Thursday, December 31, 2009

Break Up With Your Big Bank: A New Year's Resolution

Big banks: They squeeze us for ever penny. They gamble with our money. And when they lose, our tax dollars bail them out. Then, instead of using bail-out money to keep credit flowing, they give huge bonuses to failed CEOs. All the while, they are using our money lobbying Congress to defeat any reform that might bring sanity to our financial system.
Now imagine a world where banks are not-for-profit organizations where surplus funds, after ensuring reserves, are distributed back to the members as dividends and better rates on loans. Imagine if each member had an equal say in the governance of the organization, regardless of his or her account size. Imagine "banks" that are democratic, member-owned cooperatives.

This world exists and these better-than-banks organizations are called credit unions.
I am in the process of moving my own money from Bank of America, where it is used to lobby against causes I support, to a credit union, where it will grow at a better a rate and help provide good loans to other members. For me, the final stroke was when Bank of America, three days after receiving $25 billion in federal bailout funds, hosted a conference call with conservative activists and business officials to organize fundraising against the Employee Free Choice Act. It made me nauseous to think that the money in my checking and savings accounts, the interest I'm paying on my credit card, and my federal tax dollars were helping to make the country a worse place.

So I ask you to make it your New Year's resolution to break up with your big bank and marry a credit union. It is in your own immediate self interest, since you'll get better dividends, cheaper loans, and better service with a credit union. And it will benefit the country in the long run by dispersing financial power from the banking behemoths--like Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo--to ordinary Americans.

Here's one way you can locate a credit union near you.

The timing of this post is inspired by, and intended to amplify, the new effort launched by Arianna Huffington and friends to encourage people to move from Wall Street banks to Main Street banks. Check out their video, which plays off of It's a Wonderful Life, and then see the new site
Huffington's "Move Your Money" movement is excellent. I just have one quibble with it. They ask people to move from big banks into small banks, and they only mention non-profit, democratic credit unions as an afterthought. It really should be the other way around: Ditch your big bank, and get into a credit union. If you can't join a credit union, go with a small, community bank. After all, small banks can be bought by big banks, and many small banks are working to become big banks. Again, it's a minor quibble. If we can all agree on the first part of the plan, moving our money out of big banks, we will be doing great.

Here are some resources to get you started:
Let us know if you are making the move. Or, if your money is already in a credit union or community bank, how has your experience been?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Watching History Unfold in Iran

The past few days suggest that Iran's "Green Revolution" is growing. More Iranians in more cities are turning against the religious hard-liner regime, and by killing peaceful protesters on holy days, the regime is throwing away whatever legitimacy it still has.

war_in_tehran_streets_26.jpg picture by betterthanmachines
There first way that the movement is growing has to do with who is showing up in the streets in the latest round of protest marches. The New York Times had a good overview article of the situation on Sunday, but they buried perhaps the most important point down near the bottom of the story (emphasis mine):
The government crackdowns on mourning ceremonies in the past week provoked many people in the more traditional neighborhoods of south Tehran as earlier clashes did not, some residents said.

"People in my neighborhood have been going to the Ashura rituals every night with green fabric for the first time," said Hamid, 33, a laborer who lives in southern Tehran... "They have been politicized recently, because of the suppression this month."
In other words, the movement is growing from its original nucleus--which is centered in north Tehran and tends to be younger, more socially liberal, and less religious than the rest of Iran--to the broader working class--which tends to be more socially conservative. That is bad news for Iran's religious right and good news for humanity. The regime can no longer propagandize that the opposition are just un-Islamic college students stirred up by American and British media. From watching dozens of cell-phone videos of the street clashes, it's plain to see that there is a lot more gray hair among the protesters now than there was back in June. The socially conservative poor and working class have (until now?) been the core supporters of President Ahmadinejad. If this alliance of college students and workers continues to grow, it is only a matter of time before Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei, and the religious terror squads fall.

If the regime inflamed opposition from young people because it is blatantly undemocratic, it is now inflaming opposition from the working class because it is blatantly un-Islamic.

