the quality of their teachers. A study of the Los Angeles public schools published in 2006 by the Brookings Institution concluded that “having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.” But, in New York and elsewhere, holding teachers accountable for how well they teach has proved to be a frontier that cannot be crossed.

Because of the union contract, incompetent teachers in New York take up to three years to be fires, collecting their $100,000 a year salaries the entire time, for doing nothing. The arbitrators that decide if the teacher can be fired, must be approved by the teacher's union. Meanwhile, state legislators, in bed with the union, pass laws prohibiting performance reviews based on student performance. Incredible.

The promise of school funds might also push the legislature, which controls issues such as tenure, to allow a loosening of the contract’s job-security provisions and to repeal the law that forbids test scores to be used to evaluate teachers. If the stimulus money does not push the U.F.T. and the legislature to permit these changes, and if Duncan and Obama are serious about challenging the unions that are the Democrats’ base, the city and the state will miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars in education aid.

More than that, publicly educated children will continue to live in an alternate universe of reserve-list teachers being paid for doing nothing, Rubber Roomers writing mission statements, union reps refereeing teacher-feedback sessions, competence “hearings” that are longer than capital-murder trials, and student-performance data that are quarantined like a virus.

Previous post on a similar subject:

NEA Blocking Improved School Performance

Opposition Wins Landslide in Japan


Inflation Prediction

Inflation Will Accelerate This Decade, Business Economists Say
The Federal Reserve will be unable to prevent the trillions of dollars in government stimulus pumped into the U.S. economy from stoking inflation later this decade, a survey of business economists showed.

Sleazy Scots Scared Silly

Times (UK): ‘Terror backlash’ claim undermines MacAskill

Kenny MacAskill’s insistence that he released the Lockerbie bomber solely on judicial grounds has been seriously undermined following claims by a senior Scottish government source that the nation could have become a target for Islamist terrorists if Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi had died a martyr in a Scottish prison.

Meanwhile in London, Gordon Brown was dragged into the centre of the row as it emerged that the decision to include al-Megrahi in negotiations over prisoner transfer was not taken at the sole discretion of Jack Straw, the UK Justice Secretary.

The revelation that the Scottish government may have based its decision, in part, on fears of a terrorist backlash contradicts Mr MacAskill’s argument that the decision was taken only on judicial grounds.

It was also ridiculed by terrorism experts on the grounds that al-Megrahi would not be supported by any serious terrorist organisations.

Alex Salmond was forced to deny that the release of the Lockerbie bomber had any links to UK trade talks with the Libyan government after letters leaked to the Sunday Times showed that UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw, had agreed to try to include al-Megrahi in a prisoner transfer deal in 2007 because of “overwhelming national interests” but later dropped support for the move, it is alleged, at a crucial time in negotiations over an oil exploration contract for BP worth billions of pounds.

Mr Straw denies the prisoner accord was linked to an oil deal, saying the negotiations were aimed at improving relations between the UK and Libya, after the country gave up its weapons of mass destruction.

Downing Street approved Lockerbie bomber deal

Gordon Brown was dragged into the centre of the row over the early release of the Lockerbie bomber last night after it emerged that a key decision that could have paved the way for the terrorist to serve his sentence in Libya was approved by Downing Street.

A source close to Jack Straw told The Times that the move to include Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement in 2007 was a government decision and was not made at the sole discretion of the Justice Secretary. “It wasn’t just Jack who decided this. It was a Government decision. Jack did not act unilaterally.”

The row over the early release of the Lockerbie bomber ten days ago shows no sign of abating after the Ministry of Justice indicated yesterday that the decision to include al-Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement had been made with the possibility of trade deals with Libya in mind.

Sci Fi Design Failures

John Scalzi's Guide to the Most Epic FAILs in Star Wars Design My favorite, which even occured to me as a kid:

Stormtrooper Uniforms

They stand out like a sore thumb in every environment but snow, the helmets restrict view ("I can't see a thing in this helmet!" -- Luke Skywalker), and the armor is penetrable by single shots from blasters. Add it all up and you have to wonder why stormtroopers don't just walk around naked, save for blinders and flip-flops.

Also -- John Scalzi's Guide to Epic SciFi Design FAILs - Star Trek Edition
Even more here from Scott Adams: Life Will Not Be Like Star Trek

Vote The Bums Out

57% Would Like to Replace Entire Congress
A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 57% would vote to replace the entire Congress and start all over again. Eighteen percent (18%) are not sure how they would vote.
I keep reading things like this, and seeing all the anger at the town hall meetings.

And then 98% of incumbents are re-elected.

Members of Congress aren't going to take anyone seriously until the incumbent re-election rate drops.

30 August 2009

Cheney lashes out at Obama administration

Former Vice President Dick Cheney lashed out at President Obama and the attorney general on Sunday, saying the Justice Department's recent decision to investigate whether CIA operatives broke the law in their interrogation of terrorism suspects was politically motivated and dangerous to U.S. national security.

"I just think it's an outrageous political act that will do great damage long-term to our capacity to be able to have people take on difficult jobs, make difficult decisions, without having to worry about what the next administration is going to say," Cheney said in an interview. The formal interview, conducted last week at Cheney's Wyoming ranch, was his first since Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. announced last Monday that he was conducting a preliminary review into the actions of certain CIA interrogators who might have gone beyond the techniques approved by the Bush administration's Justice Department.

The Obama administration had no immediate comment on Cheney's remarks.

It will be interesting to see what comes of this. Holder wanting to go after the Bush Administration is no surprise. I expect Obama will take a more cautious approach knowing he may face future scrutiny. This is how a republic comes undone.

29 August 2009

Makeshift Steel 9/11 Shrine Returns to Ground Zero

Column No. 1,001 B was never meant to be an object of veneration.

But after the Sept. 11 attacks, the 36-foot steel-beam fragment — the last to be removed from ground zero — became a World Trade Center shrine, covered in commemorative graffiti and duct-taped with posters and photographs.

Seven years after it left ground zero, the so-called last column returned to the site, where it will be a permanent exhibit in the forthcoming National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
“This major artifact, with its many markings and inscriptions, commemorates the sacrifice of so many,” said Joseph C. Daniels, the memorial’s president. “It will stand proud in the museum as a symbol of the spirit of unity and dedication that brought people together at ground zero.”

This has been a long time coming and it is good to see. We as Americans should be thinking about September 11 more than we do. We should always remember those who were lost and revere those who serve.

Boycott Scotland

A SENATOR in the US has called on American taxpayers to demand the return of money used to bail out Scottish banks in the wake of the decision to free the Lockerbie bomber. New York State Senator, Andrew Lanza, lost three of his Staten Island constituents in the Lockerbie bombing. Sen Lanza, a Republican, also suggested that "Americans exert economic pressure on Scotland by trading in their Johnny Walker for American spirits.


While UK banks including Barclays and HSBC were also beneficiaries of a US-taxpayer funded rescue package to prop up American International Group (AIG), Senator Lanza centred his scorn on the Royal Bank of Scotland. Sen Lanza said: "The Royal Bank of Scotland… should be made to repay American bailout dollars it received through AIG."

Shouldn't they all repay the bailout money?

Google reports that at one point this week, the search terms "boycott Scotland" was the fourth most popular search term in the U.S.

28 August 2009

Deficits Mean Taxes Could Rise To Levels That Would Make A Scandinavian Revolt

CNN Money: Why the deficit will raise taxes
The nation's debt must be brought to heel, and doing so will require tough choices beyond spending cuts, experts say.

