Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Mercy Rule

There is no war going on in Gaza. I can prove this with one simple statistic, a score almost: 385 to 4.

Those are your death totals as of this morning for the Gaza "conflict." Israeli forces have killed more than 385 people including at least 62 civilians. Hamas' rockets have killed 4 Israelis.

In Gaza they have no electricity, no fuel, precious few other supplies. This is business as usual, of course, given Israel's harsh control of the region. Their hospitals are depleted and "stretched to the maximum" according to the Red Cross.

And in Israel they are in terror - terror! - because some rockets reached all the way to Beersheba, meaning thousands more Israelis could, potentially, someday be hit by rockets.

Of course, they could also be struck by lightning.

"What I don't get," a friend of mine's dad said last night, "is how come when the Palestinians fire rockets into Israel every day, that's not news, but when the Israelis fight back, that's a big story."

The answer is simple: Because the Palestinian rockets are wildly ineffective. They very rarely kill anyone. The news story would read: "Rocket Fired Into Israel: 0 dead, 0 wounded." Not exactly A1 material, at least not when it happens every day. It would be like the sports page leading with "Charlie Brown Fails to Kick Football."

The Beersheba rockets didn't actually hurt anyone. No one was so much as injured. But the specter of these utterly ineffectual rockets has whipped the Israelis into such a frenzy that they may launch a ground assault on Gaza.

Yes, if people were launching rockets into my town all the time, I'd probably want the government to do something about it too. I get that. And yes, the people firing the rockets are utterly unreasonable deuchebags.

But what Israeli and US politicians have done is turned the rockets into a full-fledged propaganda device. These rockets - these rockets which very rarely kill anyone - are the sole rationale given for this massive military mission that has already killed several hundred people, and will probably kill several more before this is all over. It is the sole rationale for every Israeli raid.

Yet no one in the American media or political structure has stepped in to point out the obvious disproportion between Israel's actions and the threat it's facing.

"Israel is acting in clear self-defense in response to heinous rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza," declared House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. "As a sovereign nation, Israel has an unequivocal right to take action to ensure the security and safety of her citizens."

"I strongly support Israel's right to defend its citizens against rocket and mortar attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza, which have killed and injured Israeli citizens," quothe Harry Reid.

And, for the crowning ridiculousness, the White House declared that Hamas has "once again shown its true colors as a terrorist organization" by firing those dastardly rockets.

Nor have US media outlets called them on it. Take this Washington Post report on Israel's rejection of a humanitarian ceasefire. The entire first five paragraphs are from the Israeli perspective, why the Israelis didn't accept the deal - "it did not contain the necessary elements to make the truce permanent." From there it explains what attacks Israel conducted, followed by this paragraph:

Hamas continued firing as well. By Wednesday afternoon local time a barrage of more than 20 rockets and mortar shells had struck southern Israel, including five that crashed in and around the city of Beersheba, about 25 miles from Gaza. There were no serious casualties reported.

Yes, the Post reported the lack of casualties. But by beginning with the phrase "Hamas continued firing as well," it implies that Hamas' activities are essentially congruous with Israel's, and vice versa. Which is exactly the terms Israel wants everything framed in.

Israel wants this situation portrayed as a conflict, a war. In a conflict a cease-fire must be mutual. But 385 to 4 isn't a conflict, or an "all out war" as Ehud Barak colorfully described it yesterday. It's a massacre. If this were a football game, the mercy rule would be applied.

But Israel has no room for mercy. It is playing for all the marbles. It is pretty obviously intent on nothing short of the utter annhilation of Hamas, and it doesn't care how many Palestinians have to die to accomplish that. The rockets have fuck-all to do with it. They're a fig leaf, an excuse.

And it's a fig leaf every American politician and most media outlets are hiding behind. Why?

Because we like the Jews. We just plain like 'em.

Israel is a democracy. It shares our basic Western values and culture, we can go on vacation there, it's great. More importantly, Jews aren't scary. We have Jewish comedians and actors and politicians and businessmen. We have Jewish friends and colleagues, and, crucially for politicians, Jewish constituents. No Jews, to my knowledge, have ever flown a plane into an American building, at least not on purpose.

Muslims do not have it so easy. Remember the whisper campaign about Barack Obama being a Muslim? "That's a lie!" we Obama supporters were quick to protest. It shouldn't have mattered if Obama was Muslim, but we knew it did matter to the voting public, so we loudly pointed out that it wasn't true. We knew America wouldn't elect a Muslim.

That's the undercurrent beneath the Israel/Palestine debate in this country, or I should say, lack of debate. To voice the slightest equivocation in support for Israel is heresy.

During the election, Obama was once attacked for having a passing friendship with Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American professor at the University of Chicago, who happens to hold pro-Palestinian views. Nothing radical, he got along fine with Jewish students and even local Rabbis, he just happened to take the Palestinian point of view. When he left the university, Obama, a staunch supporter of Israel, said that his conversations with Khalidi had been "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases."

Seems reasonable and healthy right? And yet this association was deemed fittingly damning fodder for a political attack, albeit a clumsy and little-regarded one.

Now, this bias of ourse is being tested to its utmost. Israel has, in response to nothing in particular, killed almost four hundred people in about four days. Its pleas that it cannot live under constant fear of rockets would be touching, were we not to consider the Palestinians who likewise must live under constant fear of Israeli attacks. Since rocket attacks happen every day, and Israel seemingly needs no greater provocation to attack, its bombs are just as unpredictable as the once-in-a-blue-moon rocket deaths.

Yes, the assholes in Hamas are asking for this. But the people of Gaza aren't, and Israel is doing its damndest to ensure they can't escape. At least sixty-two innocent civilians have been killed. The hospitals are out of supplies, and Israel won't stop the bombardments to let more in.

And this is fine. Because Israel has the right to defend itself. Israel is our friend. It'll all be over soon. We're winning 385-4.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Making Frienemies

In an interview with Bill Maher recently, Bush chronicler Bob Woodward related a pretty crazy story. A major general recently asked President Bush what our strategy was for dealing with Iran.

"They're assholes," Bush replied.

That was it. That's the strategy. "They're assholes."

Not that Mr. President was entirely incorrect in his assessment. I've often thought that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and George W. Bush were weird mirror images of each other. Both are anti-intelletual, intensely religious, far-right dingbats, concerned mostly with their own personal obsessions and grievances. Both are prone to bombastic pronouncements, both love making enemies, and both have approval ratings somewhere south of Australia.

And both, it seems, have the same strategy for dealing with each other. They're assholes.

For a long time Iran has been asking us to negotiate without preconditions, secure in the knowledge that President Bozo wouldn't do it. But now that they're facing a President-Elect who will negotiate without preconditons, suddenly they've got some preconditions of their own.

In recent interviews, advisers to Ahmadinejad said the new U.S. administration would have to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, show respect for Iran's system of rule by a supreme religious leader, and withdraw its objections to Iran's nuclear program before it can enter into negotiations with the Iranian government.

Ah. I see. But surely the Iranians will want to be cautiously optimistic that this new president will be friendlier to them?

"People who put on a mask of friendship, but with the objective of betrayal, and who enter from the angle of negotiations without preconditions, are more dangerous," Hossein Taeb, deputy commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, said Wednesday.

Oh. Gotcha. Okay, we have a diplomatic about face, some incendiary quotes, is there anything else we can do to drive the hostility on home?

On Wednesday, Iran test-fired a two-stage, solid-fuel rocket, Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammed Najjar announced on state television. He said the missile had a range of 1,200 miles -- meaning that it could reach Israel and U.S. targets in the Middle East.

Awesome! There we go. The full on belligerence trifecta. Like I said, Bush wasn't all wrong. These guys are assholes.

But what's crazy about all this is that there is very little our countries have to fight about except our innate cultural incompatibility. Iran's regime is an abhorrent theocracy, a dumbshow of a democracy devoid of real freedom. It's a place where you can be arrested for wearing the wrong clothes, hanged for being gay. It's a bad, bad place. But Saudi Arabia is a pretty lousy place too, when it comes to personal freedom, and they're our bestest buddies. Why? Because our national interests intersect.

Well, our interests intersect with Iran's too. We're fighting two wars with Iran's next door neighbors. In both cases, Iran would very much like to ensure that radical Sunnis do not prevail, which is essentially our goal as well. Tehran would particularly love to see the Maliki government succeed in Iraq, since it would surely be a steadfast ally. Nor is Iran a fan of our real enemy, al-Qaeda. John McCain may not be able to tell the difference between Sunni and Shiites, but rest assured that al-Qaeda and Tehran know which side of the denominational pissing match they're pissing on.