Sunday was the Ashura holiday, commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, Shiite Islam's holiest martyr. Imam Hussein was beheaded in 680 AD by a ruler named Yazid, and today Shias revere him as a martyr of the faith who fought against political tyranny. Since the presidential election-rigging/coup in Iran last June, a number of religious and national holidays have provided opportunity for massive street demonstrations by pro-reform activists. But none since June have matched the size and intensity of the past few days. The chants from the marching protesters in Tehran alternated between revering Imam Hussein and reviling the regime. On a number of cell phone videos that made their way onto YouTube, you could even hear protesters equating Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Khamanei with Yazid, the tyrant who executed Hussein.

My point in dwelling on the religious particulars is to show that there is a growing religious motivation behind the protests. In my opinion, that is crucial to the long-term success or failure of the Green Movement. Struggle against political tyranny is sewn into the very fabric of Shia Islam. Religious fervor is what helped overthrow the Shah of Iran in 1979 (who needed overthrowing by the way, just not by the Iranian equivalents of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson). And today a growing number of Iranians are framing the issue as an Islamic struggle against tyrannical rulers. Murdering people on Ashura was a dumb move, Mr. Khamanei.

war_in_tehran_streets_7.jpg picture by betterthanmachines

Another thing that worked in '79 that will also be a big factor this time around is the Shia martyrdom and mourning cycles. Shias mourn their dead on the 3rd, 7th, and 40th days after a death. In the case of murdered protesters, mourning means more marches and rallies, where the government is likely to kill again. In '79, confrontations between marchers and the Shah's forces played out in 40-day cycles. So, if the government murdered about a dozen people this past Sunday on the Day of Ashura, which is traditionally a day of peace, I'm guessing that February 5th is going to be intense.

I said back in June that even if the protests dissipated for a while, it would be hard for the regime to put the genie back into the bottle for good. Here we are six months later, and though we have not yet seen the same size marches we saw in June, there are signs that the people's resistance is even more deep rooted. I think we may be watching a freight train getting started here. It's painfully slow at the start, but once it's rolling there is no stopping it.

Monday, December 28, 2009

BTM Back in Action

I just got back to DC last night after a nice, long Christmas vacation visiting family down South. Often, when I travel back to my hometown, I come away with some new perspective on the place. This time around, I didn't really have any profound realizations. I just noticed the huge number of people standing on street corners all over town holding signs. The people generally fell into one of two (related) groups: homeless people and others with "Need Help" signs, or people advertising going-out-of-business sales. There were lots of them. Sometimes there were three people at one intersection asking for money, standing next to two people advertising for a sinking company. I, like everybody else, was speeding past all of them to do some last-minute Christmas shopping.

There's a point there to be made about our nation's social priorities, but it's late, and we don't need to jump in right away, do we?

There is a lot to talk about this week. I've spent a lot of time this evening reading about the growing revolution in Iran and watching the unbelievable videos coming from the streets of Tehran. (Andrew Sullivan has great coverage.) Meanwhile, some are already making the case for an American invasion of Yemen. And Congressional Republicans continue to oppose any system that would provide medical coverage to more Americans.

You can't make this stuff up. Stay tuned for more.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Three Thoughts on the Senate Health Care Situation

  • Progressives can't really complain that Joe Lieberman is stabbing us in the back on health care reform, because he's been doing it for so long now. We should turn around and take his knife from him.
  • Joe Lieberman remains chairman of the powerful Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee because the Senate Democratic caucus lets him. They can stop empowering him whenever they like.
  • Democratic Senators continue to pretend that they "need" 60 votes to pass major health care reform. At any time they choose, they could kill the current bill and pass meaningful health care reform with as few as 50 votes (with Biden breaking the tie), using the reconciliation process. Or better yet, they could nuke the filibuster entirely and bring majority rule to the Senate.
More to follow later on the latest comprise to the compromise to the compromise to the compromise to the compromise [sic] to the health care system we ought to have.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The War in Afghanistan: A Conservative Feedback Loop

The day President Obama gave his big speech on Afghanistan earlier this month, I wrote that I wanted to better explain why my opinion of the war in Afghanistan is souring at the very time the president is pouring in more troops. In that post I said that some of the goals the United States government had when it invaded Afghanistan have already been met (overthrowing the Taliban and striking a blow against Al Qaeda), while other goals are no longer aided by a large-scale American presence in Afghanistan (killing or capturing UBL and shoring up a new Afghan government).

But I've been developing another objection to the war in Afghanistan, one that isn't really specific to Afghanistan at all.