A $9 trillion federal deficit over 10 years may be too hard to comprehend. But this part is easy: Such unwieldy amounts of debt could have an impact on Americans' bottom line one way or the other -- if not tomorrow, then the day after.

The U.S. government has been spending a great deal more than it has been taking in, and it is on track to do so well beyond the next 10 years. It has been borrowing money to make all that spending possible and it has to pay the money back with interest. How, you ask? By borrowing more.

The solution is straightforward if unpleasant: Shy of finding a fairy willing to leave trillions under Uncle Sam's pillow, lawmakers will have to raise taxes and cut spending.

The more the country lives on a credit card, the more it makes itself beholden to the demands of its creditors -- many of which are overseas. The danger is that buyers of U.S. debt could become concerned that the country is running too high a balance. If so, they will demand higher interest rates -- thereby making the country's debt problem worse -- or they'll put their money elsewhere.

At that point, things would get ugly.

"Taxes would rise to levels that would make a Scandinavian revolt. And the government would not be able to provide anything but the most basic public services. We would no longer be a great power (or even a mediocre one), and the social safety net would evaporate," tax policy expert and Syracuse University professor Len Burman wrote in a recent op-ed cheerfully titled "Catastrophic Budget Failure."

Top Democrat Attacks Moderates in Democratic Party

Key Democrat suggests party moderates 'brain dead'

A key House liberal suggested Thursday that party moderates who've pushed for changes in health care legislation are "brain dead" and out for insurance company campaign donations.

Moderate Blue Dog Democrats "just want to cause trouble," said Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., who heads the health subcommittee on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

"They're for the most part, I hate to say brain dead, but they're just looking to raise money from insurance companies and promote a right-wing agenda that is not really very useful in this whole process," Stark told reporters on a conference call.

The GOP is doing all it can to run moderates out of their party. Are the Democrats now doing the same thing?

Poor discarded moderates. It seems that no one wants you.

Someone should start a new party, just for you.

Political Change Coming to Japan

Japan's long-ruling government braced for election defeat

Seismic political shift gives opposition party upper hand ahead of Sunday's elections as voters lose faith in Taro Aso's government

After being governed for 53 of the past 54 years by the LDP, voters are preparing to send the main opposition, the Democratic party of Japan (DPJ), into office with an overwhelming majority.

In an indication of the scale of the defeat facing the prime minister, Taro Aso, a poll in today's Asahi Shimbun newspaper suggested the LDP's strength in the lower house could be more than halved to about 100 seats, with the opposition taking as many as 320 seats in the 480-seat chamber.

If economic meltdown wasn't enough to contend with, Aso's hapless administration has been dragged into the mire by charges of sleaze and incompetence, their corrosive effects magnified by his knack for gaffes.

As Japan grapples with rising unemployment, population decline and a creaking state pension, the certainties of the postwar era have disappeared, and with them the LDP's sense of entitlement as the natural party of government.

Two Worthy Articles About Ted Kennedy

ReasonOnline: Ted Kennedy and the Death (Hopefully) of an Era
The controversial senator belonged to a different age, one ill-suited to today's increasingly decentralized world

The legislation for which he will be remembered is precisely the sort of top-down, centralized legislation that needs to be jettisoned in the 21st century. Like Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) and the recently deposed Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Kennedy was in fact a man out of time, a bridge back to the past rather than a guide to the future.

His mind-set was very much of a piece with a best-and-the-brightest, centralized mentality that has never served America well over the long haul. Bigger was better, and government at every level but especially at the highest level, had to lead the way.

In an increasingly flat, dispersed, networked world in which power, information, knowledge, purchasing power, and more was rapidly decentralizing, Kennedy was all for sitting at the top of a pyramid and directing activity. In this way, he was of his time and place, a post-war America that figured that all the kinks of everyday life had been mastered by a few experts in government, business, and culture. All you needed to do was have the right guys twirling the dials up and down. As thoughtful observers of all political stripes have noted, this sort of thinking was at best delusional, at worst destructive. And it was always massively expensive.

There is, buried deep within Kennedy's legislative legacy, a different set of policies worth exhuming and examining, precisely because they were truly a break with the normal way of doing business in Washington. During the 1970s, Kennedy was instrumental in deregulating the interstate trucking industry and airline ticket prices, two innovations that have vastly improved the quality of life in America even as—or more precisely, because—they pushed power out of D.C. and into the pocketbooks of everyday Americans. We are incalculably richer and better off because something like actual prices replaced regulatory fiat in trucking and flying.

Because they do not fit the Ted Kennedy narrative preferred by his admirers and detractors alike, these accomplishments rarely get mentioned in stories about the late senator. But they are exactly the sort of legislation that we should be celebrating in his honor, and using as a model in today's debates about health care, education, and virtually every aspect of government action.


PoliGazette: Hoist On Their Own Petard

The death of Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy has not only removed a major liberal leader from the Senate, but it has also caused the partisan game-playing of the Democratic-controlled Massachusetts legislature to backfire in a major way. In 2004, when Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry was expected by Democrats to easily defeat President George W. Bush’s bid for reelection, Democrats in the legislature changed the rules to prevent Republican then-Governor Mitt Romney from appointing his successor by requiring a special election to fill Senate vacancies.

Alas, Kerry proved to be an abominable candidate and Bush’s reelection appeared to relegate this partisan gamesmanship to an unimportant footnote. No one bothered to reverse the decision once the Democrats regained control of the Governor’s office. Now, in spite of Senator Kennedy’s own belated plea that he be replaced quickly by a Democrat that could vote in favor of health care reform in the Senate, Democrats are stuck with the unforeseen consequences of their 2004 effort to change the political rulebook into a partisan plaything.

Unemployment Benefits Ending

Laid-off workers eye the abyss

With 1.5 million set to lose jobless benefits, many don't know how they'll get by

Despite repeated extensions of the unemployment compensation program — up to a record 79 weeks in many states, compared to the standard 26 weeks in normal times — some 1.5 million people are expected to exhaust their benefits by year’s end.

In the first big wave, some 540,000 are expected to fall out of the program by the end of September, according to the nonprofit National Employment Law Project.

Seems That Taxes Are Just For Us Little People

TaxProfBlog: Tax Court Rejects Taxpayer's Attempt to Use Geithner's TurboTax Defense
The Tax Court yesterday rejected a taxpayer's attempt to use the TurboTax defense successfully employed by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
From the comments: John Edwards was right. There are two "Americas". One for the politically connected. Another for everyone else.

27 August 2009

Should We Be Celebrating Decades In Office For One Family?

So what are my thoughts on the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy? I will leave aside all of the topics and controversies that can easily be found elsewhere, and just use the occasion to call attention to two issues.

Political Dynasty. We have all heard it so much, I guess it no longer makes an impact, but should we really be celebrating a dynastic political family? Out of the 300 million Americans, why do we insist on putting a single family into various offices?

Shouldn't progressives note that larger principles of self-governance are at stake? Isn't his career at odds with a desire for a more egalitarian society? What is so equal about a family placed in power over decades? I understand that they are pleased by the policies advocated, but is there really no one else to pursue these policies? Aren't they violating some of their own beliefs about equality and opportunity by keeping this family in power?

I also always wondered about how the relatively politically and socially open Roman society degenerated into the feudal system, with citizens turning into peasants looking for protection to noble families and the establishment of hereditary offices. Did it look like this? A popular family placed into power, to the cheering of crowds.

Should we celebrate decades in office? I would rather we lament it. A political culture so weak, that despite all of the controversies, Ted could not be pried out of office. Why should we celebrate this entrenchment of power? Is it admirable or beneficial?

