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28 March 2005

Shame on the Hypocrites

The Terry Schiavo case is nothing to laugh about, but the buffoons exploiting this family’s tragedy and dispute deserve to be exposed as hypocrites and jackasses. No one exposes an ass better than John Stewart and The Daily Show. Stewart's recent reference to removing the Schiavo feeding tube from the cable news networks was great satire. It was even better politics. The content of cable news shows reveal just how low the media and our politicians have taken our country.

Given that over 70% of Americans polled believe the politicians have acted improperly by intervening in the Schiavo cased, one might think that our common sense still turns us against hypocrites. Don’t forget that when many of these same hypocrites tried to remove Clinton from office the public refused to support that political coup, only to vote the hypocrites even more political power in future national elections. Those elections gave Republicans control of the House, Senate and Presidency.

Will the Republicans, especially the zealots on the Right, pay a political price for their attack on liberty in the national elections of 2006 and 2008? Alas, the real question of faith at issue appears to be the common sense of the American people.

Posted by PAUL at 3/28/2005 07:55:00 PM

22 March 2005

Santorum Vs. Law and Order

On the Center for American Progress site, Judd Legum takes Rick Santorum, noted cafeteria Catholic and tort reform hypocrite to task for his fulminations against a federal judge who was simply doing his job.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) lashed out at United States District Judge James Whittemore for the decision he issued this morning:

You have judicial tyranny here.... Judges should obey the law. And this judge—in my mind—simply ignored the law.

Let's examine what actually happened. The plaintiffs, Terri Schiavo's parents, were asking for a temporary restraining order. No matter how frenzied Santorum gets, there is a legal standard that determines whether to grant a request for a temporary injunction that Judge Whittemore is required to follow.

Specifically, Judge Whittemore cannot grant a preliminary injunction until the plaintiffs show they have a "substantial likelihood of success of the merits" on at least one of their claims.

Legum accurately describes Santorum as opposing law and order by expecting a federal judge to ignore the rules and standards of the judiciary for federal purposes.

But Santorum goes further than that. In the article that Legum quoted, the Senator jumped from relativism to outright fraud.

"You have judicial tyranny here," Santorum told WABC Radio in New York. "Congress passed a law that said that you had to look at this case. He simply thumbed his nose at Congress."

"What the statute that [Whittemore] was dealing with said was that he shall hold a trial de novo," the Pennsylvania Republican explained. "That means he has to hold a new trial. That's what the statute said."

"What he's saying is, 'I don't have to hold a new trial because I've already determined that her rights have been protected,'" Santorum said.

Rick Santorum has a law degree from a reputable institution, Dickinson College. And certainly in the first few sessions of Civil Procedure, students are reminded of the basic differences between a hearing on a preliminary injunction and a civil trial per se.

Surely he knows the difference between the two. He apparently does hope, however, that not many Americans have the legal knowledge of a typical viewer of "Law and Order."

Posted by Tim W at 3/22/2005 11:30:00 PM

Those in Glass Houses

In Massachusetts, the Romney administration is moving ever so inexorably—after all, there are South Carolinians who need pandering—to proposing an expansion of the needlessly complicated tax credit for some senior citizens. Current law allows a credit of up to $820 against real estate tax payments, but only if the assessed value of one's house is no more than $441,000. In many communities in and around Boston, even modest homes can be worth a lot of money on paper. And low-income homeowners who are over 70 years old can also claim a $500 abatement against their property taxes.

But apparently the lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, is loathe to throw a bone toward the commonwealth's low-income and moderate-income elderly. In an interview that surfaced yesterday, she expressed her doubts about keeping senior citizens in houses that they clearly do not need.

"My opinion is that to extend tax breaks to seniors in order to keep them overhoused and isolated in the suburbs is not necessarily the right answer," Healey told a State House News Service reporter two weeks ago, in an interview that was made public yesterday. "It's an answer, but the best answer would be to bring them into our city and town centers, into more appropriate housing, and free up those properties to get back on the tax rolls of the community."

There are three fundamental things wrong with Healey's logic. First, if she wants the "overhoused and isolated" elderly to sell their homes and buy (presumably cheaper) housing in town centers, then there will be no net change in the property tax rolls—unless by selling their homes, the elderly are hornswoggled into violating the outside-asset tests that give them their modest $500 exemptions.

Second, few towns are suffering from given relative few seniors a $500 break on their property taxes. Typically, the largest item in a municipal budget is the cost of running the public school system. Senior citizens generally do not burden the public school system at all, but families with children in public schools are a net loss to a community.