The only major sticking point is Israel, which at this point is more of a political dispute than anything else. Any US politician who even questions our relationship with Israel would be tarred and feathered, metaphorically, and an Iranian politician who supported Israel could potentially suffer the same fate literally. But again, we've gotten around this before. Israel's not super popular in Saudi Arabia or Egypt either. As long as we know no one's nuking anyone, we're good.

Which brings us to the real problem: The "They're assholes" factor. Iran can't make nice with Obama, because hating America is a central tenet of Iranian politics. Nobody wants to be seen paling around with the great Satan. Nor, of course, does Obama want to look like an Iranian sympathizer. Deep down, we just don't trust those assholes on the other side of the world. Even if every one of our national interests lined up, when all is said and done we just don't like how they do business in Tehran, and vice versa.

For George Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that means you act like little kids and play the "I'm not talking to him!" game.

Barack Obama, it seems to me, is an adult. He realizes that enough of our national interests intersect with Iran's that we ought to at least explore the potential for cooperation. Unfortunately, he's not dealing with an equally mature regime. Even if Ahmadinejad is voted out next year - a likely scenario if the vote isn't egregiously rigged, which it probably will be - nothing will change. He's a figurehead. The Ayatollah is the guy who's really in charge here, and he's not going anywhere. And how does he feel about the US?

Two weeks ago Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, said the conflicts between the two countries were deep-rooted and went beyond political differences.

"This is because of the numerous conspiracies of the U.S. government against the Iranian country and nation throughout the last 50 years, and not only have they not apologized for this but they have continued their arrogant actions," said Khamenei, speaking at a commemoration of the taking of 52 hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Khamenei has final say in all matters of foreign policy.

Ah. Still stuck in 1979 then, I see. Terrific.

-S

(Postscript: This post is too long already, but I wanted to point out this interesting article, suggesting we cut off Iran's gasoline supply. Don't know enough to comment on how feasible it is, but it seems like a logical course of action. I'm sort of baffled as to why we haven't tried this already.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

So How Was The Honeymoon For You?

Interesting story in today's Wall Street Journal. Apparently all those evil Bush intelligence gathering methods - think torture, warrantless wire-tapping, secret prisons, etc. - don't seem so evil when you're the guy in the Oval Office.

Now, the Journal's story is pretty speculative, and mostly anonymously sourced. Its main evidence that Obama will stay the course comes down to the following:

1). He "is being advised largely by a group of intelligence professionals, including some who have supported Republicans, and centrist former officials in the Clinton administration."
2). He voted for FISA (which essentially legalizes warrantless wiretaps to the extent that legalizing them is constitutionally possible), and
3). Some of said anonymous advisers say he might.

Here's the salient bit:
[Obama] recently voted for a White House-backed law to expand eavesdropping powers for the National Security Agency. Mr. Obama said he opposed providing legal immunity to telecommunications companies that aided warrantless surveillance, but ultimately voted for the bill, which included an immunity provision.

The new president could take a similar approach to revising the rules for CIA interrogations, said one current government official familiar with the transition. Upon review, Mr. Obama may decide he wants to keep the road open in certain cases for the CIA to use techniques not approved by the military, but with much greater oversight.

Again, this is hardly rock-solid. It's coming essentially from a Bush source ("current government official"), and it has that all important "may" attached. This could turn out to be nothing.

Or this could turn out to be yet more proof that when the Executive Branch takes power, it doesn't give it back. Bush appropriated a truly outlandish set of powers, and these were the most despicable of the bunch. If Obama is going to clean up at all, you'd think torture would be a nice place to start. If he doesn't, it'll be a gross violation of whatever trust and hope America invested in him.

Unfortunately, Obama's vote for FISA makes this all too plausible. For those of you unfamiliar with the bill, it allows the NSA to eavesdrop on any call, assuming they have reason to believe you're talking to a foreign target. They don't have to explain the reason they believe this to anyone or document it or anything. We just take their word for it.

Honestly, had Barack Obama supported that in the primary season, I would not have voted for him. I would have stayed home on Feb. 5. In the general election, Obama was so obviously the superior candidate on so many levels that we had to forgive him FISA, but it remains a stunning betrayal. I've never fully bought into the guy since. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy he's president, and I'm twice as happy to be rid of Caribou Barbie. But I've never been able to shake off that little voice in the back of my head insisting, "He voted for FISA." It's not like warrantless wiretapping is a tremendously popular policy point. I'm pretty sure only the hard-corest, Kool-aid-drinkingest 9/11 Republicans think it's a good idea. So why did he vote for this? Was it a window into the dark side of the magic Change faerie?

Right now, we don't know. Certainly, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. He's already drawing up plans to close Gitmo, after all, which is pretty fucking awesome. There is every reason to hope Obama will be a good or even truly great president.

But I for one will be watching him like a hawk. We elected this guy to turn this country back into something worth a damn, and if he doesn't, we have every right to eviscerate him. I will be watching, Mr. Obama.

And for all I or anyone else knows, you'll be returning the favor.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Worth Fighting For

I submit to you, in brief, the story of Parwez Kambakhsh.

Parwez Kambakhsh is a 24-year-old Afghani student and journalist who had his death sentence commuted today. A three-judge appellate court decided that 20 years in prison was a more just punishment for his terrible crime.

And what was this terrible crime? Blasphemy. Kambakhsh distributed an article about the rights of women under Islam.

This guy was tried under the "legitimate" Afghan government. The one that, as you might recall, NATO forces are dying to prop up every day.

So I have to ask you, are you proud to support this?

Does propping up this government seem like a valuable use of American blood and treasure to you?

Don't get me wrong. I'm sure that the Taliban would have executed this kid. If Karzai's government falls, probably something even more repressive would replace it.

But this is the danger of intervening in the foreign affairs of other nations, particularly nations with vastly different cultures than our own. Every time we do it, we wind up supporting something unsavory. Every single time. The US has propped up dictators, repressive regimes and bloody terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Angola and many, many other places over the last 50 years.

The US isn't going to change its foreign policy over Parwez Kambakhsh. But maybe it should. Maybe we should have some fucking standards for who we help, instead of constantly seeking the enemy of our enemy.

And again, if we pulled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban would take over and put a bullet in the guy's brain. But Parwez Kambakhsh is going to prison for 20 years for blasphemy, prosecuted by a government that Americans are dying to prop up. His first trial was held in secret. His family says he was tortured until he confessed.

So I ask again. Does this seem worth dying for to you?

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Smears Hit Home

Politics often make me angy. Fox News often makes me even angrier. But it's pretty rare that either makes me legitimately upset.

Then I saw this. I warn you, this is not for those with a weak stomach:



Obviously this makes me sick. It should make anyone sick. But sometime while I was watching this, a truly horrifying thought drifted through my head:

Oh my god. My dad is watching this.

It was a little like when you look at a burning building and realize someone is still inside. It's all too easy to dismiss Fox News and write off its viewers. It's a lost cause, a bastion of rednecks and fools, a discredited cesspool of hopelessly biased talk for by and for the brainwashed. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

But three million people watch this garbage, and more to the point, my dad is one of them. And my dad is going to believe every word. There's nothing I can say or do, no way I can pull him out of the burning building. He simply does not and never will trust me, the New York Times, factcheck.org, any of it, as much as he trusts Sean Hannity.

My dad is not an inherently political creature, nor a lifelong conservative. He just started listening to O'Reilly and Hannity and all of those assholes on the radio some years back, and thought they were pretty entertaining. Opinionated and argumentative, these guys sound great to people with unsophisticated political views. Now, he watches them every night. He's utterly brainwashed.

And I wrote this off. He's in New York, so his vote doesn't really count (thanks, electoral college!), and having an argument with my dad is an excruciating experience in the best of circumstances. So what the hell. In the end, it's basically harmless, right?

But then you see something like this, and it doesn't seem harmless at all. In recent weeks we've seen McCain's rallies devolve into truly scary lynch mobs. McCain, at least, seems unnerved by the strain of hate he's seeing, but Sean Hannity apparently has no such moral compass. This goes beyond letting a crazy person* spread lies on TV. That's basically par for the Fox News course. What Hannity is doing is fostering a racially-charged fear of a man who could be the first black president of the United States. I never used to believe that Obama was going to be assassinated, but given the current tenor of McCain rallies, it seems scarily plausible. That Hannity is fomenting this stuff, letting a certifiable nutjob say on TV that Obama was "training for a radical overthrow of the government," kind of makes him a king among scumbags.

Nor are McCain's hands clean in this. Like I said, he seems somewhat horrified by what he's wrought, but make no mistake, he wrought it. Blather about Jeremiah Wright is titillating, but relatively harmless. But when no less a person than your vice-presidential candidate tells the world that your opponent has been "palling around with terrorists," you've taken things to a different level. You are making of your opponent a boogeyman, a black (no, Arab!) terrorist.