Shouldn't Americans encourage turnover in office? I mean, in office since 1962? Does that not strike you as a bit excessive? When he went into office, the world was a different place. How could he possibly have been in touch with the concerns of your life? Further, he never had to live with the consequences of any law that he passed.

Our media treats us to rhetoric that would make a medieval defender of the divine rights of kings blush. Aren't we better than bowing and scraping to a entrenched, powerful family?

Why Do You Support The Two Major Parties?

Poli-Tea Party: John McCain: I Don't Know Why Americans Continue to Support the Two-Party System. Check out the exchange. The two party system is hard to defend.

Government must be "taken back" from the "special interests." And the most powerful special interests in Washington D.C. are, of course, the Republican and Democratic Parties.

The question for voters is thus not why should they continue to support the major parties, but rather why do they continue to support the major parties?


The Racist Who Might Head UNESCO

FP: Very, Very Lost in Translation
How the Egyptian literary czar who wants to lead the world's top cultural body got caught up in his own country's rabid anti-Semitism.

To say that Farouk Hosni doesn't much like Israel is putting it lightly. According to the Anti-Defamation League, he has called it "inhuman," and "an aggressive, racist, and arrogant culture, based on robbing other people's rights and the denial of such rights." He has accused Jews of "infiltrating" world media. And in May 2008, Hosni outdid even himself, telling the Egyptian parliament that he would "burn right in front of you" any Israeli books found in the country's libraries.

What's shocking is not just that Hosni has said these things, but that he is Egypt's culture minister -- and even more scandalous, that he is the likely next head of UNESCO, the arm of the United Nations sworn to defend cultural diversity and international artistic cooperation.

Consequences of Deficit Catastrophe

What the expression? "If a trend can not go on forever, it will stop." How long can these deficits go on? They can't go on forever. There are limits to even the U.S.A.'s credit. The government seems determined to find out just what that limit is.

I would rather they didn't.

China Tears Up America’s Credit Cards
Government data released for June 2009 shows that China has begun to make good on it’s forecast to start reducing exposure to US government debt. This was not done for ideological or political reasons, as some may claim, but rather because of an honest risk vs. reward assessment and internal forces threatening to tear the rosy veneer from China’s economy
As Budget Deficit Grows, So Do Doubts on Dollar

The U.S. economy may be showing signs of recovering from the financial crisis, but the jury is still out on the future of the U.S. dollar.

While many analysts expect the dollar to strengthen in coming months as the crisis fades and the U.S. economy turns toward growth, a growing chorus of investors is expressing concern about the longer-term outlook for the greenback.

In a new twist to an old refrain among economists, who have long worried about the effects of growing U.S. debt, they say that the huge liabilities the U.S. is taking on to dig its way out of crisis could ultimately undermine faith in the dollar.

"There has been a lot of disappointment with the way the U.S. credit crisis was handled," says Claire Dissaux, managing director of global economics and strategy for Millennium Global Investments Ltd., a London investment firm specializing in currencies. "The dollar's loss of influence is a steady and long-term trend."

Ten Year Deficit Projection Not $9 Trillion (Disaster) But $14 Trillion (Calamity)


Economist Mom: You Think $9 Trillion Sounds Bad?

How about $14 trillion?

$9 trillion ($9.051 trillion) is the Obama Administration’s 10-year deficit projection based on their own economic forecast and their own estimate of the costs of their policy proposals (as proposed in their FY2010 budget).

$7 trillion ($7.137 trillion) is the Congressional Budget Office’s 10-year deficit projection based on their economic forecast and policies already in place in current law. If you start with CBO’s more pessimistic baseline budget outlook of $7 trillion in deficits (by the way, the equivalent pre-policy baseline estimated by the Administration is $6.259 trillion), then add in the CBO-estimated cost of policies that have a good chance of coming true in the future (but aren’t yet written into law), you can come up with a projection that is perhaps more “plausible” than both the Administration’s (optimistic) $9 trillion and CBO’s (naive baseline-constrained) $7 trillion.

That’s what we at Concord try to do when we come up with our “Concord Plausible Baseline,” which based on today’s CBO report shows that current policy would lead to $14.4 trillion in deficits over the next 10 years.

A Vision of Our Economic and Political Future?

African view: Devoured by greed?

But what are laws in an environment with pervasive corruption and uncontrollable greed?

26 August 2009

Somalis Captured The Wrong Frenchman

Give this guy the award for being the most badass Frenchman. Note that after excaping his captors, he was still in Somalia. Like escaping jail to find yourself in prison. Somalia, not being the best place for a French guy.

But this fellow is not your average frog.

BBC: Frenchman 'flees Somali captors'
A French security adviser seized by Islamist militants in Somalia has escaped his captors, officials say.

The Frenchman, who was kidnapped from a hotel in Mogadishu along with a colleague last month, reportedly killed three militants as he fled.

The BBC's Mohammed Olad Hassan, in Mogadishu, says the two French captives were being held by different factions.

While fighters from the Hizbul-Islam group were holding the man whose release has been confirmed, their allies from al-Shabab were thought to be holding the other man.

The two groups control much of southern Somalia, but analysts say al-Shabab is known for being the more radical of the two groups.

Al-Shabab fighters care little for their public image and they have carried out killings on camera.

Both groups are said to have links to al-Qaeda and have been reinforced by foreign fighters.

Rangel Even Richer Than Before. So Rich, He Can't Keep Track Of It All. How Do You Get Rich On A Congressional Salary Since 1971?

CQ Politics: Rangel’s Wealth Jumps After Disclosure. Outrageous. Read the whole story.

House Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel, already beset by a series of ethics investigations, has disclosed more than $500,000 in previously unreported assets.

Among the new items on Rangel’s amended 2007 financial disclosure report were an account at the Congressional Federal Credit Union worth at least $250,000, an investment account with at least $250,000, land in southern New Jersey and stock in PepsiCo and fast food conglomerate Yum! Brands. None of those investments appeared on the original report, which was filled out by hand and filed in May 2008.

According to the original report, Rangel’s net worth was between $516,015 and $1,316,000, while the amended report showed his net worth, as of Dec. 31, 2007, roughly double that amount — at least $1,028,024 and as much as $2,495,000.

Earlier this year, the Sunlight Foundation found similar problems with Rangel’s previous disclosure reports. According to the group’s analysis, Rangel failed to report purchases, sales or his ownership of assets at least 28 times since 1978 on his personal financial disclosure forms. Assets worth between $239,026 and $831,000 appeared and disappeared with no disclosure of when they were acquired, how long they were held or when they were sold, as House rules require.

Sunlight Foundation senior fellow Bill Allison said Rangel reported Pepsico stock worth between $1,001 and $15,000 was reported in 2001, 2002 and 2003 but was sold in 2004. He said Rangel reported credit union assets between 1985 and 1990, then it disappeared and reappeared in 2001 at a value of between $15,001 and $15,000.

“I understand being sloppy, missing an asset once or twice,” said Allison, “But what this shows is he doesn’t take financial disclosure seriously. How else can you year after year have these inaccuracies? It doesn’t look like there is a lot of care put it into compared to other members.”

Rangel is already the subject of two separate investigations by the House ethics committee, and the latest disclosures will only bring more scrutiny to the chairman, whose committee is deeply involved in the debate over changing the health care system.

Soaring Deficits To Increase Our Dependence On Chinese Goodwill

They are laughing at us, not with us.