Chris Bowers at writes about what he calls "positive feedback loops for progressives," or progressive feedback loops. By his definition progressive feedback loops are progressive policies that "make America a more progressive place, and thus make all other progressive policy more likely to be enacted." For example, passing the Employee Free Choice Act would increase union membership, and stronger unions would help counterbalance corporate power, improve wages and conditions for workers, and boost progressive political candidates. This would help make everything else on the progressive wish list easier to accomplish. There are obviously lots of other potential progressive feedback loops, and Chris describes seven in his article.

Basically, I've begun to view the war in Afghanistan as a conservative feedback loop. Whether the war is just or not and whether our strategy is right or wrong, I think the war makes America a more conservative place and makes it easier to pass conservative legislation and defeat progressive legislation. The war helps create a political environment that is favorable to the long-term conservative movement, redistributing more of the nation's power and wealth into fewer hands. That in itself does not make the war wrong. It's just another thing that makes the war costly for the vast majority of Americans, which it already is in more ways than one.

How is the war in Afghanistan a conservative feedback loop?
1) The most obvious way that the war boosts the conservative movement is by diverting resources from domestic and social needs. Every dollar that goes to a hellfire missile is a dollar that does not go to universal healthcare, clean energy, education, and public works projects. It's a tried and true conservative strategy to ratchet up the deficit with tax cuts and military spending and then use the deficit they just created as an excuse to slash social programs that improve peoples' lives. Why they do that is a subject for another post, but war in general helps them do it. Even this month, Republicans in Congress have tried to use Afghanistan to block or delay health care reform, arguing essentially that the tax dollars and the attention of Congress would be better spent in Central Asia than America.

2) The war in Afghanistan--like most of our wars--concentrates power at the top of American society. Every president claims unconstitutional special powers in wartime. The Bush administration took this to new heights with the "unitary executive" doctrine, the "Patriot Act," domestic spying, and torture. Even today we take it for granted that our Democratic president bombs inside countries on which Congress has neither declared war nor authorized the use of military force. It's totally up to him, cuz he's the prez, and we're cool with that because, "We're at war." But an exalted executive is only part of the problem. "We're at war," covers a multitude of sins, like dealing no-bid contracts to weapons manufacturers while the working class pays the human toll. In short, consider who makes the decisions and who gets rich versus who bleeds and dies, and we see that long wars tend to lift up the powerful and push down everyone else.

3) The third (and hardest to quantify) way that the war in Afghanistan feeds conservative power is by perpetuating a culture of racial and religious fear. This isn't specific to the war in Afghanistan, nor, I think, is Afghanistan even a particularly bad example of it in history. But it takes fear and hatred to sustain a long foreign war, and somebody's gotta drum it up. Think of all the times you've heard, "Islam is an inherently violent religion," since 9/11. It's like, what exactly is being proposed in that discussion? Endless global religious war? A couple years ago, a relative said to me in a frank discussion, "Arabs are crazy. They're just crazy," like it was a genetic fact. Where is this coming from? It's almost like someone wants us to fear and hate all Muslims and Middle Easterners. And the fact that every time the president talks about terrorism he has to say something like, "Our struggle is not with Islam itself," or "The vast majority of Muslims love peace," I think proves my point.

We know that the conservative power structure in America has a history stoking and exploiting white fear of brown people. We'd be remiss to think that is all behind us. It's as true as it is tiresome to contemporary American ears: The conservative status quo has always benefited from dividing working people against themselves, playing one group against another. Conversely, the progressive movement has always been most powerful when it displays solidarity across racial, religious, and gender divides. It's divide and conquer from above vs. unite and conquer from below. Our actions in Afghanistan--and the culture we create at home to justify them--will fuel one side or the other in this very old struggle.
So these are three ways I think the war in Afghanistan acts as a conservative feedback loop. Notice that each of the points could be applied to almost any foreign war. I'm not making some backdoor argument that all war is wrong. I am saying that there is a long-term, sociopolitical cost to this kind of war that often goes uncounted. If you add this to the other more obvious costs of the war in Afghanistan, what do you think? Is it worth fighting?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Blogging Beneath The Great Eye

As Becky mentioned in the comments section to the previous post, I cross-posted the article about Wal-Mart's wage theft and anti-union practices over on DailyKos, where it got a lot of attention. The article sat at the top of the "recommended Diaries" list for most of the day on Monday and got hundreds of comments and "rec's." 422 comments, actually. (And I did a little dance in my living room.)

