Saturday, May 30, 2009

That tired old race card

The more I read about Sonia Sotomayor, the more I like her. I don't really care why the President chose her -- she's a good choice and, for me, at least, she was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting someone a lot more, ahem, shall we say moderate?

Nobody expected the Republicans to embrace any candidate put forward by Obama, given their current propensity to apply the Nancy Reagan approach ("Just say NO") to anything Democrats propose. On the other hand, I suppose I'm a little surprised that even the few brighter bulbs on the GOP Christmas tree are falling back on that tired old Republican standby, playing the race card. You would think that somebody smart -- Orrin Hatch, for example -- might have figured out that the party will be permanently moribund unless it can peel off some segment of the Latino vote.

But no -- they are out there accusing Sotomayor of "reverse discrimination," many even going so far as to call her a "racist." Sigh.

Their evidence seems to be one line from a 2001 speech and a history of support for affirmative action. Personally, I've always thought affirmative action should be class based rather than race based -- I don't suppose Stanley O'Neal's granddaughter will have any problem getting into a top college -- but calling affirmative action "racist" is the worst kind of backwards reasoning, no matter what John Roberts may have to say on the matter.

The real racist on the court, of course, is Clarence Thomas. He is so insistent on denying the fact that affirmative action might have advanced his own career that he votes against the interests of minorities every chance he gets.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

"Prolonged" Detention

Triangulation is a political strategy,
not a national security strategy.

-Dick Cheney, 21May2009

It's not often that I find myself in agreement with the former VP, but he's right on that one -- and, I might add, triangulation doesn't serve very well as a model for ethical behavior either. Cheney argues that if we are only partly safe from the terrorist boogie men, we're not safe. I argue that if our actions are only partly ethical, they are unethical.

(That bastion of ethics, the Roman Catholic Church, might disagree with me, having recently pointed out that "most" of the boys molested by the Christian Brothers in Irish institutions over the years were victims of "inappropriate touching" rather than, say, anal penetration -- but does that mean the boys who were diddled a bit rather than forcibly raped should be happy about it? And, anyway, is being locked up for the rest of your life with no trial more analogous to a diddling or an ass fucking? You decide.)

Yes, I know. Our President now has read all the secret documents, and somehow has concluded that there are a number of Guantanamo detainees who could not be convicted, by a federal court or even by a newly revamped military commission, due to absent, insufficient, or tainted evidence. How could such a situation come about? Let's see.

If the evidence is insufficient or nonexistent, we can assume that some "trusted asset" of the CIA or the military said something like, "Oh, that fellow, he's a really bad guy!" In the unlikely event the "trusted asset" was asked to back up his assertion, he told a few unverifiable stories that were swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, by the eager agent or officer. (Somebody with the proper security clearance should count up how many times the "trusted asset" took over the "bad" guy's farm, or celebrated victory in a longstanding family feud.)

If the evidence is tainted, we can assume the poor bastard was tortured until he confessed to whatever his interrogators thought he might have done. As for egomaniacs like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- who would happily have confessed to every high-profile attack for the past fifty years even without waterboarding -- we can count on them to confess once again, in open court. Hell, they totally want to be martyred, and will be unhappy with anything less than the death penalty.

How many detainees will fall into the "prolonged detention" category? Twenty? Thirty? Fifty? Last week, we were told that one out of seven Guantanamo detainees released so far has "returned" to terrorism, but let's look at a worst case scenario. Let's say there are fifty of these genuine "bad guys," and we put them back more or less where we found them. Let's say we release them near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where all fifty immediately join up with the 10,000 Taliban already fighting there. That would, effectively, increase the ranks of the Taliban by one-half of one percent.

To me, that is a small price to pay for maintaining our standards of justice. Consider, too, that the chance of a released detainee gaining access to the United States is virtually zero. We have their fingerprints, retinal scans, physiognomic profiles, DNA, and more. The Cheney-Obama argument for keeping them in detention disappears.

Fear eats the soul.
(R. W. Fassbinder; 1974)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hypocrite. Coward. President.

If I seem to be writing less frequently lately, it's because my anger and outrage are devolving into the usual depression. I never expected all that much of Obama, but I suppose all that financial industry money spent on his campaign affected even a habitual cynic like me, so I swallowed hard and hoped.

Hope. Bullshit.

Let's forget my usual economic complaints for the moment. This week, I heard promises about greater regulation of derivatives, more anti-trust suits, and action to limit predation by credit card. I'm not listening to promises anymore. I'll wait and see what, if anything, actually happens.

Onward and downward: where the hell is Dwight D. Eisenhower (or some reasonable facsimile) when you need him? It's looking more and more like Obama is being cowed by Pentagon bullies, with participation by CIA, NSA, and probably a dozen other agencies whose goddamned initials are top secret. Why has McChrystal replaced McKiernan? Beats me, unless it's that McCrystal is okay with an invasion of Pakistan from Afghanistan, and McKiernan isn't. And what will that consummate bully, Benjamin Netanyahu, bully our president into doing when they meet this week?