Washington Post: Deficit Projected To Soar With New Programs
[G]overnment spending on social programs will continue to soar while tax collections lag behind previous expectations. Deficits are likely to remain elevated even after the economy recovers, averaging more than $800 billion a year through 2019, when the White House forecasts that the annual gap between spending and revenue will be $917 billion.

Deficits of that magnitude would require dramatically more government borrowing from China and other creditors, driving the accumulated national debt to nearly $23 trillion in 2019 -- or 76.5 percent of yearly gross domestic product, the highest proportion since 1950, the White House said.

Chinese officials have expressed concern about the security of their investments, and some economists fear that the appetite for U.S. Treasurys could dry up as the nation's budget outlook deteriorates and its demand for credit grows. As a result, the government could face ever higher interest rates, further worsening the budget picture and threatening the integrity of the dollar.

Game Over For GOP and Latinos?

PJM: The GOP’s Hispanic Problem
Republicans would do well to avoid feeding the narrative that they are anti-Hispanic.

I’m hearing from a lot of Latinos from all around the country who tell me that it’s “game over” and that the GOP has cooked its chorizo with voters like them because of how the Republican senators treated Sotomayor. It’s not just the “no” votes. It’s the fact that those votes came with side orders of condescension and hostility and even ethnic-ribbing as when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, channeled Ricky Ricardo and informed the federal judge that she “had some ‘splaining to do.”

Nice. Fit that man for a white sheet and matching hood.

Not surprisingly, Republicans are in denial about the backlash and don’t want to accept it. They’re whistling past the graveyard and telling themselves that they won’t pay a price for petty and condescending opposition to the first Latina Supreme Court nominee in U.S. history.

Good luck with that, folks.

Proposed Health Care Bill Imposes Strict Liability for Tax Mistakes

WSJ: Tax Penalties and the Health-Care Bill

Under the House legislation, taxpayers will be fined for honest mistakes.

Two tax provisions in the health-care bill voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee earlier this summer have gained significant attention. One would impose a surtax on high-income earners. The other would force individuals (or their employers) who do not have approved health-insurance plans to pay a tax penalty. But there are other "revenue provisions" in the bill that also deserve a close look.
One would change the law to mandate that the Internal Revenue Service slap penalties on honest but errant taxpayers.

Under current law, taxpayers who lose an argument with the IRS can generally avoid penalties by showing they tried in good faith to comply with the tax law. In a broad range of circumstances, the health-care bill would change the law to impose strict liability penalties for income-tax underpayments, meaning that taxpayers will no longer have the luxury of making an honest mistake. The ability of even the IRS to waive penalties in sympathetic cases would be sharply curtailed.

The proposed changes in penalty rules have largely escaped notice because they are buried in a part of the bill that purports to deal with abusive tax shelters. They are barely mentioned in the Ways and Means Committee summary. Their inclusion in the bill underscores the need to read it closely. If anyone had doubts about the value of loading the text of the bill into a wheelbarrow and bringing it to the beach this August, the proposed changes to tax penalties should dispel them.

Discussion here.

Part of a larger trend imposing more crimes and penalties, and expanding what is illegal. It has gotten to the point so that at any given moment, you are probably in technical violation of some federal law.

The other point is, what is in this thing? I wonder who put that provision in? Members of Congress wouldn't understand this stuff even if they read it. Probably some staffer trying to punish an ex-spouse or something.

Conflict of Interest in Health Care Reform Effort

Sunlight Foundation: Daschle: Shadow Secretary & Health Care Lobbyist?
Despite his withdrawal from consideration for the Health and Human Services (HHS) cabinet position, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle remains a powerful voice in the health care debate. The New York Times reported over the weekend that Daschle still commands the ear of those at the White House and may be acting as a shadow HHS Secretary in health care discussions. But behind those Lafont Providence glasses and the genial Great Plains demeanor lies a list of health care clients that exposes a serious conflict of interest as the former senator attempts to influence policy.

Holder Demands His Pound of Flesh

Screaming At White House: CIA Director threatens resignation over plans to launch CIA witch hunts.

Concerns grow over ability to respond to next terror attack.

Will CIA employees be paralyzed with fear of taking action?

Remember -- Osama Bin Laden would be dead now if not for fears of prosecution for killing him.

Questioning the timing of the legal assault by Holder. Is the White House trying to deflect attention from failures on health care, Stimulus, Bailouts, economy, environmental/cap and trade, foreign policy, and the exploding deficit?

Biggest. Deficits. Ever.

New U.S. motto: The red ink must flow.

Decade of Debt: $9 Trillion

The deteriorating budget picture, detailed Tuesday in separate White House and congressional reports, comes just as Democrats and Republicans prepare to resume the battle over Democratic plans to spend $1 trillion overhauling the nation's health-care system.

The White House has released its budget deficit estimates and the news is grim, WSJ's Deborah Solomon reports. With economic output tipped to fall by almost 3% this year, the U.S. economy is facing more tough times.

The numbers -- including a White House forecast of $9 trillion in additional debt over the next decade -- could affect Mr. Obama's efforts to increase spending in a host of areas, from education to foreign aid. Some budget experts also reiterated their belief that tax increases may need to hit families that the president has vowed to protect.
White House budget director Peter Orszag, in an interview Tuesday, said the deficit projections are "higher than desirable" and the administration is working to bring them down in the 2011 budget proposal due early next year.

Asked if that meant tax changes affecting families earning below $250,000 -- something Mr. Obama has pledged he would avoid -- Mr. Orszag replied: "We're in the midst of putting together the 2011 budget, and we'll have more to say about that later."

The deficit projections, from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, came the same day the president renominated Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. The deficit numbers complicate Mr. Bernanke's task in navigating the economy toward stability and recovery. Fed officials say the U.S. must show progress on deficit reduction by next year to avoid the possibility of a rise in interest rates, which might be needed otherwise to entice global investors to keep buying U.S.-government bonds.

Big deficits could also weaken the dollar against foreign currencies. That could fuel inflation as the cost of imports rises in dollar terms.

25 August 2009

Lockerbie Terrorist Released by Scotland Not That Sick -- Doctors Now Say Megrahi Could Live For Years

Telegraph (UK): Lockerbie bomber's prognosis under 'significant doubt'
The Lockerbie bomber could live far longer than predicted by Scottish ministers when they decided to release him, a cancer expert has warned.

Dr Richard Simpson said that medical reports show there is “significant doubt” that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi will die within the next three months.

The Labour MSP accused Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish justice minister, of failing to conduct sufficient checks before deciding to release the terminally-ill bomber last week.

This attack was echoed by the Tories, who said that the most recent medical consensus was Megrahi would live eight months, too long to be eligible for compassionate release.

A storm of international condemnation has met Mr MacAskill's ruling last week to release Megrahi, who is suffering from prostate cancer, on compassionate grounds.
Scottish Prison Service (SPS) guidelines suggest that inmates are only freed if they have less than three months to live.

However, Dr Simpson, who specialised in prostate disease research, said: “It is clear to me from the medical reports and the opinion of the specialists that Megrahi could live for many more months.

”Kenny MacAskill released him apparently on the advice of just one doctor whose status is not clear and who is not named.”

Dr Simpson, a former member of the British Association of Urological Surgeons' prostate cancer working group, said the minister should have sought a second opinion from a specialist in palliative care.

A health assessment compiled by a SPS medical officer for Mr MacAskill, states that last autumn Megrahi was given between 18 months and two years to live.

