Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In Which the Author Awakes to a Strange Circus World

I'll come clean. I fell asleep near the beginning of President Obama's speech last night, thanks to a bad cold, a good dinner, and a cap-full of generic-brand NyQuil.

I awoke today to see a torrent of negative reporting about Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's Republican response. Wow. Keith Olberman just showed a highlight of Jindal's speech. He does indeed sound like Kenneth The Page from 30 Rock, as he reads the same old southern conservative talking points.

Am I still dreaming? Or is the Republican Party really this clownish? I mean, where did the all-powerful lords of darkness go?

If anyone can find a video of the full Obama speech, please post it in comments. I'd like to see the whole speech before I watch Jindal's weird response. Sure, I could read them both, but it seems like the tone is pretty important in both cases.

So what were your thoughts on the speeches?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bush-Era "Truth Commission" Is Not Enough: Justice Requires Prosecutions

A couple of weeks ago, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate potential crimes of the Bush Administration: political prosecutions in the Justice Department, warrantless surveillance of Americans, the deceptions used to justify the invasion of Iraq, and torture (and homicide) at Guantanamo Bay and secret prisons around the world. Leahy said, "I don't want to embarrass anybody. I don't want to punish anybody. I just want the truth to come out so this never happens again." Leahy has suggested using the reconciliation commission enacted in South Africa after apartheid as a model and has set up a website ( with a petition urging Congress to act.

There have been similar rumblings in the House from Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).

Reaction from national Republicans? 

Predictable and deceptive. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) says, "If every administration started to reexamine what every prior administration did, there would be no end to it." And Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) says Congress should not "waste taxpayers' time and money on fruitless finger-pointing." 

Their statements show that both Specter and Smith continue to believe/pretend that no serious crimes were committed by the Bush administration and believe their constituents will not call them on it.

Reaction from the White House? 

Predictable and conservative. When President Obama was asked about investigating Bush officials, he gave the obligatory "nobody's above the law" response, before adding, "I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards." 

That is pretty much a non-answer--a punt back to Senator Leahy. We can expect the Obama administration to be too politically sensitive to lead on this issue, and that makes sense. The last thing they want is to be labeled as partisan witch-hunters. The good news is that the word "pardon" doesn't seem to be on anybody's mind. Obama probably just needs someone else to take the lead on this. I can't imagine him actually blocking a push to investigate.

Sam Stein, writing for the The Huffington Post, raises a hopeful point about Obama's response: "This path could create a curious situation for the Obama team, in which the president has committed his administration to prosecuting illegality and the Congress provides the evidence of such." 

The "curious situation" sounds like a no-brainer: If Leahy's Truth Commission uncovers evidence crimes--anyone think it won't?--then the criminals should be prosecuted.

No To Special Immunity

The problem is that Senator Leahy is waving around immunity from prosecution as one of the selling points for his commission. He is buying too much into the "look forward, not back backwards" mantra and confusing what that means. Leahy said, "We need to get to the bottom of what happened and that it never happens again."

If understanding "what happened and why" is all we do, then we can guarantee it will happen again. We will set a precedent for future presidents:
You may commit some of the worst crimes imaginable, and all we will do as a people is describe the crimes out loud and write about them in a report. Do whatever you like, because you will never, ever go to prison. 
Speaking of precedents, Richard Nixon said, infamously, "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal." Then President Ford pardoned him for "all offenses against the United States," and showed that Nixon was, in a practical manner, absolutely correct. It was a show of solidarity among the ruling class. Prison is for little people.

Besides, I think we have a pretty good idea of "what happened and why." The question is, will there now be justice? Will there be a reckoning? Will those who knowingly and repeatedly broke the law ever be held responsible? 

Yes To Justice

There is a better solution than a truth and reconciliation commission with immunity for those who testify. It's called a Special Prosecutor. 

