SocraticGadfly: 8/26/07 - 9/2/07

August 31, 2007

Will Congress cave on telecom immunity, too, during the next FISA renewal?

Bush and intelligence meister Mike McConnell want telecom privacy lawsuit immunity as part of longer-term FISA renewal. And, judging by one Senate Democrat’s comment, it’s not a question of whether or not Congress will cave, just how much:
Democrats say McConnell's first draft of the immunity proposal is far too murky. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., an intelligence committee member, fears the language would go far beyond protecting private companies and their employees, also giving cover to any government officials who may have broken the law.
“I and others are going to make sure that anything that is done is done in a narrow, targeted way,” Wyden said.

Hey, Ron, how about not doing this at all? Why would you knowingly reward lawbreaking?

Reset ARMs to jump 2 percentage points or more

Come this fall, homeowners with adjustable rate mortgages could be paying double-digit interest rates. Here’s that that would mean for an average homeowner:
[O]n a $210,000 loan balance (the average subprime amount in 2006), the additional 2.5 percentage point increase on the interest rate adds about $4,560 a year, or about $380 a month, estimates James Kragenbring, senior investment officer at Advantus Capital Management in St. Paul, Minn.

You think we’ve been seeing a “surge” in defaults already? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
“Given the debt-to-income ratio of the typical subprime borrower at the time they received their loan, it is unclear where the extra cash flow will come from,” says Mr. Kragenbring.

Given the fact that BushCo’s economic non-surge has kept household income flat the last few years, the extra money ain’t coming from any pay increase. So, you get these problems:
As the interest rates have climbed, the percentage of delinquencies is on the rise. Of the loans made in 2001, nearly 30 percent are now at least 60 days past due. Loans made last year now have nearly a 15 percent delinquency rate, a faster growth rate than any other year. Mr. Kragenbring says the most recent loans in 2007 are not performing much better.

Given that the typical subprime loan means you are paying less than the full interest accruing on your mortgage, the first reform needed is a truth-in-lending law similar to what is needed in the credit card industry. Homebuyers need to be shown, at the interest rate of their mortgage, what is the minimum monthly payment they need to make to at least hold interest accrual at zero.

Yea! We’re dead last

In how indebted we are. The U.S. current accounts debt is bigger than the current accounts surplus of China, Japan, Germany, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Norway — the six largest countries in terms of current account surpluses — combined!

This is Shrub’s massive budget deficits, but it’s more than that. It’s people buying more house then they can afford, launching massive home equity loans, buying more car than they can afford (now courtesy of six-year payment plans) and more.

Yes, some of this is a middle class with stagnant wages wanting to keep up with the richer Joneses. But, all that does is feed the monster of job-shedding, finance-chopping U.S. companies.

Well, TxDOT is at it again

Well, more than six hundred new Texas laws went into effect Sept. 1. Unfortunately, not one of them was about controlling the Texas Department of Transportation making propaganda films.

I’m sorry, did I say that? I mean, informative commercials about just how wonderful TxDOT wants to make our lives with brand-spanking new, wide, fast-moving roads. Now, the word “toll” was never used, let alone the phrase “Trans Texas Corridor,” but, they were lurking in the background, like the shadow of an 800-pound gorilla.

Meanwhile, some people are even floating the legal possibility that TxDOT could “buy back” already-built roads; that is, it could pay the federal government its original construction costs and then make I-45, for example, a toll road.

Frankly, I’m shocked — shocked, I say — that TxDOT hasn’t pulled out the terrorism angle. This would make a better commercial than anything they’ve run so far.

Picture a TV commercial voiceover saying, “When our roads are no longer free, then terrorists will no longer be free to use our roads. Support TxDOT’s fight against terrorism by supporting the Trans Texas Corridor.

August 30, 2007

Best anti-“surge” news possible: Plane carrying Congressmen around Iraq fired upon

Let’s see Shrub try to propagandize explain this away:
A military cargo plane carrying three senators and a House member was forced to take evasive maneuvers and dispatch flares to avoid ground fire after taking off from Baghdad on Thursday night.