Of course, thanks to Hannity's special guest, they also believe he's a Secret Muslim.**

These things do not go away when McCain (knock on wood) loses the election. For a certain segment of America, for the three million people who watch Hannity's show, for my dad, the President will be a secret Muslim uppity black terrorist who hates America.

That someone has gone out of their way to create this alternate reality for so many Americans infuriates me. That this other America will be lurking alongside us for years terrifies me.

That my Dad will be among those masses truly depresses me.

Dad. If you are reading this - and I know, you found this blog once - I am begging you not to believe this. This is not reality.

In reality, Barack Obama was just an innocuous community organizer, guilty of nothing more than having a kind of thin resume.

In reality, Barack Obama is a Christian.

In reality, Sean Hannity is the world's biggest douchenozzle.

-S

*And make no mistake, the guy is crazy. The NYT ran a full story on Andy Martin this morning in which we learn that, among other things that:

1). He couldn't become a lawyer because the bar psychologist found in him a
"moderately severe character defect manifested by well-documented ideation with a paranoid flavor."
2). In one of his many futile political campaigns, he had a committee whose officially documented purpose was "to exterminate Jewish power."
3). He's filed so many frivolous lawsuits that he is barred from doing so in Federal court.

** Yes, the NYT gives Martin credit for beginning that delightful smear.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Of Election Year Politics

A quick, belated word on McCain's grandiose plan to buy every mortgage in America.

McCain's plan, if you haven't read much about it, is to buy mortgages for homes that have decreased in value, then reduce the principal on those mortgages to reflect the home's now lower market price. According to McCain's press release outlining the plan, which you can read here, this program would be open to any mortgage holders that:

• live in the home (primary residence only).
• can prove their creditworthiness at the time of the original loan (no falsifications and provided a down payment).
There's just one problem. Under that guideline, McCain would be buying, well, every mortgage in America. Except, you know, the subprime ones that are driving this mess.

There's precious few properties that haven't decreased in value over the last year, so everyone in their brother will want in on the plan. Honey, come quick, the government is giving us a retroactive discount on our house!

At the same time, the plan explicitly excludes subprime borrowers, who are the ones actually doing all the defaulting.

At first, I thought this was a big mistake from an economically inept candidate. Seriously, if a broke liberal arts reject like me can poke an Alaska-sized hole in your economic plan, that's pretty much the height of ineptitude, right?

But thinking about it, I'm not sure they spent one minute deciding if this was economically viable. Those conditions are actually explicitly designed to include everyone. Except those no-good, irresponsible subprime borrowers. Screw them.

It's a text book case of an election year breeding bad policy. Who cares if it works? The key is to make middle America look at their ballot like a fucking coupon. McCain might as well be lobbing $300 billion from a parade float.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Much Ado...

So, running up to tonight's debate I saw and heard a ton of speculation about how the candidates would act. Would McCain attack? Would Obama strike back? Would we be talking about the Keating Five or William Ayers? Would Sarah Palin show up with a walrus and a unicycle for comedic relief?

Well, now we know. The candidates acted... pretty much the exact same way they did in the first debate.

In fact, these answers were so rehearsed that if not for the town hall gimmick* you'd be forgiven for thinking the networks had screwed up and rerun that first debate. Hell, they repeated themselves constantly within this debate.

A couple moments stood out of course, most notably Obama's awesome "Bomb Iran" slam. There was also McCain's stunning proposal to go around buying bad mortgages. It's like he was saying, "Hey, you loved the bailout? There's more where that came from!" This could really be the last straw for fiscal conservatives. One minute McCain's complaining that Obama wants government to do too much, the next he's proposing that it be the personal savior of every subprime mortgage holder? What?

But other than that, if this debate changed your mind at all, congratulations: You have a career ahead of you as a focus group participant.


* Side bar, can we stop pretending this town hall thing is a way of connecting with "normal voters"? As ever, the questions were so vetted and conventional that Brokaw might as well have written them himself.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Not Your Father's Taliban

Pop Quiz: Who are the Taliban, where are they, and what are they up to? What's the nature of their ties to al Qaeda, Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Odds are, you got most of that question wrong. I say that, because up until a couple weeks ago, I would have gotten all of that wrong too.

The most important story today that didn't get nearly enough coverage was CNN's report that the Taliban has cut all ties with al Qaeda and begun secret Saudi-backed peace talks with the Afghani government.

Now, both sides have denied this report. Of course they've denied it. If you are holding talks in secret, odds are you don't want people to know about them.

But I'm going to cautiously assume the report is true. Couple reasons:
1). Hamid Karzai has admitted to asking for Saudi help in talking to the Taliban
2). It makes all the sense in the world for Saudi Arabia to host such talks and
3). This is not your father's Taliban.

I don't think that last fact is very widely understood in the US, where it's become fashionable to say "Taliban" and "al Qaeda" in one breath. In reality, the two are vastly different groups, and the days of them being joined at the hip are apparently over.

By its very nature, al Qaeda has always been more ambitious, more dangerous, and just plain old crazier than the Taliban. While both groups are founded on a similar radical conservative religious ideology (what the neocons like to call "Islamo-Fascism"), they have very different goals. Osama Bin Laden fancies himself the leader of a modern, international jihad. He is a holy warrior, ever searching for enemies of the faith to be cut down. Al Qaeda's grand ambition may be to enforce its view of Islam on the world, but in practice this mostly consists of pursuing a neverending series of grudges. Al Qaeda is, in short, bent entirely on the destruction of anything it deems impure.

The Taliban is a different ball of wax. The Taliban is a regional political entity. Its 0riginal goal was to establish Afghanistan as a Sharia state, following its own particularly strict theology. They were bad guys, for sure, but their concerns were both local and constructive. Unlike al Qaeda, which need only blow shit up, the Taliban had to actually run a country. They did a piss poor job of it too, I might add, in their first go around.

But like I said, things have changed. The Taliban is still run by the one-eyed mullah Mohammad Omar, but Mullah Omar has a lot in common with the Easter Bunny. That is to say, I'm not totally convinced either of them exist. Omar is almost never seen or heard from. He was not, according to the CNN report, present at the Saudi negotiations, though his representatives were sure to mention him.

At the same time, the Taliban he's (supposedly) presiding over now, bears little resemblance to the one the US ousted. "They are more educated," the Post quotes a former Taliban foreign ministry aide as saying, "and they don't punish people for having CDs or cassettes." I'm assuming this example is meant to be symbolic of an overall loosening of the Taliban's moral strictures. Because today's Taliban isn't a bunch of religious extremists, at least not entirely. It's mostly made up of people dissatisfied with Hamid Karzai's government. To that end, they've effectively set up a competing government in the southern provinces of Afghanistan. And whereas the old Taliban couldn't have managed the intricacies of Sim City, the new Taliban's apparently been quite effective. They have a ministry of finance, a justice system, you name it. Given how radically different all this sounds from the old Taliban, I think it's reasonable to wonder if Omar still has the car keys.

So what does all this mean? It means that we shouldn't be dealing with the Taliban as a group of terrorist insurgents, though they are surely utilizing terrorism as a tactic. We should be treating them like a quasi-governmental entity. We should think of them the same way we think of Fatah and Hamas. Like those groups, the Taliban uses violent methods and religious rhetoric, but its goals are largely rational, political and secular. In other words, they're things you could sit down and negotiate. Is it possible and even probable that some of these goals will be batshit and unreasonable? Sure. But by having the conversation, we'll at the very least better understand our enemy.

That's why the Governor of Pakistan's border region recently called for the US to talk with Mullah Omar and company, and why Omar himself offered to arrange a safe withdrawal for coalition troops. And it's why I believe that the Taliban is indeed negotiating with the Afghan government right now in Saudi Arabia.

Now the only question is, are we going to join in?

Probably not. That would be negotiating with terrorists, which the US, obviously, does not do.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Vice Presidential Drinking Fun

So. I'm currently watching the Vice Presidential debate. And also drinking. Because these actions go together.

This debate was expected to get huge ratings, but that was mostly because people were hoping to see Sarah Palin vomit on stage. So far she has not. God is still crossing his fingers.*

I'm assuming that tomorrow the pundits are going to give Palin tremendous credit for not vomiting on herself, pooping behind the podium, or otherwise defecating in a metaphorical manner.

But from where I am sitting Joe Biden has kicked ass. Granted, where I am sitting is on the floor of my East Coast apartment, and granted, I am a drunken, godless member of a biased media elite. I am not a hockey mom. I like neither hockey nor moms, nor America nor God.

