August 04, 2007

Don’t Democrats know how to spell F-I-L-I-B-U-S-T-E-R? Or N-O C-L-O-T-U-R-E?

Instead of caving in to Bush on a drastic expansion of FISA powers, couldn’t Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid found 41 of his members who at least had enough conejos to reject a cloture motion?

Instead, this is the result:
Privacy advocates accused the Democrats of selling out and charged that this bill gives the government more authority than it had under a controversial warrantless wiretapping program begun in secret after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Under that program, the government could conduct surveillance without judicial oversight only if it had a reason to believe that one party to the call was a member of or affiliated with al-Qaeda or a related terrorist organization. This bill drops that condition, they noted.

Democrats “have a Pavlovian reaction: Whenever the president says the word ‘terrorism,’ they roll over and play dead,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Washington legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, predicted that the bill's approval would lead to the monitoring of ordinary Americans by the National Security Agency, which conducts most of the government’s electronic surveillance. “If this bill becomes law, Americans who communicate with a person abroad can count on one thing: The NSA may be listening,” he said.

Did Reid not even think of trying to prevent cloture, or otherwise using Senate procedural hurdles as roadblocks? And, as blogger Corpus Juris has said, where’s Reid’s You Tube moment on this?

Senate and House Democratic leadership had to know Bush was going to pull out all the rhetorical stops on this, and that Rove was likely to try to spin this for political gain. So why didn’t they have an advance counter-marketing plan? Here’s some possible talking points:
“Democrats want to TOTALLY protect Americans, including protecting their privacy.”

“Democrats have a better bill.” (And why they didn’t actually have one lined up a week ago, I don’t know)

“We know that Americans don’t want to surrender their privacy and other rights.”

Instead, Democratic Congressional leaders demonstrate that all too often, they are still being reactive rather than proactive. I think it’s about time for Skippy to repost his “no money for Democrats” post.

The House, I hold no hope for. I’m afraid that having gone halfway down the road with Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell before Bush pulled the rug from under them, and having seen the Senate cave, the House will too.

Chinese free trade? Hardly

When will free traders learn that, if trade is to be done on a level playing field, we don’t come close to free trade with China? It’s continued tit-for-tat bans on products from other countries, in the wake of bans of various Chinese food and manufacturing products for safety reasons, heavily underscores that. Boy, this could open a can of worms, and it leads me to several thoughts.

Bribing Lancaster ISD teachers to do their job?

Lancaster ISD Superintendent Larry Lewis wants to give Cadillac CTS cars to teachers who have 99 percent attendance rates. Boy, this could open a can of worms, and it leads me to several thoughts.

First, if you already have a budget reserve of less than $1 million, if this costs more than the money you expect to save on substitutes, you’re playing with fiscal fire.

Second, if your teachers are averaging 10 days missing per year, what’s that say about either the quality of teachers you’re recruiting, or the level of dissatisfaction they have with their current jobs? I know that many teachers spend part of their summer vacation pursuing a graduate degree, and part of things like Christmas break is spent grading student papers and tests, but, nonetheless, teachers already get more vacation time — by far — than the average American worker. And they’re cutting classes 10 days a year?

Third, speaking of cutting classes — now you have to start wondering just how much of an influence teachers are on truancy rates. I mean, students have to figure that if it’s OK for a teacher to miss 10 days a year, why not them, right?

August 03, 2007

Fasten your financial seat belts

Jim Jubak says a credit crunch is definitely here. The Dow agrees, with a drop of more than 200 points, the third losing Friday in a row.

I’ll up my recession odds to 2-5, from 1-3, by 12 months from now; I’ll stay with even odds by January 2009. Jubak thinks enough consumers will avoid enough of a home-related ding to their wallets to keep the economy afloat enough. I disagree, especially if oil beats the $80 mark next summer, which it should. To increase much faster than inflation, it will have to hit $85, but it could well do that; the $80 point could be a symbolic barrier.

August 02, 2007

Warner, Lieberman, announce new global warming legislation

The devil may be in the yet-unannounced details, or in pork-laden compromises for the auto or electric utility industries, but it sounds promising. Here’s what they announced:
Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Warner said their plan would focus on 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, to cut these by 70 percent below current levels by 2050, and could be used as a blueprint in the fight against global warming.

“We hope it will be a turning point,” said Lieberman, who sits as an independent Democrat in the Senate, adding that the plan could reverse US foot dragging on tackling the global threat from climate change.

“We have been slow, we are already late, but not too late,” he said.