The lawmakers said their plane, a C-130, was under fire from three rocket-propelled grenades over the course of several minutes as they left for Amman, Jordan.

“It was a scary moment,” said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who said he had just taken off his body armor when he saw a bright flash outside the window. “Our pilots were terrific. ... They banked in one direction and then banked the other direction, and they set off the flares.”

Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., as well as Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Ala., were also on the plane. …

Crew members apparently communicated to the pilots as they saw the initial RPG fired from the ground, Cramer said. After the first burst, the pilots maneuvered aggressively and set off flares used for drawing incoming fire away from aircraft.

Once the flares lit up the sky, lawmakers said, two more RPGs were fired as the pilots continued maneuvering.

Unfortunately, three of the four Members of Congress still subscribe to the “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes” theory of dissembling:
Despite the scare, Shelby, Martinez and Cramer said they believed the recent increase in troop levels has helped stabilize parts of the country.

We’ll believe our lying eyes, and scratch Bud Cramer off the list of Democrats with either backbone or brains, while we’re at it.

I don’t give a damn what the Supremes say about “civic religion”

And, I believe the federal judge who refused to grant David and Shannon Croft a preimilanry injunction for their children to stop reciting the new ”under God” Texas Pledge of Allegiance got it wrong in this case. Nor do I agree with Texas AG Greg Abbott’s sophisms.

First, in the case of “voluntary” prayer in schools vs. a moment of silence, SCOTUS has found that, by the situation in which it takes place, to be inherently coercive, even if officially ‘voluntary.”

Second, despite the sneering denial of Justice Antonin Scalia, so-called “civic religion” is religious. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t give it the label of “civic religion.”

Third, the noble (albeit Deistic, not Christian) sentiments of the Declaration of Independence, aren’t the “supreme law of the land,” Mr. Texas Attorney General. The U.S. Constitution, which nowhere uses the word “god,” is.

Fourth, I believe the empirical exemplars Abbott cites of House and Senate chaplains are also unconstitutional. (Bill of Rights father James Madison had concerns about them more than 200 years ago, by the way.)

Abbott even tries to find liberal support from the late Justice William Brennan:
Even Justice William Brennan — by no means one of the high court’s most conservative members — admitted in the 1963 case School District of Abington Township v. Schempp that "the reference to divinity in the revised pledge of allegiance ... may merely recognize the historical fact that our nation was believed to have been founded ‘under God.’”

Well, Brennan was also wrong, in this case, wrong in his analysis of the 1954-revised Pledge. The “under God” was inserted as part of the McCarthyist Second Red Scare, which of course saw all communists as godless. (Strange that Christian Red-hunters never read the second chapter of Acts to see Christian communists in action.)

Abbott then gets full of BS:
Neutrality is the aim. The First Amendment does not permit government to endorse religion, but neither can it exhibit hostility toward religion. It's a delicate balance, to be sure, but including the words “under God” in the Texas Pledge successfully and constitutionally walks that line.

If neutrality really were the option, state Rep. Debbie Riddle never would have proposed this change in the state Pledge, and schools would go back to the pre-1954 U.S. Pledge.

When Religious Right nutbars got upset about a Hindu prayer for Congress in the U.S. Capitol, we clearly saw that for them, “neutrality” means “Christian-only neutrality,” with an occasional “Judeo-“ appendage as a threadbare fig leaf.

Finally, although this is just a preliminary injunction, previous Supreme Court Pledge-loser Michael Newdow is right that the Crofts don’t have a chance; since Newdow’s time, the addition of Alito and Roberts to SCOTUS guarantees that.

August 29, 2007

Headed back to Dallas

Boy, word spreads fast to at least a few of you Lancaster folks, doesn't it?

I'm headed back to Today Newspapers, where I'll be the Cedar Hill editor. I start Sept. 17.

Shame on ErgoGenesis

For mentioning Consumer Reports in its literature. Even though they don’t mention specific evaluation scores, they claim the ad-free magazine claims they make “a superior ergonomic chair.”

Consumer Reports is quite strict about companies NOT using its evaluations as part of company PR, advertising or marketing.

August 28, 2007

Will Democrats please STFU about a “diplomacy offensive” in Iraq?