But no matter. Biden kicked ass. He seems knowledgeable, passionate and experienced. He seemed to be answering off the cuff much of the time, albeit with a clear strategy. Biden obviously came in resolved to attack John McCain. This allowed him to stay "on message," meaning, roughly, that he neither said anything terribly embarrassing, nor attacked Sarah Palin with a knife.

But despite that scripted approach, you got a sense that Biden was at ease here. They could have asked him anything, and he surely would have had an opinion, because, well, he actually knows things. That actually knowing things is not a given in this debate pretty much says it all.

Sarah Palin does not actually know things. This was especially clear when the moderator asked her about Cheney's bizarre theory that the Vice Presidency is a branch of government unto itself. Any political junky would know what they were talking about, but Palin manifestly didn't. Biden did, because again, he actually has an interest in government. Crazy quality to expect in a a leader, I know.

Look, at this point if you're undecided you're either stupid or uninterested. Determining what such strange creatures are thinking is tough. My hope is that even their bizarre brains recognized that Palin looked like a bubblegum talking point automaton, and that Biden looked like a genuine person with genuine experience.

In hindsight, this was an event that was bound to play to Palin's strengths. Biden was making a conscious effort to direct all his attacks at McCain, not Palin, and Gwen Ifill was more interested in getting to her next question than challenging anyone with a follow-up. So Palin was allowed to stick with her rehearsed bits, ignore questions, and fake smile America into submission.

*Assuming he's not busy planning the Iraq war with George Bush.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Chicken Little Looks For Heroes

The sky is most definitely falling. And by the sky, I mostly mean the Dow.

The House has just derailed the roaring train that was Henry Paulson's bailout plan. As I write this, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down some 735 points. That, if you're unfamiliar with the Dow, is pretty much "Holy Crap."

Better commentators than I have remarked on the crazy similarities between the run up to the Iraq War and the push for this bailout. The big difference between the Iraq war and the bailout is that, had the bailout failed, there would have been no instant reaction mechanism as big and vicious and real as the stock market. Suicide bombings wouldn't have doubled the second the vote failed. But with the stock market, the bills failure is itself an event. The stock market is kind of like a 5-year-old, and when you don't give it what it wants, it throws a temper tantrum. Sometimes even if you do give it what it wants it throws a temper tantrum. And when it does that, people lose jobs.

I'm on record as being a pretty big, and also piratey opponent of the bailout plan. The reason for this, is that I think it is nonsense.

But man, oh man, has Congress' response to that nonsense been ridiculous. What we've seen here is an epic, epic failure of leadership. Here's essentially what happened:

Henry Paulson: We have a crisis!
Congress: We agree!
Paulson: I have a terrible idea!
Congress: Holy crap, that's a terrible idea!
Paulson: Do you have a better terrible idea?!
Congress:...
Congress:...
House Republicans:....Well, how about-
Congress: Don't be stupid.
Paulson: Yeah, don't be stupid.
(Pause)
Congress: Okay, let's just vote on that first terrible idea.

And let's be clear on something: It's a terrible idea. We're talking about a plan that would have tripled the deficit in an effort to turn the US into a crappy investment bank. In fact, it would be the US government's express goal to become the crappiest investment bank in the world, since it would be actively looking for crappy loans that no one wanted. Then it would tell its investors (you know, us), that don't worry, those crappy assets will appreciate. Sure. Also, there is a bull market on bridges in Brooklyn.

On top of that there are all the massive questions on how you'd distribute this $700 billion. Do you try to buy the best assets? If so, what's the point? So you're purposely buying the worst assets. Do you overpay or underpay for them? If you underpay, you're hurting the companies you're trying to help. And hell, who even knows what fair value would be? The entire reason these assets are a problem is because no one wants them, hence they have no market value. But don't worry, Henry Paulson will sort it all out in three and a half months. And that's before we sort out who we buy from (I'm gonna go out on a limb and say Goldman Sachs, but after that, I mean).

And that's before we get into the idealogical arguments, the "are we socialist now" stuff, the populist indignation about helping banks at the expense of taxpayers, and all that. And frankly? That stuff's pretty important, too.

But none of that excuses our political leaders, who have split into two camps: Chicken Little, and Chickens With Their Heads Cut Off.

The Democratic leadership, and around 60% of House Democrats, fell into the Chicken Little camp. They didn't have the stomach to see the Dow fall, oh, say, 700 points, so they played ball. They worked with what they had, because they figured they had to do something. You hear this over and over again from reluctant bailout proponents. "We have to do something," they'll say, "Or it's Great Depression II."* And since no one had any better something, they tacked window dressing onto Paulson's befuddled idea until they felt comfortable with it.

(Note: I mostly approve of the shit they tacked on. Executive pay compensation is pretty dicey in practice, but good in theory, and the equity buy in is a good idea.)

The Republicans meanwhile, did the Chicken Little thing. They tossed out other ideas, and no one really got behind them. Then they decided to settle in and agree to the bill, and then they voted against it. Brilliant guys. Coherent leadership.

What no one had was the combination of brains, stature and testicular fortitude to stand up and say, "This is not what the American people want. But I have a better plan, and here is it."

Plenty of people have the brains - economists have been throwing ideas out there for two weeks now. But none of those ideas could gain traction without a major standard bearer, a plausible alternative to Henry Paulson. In other words, they didn't have the stature.

Roughly two people, by my reckoning, have that stature: Barack Obama and John McCain.

But as we saw vividly over the past week, neither have the testicular fortitude. Asked point blank in Friday's debate whether they would vote for the plan, neither would say. Guys, you're Senators. Deciding what to vote for is part of your current jobs. Nor would either say what they'd give up from their agenda to pay for the bailout. Both looked annoyed to even be answering questions about something they hadn't spent all summer focus grouping responses for.

I should add that neither Obama nor McCain could do it by himself. Witness McCain's disastrous trip to Congress for proof. Obama could have theoretically squeaked through a plan, but the Democratic majority is slim in the Senate, and includes Joe Lieberman. More likely, McCain and Obama would have had to get together with some economists, hammer out a new plan, and present it together in an unprecedented display of bipartisanship and selflessness in Presidential politics.

Also, there could be a bull market on subprime mortgages on bridges in Brooklyn.

So where does that leave us, exactly? Screwed, mostly.

We've dithered away our time. Every day we delay, the markets will descend further into their temper tantrum. Which means Congress is going to either run this same fucking proposal out there again (with new window dressing of course), or descend into more negotiations while Wall Street cuts off its own limbs one by one. What we need is leadership, and fast. And theres only one man who can do it.

Save us, Warren Buffett. You're our only hope.

I know, I know, Warren, you liked the old plan, and you like Hank Paulson. But you have to realize that his plan will never pass muster politically. It's up to you, Sage-ish one, to come up with a new one.

Warren, I'm begging you. You're a known Democrat, so Democrats will trust you, and what self-respecting, market-worshiping Republican could say no to the Wizard of Wall Street?

More importantly, the second you say you're on the job, the panic ends. The sky is no longer falling. Who do investors trust more than Warren Freaking Buffett? No one, that's who. Trust me, the second Bloomberg runs the headline, "BUFFETT: I'M ON THE CASE," the markets will go up.**

No one's going to ask you to officially ask you to do this Warren, but I'm asking you. Get in there. Come up with a plan, and shout about it. Pull a Boone Pickins here.

Your country is counting on you, Mr. Buffett. Lord knows it can't count on its leaders.


* Is it just me, or is invoking the Great Depression when you're talking about economics roughly the same thing as invoking Hitler when talking about politics? I thought so. While we're here, if we could retire the hokey "Wall Street/Main Street" vernacular dichotomy for, oh, say, the rest of time, I'd be much obliged. Come on. I don't ask much.

**And as long as I'm adding footnotes, you could probably replace Warren Buffett with Michael Bloomberg if you were desperate. This is all assuming, of course, that Jim Cramer is unavailable.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I'm Looking At You, Brookline

I'll have a real post later, maybe on this topic, maybe on another one. This right here however is a bona-fide urgent call to action.

See, I'm so mad about this Treasury bailout plan that I'm actually writing to/calling my Congresspeople. Which is all well and good, and everyone else should too.

But if you live in Brookline, MA you should *really* call your congress person, because your congress person is Barney Frank. If you're not familiar with Mr. Frank, you should know two things:

1). He's awesome, and
2). He's the fucking Chairman of the Financial Services Committee.

Yes! He could singlehandedly derail this whole stupid treasury push. Only right now he doesn't seem inclined to. So you have to get off your ass and e-mail/call/singing telegram him, okay?

Here's the link.