The proposal, one of several expected to come up in the Senate later this year, lays out a mandatory, market-based cap-and-trade program that would cover 80 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions.

It is designed to cut those emissions back to current levels by 2012, pare them by 10 percent of current levels by 2020, and to reduce them to 70 percent below current levels by 2050.

At the same time, the senators said, their plan, to be the basis of legislation introduced into the Senate later this year, contains “robust” measures to protect American jobs and sustain US economic growth.

It will include the establishment of a Climate Change Credit Corporation to permit industry sectors to buy emissions allowances to regulate the amount of harmful gases they spew into the atmosphere.

Warner notes (as a Pentagon study has also) that global warming can and should be seen as a national security issue. This “covers the flanks” of many Republicans who are starting to move to the same level of concern as Warner but don’t want to be tarred by constituents — or by GOP think tanks or BushCo — as “environmentalists,” not that there’s anything wrong with being one, of course!

Racial bias in death penalty sentences AND executions

Black murder of whites not only the most likely to get the death penalty; Hispanic odds also greater than white-on-white murders

It’s also the most likely to lead to execution. Here’s the details, from a new research study by David Jacobs, a sociologist at Ohio State University.
A black who killed a white person has twice the risk of being executed than a white person who killed a non-white, he said. “The fact that blacks who kill non-whites actually are less likely to be executed than blacks who kill whites shows there is a strong racial bias here,” Jacobs said. “Blacks are most likely to pay the ultimate price when their victims are white.”

Hispanics who killed whites were also more likely to be executed than were whites who killed non-whites, the study found. But the risk of execution was not as strong for Hispanics who killed whites as they were for blacks who killed whites.

The study also reinforced previous findings by Jacobs that the likelihood of a legal death penalty was greater in states with higher proportions of black residents, an ideologically more conservative population, and in states where there was greater support for Republican candidates.

In the new research, Jacobs found that execution probabilities increase in states along with the population of African Americans, up to a point. But when the population of blacks reaches about 16 percent of the population, executions start to decrease. Probably at that point, African-Americans have enough votes and political influence within a state to reduce the number of executions, Jacobs said.

One more piece of evidence that racial bias still exists in sentencing, above all in death penalty cases. One more reason to abolish it.

The arrogance of Larry Lewis

According tot a Lancaster, Texas resident, this is what the Lancaster ISD superintendent's e-mail signature is:
"Sent by God and Committed to Children First,
Dr. Larry D. Lewis"

Larry, it's a good thing for you I'm not still there; beyond the arrogance issue, I'd be tearing you to shreds with a First Amendment church-state separation column.

You want more arrogance from Lewis, plus his “martyr complex”? Read a Lewis e-mail to another resident (the Lewis e-mail signature is part of the message, too):
I am so sorry that you are misinformed by the media and others you have had conversation with. Mr. Kirkland is correct, the Dallas Morning News is out to make us the next Wilmer Hutchins ISD. The only thing that resembles Wilmer Hutchins in LISD is the color of the superintendent and the color of our students. If this plan were being offered North of the Trinity, the school district would be on the cover of Time Magazine, OK, maybe I embellished a bit, but you get my point.

Hey, Larry, get down from the cross — we need the wood.

Missing in action — the Rev. Fred Phelps

The small town of Bedias, Texas turned out in force to pay tribute to Bobby Twitty July 29. Twitty was a Marine lance corporal killed in a freak tire-explosion accident in Ramadi, Iraq.

There were also some visitors, like the members of the Marine Corps honor guard, or the members of the southeast Texas chapter of Patriot Guard Riders, who salute the memory of servicemembers without making commentary about the war in Iraq — or other issues.

Not there, despite advance rumors of his coming? The Rev. (or Revvvvvvv., if you want to imitate Rush Limbaugh) Fred Phelps.

Whatever your view about either the war in Iraq or gay rights, just about all people would likely agree that protesting at a young serviceman’s funeral isn’t the right way to make a point about a cause. Well, “most people” would not include Kansas pastor Rev. Fred Phelps.

Phelps and his Topeka, Kan., Westboro Baptist Church have made a reputation for themselves, since the invasion of Iraq, by the stridency of their protests about what they see as being wrong with America, and where they make these protests — at funerals of servicemen. Phelps claims American ills, such as the 9/11 attacks, are all due to its tolerance of homosexuality.

Actually, the “church” is the Phelps family and little else. And, the “Baptist” is honorific; the church is a member of no main Baptist denomination. Picture a fundamentalist Manson family getting high on “homo-hate.”