Third and finally, if one is grousing about overhousing, one had best not be overhoused oneself. I wonder if the Healey family of two adults and two children really needs a six-bedroom house on over an acre of land. Would not the community of Beverly be better off if the Healeys bought a more suitable place and make way for a large family that could really use an enormous house?

Posted by Tim W at 3/22/2005 08:31:00 PM

21 March 2005

Punch and Judge Judy

Lindsay Beyerstein, who powers the Majikthise weblog, has been writing well and often about the odious politics behind terry Schiavo case. If you have been mercifully ignorant of Florida politics in the past few years, or of American politics this week, then you may not know that Terry Schiavo has been in a persistent vegetative state for over a decade. Her legal guardian is her husband, who petitioned in state court to have her feeding tube removed. Without the feeding tube, Terry Schiavo will die because she is unable to swallow food or drink. Her brother and parents want the feeding tube connected. In both state district and appellate court, and in federal appellate court, judges ruled that there was clear and convincing evidence that Terry Schiavo would want her feeding to be disconnected. And just last week, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the final appeal, which means that no more than three of the nine justices of that august body deemed the case worthy of a hearing.

Now the Republicans of Washington, they who are so enamored of fairness, of level playing fields, and of judicial restraint, are pushing a private bill—one that would benefit only Terry Schiavo but no one else in even the exact same position—to allow federal courts to hear the case all over again. Never mind that federal appeals courts have already ruled on the case. Never mind that such a bill literally legislates judicial activism.

Personally, the Schiavo case forces me to relate the story of Jean, the woman who would have been my mother-in-law had she lived until my wedding day. Several years before I met my wife, Jean was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a rare, incurable, and progressive disease of the brain stem. It is best known, when it is known at all, as the disease that felled actor Dudley Moore. (While PSP itself is rarely fatal, its severity often leads to complications such as pneumonia or choking to death.)

PSP is a horrible disease in many ways, but especially because it inexorably robs able-minded patients of their ability to move or communicate.

When I first met Jean, she was barely able to move and could speak and eat only with the greatest of difficulty. Before long, Jack, her husband, checked her into a nearby nursing home, because he was physically unable to lift and carry her in and out of the hospital bed that now occupied their living room.

Jean soon stopped speaking and then lost her swallowing reflex. Her doctors inserted a feeding tube so that liquids could be funneled directly into her gastrointestinal system. I know that her husband agonized over whether jean would have wanted the feeding tube; by now, it was not clear that she recognized any of her visitors. My fianceé and I made weekly visits, and Jack visited every day. Her eye movements, when they came, were random; she had not willfully moved any of her limbs for months. None of us could tell whether Jean had suffered a stroke, or not—and performing any sort of brain scan was not going to change her prognosis an iota.

When her feeding tube needed to come out because of an infection, Jack decided that Jean would not want it replaced, regardless of whether she was conscious but trapped in a body that betrayed her, or in a vegetative state.

My future father-in-law faced a dilemma that thousands face every year, whether to continue extraordinary measures to prolong a loved one's life. Whether through wisdom or luck, the American political system has evolved to allow the judiciary to help decide what is in the best interest of the patient.

Posted by Tim W at 3/21/2005 12:45:00 AM

I Am Not Alone

I had thought that I was fighting a one-man battle against stupid junk mail. Apparently not!

Wesley A. Williams spent more than a year exacting his revenge against junk mailers. When signing up for a no-junk-mail list failed to stem the flow, he resorted to writing at the top of each unwanted item: "Not at this address. Return to sender." But the mail kept coming because the envelopes had "or current resident" on them, obligating mail carriers to deliver it, he said.

Next, he began stuffing the mail back into the "business reply" envelope and sending it back so that the mailer would have to pay the postage. "That wasn't exacting a heavy enough cost from them for bothering me," said Mr. Williams, 35, a middle school science teacher who lives in Melrose, N.Y., near Albany.

After checking with a postal clerk about the legality of stepping up his efforts, he began cutting up magazines, heavy bond paper, and small strips of sheet metal and stuffing them into the business reply envelopes that came with the junk packages.

I never went as far as Mr. Williams—I only stuff back into the envelope what the company sent to me. And, unlike another person mentioned in the article, I just recycle magazine subscription cards.

But do check out the fabulous bugmenot site—you can even include the Bugmenot extension to your Firefox browser!