Attorney General Eric Holder should appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute the Bush crimes we already know about. This approach would get to the bottom of "what happened and why" and uphold our laws. Holder doesn't need Congressional authorization to appoint a prosecutor. He doesn't even need Obama's authorization. It's already part of his job description as the nation's top law enforcement official. has an online petition urging Attorney General Holder to "prosecute any and all government officials who have participated in torture and other war crimes." They also have a page devoted to news about prosecuting Bush, Cheney et al.

It's a decent start. 

If Bush officials are ever made to pay for their crimes, it will be because the public's voice could no longer be ignored. Establishment politicians will always be uncomfortable putting any of their own on trial and in prison. It goes against all their instincts of class- and self-preservation. They will resist until resisting is more uncomfortable than acquiescing to justice. The test will be in how uncomfortable the public can make them.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Arriving at the Obvious on CEO Pay

So first, Senator McCaskill proposed capping the total annual compensation for bailed-out executives at $400,000. 

Then, President Obama announced rules to cap annual compensation for executives receiving government aid at $500,000. His plan allowed companies to award stock to executives that could be redeemed once the government investment was repaid.

Next, we heard that the $400,000 pay cap was not going to survive the Congressional comprise on the stimulus bill. After all, "comprise" in Congress and "bipartisanship" often mean everybody just agree to give Big Capital whatever it wants.

Now, we get good news that Senate Democrats inserted a provision in the stimulus bill--over the objections of the Obama administration--that will impose restrictions on executive bonuses at all 359 banks that have received government aid:
"The restriction with the most bite would bar top executives from receiving bonuses exceeding one-third of their annual pay. Any bonus would have to be in the form of long-term incentives, like restricted stock, which could not be cashed out until the TARP money was repaid in full."
Speaking of the new restrictions on executive bonuses, a lobbyist for the financial services firms said, "This is a big deal. This is a problem."  Really? A problem for whom exactly?

But yes, it is a big deal. From WaPo:
Bonuses make up much of financial executives' take-home pay, so the new rules could significantly diminish their compensation. For example, Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein made $68.5 million in 2007 -- a Wall Street record -- but $67.9 million of that was in bonus and other incentive pay that analysts said would be subject to the new rules.
It's disappointing to hear that the Obama administration was warning Congressional Dems that this measure would cause a "brain drain" in the financial industry. Huh? Are you guys saying that if we don't subsidize Wall Street bonuses with taxpayer money, then all the really smart people who got us into this situation will leave? I'm shaking. In. My boots.

Disappointing, but not surprising, when you consider that two of the economic heavyweights in the administration are Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, both of whom hail from the center-right neoliberal school. It will be interesting to see how the coming months and years change these guys. It's not the 1990s anymore. The "privatize everything" movement is dead, and "the era of big government is over" is over. My prediction is that Larry and Tim will eventually 1) evolve into progressives, 2) be overpowered by progressive elements in the administration, or 3) lose their jobs.

It's a new era. If common sense says public money should not fund obscene pay, then let's not fund it. There is no holy commandment saying we have to renounce any public control of our economy. There is no secret law in the universe that says democratic principles cannot be applied to money. We don't have to do what rich people tell us that "free markets" require. We can do what we want.

PS... I am publishing this post sitting on a bus on the way to New York. My question is this: How are there Internets on this bus!? Are the tubes invisible? In the air?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Maybe This Is Why Conservatives Hate France

Mal Langdon/Reuters
I mean, just a guess.


Remember "freedom fries" and "freedom toast?" Of course, replacing the word French with the word freedom was punishment for France (not to mention the rest of the world) not supporting the American invasion of Iraq. But France has long been the butt of conservative jokes and the premise of lazy conservative arguments. 

In 2007, the Boston Globe obtained an internal strategy memo from Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. France bashing was key to his strategy for winning the Republican primary. The memo declared  that the European Union wanted to "drag America down to Europe's standards," adding: "That's where Hillary and the Dems would take us. Hillary = France." The memo also called for the campaign to print "First, not France" bumper stickers.

I can't count how many times, in political conversation, I've heard conservatives ask, "Do you want us to end up like France?!" Any conversation about universal healthcare inevitably turns to: "Sheesh, look at France!"