Fortunately for the peace of the Twitty family and others, it was just rumor; Phelps didn’t actually show up. The Twitty family got a funeral with peace, dignity and honor, as did his friends. That would not have been the case had Phelps arrived. His disruptiveness has been so great that some states have passed laws to restrict any such demonstrations at funerals, as has the federal government.

Such counterproductive protests remind me of a couple of very basic life principles.
One is the old cliché, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” And Rev. Phelps certainly seems to be vitriol incarnate, while his sugar bowl is empty.

Another is an extension of another old cliché: “Speak no ill of the dead.”

I know that I wouldn’t express opposition to the war in Iraq by protesting at someone’s funeral; that would be insensitive, above all, and also counterproductive. Besides, servicemen like Twitty aren’t there on a crusade against gay rights, the Revvvvvvv. Phelps’ bete noir.

Also, people like the Rev. Phelps and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and others who blame the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on us as due to some American moral decline might want to read their Bibles, or their Tanakhs if they are socially conservative Jews, again.

Here’s what the book of Job says: “It rains on the just and the unjust alike.”

In other words, the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks can’t be used as some sign of any divine displeasure with the United States, whether over abortion, gay rights, lack of environmental stewardship or anything else.

If the words of Job aren’t enough, we can turn to the New Testament for the words of Jesus himself.

In the Gospel of John, some Pharisees bring a man born blind to Jesus. They ask Jesus whether the man himself or his parents had sinned to cause this, and Jesus said “Neither.”

If we do want to look at what Revvvvvv. Phelps calls sin, let’s look at all sin, or human shortcoming. Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells another crowd of Pharisees that only if they were without sin of their own should they stone a woman of ill repute.

And, in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Gospel of Matthew, he warns people pointing at a speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye to first attend to the wood plank in their own. Lovelessness is the real problem, it would seem from this passage.

And, speaking of love, and quoting the Christian Bible one last time, let us turn to I Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous chapter on love.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or clanging cymbal,” Paul says in the first verse of this chapter.

Rev. Phelps, you are a resounding gong and clanging cymbal. You are a tuneless, unmelodic piece of percussive brass disrupting grieving families’ lives.

FISA court ruling behind Bush attempt to expand wiretaps

According to Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, that’s why Bush is asking for expanded powers:
(House Minority Leader John) Boehner’s description of the scope of the ruling appears to focus on one key feature of the surveillance program—the large-scale tapping without warrants of telecommunications "switches" located in the United States; they are used to rout international calls even when both parties are overseas. But there are indications the ruling has in some instances interfered with the National Security Agency's ability to intercept phone calls where one of the parties is in the United States, as well.

Under President Bush's original executive order creating the surveillance program after the September 11 attacks, the NSA eavesdropped on such calls (including those with at least one party inside the country) without seeking specific warrants from the FISA court. …

At some point after the new program began, one of the FISA judges—who, by rotation, was assigned to review the program for periodic updates — concluded that some aspects of the warrantless eavesdropping program exceeded the NSA's authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. … The judge refused to reauthorize the complete program in the way it had been previously approved by at least one earlier FISA judge, the lawyer said, adding that the secret decision was a "big deal" for the administration.

Congressional aides said that Democratic and Republican leaders of the intelligence committees met until late Tuesday night trying to reach an agreement on a short-term measure that would grant some of the enhanced authority — including the ability to tap telecommunications switches without warrants — that the administration is seeking.

The even bigger problem, though, is that Bush wants Attorney General Alberto (V-05) Gonzales to have an oversight role. But, given his partisan hackery, there’s no guarantee he won’t try to use data mining from this program for political purposes. Given his perjury before Congress, there’s no guarantee he wouldn’t lie about having done that.

It’s good that Congress is resisting the expansion of NSA power on this ground. But, with this administration in place, I still say it should be resisting any expansion of NSA power, period.

Again, whatever restrictions BushCo is worried about didn’t seem to unduly restrict the Clinton Administration, and Congress needs to remember that.

Yet more on the ruling is in the L.A. Times and Washington Post.

The Times provides more detail on the court ruling:
(Some) officials said the ruling's reach was broader, affecting cases “where one end is foreign and you don't know where the other is” — meaning warrants would be required even when it was unclear whether communications were crossing the United States or involved a person in the United States.

One official said the issue centered on a ruling in which a FISA court judge rejected a government application for a “basket warrant” — a term that refers to court approval for surveillance activity encompassing multiple targets, rather than warrants issued on a case-by-case basis for surveillance of specific terrorism suspects.