Posted by Tim W at 3/21/2005 12:13:00 AM

20 March 2005

Neither Intelligent Nor Design

In my more cynical moods, I wonder whether the Intelligent Design school of popular theology—that some evolutin has to be acknowledge as fact, but that only an intelligent Creator could have created a complex universe—has things half-right. That is, the school is right that the universe is so complex as to require a creator, but that the creator wasn't smart enough to prevent things like smallpox, cancers, tsunamis, or Fox News. (As Peter Schickele dismissed the notion that Christopher Marlowe actually wrote PDQ Bach's works, "aside from the stylistic differences, I'm sure [he] could have done a better job.")

Fortunately for me and those around me, I would rather be forthright than cynical. And I am pleased to point you to the august publications of the American Mathematical Society, whose most recent monthly Notices contains an excellent review essay on the formation of snowflake crystals, amazingly complex structures formed by processes that scientists understand particularly well. (The AMS site requires free registration.) While the end of the article contains some heavy mathematical concepts, none of them is required and none will be on the final.

In Chapter 5 (“Morphogenesis on Ice”) the search
for an explanation of snow crystal complexity is taken yet further. Touching
on a point made earlier in this review, Libbrecht temporarily broadens his perspective by noting that while a flower is an example of biological morphogenesis, even simpler physical systems exhibit this feature. Thus whether it be waves on the oceans or ripples on snowdrifts and sand dunes, they are all relatively simple pattern-forming systems in which complexity arises spontaneously, but for Libbrecht
the snowflake is the poster child of morphogenesis. Here as in earlier chapters he does a good job of introducing the concept of self-organization in physical (and, in passing, biological) systems. This is all to the good, given the preoccupation in some quarters with the concept of "intelligent design" (with all due respect to my fellow Christians). In a sentence that I find very appealing, Libbrecht notes that instabilities like those discussed here are the heart of pattern formation, and nature is one unstable system heaped on top of another.

The know-nothings in American society would sooner believe in angels who intervene in trivial affairs (and somehow are powerless to prevent rampant suffering all over the world) than believe that the complexity of nature is, in fundamental terms, self-organizing.

Posted by Tim W at 3/20/2005 11:52:00 PM

A Brick in Another Wall

The Israeli government has modified the planned route of the barrier between Israel and Palestine so that less Palestinian land is on the Israeli side. That's good, at least relatively speaking.

But take a close look at the route as it stands. Two things jump out. First, in many places, the separaation barrier is well on the Palestinian side of the 1967 Green Line. (Imagine, if you will, any other country trying this sort of stunt in any territory that it occupied, and the United States limiting its opposition to finely parsed words of regret.) Second, the complexity of the barrier's route recalls the white South African conception of supposedly independent, but both noncontiguous and politically impotent black homelands of KwaZulu and Bophuthatswana.

The situation in Israel and Palestine is markedly different, in myriad respects, from the situtation in South Africa in the 1970s. Why would Israelis want to introduce something that reeks so much of the thinking behind apartheid?

Posted by Tim W at 3/20/2005 11:39:00 PM

Steroid Madness

I apologize that I cannot feign interest in the Steroid Madness that has taken hold of our nation. Last Thursday’s hearings on Capitol Hill were no less a political grandstand than the actions to resurrect Terri Schiavo for the right-to life vote. What about the kids? What about the fans? What about the brain-dead? Congress is shameless in its hypocrisy.

Does any rational person truly believe the abuse of steroids is even in the same league as alcohol abuse? The number of lives destroyed by alcohol is a multiple of those destroyed by steroids; a multiple that is in the thousands, tens of thousands or hundred of thousands. Does it really matter that one drug requires a prescription and the other only requires the user to reach an age of maturity that varies from state to state. The Feds can investigate steroids; they can usurp a husband’s right to pull a feeding tube that has kept his wife’s heart beating for over a decade; but they don’t seem to care about the age kids can buy alcohol.

Of course, baseball and beer are as American as apple pie. Baseball stadiums (Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Miller Park in Milwaukee, and Coors Field in Denver) are named after beers. The Milwaukee Brewers are named for the beer industry. Is it surprising that the commissioner of Major League Baseball, who the politicians now claim they do not trust, is the former owner of those same Brewers? Of course, Congress did not see an anti-trust issue when Selig dealt with the conflict of interest of being both an owner and a commissioner by divesting of his interest, to his daughter.