10th Amendment Neglect

An excerpt from Uncommonly Common Sense: The Importance of the 10th Amendment

As we look at what America has become over the last 20 years or so, I often wonder if what we have now is what the founders intended. Both Republicans and Democrats have done a really nice job of consolidating power in Washington. They have successfully funneled pretty much all money, and the resulting power, from lobbyists, big money donors, special interest groups, etc. to Washington. There is some state activity, but it pales in comparison.

I cannot imagine that the founders wanted this. There must have been a reason for the 10th Amendment, which states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

That one sentence, in its simplicity, is a profound statement of rebuke to a centralized power structure.

Senator Lieberman (I-CT) Against CIA Scapegoating

Lieberman Slams Holder's Investigation of CIA Officials

A statement from the Connecticut senator:

“I respectfully regret this decision by Attorney General Holder and fear our country will come to regret it too because an open ended criminal investigation of past CIA activity, which has already been condemned and prohibited, will have a chilling effect on the men and women agents of our intelligence community whose uninhibited bravery and skill we depend on every day to protect our homeland from the next terrorist attack.

"Career prosecutors in the Department of Justice have previously reviewed allegations of abuse and concluded that prosecution was not warranted, with the exception of one CIA contractor who has already been convicted. President Obama has established clear guidelines to ensure that past abuses are not repeated and has stated his desire to look forward rather than backward.

"We cannot take for granted the fact that our homeland has not been attacked since September 11, 2001. That has occurred only because of the constant vigilance and unflinching efforts by those brave individuals in our military, civilian homeland security and counterterrorism agencies, and the intelligence community.

"These public servants must of course live within the law but they must also be free to do their dangerous and critical jobs without worrying that years from now a future Attorney General will authorize a criminal investigation of them for behavior that a previous Attorney General concluded was authorized and legal.”

Fury Grows Over Release of Lockerbie Convict

The uproar in Britain over the release of the only person convicted in the Lockerbie bombing gathered momentum on Monday, with critics saying at an emergency session of the Scottish Parliament that the Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, had brought shame on Scotland and jeopardized its relations with the United States.

The fury in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, echoed indignation in the United States from President Obama; the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III; prominent senators; and relatives of those who died on Pan Am Flight 103.

The release has developed into the most abrasive issue between Britain and the United States in years, and, opposition critics said in Edinburgh, one that could damage Scotland’s tourism and investment from the United States.

Septimus has said, "Liberals have been wrong about everything my whole life." Few occasions have caused me think about that statement more than this release.

I've read about the other options Scotland had, such as transferring him to a Libyan prison or moving him to a hospice in Scotland. Whatever happened to letting him die in prison? Why bother sentencing anyone to "life", when that's not what they mean?

I Mean, I Guess It Was Nice of the Rest of Us, and All, But ...

I never understood why it was a good idea for my children to have to pay back more money to China, with interest, for the next 30 years, so some people could get a better deal on a car today.

It will be interesting to see what car sales will be over the next few months.

Sen. Lieberman to Alec Baldwin: 'Make my day'

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman has a message for actor Alec Baldwin, who is reportedly considering a move to Connecticut to challenge Lieberman in 2012: "Make my day."

Lieberman addressed the issue Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." He says that he respects the "30 Rock" star as an actor and comedian.

Baldwin told Playboy magazine that he was considering moving to Connecticut to run against Lieberman, saying he has "no use" for the independent senator.

Lieberman was re-elected to the Senate in 2006 as an independent after he lost the Democratic primary. He was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000 and spoke at last year's Republican National Convention.

Baldwin is a good actor and his Schweddy Balls skits on SNL are legendary, but a senator? I'm sure Baldwin has the coin to run, but I don't see him dealing with the media onslaught very well and I bet he's not keen on having his life picked over by the vultures.
Lieberman would also make a great Whig.

Stopping At Nothing To Get What They Want

Senate Democrats Consider Tactic to Push Through Government Health Plan

Senate Democrats said Sunday that they were fleshing out plans to pass health legislation, particularly the option of a new government-run insurance program, with a simple majority, instead of the 60 votes that would ordinarily be needed to overcome a filibuster.

In the last week, Democrats have begun to talk openly of using a procedure known as budget reconciliation to pass a health bill in the Senate with a simple majority, assuming no Republican support. To do that, under Senate rules, they would probably need to show that the public plan changed federal spending or revenues and that the effects were not “merely incidental” to the changes in health policy.
Democrats believe they could clear this hurdle by demonstrating that the public plan would save money or cost money.

“If a public plan is shown to have a cost to the government that affects outlays or revenues, it could be included in a health care bill using reconciliation procedures,” said Martin P. Paone, a former Senate aide who has been consulted by Senate Democrats.

Republicans object to both the idea of a new government plan and the use of expedited procedures to push it through the Senate on a simple majority vote.

Britian Trades Blood For Oil

Huffington Post: Britain's New Royalty -- The Oil Potentates

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that the act of releasing al-Megrahi had been the the decision of the Scottish Secretary alone. But was it?? Or as commented in the Financial Times, politicians are now prepared to go to extra lengths to maintain good relations with his country -- the richest in North Africa and an important supplier of energy to Europe. Even more pointedly according to Lord Trefgarne, Mr. al-Megrahi's release had opened the way for Britain's leading oil companies to pursue multibillion dollar oil contracts with Libya which had demanded Mr. al-Megrahi's return in talks with British officials and business executives.

Scandalous? Perhaps. But then again maybe not if this has become Britain's new norm. Kowtowing to moneyed Middle Eastern/North African oil interests may not be new but it does assume a singular level of malice when it is dealt with in such a brazen manner trashing tradition and principles of law, in the lust for lucre or responding to outright intimidation and blackmail.

May one make a suggestion. When visiting your new friend, in greeting remember body must be prostrate on the floor with arms flung forward and with nose and forehead touching the ground.

WSJ: 'Dear Moammar' The U.K.'s bad deal with Libya's Gadhafi.

Mr. Brown, who has been outspoken about business opportunities in Libya, discussed Megrahi's prospective release with Gadhafi at the G-8 summit in July, while U.K. Business Secretary Peter Mandelson had his own discussions with Seif. A letter to Mr. MacAskill from Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis noted that no legal reason prevented Megrahi's release, and added that "I hope on this basis you will now feel able to consider the Libyan application."

Prince Andrew has previously led trade delegations to Libya and was planning to attend a forthcoming gala celebration in honor of Gadhafi's 1969 seizure of power. That trip has now been scrapped, though we wonder what part of Gadhafi's dictatorship it would have been appropriate for the Prince to celebrate: the terrorism abroad, or the brutality at home?

24 August 2009

Quote of the day

"Scotland’s decision to release Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi from prison gives comfort to terrorists around the world and makes a mockery of the rule of law.” -- FBI Director Robert Mueller

I Should Have Known Something Was Up When They Asked Me To Mark My Slate

Today was the first day of school here in Houston.

I was filling out the dozens of tedious forms, and I noticed that the main registration form asks for a back up adult to contact in the event of an emergency, and if the parents can not be reached.

A reasonable request I thought, as I entered the information of my mother-in-law, my children's grandmother. I entered her phone, her cell number, her mailing address ...
Wait a second -- mailing address?

What is the school going to do in an emergency? Send a letter?

Dear Grandmother:
There has been an emergency. Your grandchild's parents cannot be reached.
Within ten days of the receipt of this letter, please hitch up your wagon and come to school and fetch her.
Sincerely,
The School Nurse

What is the point of an emergency contact's mailing address?

Bonuses Benefit Backlogged Bureaucrats

CNN: VA workers given millions in bonuses as vets await checks

While hundreds of thousands of disability claims lay backlogged at the Department of Veterans Affairs, thousands of technology employees at the department received $24 million in bonuses, a new report says.