Come on. I don't ask for much.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Hitting the Third Rail

Social Security has been called the "third rail" of American politics, because if you touch it you're supposed to get electrocuted and die. No one told this to George W. Bush, however, who fairly danced on the topic and won the 2000 election anyway, and no one seems to have told John McCain.

On Sunday, McCain actually reiterated his plan to privatize social security, a ballsy move given that the stock market had spent a week setting itself on fire.

Barack Obama of course decided to point this out. He went to Florida, where he was sure to find lots of old people, and told them McCain's plan entailed "risking social security on the stock market."

But here's an unusual curveball for you: McCain's plan is good and Obama is lying.

Yes! I know! You am not believing this. McCain is right and Obama is lying? Is the sky still up? Do clocks still turn clockwise? My friends, it's true, and to commemorate this rare occasion, I will use the phrase "my friends" an inordinate amount in this post.

My friends, if you are like me, which is to say, not old, then you should love McCain's plan. And since it's only supposed to affect us young, that makes it a pretty good thing.

My friends, it's not often a politician advocates a policy that will be good for young Americans.Yet low and behold what John McCain actually said on CNBC last night:

"I still believe that young Americans ought to ... be able to, in a voluntary fashion ... put some of their money into accounts with their name on it."

And here is what Saint Obama said:

"If my opponent had his way, the millions of Floridians who rely on it would've had their Social Security tied up in the stock market this week. Millions would've watched as the market tumbled and their nest egg disappeared before their eyes."
So let me get this straight. McCain's plan is that I can take some of the money I'm currently throwing at an overburdened, doomed entitlement system and put it in a profitable money market account with my name on it? Well, I have just one thing to say to that: Yes, please!

My friends, our entitlement programs are vast unwieldy beasts that are bound to collapse under their own weight eventually. Quick number jaunt: According to the latest Congressional Budget Office outlook report, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are currently costing us a combined $1.25 trillion per year, a whopping 40% of the federal budget. That number is expected to jump significantly over the next decade as a flood of baby boomers retire. "Over the long term, the federal budget is on an unsustainable path," the report concludes.

My friends, forty percent is a lot of fucking percents. Social Security was conceived back when people just didn't live as long as they do now. Sooner or later simple math has got to catch up with us and we're going to have to scale back these programs, right? I'm not at all confident Social Security will exist in its current form when my generation retires in 40 years, and that makes me more than a little chagrined to continue paying into it. I would love to have the money go to an account with my name on it. I'd feel a lot better about that.

As for the whole "risk" of investing it in the stock market, my friends for people our age, that risk is pretty damn low. Yes, the market is volatile, but over a 40-year period, history indicates that it's not only going to go up, but outperform just about everything else. And again, it's all voluntary. You ain't happy about it? Don't do it. And while you're at it, don't invest in your 401k, because that's equally "risky."

Now, I don't know the specifics of McCain's plan, I don't know if the details work, I'm sure there's an evil bugaboo hidden in there somewhere. All I know is that it's a courageous, non-mainstream position. The guy is touching the third rail for the sake of young people, and that's pretty great.

And what was Obama doing? Using this to strike fear into the hearts of old people. Let's run that quote one more time:

"If my opponent had his way, the millions of Floridians who rely on it would've had their Social Security tied up in the stock market this week. Millions would've watched as the market tumbled and their nest egg disappeared before their eyes."
My friends, that's misleading at best. McCain's plan specifically targets only young Americans. There may be many young people in Florida, but they're pretty clearly not the "millions of Floridians" Obama was hoping to suggest. In this case "Floridians" is code for "Old people."

Retirees care desperately about social security. It is, after all, a major source of income for them. And any hint of screwing with it fills them with fear, and that's dangerous, because they always vote. That, my friends, is why Social Security has such an electrifying reputation.

Now, I do not believe my friends that John McCain could ever get this passed, even if he were elected. Please, don't mistake this for an endorsement. But my friends we must speak out and let the country know that we don't think Mr. McCain made a gaffe here. We must tell them that we would like to be pandered to as well.

But most importantly, my friends, we must vote this year. We must vote a lot. We must announce ourselves as the new demographic to court, and make our common issues known. Then, my friends, we could have some third rails of our own.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Pirates of Wall Street

Ahoy thar, mateys! It be Talk Like a Pirate Day, which be fittin', seein' as the tale of the day be one of robbery. It may not precisely be upon the High Seas, but it be no less dastardly fer that.

Once, I didst hear tell of a wily pirate, who 'twere sick of chasing down his prey. So he hit on a plan to make a wreck of his ship, and wave out flags of distress and such like, praying a kindly minded Captain would stop to help. Then o'course, he'd murder the fool, and the rest of his crew besides.

A like-minded scoundrel almost had to admire the genius of such skullduggery. I thought 'twere a clever, if lazy, way to plunder. But today I didst see some buccaneers improve upon the trick, and how.

There, before me eyes, were a squadron of ships, all run aground, water leaking from their hulls, sails tattered and torn. A whole mess of wrecks, and all aboard them the pirates crying and wailing for help. 'Twere an especially pitiful sight, for one wouldst think, "My, if only that ship thither could help the one beside it. Lend it a spare yardarm or jib, and it might make it to port." But nay, not a one would help the other, but instead didst call to one fat passing frigate.

Seeing that they were pirates plain, I thought to me self, "Self, that one frigate be not prey enough for all these scoundrels. What thought they, wrecking these ships so near together?"

So the frigate didst stop at one ship, a mighty vessel with a bear emblazoned on its side. The frigate let all the scoundrels aboard, but shrewdly. The frigate had guns, ye see, and the pirates could not overwhelm 'em. The frigate captain sent the pirates to a dank dark hold, told them to be content they'd make shore.

A wise captain, I thought, but then the pirates deployed their dastardly strategy. They didst begin to moan, and wail. They'd had a whole ship, they bleated, why now must they have but a hold? It seemed plain foolishness - "Ye has but a hold for ye sank yer ship!" I longed to scream. But the frigate heard me not, and it decided that aye, this Bear crew deserved more, and so it gave them a portion of the gold they had aboard.

Surely, I thought, the ship would now turn home. But low, then it spotted two vessels waving its own colors! 'Twere the schooners Fannie and Freddie, what had left the fleet long ago and turned pirate. Didst they not, they pleaded, have a right to come aboard, bein' fellow countrymen? And of course, the frigate relented, and brought them aboard.

Next it came to a great ships so wrecked upon the rocks that naught but shattered and scraps of canvas remained. "I be Lehman," bellowed a man standing amongst a pile of sticks, "Captain Lehman. Me brother be dead, but I be ready to negotiate!" Him, they ignored.

Finally, I thought, the frigate hath smelled this murdrous game, and may yet escape with some of its doubloons. But no sooner thought I this, then the freighter came to a wreck bigger than any it had yet seen. And again the shipwrecked captain pleaded, and again, the frigate let him aboard.

Now, this addle-pated frigate captain had a problem, for his boat were full up with pirates, and he'd no room for more. It was plain he could take not one more scallawag aboard, yet all about there 'twere more beached ships wailing f'r help.

"I cans't take no more," bellowed the good hearted skipper, and the pirates replied, "Tis well. But trade with us a bit, and we'll have all we need to return to shore."

This twere absurd, for the broken vessels had naught to trade. But the captain didst confer with his mates, and ask their offer.

"We'll trade ye this ripped up sail for yer good one!" yelled one ship.
"Aye, and I've two halves a rudder to trade for a whole one!" said another.
"Prey, if ye'll but give me a cannon and balls, I'll give ye some wet powder and some parrot poop besides." And so on.

And one by one the frigate made the trades. Hundreds of Billions of Trades.

And when 'twere all over, the frigate sat on the rocks, with no sail, and no rudder, its deck stripped bare, its hold empty. And the crew, the crew were wailing something fierce. "Where be our captain?" they cried. "Where be our first mate and bosun? Where be our leaders?"

Quick I grabbed my spyglass and swept it out o'er the sea. And there I spotted captain, first mate and bosun all, standing astride a deck with a golden hue. They 'twere laughing as they sailed away on their freshly repaired ship, its hull filled with gold.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Talented Mr. Maliki

Characterizing the situation in Iraq as a war is at this point a bit misleading. The "Iraq war" has been a nebulous entity, and it stopped being precisely a war right around the time President Bush played dress up on an aircraft carrier. From then on, our military has not been so much waging a military campaign as desperately policing a country on the brink of self-annihilation.