The nattering of people like Sen. Joe Biden (D-MBNA) makes it sound like the war in Iraq is solvable by other means if not winnable by military ones.

Joe: It ain’t “solvable,” either; certainly not as long as any of our troops are still there.

Besides, who are we going to “diplomacy” with? Iran will play the stall game. Syria is going to want major money (at least some degree of it, rightfully) for its Iraq refugee problem. Turkey’s going to demand we reign in the Kurdish area more than we have the ability to do with the number of troops there. The Saudis will say “yes” and still funnel money to Sunni insurgents because of Iran.

That’s our Democratic leadership: Still about two exponential factors behind the curve.

Texans getting Kinky once was enough — except for Kinky

Now, the cigar-choping nutbar musician/novelist Kinky Friedman, so politically inept in the 2006 Texas governor’s race that he couldn’t figure out that people who agreed with him on gay marriage legalization and those who agreed with him that those who didn’t love Jesus should go to hell were most definitely not in the same circle of political groupings, wants to run for the statehouse again — as a Democrat.

Forget it, Kinky (other than for column fodder for we newspaper writers and bloggers). You were last in a four-horse race; besides your quasi-fundamentalist take on Jesus, your comments on “jailhouse Negros” and others will land you dead last in the 2010 Democratic primary, too.

Contrary to some, I don’t feel sorry for Larry Craig

An e-mailer to Talking Points Memo says s/he’s kind of willing to cut Craig some slack:
Sure, he’s a hypocrite, sure he’s probably gay or bi or whatever, and sure, I despise his politics. The problem is, I'm torn between the schadenfreude of watching another one of the Family Values crowd being shown up, and feeling really bad for the guy, because he didn't do anything.

Look at the police report. Did he directly ask a cop for sex? No. Did he expose himself lewdly (as opposed to exposing himself to use the facilities)? No. Did he do anything that was unambiguously sexual? No.

I, on the other hand, feel nothing but schadenfreude for Craig at this time.

The people I feel sorry for is gays and lesbians, especially in places like Idaho (next door to Matthew Shepard's Wyoming!), where gay and lesbian visibility is almost totally beat down because of people like Craig.

As for the e-mailer’s later Walter Jenkins reference (the LBJ aide arrested more than 40 years ago in similar circumstance), it’s ultimately the fault of gay-bashers like Craig that people still get picked up in men's rooms for somewhat iffy solicitation charges. Assuming Craig has been self-knowingly in the closet for the decade or more that seems to be the case, he knows the rules of the game on anonymous pick-ups, too. He's got nobody but himself to blame for causing the rules to be what they are, and for playing by them, rather than being honest and true to himself and living out his sexual preferences without squalor.

Not just enlisteds leaving the Army

Officers from West Point are refusing to re-up after their initial term:
West Point cadets are obligated to stay in the Army for five years after graduating. In a typical year, about a quarter to a third of them decide not to sign on for another term. In 2003, when the class of 1998 faced that decision, only 18 percent quit the force: memories of 9/11 were still vivid; the war in Afghanistan seemed a success; and war in Iraq was under way. Duty called, and it seemed a good time to be an Army officer. But last year, when the 905 officers from the class of 2001 had to make their choice to stay or leave, 44 percent quit the Army. It was the service’s highest loss rate in three decades.

Col. Don Snider, a longtime professor at West Point, sees a “trust gap” between junior and senior officers. There has always been a gap, to some degree. What’s different now is that many of the juniors have more combat experience than the seniors. They have come to trust their own instincts more than they trust orders. They look at the hand they’ve been dealt by their superiors’ decisions, and they feel let down.

The gap is widening further, Snider told me, because of this war’s operating tempo, the “unrelenting pace” at which soldiers are rotated into Iraq for longer tours — and a greater number of tours — than they signed up for. Many soldiers, even those who support the war, are wearying of the endless cycle.