Take a look HERE (at the article and comments, not the dance).

It's heartening to see that the issue of Wal-Mart's power and abuse strikes a chord with so many people. And it's a little scary to think that at corporate HQ in Barad-dur Bentonville, Arkansas someone was watching.
walmartgreateyecrop.jpg picture by betterthanmachines
The largest private employer in the United States can read the word UNION from a thousand miles away.

Anyway, the critical comments to the article--there were a few--fell into a few well-defined themes. We'll discuss each one in a future post. And then we'll have a contest to guess which ones were planted by Wal-Mart PR guys.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Wal-Mart: "Merry Christmas, SUCKERS!"

Wal-Mart will be paying about 87,500 current and former employees in Massachusetts a total of $40 million dollars after settling in the state's biggest-ever wage-theft class-action lawsuit. According to the settlement, everyone who has worked at a Wal-Mart in Massachusetts since 1995 will receive a payment ranging from $400 to $2,500, depending on how long they worked there. The average payment will be about $734.

The lawsuit, like many other cases brought against Wal-Mart, alleges that the company requires employees to work through breaks and work beyond regular shifts. In other words, Wal-Mart systematically steals the labor of its workers. It pays workers poverty wages for their scheduled hours, then tells them they have to give some free work or else be fired.

If you think this story sounds strangely familiar, you're right. Last year, Wal-Mart did the same thing. In December 2008, they settled 63 lawsuits for alleged wage theft around the country, paying out at least $352 million. Is it a coincidence that it has happened again in December, a time when the company can portray the payments as Christmas bonuses? Think of it: Wal-Mart gives back some of the money it stole from its workers, without ever admitting that it stole anything in the first place, arranges the settlement so that no one can talk about it, and makes the whole thing look like a benevolent act. "Merry Christmas, suckers!"

This is just a calculated operating cost for Wal-Mart headquarters. They set their wage and hour policies. They know that the worst thing that can happen is a lawsuit which will take years to develop (This one began 8 years ago). They know that the lawsuit can be settled on terms that preserve the company's All-American image and do not affect Wal-Mart's ability to commit the same crimes again. And the company marches on.

And Wal-Mart will continue marching on, trampling its workers underfoot, until those workers are able to organize and resist. If any company in the United States is difficult to unionize, it is Wal-Mart. They pull out all the stops. All managers get training in anti-union tactics. Workers have to watch anti-union propaganda videos. Corporate HQ manages the public relations at any store where labor or community activism breaks out. At worst, they will simply close a store that gets close to unionizing. In 2000, when meat-cutters at a Wal-Mart decided to unionize, Wal-Mart closed down its meat-cutting operations in 180 stores across six states, and switched to prepackaged meat.

Thankfully, somebody forgot to tell the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) to give up. Their Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign has signed up nearly half a million supporters, publicized Wal-Mart's anti-worker policies, and begun organizing drives at hundreds of stores. Some say that UFCW's efforts have already changed Wal-Mart's behavior on some issues, because it's the closest thing to accountability the company has ever had.

Few things would do as much to shift power in this country from the corporate class to the working class as winning a strong union at the nation's biggest private employer. Even if Wal-Mart were victorious, as it always has been, at crushing the organizing drive, a big publicized fight would bring national attention to wage-theft, corporate power, and the labor laws that make it unnecessarily hard for workers to unionize. Winning at Wal-Mart would be huge. Losing at Wal-Mart--and losing right--could be just as huge.

Friday, December 4, 2009

What the Jobs Summit was Really About

Yesterday the White House hosted a "jobs summit" that brought in 135 corporate CEOs, labor leaders, academics, economists, and government officials. President Obama said he wanted to generate ideas and hear from the attendees what the White House could do to help the jobs situation. The summit then broke into brainstorming groups on assorted topics.

All good and fine. But I feel obligated to point out that not everyone at that meeting has the goal of creating American jobs. Corporate leaders don't want to create jobs, let alone jobs in America. They want to increase profits for their corporation. Job creation is sometimes an unintended corollary of that. But a big-time CEO does not wake up each morning wondering how his company can provide more solid jobs for the American people. If anything he wakes up wondering how he can squeeze more out of his workers and avoid democracy's meddling in his business--workers organizing, environmental regulation, occupational safety laws, taxes, etc. (In most cases, he'd be a bad boss if he didn't.)