After breaking Roger Maris's home run record, hitting seventy home runs in 1998, Mark McGwire's popularity led politicians to name stretches of interstate highways after him. An observer had to be brain-dead not to have suspected McGwire of using steroids, but it did not seem to matter back then. He was dethroning the man who earned an asterisk for breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season record. Baseball and America was more than happy to look the other way. He restored interest, and revenues, to a sport that had been damaged by a labor dispute. McGwire sold a lot of beers that year!

Many of those same politicians are now all too happy to publicly ridicule McGwire and threaten him with contempt of Congress. Whatever damage McGwire has done, it is nowhere near the abuse of office that Congress now engages in on a regular basis. And the media are all too happy to goosestep along with the politicians.

Posted by PAUL at 3/20/2005 08:10:00 PM

13 March 2005

Josef W. Bush

The ACLU has been doing exemplary work in prying details of the Bush administration's own gulag archipelago.

Amongst its detailed rundown of released documents are yet more gruesome details of American policies and practices in Iraq.

On 9 March, the ACLU released a slew of documents that showed that:

  • Young boys were held at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison by our wholly enlightened forces.
  • Prisoners were routinely stripped of all of their clothes and kept naked.
  • Many prisoners at Abu Ghraib were "ghost prisoners" who lacked some or all documentation and were therefore invisible to humanitarian agencies.
  • And, best of all, "less than 10% of the detainees had any real intelligence value" or were easily shown to be innocent.

Also available at the ACLU site are the records of several investigations of abuse by military personnel. (A typical synopsis: The interrogator said that "he was reporting this conduct because he felt the actions were inhumane even though every harsh interrogation was approved by the J2 of the TF [Task Force 6-26] and the medical personnel prior to its execution" (9119). The abuse included sleep deprivation, 20-hour interrogation sessions, and a guard's providing a prisoner with urine to drink).

It is a sad day for my nation when the best analogue, indeed perhaps the only one, for what its leaders are doing is to compare them (in terms of tactics but not, thankfully, in scope) to Stalin and his minions.

Posted by Tim W at 3/13/2005 01:24:00 AM

I Wish I Had Thought Of this...

But I'm glad, awfully glad, that I don't have to do it.

If you have not had the pleasure of perusing News Hounds, please do so. Any site with the tagline "We watch FOX so you don't have to" is worth celebrating. That it is pithy and prolific is so much the better.

Posted by Tim W at 3/13/2005 12:55:00 AM

12 March 2005

Bush's Torture Chambers

It's high time for Bush to declassify every order he signed relating to the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Prove to me and my countrymen that you had nothing to do with setting up torture chambers worthy of the world's worst dictators. For now, we will have to pay close attention to what leaks out around the edges. Today, the noxious news is the gruesome treatment of two more Afghan prisoners.

Two detainees held at the U.S. detention facility in Bagram, Afghanistan, died within a week of each other in December 2002 after military police guards and military intelligence interrogators brutally beat them and left them chained to the ceiling in standing positions, according to Army documents obtained by a human rights group.

The documents, which detail the investigations into the deaths of two Afghan detainees named Mullah Habibullah and Dilawar, describe the repeated harsh treatment of the two prisoners and identify more than a dozen soldiers believed to be responsible for the abuse. The documents also blame military interrogators for using harsh and unapproved tactics against detainees, including kicks to the groin and legs, shoving or slamming detainees into walls and tables, forcing detainees to maintain painful contorted body positions during interviews, and forcing water in their mouths until they could not breathe....

Most notable about the documents is that they detail severe physical abuse that allegedly occurred at the hands of U.S. soldiers about a year before abuse was documented at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Parts of the same unit responsible for gathering intelligence at Bagram at the time, the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, were sent to Abu Ghraib to set up the intelligence-gathering effort there, and Army investigators believe that some of the same tactics migrated with them....

The documents detail abuse at Bagram that was far more severe than that seen at Abu Ghraib, however. Soldiers are accused of placing Dilawar in a "standing restraint" position as punishment, something that the documents reveal was part of the Bagram Control Point's standard operating procedure. They are accused of using their knees to deliver dozens of blows to Dilawar's lower body, what the soldiers apparently called "compliance blows" to get him to cooperate. An autopsy showed that Dilawar's legs were so damaged that amputation would have been necessary.

Habibullah suffered almost identical leg injuries and died from a blood clot near the heart.