OK, look at France.
  • The World Health Organization reports that France has the best overall health system in the world. The U.S., which spends a higher portion of its GDP than any other country on healthcare, ranks 37 out of 191 countries--behind Columbia and Saudi Arabia. 
  • France ranks higher in Human Development Index than the U.S. (11 versus 15). 
  • France incarcerates a much smaller proportion of its population than does the United States (91 per 100,000 people versus 726 per 100,000 people). 
  • Oh, and they don't execute people. 
  • The French work less, vacation more, and live longer. 
Look at France!

I know, I know. Arrogance! Snootiness! Ungratefulness! These are some of the stereotypes about the French that seem pretty unpolitical. But the tenacity with which conservatives attack France shows it's more than just friendly ribbing. There's a crude strategy there, behind the silliness.

I think conservatives want to prevent Americans from viewing France as any kind of model worth imitating--a model of an excellent health system, for instance. More broadly, conservatives don't want the American people to consider an alternative approach--which the French often present--for dealing with economic and political elites--an approach that goes beyond electoral politics.

Sometimes conservatives' France-bashing seems downright hateful, which is understandable. Walk in their shoes for a moment. Imagine that your financial fortune depends upon keeping your countrymen from organizing to tangibly improve their own lives. Now, imagine you look across the Atlantic to a country that is in many ways like your own. And you see something like this:

Students carrying banners march in Rennes, western France

People in the streets. An organized, engaged, militant citizenry.

The truth is, the American people could learn a lot from the French. I don't mean we should start eating Brie. I mean we should get organized and stop taking so much crap. What I love about the latest French strike is that its demands were so broad, you could almost say it didn't have specific demands. It was a show of force from the working class, a reminder to the government that it should either remember who it serves or prepare for massive disruption, massive resistance. 

What would happen if we had just a glimpse of that in America again? How would it change our current situation, where we find ourselves weakly begging banks and CEOs to be responsible with our money? What might be accomplished?

The banks and CEOs hope we never find out.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Get Your Name On This List

That scrolling one, over on the right.

On February 4th, thousands of union members rallied on Capitol Hill in support of the Employee Free Choice Act. They delivered boxes to Congress carrying some of the 1.5 million signatures in support of the bill. On the internet, American Rights at Work created the banner you see on the right side of this page, which is scrolling through each of the 1.5 million names, one by one. It will take 11 days to scroll through all the names.

Having met the original goal of 1 million signatures before the rally, now the goal is to gather 2 million signatures before Congress takes its February break. 

So add your name. Then grab some popcorn and wait for your name to scroll by!

The main feature of the Employee Free Choice Act is that it would make it easier and quicker for workers to form a union, by allowing workers to choose whether to decide on a union through majority sign-up or an election. Currently that choice belongs solely to the employer. In most cases, the employer opts for a secret ballot election, where almost everything is stacked in the employer's favor. In the run-up to the election, the employer pulls out the traditional anti-union techniques: illegally firing pro-union employees, illegally threatening to close worksites if the union is formed, and bribing workers to oppose the union. Perhaps most importantly, in the pre-election period the employer controls the debate. Before an election, 92 percent of employers force workers to attend mandatory meetings to listen to anti-union propaganda, while pro-union meetings are not allowed.

You've probably seen ads on TV both for and against the Employee Free Choice Act. You can understand why the pro-labor ads use phrases like "a level playing field," since the act would give workers a fighting chance to form a union. 

On the other hand, the anti-labor ads have simply repeated the lie that Employee Free Choice would "take away the secret ballot." What they really mean is, the Employee Free Choice Act would "take away the employer's right to require workers to sit through a long anti-union campaign of bribery and intimidation before voting on a secret ballot, even if all of the workers have already indicated they want a union." But yeah, "take away the secret ballot" has a better ring to it.      

This is going to be a big fight--a throw-back to some of the great labor struggles in our history. It's people-power versus all the hired guns and publicity money can buy. Big business has already shown that they are willing to pull out all the stops against this legislation, but labor appears to be standing firm. More on that later. It may simply come down to a numbers game in the Senate: Can Democrats get 60 votes? But it's a numbers game in a larger sense too: Can a large number of people overcome an enormous amount of money? 