What the jobs summit was really about was the Obama administration broadcasting this message:
"We are about to do something--maybe even something big--about job creation, and we are approaching this in an open-minded, bipartisan, non-ideological way. See? Look who we invited to the White House."
I think it's kind of the same way they approached the health care debate, going way out of their way to include conservatives. And what they should have learned from that adventure was that Republicans are not their friends. They don't want to help the president find solutions for the American people. They want to pursue their own narrow interests. I'm afraid there's a similar lesson to be learned about jobs. We're not all on the same team. Not everyone comes to the table with benevolence and goodwill toward man.

Obviously Obama knows this. So I'm left to conclude that it is still part of the White House's long-term strategy to project an open-minded and pragmatic image. If maintaining that image helps him politically isolate and wallop his right-wing opponents, then great, but most of the big issues facing us will require isolating and walloping the right wing.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Evolving Thinking on Afghanistan

I have not written much about the war in Afghanistan before, because I was unsure what I thought about it. When candidate Barack Obama said in 2008 that Afghanistan was the right war and Iraq was the wrong one, I tended to agree with him. At least when we invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 we had some reasons for doing so that were not blatantly false. Unlike in Iraq, Al Qaeda really was operating in Afghanistan. And unlike Saddam Hussein's regime, the Taliban really was implicated in the September 11th attacks.

I try to avoid being just reflexively anti-war, though I have some respect for people who are. To sort of invert the way Jimmy Carter put it, I believe that war is always evil, but it may sometimes be a necessary evil. So, as uncomfortable as I have been with the long occupation of Afghanistan, I have never decided what, if anything, we should do instead.

But now, eight years into the occupation and awaiting President Obama's speech tonight, I find myself leaning toward a new position on the issue. I think it's time to stop our continuous escalation of troop levels and begin bringing most of our troops home. I think there is probably reason to leave a small number of troops deployed to assist with only the most essential security details in Kabul and Kandahar and for training Afghan security forces. I think we should maintain our ability for special forces to pursue high value al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. But we should not be patrolling cities and villages and occupying remote mountain outposts. We should not have a large-scale presence on the ground in Afghanistan.

Let me briefly explain my reasoning. In my understanding, when we attacked Afghanistan, we had several goals:
1. To overthrow the Taliban,
2. To strike a major blow against Al Qaeda,
3. To kill or capture Osama bin Laden,
4. To replace the Taliban with a less extremist Afghan government.
Goal #1 has been accomplished. The Taliban has been ousted and will not return to power. We should not equate all of the insurgents we are currently fighting with the Taliban. Afghans have always fought foreign invaders. We should not think that everyone who is shooting at Americans is the Taliban or supports the Taliban.

Goal #2 has been accomplished. Our fighting has largely changed Al Qaeda from a network into a movement. The US military is great at dismantling networks, but defeating a movement takes soft power. The enemy has changed, so it's time for our strategy to change too.

Goal #3 of course has not been accomplished. But a large-scale occupation of Afghanistan is not going to help this anyway. Especially when recent reporting suggests bin Laden is in Pakistan. Fusion of local intelligence and special forces operations is our best chance here. I believe we will catch bin Laden when a Pakistani Pashtun tribesman turns him in.

Goal #4 has always been the most complex. It may be impossible--if it's even warranted--to install a central government that has control over all of Afghanistan. And to set this as the bar we have to meet is to keep us there forever. The term "valleyism" has been used by some to describe how many rural Afghans think. Put simply, they'll fight anyone who comes into their valley, whether they are Persians, British, Russians, Americans, or even Afghans from the central government in Kabul. They don't call it the "Graveyard of Empires" for nothing.

I also think that the war in Afghanistan--which might be making us safer--is sapping resources from things here at home that definitely would make us safer. In my next post I'll discuss this in more detail.

For now, I'm getting ready to watch President Obama's speech tonight. He's expected to announce the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and a plan to begin drawing down troop levels in three years. I think this is probably the wrong course, but I'm willing to hear him out. He is a smarter man than I am, he has put a lot more time into thinking about it than I have, and he has information that I don't have. (All of which could also be true of a tyrant of course.) But most importantly, I still trust Obama's instincts on the big things.