A report issued by the VA's Office of Inspector General said the department issued millions of dollars in awards over a two-year period in 2007 and 2008.

"The frequent and large dollar amount awards given to employees were unusual and often absurd," the report stated.

The reports also called the payments "not fiscally responsible."

President Obama has told Congress it is a priority to reduce the number of backlogged claims at the VA, where claims are coming in at a faster rate than they can be processed.

According to a Government Accountability Office report, the VA processed 60 percent more claims from 1999 to 2008 than it did a decade earlier, but the number of claims still pending jumped 65 percent.

A Corrupt Oil Deal Behind Britain's Release of Terrorist

Daily News: U.S. pols question Brits' dealings with Khadafy in relation to Lockerbie bomber's release

The uproar over the Lockerbie bomber's release grew Sunday as U.S. politicians demanded to know if Britain and Libya had a secret deal to trade the terrorist's freedom for oil.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman called suggestions of a deal "shocking" and urged an investigation. "I don't want to believe that they are true, but they are hanging so heavily in the air that I hope that our friends in Britain will convene an independent investigation," Lieberman (I-Conn.) told CNN.

In New York, Sen. Chuck Schumer also demanded answers to the questions swirling around Thursday's release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who is dying of cancer. "Was there a quid pro quo here?" Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked at a news conference. "I don't know if that's the truth, but if it is: shame, shame, shame on the British government."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was under blistering fire at home for what critics called his "astonishing" refusal to speak publicly about the matter.
"When the going gets tough, Gordon Brown disappears," sniped Conservative Party pol Liam Fox.

Both Brown and his secretary of state for business, Lord Mandelson, had separate private meetings with Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy and his son in the weeks before the release of the only man convicted of blowing up Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

They acknowledged discussing the prisoner, but denied any quid pro quo. "It's not only completely wrong to make such a suggestion, it's also quite offensive," Mandelson said.

But Khadafy's son, Saif al-Islam, said that "in all commercial contracts for oil and gas with Britain, Megrahi was always on the negotiating table." Several major British energy companies, including BP and Shell, have invested heavily in oil and gas exploration in Libya.

Lord Trefgarne, chairman of the Libyan-British Business Council, said U.K. firms would see "benefits" from Megrahi's release.

The Mail: Lockerbie: Now it's payback time... America boycotts British goods as anger grows over release of bomber

If Britain has flouted justice and decency to feather its nest in a squalid deal with Gaddafi, the scandal will know no bounds

At the very least the British Government appears to have privately supported the decision announced in Edinburgh, and it may have actively connived in it. Aside from Gordon Brown and the Foreign Office, the serpentine and serially untrustworthy Lord Mandelson may have been involved.

Perhaps the most damning piece of new evidence among many is a transcript obtained by the Sunday Telegraph of a conversation between Megrahi and Saif Gaddafi, son of the Libyan dictator, as the pair flew from Glasgow to Libya at the end of last week. Gaddafi told the freed bomber that his name had been 'on the table in all commercial, oil and gas agreements we supervised during this period'.

One of these 'agreements', made in 2007, was for BP to invest countless billions developing oil and gas fields in Libya.

Another key exhibit is a letter supposedly written by Ivan Lewis, the Foreign Office Minister responsible for Libya, to the Scottish government encouraging officials to send home Abdelbaset Ali Al Megrahi. If this letter was written in the terms that have been reported, it would amount to proof that the British Government was prepared to let Megrahi escape his sentence for mass murder in order to butter up the Libyans, and facilitate new trade deals.

We already knew that Gordon Brown had discussed the terrorist's possible release when he met the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, six weeks ago at the G8 summit in Italy. Mr Brown was said by No 10 at the time to have replied that the matter was entirely for the Scottish government to determine.

Now a letter from No 10 to Colonel Gaddafi, sent after Megrahi's release last week, suggests that at that meeting the Prime Minister was able to envisage without any qualms the prospect of Edinburgh letting the terrorist go. No wonder Colonel Gaddafi publicly thanked Mr Brown on Saturday.

Doesn't all this sound extremely fishy? The Libyan Government had repeatedly pressed for the convicted bomber to be set free, and it seems that, at the bare minimum, the British Government gave the SNP government the green light.

Deficit Concerns Impact Health Care Reforms

Growing deficit frames health care debate

Lawmakers said Sunday that President Obama must scale back ambitious plans to overhaul health care because ballooning budget deficits are undermining support for more comprehensive and costly legislation.

As the White House prepares to release worse-than-expected deficit projections this week, even Democrats in Congress said that whatever health care bill emerges this fall will have to cost less than the $1 trillion price tag contemplated earlier this year.

"It's going to have to be significantly less than what we've heard talked about," Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., one of six senators from both parties seeking a bipartisan health care bill, said on CBS' Face the Nation. "We've got to have the deficit reduced as a result of this effort. That is absolutely imperative."

Now, the health care debate is being framed by new figures expected Tuesday that will show deficits totaling $9 trillion over the next 10 years, up from the $7 trillion predicted in May, the Associated Press reported, citing White House officials. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the numbers have not been officially announced.

Positions Available in Obama Administration

NY Times: Obama’s Team Is Lacking Most of Its Top Players

As President Obama tries to turn around a summer of setbacks, he finds himself still without most of his own team. Seven months into his presidency, fewer than half of his top appointees are in place advancing his agenda.

Of more than 500 senior policymaking positions requiring Senate confirmation, just 43 percent have been filled — a reflection of a White House that grew more cautious after several nominations blew up last spring, a Senate that is intensively investigating nominees and a legislative agenda that has consumed both.

While career employees or holdovers fill many posts on a temporary basis, Mr. Obama does not have his own people enacting programs central to his mission. He is trying to fix the financial markets but does not have an assistant treasury secretary for financial markets. He is spending more money on transportation than anyone since Dwight D. Eisenhower but does not have his own inspector general watching how the dollars are used. He is fighting two wars but does not have an Army secretary.

He sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Africa to talk about international development but does not have anyone running the Agency for International Development. He has invited major powers to a summit on nuclear nonproliferation but does not have an assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation.

Blame is being freely passed around. After several early nominees were discovered to have failed to pay some taxes, the White House tightened its vetting. The Senate Finance Committee has a former Internal Revenue Service official helping to go through many nominees’ taxes. And Republican senators are holding up nominees like John McHugh for Army secretary to influence what happens to the detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The Finance Committee argued that fault lay elsewhere. Scott Mulhauser, a spokesman for the panel, said it had approved 14 of 16 nominees whose paperwork was received before July. But officials said the process had become so intrusive that many candidates declined to be considered.

Fighting Poverty and Extremism by Educating Women

The Women’s Crusade

There’s a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. That’s why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women. The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.

Honduran Supreme Court Confirms Micheletti, Rejects Zeleya Deal

BBC: Honduras court shuns Zelaya deal

Honduras's supreme court has rejected a Costa Rica-brokered deal to restore ousted President Manuel Zelaya to power and ordered his arrest if he returns.

The ruling also affirmed the legitimacy of the government of interim leader Roberto Micheletti.

The court reminded Mr Zelaya that he faces several charges - including crimes against the government, treason, and abuse of power - and would be subject to trial if he re-entered the country.

It said Mr Micheletti's government had been installed as part of a lawful "constitutional succession".

23 August 2009

Both Parties Doing Dismal Job

From The Hill's Pundit's Blog: Neither side is a winner these days

I am not placing any bets on the Democrats or Republicans at this juncture, seeing the dismal job both parties have done finding remotely sensible, pragmatic, reasonable or constructive ways to fix our broken healthcare system.