But that campaign's over too, at this point, at least for now. The predominantly Sunni "Concerned Local Citizens" (See earlier pontification here) have driven out most of the Sunni al Qaeda fighters, and the predominantly Shiite Iraqi army has mostly subdued and dismantled the main Shiite militia group, the Mahdi army. If you define the Iraq "war" as a campaign against insurgents and terrorists, then it has been nearly won, for now, and if the US, and in particular General Petraeus had engineered this inter-sectarian housecleaning, there would be pats on the back to distribute.

But though Petraeus' strategy has been eminently wise, you can't lay this whole victory, if that's what it turns out to be, at his feet. No, there's another guy who's been equally responsible: Nouri al-Maliki.

You may remember Mr. Maliki as the bungling, beleaguered puppet who occassionally had to call Mommy Bush or Aunt Condoleezza just to hold onto his job.

Things have changed.

Maliki was acting against the advice of his US handlers when he sent his ill-trained but well-armed soldiers into Basra, launching his campaign against the Mahdi Army, and seen in this light, the apparently rosy situation in Iraq takes on a slightly different hue.

Maliki's defeat of the Mahdi crowd transformed him from a befuddled joke into a lion of a prime minister. More, it proved that Iraq's army probably could handle the majority of remaining insurgent threats (assuming its US allies were not too very far away). But the Mahdi Army itself was at the time under ceasefire orders from its leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, and attacking it seemed a little like poking a hibernating bear. That, I would imagine, is why the US told Maliki not to do it.

No matter now, of course. Maliki did it, and the bear didn't eat anyone. Good times. But what's interesting about the affair is that while this whole bear poking thing was going down, Sadr himself was relaxing in scenic Iran. What makes this interesting is that Maliki is very good friends with Iran.

I'm not suggesting that there was some kind of Iranian-brokered conspiracy between Sadr and Maliki, because even I'm not that paranoid. But what I will suggest is this: The reason the bear was sleeping in the first place probably had an awful lot to do with Iran.

The US used to love accusing Iran of arming insurgents in Iraq, but in so doing it was either missing or ignoring Iran's all-too-obvious strategic interest. Iran wants nothing more than a Shiite-controlled ally as a next door neighbor. That's it. A Shiite-controlled Iraq is immensely valuable to Iran, a buffer between it and the otherwise Sunni Middle East. What's funny about this is that this is the same goal the US has for Iraq; a Democratic Iraq is, after all, a Shiite one, unless sectarian divisions magically break down somewhere along the line.

But the Bush Administration seems oblivious to the natural alliance between Iran and a democratic Iraq. Instead, it harbored a bizarre fantasy that the Iraqi government would feel so indebted to its doting Uncle Sam that it would remain in lockstep with the US agenda, or perhaps that its status as a democracy would bind it to the US. This is stupid for two reasons:

1). These people didn't grow up hearing about the wonders of Democracy. It doesn't mean that much to them. Sectarian allegiances, on the other hand, affected who held power under Saddam, and later who would shoot whom in the street. They carry a tad more weight.

2). The US stormed into their country, fucked shit up, and refused to leave. They are not grateful.

All of which brings us back to our good friend Mr. Maliki, who's proven a very agile political creature. When his main base of support was the Bush administration, he was their man in Baghdad. But now that he has political power of his own, he's shifting away from his US backers. The US, he realizes, is unpopular, and there are elections to think about in Democratic Iraq. Plus, every Bush snub scores him points with Iran, which he would dearly love to be his ally. One senior Shiite politician put it succinctly: "The Iranians will stay in this place forever till the Judgment Day," he said, "and the Americans will withdraw."

The US would surely love to do that - even McCain has used the phrase "withdraw with honor" in referencing Iraq. Which sort of begs the question of what the hell constitutes success in this horrid misadventure? If the US withdraws over the next 16 months, it will have in some sense done its moral duty, doing its damndest to at least mitigate the catastrophe it caused. But on a strateglevel? Bush and John McCain have each painted the Iraqi Democracy as some kind of City on a Hill for the Middle East, which is pretty much the height of ridiculousness. Somehow I doubt the Syrians are looking over at Iraq and thinking, "Man, we need to get in on that action!"

More realistically, we might have hoped to come away with a regional ally, keep some troops stationed there, maybe even get some of that sweet Iraqi crude at a discount.

Instead, we are going to wind up with a government somewhere between prickly and openly hostile, allied with our top regional enemy, Iran. The issue of keeping bases in Iraq has been so politicized on both sides that what should have been a matter of course is now in jeopardy.

Think of it this way: We are Iraq's France. Without the French, the US could never have won its independence. But we just plain don't like those Frenchy bastards, so our politicians use them as a punching bag. The Iraqis just don't like us. Get used to it.

And beyond all this, there is one last chilling possibility: the Sunni Awakening Forces and the Iraq Army could still decide to fight it out. And that would be a war, and a scary one.

But don't worry guys. The surge worked. The shit is to shoe-level. Let's pop some champagne.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Honesty of Wasilla

Okay, maybe it's too soon to start beating on Sarah Palin again, but I keep having to write about her for work, and she keeps being a cruel joke played on America.

Today, the McCain campaign tried to put a happy face on the book banning incident, and it decided to do it the old fashioned way: By lying through its teeth.

To recap for those of you who never follow the newser links, Sarah Palin became mayor and swiftly asked the librarian if she'd have a problem removing certain books from the library. The library said yes, so Palin asked again. And again. After the head librarian shot her down the third time, Palin fired her, saying she didn't feel she had the librarian's "full support." This became a one-day scandal in Wasilla, and Palin was forced to reinstate the librarian.

The McCain campaign isn't disputing any of that. Instead, it's saying that Sarah Palin was merely asking hypothetically if the librarian would mind banning a book. Just hypothetically! Not for realsies! You see, a patron had asked the library to ban a book the year before, and Palin just, you know, wanted to know what was up.

And if you buy that, then.... Well, then you're probably exactly as intelligent as John McCain assumed you were when he selected Sarah Palin to be his running mate. We're supposed to believe that she asked this "hypothetical" question on three separate occasions just because one anonymous patron had asked about it one time? An almost certainly fictional patron, I might add, since records show no books were challenged in Wasilla in the decade prior to Palin's inquiry. Moreover, we're supposed to just forget the firing of the librarian? That was unrelated? Why is the mayor supposed to need the "full support" of the head librarian anyway? Can you picture Rudy Giuliani calling up the library and asking them to... well, okay, bad example, but you get my point.

So pretty obviously a lie. I think there's more than enough smoke here to call the fire department. But here's what really gets me...

How does covertly banning a book help Mayor Sarah Palin?

It doesn't, right? Politically speaking, this couldn't possibly have ended well. Last I checked, book banning is pretty much a consensus no-no, pretty much inviting people to inanely call you a Nazi. The only people this could possibly be a plus for would be radically authoritarian individuals for whom the First Amendment isn't all that. Say, for example, fringe hard-core conservative Christians. Even then, you'd have to sell it, right? You'd want to whip the public into a frenzied mob and storm the library Frankenstein-style.

Which means, logically, that Sarah Palin wasn't trying to ban the book for political reasons. I'm willing to bet the newly-elected Mayor of Wasilla didn't exactly see the Vice Presidency in her future. She was trying to ban a book not to forward her career, but because she just plain wanted it banned. Most likely, the book in question was Pastor, I Am Gay, a tome written by a local liberal Christian pastor, which the church Palin attended, the Assembly of God, was on a crusade against, trying to get it removed from book stores.

This is stunning to me. It would almost be refreshing if it wasn't completely fucking terrifying. We are all painfully accustomed to politicians exploiting their supposed religious convictions for political gain, but this is something else entirely. If this is true, it means Sarah Palin wasn't using her religion, her religion was using her. She was using her newfound political power to forward a batshit church censorship campaign, and doing it back-door style.

Not even in the crazed, Christ-happy reign of Dubya have we seen something like this, a leader actively using their power in covert service of a politically undesirable religious goal. And now she's a coin flip and a heart attack away from leading the free world.

Oh well. At least she can field-dress a moose.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

How To Make a Silly Season

Presidential campaigns tend to add enduring phrases to the political lexicon, and Barack Obama evidently knows this, because he is doing his damndest to create his own such bon mot - "Silly Season."

To my knowledge, Obama first used this phrase in a debate during the primaries, a silly, silly season indeed. I believe at the time Hillary Clinton was trying to accuse him of "plagiarizing" the "Yes We Can" motto of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who likely would have been outraged, were he not a national co-chair of Obama's campaign.

But the phrase has proved depressingly apt throughout this campaign. Today the candidates were ostensibly not campaigning, so the hot topic of the day was... wait for it... "Putting lipstick on a pig."

That's right. Apparently McCain mustered some kind of phony outrage over Obama's use of a common colloquialism. And this is news. Somehow.