The precise effect of the ruling is unclear, but a second official said that it “reduced the amount of intelligence we were collecting” on overseas terrorism suspects.

According to the Post, it sounds like Democrats are already ready to give away the store, with the exception of the Gonzo oversight issue:
Congressional Democrats outlined a temporary plan yesterday that would expand the government's authority to conduct electronic surveillance of overseas communications in search of terrorists.

The proposal, according to House and Senate Democrats, would permit a secret court to issue broad orders approving eavesdropping of communications involving suspects overseas and other people, who may be in the United States. To issue an order, the court would not need to identify a particular target overseas, but it would have to determine that those being targeted are “likely,” in fact, overseas.

If a foreign target’s communications to a person inside the United States reaches a “significant” number, then an court order based on probable cause would be required. It is unclear how “significant” would be defined.

It is truly both scary and fubar that Congressional Democrats would approve a FISA expansion with a blank check line item like failure to define “significant.”

At least a few Democrats still have their wits about them. From the Post story:
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) said that the proposal, while better than the administration's, “does not have adequate safeguards to protect Americans’ privacy.”

It’s clear, and the Post makes it clear, this could significantly expand e-mail and phone snooping on American citizens and companies.

I also can’t believe that the Democrats don’t recognize that, through executive order or signing statement, Bush will try to make permanent any new provisions enacted in a temporary bill. I don’t care if the bill has a six-month “sunset” provision; I expect Bush would try to ignore that in any way possible.

August 01, 2007

The default beat goes on in Lancaster, elsewhere in southern Dallas County

Of the 1,600 foreclosed homes in Dallas County, many are in the southern sector. In Lancaster, for example, foreclosures are up 116 percent over the last three years.

Here’s how bad it is across all of metro Dallas:
Cedar Hill, DeSoto, Duncanville, Garland, Irving, Lancaster and Mesquite had more than 560 foreclosures among them for August of 2004. While that was bad, the Foreclosure Listing Service now says the numbers are much worse. This August, there were 862 foreclosure postings in the same cities. That's an increase of 65 percent.

It’s bad in a lot of the Metroplex, but Lancaster looks like it’s the worst.

And, former city manager Jim Landon scoffed at me 10 months ago when I said this was coming. And so did the Lancaster ISD head cheese, Larry Lewis. Well, Jim is gone (did he actually recognize this coming himself?) And Crazy Uncle Larry is flying from one idea to the next before the TEA comes to town.

Particulate pollution causing Himalayan glacial melt

And, given that India and China burn a lot of wood and coal cooking things don’t look good. The Indian scientist who discovered how strong the effect is said that if nothing changes, all the Himalayan glaciers could be gone in 50 years.

With major rivers like the Yangtze, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong and Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) originating from the area, that’s a huge, huge problem.

Half of corporate bonds are junk

That’s literally, not figurately, if you substitute “junk” for Standard and Poor’s “speculative.” And, it’s going to get worse:
S&P said the ratings mix of corporate bonds continues to deteriorate as firms borrow to buy back shares and make acquisitions, but the key factor to the deterioration is simply the sheer number of lower-rated bonds coming to market.

Can you start saying “recession”?

More on why the Fed and Wall Street is a rigged game

Like Mish says, the Fed never has trouble with inflating bubbles, just deflating ones. Here’s his own words:
Essentially the Fed views a falling market as a threat. Of course a rising market, no matter how reckless or speculative is not a threat. Such is the nature of the misguided policies of the Fed that constantly blows bigger and bigger bubbles to cover up its own mistakes.

This is of a piece with New York Stock Exchange’s shutting down computerized trading programs whenever stocks drop too rapidly in a day, but letting them run wild in an uptick of the same percentage, as I posted here.

The question is, will Democratic presidential candidates address how bad Greenspan was about this? Will they pledge to hold Bernanke’s feet to the fire of a different policy? And, what about Congress? Will we get action, not fluff?

Mortgage defaults to peak next summer

The default number is expected to hit 3.6 percent of mortgage debt by then.
Of those mortgages, about $460 billion will end up in default before the end of 2008. Of that amount, $113 billion will not be recovered, Moody’s Economy.com calculates.

About 2.5 million first mortgage loans are expected to default over the next two years, with credit problems rising sharply in California's Central Valley, Florida, and the metropolitan areas of Las Vegas, Phoenix, Washington, and New York, according to the study.

This tracks closely with the expected peak in resets for adjustable rate mortgages.

Dems to cave on expanded warrantless international call snooping?