So, Mr. President, I think you are probably wrong on this, but I'm listening.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Long-Term Bush Backlash

I just got back home from Thanksgiving travel to see family down south. On the drive, we stopped at a gas station in rural southwestern Virginia. A pickup truck with a South Carolina tag had a bumper sticker that caught my attention. It said:
"George W. Bush made me a Democrat."
Right on! You and millions of others, I thought.

When I consider the long-term damage that the Bush administration did to America and the world, I take some comfort in knowing that it also led to social and political awakenings for a great many people who were repulsed by it. I count myself as one of these people. Though I was a Democrat before Bush, his presidency and all that enabled it definitely lit a fire under my ass. In fact, I would say that the Bush years turned me from a casual, election-minded Democrat into a lifelong progressive activist.

What about you? How did the Bush years affect your political consciousness?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Adopt-a-State, Things Republicans Hate

Will the Democratic caucus in the Senate stick together long enough to allow an up or down vote on health care reform? If so, we win and millions more Americans will have access to medical care.

But know this: Every single Republican Senator will support a filibuster to kill health care reform. Every one. Even the two ladies from Maine. They hate everything about this reform bill. They hate it for the normal ideological reasons, because it involves government action on behalf of the general welfare. But they also hate it for strategic political reasons. Republicans know that if the Democrats manage to pass big health care reform legislation, and it does indeed expand access and reduce costs, then it could alter the political landscape for a generation. Americans would start to think differently about not only their party identification but also the role of government. The entire Reaganite "government is the problem" philosophy could disappear over night. There are plenty of quotes from conservative intellectuals and strategists admitting as much, which I will dig up when I have some more time.

But for now, the point is that if the Democratic caucus will stick together, the Senate Republicans don't really even matter. And this leads me to the SEIU's cool recent campaign: Adopt-a-State. They explain...
We elected Barack Obama, in part, by calling tens of thousands of voters in key "swing states." This year is no different. Voters in Arkansas, Nebraska, Connecticut and Louisiana need to hear from us about what's happening on health insurance reform. So adopt a state, and start recruiting your team today.
These of course are the states of the four Democrats who have at one time or another threatened to join a Republican filibuster of health care reform. They are Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas, Ben Nelson from Nebraska, Joe Lieberman (technically he's an Independent, but he caucuses with and gets free stuff from the Dems) from Connecticut, and Mary Landrieu from Louisiana. SEIU's idea is to help activate supporters of health care reform in these key states to contact their Senators, so that Lieberman and company will feel more pressure from below.

So at a time when many progressives are hoping for some back room arm-twisting against the conservative four, the country's second biggest union is out to turn up the heat in their home states. That is something to feel good about.

PS... Expanding access to health care, big and active unions, and the possibility that Democrats might act like real Democrats? These sound like the ingredients of a right wing nightmare! Just toss ACORN in there to really make this psychedelic. As Rachel pointed out, SEIU is right below ACORN on the Right's list of things to smash.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Not Kidnapped By Somali Pirates

Just a quick note to the BTM faithful that I have not fallen off the face of the earth. Family in town last week and obscene work hours this week has meant not much time for the ol' blaaawg.

Don't panic. Here's what's coming up this week on BTM:
  1. We'll ask the Utah state government to man up and take responsibility for an act of villainy it committed 94 years ago.
  2. We'll examine possibly the most ridiculous and racist monument currently on display in a U.S. national park.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Another Gratuitous Execution

Tonight the state of Virginia executed John Allen Muhammad, who was convicted of the 2002 DC-area sniper shootings that left 10 people dead. There is little about this case to indicate that Muhammad's execution was much more unjust than others. But a few unsettling circumstances remind us that the death penalty is indeed an inexact science. And I'm left wondering, "Why is America still executing people?"

Mr. Muhammad maintained his innocence until he was killed tonight, as more than 20 relatives of victims watched through the glass. One of his lawyers claimed--even as late as today, once all appeals had been exhausted--that Muhammad was mentally ill. His second ex-wife said that Muhammad's personality had changed after serving in the Gulf War. And she said he never received counseling after returning from the war.