Moving on to the Republicans, and something for me to agree on with Brent, the GOP should shudder at two back-to-back polls showing the public has changed its opinion NOT ONE IOTA about the GOP — 21 percent approval and not budging. The Republican Party has not shown any interest in governing throughout the healthcare debate and I have written here that they not only 1) know we can't keep our obligations to federal healthcare spending, that Medicare has to be cut and they shouldn't be defenders of entitlement spending; but also that 2) at the rate healthcare costs are rising, in something like five to 10 years small businesses they champion won't be able to offer their employees any coverage. Period.

The only Republican I have seen making the case that healthcare needs reforming and that "this is a debate worth having" was former Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.). But House Minority Leader John Boehner's (R-Ohio) decision to scold the CEO of the pharmaceutical lobby ... for cooperating and seeking consensus with Democrats and the White House tells us all we need to know.

These are very troubling times and all eyes are on the Democrats because they are in charge of our entire government. I do give them credit for trying to tackle healthcare, but right now, Democrats are not leading ... they are flailing around. But don't mistake my criticism of their handling of healthcare with praise for the GOP's ducking a critical issue.

The Bottomless Pit

AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: The toxic trio
American taxpayers are ploughing billions in. Will they get their money back?

FORGET the banks and the carmakers. The biggest bets that American taxpayers have made are on three less famous firms: American International Group (AIG), an insurer, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two mortgage-finance agencies. The state now owns about $170 billion of shares in banks. It has so far invested over $160 billion of equity in the toxic trio, and this number is likely to rise towards $300 billion. Include other kinds of help, such as loans, and the total pumped into the three firms could eventually reach $800 billion (see table), or 6% of GDP.

The danger to taxpayers comes in two forms. First, the Fed has lent $44 billion to two special-purpose vehicles, into which many of AIG’s flakiest securities have been dumped, including derivatives written on structured-credit instruments. At the end of March these vehicles were $5.4 billion in the red: unless prices recover taxpayers will ultimately take the hit. Second, the Treasury has $43 billion of preferred shares in AIG itself. So far the firm’s core book value (the value of its assets) is about equal to that, suggesting that the investment is covered.

These risks, though, pale into insignificance compared with Fannie and Freddie. The two have racked up colossal losses. As Wall Street ate into their securitisation business, they branched into buying debt securities worth some $1.6 trillion. Of this about $230 billion turned out to be toxic, with losses of almost $90 billion at market prices. Future pain will come from the traditional guarantee business. The pair have underwritten $4.8 trillion of mortgages between them and delinquency rates are rising along with unemployment. Impairments are likely to be only 4-5% of the total but that would be more than enough to sink the two agencies.

The government has agreed to fund these losses with equity injections of up to $400 billion. It has invested $98 billion so far, and Rajiv Setia of Barclays Capital thinks the total cumulative capital required will be $160 billion-200 billion. It could turn out worse. The book value of the two firms, using market prices and excluding the existing equity from the state as well as tax assets, showed a capital shortfall of $280 billion at the end of June. This sum is a proxy for how much taxpayers will lose unless prices recover.

It will be a miracle if taxpayers get their money back from Fannie and Freddie.

Islamic Law: Drink a Beer, Get Whipped

Severity of Islamic Law Fuels Debate in Malaysia

Some time in the next few days, a Malaysian Muslim woman named Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno will be caned under Islamic laws for drinking glasses of beer in a hotel bar ...

The sentence handed down on Ms. Kartika, meanwhile, has triggered a debate on whether Islamic laws are too severe for such a multi-racial society. Amnesty International condemned the punishment as "degrading".

Ms. Kartika, who lives in Singapore, was caught drinking beer at a hotel in Kuantan, in Pahang state on Dec. 11, by religious authorities during a raid. She declined to appeal her sentence and offered to come back to Malaysia to face punishment and to be caned in order to get it over with, she told Reuters. She lost her job at a hospital and has been helping to make ends meet by working as a part-time model.

Malaysian authorities said they won't cane Ms. Kartika in public, as she and her father requested. They also said she will be fully clothed as the sentence is carried out and that she will be struck on the rear with a think bamboo cane with moderate force, with the whipper raising it no higher than the shoulder before delivering the blow.

22 August 2009

How Watching The Pot Affects The Boiling

This kind of thing always blows my mind. The act of observation changes behavior of matter on a quantum level.

A Quantum Quandary

The very act of measurement interferes with the atoms’ ability to absorb extra energy. By definition, the energy state of an atom moving between two energy levels (the lower ground state and a higher one) is a bit fuzzy. When uncertainty becomes large enough to bridge the two energy states the atom shifts to the higher energy state. The atom then collapses back down to its original ground state and the whole process starts over again.

The catch is that every time we make a measurement of an atom’s energy, it reduces uncertainty, because each measurement yields new information about the atoms, reducing the “fuzziness” of their energy states. Make those measurements often enough, and uncertainty never becomes sufficiently large to enable the atom to jump to a higher energy level. So a “watched” quantum pot never boils.

There's also an "anti-Zeno" effect, in which the more measurements one makes of a quantum system, the more likely it will decay and change its energy state: watching the pot makes it boil more quickly. That's the effect I'd like to see in my own kitchen on a busy work morning.

And now a Serbian physicist named Vladan Pankovic (of the University of Novi Sad) has come up with what he calls the "quantum Hamlet effect": there is a particular sequence of measurements that results in a quantum system being stymied by indecision, much like that whinging Danish prince couldn't muster up the gumption to act decisively. Pankovic says there is no way of determining the probability of decay, so the atom can't decide one way or the other. To be or not to be, or more accurately, to decay or not to decay?

Would You Opt Out of Social Security?

49% Say Workers Should Be Able To Opt Out of Social Security

Forty-nine percent (49%) of U.S. voters say working Americans should be allowed to opt out of Social Security and provide for their own retirement planning.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 37% disagree and do not believe Americans should be able to opt out of Social Security. Fifteen percent (15%) are not sure.

A majority of voters under 50 say workers should be allowed to opt out. A plurality of those over 50 disagree.

Sixty percent (60%) of voters are not confident that the Social Security system will pay them all promised benefits during their lifetime, with 36% not very confident and 24% not at all confident. Thirty-eight percent (38%) express confidence in Social Security, including 13% who are very confident and 25% who are somewhat confident in the system.

Voters are fairly closely divided over whether Social Security is a good deal for working Americans, findings that have been largely the same in all recent surveys on the topic. A plurality (47%) say Social Security is a good deal, but 38% disagree. Fifteen percent (15%) are not sure.

A majority of voters over 50 say Social Security is a good deal for workers. A plurality of younger voters take the opposite view.

People are obviously worried about getting their money back out of social security. For example, I am under 50, and would take what I put in, with no interest, in exchange for the risk of taking care of myself.

The underlying problem being that Social Security is not a viable ongoing program as currently constituted. Here's the problem, illustrated by anecdote. A relative, who is now 81, told me a few years ago that he thought Social Security was the greatest thing ever, after I was grousing about it. "What are you complaining about?" he asked, "In just a couple of years, you get back more than you put in!"

I've never been able to get that conversation out of my head. Wow. Après moi, le déluge.

There are (or were) things we could do to fix it, but lack the political will. Instead, the government will have to borrow massively to keep the benefit levels up. I can't be the only one asking how all of this will be funded, especially in the wake of the Bailout and the Stimulus, both of which are far from finished.