Which is worse—the sadistic cruelty of the military and civilian "interrogators" in our own gulag archipelago, or the callousness of our officials who set it up? How can Americans still believe that our government loves liberty and values freedom when prisoners can disappear into a gruesome prison system without any official record, when our allies against terror are most useful because they torture prisoners as a matter of course, when lies and obfuscation have replaced truth and transparency?

Posted by Tim W at 3/12/2005 01:32:00 AM

Pay No Attention to That Bomb Behind That Curtain

For all of that talk of Iran's secret nuclear program from the same folks who talked so knowingly of Iraq's nuclear program, there is another nuclear program nearby that actually exists, but one will not hear much about it. For over two decades, the Israeli nuclear program has been the nuclear program that American governments dared not speak of or name.

And yesterday, the BBC got with the American program. Simon Wilson, the deputy bureau chief in Jerusalem, officially apologized for not submitting to censors his interview with Mordecai Vanunu, who spent 19 years in Israeli prison for daring to give to the Times of London proof of the program's existence.

Posted by Tim W at 3/12/2005 01:19:00 AM

Penny Wise and Shekel Foolish

Ah, democracy is spreading like wildfire through the Middle East, we hear, so we should certainly expect the United States to reward those newly democratic states with, say, cash. Yes, unless that state is Palestine. M. J. Rosenberg, writing at Israel Policy Forum, explains that to the United States Congress, Yasir Arafat still lives and breathes.

Bush is so confident about the direction events are moving that he asked Congress to help the Palestinians (and thereby Israel) get to a point where they can effectively repulse terrorism and establish a working democracy. The Bush administration believes that bucking up the PA [Palestinian Authority] is critical if Abbas supporters are to prevail against Hamas in the July legislative elections (some observers say that right now Hamas would pull 45% of the vote, a result that could be disastrous for the US and Israel, not to mention the Palestinians).

To demonstrate his commitment—and his view that it is a new day—Bush has asked Congress to provide $200 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority. For Bush, that aid would constitute a US down payment toward implementation of his vision of "two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security." Too late in the fiscal year for a regular Congressional appropriation, he "requested" what is known as a "supplemental." He said it was a top priority.

And what has been the Congressional response to that request?

We found out on Tuesday. The answer was "yes, but...." There were so many "buts" that they rendered the "yes" almost meaningless.

The House Appropriations Committee attached a host of conditions to the aid which, amazingly, are more onerous than those placed on Palestinian aid when Yasir Arafat was in charge. Not only does Congress rightfully demand an end to terrorism and incitement (which, is, of course, the Bush policy), it wants "schools, mosques and other institutions...to promote peace and coexistence with Israel." It demands investigations into Yasir Arafat's finances. It wants the internet monitored for hate speech. The list goes on and on.

There is nothing wrong with conditions although adding additional conditions after Arafat has been replaced by a democratically elected leader is, at best, peculiar. The President wants to show support for Abbas and what the Appropriations Committee did is send a mixed, even cold, message.

The most remarkable part of the legislation approved by the Appropriations Committee is that it eliminates the discretion Presidents traditionally have to provide aid when national security requires it. This "national security waiver"—the one President Clinton had when he was in charge— would allow Bush to provide the Palestinian aid as he sees fit even if the Palestinians are unable to fulfill every single Congressional requirement. The "national security waiver" is standard operating procedure. A President, after all, cannot have his hands tied on matters vital to our security.

Except in this case. Following a full-court lobbying effort by opponents of aid—not including the Israeli government which supports aid—the waiver was dropped from the bill....

This phenomenon is particularly jarring because you just won't find anything similar in Israel. Yes, there are Israeli politicians who insist, with no evidence whatsoever, that Abbas is a clean-shaven Arafat but they are in the fringes of the radical right. You won't hear that from Ariel Sharon or Ehud Olmert. You'll hear it from the most die-hard settlers and their supporters. You'll hear it from the crowd that supports ethnic cleansing of the West Bank. You will not hear it from anyone in the mainstream.

Not so in Washington where Senators and Representatives insouciantly take stands which Ariel Sharon and the Likud party reject as both simplistic and bad for Israel.

It's refreshing to see that the grown-ups are really in charge in Washington.

One amazing thing about the special relationship between the United States and Israel is how poorly American politicians understand Israeli politics. The idea that Palestinians and Israelis can have legitimate common ground on any issue is anathema to far too many politicians of either mainstream political party. And far too often, legitimate criticism of Israeli policies is quickly dubbed "anti-Semitism" or "self-hatred."