Friday, February 6, 2009

War in Pakistan? Let the People Decide

On January 23rd, American drones conducted two missiles strikes in Pakistan, killing at least 18 people. The attacks marked the first strikes inside Pakistan during President Obama's administration. On January 29th, another missile strike killed 12 "suspected militants" in western Pakistan.

It's unclear when exactly during the Bush administration that the US began attacks inside Pakistan. But they grew progressively less secret during his second term. At times it seems like the government of Pakistan protests the attacks publicly but privately gives the US a wink to keep bombing in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). At other times the protests seem genuine.

Even though it's public knowledge that the US is fighting a war in Pakistan, there is still a veil of secrecy over the whole affair. It's hard to determine how many and what kind of attacks have been conducted. And it's harder to determine how many people have been killed. I found one article saying there were approximately 30 attacks in 2008 that killed more than 200 people. The source of that information is apparently a US defense official, meaning that civilian casualties would almost certainly be underestimated. An Afghan news report says that since 2004 the US "has attacked Pakistan at least 50 times, claiming over 450 lives." And that article's source is apparently an Afghan defense official.

The war in Pakistan is not limited to robot planes bombing remote villages. An article in the NY Times back in September described the "first publicly acknowledged" US ground attack in Pakistan, confirming that there have been others. This particular attacked involved helicopters carrying in soldiers who landed and opened fire in a village just across the border with Afghanistan. As always, accounts differ, but you can get a pretty good idea of what happened. A US military spokesman said that "at least one child" was killed and that several women who were killed "were helping the Qaeda fighters." The governor of the Pakistani province that was attacked, a Pakistani phone company employee, and local residents who were interviewed all say that 19 or 20 people were killed, mostly women and children.

This is a war that was designed to creep up on us, so that by the time the American public is really aware of it, it's already a fait accompli. It started out covert. And of the little bit we heard, we were assured the attacks were only done in "hot pursuit" of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters fleeing across the border. Or, we were given the impression that attacks in Pakistan were only carried out if there were a high-value, fleeting target and the Pakistanis "could not or would not" act.

We can continue to pretend that these are just ad hoc military operations, conducted on short notice. Fleeting targets. Hot pursuit. Or we can speak the truth: We have been fighting a quasi-secret war in Pakistan for years now, and the American public has been kept mostly in the dark. 

War in Afghanistan has spread--as it almost always does--into a neighboring country. As I write this, the cover of Newsweek magazine calls Afghanistan, "Obama's Vietnam." If so, then Pakistan is Obama's Laos and Cambodia. The American people never signed up for war in Laos and Cambodia then, and we haven't authorized war in Pakistan now. The war in Vietnam spread across southeast Asia because there was widespread civilian support for our enemy, and enemy was often indistinguishable from civilian . The resulting, inevitable US bombing of civilians across the region only reinforced the population's support for our enemy. 

If it's not the same story in Pakistan, then it's at least very similar. If the government of Pakistan is viewed as a foreign occupier by the people in the FATA, how do you think American robot planes and commando raids look? No solution that includes our continued presence in western Pakistan will work. Every attack helps further legitimize the Taliban.

Here is my proposal: The United States Congress should debate an official declaration of war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan's tribal areas. 

If it passes, at least we will have brought the war into the public eye. We will get to hear arguments for it and against it on a national stage. There will be some public accountability. We will each know how our representatives voted. If it passes, whether it's right or wrong, at least it will be a war that the American people want, as far as our public institutions can determine. 

If it fails, then the attacks must immediately cease. We could say with justification that any continued military campaign in the FATA is an illegal war against the expressed will of the American people. If our military leaders say that we cannot fight effectively in Afghanistan without fighting in Pakistan, then we will have to get out of Afghanistan too. 