Frankly, even writing about this makes me a little sick, because it's kind of perpetuating the problem. But I've seen so many references to this pathetic non-story today that I have to say something, and that something is: "What the fuck?"

Obama responded to the controversy with that phrase he's trying oh-so-hard to coin, telling David Letterman that it was "silly season in politics." But more telling, maybe, was this:

"What their campaign has done this morning," Obama said, "is the same game that has made people sick and tired of politics in this country. They seize on an innocent remark, try to take it out of context, throw up an outrageous ad, because they know that it's catnip for the media."

Given what we've seen, it's very difficult to argue that. So why are these frankly retarded stories such media catnip? Why does the media not spend a similar amount of time on, say, real news? How is it that we find out 100 substantive negative things about Sarah Palin in two weeks, and the only ones that get widespread coverage were her pregnant daughter and her hockey mom pride?

There are three explanations here. The first, and simplest one is that this is what the media thinks the public wants. The public does not care about Sarah Palin's pork lobbyists; it's too wonky, too many numbers. But give them a sound bite to argue over, and they're happy little news readers.

Second, this is what the media wants to write. It is not particularly thrilling, normally, to write about Sarah Palin's pork lobbyists, because of the media's mistaken beliefs about objectivity. This deserves its own post, but in brief, the media view of objectivity is that you must show "both sides" of every issue (no matter how patently false one side might be) and, just as importantly, you must write like a robot. The more serious a story, the more robotic you must become. I know because I do it. Something just exploded in the Middle East? Fire up Robo-Spak. But if Amy Winehouse just raped a man with a pool que? Now I am allowed - neigh, expected - to be snarkily amused. In other words, reporters in America are allowed to have opinions as long as they don't matter.

Sarah Palin's pork lobbyists definitely matter, so it's out with the robot. But lipstick on a pig? That most definitely does not matter, so they can inject that tiniest precious bit of pent up sarcasm. Better still, the candidates and more than that their surrogates will be saying all kinds of stupid things, which almost always means great quotes. Journalists live for great quotes. They make text pop, these gleaming pearls of text unburdened by the robotic objectivity that so onerously shackles them.

But there is a third, more disturbing reason these stories stick: Because politicians want them to. Obama is accusing McCain of purposely turning this story into media fodder. The lipstick/pig controversy could not possibly be more ginned-up, but John McCain doesn't care. He knows all he has to do is have someone in his campaign say something, and then it's news. Politicians know that anything they say is automatically news, assuming it is a good quote. If it's a good quote that allows the repetition of an even better quote - say "lipstick on a pig" or "Goddamn America" for example - then you're really cooking with gas.

Moreover, the campaigns know that these tactics work. The informed public is so polarized that it'll argue about anything - even quiet 'ol Newser racked up 11 comments on the lipstick story. And the uninformed public makes its decisions from such an impoverished knowledge base that these kinds of stories, sound bites and press narratives actually matter to them. One Newser commenter actually said something to the effect of, "I'd been starting to like Obama, but now he's lost my vote." I can only hope this was some troll and not an actual person, but I've heard stupider "average voter" opinions. If McCain can make sure the one thing an uninformed voter knows about Obama is this, why not do it? McCain would much rather the conversation revolved around lipstick and pigs than actual issues anyway.

So with all of that fitting so harmoniously together, it's no wonder these stupid stories erupt. And it's a shame. Because I have my own theory about what the public wants. I don't think the public wants phony outrage and soundbite gotcha games. Not really.

What the public wants is to make an informed decision about who should be the next President. But they don't want to spend very much time actually becoming informed, and they really aren't interested in wading through robotic prose. Moreover, most normal news stories end with quotes from both sides and conclude little.

So most people either a). retreat to their respective village of partisan hackery, reading or listening or watching opinion from whichever side they agree with, delighting in how non-robotic it is or b). only find out about stories that become really, really big. The stories that make it onto the 6 o'clock news, or better still Saturday Night Live. The shit you'd have to be living under a rock not to know about.

These days the stories piercing that learn-by-osmosis culture cloud have to involve something other than taxes and spending and foreign countries. They'd better involve Paris Hilton or bombastic black preachers or lipstick and pigs. In other words, they'd better be silly.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Everyone (in Michigan) Wins!


"Laws are like sausages: it is better not to see them being made." - Otto Von Bismarck

On the surface, the Auto Industry aid plan being ramrodded through the House right now is eminently sensible. But it also eminently creepy, a text book, unabashed display of how the wheels of Washington turn that eminently gives me the heeby-jeebies.

To recap: House Democrats are raring to give the perpetually troubled auto industry $25 billion, in the form of low-interest government loans. "This is very, very important,” Nancy Pelosi assures us. “It's about jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Okay, sure. Jobs, right. Specifically it is about jobs in Ohio and Michigan, which happen to be swing states.

Still, it looks like a sensible enough plan. This isn't quite a handout, it's a loan. Of course, the government doesn't actually have $25 billion to loan Detroit, so it'll have to put it on the charge card with everything else. The thing is, the government has a really great charge card. Most US debt is actually owned by US citizens, who buy it in bonds which pay very low interest. So if it charges Detroit the same interest as it's giving bond holders, then it can probably break even on the deal.

But it still gives me the heeby-jeebies, and here's why: Nancy Pelosi did not dream up this plan, nor did any of her congressional colleagues. Instead, Ford, GM and Chrysler sent auto lobbyists in force to both major national conventions, peddling exactly this plan. They argued that, since the government was so cruelly asking them to improve fuel efficiency standards, it should loan them some money to pay for it.

So budda-bing, convention's over, and suddenly this plan is on the "fast track." It'll be through Congress in a "matter of weeks" according to Reuters. I am not sure who had to suck the dick of whom to make this happen, but clearly something went down in Denver and St. Louis.

It's just a tad unseemly to hand three huge corporations $25 billion just because they asked nicely. It's also a tad unseemly to claim that you are doing so for the sake of "Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs," when all three companies have been aggressively cutting their workforces, payrolls and benefits, while opening factories overseas.

Now, all three companies surely had to do those things. They're looking out for their best interests, not America's, after all. But with this bill America is also looking out for their best interests, which might leave some of their laid off workers wondering who's looking out for them, exactly.

And just to add one last veneer of sleaziness to the whole thing, the Democrats are now working hard not to iron out the proposal, but to decide which bloated bill to strap it to. Hmm... energy or stimulus? Tough decision. What criteria should we make it on? "
The best bill to include this in is the bill that has the best chance of getting passed," quothe a GM spokesman, and surely all can agree.

So let's sum up: Corporations use lobbyists to ask Congress for money. Congress sees that complying can be spun as help for workers in swing states, so it obliges. Measure slides smoothly onto "fast track," gets slapped onto tangentially related bill that's more likely to pass than the Give Detroit a Blow Job Act. And the national debt grows. Voila! Instant policy! Everybody wins! Well, everyone in the states of Michigan and Ohio anyway, and probably several campaign chests.

That's another disturbing aspect to all this. Even if you accept that helping GM, Ford and Chrysler helps their workers - a somewhat dubious contention, since the cash comes with no strings attached, and they still have every incentive to trim labor costs - it's only going to help workers in handful of states. So why is federal money, your money and my money, going to a couple states? If these companies need to be propped up so badly, shouldn't that be the province of state governments, drawing taxes from the regions ostensibly benefiting? The money will only benefit the larger economy insofar as it is spent on American goods and labor. And there's absolutely no assurances that it will be used in that way.

Now, sure, the US Auto industry needs the money. But couple this with the Bear Stearns bailout and the Fannie/Freddie takeover, and you have to wonder, how far are we willing to take this thing? To what extent are companies actually on their own in our supposedly capitalist system? As semi-governmental companies Fannie and Freddie are special cases, and yes, Bear Stearns' collapse could have caused widespread chaos. But so would the failure of many, many other companies. Is our government going to tacitly guarantee every sufficiently large corporation? Will it lend money to every company with a cash problem, or only the ones with lobbyists?

What's so creepy about this auto bill is that it displays the entire corrupt lifecycle of Washington initiatives. They originate as lobbyist gladhanding, and wind up getting sold to us, when they are mentioned at all, as methods of propping up the economy. It's the government and corporate America doing the same old circle-jerk, and leaving the public out of it.

No, his won't bankrupt the country, yes it looks at least somewhat well constructed, and hell, keeping the auto industry healthy might just be good for us in the long run. But isn't it a bit disturbing that big companies can just ask the government for money and get it happily fast-tracked on through?