That’s what The New York Timessays. But, giving this administration carte blanche to do ANYTHING without a warrant is stupid and even negligent, especially when BushCo says this is just Request Round 1:
The White House has told Democratic lawmakers that it will accept a narrow bill now but will come back later for broader changes, including legal immunity for telecommunications companies involved in the wiretapping program.

Congress needs to listen to voices like this, instead:
“Congress needs to take its time before it implements another piece of antiterrorism legislation it will regret, like the Patriot Act,” American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony Romero told the Times. “The Bush administration clearly has abused the FISA powers it already has and clearly wants to go back to the good old days of warrantless wiretapping and domestic spying. Congress must stop this bill in its tracks.”

Here’s one crux of disagreement right now, according to Raw Story:
A key point of disagreement between Congress and the administration involves how to audit the wiretapping of calls between two people outside the United States that are routed through US telecommunications switches.

Again, it’s simply unbelievable Congress would sign off on any of this.

Another home mortgage company crashes

This time, it’s American Home Mortgage Investment Corp., which says it’s out of cash and could have to liquidate. The news sent yesterday’s Dow down almost 150 points. And, here’s why its problems are so newsworthy:
Because American Home does not specialise in sub-prime, its knock-on involvement set off alarm bells. Sam Rahman, at Baring Asset Management, said: “That’s the big news that's hitting the markets today. It is raising concerns about the whole mortgage market.”

It certainly raises alarm bells with me, for the same reason. Until this week, American Home wasn’t even on the radar screen of home mortgage problems.

Demanding Democratic answers on Iraq and mercenaries

This Guardian story references a rumor that, when the British pull out of Basra, instead of leaving a vacuum for U.S. troops to fill, they’ll instead have their places taken by mercenaries.

This is another reason Obama’s and Clinton’s partial draw-down is simply not acceptable. Their plans say nothing about the Blackwaters of the world in Iraq, as to whether their numbers will be kept the same, or even increased.

Beyond Iraq, we need Democratic candidates to honestly address the question of U.S.-incorporated mercenary companies like DynCorp in places like Columbia, as well, especially since they are now fixing their eyes on getting a slice of U.N. peacekeeping budgets in war-torn areas where the U.N. is trying to step in.

July 31, 2007

Speed kills — your wallet

Ted Rall has it exactly right. It’s ridiculous how state legislatures have put together the combination of fines for speeding itself, fines for points on your license (more and more states have gone to a point system), fines for getting your license reinstated when you get too many points, and so forth.

Despite these legislatures’ public safety cries, it’s really a massive hidden tax.

Oil corrupts, and Big Oil corrupts absolutely, right here at home

A lot of people are fond of pointing out all the governmental corruption in places like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and other OPEC countries. But, as Josh Marshall points out, all you need to do is look at Alaska.

Or, go back to LBJ’s days of getting under-the-table money from Kellogg, Brown and Root. There’s plenty of history of Big Oil corruption right here in the U.S. of A.

July 30, 2007

Neo-cons must be running scared of Ron Paul

In National Review, AEI scholar Michael Ledeen fires a shotgun blast at Paul, including the old canard that anti-Zionism equates to anti-Semitism. With lies like that, neoconservatives have nobody to blame but themselves.

July 29, 2007

Why I will NEVER AGAIN buy a GM

You just lost me forever with a Rush Limbaugh commercial.

Capitalism amok at U.S. colleges and universities: Different costs for different degrees, with no concern for the poor

And, it seems to be a growing practice. But, a professor at one of the universities doing this lament the many things that are being discarded along with this:
“I want students in the College of Engineering at Iowa State to take courses in the humanities and to take courses in the social sciences,” said Mark J. Kushner, the dean of that college. To address problems like climate change, Mr. Kushner said, graduates will need to understand much more than technology. “That’s sociology, that’s economics, that’s politics, that’s public policy.”
Undergraduate juniors and seniors in the engineering school at Iowa State last year began paying about $500 more annually, he said, and the size of that additional payment is scheduled to rise by $500 a year for at least the next two years.
Mr. Kushner said he thought society was no longer looking at higher education as a common good but rather as a way for individuals to increase their earning power.
“There was a time, not that long ago, 10 to 15 years ago, that the vast majority of the cost of education at public universities was borne by the state, and that was why tuition was so low,” he said. “That was based on the premise that the education of an individual is a public good, that individuals go out and become schoolteachers and businessmen and doctors and lawyers, that makes society better. That’s no longer the perception.”

Here in Texas, you have someone like State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, who has said she wants the business model applied even to the extent of having universities run by CEO types rather than academically grounded presidents or chancellors.