The recent history of the Middle East features over a quarter-century of untrammeled peace between Israel and Egypt, longtime enemies that still do not really trust each other. This peace came at a cost of billions of dollars of United States aid each year, or some $50 billion over time to Egypt and a similar amount to Israel. If one considers that in both 1967 and 1973, Egypt and Israel were at war, being at peace in 1979 was worth a high price.

Republicans in Washington are tirelessly defending their handiwork in Iraq, a boondoggle costing over $200 billion that was, among other things, supposed to help foster peace between Israel and Palestine. The specter of American economic aid should have allure to both Israelis and Palestinians as they work toward peace, but American politicians are too myopic to understand that their money, not their military, provides the most leverage for eventual peace.

Posted by Tim W at 3/12/2005 12:51:00 AM

09 March 2005

Class Warfare

Republicans would have one believe that there is a class war in America, of the godless liberals against Mom, apple pie, and tax cuts.

They're right that there's a class war going on, but it's one of the rich against everyone else. The best example of this war is the execrable bankruptcy bill that President Bush will soon sign. Assume, for the moment, that bankruptcy in America is in need of reform. This bill certainly makes filing bankruptcy a great deal harder.

The Senate assured final passage of the first major overhaul of the nation's bankruptcy laws in 27 years on Tuesday, when it took two votes that cleared the remaining political obstacles to a measure that the nation's credit and retail industries have sought for years.

The bill would disqualify many families from taking advantage of the more generous provisions of the current bankruptcy code that permit them to extinguish their debts for a "fresh start." It would also impose significant new costs on those seeking bankruptcy protection and give lenders and businesses new legal tools for recovering debts.

The Senate on Tuesday first defeated an amendment that would have prevented violent protesters at abortion clinics from using the bankruptcy laws to shield themselves from judgments awarded in civil lawsuits. That amendment, which lost by a vote of 53 to 46, had threatened to derail the legislation. The senators then voted 69 to 31 to limit debate and cut off any effort to kill the legislation by filibuster.

But the bill does nothing to stop rich deadbeats from hiding wealth in so-called "asset protection trusts," which can be formed in five states but used anywhere. The Senate rejected an amendment that would limit the effect of these trusts to no more than $150,000 of assets. Other rejected amendments would have increased the minimum wage, would have exempted military families from the more onerous requirements of the bill, and would have allowed those who became insolvent because of medical bills to declare bankruptcy more easily. All were rejected, supposedly, because of the desire to match the bill passed by the House. (It does seem quaint that a party so inured to legislating by conference committee has suddenly decided that no differences can exists between two chambers on this legislation.

From hearing the very united Republicans and their craven Democratic allies, it is a poor time in America to be a lender. After all, personal bankruptcies are up, and credit card companies have large numbers of delinquent accounts. But, as the Los Angeles Times reported last week, the credit card companies have never been more profitable than they are now.

In the eight years since they began pressing for the tough bankruptcy bill being debated in the Senate, America's big credit card companies have effectively inoculated themselves from many of the problems that sparked their call for the measure.

By charging customers different interest rates depending on how likely they are to repay their debts and by adding substantial fees for an array of items such as late payments and foreign currency transactions, the major card companies have managed to keep their profits rising steadily even as personal bankruptcies have soared, industry figures show.

As a result, while they continue to press for legislation that would make it harder for individuals to declare bankruptcy, the companies have found ways to make money even on cardholders who eventually go broke.

At the same time, under the companies' new systems, many cardholders—especially low-income users—have ended up on a financial treadmill, required to make ever-larger monthly payments to keep their credit card balances from rising and to avoid insolvency.

Another amendment that went down to defeat was one that would limit interest rates on consumer debt to 30% per annum: fully 74 senators voted that one down.

No one forces credit card companies to issue cards to people who are marginal customers at best. They issue millions of credit cards because they make scads of money on them—money from fees charged to merchant, from annual fees from customers; from high interest rates; and from all manner of other fees. Credit card companies did not need the bankruptcy bill, but they certainly wanted it. And any member of Congress who voted for this bill cannot consider himself or herself a representative of the people. Instead, he or she has cried, loudly, from the Capitol Dome, "I am a proud stooge of capital!"

Posted by Tim W at 3/09/2005 01:43:00 AM

Counting Crowe

One of the more bizarre confluences of entertainment andf politics occurred recently when actor Russell Crowe revealed that he may have been the object of an al-Qaeda plot.

Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe said he may have been a target of an al Qaeda kidnap plot in early 2001, part of a bid by the militant network to "culturally destabilize" the United States.

The Australia-based Crowe told GQ magazine in an interview that he received FBI protection throughout the filming of "A Beautiful Mind" and for part of "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." He also was flanked by undercover agents at the Golden Globe awards ceremony in 2001.

So does this constitute evidence that Meg Ryan was (or is) an al-Qaeda operative? Did anyone really notice who was haunting the set of "Amityville 3-D"? I suspect not.

Posted by Tim W at 3/09/2005 01:34:00 AM

07 March 2005

Auditor, Examine Thyself

Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R—Utah), who is either running for re-election in 2006, or for the presidency in 2008, or both, has decided to start public criticism of Attorney General Tom Reilly for supposedly mishandling cost recovery efforts for the Big Dig in Boston. The "Big Dig" is the multi-billion dollar project to submerge Interstate 93 through downtown Boston. The project was both an engineering and a fiscal nightmare.

As yesterday's Boston Globe reports, Romney is upset at Reilly (who is running for governor himself in 2006) for being too cozy with the Turnpike Authority and not aggressive enough in getting taxpayers' money back. His second in this fight is Mark Nielsen, his chief legal counsel.

Governor Mitt Romney said Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly made "significant concessions" to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority when Reilly's office signed a contract to take control of Big Dig cost recovery efforts in January, and Romney wants to file a bill to alter the deal....

"Governor Romney is troubled by significant concessions made by the attorney general in the recent negotiations with the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority," Nielsen's Feb. 23 letter states. ''In exchange for limited authority to pursue the parties responsible for shoddy work [on the Big Dig], the attorney general acquiesced in a series of restrictions the governor believes will undermine both the independence and effectiveness of cost recovery efforts."

But why is Romney letting his surrogates fight this fight in the first place? Why is the Office of the Governor not in charge of determining which funds, if any, were misspent? In the summer of 2002, when Mitt Romney was running for governor, he ran radio and television ads in which he promised to "audit the Big Dig." In fact, he promised not only to audit it, but to "personally inspect" the spending in question.

Perhaps our dear governor needs to remember that one of the requirements for being god of his own planet someday may well be telling the truth and keeping his promises. So far, he may well be falling short.

Posted by Tim W at 3/07/2005 12:20:00 AM

06 March 2005

Swim Free or Die

I never liked eating lobster. Back in the days when I would gladly eat fish, lobster tasted too sour, too briny for my immature taste buds. Besides, the effort was hardly worth it, to boot. And now that I have mature tastes, I don't eat fish at all.

So it was with glad heart and not a bit of yearning that I read last week that Bubba the 22-pound lobster was going to a Pittsburgh Zoo instead of someone's stockpot. And it was with great annoyance and a bit of sadness that I read that Bubba had died shortly after transfer to the zoo. He died for nothing: in a state with a real lobster inustry, he would have been back in the ocean in minutes.

My direct experience with lobsters and lobstering is limited but real—I spent the grand total of one morning on a lobster boat as a youngster—but, most of all, confined to the Maine coast. In Maine, strict regulations prohibit keeping lobsters that are too small (roughly one pound) or too large (roughly four to five pounds). The minimum size ensures that lobsters have a chance to breed before they are boiled; the maximum size ensures that at least some lobsters (presumably the smartest, but perhaps only the luckiest) get to keep breeding. (The fact that lobsters that are too large make poor eating certainly makes the maximum size rule make even more sense.) It is a sure thing that Bubba measured far more than five inches between the "rear of the eye socket...to the rear end of the body shell."

In Maine, bureaucrats and lobsterers know how to preserve the stock. In Massachusetts, they still don't get it.

Posted by Tim W at 3/06/2005 11:43:00 PM

A Real High-Tech Lynching

It is unlikley that there will be major fallout within the US in connection with Friday's shooting and wounding of 56-year-old Italian journalist, Giuliana Sgrena, and killing of Italian intelligence officer Nicola Calipari, in Baghdad. It certainly will inflame anti-American sentiment throughout Europe and further strengthen opposition to US policy in Iraq.

There is one interesting sideline to the story here at home. Hearing that the White House called the shooting a "horrific accident" and promising a full investigation, I could not help but recall that CNN's Eason Jordan was forced to resign due to a right-wing "high-tech lynching" (blogs) for stating publicly that journalists were all too at risk to friendly fire. Allegedly, Jordan stated that the US military had aimed at and killed journalists in a number of cases of mistaken identity. The wingnuts on the right took Jordan's statements as an act of treason. CNN, in what now appears to be an act of corporate cowardice, accepted Jordan's resignation.