I guess I just wish that economic policy was devised by lawmakers, not lobbyists. Because in the end, "Give Ford a Loan" seems like a pretty shabby excuse for economic policy.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

America's New Sweetheart

Surely, at this point no more need be said about Sarah Palin. Surely by now everyone in America has cottoned to just how cynical and farcical Palin's selection really was, right?

Oh. Really? Wow.

This is disheartening. It really is. Normally, you can't go wrong by betting on America's stupidity, but this time I thought Johnny Mac went too far. Right from the outset, it was clear that McCain had made a purely political pick, expecting women to vote boobs. (And maybe for men to vote boobs too.) In fact, the ticket may as well have read "McCAIN/BOOBS '08," because it was painfully clear even from the outset that Palin had neither the resume nor the brain cells to be anything but an empty figurehead. It was also swiftly apparent that Palin was the wackiest of right-wing wackos, at least socially. This is a woman who opposes abortion for rape victims, for example. Even Alaskan Republicans had nothing nice to say about this lady.

And that was before it became widely known that she had an ethics scandal going on in Alaska, that she hired lobbyists to bring $27 million in pork to Wasilla, Alaska (amidst other hilarious pork shenanigans), that she tried to ban books, that she supported the Bridge to Nowhere before she didn't, billed the state to live at home... Christ, I'm sick of linking to this stuff. The woman managed to pack more bad governance into 18 months than most people manage in a whole career. Who says she doesn't have experience?

And even that mountain of negative stories - and there's more, look for yourself, they're everywhere - might not have put a dent in the mighty power of the boobs, but to top it all off, she had a pregnant teenage daughter! Now that's something America understands! Yes, this great nation may have only the most reptilian notion of policy (tax...bad...patriotism...goood...) but celebrity teen baby scandal? This we get. This is the language of US Weekly, and we speak it like scholars. And on top of that, it was so wonderfully packed with irony and hypocrisy, and I honestly expected America to get that. What's more priceless than a politician who's militantly pro-life and anti-sex education winding up with an unwed pregnant teenage daughter? Seriously, what tops that? Apart from Larry Craig, I mean.

[Side Bar: Yes, I know, Bristol Palin's pregnancy is not an issue, and is a poor means of deciding an election. I agree. But fuck it, I'm gloating anyway.]

So, with all that said, how can her popularity possibly be rising? How can she be polling better than Joe Biden?

There are three possibilities here. First, it is possible, entirely possible, that the polls are wrong. Barack Obama thinks so. Polls have several weaknesses, my favorite being that they do not count people who exclusively use cell phones, which, in case you were wondering, is 15% of the country these days.

Second, it's possible that the Democrats have just totally failed to explain to the public what a ragingly corrupt moron this woman is. Obama and Biden won't touch the baby daddy thing, which is probably wise, but there are so many substantiative attacks to be made here. Democrats are terrified to look sexist, but it's not sexist to point out that Alaska spends more Federal money than any other state, then taxes the shit out of the gas it sells to the rest of us. Maybe the media, likewise, has repeated too many lies ("Palin is a maverick who said 'No thanks' to the Bridge to Nowhere!") and not enough facts. As with George W. Bush, there's so much awful it doesn't know what to pounce on. Maybe America just doesn't know Palin well enough to hate her yet.

But finally, it's possible that the public really does like Sarah Palin, in spite of everything. If this is true, then I give up. I throw in the towel. If the public takes a good, hard look at Sarah Palin and goes, "So what, she's a hockey mom," then I don't know what to tell you.

This goes for Republicans too. Unless you are a far-right social conservative - and if you are, I'm kind of surprised you're reading this blog. Do I know you? - then you have to be disappointed with this pick. It's just another milestone in the sad decline of John McCain from maverick to desperate political grub. Yes, I suppose picking an unknown woman with no experience is "maverick" behavior, but so is banging your 17-year-old girlfriend without a condom. Only here, it's America getting screwed.

Friday, June 20, 2008

How Could You, Barack?!

Apparently we are all supposed to be shocked and appalled by Barack Obama's decision to renounce public campaign financing.

Obama is, the pundits say, selling out his principles for political advantage, proving what a shameless pragmatist huckster he is.

Now, it's probable that Barack Obama is a shamelessly pragmatic huckster. The other word for that is "politician." Everyone who thinks Barack Obama is the magical "change" fairy who is going to swoop into Washington, turn all the lobbyists to pillars of salt and make Congress swoon like preteens at a Hannah Montana concert needs a reality check. The guy is a brilliant political operator. He's not a saint, and he's definitely not Santa Claus.

That said, I don't see what the big deal is about the public financing opt-out. The New York Times called it the "death knell" of campaign finance reform, which would make perfect sense, if campaign finance reform wasn't already a moth-eaten corpse.

As you may or may not be sick of hearing by now, no candidate has opted out of public financing since 1976. During which time, obviously, big money donors and corporations have had absolutely no influence on politics. How could they, when our candidates were plugged into this glorious public financing system, which Obama has thrown so savagely under the bus?

I find it hard to get too upset about a candidate opting out of a system that has done exactly jack shit for over three decades. I also find it incredibly hard to swallow that John McCain wouldn't also opt out if anyone actually wanted to give him any money. McCain, as you might recall, has already pulled a rather shady maneuver with regards to public financing.

Maybe it's time to find a way to restrict the rampant and unrepentant bribery that defines our system in some way besides giving the candidates money and telling them to play nice. Public financing is the "carrot" approach to campaign finance reform. Let's find a damn stick.

Until then, let's not pretend that adherence to a 32-year-old system makes you a "reformer." And let's not pretend rejecting it makes you a snake.

Running for President does that.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Bush and Johnny Mac Talk Iraq

Oh I had to post about this:

> You keep hearing about how "strong" John McCain is on foreign policy and national security, even though no one actually agrees with his foreign policy or national security ideas. The theory is that the experienced, stalwart, military guy is the one you want handling these things.

And then there was this.

That's right folks. John McCain can't tell Sunnis from Shiites.

I know the right will try to play this off as an Alzheimer's moment, but this gaffe was so perfect, so revealing, that I can't let it go.

Either:

1). McCain has spent so long dishonestly connecting the words "al Qaeda" and "Iraq," has so ingrained the basic "Call all militants al Qaeda" rule, that he has totally lost all sense of context. For anyone with any kind of interest in the Iraq situation actually mixing up al Qaeda with Shiite "extremists" is impossible... unless of course you're so damn used to applying the phrase "al Qaeda" to all the "bad guys" that you do it reflexively, even when you're, you know, in the Middle East solidifying your image as "strong" on foreign policy.

OR

2). He actually does not know or care about the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, doesn't know which one Iran is, and doesn't know which one al Qaeda is. Like most hawks of his generation he sees the world as black hats vs. white hats, and is chiefly concerned with identifying Iran and al Qaeda as "bad guys." He's also, evidently, very excited about going to war with Iran.

OR

3). He actually has Alzheimer's.

And frankly? If any of those three things are true, I don't want him to be president.


> Which segues nicely into George W. Bush's "major speech" about Iraq. "Major" in this case apparently meaning less "important" and more "mind-numbing bullshit I say every day."

This, for those of you counting, is the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq fiasco, which lead to some nice passive-aggressive headlines, like CNN's "After Five Years, Bush Says War Must Go On."

Anyway, Bush commemorated the occasion with the same mix of empty distortion, fear mongering, and self delusion we've become used to by now.

But this speech did seem imbued with a certain fire that I'm not used to seeing out of President Shit For Brains. He spent much of the speech on the history of the war, saying "Operation Iraqi Freedom was a remarkable display of military effectiveness," trotting out the terrors of Sadam's regime, lingering on the children's prisons and torture rooms. His political motivations were obvious, but as he spoke he got more animated, more fired up. You could almost see him hitting his stride, feeling righteous. Yes, you could hear him thinking, this was a just cause - it still is one!

It is difficult to be objective about George W. Bush, a man I hate maybe more than God and Grady Little combined. For those of us who have spent these long eight years in an ever-deepening state of rage, cynicism and disbelief, it is tempting to imagine him as an evil mastermind instead of what he is: a dumb ass frat kid who does what he wants and what he's told in equal measure, firm in the sublime (and probably accurate) belief that he'll never have to answer for any of it.

But this speech, to my eyes, looked like a man honestly living in a world of deep self-delusion. It looked and sounded like Bush really believes in the righteous faerie tale Iraq he was describing. Theoretically I can see how, an uninformed person could hear that speech and be drawn into that naive world view, but it almost seemed like Bush was talking for himself here. There was a distinctly combative, almost petulant air about the thing, from a man eternally unable to admit his mistakes. Iraq was noble, it is noble, and we're not leaving, so fucking there!

The good news? No one is buying this bullshit.

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