Some might object that war in Pakistan already falls under the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which passed Congress on September 18th 2001. And the way that resolution reads, they would be technically correct. But do we really want a joint resolution passed just seven days after the 9/11 attacks to grant every future president the power to wage war wherever he chooses against those whom "he determines" had any relation to those attacks? That is a blank check if I've ever heard of one. (The Bush administration cashed that check to buy Guantanamo military commissions and domestic wiretapping, by the way.) 

We should treat the AUMF from 2001 as essentially a declaration of war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Campaigns in other countries should require new joint resolutions from Congress. 

The problem is that no one in power is going to want to debate a Pakistan war declaration. Congress will not want the accountability. (As long as no one votes on it, no one has to accept responsibility.) The president will not want to have his hands tied. (Once he's elected, representative democracy becomes an inconvenience.) We, the people, will have to force it on them.

I believe in democracy enough to think that even decisions of war and peace should be left to the people. These things are too important for presidents and generals.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

My Challenge for Republicans

Ten days after Barack Obama, a Democrat, was sworn in as the country's first black president, the Republican Party elected its first black party chairman, Michael Steele.

And everyone scratched their heads and said, "I didn't know there were any black Republicans."

In fact, there aren't. Well, OK, there's at least one, and he's now the party chairman. What's that you say? OK, yes, there are some more--but barely.

Let's look at some numbers from the last 10 presidential elections:

In 2008, Barack Obama (D) won
95% of the black vote and John McCain (R) won 5%.
In 2004, John Kerry (D) won
88% of the black vote and George W. Bush (R) won 11%.
In 2000, Al Gore (D) won
90% of the black vote and George W. Bush (R) won 10%.
In 1996, Bill Clinton (D) won
84% of the black vote and Bob Dole (R) won 12%.
In 1992, Bill Clinton (D) won 83% of the black vote and George Bush (R) won 10%.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis (D) won 86% of the black vote and George Bush (R) won 12%.
In 1984, Walter Mondale (D) won 90% of the black vote and Ronald Reagan (R) won 9%.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter (D) won 85% of the black vote and Ronald Reagan (R) won 11%.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter (D) won 83% of the black vote and Gerald Ford (R) 16%.
In 1972, George McGovern (D) won 82% of the black vote and Richard Nixon (R) won 18%.

That's about as unanimous as it gets in politics. And this leads me to the challenge I would like to issue:

I challenge any Republican to explain to me, in writing, why the Republican Party faces nearly unanimous opposition from African-Americans. Please explain to me the historical reasons that Democratic presidential candidates have averaged 87% of the black vote and Republican candidates have averaged 11% since 1972. I believe you cannot do this without offering up a damning critique of your own party. You may leave your response as a comment to this post, or, if you need more room, email it to me at I will post thoughtful explanations, unedited, on the front page of this blog.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Hello Pike County Pennsylvanians

The message from the sign I carried on Inauguration Day--"Dear World, We're Back! Love, USA"--continues to spread across the Interwebs, various tubes, portals, and social media sites. Here it is in the Pike County Dispatch, a newspaper in rural, northeast Pennsylvania:

The article is written by Eric Langberg, who took a picture of the sign at the Inauguration and posted it on Twitpic, where it's now been viewed nearly 200,000 times. Only part of the article is accessible online. To see the rest you have to get an actual copy of the Dispatch

Some fun facts about Pike County: 
  • In 2007, Pike County had 42,493 registered voters: 19,653 Republicans, 14,692 Democrats, and 8,148 "others."
  • Pike County voted for McCain over Obama, 12,456 (52%) to 11,448 (47%). 
  • Pike County county is part of Pennsylvania's 10th Congressional District, which just re-elected Democratic Representative Chris Carney, 56% to 44%, over his Republican challenger. When Carney was first elected in 2006, he became the first Democrat to represent the district since 1961.
  • Pike County is considered the westernmost edge of the Greater New York area surrounding New York City and is the fastest-growing county in Pennsylvania.
If you are visiting Better Than Machines after seeing the yellow "Dear World" sign...
  • Check out these three posts for the story behind the sign and an explanation of what it really means.
  • Join the discussion in the comments sections about how exactly we're back...and how we still have a long way to go.