Truth is no longer an absolute defense for a journalist targeted for personal destruction by the right.

Posted by PAUL at 3/06/2005 11:39:00 PM

Live Free or Die

I traveled alongside Treasury Secretary John W. Snow last week from Houston to New Orleans. Actually, he was up in First Class and I was back in Coach. The level of security surrounding Secretary Snow was astounding. No less than 10 Secret Service agents accompanied the secretary either through the airport or onto the airplane. A female agent, with a canister of mace clearly visible at her waist, sat directly in front of me. A family of Middle Eastern descent sat across the aisle from her. Other agents were situated throughout the plane and there seemed to be no attempt to hide the identity and location of the agents. The show of force appeared to be intended.

Snow bordered the plane first and the rest of the passengers were allowed to walk by his aisle seat on the way to our own. I would have expected him to board last. Clearly, the agents believed Secretary Snow was more secure on the plane than waiting in a secure location elsewhere in the airport or in vehicle that transported him there. All of the passengers were respectful to the security accorded Secretary Snow.

Years ago I worked for a Wall Street firm that oversaw the hotel where Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin lived, the Jefferson Hotel, in Washington, DC. Rubin was accorded minimal or no security on the couple of occasions I encountered him. Then again, maybe the level of security was more discreet and higher than I realized. Nonetheless, our government has clearly elevated security for members of the President's Cabinet.

I questioned whether I should post this story. Given the openness of the security measures I do not believe I am breaching any need for secrecy of such measures. I do believe it is important for us as Americans to understand the level of security our leaders deem necessary to carry out their duties. There must be a psychological burden to live and work under such security. It is omnipresent. It must impact how these men and women see the world, and the decisions they make. My fear is that a country that has been built on freedom and liberty may discount these core principles in search of security. As individuals, and as a country, we need to remember that it is freedom that has given us security.

Posted by PAUL at 3/06/2005 04:25:00 PM

01 March 2005

Friends in Low Places

It should comes as no surprise to find that Iran's nascent nuclear program had Pakistan as its midwife.

As the International Atomic Energy Agency prepares to open a meeting today to review Tehran's nuclear program, Iranian officials have reluctantly turned over new evidence strongly suggesting that Iran discussed acquiring technologies central to making nuclear arms and hid that fact for 18 years, according to American and European officials.

The officials said the evidence, a document dated 1987, was handed over after I.A.E.A. investigators confronted Iranian officials with evidence gathered in interviews with members of the network run by Pakistan's top nuclear expert, A. Q. Khan. The document, according to officials who have seen it, includes an offer by Mr. Khan's representatives to provide a package of technologies—for a price that ran from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a European diplomat—lincluding the difficult-to-master process of casting uranium metal.

What do we know? That Pakistan sold nuclear weapons technology to Libya and Iran, and traded nuclear weapons know-how to North Korea in exchange for missiles. That the "axis of evil" so decried by Bush and his conservative apologists somehow excluded Pakistan, the axis, axle, and hub of the nuclear weapons game. That for all of the sturm und drang over nuclear weapons in the Middle East, the United States government is loathe to admit that Israel has any nuclear weapons, let alone the region's largest atomic arsenal.

And President Bush, he of the clarion call for worldwide democracy, he so cognizant of the evil of nuclear weaponry, what has he done to show his displeasure with the perfidy of the Pakistani government? In 2002, he and the objectively antidemocratic Pervez Musharraf met at the White House, where he extolled the friendship between the two countries. In 2003, he met with Musharraf at Camp David and gushed over the supposed movement toward democracy in Pakistan. In September 2004, he and Musharraf met once again, in New York. Somehow, their joint statement contained the amazing news that the man who overthrew a democratic government was "reiterat[ing] his commitment to democracy and his intent to strengthen the country's democratic institutions and bring sustainable democracy to Pakistan." And in December 2004, Bush and Musharraf met one more time, in the White House, where, somehow, neither they nor a compliant press corps mentioned that pesky issue of Pakistan serving as the Home Depot for the nuclear proliferators of the world.

Is there no one honest enough in the Bush State Department to tell the bosses that being close with Pakistan means never having to say you're anything but sorry?

Posted by Tim W at 3/01/2005 12:10:00 AM

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