So I guess in the end, it comes down to a matter of trust. Trust in our politicians, our government, our fellow citizens, and in China to keep lending us the money.

So, hell yeah, I would opt out, if I could.

What A F*!%ing Disaster: $9 TRILLION in Debt Over Next Decade

A little red text for a whole lot of red ink:

White House Adds $2 Trillion to Deficit Forecasts

The nation would be forced to borrow more than $9 trillion over the next decade under President Obama's policies, the White House acknowledged late Friday, bringing their long-term budget forecast in line with independent estimates.

The new projections add approximately $2 trillion to budget deficits through 2019. Earlier this year, the administration had predicted that Obama's policies would require the government to spend $7.108 trillion more than it collects in tax revenue over the next decade.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has predicted that Obama's policies would force the nation to borrow $9.1 trillion between 2010 and 2019. Like the White House, the CBO is scheduled to release an updated forecast on Tuesday.

Health Care Debate Decreasing Trust in Obama

Faith in Obama Drops As Reform Fears Rise
Health-Care Effort Is Major Factor, Poll Finds

Public confidence in President Obama's leadership has declined sharply over the summer, amid intensifying opposition to health-care reform that threatens to undercut his attempt to enact major changes to the system, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Among all Americans, 49 percent now express confidence that Obama will make the right decisions for the country, down from 60 percent at the 100-day mark in his presidency. Forty-nine percent now say they think he will be able to spearhead significant improvements in the system, down nearly 20 percentage points from before he took office.

As challenges to Obama's initiatives have mounted over the summer, pessimism in the nation's direction has risen: Fifty-five percent see things as pretty seriously on the wrong track, up from 48 percent in April.

Major Factor In Obama’s WaPo Poll Slide: Drop Among Dems, Liberals

A major factor in President Obama’s slide in today’s big Washington Post/ABC News poll, which is preoccupying the political classes today, is his surprisingly sharp drops among Democrats and even liberals, according to crosstabs that were sent my way.
Much talk today has focused on Obama’s difficulties with independents.

But the drop among Dems and liberals is also a key driving factor in the President’s skid, according to WaPo polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta, who graciously provided the additional data.

This suggests Obama’s conciliatory approach to the GOP, and his lack of clarity around the public option — both of which are presumably alienating Dems and liberals — could be key factors driving his dip.

Rule of Law? With this Bunch?

Holder's Black Panther Stonewall
Why did the Justice Department dismiss such a clear case of voter intimidation?

President Obama's Justice Department continues to stonewall inquiries about why it dropped a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party.

The episode—which Bartle Bull, a former civil rights lawyer and publisher of the left-wing Village Voice, calls "the most blatant form of voter intimidation I've ever seen"—began on Election Day 2008. Mr. Bull and others witnessed two Black Panthers in paramilitary garb at a polling place near downtown Philadelphia. (Some of this behavior is on YouTube.)

When none of the defendants filed any response to the complaint or appeared in federal district court in Philadelphia to answer the suit, it appeared almost certain Justice would have prevailed by default. Instead, the department in May suddenly allowed the party and two of the three defendants to walk away. Against the third defendant, Minister King Samir Shabazz, it sought only an injunction barring him from displaying a weapon within 100 feet of a Philadelphia polling place for the next three years—action that's already illegal under existing law.

There was outrage over the decision among Congressional Republicans, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division—especially after it was learned one of the defendants who walked was Jerry Jackson, a member of Philadelphia's 14th Ward Democratic Committee and a credentialed poll watcher for the Democratic Party last Election Day.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted on Aug. 7 to send a letter to Justice expanding its own investigation and demanding more complete answers. "We believe the Department's defense of its actions thus far undermines respect for rule of law," its letter stated.

It noted "the peculiar logic" of one Justice argument, that defendants' failure to show up in court was a reason for dismissing the case: "Such an argument sends a perverse message to wrongdoers—that attempts at voter suppression will be tolerated so long as the persons who engage in them are careful not to appear in court to answer the government's complaint."

The commission noted that it could subpoena witnesses and documents if Justice doesn't better explain its actions.

Mortgage Crisis Worsens

Mounting joblessness fuels US housing crisis

More than one in every eight homeowners with a mortgage was behind on home loan payments or in some stage of foreclosure at the end of the second quarter, as mounting unemployment aggravated the housing crisis, the Mortgage Bankers Association said on Thursday.

The percentage of loans that were in foreclosure or at least one payment past due rose to 13.16 per cent, the highest increase since the MBA began keeping records in 1972 and a jump of more than a percentage point since the first quarter.

Has Mortgage Modification failed?

Obama’s mortgage modification plan, HAMP (Home Afforable Modification Program), isn’t working very well. Designed to help prevent foreclosures by incentivizing and giving legal protection to previously indifferent middle-men servicers it isn’t producing anywhere near the number of modifications that were anticipated. Is it likely to work in the future? My guess is no. Let’s discuss some reasons why.

Servicers Gaming the System Over the past few months, more and more stories have come out about servicers finding ways to line their pockets while consumers and investors are getting shortchanged.

Redefault Risk There’s another story where the servicers aren’t modifying loans because it isn’t profitable for the lenders.

General Inexperience Servicers were never designed to do this kind of work; they don’t underwrite, and paying them $1,000 isn’t going to give them the experience needed for underwriting.

Quote of the Day

The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits. -- Plutarch

21 August 2009

Nerves show as Kenny MacAskill faces the world’s media

Kenny MacAskill, a Scottish politician who would probably be unrecognised on the streets of Glasgow, strode confidently into the Scottish government’s media lounge to deliver the statement that the world was waiting for.

Mindful of his international audience and taking into account the hours of media advice he has been given from advisers who lined the room, his usual rapid-fire delivery slowed to a plodding pace.

The opening of his carefully prepared announcement in which he recalled the night that 259 bodies fell from the sky over Lockerbie, in a bombing that killed 11 people in the town below, took on the tone of an inappropriate Jackanory episode.

Until yesterday he was best known as the man who wanted to rid Scotland of its booze-and-blade culture. Now Mr MacAskill, a mild-mannered, liberal-minded lawyer, will go down in history as the man who allowed one of the world’s most notorious mass-murdering terrorists to walk free from jail.

Despite the obvious hours of rehearsal, nerves resulted in a couple of stumbles during his 25-minute statement. The name that has dominated world news for more than a week, al-Megrahi, became “Ali Megrahi”. He made a deliberate decision to take every question asked of him at the press conference, attended by the Scottish press pack with which he is so familiar, identifying his inquisitors by name but knowing that it was the reaction of those across the Atlantic that he most feared.

In just 45 minutes his ordeal was over and the Scottish Justice Secretary left the podium, spilling his papers on the floor to the clicking sound of camera lenses.

People of Scotland, run this bum from office!

I haven't seen a spineless weasel this big since Aaron Brown practically bent over and apologized for our outrage after 9/11. But, at least he didn't hold public office.

Opportunity Squandered

Questions of competence begin to dog Obama

It's been 177 days since Obama made his initial pitch for a health care overhaul to a joint session of Congress. That the president's team is still spending so much time stroking the Democratic base is evidence of how dire the situation is for this young administration.

Two decisions on health care have rattled Democrats.

First, the president chose to not sell his own plan but instead tried to get Congress to rush something through before lawmakers -- and the public -- fully understood what was in the bill.

Second, the administration attempted an ungainly flip-flop on the issue of government-run insurance.

Many Democrats think that the stars were aligned for health care but increasingly see the administration as having squandered the moment.