Take some action against the torturers? Um, no, 'fraid not. Come to think of it, we can't even release any more embarassing photos. Abolish the military tribunals? Uh, sorry, but that might force us to release some people whose "confessions" were extracted by the aforementioned torture. "Don't ask, don't tell?" Don't ask.

Last week, Dick Durbin observed that the financial industry, despite its setbacks, still had the strongest lobby in Washington -- but what Eisenhower called the "military-industrial complex still has to be in the running. So, how many of the useless, overpriced "defense" contracts that now appear to be on the chopping block actually will be chopped? If experience is any guide, most of those turkeys will still be alive and well for next Thanksgiving, and for the one after that as well.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Confidence Game

Listen to enough economic news and you might be inclined to believe that the economy takes place entirely in our heads. As long as we feel good about the economy, it will be fine. It follows that the economic distress we're experiencing now is our own fault. It was brought on by a lack of faith.

If that sounds totally idiotic, that's only because it is totally idiotic. Nevertheless, the mullahs of Wall Street breathlessly await the publication of the "consumer confidence" index each month, and the Obama administration has based a good deal of recent policy on the idiotic axiom that the economy is as good as we think it is.

Well, maybe not -- or not exactly. If we believe the economy is doing better, and that our personal distress might be alleviated sometime soon, we are likely to believe that the Obama administration is doing a good job. Be confident, America! Your youngish, blackish, liberalish president is out there, taking care of you.

With that in mind, let's look at the stress test results.

The first thing that struck me was that the amount of capital we were told the top nineteen banks had to raise was roughly the same as the amount of still uncommitted TARP funds. It would be very nice if the private sector stepped up to the bat and provided that capital, but, if not, it is available in government funds without having to go back to Congress for more.

How convenient! No major bank is insolvent because the funds needed to bring it back to "health" already have been approved by Congress! Be confident, America!

Sadly, America cannot muster the patriotic spirit it needs to feel confident. It is difficult to feel confident when you think your job might disappear next week, or next month. Oh, wait! I forgot the good news -- that job losses in April were a bit less than losses in February or March.

That's not good news. It means that businesses are running out of the easy jobs to cut, and are getting into the hard ones -- that is, the people who will be harder to replace when things finally turn around and business picks up again. Under those circumstances, 539,000 is a hell of a lot of jobs. It's expensive to train a new worker to use specialized equipment or software, or to understand the specific needs of your particular customers. You hang onto those workers as long as you can, and only let them go if it's absolutely necessary.

The unemployment rate as of the end of April was 8.6%. The stress test criteria included a "worst case" unemployment rate of 10.2%. Hopefully, that's as high as unemployment will go, but it's really not the proper figure for a stress test -- it's more of a "reasonable expectation" than a "worst case."

Should my suspicions be justified, and it turns out that the stress tests were rigged to keep the big banks' additional capital requirements in line with the availability of TARP funds, more trouble is on the horizon. Unemployed workers have a distasteful propensity to default on their credit card debt. Businesses in bad enough shape to lay off workers they know they will need if they survive this recession are one step away from defaulting on their business loans.

Stress tests, my ass. Confidence? No, not much.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Just forget national health care

The only thing I really liked about the Obama plan for reform of health insurance was the idea of creating a government sponsored health insurance plan to compete with private insurers. As you would expect, the privates freaked.

Competition makes for a great sound bite, but not when you know you're sure to lose. The privates, and their allies in Congress, are complaining that a government plan would put private insurers out of business and lead to a single-payer system. Oh, my! Wouldn't that be a shame!

Chuck Schumer has proposed a "compromise," which would require the government plan to be self-sustaining, paying claims from the premiums it collects; not require doctors and hospitals to participate; pay more than Medicare; and, like private insurers, maintain a reserve fund.

Somehow, I don't think that will satisfy the private companies -- unless they are guaranteed the right to profitably cherry-pick the healthiest health care consumers and dump anybody with a serious or chronic medical problem on the government. Without that provision, they still would be at a competitive disadvantage merely because their shareholders expect them to turn a profit.

A system in which the government insurer is stuck with everybody likely to make a major claim isn't viable. The government plan would become too expensive for employers to purchase for their workers, too expensive for individuals not receiving sizable government subsidies, and hence too small to bargain successfully with doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies.

Without a genuinely competitive government sponsored insurer in the mix, the Obama plan is nothing but a giveaway to the insurance industry. Government subsidies provided to the uninsured poor would go straight into private pockets, and the expense of making sure everyone required by law to buy insurance does so would become a taxpayer sponsored engine to churn new business for the private companies.

Personally, I'd prefer to see no health care legislation at all over a giveaway to private health insurers.