Meanwhile, many Army generals are bringing this on themselves by their arrogance:
Soon after (Lt. Paul) Yingling’s article appeared, Maj. Gen. Jeff Hammond, commander of the Fourth Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, reportedly called a meeting of the roughly 200 captains on his base, all of whom had served in Iraq, for the purpose of putting this brazen lieutenant colonel in his place. According to The Wall Street Journal, he told his captains that Army generals are “dedicated, selfless servants.” Yingling had no business judging generals because he has “never worn the shoes of a general.” By implication, Hammond was warning his captains that they had no business judging generals, either.

The article linked is an excellent one about an Army career development school for captains. Many of them there are ready, willing and able to challenge general officers’ perceptions and comments about Iraq. Who knows? Maybe we will see more and more material, in various forums, like the recent New York Times column from members of the 82nd Airborne.

A primer on China’s lax environmentalism

Judging by the tenor of the story, we shouldn’t expect changes soon. How bad is the problem? A brief graf illustrates:
But China is more like a teenage smoker with emphysema. The costs of pollution have mounted well before it is ready to curtail economic development. But the price of business as usual — including the predicted effects of global warming on China itself — strikes many of its own experts and some senior officials as intolerably high.

The details of the problem?
The level of particulate (pollutants) is measured in micrograms per cubic meter of air. The European Union stipulates that any reading above 40 micrograms is unsafe. The United States allows 50. In 2006, Beijing’s average PM 10 level was 141, according to the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics. Only Cairo, among world capitals, had worse air quality as measured by particulates, according to the World Bank.

And, it’s not just air pollution. Half of China lacks access to quality water supplies. Between the two, about 750,000 Chinese a year are killed by pollution.

On air pollution, a large problem is Chinese factory inefficiency:
Chinese steel makers, on average, use one-fifth more energy per ton than the international average. Cement manufacturers need 45 percent more power, and ethylene producers need 70 percent more than producers elsewhere, the World Bank says. …

Chinese buildings rarely have thermal insulation. They require, on average, twice as much energy to heat and cool as those in similar climates in the United States and Europe, according to the World Bank. A vast majority of new buildings — 95 percent, the bank says — do not meet China’s own codes for energy efficiency.

Part of the problem is that American businesses that outsource production to China also outsource pollution, and know that’s what they are doing. (Actually, not all the pollution is ultimately outsource; particulate pollution in L.A. comes partially from China.) The Chinese government, instead of making death threats against corrupt managers, should insist American businesses include at least a few dinero to help China pay for improving its pollution mess. Most of these American businesses have enough sunk costs in Chinese manufacturing that they’re not going to baulk.

Up to this point, both the failure of Beijing to think of something like this, and the willingness of American companies to outsource pollution has been a damning indictment on what is known as capitalism.

I want the crack that National Geographic Adventure has been smoking

Despite NGA’s almost hucksterish claim, St. George, Utah is NOT, NOT, NOT a community with a “progressive mindset.” And, in ranking Las Vegas the No. 1 place to live and play, NGA shamefully ignores the fact that Vegas’ long-term growth, especially with its current lifestyle, is unsustainable due to the combination of global warming and continued Southwestern drought.

Oh, and how can not a single Pacific Coast community crack its list of top 10 waterfront towns?

August 27, 2007

Couldn’t have said it better about financiers in the credit bubble myself

So, I’ll let Bill Fleckenstein say it for me:
One final comment about the financial world: It's populated with rich, hypocritical whiners. Wall Street, the hedge-fund community and their lap dogs in the news media continually brag about how much they love capitalism and free markets.

Yet when the creative-destruction component of capitalism rears its ugly head, they want the central planners to bail them out immediately, before they take any pain. And the ones clamoring the loudest are the very same folks who behaved the most irresponsibly.

Fleckenstein goes on to note that the Financial Standards Accounting Board has allowed much of this bubble to happen right along with the Fed, through it’s officially signing off on counting Level 3 values, based on fair value being measured using “unobservable inputs,” as part of a company’s assets.

See this Bloomberg article for how far Wells Fargo is running with this ball.

Shame on the Brazos Valley Council of Governments

In its “Images” magazine, it glories coal-fired power plants while giving only brief, in-passing mention to FutureGen clean coal plants, and none to solar or other alternatives, let alone promoting the idea that Texas A&M should be doing more research on both alternative energy and conservation.