The state seems like it was in a hurry to execute Muhammad. As the Supreme Court declined to hear Muhammad's appeal, Justices Stevens, Ginsberg, and Sotomayor wrote that the judicial process had been rushed because Virginia had scheduled the execution for Tuesday. And Muhammad's lawyers complained that they had not been given enough time to file his final appeal.

The final chance for clemency lay in the hands of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, who is also chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Kaine has long claimed to be "personally" against the death penalty but has overseen 11 execution as governor. When he was campaigning for governor in 2005, Kaine's Republican opponent tried to make Kaine's anti-death penalty stance the central issue of the campaign. To win, Kaine had to assure voters that he would uphold Virginia's death penalty laws even though they violated his personal and religious (he's Catholic) beliefs. This week, Kaine must certainly have known that news of the chairman of the DNC granting clemency to one of the country's most notorious killers would have brought unwelcome attention at a time when the party has big things on its plate. I have no particular beef with Tim Kaine, but his position in all this illustrates the (at best) arbitrary and (at worst) political factors that determine who gets executed when.

But the simpler and more profound point is this. There was no need to kill John Allen Muhammad tonight. They could have locked him up and thrown away the key, as they did with his child accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo. He would have been no danger to anyone, just as he's been no danger since he was apprehended in 2002. Instead, for reasons that I know but don't understand, Virginia decided to march Muhammad out in front of a small crowd to kill him seven years after his crimes.

I think that when America finally bans the death penalty, it won't be so much a result of arguments about deterrence and cost and so on. It will be because we grow to see executing criminals as a clumsy and barbaric institution.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Questions From A Reader

From Mason, in comments to the previous post:
Master of the Machines,
Two questions: 1. What's your take on the Stupak Amdt? (Was it a good thing in itself?) 2. Is it better to have 40 conservative blue dogs in Congress or 40 Republicans?

First of all, come on! I'm not the dang Master of the Machines! Conservative autocracy--hoarded power, son!--the great owners and their lieutenants, try to make us all into machines. I'm trying to remind us that we're people(!) and we can build a country where we act like it. I'm trying to overthrow the Masters of the Machines! Alright, alright, I've caught my breath. Moving on...

1. I think it's a distraction from health care reform. But others' opinions will vary depending on what they think about abortion itself, something I've generally avoided delving into on this blog. (I may lift that embargo soon, because the issue is getting harder to ignore.) From what I understand, the Stupak Amendment is billed as "prohibiting federal funding for abortions," when in reality, it introduces new restrictions. It pretty much says that no insurance plan except a private plan where the consumer is paying 100% of the cost can include coverage for "abortions"--and the term includes more than you might think. That means that private plans on the "national exchange" described in the reform bill--not to mention the public option--would not have coverage for abortion procedures. So basically, it will be harder for poor people to get abortions--or at least harder to get them without being financially ruined. The amendment will do nothing to reduce the demand for or number of abortions, because that's not really the point, is it?

I think the health care reform bill is the wrong place to have an abortion debate. At worst, I think the Stupak Amendment was actually meant to deflate left-wing support for the bill and thereby kill meaningful reform.

2. It's better to have 40 conservative blue dog Democrats than 40 Republicans, even though it doesn't always feel like it. That's because the Blue Dogs are easier for progressives to pressure than Republicans are. I read an article yesterday showing how much even blue dogs rely on organized labor for money and grassroots power. If the Left really wants to, it can pull the plug on a blue dog, or better yet, beat them with a progressive candidate in the primary. There's lots of talk right now across the 'tubes about "primarying" the House Dems who voted against H.R. 3962. At the very least, progressives can raise hell and make blue dogs worry about shoring up their left flank. There aren't as many tools available when you're dealing with Republicans, because the coalition they ride to power doesn't really care about anything you care about...unless you're really into lowering minimum wage and safety standards in the workplace, passing a flag burning amendment, or slashing pesky environmental safeguards.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Late Night Health Care Thread

Health reform passes the House 220 to 215
(39 Dem YEAs and 1 Repub NAY)

12:15am ET: Ah, who am I kidding? I've had too much Diet Coke to go to bed. Open Left has the list of the 39 Democrats who voted Nay. There should be political consequences for these people, many of whom rode into office on Obama's coattails, with organized labor's money, in a Democratic wave in 2008, and then vote against the biggest priorities of the President, the labor movement, and the Democratic Party.

Here they are:

1. Adler (NJ)
2. Altmire
3. Baird
4. Barrow
5. Boccieri
6. Boren
7. Boucher
8. Boyd
9. Bright
10. Chandler
11. Childers
12. Davis (AL)
13. Davis (TN)
14. Edwards (TX)
15. Gordon (TN)
16. Griffith
17. Herseth Sandlin
18. Holden
19. Kissell
20. Kosmas
21. Kratovil
22. Kucinich
23. Markey (CO)
24. Marshall
25. Massa
26. Matheson
27. McIntyre
28. McMahon
29. Melancon
30. Minnick
31. Murphy (NY)
32. Nye
33. Peterson
34. Ross
35. Shuler
36. Skelton
37. Tanner
38. Taylor
39. Teague

11:56pm ET: Final update of the evening: This is a big, big win, but we're not home yet. We should take a moment to recognize what an accomplishment this is. American has done nothing this big in health care since Medicare was passed. Passing a major health bill through one chamber of Congress is no small feat. Now the fight moves on to the even more conservative Senate, where every Joe Lieberman in the world will try to grab some last-minute spotlight. I think though that at the end of the day, there is just too much momentum on the side of reform for the defenders of the status quo to stop it. I predict once again that health care reform will pass and the president will sign it into law. More on the political implications of all this in coming posts.

For now, I'll leave it with the words the president so eloquently "tweeted" tonight:
This is history.
11:43pm ET: This is interesting. The AFL-CIO is talking about reducing its contributions to Democrats who oppose health care reform. Well, 39 of them just opposed it on the floor of the House, so let's see if the labor federation sticks to its guns. Even for Blue Dogs, money from organized labor makes up a big chunk of their campaign spending. For 52 Blue Dogs, a plurality of their 2009 contributions came from labor. And then the Dogs go out on the floor of the House and vote against the biggest priorities of working families and unions. I think Rich Trumka, the new AFL-CIO president, is on to something: Demand stuff from Democrats in return for electing them. If they don't give you stuff, don't keep electing them.

11:19pm ET: Here's more info about the one Republican to join Democrats in voting for health care reform. It's Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-LA), elected in 2008 from a heavily Democratic and African-American district.
11:12pm ET: Hey look. One Republican YEA vote! Now they can call it "bipartisan."

Looks like the final vote is 220 YEAs and 215 NAYs. Not much room for error.

11:07pm ET: Got 218! DING DING DING DING DING!!! Wow, 39 maybe 40 Democratic NAY votes.

11:02pm ET: Already 30 Democrats voting NAY. We can afford to lose 40 of them and still win.

10:59pm ET: The final vote is open! Alright, 218 is the magic number.

10:55pm ET: Who the heck are these Democrats joining Republicans on this motion to recommit? With 2 minutes to go, it's already failed, but still, huh? These are probably the same conservative Dems who will vote against the final bill. But fear not, all signs still look good for final passage.

10:50pm ET: Voting now on the "motion to recommit," which is basically Republicans trying to send the bill back into endless debate. But this ain't the Senate, so that ain't so easy. Should go down easily. Final vote should come after that.

10:35pm ET: According to, the one Republican to vote against the Republican "substitute bill" was Louie Gohmert (R TX-01). Don't know who he is or why he did that. Push the wrong button, Louie?

10:32pm ET: Now they're debating a "motion to recommit." I think this is where the Republicans throw in all their final, evil talking points. Several sites I've read said they're going to talk a lot about illegal immigrants. Right now Eric Cantor (R-VA) is rattling on about tort reform. The real vote should be coming soon.

10:27pm ET: The Republican bill is rejected by party-line vote. But who is that one Republican who voted Nay?

10:20pm ET: Stupak Amendment passes easily and is attached to the bill. More than 60 Democrats voted for it. Now they're voting on the "Republican substitute" amendment, which is basically an un-reform bill to take the place of what the Democrats are offering. This one should be an exact party-line vote.

10:07pm ET:
Right now they are voting on the Stupak Amendment, which is a pro-life provision introduced by Bart Stupak (D-MI). There were worries earlier that if this amendment passed, then angry liberal Democrats would actually vote against the bill and help Republicans sink it. But if the amendment failed, conservative Dems were threatening to vote against the bill too. It now sounds like it doesn't matter... enough Dems will come home to pass the bill, Stupak Amendment or no.